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TIFF Review: Sicario (2015)

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Violent, tense, and above all absorbing, ‘Sicario’ finds French-Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve at the height of his prowess. Led by an emotional and honest performance from Emily Blunt and especially magnetic, ruthless work from Benicio Del Toro; this action juggernaut is a must-see, even if its unflinching visuals may be difficult for some to swallow.

Relentless from start to finish, a somber, looming tone cloaks Dennis Villeneuve’s thriller in risk and secrecy. Aided by Roger Deakins ghostly, majestic cinematography and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s penetrating, ominous, intimidating score. ‘Sicario’ is an exhausting, inescapable experience.

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Supported impeccably by Josh Brolin and a slew of precise tactical performances by the film’s gunslingers. ‘Sicario’ might just be the most effective, entrancing piece of war cinema since Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’

Taylor Sheridan’s horrifying, entertaining, narratively-complex story and devastating, memorable dialogue effortlessly elevates the intensity and execution in Blunt, Del Toro, and Brolin’s performances. Additionally allowing Villeneuve and Deakins to truly explore and excel behind the camera.

‘Sicario’ has Roger Deakins in award-season form and features some of the master cinematographer’s finest work. Most notably, a night-vision sequence that gets the heart racing and palms sweating.

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The delicacy and boldness in Blunt’s performance cannot be understated. Imperative and determined, Blunt’s Macer mimics the viewer’s terrified, meddlesome mindset, expertly holding their attention as if you sit fastened in the interrogation chair.

Outshining his co-stars’ already blinding brilliance, Benicio Del Toro’s ferocious, smothering, calculated anti-hero is a performance to contemplate and savour. Exercising the actor’s formidable charisma, ‘Sicario’ catapults Del Toro back into the working elite.

Uncompromising, thought-provoking, and brutally straightforward, ‘Sicario’ is unmissable.

Sicario: 9.5 out of 10.

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TIFF Review: High-Rise (2015)

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High-Rise (2015)

Godzilla (2014)

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Whether you’re a casual filmgoer or a diehard cinephile, it’s deceitfully easy to get caught up in hype, no matter how adamant one may oppose influence. The truth is, usually it isn’t even external pressures that wind up persuading us to a predetermined conclusion. We form our own biases, niches, and preferences, completely devoid of any convincing, leverage, or sway originating from peers, media, society, etc… Either way, a genuine, uninhibited opinion, free from preconceived notions is nearly impossible to form nowadays. And as much as I’d like to be one of the remaining few who can birth such a rarity, I cannot. I found myself lost amidst the chaos and destruction of “Godzilla’s” mammoth awareness campaign a few months beforehand, even as far back as the comic-con teaser released roughly a year ago. Needless to say, the sheer size of this beast and the terror insinuated through the film’s publicity endeavours snagged me irrevocably.

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Originally what drew me to Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” reboot was the foreboding magnitude and apocalyptic nature of the film’s teasers and trailers. To be honest, the disgraceful, cliche-infested outing from 1998 still left a distinctly potent, gag-inducing taste in my mouth, and I was eagerly looking to wash it out. That being said, apart from Edwards himself, this revamping didn’t exactly have me from the get go. As I mentioned, the debacle starring the wonderful Jean Reno still lingered and the cast chosen for this reimagining left a lot to be desired. Not that I dislike any specific member of the ensemble, I just thought that those chosen weren’t able to handle the spotlight individually, so I remained slightly skeptical still. However, the helplessness and disturbing reality of the film’s tone towards humanities extinction overwhelmed me. Combine that with the monstrous, sky-scraper size of the creature itself and its defining, eardrum shattering roar…and I was won over.

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Heading into the theatre on opening weekend (surprise), there was only one thing on my mind. Did “Godzilla” keep its tone and atmosphere? I was very much on board with Edwards’ vision that would introduce the original movie monster into the modern day and I ached with anticipation, hoping he could pull it off. Unfortunately, upon conclusion, I don’t know what’s more tragic, the fact that Edwards didn’t fully realize the film I was hoping for, or that he almost did. Edwards is a talented filmmaker no doubt. “Monsters” is something to be immensely proud of, in my opinion. With “Godzilla” however, it does feel as if the plausibility and human aspect of the film clashed with the typical monster goodness we’ve come to expect from the “Godzilla” franchise. While both segments are individually entertaining, together, they didn’t meld as seamlessly as I’d hoped.

No one is readily to blame, and by no means is the film’s lacklustre delivery Edwards’ fault. I’ve simply deduced that plausibility and “Godzilla” (and everything that comes with it) do not go hand-in-hand. I feel that what I envisioned before seeing the film is precisely what Edwards’ wanted to end up on screen. Sadly, I struggle to imagine a scenario in which “Godzilla” and humanity co-exist, both thematically and physically on screen.

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As I stated earlier, the film can be separated into two segments. For roughly the first forty minutes, there’s little-to-no action, something I didn’t anticipate heading in. Drama takes centre stage and while consistently captivating, the characters aren’t nearly compelling enough. Because the characters are so bland and their stories, predictable, the cast feels like a slapped-together ensemble of supporting players. This should never be the case when you’ve got the likes of Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, David Strathairn, and Aaron-Taylor Johnson at your disposal. All critique and judgement aside though, the cast does do their best with what they’re given, it’s just that not one of their performances will be remembered years down the road. Thankfully however, those who comprise the cast are talented enough and have already proven their worth, so we shouldn’t worry about their future being affected by this film.

