Kingsman: The Secret Service Audio Review: The Firth-Fist Way


Director: Matthew Vaughn

Writers: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn (screenplay), Mark Millar, Dave Gibbons (book)

Stars: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong

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Release date: February 13th, 2015

Distributor: 20th Century Fox 

Countries: USA, UK

Running time: 129 minutes


 

4/5

Review:

Dracula Untold Review – Toothless Trash


Director: Gary Shore

Writers: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless (screenplay), Bram Stoker (novel)

Stars: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance


Release date: October 3rd, 2013

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Countries: USA, UK 

Running time: 92 minutes


 

1½/5

Best part: The production values.

Worst part: The overbearing performances.

Since Hollywood’s transition from ‘classic’ to ‘modern’, big-budget entertainment has focused entirely on sex appeal. Defined by awe, devilishness, and attractiveness, Tinseltown promotes aesthetic beauty over substance. Even the idea of ‘style’ itself – distinguishing one’s work from everything else – has been watered down to an extraneous extent. Now that the studio system has exhausted trends like fairytale adaptations, comic book movies, and nostalgic actioners, the world’s biggest media hub is turning cannibalistic. Dracula Untold may be the high point of blockbuster/remake/reboot fatigue. What’s next, a cuddly wolfman? A sensitive mummy? a sexy invisible man? Good luck, Universal!

Luke Evans as Vlad III Tepes/Count Dracula.

Recently, there have been several similar big-budget extravaganzas. Most of them, Twilight included, are directed at teenage girls. While some of them are mindless adaptations of classic  texts. All of them, however, bend vampire mythology to their will. Mixing classic horror with explosive action and sappy romance, Dracula Untold is a horrific experiment in itself. Staggering toward its release date, this action-horror flick means little to either the people involved or those watching it. We begin with a highlight reel of one of history’s most disturbing people. We first meet Vlad III Tepes aka Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) in a rushed opening sequence. Depicting his fearsome fighting skills and determination, Vlad’s reputation is built on the bones of fallen enemies and kingdoms. The movie jumps forward to the central conceit, and Vlad has become a cunning warrior keeping guard of his people. Tracking a battalion of Turkish soldiers, our ‘hero’ and his men head to Broken Tooth Mountain to find answers. Instead, Vlad – the expedition’s sole survivor – unearths the world’s most terrifying secret. Vlad must also keep his home, Castle Dracula, out of the Turkish army’s hands. Led by Sultan Mehmed II (Dominic Cooper), the army asks for 1000 able-bodied boys in exchange for ever-lasting peace.

Dominic Cooper.

As the land’s most fearless and skilled warrior, Vlad refuses to go down without a fight. Keeping his wife, Mirena (Sarah Gadon), and child, Ingeras (Art Parkinson), away from the Turkish forces, our lead character takes on the world’s largest army. As the launchpad for Universal’s new Avengers-style franchise, Dracula Untold has been whittled down by the studio, director, screenwriters, and editor. Turning potentially-entertaining material into October-bound schlock, this production wastes several opportunities. The story, spoiled thanks to an egregious marketing campaign, is messier than a corpse in Dracula’s possession. The aforementioned opening, delivering cold-blooded exposition with static images, doesn’t deliver anything original or interesting. Those wary of the original material might stand a chance of following this sequence. However, those without said knowledge might become lost. From there, the movie leaps between concepts without purpose or warning. The first 15 minutes promises a down-and dirty superhero origin story/reboot for the archetypal vampire character. Showing off his powers – turning into a swarm of bats and utilising infra-red vision –  it defines our lead character’s inner conflict with visual effects and tiresome cliches. The movie also throws two more story-lines at us. The love story and medieval warfare sub-plots turn this straight-forward actioner into a convoluted foible. Transforming this alluring villain into a misunderstood anti-hero, the movie delivers nothing for viewers to sink their teeth into.

“Do you think you are alive because you can fight? You are alive because of what I did to save you!” (Vlad/Dracula (Luke Evans), Dracula Untold).

Charles Dance.

