Cars 2 * * 1/2

Genre: Animation

Directors: John Lasseter and Brad Lewis

Writer: Ben Queen

Voice Cast: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Bonnie Hunt

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: Star racecar Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) and the incomparable tow truck Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy) take their friendship to exciting new places in Cars 2 when they head overseas to compete in the first-ever World Grand Prix to determine the world’s fastest car. But the road to the championship is filled with plenty of potholes, detours and surprises when Mater gets caught up in an intriguing adventure of his own: international espionage. Torn between assisting Lightning McQueen in the high-profile race and towing the line in a top-secret spy mission, Mater’s action-packed journey leads him on an explosive chase through the streets of Japan and Europe, trailed by his friends and watched by the whole world. Adding to the fast-paced fun is a colorful new all-car cast that includes secret agents, menacing villains and international racing competitors.

Review: It had to happen eventually – Pixar has finally released a film that doesn’t meet up to the usual expectations that a Pixar film sets. It’s still a very decent animated film, but is very apparently the studio’s weakest offering to date. Perhaps it’s because Cars was already a tough sell (anthropomorphic cars are not easy to identify with), but Cars 2 comes up short especially in the areas which are usually Pixar’s strengths.

Cars 2 is the first Pixar film where I felt held very little interest for the adult viewers, and whilst young viewers will undoubtedly have a ball of a time, the storyline is never really emotionally engaging on any level. This comes as a surprise because the relationship stuff is usually the core of a Pixar film, but this seems to have been eschewed for obligatory, tacked-on mentions about not giving up on friends. There is also very little about Cars 2 that feels fresh, and unlike Toy Story, Cars 2 brings nothing new to the table at all, despite the spy movie angle and opening up the Cars universe to beyond Radiator Springs.

Whatever criticisms that can be leveled at the other aspects of the film, one thing that hasn’t changed is the visual quality of a Pixar film. This is a seriously good looking movie, and apart from the well-rendered cars themselves, there’s great attention to detail in the surroundings they are in. The 3D, however, is so minimal that one wonders why 3D was even touted to begin with. It’s definitely not gimmicky, but doesn’t add much to the viewing experience overall.

Perhaps it’s telling that even the animated short film that precedes Cars 2 feels perfunctory, unlike the usual gems that the studio produces. It features almost the full Toy Story cast, but other than a couple of laughs, feels more like an outtake reel of Toy Story 3. Hopefully this is merely an aberration in Pixar’s illustrious history, and not a sign of things to come.  

Rating: ** ½ (out of four stars)


Final Destination 5 * * 1/2

Genre: Horror

Director: Steven Quayle

Writers: Eric Heisserer, Jeffrey Reddick

Cast: Nicholas D'Agosto, Emma Bell, Arlen Escarpeta, Tony Todd

Running Length: 92 minutes

Synopsis: In Final Destination 5, Death is just as omnipresent as ever, and is unleashed after one man’s premonition saves a group of coworkers from a terrifying suspension bridge collapse. But this group of unsuspecting souls was never supposed to survive, and, in a terrifying race against time, the ill-fated group frantically tries to discover a way to escape Death’s sinister agenda.

Review: By this fifth installment, the intentions of the Final Destination franchise are clear – find interesting and macabre ways to kill off all the primary actors one by one, which leaves the door open for another sequel with a brand new cast of fresh faces. Clearly this is a formula that works, because the franchise as a whole has already earned over US$600 million, making it one of the most profitable horror franchises of our time.

It truly is moot to discuss strength of the plot and the thespian skills of the actors in Final Destination 5 (although to be fair, they actually do a semi-decent job), because the film will almost be entirely judged on the death scenes. In this aspect, Final Destination 5 does not disappoint at all. Blatantly misdirecting the audience and pulling out unexpected twists as always, for the target audience these “money shots” will be what they had ponied up good money for. Personally, these sequences largely find the “sweet spot” between being shocking and being macabrely funny, but the intense situations and unabashed gore may prove too unsettling for some (which beggars the question of why they would be watching this movie to begin with).