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Now, for a significant chunk of this review, I’ve been rather neutral to negative. The truth is, in the same breathe that I harshly judge Edwards’ reboot, I applaud it for making an action film watchable again, for me anyway. I’m not the biggest fan of the genre and I don’t give top marks for sublime CGI. Most films try to pass on their looks alone, and while “Godzilla” is stunning to look at, it doesn’t solely rely on this fact. Even though it becomes, rather ironically, the only admirable trait of the film. Although its ambition and scale are rather stupendous in their own right, but not to the same effect. The best way to watch this giant-monster flick is to throw every preconceived notion aside and take it for what it is. It’s an action film with gigantic monsters and Edwards does the illustrious lizard and his companions justice. After all, we’re all here for the big guy and nothing else, although some memorable character turns would have been a nice addition.

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“Godzilla” delivers what we’re ultimately paying to see, but is rather lacklustre otherwise. One can’t help but feel that the premise and cast went to waste. That being said, we get enough of a look at the big guy and the carnage that ensues to make Edwards’ “Godzilla” worth the watch and immensely more successful than the 1998 debacle.

Godzilla: 7 out of 10.

The Raid 2 (2014)

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I’m sure you’re all familiar with the old adage regarding the breathing of new life into an existing concept. For those of you who this maxim escapes, it essentially states that someone or something has successfully revitalized, imbued, or revolutionized what had universally become the standard. I decided to clarify this aphorism immediately seeing as it is excruciatingly similar to what Gareth Evans has done to action cinema with his past success “The Raid” and his latest, unfathomable triumph, “The Raid 2.” Yes, Evans’ incomparable genius removed any footing the rapidly deteriorating genre stood upon. And as if that wasn’t enough, once he quite handily did away with the infuriatingly brainless and bombastic abomination the once beloved action genre became, Evans, with “The Raid 2” persisted to choke, beat, and mutilate his way to superseding his own previous best in a cyclic manner, as if to taunt any challenging newcomers, to make it painfully clear that the best is yet to come…

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PLOT:

Approximately two hours after the first film ends, Rama goes undercover and infiltrates the ranks of a ruthless Jakarta crime syndicate in order to protect his family and to uncover the corruption in his own police force.

As impressively choreographed and executed Evans sophomore effort may be, his follow up “The Raid 2” is a masterful expedition into extreme hand-to-hand combat and ultra-savagery. With brutal, occasionally disturbing violence and a limitless supply of unbelievably detailed gore, the slaughter throughout “The Raid 2” is mercilessly relentless and joyfully excessive. And while there’s no doubt that Evans’ latest will leave viewers exhilarated and gleefully gasping for air by the time it’s concluded, there are a few scenes that might force even the toughest SOB to cringe and gag. Yes, a steel baseball bat lodged in between a man’s jaw or the continuous burning of a man’s face on a fully-heated grill is but a sample of the viciousness that awaits you in “The Raid 2.” Granted, beautifully sadistic scenes such as those mentioned don’t occur all too frequently, but it is something that you’ll need to prepare for.

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Clocking in at a daunting one hundred and fifty minutes, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if fanboys of “The Raid,” which finished around the one hundred and five minute mark, would be a little too frightened by its sequel’s massive runtime to undertake it. With this new allotment of time, Evans has expanded on the original story and list of characters, making for a much more fluent, intricate, captivating experience, one that isn’t simply just run-and-gun. It sets it’s primary focus on an intense, intelligent, ruthless crime-family drama, causing stimulation to not only occur physically, but mentally as well. That being said, “The Raid 2” does tend to drag occasionally, but when compared to the film’s immense list of successes, any complaint about slight mistakes or the story’s encompassing complexity is easily forgotten.

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“The Raid 2” strays from the simple, easy to follow narrative that, in my opinion, hampered its predecessor, if only slightly. While this monstrously entertaining sequel does rely heavily on its action sequences to drive it forward, it provides enough substance for viewers to sink their teeth into. Allowing characters to become more three-dimensional and each scene to build and progress on the former, ultimately resulting in every new segment trumping the previous. For example, the violence and gore continuously ascends, becoming more deplorable, complex, and immeasurable, eventually reaching the crescendo. A tactic that will have you picking your jaw up off the floor. Additionally, the musical accompaniment throughout the film is something supremely identifiable. So much so that you’ll be confused as to what exactly got your heart racing, the action or the music.

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Now, if there’s one thing that “The Raid” series isn’t known for, it has to be acting. Granted, Evans has expanded the emotional range needed to partake in his action series juggernaut and the change is quite noticeable. Our antihero portrayed by the immensely talented Iko Uwais has several scenes in which he must display an array of varying emotions, albeit a restricted spectrum. Yet, the addition of a more emotional diverse and demanding story creates its own paradox. The level of talent needed to convey effectively what Evans is hoping to achieve with this intricate mafioso thriller is much higher than his typical cast can provide. So really, in order to complete this change, one would need to concede some action for substance, a sacrifice I don’t think Evans or fans are willing to make. Nevertheless, the attempt is admirable to say the least. That being said, if you’re going to see “The Raid 2” for its acting, it’s probably best you don’t see it at all.

