Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: J.J. Abrams

Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt, based on characters created by George Lucas

Cast: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Peter Mayhew, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o             

Running Length: 136 minutes

Synopsis: Thirty years after defeating the Galactic Empire, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his allies face a new threat from the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his army of Stormtroopers.

Review: The wait is finally over – a ten-year hiatus has followed Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, but Star Wars makes a somewhat triumphant return to the big screen, this time under the stewardship of its new owner (Disney) and directed not by George Lucas, but by J. J. Abrams. While it is a solid, very entertaining space opera, and a good start to the new Star Wars trilogy (and its spin off movies), The Force Awakens feels somewhat encumbered by the baggage of being the “true” sequel of essentially the most revered movie franchise of all time, and the exceptionally high expectations that follow such a status. Abrams has done a very good job giving fans what they expect, but nothing much more than that.

Abrams has chosen to develop four new characters to succeed the thrones of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and the casting choices are quite astute. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are great as the heroes-to-be for the new trilogy, and Ridley is in particular a revelation. This relatively unknown British actress brings a graceful intensity and quiet strength to her role as Rey, and her performance reminds one of a younger Kiera Knightley. Boyega isn’t as commanding as Finn, but works well as a companion to Rey (somehow I am reminded of Jennifer Lawrence and Joss Hutcherson’s pairing in the Hunger Games franchise). Oscar Isaac is given significantly less to do in the show, but shows promise as the swashbuckling pilot Poe. Adam Driver is also quite memorable as the Kylo Ren, menacing and petulant at the same time, though as the main villain of The Force Awakens he comes up a little short.

It is somewhat surprising, however, that the new droid BB-8 has managed to upstage everyone else in the film. Abrams pays a lot of attention to this new spherical orange and white droid, and although he has no real dialogue, BB-8 manages to express a surprising variation of feelings and emotions, even when he is in the periphery of a scene. That he is also responsible for some of the biggest laughs in the film is also just the cherry on top. BB-8’s “performance” comes close to (or even possibly surpasses) what was achieved by WALL-E’s Eve and WALL-E, which is the gold standard.

Apart from drama, a good space opera should also serve up a fair share of action sequences. In this aspect The Force Awakens is a mixed bag – the first aerial dogfight (involving the Millenium Falcon) is a treat, but the remaining action sequences (yes, even the lightsaber battles) come across as being somewhat perfunctory. There’s an old-school feel to many of these scenes, which does not necessarily work in the film’s favour.

While it’s not a necessity to watch the preceding six films in the franchise, The Force Awakens assumes (not unreasonably, given how ingrained Star Wars is in our pop culture) knowledge of the Star Wars universe, and doles out heaps of fan service to its fans. For a Star Wars fan like myself, it’s impossible not to feel a stir of emotions when the Millennium Falcon makes its first appearance, or when anyone from the original trilogy shows up – Han Solo! Chewbacca! Princess Leia! Artoo! Admiral Ackbar! – but I could almost sense that Abrams and team had an omnipresent checklist and was striving to check off every item by the time the end credits rolled. This slavishness to the original trilogy sometimes makes The Force Awakens feel like a reboot of the franchise instead of a sequel.

This is the most critical flaw of The Force Awakens, and despite its top-secret plot and requests to keep reviews and commentary spoiler-free, there really are very few surprises to be had along the way. This lack of originality and freshness is something that many fans (including myself) would be willing to overlook, just to have the satisfaction of watching a new Star Wars movie on the big screen, but The Force Awakens is not a film that holds up very well to repeat viewings without the rose-tinted glasses of fandom and nostalgia. However, as the necessary fan-servicing is now mostly out of the way, I hope that Episodes VIII and IX will be given the freedom to explore new stories instead of retreading the old and familiar.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Love the Coopers

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Director: Jessie Nelson

Screenplay: Steven Rogers

Cast: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Ed Helms, Diane Keaton, Anthony Mackie, Amanda Seyfried, June Squibb, Marisa Tomei, Olivia Wilde, Alex Borstein, Jake Lacy, Steve Martin (voice)

Running Length: 107 minutes

Synopsis: Love the Coopers follows the Cooper clan as four generations of extended family come together for their annual Christmas Eve celebration. As the evening unfolds, a series of unexpected visitors and unlikely events turn the night upside down, leading them all toward a surprising rediscovery of family bonds and the spirit of the holiday.

Review: It seems almost like there is one such movie every year – a family reunion dramedy during the festive season – but Love the Coopers is a wholly unremarkable addition to this sub-genre that works only on the most superficial level. And despite the title of the movie, there is very little reason to love the Coopers (or the movie).

