Film Review: A Walk Among the Tombstones

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 21st October 2014.

The trailer might suggest yet another addition to the Liam Neeson Action Hero Kills Europe™ franchise but A Walk Among the Tombstones is a thoughtfully paced gumshoe thriller that harks back to detective mystery movies of old.

Sure, some of the tropes are present: the threatening phone call, punching a bad guy through a window, a kid sidekick and so on, but there is more talking than action this time, and that’s why this film works.

Matt Skudder (Neeson) is a former cop and alcoholic with a traumatic past. Working as an unlicensed private eye, he is recruited by drug kingpin Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens) and his junkie brother Peter (Boyd Holbrook) to investigate a kidnapping where the ransom has been delivered and the victim returned, in pieces. Teaming up with wise beyond his years street kid TJ (Brian “Astro” Bradley), Skudder discovers that this is not a random event, but a series of murders.

Adapted from the novel by Lawrence Block, screenwriter and director Scott Frank, whose varied writing credits include The Wolverine and Marley and Me, creates an atmospheric gritty New York City where everyone has a secret and shifty characters slowly cruise the streets in panel vans.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is an intense and effective thriller that deserves your attention.

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Published in: on October 19, 2014 at 12:46  Leave a Comment  
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Film Reviews: The Maze Runner & Sin City 2: A Dame to Kill For

These reviews were originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 30 September 2014.

Film Review: The Maze Runner

Based on yet another young adult fiction book series that you will never read, The Maze Runner initially shows promise. Within seconds, the audience is thrust into the action as our amnesiac protagonist arrives via elevator at “The Glade”. We share his disorientation as he attempts to remember who he is, establish his place within the primitive society developed by his fellow inmates and discover why he has been dropped into the middle of a giant labyrinth.

I had high hopes for this film. Sure, I prefer my labyrinths with Muppets, Jennifer Connelly and David Bowie (in a fright wig) but the premise intrigued me. Unfortunately, what first time feature director Wes Ball delivers is a fun ride which ultimately frustrates.

This truly is a teen action film by numbers. We have a dystopian future where unprepared teens are thrown into a deadly high concept arena as part of some nefarious conspiracy. Sound familiar?

As the lead, Dylan O’Brien (TV’s Teen Wolf) is appealing but certainly does have the charisma that Jennifer Lawrence radiates in The Hunger Games franchise. Actor on the rise, Will Poulter (We’re the Millers, Son of Rambow) impresses as the alpha male of the group. In a testosterone heavy cast, lone female castaway Kaya Scodelario (TV’s Skins) does her best with an underwritten role.

The film hits its stride once we leave The Glade (think Lord of the Flies meets Peter Pan’s Lost Boys meets an all male summer camp) and start exploring the deadly titular labyrinth. The set designs are inspired, as are the deadly spider-like Grievers which roam the maze.

By the last act, it becomes clear that no resolution will be given to any plot strands. The credits roll on a cliffhanger and you’ll leave the cinema with nothing but questions and a slightly bad taste in your mouth.

Film Review: Sin City : A Dame to Kill For

From the “sequels that no-one asked for” department comes the follow-up to the visually stunning and highly original Sin City (2005). By virtue of being more of the same, co-directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have managed to concoct three more graphic novel-inspired noir tales that now have little impact from a visual style perspective. And also now in pointless 3D.

The majority of the original cast return for this outing, including Mickey Rourke as the overcoat wearing killer Marv. Well received as a supporting character in the original, gruff tough guy Marv is now a central character, which for me is now a case of too much of a good thing. Bruce Willis, Rosario Dawson and Jessica Alba reprise their roles, joining newcomers Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin and a very naked Eva Green.

The bullets fly and the white blood flows thick. Once you become accustomed (or re-accustomed) to the visuals, it’s just a matter of whether you appreciate the very deliberate storytelling style of the film. I didn’t. I just felt completely disconnected from what was happening on the screen. Maybe that is the desired effect.