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For a film with an unbelievable sense of chaos, “The Raid 2” is surprisingly, yet certainly a controlled burn. Bursting with eye-popping action sequences, a respectable story, and stomach-churning visuals, Evans latest is a cinematic feast that all may not be able to enjoy, but at the very least revere. And since it is an action film, a genre in which I don’t usually get along with, I’m giving “The Raid 2” bonus points for being, quite possibly the greatest action film I’ve ever seen.

The Raid 2: 9.5 out of 10.

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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It seems as if we’ve been getting a new entry into the Marvel film canon at least once or twice a year for the last little while now. And with rumours swirling that the filmmaking titan has its universe mapped out until the year 2028, you either get on board now or be forever lost in the immense, intertwining reaches of this comic book behemoth. Hell, Marvel Studios even has Sony Pictures and 20th Century Fox undertaking some of the responsibility! Yes, with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” breaking the box office opening weekend record for April, the television show “Agents of Shield” going steady, “Guardians of the Galaxy” picking up steam on all social platforms, and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” production well under way, it looks as if there’s no stopping this superhero juggernaut.

Conversely, all positives aside, lately the films have been hit and miss. Take for example the underwhelming sequel “Thor: The Dark World” and the polarizing finale to the Iron Man trilogy. While both found financial success, there are those beginning to question the stability of Marvel’s universe. With Marvel’s success came demand, and as this thirst grew, Marvel set in motion a strategy that fulfills the demand which simultaneously secures funding for future need. And this will continue in an infinite loop enabling Marvel to produce with the mindset of quantity over quality. This will eventually result in a consistently declining level of interest that will ultimately lead to less funds for future projects, thereby effectively extinguishing Marvel’s ambitious blueprint for a big screen legacy…but this is just a theory.

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What do you think of Marvel’s course of action for the big screen? Is Marvel sacrificing quality for quantity and reward? Are they looking too far ahead or simply giving the viewers what they want? Will their courageous endeavour into the future sacrifice the integrity of their characters or help to better define them? Be sure to let me know what you think in the comment section below. Nevertheless, regardless of what you feel towards Marvel’s aggressive inflation, there’s no denying that if their future projects are anything like their latest, “Captain America: The Winter Solider,” Marvel will be going strong and steady for a long time to come. Directed by the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, and written by Marvel veterans Stephen McFeely Christopher Markus, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is without question the best solo Avenger film to date.

I’ve always felt that Captain America was cut from a different cloth than his Avenger teammates. Despite being a super soldier and carrying around an impenetrable shield, there’s nothing that really distinguishes Captain Rogers from the rest of us. He’s the most humble, vulnerable, human of all the Avengers, and that really shows in every film he’s a part of. Whether it be struggling with his misplacement in time, trying to overcome being deprived of an existence with his beloved, or fending off evil with nothing exactly superhuman to defend him, Captain America truly is the best of humankind amplified.

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PLOT:

We catch up with the Captain not long after the events that took place in New York. He’s living in Washington, D.C., running espionage missions for S.H.I.E.L.D and still struggling to fit into modern society. However, when Nick Furry is on his way to a previously arranged rendezvous, he’s ambushed by unknown assailants lead by an assassin known as the Winter Solider. This abruptly puts an end to Captain Roger’s steady routine and thrusts him back into action. Upon learning that the Winter Soldier is working for Hydra, Captain America sets out to defeat the Winter Soldier and put an end to Hydra once and for all.

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Look, no disrespect to “The Avengers,” it’s a great flick, action-packed, oozing with quotable dialogue, and frequently amusing. That being said, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is Marvel’s best outing to date. Where chaos controlled and ultimately lead to “The Avengers” reach exceeding its grasp.

Marvel’s latest is controlled, paced, and executed with pure brilliance. The story is engaging, the action is breathtaking, and the performances tower over any other portrayal given in the Marvel universe. And although it might not take place on the grandest scale, it certainly tackles socio-political issues that are extremely relevant in today’s world, hitting closer to home than any of its predecessors. And yet, perhaps what is most impressive and admirable about the film is the serious mentality taken by the Russo brothers whilst executing and capturing the action sequences, whether it be hand-to-hand combat between Rogers and the Winter Solider or larger scale battles and explosions. Not to mention the drama surrounding our hero Captain America and his enemy, the Winter Soldier. It’s as compelling and entertaining a battle between good and evil since Marvel’s nemesis’ D.C Comics unleashed Batman and The Joker…okay…maybe not that illustrious, but they’re working on it.

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Returning to the Marvel screen is Chris Evans who reprises his role as Captain America, Scarlett Johansson as the always deadly and sexy Natasha Romanoff, Samuel L. Jackson as head honcho Nick Furry, and Sebastian Stan who portrays his alter ego this go around, the Winter Soldier. Joining these vets are newcomers Anthony Mackie, and Robert Redford, who tackle Falcon and Alexander Pierce respectively. Additionally, there’s a terrific supporting ensemble comprised of Frank Grillo, Hayley Atwell, Cobie Smulders, and Toby Jones. If this all-star cast isn’t enough to entice you, I don’t what is!

