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Lights Out

Genre: Horror

Director: David F. Sandberg

Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the short film by Sandberg

Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten

Running Length: 81 minutes

Synopsis: When Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) left home, she thought she left her childhood fears behind.  Growing up, she was never really sure of what was and wasn’t real when the lights went out…and now her little brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), is experiencing the same unexplained and terrifying events that had once tested her sanity and threatened her safety. A frightening entity with a mysterious attachment to their mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), has reemerged.

But this time, as Rebecca gets closer to unlocking the truth, there is no denying that all their lives are in danger…once the lights go out.

Review: David F. Sandberg’s 3-minute short film in 2013 was an exercise in horror simplicity – a creature that only manifests itself when the lights are out. It was a relatively fun and clever film, and it wasn’t surprising that Lights Out went viral, and more importantly, it got popular enough to get the attention of horror master James Wan. Sandberg’s first full-length feature is based on the same premise, and although it is a little rough around the edges, works very effectively as a commercial horror film, and should please fans of the genre.

The entire 80 minutes of Lights Out is essentially designed as setting up one jump scare after another, and there’s really nothing much else to say except that almost all the scares work as planned. Sure, the mythology behind the female entity is a little muddled and requires a very healthy amount of suspension of disbelief, and like all horror movies the protagonists behave in inexplicably silly (and hence life-threatening) ways, but the film delivers enough thrills for audiences to look past these flaws.

Palmer is effective as the lead, bringing a gravitas to the role while not being cheesy or over the top, like how some scream queens could be. Bello is a little underused as the anguished mother, but the small number of cast members and their general likeability goes a long way in making the audience root for all of them. The most memorable performance, however, belongs to Alexander DiPersia as the slightly clueless love interest of Palmer, and his one big escape sequence from the entity delivers all the goods – it’s scary, it’s thrilling, and it’s actually very funny. Lights Out is the quintessential effective low budget horror film, and I for one will be looking forward to seeing what Sandberg can do in his sophomore effort.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

 

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The BFG

Genre: Drama

Director: Steven Spielberg

Screenplay: Melissa Mathison, based on the book by Roald Dahl

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader

Running Length: 117 minutes

Synopsis: The tale of a young girl (Ruby Barnhill), the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) and a benevolent giant known as the BFG (Mark Rylance), who set out on an adventure to capture the evil, man-eating giants who have been invading the human world.

Review: On paper, The BFG movie is something that should see resounding success – after all, it’s based on Roald Dahl’s universally loved book, and the screenplay is written by (the late) Melissa Mathison, who had worked with Steven Spielberg on ET previously. It is surprising that this has not been the case, and The BFG had suffered a disappointing run at the box office in the USA. While there are some slight issues with the pacing, The BFG is an eminently watchable film, and though it is clearly aimed at young audiences, it will likely also appeal to those who have waited a very long time for this book to make the leap to the big screen.

Spielberg has always been at the forefront of technology in his films, and while The BFG doesn’t incorporate any groundbreaking CG work, the motion capture performance of Mark Rylance’s BFG is nothing short of flawless. It’s a testament to how far technology has come, and the BFG (and to a lesser extent, the other nine giants) feels like a living, breathing entity with emotions and personality instead of a digital construct. Landscapes are all impressively rendered, none more so than Dream Country, which forms one of the most visually stunning sequences in the film, well worth the price of entry on its own.

The chemistry between Rylance and newcomer Ruby Barnhill is palpable and their friendship is believable. However, their friendship also remains largely superficial and it does get a little hard to feel vested in the outcome of their caper to Buckingham Palace, even though the entire sequence with the Queen of England is undoubtedly the highlight and most enjoyable part of the film. The darker aspects of Dahl’s original story have been toned down somewhat, which makes The BFG an easy recommendation for family viewing.

One of the few flaws in The BFG is that the screenplay moves at a slightly sluggish pace, and there are scenes in which the film grinds to a near-halt. Given the source material, it was probably unnecessary to have the film run at close to two hours long, and a snappier edit may have given more immediacy to the proceedings. Despite the technological achievements of the film, The BFG feels like a “small” movie, especially with Spielberg at the helm.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

 

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Suicide Squad

Genre: Action

Director: David Ayer

Screenplay: David Ayer, based on characters from DC Entertainment

Cast: Will Smith, Viola Davis, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Cara Delevingne, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Adam Beach, Karen Fukuhara, Aidan Devine, David Harbour, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: A secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency.