Strangely released during the school holidays, this particularly non-kid friendly film is likely to sink without a trace at the box office. Wait for the DVD, or even better still, read the graphic novel.

Published in: on October 5, 2014 at 14:28  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: The Hungover Games & The Starving Games

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 22nd April 2014.

Beginning with the hilarious Airplane! (AKA Flying High) in 1980, Hollywood has built a fine tradition of spoofing itself through parody movies. Actually, I’ve just reread that last sentence. I think I’ll start again.

Beginning with the hilarious Airplane! (AKA Flying High) in 1980, Hollywood has a tradition of spoofing itself through parody movies which have suffered from the law of diminishing returns. Sure, there have been a few spikes in quality such as The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988) starring the iconic Leslie Nielsen and um…well, every other comedy he made after that, but the rest of the pack over the past thirty years has been pretty much miss and miss.

I recommend that you look up one of Nielsen’s pre-comedy performances. A noted dramatic actor before he started carrying a fart gun twenty four seven, it’s impossible not to laugh at his ultra serious delivery style, which strangely is also the same as his subsequent comedy style.

The thing about parodies is that they are really cheap to produce compared to a Hollywood blockbuster. Even a bomb at the box office will easily slide into the black with DVD sales and downloads. Unfortunately, for the two latest parodies to hit the straight to DVD shelf, jokes must have been at a premium, because both of these abominations are low budget in every way.

Teen box office smash The Hunger Games has spun off not one, but two parodies. In the spirit of Easter, I have watched them so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

The Hungover Games combines The Hangover Franchise (already a comedy, I know) with The Hunger Games. Four unknown actors have received their “big breaks” impersonating Bradley Cooper’s Phil and so on. What’s more irritating than Zach Galifanakis? Well that would be someone pretending to be Zach Galifanakis.

Instead of losing Doug in Las Vegas or Thailand, our heroes are instead thrown into The Hungover Games, a battle to the death between various Hollywood franchises including Thor, Carrie, zombies, The Lord of the Rings, 300, Avatar and Ted. Featuring cameos from the incredibly unfunny Tara Reid, Jonathan Silverman and Jamie Kennedy, this film is simply awful. Shot in what appears to be a park in Los Angeles, no-one seems to care when street lights are visible in the background, nor when a car drives up the said street.

As an indicator of the humour blackhole that is The Hungover Games, here are the “sidesplitting” new names of The Hunger Games characters: Katnip, Effing White, Skip Bayflick and Justmitch.

The Starving Games is only slightly better, earning just a handful of titters and maybe a smirk. Following the original storyline more closely, our hero must battle for survival, with not only her life at stake but also prizes including an old ham, a coupon for a footlong sub and a partially eaten pickle.

Shot with a Z grade cast in probably the same park as its counterpart, the film also features ho-hum appearances from The Avengers, Thor, the Na’vi, Harry Potter and The Expendables. For your convenience, here are The Hunger Games alter egos: Kantmiss Evershot, Effoff and President Snowballs.

A sure sign of a terrible comedy is when the bloopers are funnier than the film. Unfortunately, that’s the case for both of these disasters. Avoid at all cost, but if you are a sucker for punishment, ensure that you forget your Hungover / Starving Games experience immediately, Barry O’Farrell style.

Film Review: The Raid 2

This film review was originally published on The Orange Post on 29th March 2014.

Welsh director Gareth Evan’s The Raid (2011), shot in Indonesia, is easily one of the best martial arts action flick ever committed to film. With a simple, video game-like structure, policeman Rama (the kinetic Iko Uwais) must fight his way from the ground floor of a criminal infested tower block, all the way to the boss fight at the top. Featuring wince inducing bone crunching action sequences, The Raid found a small but enthusiastic audience on DVD.

Two years later, Evans returns with The Raid 2. Picking up minutes after the final moments of the original, our hero Rama is thrust undercover into a criminal melee between the Japanese Yakuza, local Indonesian mafia and crooked cops, or something like that. Don’t ask me to explain the plot any further. It’s the action that counts.