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The insanely talented Chris Evans never ceases to amaze me, I sincerely hope the rumours floating about regarding his early retirement from acting are false. I mean, the man is a machine! Whether he’s knocking the baddies on their rear end or bursting with an unfathomable spectrum of emotions, Evans makes it look all too easy. Now, for those who have been clamouring for an independent Black Widow film, I apologize, I could not see the potential…but all that’s changed now. Scarlett Johansson quite possibly provides the best performance this flick has to offer. She’s sweet, stunning, funny, smart, and sexy. A lethal combination and something you wouldn’t expect from an Avenger afterthought. Sebastian Stan, who’s work I’m not exactly familiar with apart from the original “Captain America” film, gives the best villain performance I’ve seen since Tom Hardy’s Bane or Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. Every time this badass stud hit the screen sporting his menacing black mask and mechanical arm, I got chills.

Easily the most surprising aspect of the film is Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy his character and alter ego so much! I originally thought he would provide nothing more than a few comical quips and mid-air somersaults, but he does so much more. So much so that I’m actually looking forward to Falcon’s next Marvel appearance. Additionally, Robert Redford…wow. Although he’s only on the screen here and there, he controls the moments he is with an abundance of charisma and villainy.

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Shedding the cartoonish hue and predictable comedic relief that has plagued previous Marvel outings, it looks as if the illustrious comic book organization has finally gotten it right. With an incredibly strong script, potent humour, and massively memorable performances, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is as strong as they come.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier: 9 out of 10.

Noah (2014)

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I kept telling myself that Aronofsky was making a huge mistake with his latest film “Noah.” That it felt as if this talented director was wasting a lot of time and money in making this early-season blockbuster. And all throughout its construction and publicity, whether it was the first images released, trailers, etc…I was adamant that the film wasn’t exactly drawing me in or provoking enough intrigue in me to buy a ticket. But more importantly, it wasn’t proving that I was wrong. All this, and I still found myself having seen it in its opening weekend. Yes, I purchased a ticket and sat in a theatre to view this biblical epic, isn’t that funny? So I guess either the public relation team did its job or I just subconsciously believed that Aronofsky would pull it off. Sadly however, it seems that my original skepticism was well placed and I was right all along…

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The biblical tale of Noah is one that has always fascinated me. As a child, the thought of living on a gigantic vessel carrying every animal in existence was something that stirred my imagination and broadened my humanity. And as I grew, it was as if the tale grew with me. I began to become more aware and paid closer attention to the moral conundrums and decisive humbleness bursting forth from this fable and its main character Noah. Of course, as I grew, the tale’s authenticity slowly succumbed to my increasing intelligence and eventually it’s genuineness dissipated all together. I mean, a tale like that you take with a grain of salt, as I do with every religious tale, and every religion for that matter.

It’s just, I’m not exactly devout to any religion. And I’m sure that won’t sit well with some readers, but I don’t encourage people to part ways with their beliefs simply because they’re different from mine, I just don’t share your point of view about the universe. Look, when creationism is laid out in front of you, much like it is in Aronofsky’s “Noah,” the hidden beauty of its philosophical magnitude really is something to marvel. That being said, its absurdity when placed opposite our universe and the rules that govern it: forces, evolution, dark matter and energy, elements, and so on, are just too much to overcome, but I digress…

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Aronofsky’s “Noah” feels like two-hours and twenty-minutes of pretentiousness. I’ve seen documentaries about serial murderers, rapists, and pedophiles that don’t paint humanity as dark a shade as “Noah” does. So much so that I don’t understand why some Catholics are so upset and intent on dismissing and destroying this film. Aronofsky provides god’s wrath, nearsightedness, and the mysterious ways in which he works in spades. Granted, the entire film isn’t always shrouded in filth and inhumanity. Towards the end, we get some magnificent scenes featuring the beautiful sky spawned by the creator, lined with a massive rainbow shinning with resplendent colours and flying doves. Stunning right? Yeah, this scene takes place right after Noah’s about to murder his two newborn granddaughters before his sons have a chance to commit the act of incest, seeing as there are no human women left after the flood for them to reproduce.

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Look, I’m not trying to take out Aronofsky’s knees. He’s an outstanding filmmaker that I respect and adore…he just could’ve picked a better project. The film’s technical aspects and visuals are radiant and masterful. There’s a scene in which Noah and his wife Naameh have an intense conversation against the bluish-red hue of the approaching Dawn where Aronofsky uses only their silhouettes to indicate interaction…pure brilliance. Conversely though, I felt that the battle scenes and cartoonish-villainy of Tubal-Cain could have been left on the cutting-room floor. They don’t add anything to the film’s depth and atmosphere. Additionally, the film really suffers from pacing issues and struggles with content portions and importance. That being said, at least the magnificent Clint Mansell, composer of the “Moon” and “Filth” soundtracks comes through with another remarkable score.

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The cast, featuring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, and Logan Lerman, was perhaps the only thing keeping me going while I waited for what was certainly going to be a misstep for the revered and immensely talented Aronofsky. Surprisingly however, this ensemble somehow managed to crumble under the film’s weak script, can you believe that?