One of the biggest problems with Love the Coopers is that the screenplay simply isn’t up to par. The characters are shallowly fleshed out, and most of them remain two-dimensional despite being played by a group of rather talented actors. Most of them are not given much to do, as there are obviously too many characters with too many plot lines that cannot be satisfactorily resolved in the film’s under-two-hour running time. It doesn’t help that some of these subplots are rather confusing (none more so than the interactions between Arkin’s Bucky and Seyfried’s Ruby, which seemed to suggest one thing but ended up being something else altogether).

There are also problems with the believability of some of the characters themselves – Anthony Mackie’s police officer Williams inexplicably opens up to Marisa Tomei’s Emma in a car ride, but I found myself hard-pressed to believe that a man that is apparently super-repressed would reveal his sexual orientation and troubled childhood to a near-complete stranger. Many of the inter-character conflicts either feel like a non-event or come across as being completely artificial, which further detracts from the cinematic experience.

That the whole film culminates in a hospital scene that shamelessly tries to tug at the heartstrings is perhaps to be expected, but given such a low emotional investment in the characters, the denouement rings as hollow as the rest of the film. Love the Coopers is watchable solely because of the collective charisma of the ensemble cast (even the voice of the family dog, who plays narrator, is voiced by Steve Martin), and even then barely passes muster.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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The Good Dinosaur

Genre: Animation

Director: Peter Sohn

Screenplay: Meg LeFauve

Voice Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Maleah Padilla, Ryan Teeple, Jack McGraw, Marcus Scribner, Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Peter Sohn, Steve Zahn, Mandy Freund, Steven Clay Hunter, A.J. Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Dave Boat, Carrie Paff, Calum Mackenzie Grant, John Ratzenberger

Running Length: 101 minutes

Synopsis: The Good Dinosaur asks the question: What if the asteroid that forever changed life on Earth missed the planet completely and giant dinosaurs never became extinct? Pixar Animation Studios takes you on an epic journey into the world of dinosaurs where an Apatosaurus named Arlo (voice of Raymond Ochoa) makes an unlikely human friend called Spot. While traveling through a harsh and mysterious landscape, Arlo learns the power of confronting his fears and discovers what he is truly capable of.

Review: The Good Dinosaur revolves around one central “what if?” – what if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs never hit Earth, and dinosaurs managed to survive for millions of years more? Although an interesting proposition, the story on show in The Good Dinosaur is extremely simplistic, and even in the hands of Pixar, the film very nearly feels like it’s a little too sparse in the plot department. Fortunately, it is Pixar after all, and the studio still manages to turn the film into a somewhat absorbing hour and a half, filled with cute critters, interesting vignettes and some of the best environmental animation I have ever seen in an animated film.

Although the setting is a bit off-kilter, the story of The Good Dinosaur develops in a very classic Disney style. After a rather predictable tragedy befalls Arlo’s family, Arlo gets (again, predictably) separated from his family and has to fend for himself – until he meets Spot. Yes, the reptile has a human pet, and this is just the beginning of a plethora of rather odd situations that film thrusts its viewers into. An extended sequence sees Arlo interacting with a family of T-Rex “cowboys”, and in one of the strangest sequences ever in a Pixar film, Arlo and Spot consume some hallucinogenic fruit and end up getting high on them. There’s a very good reason why the Good Dinosaur is rated PG, and parents of very young viewers may find this film to be somewhat unsuitable for their consumption.

Look past this general weirdness, and there are some gems to be found in the film. It’s filled with cute critters (and a number of rather disturbing ones) and there are sequences which are very fun to watch while not adding much to the main plotline. And to Pixar’s credit, they managed to include one extremely well executed sentimental scene where Arlo and Spot communicate their family history to each other with minimal dialogue. And whilst Arlo isn’t the most memorable central character in a Pixar film, the environmental animation certainly is. It’s incredible what Pixar managed to achieve here, with photorealistic environments that seem so lifelike I had to question if what I was seeing onscreen was culled from a nature documentary, and not digitally rendered 1s and 0s.

Despite all the visual splendor and a generally enjoyable viewing experience, it is undeniable that The Good Dinosaur firmly seats itself in the second-tier section of Pixar’s studio output. To have to follow an excellent film like Inside Out isn’t an easy thing to begin with, and the unyielding quirkiness of the storyline does the film no favours either.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Genre: Horror, Comedy

Director: Christopher B. Landon

Screenplay: Carrie Evans, Emi Mochizuki, Christopher B. Landon

Cast: Tye Sheridan, David Koechner, Cloris Leachman, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan, Sarah Dumont, Patrick Schwarzenegger

Running Length: 93 minutes

Synopsis: Three scouts and lifelong friends join forces with one badass cocktail waitress to become the world’s most unlikely team of heroes. When their peaceful town is ravaged by a zombie invasion, they’ll fight for the badge of a lifetime and put their scouting skills to the test to save mankind from the undead.