I could say Dracula Untold “lacks bite” or “sucks”, but that would be too damn easy. The biggest problem resides within its flesh and blood: it takes itself way too seriously! The performances, drifting between maudlin and over-the-top, are difficult to comprehend. Evans, despite the charisma and immense physicality, never meshes with his fruitful character. Gadon is underused in her plot-device role. While Cooper makes for an unconvincing Middle-Eastern/moustache-twirling villain. However, Game of Thrones actor Charles Dance heartily tackles his make-up-induced role. Quicker than you can say: “Transylvania”, Matt Sazama and Burk Shapless’ screenplay delves into sprawling conflicts, overblown speeches, and Greek tragedy-like drama. Giving the story or characters little development, the alliance switches, noble sacrifices, and revelations become increasingly stupid. Speed-reading the original text, the movie pretends to understand Stoker’s words. Explaining everything with stilted exposition and silly one-liners, its thrills are few and far between. While its comedic moments fall flatter than the lid of Dracula’s coffin. Lacking experience, first-time feature director Gary Shore succumbs to the monsters leering over him. Bullied by producers and studio executives, Shore turns this gothic staple into a transparent actioner. Despite the immense budget (for a British production), his action-direction hammers the stake into the heart. Thanks to quick cuts, shaking cameras, and shoddy camera angles, the action is incomprehensible. Despite the sword-and-sandal vibe, the video-game-like sequences shrink the story’s heart and brains. However, thanks to sterling sets, costume designs, and cinematography, the production values elevate it above I, Frankenstein (but that’s not saying much).

Despite the minor positives, Dracula Untold succumbs to a mystifying and laughable case of prequelitis. Telegraphing specific events ahead of time, the movie tests its audience’s patience. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 Dracula suffocating aura lingering overhead, this action-oriented version is a spineless adaptation of Stoker’s masterpiece. Despite the brief run-time, the movie becomes as deadly to cinema as sunlight to a bloodsucker.

Verdict: A stake through Universal’s heart.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Review – Goin’ Apesh*t!


Director: Matt Reeves 

Writers: Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Stars: Jason Clarke, Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell

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Release date: July 11th, 2014

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 131 minutes


4/5

Best part: Serkis’ fascinating performance.

Worst part: The irritating supporting characters.

1968, with new issues sprouting unexpectedly as the decade drew to a close, was certainly a revelatory and thought-provoking year for Hollywood cinema. Bolstering the decade’s taste in celluloid entertainment, sci-fi and action won out over the attention-hungry pack. 2001: A Space Odyssey proved Stanley Kubrick to be Hollywood’s greatest genre filmmaker, while Night of the Living Dead and Bullitt were dead-set box-office winners. However, one post-apocalyptic adventure flick dared to mix the zeitgeist with wild thrills. I’ll give you a hint: “You maniacs! You blew it up!”.

Jason Clarke, Kerri Russell, and Kodi Smit-McPhee

No, I’m not yelling at my readers. I’m, of course, talking about Planet of the Apes. Sadly, however, this type of blockbuster cinema has been left out in the forbidden zone to wallow in a slow, painful death. Nowadays, genres and styles are pushed and prodded to fit certain desires. Thanks to a hit-and-miss crop, 2014 was in line to become the touchstone for blockbuster fatigue. With this in mind, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes swings into our line of sight to save us all. Despite the lugubrious title, this sci-fi action thriller succeeds at being taut, relevant, and poignant at appropriate moments. Like the original, the outlandish premise is met with delicate minds. Following on from 2011 series jumpstart Rise of the Planet of the Apes, DOTPOTA begins by re-capping valuable information about this invigorating franchise. Using news reports and inventive graphics, the opening credits sequence charts man’s war against Simian Flu and complete anarchy. Our story then picks up 10 years later, as our favourite cinematic primates learn the ways of a once-thriving world. The ape’s leader, Caesar (Andy Serkis), runs an intricate, hunter-gatherer system within San Francisco’s Muir Woods. Despite an uneasy alliance with scarred compatriot Koba (Toby Kebbell), Caesar’s hyper-intelligence and reasonable motives make for the tribe’s best chance of survival.

Gary Oldman.