Connelly and Watson stole the show for me, as much as they could anyway with what they were given. Crowe, who is an absolute tank in this film physically, gives it his all, but the character he is portraying has just too many flaws to overcome. As I mentioned earlier, Winstone really does create a strong villain, too bad it’s in the wrong film. Hopkins continues to appear briefly in movies, as he is just a shade of his former self, but hell, we all need a steady paycheque. Did I miss anyone? Oh yeah, Lerman is given a much broader role than his kin in the film, but can’t do much with it. Hey, at least he got to be mentored and obtained tons of advice from this cast of vets for a few months.

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Unfortunately, “Noah” is your typical blockbuster in the most general sense. Yes, it makes you think slightly more than most big-budget films and provides some stunning visuals to go along with the never ending feeling of guilt you now bear once you leave the theatre. It’s a mistake, plain and simple, for Aronofsky, cast and crew, but I’m certain they’ll recover.

Noah: 6 out of 10.

Snowpiercer (2014)

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Much like the train we inhabit for Bong Joon-Ho’s English language directorial debut, the direction in which “Snowpiercer” travels is determined, but at its core, the journey is one that has no control. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that the trip isn’t one hell of a ride. Brilliantly choreographed and unrelenting action highlights this resplendent visual feast that has the brains to match, for the most part. With brutal violence and an array of contrasting, stimulating colours, one can’t help but push the chaos and in-your-face obviousness of “Snowpiercer” to the back burner and just enjoy the trek.

Bong Joon-Ho has been and continues to be a filmmaker whom I admire and look to for inspiration. The director of numerous triumphs such as true-crime thriller “Memories of Murder,” modern monster masterpiece “The Host,” and psychological drama “Mother.” Bong Joon-Ho finally makes his much anticipated debut in English language cinema with “Snowpiercer,” much like his South Korean counterpart Chan Wook-Park did in 2013 with “Stoker.” This latest offering from Bong Joon-Ho features an all-star cast comprised of newcomers and veterans to Ho’s brand of film. Chris Evans, Kang-Ho Song, Tilda Swinton, Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ed Harris, and John Hurt lead the way.

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In the not too distant future, humankind unleashes what is believed to be a chemical remedy to global warming into the atmosphere. When this experiment backfires and sends our planet into an unliveable state, the few who remain seek refuge on the ‘Snowpiercer.’ A train powered by a perpetual motion engine that circles the globe once every year. Designed by the prophetic Wilford, this train is the last livable place on Earth, running on the same, worldwide track for eternity.

On board the train, what remains of our population has descended in to madness and chaos. The rich, privileged first class passengers live in luxury and comfort at the front of the train, while the rest find home at the tail where food and space is sparse. In order to obtain better living conditions and equality, the tail section revolts in an attempt to take over the engine and overthrow the current status in which the train functions.

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Taking into account that “Snowpiercer” was an adaptation, the original format being a graphic novel. A lot of the film’s blatant depiction of its themes and cartoonish violence and characters is understandable. That being said, at its worst, “Snowpiercer” is a bewildering, over-stuffed allegory that really suffers from pacing problems. Which is kind of intriguing seeing as originally, Bong Joon-Ho was not given control over the final cut of the film. This changed rather quickly though with the outcry of infuriated fans, much like myself and Bong Joon-Ho once again took full control of his film. However, whether or not this is the truth or simply a gambit I find to be in question, seeing as the film itself feels as if there was a lot more character and story development left on the cutting room floor.

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On the flip side, for all of its faults, “Snowpiercer” is a visually entertaining and mentally challenging flick. And apart from a rather lacklustre climax, there isn’t a single moment in its just over two-hour run-time in which boredom will overtake you. While extremely violent, “Snowpiercer” is not excessively gory. It tries and at times succeeds in portraying compassion and brotherhood over war and never sells the evilness of humanity as our undoing.

In his transition, Bong Joon-Ho hasn’t lost any part of his infallible repertoire. If anything, “Snowpiercer” is his most ambitious, technically masterful film to date. As we progress through each car, we are treated to a completely different spectrum of colour ranging from achromatic to vibrant and picturesque. The battle sequences are captured with the utmost intensity and emotion and the characters never take a backseat to this visual spectacle. While undoubtedly not Bong Joon-Ho’s strongest outing, “Snowpiercer” will forever remain an achievement on his impressive resume.

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While I was, without question, rather anxiously excited awaiting Bong Joon-Ho’s next project, I didn’t become totally smitten until I heard that Kang-Ho Song would be co-starring. Having lead a few of my personal favourites: “Thirst,” “The Good, The Bad, The Weird,” “Memories of Murder,” and “The Host,” you can see why I was so ripe with anticipation. In “Snowpiercer,” Kang-Ho Song is as charismatic, intimidating, and darkly hilarious as ever. While the script didn’t really allow for his character to outstretch his wings, so to speak, there’s no denying that Song did everything he could to bring this mad, drug-addicted genius to life.

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Leading alongside Kang-Ho Song is Captain America himself, Chris Evans. Having previously been featured in such personal favourites as “The Iceman” and “Sunshine,” I was sure that alongside Song, Evans wouldn’t disappoint. Evans continues his ascent to stardom with another heartfelt, invested turn, this time as the leader of the tail section revolution with a dreary, ruthless past. One thing that has become very apparent as of late, and that “Snowpiercer” exemplifies, is that Evans has the ability to deal out heroic, blockbuster performances as well as dramatic stunners.