With a more complex and sprawling plot structure (and obviously a bigger budget), Evan’s is able to transfer his now iconic visceral action to more locations, including a car chase scene which had the premiere audience applauding and cheering.

Featuring new villains, including the rather obviously named (but deadly nonetheless) Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man, The Raid 2 does not disappoint, but be warned, it is not for the faint hearted. Is it better than the original film? Perhaps not, but it is easily on par and will be hard to top in the action flick stakes this year. Highly recommended.

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 23:09  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

This film review was posted on the Orange Post on Sunday 19th January 2014.

Two years ago, Kenneth Branagh proved he was capable of helming a fun, superhero flick with Marvel Studio’s Thor. He now returns with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and the result is a taut and slick action thriller that will keep you on the edge of your popcorn.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit revives the film franchise based on the late Tom Clancy’s popular series of pageturners, although this is the first entry to be inspired by the characters and situations rather than a specific book. Essentially a reboot, this time the titular hero is a product of 9/11.

Chris Pine is the fourth actor to portray Tom Clancy’s CIA junior analyst turned field agent, following   turns by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck. After ably filling William Shatner’s Starfeeleet issued loafers in the revitalised Star Trek franchise, Pine is a suitable mix of reluctant hero and ass kicker.

Just like last year’s Man of Steel, any scene featuring Kevin Costner, as CIA mentor Thomas Harper, is instantly elevated. Costner was apparently in line to play Jack Ryan in the nineties. I couldn’t help but think that this film could so easily have been a passing of the torch with Costner in the Jack Ryan roile and Pine as newbie Agent Magilacutty.

Keira Knightley works well as the female love interest / spouse in peril but I was distracted by her choice to sport US accent. And Branagh is menacing as the villain de jour.

With the Bourne Franchise setting a trend in this genre for shaky cameras and kinetic action scenes, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a welcome throwback to a more traditional style. Although not a killing machine, Ryan would rather use brains than his fists but is capable of defending himself or evading capture when required. Branagh frames these scenes so the audience can actually see what is happening.

The film is not without its problems. Some of the dialogue is exposition heavy and the True Lies inspired subplot involving Knightley’s Cathy being unaware of Ryan’s occupation and then suddenly being thrust into a CIA mission does not really work. Ryan’s chronic pain problems are forgotten midway through the film. And I have some questions. Would a counter terrorism mission spanning two countries really fall on the shoulders of just two agents? And why couldn’t I take my eyes away from Knightley’s immoveable forehead?

Unlike last year’s failures of Jack Reacher and Jack the Giant Slayer, I’ll be more than happy for another instalment in this revived franchise.

Film Review: Red 2 – Electric Boogaloo

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 10th September 2013.

Remember that movie from 2010 which featured Dame Helen Mirren at the helm of a .50 calibre machine gun? Red, which is an acronym for Retired, Extremely Dangerous, also starred “mature” actors Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich playing against type as former black-ops agents called back into action when their lives are threatened by assassins. Oh, and the film was headlined by Bruce Willis playing, um, Bruce Willis. A modest hit at the box office, Red was buoyed by the novelty of seeing highly regarded dramatic actors blowing stuff up.

In yet another example of an unwanted sequel (Kick-Ass 2, The Smurfs 2 or Grown Ups 2 anyone?), Willis, Mirren and Malkovich are joined by Catherine Zeta-Jones and SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS* for even more geriatric hijinks, except that this time there is absolutely no novelty value. Just more of the same…

Frank Moses (Willis) is making an earnest effort to enjoy his retirement with girlfriend Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker) when a failed mission from his past returns to haunt him. Reuniting with former colleagues Marvin Boggs (Malkovich, Malkovich, Malkovich) and Victoria (Mirren), Moses attempts to track down a nuclear weapon hidden beneath the Kremlin by brilliant yet crazy physicist Dr Edward Bailey (SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS). With Russian secret agent, and Moses’ former flame, Katya (Zeta-Jones) plus the world’s best assassin Han Jo-bae (Lee Byung-hun) on their trail, the team blast their way through Paris, London and Moscow.

