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How I Spent My Summer Vacation: Entertaining Action-Thriller
Sometimes small is better. There are times when all you want is a basic, straightforward action film that doesn’t require you to turn a blind eye to the rules of logic; one that doesn’t consider good action and decent characters to be mutually exclusive. How I Spent My Summer Vacation is that film. It’s not a blockbuster but it’s very entertaining and does what it sets out to do really well.
Mel Gibson plays an unnamed criminal who steals a few million from an American businessman and runs off to Mexico only to get caught by a couple of corrupt border police. The policemen take the money and throw Gibson in a jail that’s more of a shantytown surrounded by snipers than your classic cells-with-bars set-up. In there, he meets a young boy (Hernandez) who shows him the ropes and teaches him about the power hierarchy. Gibson adapts pretty well and starts to carve out a little niche for himself, until the robbed businessman sends some of his henchmen to find him and retrieve the stolen money. Gibson has to find a way to break out of jail, taking the kid, who’s about to have his liver stolen by the prison’s head inmate, and the kid’s mother (Heredia) with him.
The main factor that pushes this film from average into surprisingly good is the decision to have the Mexicans speak in Spanish instead of accented English. A sizeable chunk of the film is subtitled which automatically gives the film a sense of reality and makes it so much easier to take the characters seriously. Add to it the City of God style visuals and the Latin soundtrack and you have a film that feels authentically Mexican. And even though the Mexican characters are mostly corrupt officers, criminals or dirt poor - sometimes all three - they’re not walking stereotypes; both due to the sheer variety of the characters and the acting. Even the criminals, who are basically everybody other than the kid, are not portrayed as one hundred percent evil; they’re given human sides and motives that shine a light on the logic behind their actions.
Gibson gives a pretty understated performance, biding his time until his character’s given a chance to let loose and show flashes of borderline insanity, but he’s thoroughly watchable whether he’s eavesdropping, pick pocketing, brandishing a gun or lobbing grenades. His charisma shines through and he turns his character into a criminal worth rooting for. And speaking of grenades, the film is big on violence though it hardly feels gratuitous. It has some pretty sweet, well filmed, action sequences - ones in which you can actually see what’s going on - and quite a few cool-guy-walking-away-from-explosion type shots, which while ridiculous, are still completely entertaining.
Honestly, this film was a surprise. Not only is it far better than its marketing campaign lets on, but it’s genuinely entertaining. It’s a solid action film on all counts.
Expanding from his 2006 short film, Oculus: Chapter 3- The Man with a Plan, director Mike Flanagan – along with help from writer Jeff Howard – approaches the subject of the supernatural with a considerable amount of imagination and manages to deliver some scares in the relatively unnerving ghostly thriller, Oculus.
The story follows the troubled lives of Tim (Thwaites) and Kaylie Russell (Gillan); a pair of siblings who witnessed the brutal death of their parents over a decade ago. Tim is convicted of the murders and is sent into protective custody and a psychiatric hospital, while Kaylie remains in a pit of despair without her family.
Years later, Tim is released on his twenty-first birthday and is now looking to rebuild his life and move away from his turbulent past. However, Kaylie has become convinced her brother was innocent and that something unnatural is at play.
Kaylie, who works at an auction house, has recently come across the very same oversized, 400 year-old mirror that she believes is responsible for their parents’ deaths. Moving back to their old house and installing surveillance equipment, Kaylie and Tim hope to record evidence of the supernatural being.
A Blumhouse Productions creation – the same people who brought you Paranormal Activity – Oculus, as luck would have it, steers clear of the increasingly overdone found-footage approach, despite what its trailer might suggest. Instead, director Mike Flanagan seems inspired by the horror films of the 70’s and 80’s, like recent flicks, The Conjuring and Sinister, and paints the mood of the film with a slow-burning tone of dread and an ominous fear of the unknown. The film transitions between the past and present wonderfully, all while keeping you on the edge of your seat.
Gillan, the Scottish-born actress known for her role in TV’s Doctor Who, proves to be a relatively solid lead and manages to paint Kaylie with an equal blend of self-determination and fear, while Thwaites’ doe-eyed qualities comes across as a little too sappy.
Sadly, Oculus is not without faults. The film is never fully realised as a story and although it provides its share of scare, it’s all really rather forgettable.
Wally Pfister’s directorial debut – a slow and relatively complicated take on the world of artificial intelligence – falls short of the type of thrill needed to push Transcendence into the major leagues of sci-fi.
Written by a fellow first-timer, Jack Peglan, Transcendence lends its focus to Will Caster (Depp); a prominent leader of the artificial intelligence research who, along with wife Evelyn (Hall) and fellow researcher Max (Bettany), hopes that computers will one day be able to think for themselves and, inevitably, replace humans and the ill-intentioned ways of mankind.
However, Will’s radical way of thinking soon makes him a target for an underground anti-tech terrorist group led by Bree (Mara), who decide to take out the A.I pioneer by shooting him with a radioactive bullet, leaving him to die a slow and a painful death.
Not prepared to let go of her husband just yet, Evelyn reaches out to Max and manages to convince him that the only way they can keep Will and his work alive is to download his brain – and consciousness – into the system, before his body completely deteriorates.
The experiment is a success, but the new computerised version of Will is not the same man they all once knew, but a cold mechanical shell obsessed with accumulating both knowledge and power. With the help of a renowned computer scientist, Joseph Tagger (Freeman,) and FBI agent Buchanan (Murphy), Max begins to look for ways to put an end to Will, while Evelyn, desperate to hold on to the man she once loved, is hesitant to let go.
Pfister, a long-time Chris Nolan collaborator who served as cinematographer for most of his productions, definitely knows how to work the camera and manages to paint Transcendence with a crisp, pallid polish. Everything from the special effects to the choice of framing looks absolutely superb. However, its steely façade doesn’t make up for the shallowness of the story, which goes from confusing to downright ridiculous pretty early on.
In terms of the performances, the cast struggles with their underwritten roles and, consequently, feel utterly disengaged from the story altogether. Showing off a more subdued side, Depp is relatively passive and indifferent in his performance of a man who quickly loses sight of what’s right and wrong as he begins living in his own creation. Freeman and the rest of the supporting cast are underused, while Hall – as Depp’s despairing onscreen wife – is left with little to build with on the emotional side of the story.
In the end, Transcendence flatters to deceive; from the lack of onscreen chemistry and character development to the absurdity which the story quickly escalates to, this latest wannabe sci-fi blockbuster – although pretty to look at – is just a little too dull to stand with the big boys – so to speak.