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In supporting roles, Swinton is nothing short of impeccable. Decisively devilish and so easy to hate, Swinton does a phenomenal job as an antagonist who’s death the viewer can easily enjoy. Jamie Bell continues to earn my respect and trust. After surprising performances in “Filth” and the recent “Nymphomaniac,” Bell’s performance in “Snowpiercer” is another I can sink my teeth into. Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, and Ed Harris are also worth noting here. While easily lost in the background, their brief moments on screen are strong enough to dazzle and provoke.

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While not the game-changer I was anticipating. “Snowpiercer” is still an impressive feat that all involved can be proud of. It’s as entertaining as any big-budgeted Hollywood action flick and much more rewarding. It’ll turn its fair share of casual filmgoers away with its bleak, disturbing, and violent content, but for those who can stand “Snowpiercer” at its most repugnant, this is one train ride they won’t soon forget.

Snowpiercer: 8 out of 10.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

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If I wasn’t already in the minority thinking that Peter Jackson was right to turn J. R. R Tolkien’s beloved, timeless classic “The Hobbit” into three films. I definitely asserted myself as an outcast raving over how formidable Jackson’s first outing “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” was and how it placed the forthcoming flicks on impeccable footing. Now, we’re a year down the road, and I feel no different about it. It’s been a year between chapters, that’s a long wait, especially for an enthusiast such as myself, but the second chapter of this soon-to-be epic trilogy is finally upon us and I’ve stayed true to my fanboy title. Rushing, nervously and excitedly to my nearest theatre late Thursday night to behold the first showing of Jackson’s next masterpiece, “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” in IMAX 3D, and not just for Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” teaser either…that’s just a bonus. How’d I feel about the film, you ask…let’s just say, I wasn’t disappointed…

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Now, I know what you’re all thinking, “this guy is supremely biased” and you’re not wrong in concluding that. You may choose to skip my review for a more neutral, honest take and I won’t hold any blame against you. But before you do, consider this. The hard truth of it is, if you can’t enjoy this, you’re probably not a fan of Jackson’s LOTR universe to being with and shouldn’t be judging it in the first place…and I never cheat my readers out of the truth and honesty. If the “The Desolation of Smaug” had flopped, believe me, I’d be the first to let you know. Thankfully however, this isn’t the case. It’s a definite improvement in nearly every aspect while also capitalizing on the errors of its predecessor, not that there were many to begin with. And despite having similar themes, Jackson is able to make the content seem fairly new and exciting. He captures a lot of the magic that made his LOTR trilogy so superlative and successful, which is, quite frankly, the most reassuring aspect for the upcoming finale and is all any good-hearted fan could ask for.

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There’s a lot here that is reminiscent of the LOTR trilogy, but it’ll never be the LOTR, so let’s just get that comparison out of you head right now! If there’s one thing holding back “The Hobbit” trilogy, it’s no fault of its creators, rather, the viewers simply expecting LOTR all over again. That’ll never happen! Honestly, I consider the LOTR trilogy to be cinema’s greatest achievement. I know a lot of you will fight me on that, but that’s just how I feel. Nothing will ever live up to that comparison, so stop holding this series against it. The source material for both series differ greatly, I can’t stress that enough. If you’ve read the series, you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to. “The Hobbit” is directed to younger readers, it’s more cliched, nostalgic, simple. I wouldn’t go as far as to recommend completely cleansing your thoughts of any relation to the LOTR, simply because you’d miss out on a few awesome easter eggs and shout-outs to the original trilogy. That being said, the less you stack up Jackson’s two trilogies, the greater your experience will be.

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It may end on a bit of a cliff-hanger, which hampers most middle films, but if anything, it only really sets its hooks in deeper. A nagging, stinging, aching anticipation for next year’s finale that is proves useless to try and shake. Nonetheless, let’s stick to what’s available to us now. There’s a lot of new faces presented in this sequel, but of course there’s only one newcomer on everybody’s mind. There’s no question that the highlight of “The Desolation of Smaug” is of course, Smaug himself. It’s all any die-hard Tolkien fanatic has been waiting for since the series was first announced. You’ll be waiting till roughly the last forty minutes of the film’s nearly three hour runtime for Smaug to finally appear, but when he does, you’ll find yourself watching one of the greatest cinematic achievements of 2013.

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Apart from this greedy fire-breather, Orlando Bloom’s Legolas draws a substantial amount of excitement. Jumping weightless amongst the striking scenery of Middle Earth (provided by the always breathtaking New Zealand which Jackson once again utilizes to full effect) and dismissing countless foes. He might be a little more edgy than you remember, but a thrill to watch nonetheless. Luke Evans’ Bard really was a pleasant surprise. Gritty, emotional, and whole-heartedly invested, Evans truly added another complex, impressive layer to this fantastical spectacle. The final addition, Evangeline Lilly’s Tauriel still reigned supreme, for me at least. Rarely have I ever become smitten with someone so striking who could also beat me to a bloody pulp at the drop of a hat. A quick shout-out to the cast of dwarves who’ve finally been allowed to expand their emotional range. The serious tone really allows them to show off their depth instead of trotting around uttering witty, cliched catchphrases.