At the same time, a pocket of human survivors, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), move into downtown San Francisco. From there, our ape and human populations spark brutal confrontations. Here’s the thing about DOTPOTA – despite the noticeable flaws, the positives elevate it above most blockbusters of its type. The movie, moving out of the ’68 original’s shadow, lives up to our overwhelming expectations. With ROTPOTA  being 2011’s most surprising blockbuster, many fans and foes walked into this instalment with trepidatious movements. How do you reinvent an already reinvented franchise? Would it dilute the series the way Tim Burton’s ill-advised remake did? Thankfully, director Matt Reeves chose to take this silly franchise to blockbuster angst’s darkest possible depths. Despite the recent spate of apocalyptic popcorn-chomping extravaganzas, this sequel stands out from the pack whist sticking to a set list of reasonable goals. Like with Avatar, the narrative explores the inner-workings of a civilisation’s highest quarters and lowest troughs. Communicating through sign language and phonetic dialogue, the ape interactions deliver emotionally resonant peaks. In several instances, Caesar, his family, their allies, and Koba share moments that amplify Hollywood’s true potential. The opening sequence, in which our apes chase down deer and kill a Grizzly bear, is a masterclass in CGI storytelling. The first third, delivering key sequences designed to change to the narrative’s trajectory, lures us in before the gut-punches come flying. Sadly, the ape characters are far more intelligent and reasonable than their human counterparts.

“Apes! Together, strong!” (Caesar (Andy Serkis), Dawn of the Planet of the Apes).

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Andy Serkis as Caesar!

Unfortunately, as the narrative reaches emotional peaks and enthralling set-pieces, cracks begin to occur in DOTPODA‘s stunning veneer. Throughout this simple tale of primates and humans going ape-sh*it, plot-holes and trite twists become unwarranted obstacles in this otherwise compelling story. Linking vital scenes to major action sequences and character beats, some moments are far more stimulating than others. Eclipsing these minor quibbles, this instalment examines, and delivers answers to, some of modern civilisation’s most confronting issues. With an arms race forming between our two stead-fast factions, Reeves and co. never succumb to corny speeches or obvious symbolism. In addition, with good and bad warriors on both sides, this post-war conflict exclaims profound viewpoints about man’s treatment of his fellow man. With peace coming second to firepower, the narrative clings onto Malcolm and Caesar’s quest for diplomacy. Fortunately, the visuals and attention to detail are the movie’s standout qualities. Thanks to Reeves’ atmospheric camerawork and stark tonal shifts, his unique direction keeps the audience on edge throughout the appropriate run-time. Extended takes, including a look at human/ape warfare from a tank’s perspective, deliver wondrous flourishes within an otherwise gloomy experience. Surprisingly, San Francisco’s breath-taking vistas are honoured with a post-apocalyptic aura. Of course, Caesar is this series’ most enlightening character. With Serkis at the helm, he and the SFX department deliver one of modern entertainment’s more meaningful creations.

Despite the hit-and-miss human characters and baffling conveniences, DOTPOTA is far-and-away one of 2014’s most intriguing blockbusters. With viewpoints and allegiances pushed to breaking point, the sombre tone and moral ambiguity hit hard during some of this year’s most heart-breaking scenes. With Serkis’ purposeful mannerisms and startling commitment shining through, his work may inspire others to revolt against Hollywood’s lack of respect for motion-capture performance.

Verdict: An entertaining and ambitious sequel.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review – Game On!


Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (novel)

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland


Release date: November 22nd, 2013

Distributor: Lionsgate

Country: USA

Running time: 146 minutes


 

 

Best part: Jennifer Lawrence.

Worst part: The familiar structure.

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Verdict: An engaging, moody, and impactful sequel for the holidays.

Cloud Atlas Review – Mysticism & Make-up


Directors: Andy & Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer

Writers: Andy & Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer (screenplay), David Mitchell (novel)

Stars: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving


Release date: February 22nd, 2013

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Countries: Germany, USA

Running time: 172 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: The interweaving story-lines.

Worst part: The laughable make-up effects.

Have you ever stared up at the stars? Or studied the patterns embedded in your fingerprints? Or even truly embraced the people close to you? Don’t worry, these actions are completely normal. This behaviour is considered to be ‘philosophical’. Throughout history, man has strived to answer life’s big questions. Cloud Atlas is an ambitious and enthralling examination of the human condition. It’s an extraordinarily difficult film to analyse. This review may only cover a small fraction of what the film has presented.

