Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bullet to the head


Director:Walter Hill
Cast:Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Jason Momoa
Genre:Action, Crime, Thriller
Run Time:91 mins
Opens:31 January 2013
Rating:NC 16
“Revenge never gets old”, goes the tagline for this film. The soon-to-be-released The Last Stand, headlined by Stallone’s old rival Arnold Schwarzenegger, has the tagline “retirement is for sissies”. That’s right, the selling point for these action movie icons now is that they’re over the hill and proud of it – “badass grandpas”, but badass nonetheless. Fresh off the success of his Expendables franchise and proving he still has considerable pull in Hollywood, Stallone goes back to basics with Bullet to the Head
Based on a French graphic novel, the film stars Stallone as gun-for-hire James Bonomo, or “Jimmy Bobo” to those who know him. Jimmy and his and partner Louis Blanchard (Jon Seda) carry out a hit on a corrupt cop (Holt McCallany), but they end up double-crossed, with Blanchard brutally stabbed to death by mercenary Keegan (Momoa). Taylor Kwon (Sung), a young Washington DC cop, comes to town to investigate the murders. He ends up reluctantly teaming up with Jimmy as they become embroiled in a web of corrupt officials and crooked businessmen, assisted by an “associate” of Jimmy’s, tattoo artist Lisa (Sarah Shahi).
Bullet to the Head is as straightforward a genre piece as they come, an honest-to-goodness throwback to the brutal action flicks of the 80s and 90s. It’s all there: the overflowing testosterone, fisticuffs and gunplay and a sprinkling of gratuitous nudity. The plot is spelled out in black and white and the pace is kept brisk, the film coming in at a lean running time of 91 minutes. There are moments where the film can get a little too direct-to-DVD, the presence of Christian Slater not helping matters much – but it never feels too cheap or sloppy. 
This is the kind of role Stallone can play in his sleep, the tough, anti-heroic hitman-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype being right up his alley. He shoots, swaggers and mumbles his way through the story, looking in fighting-fit shape. Thomas Jane was originally supposed to play the cop who partners up with Jimmy, but producer Joel Silver recast Sung in the role, feeling a “more ethnic” actor would up the film’s mass appeal. The actor is passable in the role, but his chemistry with Stallone is a little wanting and the whole “we’re on different sides of the law”, old school vs. new school shtick does get old after a while.
Momoa, best known as Khal Drogo on TV’s Game of Thrones and as Conan the Barbarian in the remake cuts an intimidating figure as the stock muscle-bound henchman who is meant to be more than a physical match for our protagonist. The climactic action sequence in which Keegan and Jimmy do battle armed with axes is an adequately exciting note on which to end the film. Slater is probably grateful to finally be in a movie that is theatrically-released and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje hobbles around as the criminal head honcho – though as far as villains go, it’s clearly Momoa’s show. 
Like its lead assassin character, Bullet to the Head gets the job done and will fit right in with the watchable-if-disposable entries from the bygone days of the genre. It doesn’t have the wink-and-nod self-awareness of theExpendables films, nor is it as much of a nostalgia trip, but at least it doesn’t take itself too seriously and is fun in parts.
SUMMARY: It’s nothing remarkable, but it’s what you’d expect of this kind of flick, and there are worse guys than Stallone to kill some time at the movies for you. 
RATING: 3 out of 5 STARS.
Jedd Jong