Review: Suicide Squad is set in Midway City, and that’s exactly where the entire film ends up – it’s midway between director David Ayer’s usual hard hitting action and Zach Snyder’s slick, hyperreal stylistic flourishes (used to great effect in 300 and with vastly diminishing returns after); it’s midway between trying to be a mirror of Marvel’s winningly irreverent Guardians of the Galaxy (a motley crew of relatively unknown comic universe characters being reluctant heroes) and a follow up of the ultra-dour Batman v Superman; and unfortunately, it’s midway between a good movie and a bad one. As this is a particularly weak Summer for film releases so far, the box office for Suicide Squad should still be decent, but despite a handful of bright spots in the film, it feels like a terribly wasted opportunity that fails to liven up the DC cinematic universe.

The biggest problems for Suicide Squad lie in its script and editing – simply put, this is one of most schizoid movie I have seen in a long time. The film starts with 20 minutes of endless exposition, cramming in one tonally discordant origin sequence after another in an attempt to introduce the Suicide Squad’s many characters, and yet the film is furthered peppered throughout with jarringly out of place flashback sequences. Despite that, there still isn’t enough room to include everyone, and one Squad member is literally given a one-sentence introduction and casually dispatched of minutes later, which raises the valid question of “why even bother?”

There are sudden lulls amidst the action that make no narrative sense, the most egregious being the Squad taking a protracted timeout just before the supposedly climactic finale. All the attention to the characters’ back stories also leads to there being not much of an actual story to work off on, and the central plot involving the Enchantress is unfortunately bland and uninteresting. It boggles the mind that someone named the Enchantress ends up doing nothing more than create some unexplained giant Macguffin doomsday device that feels more at home in the Ghostbusters movie than in this one. Pitting the Suicide Squad against the Enchantress is also problematic, since essentially all of them, apart from El Diablo and Killer Croc, are simply armed vigilantes with no discernible “metahuman” powers, and are technically all outclassed by a 6,000 year old witch.

The performances in Suicide Squad are actually quite decent, the standout being Margot Robbie who does an excellent job as Harley Quinn in spite of limited material to work with. She gets the deranged sexpot killer part of Quinn down pat (and gets all the best lines in the movie), but it’s the brief glimpses into the emotionally vulnerable, damaged side of her where Margot truly impresses. The much vaunted Jared Leto method-acting version of the Joker turns out to be quite a non-event, since he is left mostly in the periphery of the overloaded script, though what is on display here bodes well for the eventual DC movie where Mr J steps up to be the central villain.

The action in Suicide Squad is generally serviceable, but does get repetitive after a while, since it’s composed largely of groups of people firing guns at each other. Unlike the much more successful Deadpool, Suicide Squad’s violence is severely constrained by its PG rating, resulting in bloodless altercations that end up feeling disengaged. David Ayer is definitely capable of better, but Suicide Squad feels like it has simply been meddled with way too much both in pre and post. This is not the movie that would “rescue” the DC movie universe, and now the weight falls on Wonder Woman and Justice League in 2017 to attempt that.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Jason Bourne

Genre: Action

Director: Paul Greengrass

Screenplay: Paul Greengrass & Christopher Rouse, based on characters created by Robert Ludlum

Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp, Vinzenz Kiefer, Stephen Kunken, Gregg Henry

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: Matt Damon returns to his most iconic role in Jason Bourne. Paul Greengrass, the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, once again joins Damon for the next chapter of Universal Pictures’ Bourne franchise, which finds the CIA’s most lethal former operative drawn out of the shadows.

Review: I’ve never enjoyed films that overemployed the use of shakycams, because I firmly believe that cinema verite can be achieved without having to nauseate your audience. While shakycams can be used to good effect in found footage films, an action movie like Jason Bourne shouldn’t have to resort to such a measure. Those familiar with the two prior Paul Greengrass-helmed Bourne movies would probably have come prepared (as did I), but the film not only left me feeling mildly ill, it also left me feeling dissatisfied despite Greengrass’ and Damon’s return to the franchise.

While there has been an additional Bourne movie (The Bourne Legacy in 2012, starring Jeremy Renner), most Bourne fans would really only recognize the Bourne Ultimatum as canon – this means that the “real” Bourne has not appeared on the big screen for almost a decade. The formula remains largely the same, but something seems to have been lost in the nine years. Greengrass has added too much bluster to the proceedings, and in the midst of car crash after car crash after car crash, the script seems to have forgotten to give Damon’s Bourne any room for performance or introspection, diluting what was one of the strongest aspects of the original trilogy.

While the action sequences are well-choreographed, the dizzying camerawork and rapid-fire editing leaves much to be desired. The Athens chase scene near the start is the highlight of the film, but by the time the near 40-minute long chase sequence in Las Vegas takes place in the final reels, exhaustion has set in, and no matter how grand each successive crash is, it simply doesn’t feel rousing anymore. The only bright spot was an impressive hand-to-hand combat sequence between Damon and Cassel that brings to mind similar visceral, hard-hitting scenes in the previous installments.