There’s also the added bonus of some truly funny scenes, one of the most memorable starring a no-nonsense massage therapist cum acupuncturist. This is a welcome return to form as the Final Destination installments that play it straight are the ones which in my opinion fare more poorly. After all, one simply cannot take such a film too seriously, otherwise it defeats the purpose entirely.

Although there is a much vaunted new mechanic to the modus operandi of Death in this sequel, the film essentially fails to capitalize on this, and if not for the denouement, would probably have been forgotten by the second reel. However, there is quite a neat reveal near the end of the film that provides an interesting connection to its predecessors, but probably won’t be apparent to audiences who have not sat through the previous films.

The second film in the franchise to be shot in 3D, the third dimension is used in the most obvious manner possible, but really doesn’t add that much to the equation. It’s more like a theme park attraction, and this description can be expanded to include the spirit of the whole film. Final Destination 5 is designed to be a quick, entertaining ride through a veritable House of Horrors, to be forgotten almost immediately upon exit – which isn’t exactly a bad thing as long as one is mentally prepared.

Rating: ** ½ (out of four stars) 


Rise of the Planet of the Apes * * * *

Genre: Action Thriller

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Writers: Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, suggested by the novel La Planete des Singes by Pierre Boulle

Cast: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow

Running Length: 106 minutes

Synopsis: Set in present day San Francisco, Rise of the Planet of the Apes deals with the aftermath of experiments in genetic engineering that leads to the creation of apes with super intelligence, beginning with Caesar (Andy Serkis), who is adopted by Will Rodman (James Franco), one of the lead scientists in the project. Will has a vested interest in the success of the project because his father (John Lithgow) is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, but Will doesn’t realize how he will eventually play a crucial role in the war between the humans and the apes.

Review: Perhaps this is a new formula for success in Hollywood – instead of tackling the remake of an old movie, creating a prequel to a familiar franchise seems to work extremely well. Cases in point: Batman Begins, Casino Royale and Star Trek. 20th Century Fox has managed to strike gold twice in the same movie season with this formula, first with the seminal X-Men: First Class, and now with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. To be honest, after the disappointing Tim Burton remake a decade back, my expectations of Rise of the Planet of the Apes were not high. Confounding my expectations, this film has turned out to be a late summer season surprise, and is now for me as one of the best films released this year so far.

Much of why Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes such a deep impression is because of the depth of emotion it plumbs. The modern day setting means this is the closest to reality the Apes franchise has been (not factoring in the Burton remake), and hence it’s far easier to identify with the events that unfold on screen. This is also the first time that the apes are not human actors in cheesy costumes and prosthetics, and the CGI is so lifelike there really are only a small number of scenes where the primates look artificial. No surprise that the visual effects are handled by Weta Digital, the company who were behind the effects of the Lord of the Rings franchise and more tellingly, the King Kong remake in 2005.

Most importantly, Andy Serkis seems to have gotten performance capture acting down to an art, and his portrayal of Caesar is so expressive and so believable that he becomes the most sympathetic and fully fleshed out character in the whole film, overshadowing the human actors (who all put in decent performances). Coupled with the fact that a good portion of the film is centred around Caesar and his growth and change, and this strong emotional connection with the central protagonist (and surprisingly, some of the other primate performers) is what pushes the film from being simply good to great. I don’t recall many other movies in recent years that have moved me to such an extent, much less one that is populated at times entirely only by CG characters.

Although there are few classic action set pieces in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, every minute of the film is compellingly building towards the denouement, and nothing feels superfluous. The final showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge is breathtakingly executed, guaranteed to leave audiences on the edge of their seats yet while still being emotionally powerful. Viewers familiar with the original films will find references here and there, but the film is self-contained and accessible to newcomers and veterans alike. Rise of the Planet of the Apes concludes with a setup that leaves the door open for future films, but if they can be as outstanding as this one, it will definitely be a series to look out for.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)