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Smaug is played by the incomparable Benedict Cumberbatch, who, aside from giving voice to this monstrous dragon, also provides the facial expressions and movements, much like that of Andy Serkis’s Gollum. Emerging from a baffling pile of riches, it’s the dark, malicious, egotistical voice that first strikes fear into your gut as Smaug himself dances amongst the shadows. Then, when the big reveal hits, you’ll find yourself struggling to pick your jaw off the sticky cinema floor. Agile, gargantuan, and devilishly clever, Cumberbatch’s Smaug is, without question, the biggest “wow” moment of the year. As for Martin Freeman, he’s still the only young Bilbo for me. His reluctant courage and comical movements are inspiring and hilarious. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who could successfully deliver just one of those facets. Sadly, Gandalf takes a bit of a back seat on this one, but it’s Ian McKellan, it’s the role he was born to play. So those brief moments he’s present are just as rewarding and nostalgic.

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“The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” is another magnificent entry into Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth. The visuals are as superlative as ever. Whether it’s Smaug, the bewildering, gloomy Mirkwood and Laketown, or panoramic shots of Middle Earth, Jackson never seems to lose his form. The progression of the story isn’t a strain to endure and keeps the viewer glued with heart-racing action and genuine emotion. The dialogue doesn’t feel so contrived and each character is given more than enough importance to thrive. It still doesn’t rank with the best the LOTR trilogy has to offer, but it isn’t a steep decline either. “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” will undoubtedly stand the test of time and is a terrific set-up for next year’s big finale.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug: 9 out of 10.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013)

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For those who know me, it’s painfully aware that comedy isn’t exactly my genre of choice when it comes to watching a flick. Well, unless it’s a classic like “Airplane!” or if the laughs are mixed in with other, better genres such as thriller and romance. That being said, Brits seem to have a direct line to my funny bone with films like “Snatch” “The Cornetto Trilogy,” and “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” amongst other countless successes. So, when I heard that long time television character Alan Partridge, one of my all-time favourite television personalities played by the incomparable Steve Coogan was getting a big-screen flick, you can imagine my excitement. “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa” met my expectations right where I put them…somewhere in the clouds. It’s a perfect mix of intelligent, witty humour, lowbrow laughs and the occasional emotional strain. However, keep in mind that this kind of hilarity isn’t for everyone…

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Originating as a radio personality created by Coogan himself, Alan Partridge first appeared on the BBC radio 4 programme “On the Hour.” Then, before making the jump to his most successful undertaking, the television show “I’m Alan Partridge,” this satirical, self-made, small-time celebrity really came into form when he lent his expertise to several TV and radio specials. As time passed, Coogan’s wacky, self-obsessed invention grew quite the cult following and became a more elaborate, rooted individual. Delving into a complex family situation, an almost non-existent love/social-life, and bizarre friends and co-workers, the life of Alan Partridge became something much greater and more complex than ever anticipated. He was now as much apart of the real world as he was fiction. Now, here he is, over twenty years down the road and Alan Partridge is still relevant, hilarious, and growing.

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Beginning in 2004, the idea of a Partridge film was very much alive. However, upon suffering numerous setbacks in the writing phase and struggling with delicate content, in addition to Coogan who was unsure if he wanted to continue on with his creation, the film was severely delayed. Nonetheless, it is now 2013 and after a lengthy period of uncertainty, “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa” hit theatres earlier this year to the acclaim of critics and cult-followers alike. Co-written by Coogan himself and directed by Declan Lowney, this unorthodox hostage flick holds the distinction of being my favourite comedy of the year. Oozing with laughs stemming from humour that ranges from smart to lowbrow, all the way down to pitch-black chuckles, “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa” delivers the goods. Add in some charismatic performances and satirical undertones directed at our social and political stances, and you’ve got the most successful underdog of the year, in my honest opinion.

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PLOT:

Alan Partridge is content with his DJ position at North Norfolk Digital in Norwich. However, when the station is bought by a multinational conglomerate and the name is changed to “Shape,” Alan’s good friend Pat Farrell begins to fear the worst. After Pat and a few other co-workers convince Alan to discuss business with the station’s new owners and assure their job statuses, Alan’s irrelevance to the situation soon shifts to panic when he figures out that his job might be in question. Upon convincing his superiors to keep him on, Alan accidental on purpose throws someone under the bus. The next day, the fired employee returns and begins to shoot up the workplace and takes hostages. When the police fail to reach a settlement with the perp, Alan is called in to negotiate the standoff.

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As you’ve probably concluded by now, “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa” stars the magnificent Steve Coogan, whom I adore dearly. The cast also features Colm Meaney as Pat Farrell, with Felicity Montagu reprising her role as Lynn and Simon Greenall returning as Michael for those familiar with the television show. Make no mistake though, this is the Steve Coogan show. This goes without saying, but to me Coogan is a comedic genius and anytime he gets to flex his acting chops is just an added delight, as those who’ve seen “The Trip” will agree. Coogan struts his stuff in this flick masterfully and I can confidently say that it’s one of his best comedic outings. Colm Meaney plays opposite Coogan here, which is no easy feat. That being said, he does a sublime job matching Coogan joke for joke, laugh for laugh. Honestly, Meaney hasn’t been this effective in years and it’s joyously see him return to form.