Red 2 marks three sequels in a row for Bruce Willis who nowadays seems to be acting on autopilot with the engine on smug. I’m pretty certain that you could take scenes from A Good Day to Die Hard, G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Red 2, cut them together and you would never know they are from different films. I’m not entirely sure that Lee Byung-hun, who has now co-starred with Willis on two consecutive films, was even aware that he had moved on to a new production. Explosions… Guns… Bruce Willis… Which film is this anyway?

There is also some very obvious product placement which sees entire scenes take place inside a Costco store and a Papa John’s Pizza outlet. Surely in a movie based on a comic book (there are even animated transitions between scenes to remind you), some fictional stores would suffice? I suppose we all need to eat. And when I eat I like to shop at Costco and enjoy a piping hot pie from Papa John’s Pizza! Cheques can be forwarded to me via the CWD.

Red 2 is not without its charms. There is great chemistry between the leads which generates plenty of funny quips and put-downs. Malkovich steals the show with his mentally unstable Marvin Boggs, a victim of decades of daily LSD doses as an experiment by the CIA. And Mary Louise-Parker is clearly having a great time as Moses’ girlfriend who longs for the exciting life of a secret agent.

Director Dean Parisot (Galaxy Quest) has managed to put together an unremarkable but largely enjoyable sequel that does very little to advance the franchise. For my money, watch the original again instead.

*An actor of such magnitude as SIR ANTHONY HOPKINS requires that you say his name aloud whenever reading this review, no matter where you are enjoying this column. Thank you for your cooperation.

Published in: on September 10, 2013 at 23:52  Leave a Comment  
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Taken for a ride – Review: Taken 2

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 16th October 2012.

“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

With this ominous speech in 2008’s Taken, actor Liam Neeson completely altered his Hollywood persona from a serious dramatic actor to a bona fide action star. A surprise package, Taken was an unexpected hit at the box office. As retired CIA agent Bryan Mills, Neeson has only four days to track down his daughter, Kim, after she is kidnapped by Albanian human traffickers in Paris.

Using guns, knives, fists, torture and electricity, Neeson destroys 35 bad guys during the course of the movie. Taken is a bloody, violent affair which doesn’t attempt to hide the outcomes of combat, and I really enjoyed it.

Of course, a hit movie pretty much guarantees a sequel, and in the immortal words of Bruce Willis’ John McClane  in Die Hard 2, “How can the same s**t happen to the same guys twice?” Well, Willis is now onto his fifth Die Hard film and last week, Neeson returned to the silver screen as Bryan Mills in Taken 2.

Unfortunately, if like me you prefer your brawn to come with brains, you’ll be disappointed with Taken 2 as it’s possibly one of the most stupid films of the year. This time, Neeson takes his ex-wife and daughter (Famke Janssen and Maggie Grace, reprising their roles from the original) to Istanbul where they are targeted by the revenge seeking relatives of the deceased Albanians from the first film, led by Rade Serbedzija (best known for playing Dmitri Gredenko in season 6 of 24 and numerous other eastern European baddies).

Vengeful relatives travelling to improbable locations in a movie sequel? That would be the plot of the craptastic Jaws: The Revenge (1987) stolen wholesale. In fact, I think I’d rather watch Michael Caine make a shark explode by hitting it with a boat than watch Taken 2 again.

As an insult to intelligent Albanian human traffickers everywhere, the film also utilises the ridiculous plot conceit from the original camp Batman TV series. With known lethal weapon Neeson captured and tied up with his ex-wife in a basement, the villains reveal their plans, set up a death trap for the pair and happily leave them to escape.

Rubbing salt into our wounds, to broaden the potential audience, the violence has been toned down to an M rating, alienating the action movies fans who championed the original in the first place.

Neeson turned 60 this year, which surely makes him eligible for membership in The Expendables. Despite this, Taken 3 seems inevitable. In the meantime, go and see Looper instead, or better still, rewatch the original.

Published in: on October 23, 2012 at 11:14  Leave a Comment  
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