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

For F*** Magazine, Singapore


Director:Kathryn Bigelow 
Cast:Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Mark Strong
Genre:Action, Thriller
Run Time:157 mins
Opens:24 January 2013
What happens after the most wanted man in the world is killed? Apparently, there’s still a lot of “wanting” to go around. The public wants details, answers – the world was instantly clamouring for the top-secret truth behind the military operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. Anonymous sources came forward with their stories, and naturally books and movies would follow. Director Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, both Oscar-winners for their previous effort The Hurt Locker, seem ideal candidates to put the story to film.
Zero Dark Thirty centres on the woman behind the manhunt: a young CIA officer named Maya (Chastain), who has dedicated her entire life to hunting Osama. The film opens with Maya accompanying fellow officer Dan (Clarke) to a CIA black site where a detainee is being held. Maya bears witness to the torture and humiliation Dan carries out. It doesn’t get any easier from there as Maya spends the next eight years buried in her quest to track down Osama as she survives brutal attacks and chases down leads, eventually leading to the raid on the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan by SEAL Team 6.
Considering the subject matter at hand, it was inevitable that Zero Dark Thirty would attract its fair share of controversy even before the cameras started rolling. Everything from classified information allegedly being made available to the filmmakers to the movie’s stance on torture was called into question. While this reviewer can’t vouch for how closely the film hews to actual events – nor can many others, really – he can say that the film seems to be an honest and earnest portrayal. It’s noticeably devoid of Michael Bay-esque rah-rah, flag-waving, chest-thumping patriotism, and is a thoughtful portrait of men and women simply doing their jobs.
Chastain is convincing in her subdued turn as a career woman whose job is more dangerous and has more at stake than most. Maya is a woman who, in Chastain’s own words, is “trained to be unemotional and analytically precise” – and yet, we don’t get a flat, uninteresting robot. Bigelow is subtle enough not to thrust a “girl power” agenda in our faces – as the first woman to take home a Best Director Oscar, she well could have. There are the expected moments where it’s made clear that Maya is “a woman in a man’s world”, but these don’t stray into cliché and it is to Chastain’s credit that we believe that yes, this person could have spearheaded the biggest manhunt in history.
While Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t feel as much like a documentary as The Hurt Locker did, it carries over that film’s sparse, no-frills style. “Zero Dark Thirty” is a military term meaning “thirty minutes after midnight”, in reference to the secrecy surrounding the decade-long manhunt.  Bigelow does a a good job in convincing the audience that condensed though the lead-up to Osama’s death may be, it probably did happen in a similar fashion, and the result is anything but sensationalistic. This can be chalked up as much to the lack of visual and stylistic embellishment as it can be to research. However, this is something of a double-edged sword as in spite of the gripping proceedings, the film sometimes drags its feet and audiences may be twiddling their thumbs, impatiently anticipating the SEAL Team raid.
The raid only actually happens during the last thirty minutes of the film, but thankfully, it doesn’t disappoint. It’s a nail-biter of an action sequence even though we all know the ending and it isn’t slickly-staged or artfully choreographed – but that’s exactly how it should be. Between the shaky-cam and the sickly green of the night-vision lenses, there’s a sense of uneasiness and urgency inherent in the scene, which is heightened by some good acting on the part of Edgerton, Chris Pratt and the other actors portraying the SEALs.
All that said though, is it enough of a payoff after nearly two hours of heavy dialogue and sometimes-unsettling depictions of torture? Just about. Zero Dark Thirty certainly could have had a chunk trimmed off its running time and been pumped with more adrenaline, but that would most likely be at the cost of the solemnity and gravity required to tell the story it does.
SUMMARY: Though sometimes a little heavy-handed and weary, Zero Dark Thirty always feels credible, realistic and thoughtful in its account of the manhunt for Osama bin Laden.
RATING: 4 out of STARS
Jedd Jong

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Impossible

For F*** Magazine, Singapore


Director:Juan Antonio Bayona
Cast:Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland
Genre:Drama, Thriller
Run Time:108 mins
Opens:17 January 2013
Rating:PG13 - Disturbing Scenes and Brief Nudity
The devastating Indian Ocean tsunami that struck on Boxing Day 2004 was one of the most horrifying natural disasters in recent history, taking the lives of many and impacting the lives of many more. Spanish director Bayona and screenwriter Sergio Sánchez of The Orphanage fame have re-teamed to tell the true story of one family’s harrowing experience of the event. 
Henry Bennett (McGregor), his wife Maria (Watts) and their sons Lucas (Holland), Thomas (Samuel Joslin) and Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) have travelled to the resort town of Khao Lak, Thailand for an idyllic tropical Christmas holiday. Their family vacation is violently cut short by the tsunami, which hits their resort head-on.  The film follows Henry, Maria and their children as they search desperately for each other in the aftermath of the disaster.
Director Bayona has crafted a powerful, emotional film that allows audiences to witness the horror that nature can wield and the triumph of family and the human spirit at the same time. Focusing on a single family caught in the midst of the madness lends the story an honest intimacy, and Bayona has carefully re-constructed the background against which it unfolds. The scene of the tsunami surging aground and demolishing everything in its path is gut-wrenchingly realistic; the ravaged landscape left in its wake meticulously re-created. There is a very effective use of sound, and Bayona certainly has an eye for haunting images.
This must have been a difficult film, both emotionally and physically, for the actors to undertake, and McGregor and Watts have bravely risen to the challenge, tossing aside Hollywood superficiality to appear truly bloodied, bruised and broken. Watts is breathtakingly vulnerable, painful-looking makeup effects assisting her portrayal of the badly-injured Maria, whose duties as a mother are always a priority – the Best Actress Oscar nomination is much-deserved. McGregor does the “everyday hero” thing convincingly, making it easy to identify with the father’s quest Henry undertakes, and Holland shines as their oldest son.
On the internet, the film has been the target of accusations of racism, some up in arms over the fact that it focuses on a Caucasian family when the tsunami happened in Asia. It is this reviewer’s opinion that this is a trite point to make, and even though the real-life Belon family was Spanish and McGregor, Watts and the other actors aren’t, it takes nothing away from their portrayal. The filmmakers had intended the family onscreen to be kind of universal, and that’s what has been achieved.
Unlike most disaster movies, The Impossible doesn’t revel in the carnage wrought and strikes a masterful balance between the sensitive and the visceral. It’s devoid of the maudlin, overwrought melodramatics of Roland Emmerich-esque blockbusters, and is a worthy picture that, cheesy though it may sound, will probably make you hug your loved ones a wee bit tighter afterwards.
SUMMARY: A moving, well-told story of survival and familial bonds, equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting. 
RATING: 4 out of 5 STARS
Jedd Jong