Inside Out

Genre: Animation

Directors: Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen

Screenplay: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley

Voice Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle McLachlan

Running Length: 94 minutes

Synopsis: Growing up can be a bumpy road, and it’s no exception for Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), who is uprooted from her Midwest life when her father starts a new job in San Francisco. Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley’s mind, where they help advise her through everyday life. As Riley and her emotions struggle to adjust to a new life in San Francisco, turmoil ensues in Headquarters. Although Joy, Riley’s main and most important emotion, tries to keep things positive, the emotions conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.

Review: It had almost seemed like Pixar’s stellar run was at its end – Toy Story 3 was the last truly great Pixar film and that was way back in 2010. The following few films – Cars 2, Brave and Monster’s University – were good at best, mediocre at worst. I am glad to say that after a one year gap, Pixar has finally returned to form with Inside Out, which ranks amongst the very best films the studio has released since its inception. Inside Out is one of those rare films that will undoubtedly please the little ones, but bears much more poignancy and deeper meaning for the grown-ups. What’s also remarkable is how inventive this film is, with such a clean and easy-to-grasp take on neuropsychology that it really needs to be seen to be believed.

The premise of Inside Out is nearly impossible to articulate – essentially it asks the question “what if your feelings had feelings”? Yet, Pixar has managed to flesh out a fully-functioning universe based around the concept that everything we think and feel is governed by five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, and that our experiences form spheres that are being looked after by these emotions and a supporting crew. The really important experiences become core memory spheres, powering the “islands” that shape a person’s personality. It’s amazingly inventive – the Pixar team has managed to think of everything, from how a person loses some memories, to how dreams come about, and even why certain songs and jingles become annoying earworms that pop up at the most inopportune moments. While it may not look like it at first glance, Inside Out is certainly one of the smartest films I’ve seen in a very long time.

This actually poses a small problem for Inside Out – the cleverest, most poignant moments in the film will also be the ones that will connect least with the younger audiences. I cannot envision any child being able to appreciate why Joy, Sadness and Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong are reduced to Dadaist shapes when they enter Abstract Thought. Even more so, while Bing Bong has a zany but cute character design – he even cries tears of candy, adults should come prepared with tissues as his story plays out. The film remains generally a bright and colourful one, and there’s enough fun moments in it to please the kids, but suffice to say older viewers will be the one to really experience fully what Inside Out has to offer.

That the film looks amazing is almost a given, but it does come across as rather surprising that almost no effort has been made to make Inside Out pop a bit more in the third dimension – this will be a film best seen without the encumbrance of 3D glasses. But really, this is all nitpicking – Inside Out is not only one of the best animated films I’ve seen in recent years, I believe it has a legitimate chance of a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars next year, and automatically gets a slot in my best-of list for 2015. It may sound a little hyperbolic, but Inside Out is a masterpiece that should not be missed, and one that will stand the test of time, still enjoyable and meaningful years down the road.

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


No Escape

Genre: Action, Drama

Director: John Erick Dowdle

Screenplay: John Erick Dowdle, Drew Dowdle

Cast: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare

Running Length: 106 minutes

Synopsis: No Escape centres on an American businessman (Owen Wilson) as he and his family settle into their new home in Southeast Asia. Suddenly finding themselves in the middle of a violent political uprising, they must frantically look for a safe escape as rebels mercilessly attack the city.

Review: One of my pet movie peeves is when any director chooses to use the shakycam effect to convey a “visceral” sense of action – apart from the found footage genre, there’s really no need to put viewers through a discomfiting viewing experience. No Escape is the latest in a long, long line of movies that abuses the shakycam effect, and it really managed to mar the cinematic experience of an already rather mediocre film. There’s also the issue that the entire film drips of a rather unkind xenophobia, undoubtedly amplified by the fact that Asian viewers like myself don’t seem be one of the target demographics that the Dowdle brothers are aiming for.

Set in an resolutely unnamed Southeast Asian country (and the subject of a real-life controversy, as Khmer lettering was used upside down on the police shields in the film, leading to outrage and a ban in Cambodia), No Escape does deliver some thrills along the way, but requires the audience to not think about the plot at all, as it is riddled with holes and necessitates the cast members to behave in the most reckless way possible, putting themselves into peril so as to advance the plot. Both the rebels (namely one murderous mob, with the leader sporting a prominent facial scar, because that’s probably the only way the directors felt “the Asians” could be identified) and the resistance (namely Pierce Brosnan and his local sidekick) seem to show up with alarming precision and frequency. It’s amazing how a nationwide coup could be reduced to such a simplistic face-off.