Review: It’s exceedingly clear that anyone shelling out money to watch Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse will have known in advance what they are getting themselves into – as long as one has watched any trailer of the film, they would know that this is more Scary Movie than a scary movie, and that age and enjoyment of the movie has an inverse relationship. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is unyieldingly sexist and puerile, proudly wearing its T&A badge on its sleeve, yet it still comes up somewhat short even when viewed forgivingly through the eyes of a teenaged boy who managed to sneak into the M18-rated movie.

The problem is mainly that the film doesn’t go far enough, especially since it is supposed to target a slightly older demographic. Other than a few moments of bawdy humour (yes, the strip club is really called “Lawrence of Alabia”, and you’ll be in for treat if you’ve ever wondered about zombie cunnilingus or zombie penises), there is barely anything else that seems to justify its M18 rating. In fact, Tye Sheridan and gang are such sweet leads that they seem more suited to be in a teen romance flick than a zombie film.

While there are certainly great moments of gore, a small number of laugh-out-loud sequences and an excellent opening sequence, a lot of Scouts Guide is painfully predictable, and the film heads steadily downhill as it progresses. Fortunately, it’s a fast-paced and relatively short film, and the end credits starts to roll just as it begins to get tiresome. And despite its title (and its leads staying in uniform the entire time), the Scouting aspect plays a minimal role, which feels somewhat like a missed opportunity.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Spectre

Genre: Action, Thriller

Director: Sam Mendes

Screenplay: John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth

Cast: Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Lea Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman

Running Length: 148 minutes

Synopsis: A cryptic message from Bond’s (Daniel Craig) past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organisation. While M (Ralph Fiennes) battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind Spectre.

Review: Given the very high bar that Skyfall had set, it was perhaps an unreasonable expectation that Spectre would outdo its predecessor, even if the production remains largely in the same hands. And while it is true that Spectre is a number of notches below Skyfall, it’s still a very decent Bond movie, and is actually more of a Bond movie than Skyfall is. It’s almost as though Sam Mendes, having broken the mould with Skyfall, had decided that his sophomore Bond effort would instead be something that comes much closer to the roots of the franchise.

Spectre opens with a (literal) bang, and minus the rather lackluster Sam Smith title song, ranks as one of the top Bond opening sequences in the franchise’s entire 53-year history. Set in Mexico on the Day of the Dead, the first five minutes is an ingeniously choreographed one-take tracking shot (mad props to Hoyte van Hoytema, who replaces Roger Deakin as DP), followed by an extended, equally stunningly orchestrated action sequence that culminates in a helicopter doing loop the loops over Zocalo Square. This is just the first of a number of great action set pieces in Spectre, and on their own makes the price of entry worthwhile.

This is Daniel Craig’s fourth appearance as James Bond, and he has firmly established himself as the best modern day Bond, handily beating out Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan by a mile in every aspect (Sean Connery is still the iconic Bond for an old Bond fan like me). However, the rest of the cast simply fail to measure up, with both Bond girls Monica Belluci and Lea Seydoux lacking chemistry with Craig, and Christoph Waltz being particularly flat and uninspired as uber-villain Franz Oberhauser. Surprisingly, it’s the minor cast members that make more of an impression, none more so than Ben Whishaw’s expanded appearance as Q, and Andrew Scott’s detestable turn as government bigwig Max Denbigh.

Unlike Skyfall, there’s never a sense that anything is really at stake in Spectre, and it’s hard to be vested in any facet of the film, especially since the conclusion of any Bond film is a foregone one. It is somewhat surprising that Spectre isn’t pared down to a more manageable length, since the near two and a half hour running time does no favours to the film, and I found my interest flagging a little at times. There is definitely enough going on to not make the film feel like a bore, but it almost feels as though Mendes and crew got a bit lost along the way in an attempt to pull out all the stops for the film.

This is rumoured to be Daniel Craig’s last outing as Bond, and in a way that may not matter, since Spectre manages to wrap up the four-movie story arc quite nicely. It would not be surprising if this film becomes the end of yet another era, and a seventh actor will step up to take the mantle in the 25th Bond film. Although this isn’t the best Bond film in the Daniel Craig era, it will still be a decent swansong for the actor, and a tough act for the next James Bond to follow.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Burnt

Genre: Drama

Director: John Wells

Screenplay: Steven Knight

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Bruhl, Riccardo Scamarcio, Sam Keeley, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Rhys, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson, Lily James, Sarah Greene

Running Length: 100 minutes

Synopsis: Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) is a chef who destroyed his career with drugs and rock star behavior. He cleans up and returns to London, determined to redeem himself by spearheading a top restaurant that can earn him his third Michelin star.