Coupled with a weak, suspense-less plot, there’s this general sense that Jason Bourne is an unnecessary sequel to a trilogy that had more or less given closure to the protagonist’s story. The denouement leaves the door open for another sequel, but there is very little compelling reason, based on what is seen here, to warrant yet another outing with the cast and crew.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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Star Trek Beyond

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Justin Lin

Screenplay: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella

Running Length: 122 minutes

Synopsis: In Star Trek Beyond, the Enterprise crew explores the furthest reaches of uncharted space, where they encounter a mysterious new enemy who puts them and everything the Federation stands for to the test.

Review: The first post-reboot Star Trek movie not helmed by J. J. Abrams himself (directorial reins have been passed to Fast & Furious’ Justin Lin, while Abrams is preoccupied with Star Wars), Star Trek Beyond continues the winning streak that the new Star Trek franchise has been enjoying. It brings back everything that made the previous two films a success – a space adventure, comedy, excellent action set pieces and a great ensemble cast. However, the 13th movie in the Star Trek universe does seem to be spinning its wheels a bit, and instead of boldly taking audiences where they’ve never gone before, Star Trek Beyond ends up feeling more like an extended, big-budget episode of the various Star Trek TV series.

While Star Trek Beyond is ostensibly about the captain and the crew of the USS Enterprise, the bulk of the film actually takes place outside the starship. While it’s commendable that screenwriter-actors Pegg and Jung (who shows up as Sulu’s husband, another first for the franchise) for making this creative decision, it does detract somewhat from the “Star Trek experience” where you see all the core crew members of the USS Enterprise interact with each other. That is mitigated somewhat by deeper interactions within small pairings of the crew – Kirk with Chekhov (one of Anton Yelchin’s last roles before his untimely demise), Bones with Spock, Sulu with Uhura, Scotty and newcomer Jaylah (a very effective Sofia Boutella) and so on.

It is this aspect of Star Trek Beyond that truly seems to harken to the series’ TV roots, and despite the big budget and big effects, the film feels small in terms of plot and payoff, and the denouement doesn’t really move the needle either in terms of character or franchise development. The various Star Trek TV series had the luxury of time to build characters and storylines week by week, which is not the case in a summer blockbuster film with a running time of just over two hours, and Star Trek Beyond’s narrative suffers a little due to this.

Justin Lin is an old hand at action sequences, and while it does take some time to get started, the action set pieces are indeed quite well done. Be it an extended unarmed combat sequence, or massive dogfights in space, the action is consistently engaging and thrilling, though it can come across as being slightly confusing at times. 3D looks like it’s another post-production conversion and there was very little in terms of dimensionality that would make shelling out extra for a 3D screening. The soundtrack by Michael Giacchino does its job a little too well at times, and can come across as being just slightly overbearing in key moments of the film. The song choices for the film are quite inspired, however, and feature an excellent, highly memorable use of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”.

Star Trek Beyond is certainly an entertaining Summer blockbuster, and should be able to appeal to general audiences and Trekkies alike. It may not mark a high point in the post-reboot canon, but it has at least maintained the momentum the franchise has gained since 2009. With the new TV series coming in 2017, and the likelihood of at least a fourth film with the current cast, it certainly looks like Star Trek has quite a bright future ahead.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Ghostbusters

Genre: Comedy

Director: Paul Feig

Screenplay: Paul Feig, Katie Dippold, based on the 1984 film written by Day Aykroyd, Harold Ramis

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Cecily Strong, Matt Walsh, Ed Begley Jr., Andy Garcia, Bill Murray, Day Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Sigourney Weaver

Running Length: 117 minutes

Synopsis: Thirty years after the original film took the world by storm, Ghostbusters is back and fully rebooted for a new generation.  Director Paul Feig combines all the paranormal fighting elements that made the original franchise so beloved with a cast of new characters, played by the funniest actors working today.

Review: Paul Feig has had a pretty good track record so far of crossing genres with comedy with female-centric films (The Heat, Spy), and while Ghostbusters follows in the same vein, it isn’t quite as successful a venture as his previous outings. The fault doesn’t lie on the female leads however, but to the script trying too hard to reference the original film at every turn. It’s still a relatively entertaining Summer film, but ends up feeling somewhat like a missed opportunity.