Although the country is unnamed, there are some really ridiculous conventions that John Erick Dowdle stoops to, reducing the locals to nothing more than seemingly irrational, bloodthirsty murderers and rapists. There’s even a scene where the protagonists are scuttling through a den of vice, which includes young prostitutes and (I kid you not) what appears to be an opium den. It’s seriously mind boggling how Dowdle’s perception of Southeast Asia seems stuck at the turn of the 20th Century, instead of being more rooted in current-day sensibilities and realities. As a Southeast Asian viewer, I am honestly quite insulted by such a portrayal.

Put aside all the social commentary and the filming techniques, and we are indeed left with a half-decent movie, with a good number of taut set-pieces, especially in the first few reels of the film. Both Owen Wilson and Lake Bell put in relatively strong performances despite playing against type, though Pierce Brosnan seems to be in this one solely for the paycheck (to be fair, his screen time is fairly limited). No Escape does become increasingly unraveled along the way, culminating in a really ridiculous, anti-climactic denouement that fails to make much sense. However, in all likelihood, the audience would have ceased to care about the movie by then, and are simply looking to escape the cinema once the credits roll.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)



Genre: Documentary

Director: Asif Kapadia

Running Length: 128 minutes

Synopsis: Amy tells the incredible story of six-time Grammy-winner Amy Winehouse – in her own words. Featuring extensive unseen archive footage and previously unheard tracks, this strikingly modern, moving and vital film shines a light on the world we live in, in a way that very few can.

Review: Just like Asif Kapadia’s previous documentary Senna, you don’t need to be a fan of Amy Winehouse to appreciate the documentary Amy. It is a quietly devastating meditation on her stratospheric rise to fame and how she rapidly came undone, succumbing at the age of 27 to the cumulative effect of drugs, alcohol and bulimia. It’s not a story that’s unique to Amy (other “27 Club” members include Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, and Jim Morrison), but the fact that she belongs to a generation that has diligently self-documented their lives, and in an era where celebrities’ lives are under constant scrutiny, gives rise to a richness of material that Asif uses to great effect.

Asif continues to employ the technique that he used in Senna, where instead of talking head interviews and re-enactments, most of the interviews that he conducts are audio-only, and serve as voiceovers to a wealth of images and videos (many taken by Amy Winehouse or those close to her), performance footage and news footage. It is often raw, pixelated video that is queasily jerky (think Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield shakycam – those who are prone to motion sickness may be better advised to watch this on the small screen), but because the material is so personal, gives a deep, nuanced glimpse into the most intimate moments of Amy Winehouse’s short life.

It’s also interesting to see how much access Asif managed to obtain for this documentary – not only was he able to get notes and videos created by Amy Winehouse herself (and for fans, some previously unseen performance footage as well), he was also able to interview almost all the key people in Amy’s life, including her childhood friends Juliette Ashby and Lauren Gilbert, her first manager and friend Nick Shymansky, and more importantly, her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil and her father Mitch Winehouse. Although Asif generally presents the material (expertly edited by without comment, it’s clear to see that Blake and Mitch were the two most destructive influences in Amy’s life. Mitch has particularly been vocal about how the documentary had twisted his relationship with Amy, but the dispassionate way the material is presented makes it hard to reach any other conclusion.

The last one-third of Amy is especially difficult to watch, as the audience literally witnesses Amy waste away, as well as get a glimpse of what a media and paparazzi feeding frenzy resembles. Yet it’s also tempered with one of the most poignant scenes in the film, of a star-struck Amy recording a duet with one of her idols, Tony Bennett, just a few months prior to her death. Despite a shaky start, she eventually manages to record an excellent rendition of “Body and Soul” that reminds the audience yet once again that she was an incandescent talent whose light burned out way too early. Particularly memorable is a line from Bennett himself that “life will teach you how to live it, if you live long enough”. Unfortunately, Amy Winehouse had no such luxury.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)


Hitman: Agent 47

Genre: Action

Director: Aleksander Bach

Screenplay: Skip Woods, Michael Finch

Cast: Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, Angelababy

Running Length: 96 minutes

Synopsis: Hitman: Agent 47 centers on an elite assassin who was genetically engineered from conception to be the perfect killing machine, and is known only by the last two digits on the barcode tattooed on the back of his neck. He is the culmination of decades of research – and forty-six earlier Agent clones – endowing him with unprecedented strength, speed, stamina and intelligence. His latest target is a mega-corporation that plans to unlock the secret of Agent 47’s past to create an army of killers whose powers surpass even his own. Teaming up with a young woman who may hold the secret to overcoming their powerful and clandestine enemies, 47 confronts stunning revelations about his own origins and squares off in an epic battle with his deadliest foe.