Review: There’s a scene in Burnt where Bradley Cooper’s Adam expounds on why fast food is not given the credit he claims it deserves – and the answer is because they produce food that’s too consistent, and consistency is boring. The same, unfortunately, can be said of Burnt itself, as it comes across as a film that’s a little too generic and unmemorable as a whole.

It’s kind of a pity, especially since Bradley Cooper puts in a (by now) reliably solid performance, able to portray both the swaggering a-hole and the introspective, insecure ex-addict with aplomb and believability. However, his performance is let down by the middling script – the entire redemptive arc of Adam runs along an extremely predictable path, and anyone who’s seen a movie in the same mould (i.e. everyone) will not be surprised in any way, save for a single unexpected plot twist near the end of the film.

Also, for a film that deals in the rarefied world of haute cuisine, there’s surprisingly little attention paid to the food. While there are some aesthetically pleasing close-up shots of the dishes, the editing and montages generally feel too harried, with the camera rarely resting on any food shot for more than a second. This frenetic pace works better in a film like Chef, and ironically Chef actually pays more loving, measured attention to the food truck-style dishes than what Burnt does with its Michelin-star gourmet dishes.

While there are a good number of name actors in the film, they are generally given very little to do, with the only bright spark being Sienna Miller’s Helene, whose charming performance is a credible foil to Cooper. Other well-known faces like Emma Thompson and Uma Thurman feel criminally underused, serving more like props to help propel the plot along rather than actual characters. In the end, Burnt feels like a facsimile of a gourmet meal, one that will undoubtedly leave you feeling full, yet unsatisfied.   

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Walk

Genre: Drama

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis and Christopher Browne, based on the book “To Reach the Clouds” by Philippe Petit

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ben Kingsley, Charlotte Le Bon, James Badge Dale, Clement Sibony, Cesar Domboy, Benedict Samuel, Ben Schwartz, Steve Valentine, Mark Camacho

Running Length: 124 minutes

Synopsis: Twelve people have walked on the moon, but only one man – Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) – has ever, or will ever, walk in the immense void between the World Trade Center towers. Guided by his real-life mentor, Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley), and aided by an unlikely band of international recruits, Petit and his gang overcome long odds, betrayals, dissension and countless close calls to conceive and execute their mad plan.

Review: Movies worth watching in 3D come extremely few and far between, and I’ve always advocated sticking to 2D for the large majority of films that offer both options. However, The Walk is a movie that truly deserves to be seen on the big screen and in 3D (fortunately, it’s available in IMAX 3D locally, the largest possible format), and it’s my recommendation to go that route in order to maximize the viewing experience that The Walk will provide. In fact, if one does not watch The Walk in IMAX 3D, there’s very little compelling reason to watch the film in any other format.

The Walk takes its own sweet time to get started, with the first hour being largely unnecessary exposition filled with characters that populate the film but possess little to no depth (unfortunately that includes Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s portrayal of Petit, though he still imbues the character with a boatload of charm). However, once we move on to the actual attempt to walk the wire across the two World Trade Center towers, things become a lot more interesting. The setup of the walk feels like a heist movie, and is quite an entertaining segment of the film. The logistical challenge of sneaking the equipment into the towers and the actual setup of the line is nothing to sniff at, and while truncated, Zemeckis does manage to wring a lot of entertainment value out of this third of the film.

And then there’s the last reel of the movie, which covers the walk itself. This is the big payoff for the film, and manages to counterbalance all the faults that the film contained prior to this glorious sequence. When viewed in IMAX 3D, the walk is nothing short of a spectacle – you could almost believe that the towers are real, and the dizzying sense of vertigo is enhanced with the huge screen and 3D. In fact, anyone with a fear of heights might find themselves feeling a bit of anxiety over how realistic some parts of the sequence are. The technical wizardry employed to bring this segment to life is truly impressive and I am pretty sure that The Walk is a shoo-in for at least a handful of technical award nominations next Oscar season.

This is not the first big-screen treatment of Petit’s historic walk across the twin towers, as it was also the subject matter of the eminently watchable documentary Man on Wire in 2008. Truth be told, the documentary tells the tale better, but in terms of visuals The Walk wins out by a large margin. This will not be a movie that would work well on the small screen, so make plans to head down to a cineplex near you if a visceral cinematic experience is what you’re after.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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