Tom Hanks & Halle Berry.

This complex movie covers the past, present and future. The narrative is made up of six stories, each with their own significant plot-points. The first plot-thread is set in the South Pacific Ocean in 1849. An American Lawyer, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess), arrives in the Chatham Islands during the California Gold Rush. He befriends a poorly treated Slave, Autua (David Gyasi). At the same time, his friendship with Dr. Henry Goose (Tom Hanks) takes a frightening turn. The next story, set in 1936, follows a young bisexual musician, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw), journeying from Cambridge to Edinburgh. He gets a chance to work with one of the greatest composers of all time. But their partnership is far from ideal. The next story, set in 1973, depicts a journalist’s gruelling search for answers. The Journalist, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), finds herself in more trouble than she ever could’ve imagined. The next story, set in 2012, finds a London-based book publisher, Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent), in hot water after a run-in with British gangsters. Searching for a place to hide, he finds himself locked up in a nursing home. In Neo- Seoul (2144), a dainty female clone, Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae – the film’s stand-out performer), may hold the key to Earth’s survival. A resistance agent, Commander Hae-Joo Chang (Sturgess again), must release her from a life of servitude. The last story is based in a post-apocalyptic world. Zachry (Hanks again) leads a peaceful tribe. He must guide Meronym (Berry again) across a wasteland known as ‘The Valley’. However, he is threatened by an evil spirit known as ‘Old Georgie’ (Hugo Weaving).

Jim Broadbent & Ben Whishaw.

The Wachowski siblings (The Matrix) and Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) have created the biggest independent production in film history. Their new film will struggle to make a profit. However, it’s nice to know that Hollywood directors are still willing to try new things. This is, as you can tell, a unique and expansive narrative. The writer/directors have inventively adapted David Mitchell’s book of the same name. The six story-lines are vastly different in both setting and tone. Bringing these contrasting stories together is a startling achievement. They are all bound together by certain ideas and character types. The 1849 story is seamlessly juxtaposed with the Neo-Seoul story. It takes a while for every story to intertwine. After a rather confusing prologue, I spent over two-thirds of the film trying to figure out how every story was connected. The film is bold and ambiguous (both very rare traits nowadays), but it could’ve been comprehensible at the same time. It becomes bogged down by pretentiousness in certain sections. The poetic dialogue and heavy handed messages are, to a certain extent, distractions. If you judge some of the story-lines on their own, you may notice that they are rather hollow. The nursing home story-line, for example, is shallow and easily could’ve been excised from the film.

Hugh Grant.

It’s a film that is both famous and infamous. It has already been placed on ‘Best of 2012’ and ‘Worst of 2012’ lists (if you hate my review, you should read Time Magazine’s write-up!). However, Hollywood films of this magnitude and complexity have always been met with mixed reactions. Despite minor flaws, it’s a film with so many positives. The use of metaphor and symbolism is nothing short of mesmerising. Cloud Atlas discusses how one person can change the entire universe. Our actions can shape time, space, identity and/or culture. The post-apocalyptic story-thread is poignant and rich. This Apocalypto-style world enthrallingly bursts into life. This story-line pushes the film to its enthralling climax. It discusses the fact vs. belief debate. This debate is de-constructed; proving that both fact and belief can lead to hate, betrayal and/or suffering. The editing is Cloud Atlas’ saving grace. All six story-lines are welded together; turning this delicate sci-fi drama into a roller-coaster ride of gargantuan proportions. Certain story-threads interweave in a light-hearted manner. For example, characters in Neo-Seoul will watch video footage featuring events from another story. These transitions relieve the many jarring tonal shifts. The film distracted me by hurriedly switching from a slapstick comedy to an intense corporate espionage thriller.

“Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb, we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” (Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae), Cloud Atlas). 

Doona Bae.