Review: Video game to movie adaptations have generally not gone well, and for the Hitman videogame, there was even a poorly-received precedent set in 2007. Flash forward almost a decade later, and it’s time for yet another movie franchise to be rebooted. Agent 47 is likely to elicit a higher interest level locally, simply because parts of the movie were shot on location in Singapore, and let’s face it – there is always a little bit of a cheap thrill when you see familiar landmarks on the big screen, especially in an international blockbuster.

This is not a film that will please fans of the Hitman videogames, simply because it chooses to forgo the stealth element that was an essential component to the videogames. More often than not Agent 47 feels more like a younger, supercharged John McClane, coming out with guns blazing and blowing brains out along the way, and earning the film its NC-16 rating. As an action film, it is a rather generic one, though with a number of pretty decent action set-pieces that serve to move the film along nicely. The CG, unfortunately, is quite unimpressive, though Bach seems to try to mitigate this by employing a copious amount of quick cuts during most of the action scenes.

Apart from the lack of a coherent plot, one of the most glaring faults of Hitman: Agent 47 is how blatant the product placements are. It is clear that Audi must have spent a pretty penny for all the exposure in the film, but even the Singapore portions of the film resemble a promotional video rather than being vital to the film. Was there a need to show Hannah Ware swimming in the (an admittedly gorgeous) infinity pool of a five-star hotel, or to arrange a meeting at (again, admittedly gorgeous) Gardens by the Bay if it was intended to be a clandestine one? More disappointingly, for a film that must have been substantially bankrolled by Singapore, there seems to be only one discernable local actress involved in the film, and even then only as an extra in a very short sequence.

While Rupert Friend makes for a rather effective Agent 47 (this was a role that apparently was intended for Paul Walker before his death), the rest of the cast is bland and forgettable, and Zachary Quinto and Ciaran Hinds in particular feel criminally underused. Although the end credits sequence sets the stage for a potential sequel, it’s hard to imagine this film garnering enough interest or box office for the studios to consider a follow-up.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)



Genre: Comedy

Director: Christopher Columbus

Screenplay: Tim Herlihy, Timothy Dowling

Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad, Brian Cox, Sean Bean

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: As kids in the 1980s, Sam Brenner (Adam Sandler), Will Cooper (Kevin James), Ludlow Lamonsoff (Josh Gad), and Eddie “The Fire Blaster” Plant (Peter Dinklage) saved the world thousands of times – at 25 cents a game in the video arcades. Now, they’re going to have to do it for real. In Pixels, when intergalactic aliens discover video feeds of classic arcade games and misinterpret them as a declaration of war, they attack the Earth, using the video games as the models for their assaults – and now-U.S. President Cooper must call on his old-school arcade friends to save the world from being destroyed by PAC-MAN, Donkey Kong, Galaga, Centipede, and Space Invaders. Joining them is Lt. Col. Violet Van Patten (Michelle Monaghan), a specialist supplying the arcaders with unique weapons to fight the aliens.

Review: The only reason that Pixels gets a passing grade from me is because of the nostalgia it taps into – after all, the 80s video games that the film so relentlessly references formed part of my childhood. Thus, in spite of the paper-thin, messy plot and the lack of any quality acting, I must admit that there were parts of Pixels that I enjoyed. However, the same probably can’t be said of the majority of the moviegoers that would attempt to watch this film.

The premise that aliens chose to attack Earth because of arcade game footage found in an interstellar time capsule is a thin one, and the seams constantly show in Pixels. Stretching out a two-minute short film (that the story is based on) into an almost two-hour movie is ill-advised in this case, and the absolute paucity of plot means the show wears out its welcome very quickly. There’s absolutely no effort to give any background to the attacking aliens, which makes much of the proceedings rather meaningless, carrying no dramatic weight at all. The aliens may be threatening the total annihilation of Earth, but it never feels like anything is at stake.

While Adam Sandler has honed his portrayal of the sullen man-child to perfection over a good number of films, the rest of the casting leaves much to be desired. Josh Gad is unendingly grating and annoying, while Peter Dinklage doesn’t make much of an impression apart from the weird accent he chose to adopt for his role. Michelle Monaghan is given the totally thankless role of playing Sandler’s love interest, and the absolute lack of chemistry between the duo makes the romantic sequences truly cringe-worthy to sit through.

Fortunately, the visual effects are decent enough, especially during the live-action videogame battles. For viewers that grew up in the 80s, it will be fun to look out for videogame icons like Donkey Kong, Mario, Q*Bert, Frogger, Paperboy and more. However, Wreck-It Ralph has already done a much better job back in 2012 integrating these into a movie, and boasts a far stronger plot, despite being an animated film. There’s really only that much nostalgic good-will that one can tap into, and even for myself I was scraping the bottom of the barrel barely halfway through the movie.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)