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As much as I despise the genre, especially in its current state, everyone needs a good laugh now and again. “Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa” is, without question, the funniest film I’ve seen so far this year, and it looks as if it’ll stay that way. It won’t win any Oscars, it won’t even be nominated, but it’s definitely worth the watch and I’ll be sure to pick it up on Bluray when it’s released.

Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa: 9 out of 10.

Charlie Countryman (2013)

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See, this is why you should always watch a film that interests you no matter what, regardless of the general consensus. I don’t know why, but it seems like the past few years have been overflowing with hidden gems that many have dismissed, simply presuming that the opinions and habits of other (idiotic) film-viewers are infallible. Films like “On the Road,” “Only God Forgives, and “The Counselor” have all been notoriously smashed by critics and the general public alike, resulting in an abundance of undeserved negativity, virtually non-existent box office returns and so on. For example, I’ve read a few articles on all the aforementioned flicks, including “Charlie Countryman,” and they’ve all been deemed irrefutably flawed by the majority, in some way, on the top two reviewing websites, those being IMdB and Rotten Tomatoes. The only reason I bring those two up is because in my experience, they’re what a significant amount of movie-goers check for info and testimonials before heading to the theatre or renting a flick.

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People are impressionable you know, when they read a bad review, see terrible opening weekend numbers, it sticks with them, and as much as I try to be, I’m no different. I’ve been excited about “Charlie Countryman” for a while now, but when I saw this black hole of hate engulfing it, I became a little leery. The only thing that kept pushing me forward were my past experiences with the films I previously mentioned. They were all shot down before even being given a legitimate chance. So I vowed that I’d never toss a film to the wayside without due diligence, and boy has that attitude payed huge dividends. While not a contender for best picture of the year, “Charlie Countryman” does have purpose and merit. It’s different, intriguing, heart-wrenching. This might be a bad thing for some, but I like to be sad with a film just as much as I like to be content. So let’s do away with useless cinematic conventions and give the underdogs a chance. Finding films with value on the periphery are all the more rewarding and personal, they stick with you.

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“Charlie Countryman,” Directed by Fredrick Bond and written by Matt Drake, is an extreme love story you won’t soon forget starring Shia LaBeouf, Mads Mikkelsen, Evan Rachel Wood, Rupert Grint, and Til Schweiger. Not to mention tremendous supporting performances from Vincent D’onofrio, Melissa Leo, and John Hurt. Now, with a cast of this caliber, it’s easy to see how some have set the bar unreachably high. But let’s discuss the film itself for now, we’ll return to the performances in a bit. We join Charlie (LaBeouf) in a bit of a crisis, his mother is not longed for this world and he’s struggling with the simplicity of his existence. After his mother passes, Charlie sets off to Bucharest in order to keep a promise he made to her and to realize, experience his life. On the plane, Charlie finds himself in another precarious situation regarding death and promises. Upon landing, amongst the chaos and confusion, Charlie meets Gabi and immediately falls in love, but soon understands that anything worth while comes with sacrifice.

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Right off the top from the plot’s description, it’s clear to see that “Charlie Countryman” isn’t anything out of the ordinary story-wise. This isn’t a problem, simply push the tale’s lack of originality to the back burner and enjoy the film’s strengths. Director Fredrick Bond does a marvellous job capturing the harsh, underworld beauty of Bucharest. A city that doesn’t often get he chance to strut its stuff on the big screen. Complimenting the skylines and structures is a magnificent, entrancing soundtrack that is lively, ambient, and intoxicating. The score, for me anyway, was the pleasant surprise of the entire film. Now, although writer Matt Drake did struggle creating something of individuality and that will stand the test of time. There is some terrific dialogue that’ll give you reoccurring chills. He didn’t get a lot of things right with “Charlie Countryman,” but the one thing Drake’s script isn’t, is cliche.

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Getting back to the portrayals, I mean, what can one say? It’s hard to blame anyone here for “Charlie Countryman’s” faults. In the title role, Shia LaBeouf clearly cherished every moment on screen and the honest ambiguity the character afforded him to unleash. The sadness, happiness, and emotional range he executes is flawless. As for his character’s lover, Gabi, portrayed by the lovely Evan Rachel Wood, there’s nothing to dwell on brashly here either. The accent may get a little ridiculous at times, but she’s equally as emotionally invested as LaBeouf. Now, the main reason I caught this flick was to watch Mads Mikkelsen. No offence to the cast or crew, some of which whom I adore greatly, it’s just that he’s just near the top of my to-watch-list. While Mads doesn’t blow the top off “Charlie Countryman,” he doesn’t phone it in. With his resume, it’s simply hard to turn up a performance that rivals his greatness. The supporting cast is also superbly strong. Compiled of some of the best in the business, if the story and cinematic aspects don’t get you, the cast surely will.

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Superlatively acted, visually striking, and emotionally strong. “Charlie Countryman” may not have the staying power some might have hoped, but is definitely strong enough to evoke a response.

Charlie Countryman: 7 out of 10.