While this is a reboot of the 32-year old Ghostbusters, the clear difference is that instead of a team of male comedy actors, Feig has decided to go with a team of female comedy actors. It has created a rather vicious backlash but in my opinion (and this is coming from someone who literally grew up watching Ghostbusters multiple times) it doesn’t hurt the movie at all. McCarthy and Wiig both seem a little muted in their performances here, however, and though their friendship is positioned as being central to the plot, it actually ends up being a non-starter. Leslie Jones is unfortunately playing a rather stereotyped black character, but she does the best she could within the confines of the role. The true gem in the cast, however, is Kate McKinnon, and her portrayal as the eccentric Holtzmann brings some of the best lines and big laughs in the film. The four women also share an affable chumminess onscreen, and in spots where the script starts to sputter, the movie survives purely on the goodwill generated by the quartet’s presence.

One of the biggest challenges that Feig and co-writer Dippold probably dealt with for the remake is the amount of baggage that comes with rebooting a much beloved franchise, and in this aspect they are only moderately successful. There seems to be an over-insistence on making unnecessary references to the original Ghostbusters (including walk-on roles for almost every surviving cast member of the 1984 film), and it really does needlessly encumber the film in many aspects, right down to the soundtrack. Of course, audiences that have not seen the film’s predecessors would probably not have the same response.

Visual effects have of course vastly improved over the past three decades, but Feig seems to have also relied a little too much on CGI, and the finale especially is lost amidst a literal swirling mass of CG imagery, failing to resonate on most levels. It is quite a pity, since what made the original great weren’t the visual effects but the collective comedic strength of a bunch of very talented comedians. While it would have been an extremely tall order to surpass the original, this 2016 iteration of Ghostbusters could certainly have done better than it did. While the relatively entertaining end credits sequence and coda seems to leave the door open for a sequel, one wonders if the film would do well enough to justify one.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Finding Dory

Genre: Animation

Directors: Andrew Stanton, Angus McLane

Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse

Voice Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Sigourney Weaver

Running Length: 103 minutes

Synopsis: Finding Dory welcomes back to the big screen everyone’s favorite forgetful blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), who’s living happily in the reef with Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and Marlin (Albert Brooks). When Dory suddenly remembers that she has a family out there who may be looking for her, the trio takes off on a life-changing adventure across the ocean to California’s prestigious Marine Life Institute, a rehabilitation center and aquarium. Deftly navigating the complex inner workings of the MLI, Dory and her friends discover the magic within their flaws, friendships and family.

Review: Dory is the most memorable character in Finding Nemo, and it is only natural that the sequel would revolve around her. While the movie title is “Finding Dory”, it doesn’t really refer to the physical act of locating a lost Dory (though she is, repeatedly), but more to Dory’s journey of self-discovery. It is an engaging tale, though somewhat less compelling than that of Finding Nemo (finding your lost child feels like more urgent an issue than looking for one’s parents, no matter how you cut it), and there are several sequences that are come too close to the original that they almost feel like a rehash.

However, director/writer Andrew Stanton and his capable crew manages to inject a lot of new together with the old, most notably an entirely new roster of animals that Dory et al manage to befriend along the way, including a gruff but lovable octopus, Hank; a near-sighted whale shark Destiny; a beluga whale named Bailey who is convinced his echolocation is not working; and a pair of sea lions named Fluke and Rudder, who are oddly and obsessively possessive of the rock they are resting on.

These characters help to deliver the big laughs in the film, but there’s also a more serious undercurrent in Finding Dory – that of overcoming one’s disabilities and imperfections, since almost all these animals are “damaged” in one way or another. This expands upon the theme that was already found in Finding Nemo, with Nemo’s bum fin and Dory’s short term memory loss. That an animated film has managed to deal with the subject matter in a much more nuanced and profound manner than most live-action films have, speaks volumes about the strength of writing that can be found in Finding Dory. While the film can’t really claim to be a tearjerker, there are moments in Finding Dory which will are almost certain to resonate emotionally with older audiences, especially parents.

Pixar has always delivered the goods on the visual front, and Finding Dory is no exception. The underwater world is even more alluring than before, and the visual richness in the film is truly a sight to behold. The character designs are top notch, with none more excellent than that of Hank, who is truly spectacularly animated. Not only are Hank’s movements entirely believable, the production crew clearly had a great time exploring an octopus’ camouflage abilities, using it to terrific effect at various points in the movie. I did not watch the film in 3D (and honestly I don’t think it will be much of an enhancement) but the visuals really popped – similar to Finding Nemo, this is a movie that would take multiple viewings to take in everything it has to offer.

While Finding Dory doesn’t manage to meet the lofty heights of Pixar’s best, particularly in the final reel where honestly, the wheels of the plot do come off a bit (albeit in an entertaining manner), it still remains an extremely easy recommendation for both young and old audiences alike.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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