This 3 hour examination of humanity and fate gets bogged down by its own hubris. The writer/directors have, in the past, created some remarkable achievements. But they have also created some stinkers. They put too much of themselves into this film. At one point, one of the characters throws a critic off of a balcony. This was an unsubtle and slightly offensive way of expressing an opinion. The Wachowskis are clearly still bitter about their last three critical and commercial bombs (the Matrix sequels, Speed Racer). Pet projects of A-list directors have failed in the past (Sucker Punch, Southland Tales, The Fountain). This film does succeed, but there are still some truly laughable elements. Lana Wachowski (formerly Larry) has drastically changed throughout her many years in the spotlight. The Wachowskis believe that anyone can change. The actors are forced out of their comfort zones to fit the ‘identity crisis/genetic experimentation’ theme. Caucasian, Black and Asian actors switch between varying classes, races and genders. The make-up effects are, for the most part, extremely unconvincing. Certain actors have genetic qualities that continually shine through the prosthetics (Keith David in particular). Some characters look like they’ve stepped out of a bad Saturday Night Live sketch.

Ambitious, excessive and intensive; Cloud Atlas carries the weight of the world on its shoulders. It’s a tale unlike any other. The Wachowskis and Tykwer have created a beautiful movie about environmentalism, politics, capitalism, love, philosophy and sociology.

Verdict: A moving and ambitious work of art.

L.A. Noire Review – Cops, Criminals & Controllers


Genres: Third person shooter, Open world, Action-adventure

Companies: Rockstar, Team Bondi, Take-Two Interactive

Platforms: PS3, X-Box 360, PC

4½/5


Release date: May 17th, 2011

Mode: single player


 

The never-ending Grand Theft Auto series has taken the world by storm. Whether it’s the guiltless thrills of drifting through an open Pro-America universe or the weird giggle had with killing prostitutes with a muscle car, Rockstar have found their winning formula. So if something isn’t broken than why try to fix it?

Instead of tampering with already golden property, they have duplicated their delectable game development style to fit other genres. Along with the rollicking thrills already had with Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire continues their successes. A controversial premise to be sure- bringing life back to an ageing film genre while using film technology to create a cinematic interactive landscape. I am however happy to report that noir has never been this dark. It turns out gamers and cinephiles can interact every once in a while. Yipee!

Checking off the film noir tropes.

This cinematic adventure through L.A. streets is a gorgeous yet stifling way of connecting to a classier time. The story is about as comical and generic as 1950s detective thrillers come. Breaking it down; a rebellious cop named Cole Phelps, his numerous police partners and the scum of L.A. walk into a bar. Well actually…they walk in and out of several. This interchanging labyrinth of criminals and cowboys clashes whenever Phelps is on the scene. You already know this type of law-man; war veteran, smart pinstripe suit, trigger finger and a nasty scowl smudged into his face.

Speaking of faces, L.A. Noire has broken more ground than just L.A’s street scape.  Rockstar and Australian company Team Bondi have used 1950s archival footage and snapshots to create a truly authentic recreation of the City of Angels. Aerial photos capture a city kept inside many rectangular windows throughout history. The result stands alongside Rockstar’s similarly detailed universes. San Andreas and the american plains look conventional next to L.A. Noire‘s labyrinth of stark colours and outrageous panoramas. Its use of motion capture technology is also a positive. Having already stretched the bonds of film technology, L.A. Noire‘s characters deliver a startling level of immersion. Each face is rendered to perfection, with each wrinkle and facial expression adding to the already energetic experience.

One of many horrific crime scenes.

But what about the gameplay itself. Well, Rockstar’s open world formula has once again proven to be successful. Along with GTA and Read Dead‘s anti-hero lead characters, Phelps is yet another gun toting relic. Playing him is a treat, however, as this bad cop continually ignores the good cops and steals the spotlight. The aforementioned facial constructions look top-notch during the difficult interrogation sequences. CSI, eat your heart out  – the gamer is now in control! In each chat with members of L.A’s criminal circus, three choices- truth, doubt and lie- can be picked to analyse a crook’s answer. Get this right- you’re top cop. Get them wrong, however, you risk becoming the police station idiot. These difficult interrogations are still better than the car controls. Sure, the chases move well. But its hard to manoeuvre cars that handle like school-buses.

L.A. Noire is best served to a true media nut. With many references to films such as The Untouchables, Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, they can enjoy how one medium has cooperated with another to create one hell of a game. Just imagine what could come next. Goodfellas as a first person shooter, perhaps?

Verdict: The ultimate film noir experience!