War for the Planet of the Apes

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Matt Reeves

Screenplay: Matt Reeves, Mark Bomback, based on characters created by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller, Judy Greer, Max Lloyd-Jones, Devyn Dalton

Running Length:  140 minutes

Synopsis: In War for the Planet of the Apes, the third chapter of the critically acclaimed blockbuster franchise, Caesar and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel.  After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind.  As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.

Review: Who could have anticipated that the best summer blockbuster this year would belong to the simians, rather than the superheroes that have come along thus far? But here we are, three movies deep into the second Planet of the Apes reboot, and it’s easy to give War for the Planet of the Apes the crown because it’s so starkly different from everything that has come before it this year. Trumping even the excellent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (also directed by Reeves), the only thing working against the movie is its serious tone – not every moviegoer would like to be preached to by Reeves on his soapbox, especially midway through the Summer blockbuster season – but audiences who do make the decision to give War a try would likely find themselves well rewarded.

Ostensibly the last prequel film in this reboot trilogy (though there’s now a fourth movie planned), the events in War would logically lead up to what transpires in the original Planet of the Apes, and there are throwbacks (throwforwards?) to the characters found in the 1968 movie. While there’s no necessity to have seen the original movies, War does presume that the audience is familiar with what has been covered so far in the 2011 and 2014 films – any moviegoer that watches this film “cold” would likely find themselves quite lost indeed, so consider this fair warning.

While the film is not without flaws, War for the Planet of the Apes is quite simply, a very well-made movie. CGI is usually peripheral to the plot of a movie, but in this case, without the bleeding-edge CGI, there very simply would not have been a movie at all. The franchise has progressed to not just rendering one hyper-realistic chimpanzee, to a literal army of various simians. Andy Serkis is at the top of the motion capture acting game, and his performance of Caesar quite simply transcends any description – it’s still shocking to see the depth and nuances of emotion that can flicker across Caesar’s face as a fully rendered character.

War is also a movie that doesn’t shy away from a complex plot, and while it may get a bit preachy at times, kudos must be given to any summer blockbuster that is willing to take the risk of alienating a group of audience members who do not expect to be mentally taxed. That’s not to say War isn’t entertaining – not only is there plenty of well-choreographed, riveting action to be found, there’s even a character that seems to be inserted purely for comic relief purposes.

Matt Reeves has proven his capabilities in the two Apes movies he has directed, and War in particular feels almost like a loving homage to some of the best war movies (think Apocalypse Now, The Great Escape and The Bridge Over River Kwai), except with apes. It’s a beautifully lensed film, though each scene is so meticulously constructed there’s almost an artificiality at times. While it’s a rather heavy-going movie, there’s no denying that each Planet of the Apes movie has managed to outdo its predecessor, and it’s easy to see War for the Planet of the Apes ending up on many Top 10 lists come the end of 2017.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Gareth Edwards

Screenplay: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Beau Gadson, Dolly Gadson

Running Length:  133 minutes

Synopsis: From Lucasfilm comes the first of the Star Wars standalone films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” an all-new epic adventure. In a time of conflict, a group of unlikely heroes band together on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves.

Review: As the first “non-Episodic” movie in the Star Wars cinematic universe, Rogue One is a triumph – although it caters mostly to the (rabid) Star Wars fanbase, there is enough on display here that would please anyone who is a fan of space operas (and to an extent, war movies). Harkening back to the original trilogy, and yet a couple of shades darker, Rogue One can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the canonic Episodes on almost every level. This is great news especially for fans, since it means that the Star Wars cinematic universe is set to expand far beyond what George Lucas had achieved with his six films.

Rogue One is far from being a perfect movie – it starts off slowly, and the amount of exposition in the first hour threatens to bog the film down multiple times. Thankfully, once the heavy exposition gets out of the way, and the audience is reintroduced to the menace of Darth Vader, Rogue One does kick into high gear and delivers the payload. No spoilers here, but suffice to say the most iconic Darth Vader sequence in Star Wars now resides in Rogue One (yes, even more so than “I am your father”, though that scene is far more ingrained in pop culture).

Rogue One once again has a strong female protagonist in Jyn Ersa, and Felicity Jones puts in an excellent performance, being able to emote and kick ass with aplomb. However, Diego Luna doesn’t manage to match Jones’ performance, and there’s a distinct lack of chemistry between the two – just as well that the film does not really try to force a romance. Donnie Yen does good work as the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe, though it does seem at times that he’s merely reprising his most iconic role of Ip Man in a different setting. His presence, together with Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus, will almost certainly ensure very healthy box office takings in China.

Mirroring The Force Awakens, however, the most memorable character in Rogue One is a non-human – K-2SO, voiced flawlessly by Alan Tudyk. K-2 not only has some of the best lines in the show, but is one of the few sources of levity in a film that is almost relentlessly grim, though not annoyingly so like C-3PO.

Special effects are employed sparingly in the action sequences, resulting in an organic, old-school feel to many of the scenes (the aerial dogfights in particular), but the CGI is top-notch when used. Much of the ground assault sequences feel equally at home in a war movie, and the stakes of the fight between the rebels and the Imperial Army have never been as personal and high as presented in Rogue One.

An interesting point of note is that the most impressive special effect isn’t in the “big” scenes, but the digital sleight of hand that was employed to bring Peter Cushing back to “life” as Grand Moff Tarkin, despite him being dead for 22 years. One can only imagine the amount of work that was required to recreate Cushing’s likeness (using a stand-in actor, a voice actor and CG) in such a convincing manner.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Rogue One is one of the most anticipated movies of 2016. Fortunately, it has managed to deliver, and has even stirred a desire in me to rewatch the original trilogy once again. While it bears the moniker of a “Star Wars Story”, Rogue One should more accurately be called Episode 3.5, because it dovetails so perfectly into the opening of A New Hope. Ranked amongst the two films since J. J. Abrams’ reboot last year, Rogue One actually ends up a notch above The Force Awakens, especially in terms of rewatchability.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Doctor Strange

Genre: Action

Director: Scott Derrickson

Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Burden

Running Length: 115 minutes

Synopsis: After his career is destroyed, a brilliant but arrogant surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets a new lease on life when a sorcerer takes him under his wing and trains him to defend the world against evil.

Review: It has become increasingly difficult to innovate in the genre of superhero movies, since there is now an expectation that comes with the territory (just look at the number of moviegoers that patiently wait for the end credits to finish rolling nowadays). Marvel has proven significantly better at carving out new spaces within the crowded genre, however, and Doctor Strange is yet another Marvel film that has managed to defy expectations. Delving into the mystical facet of the Marvel Comic Universe was surely a gamble, but it is one that has paid off handsomely. Doctor Strange is easily the best superhero movie to be released in 2016, and a breath of fresh air for the MCU.

Scott Derrickson is not the most obvious choice of director for Doctor Strange, having cut his teeth on horror films like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but perhaps he was exactly what the doctor (ahem) ordered – a fresh pair of eyes that would be able to dispense with convention. Doctor Strange doesn’t deviate that far from other MCU movies, but is different enough to warrant a second look, even for audiences who have grown tired of the neverending barrage of films in the same mould. Derrickson and co-writers Spaihts and Cargill are also not afraid of adding humor into the mix, and there are almost as many comedic sequences as there are action set pieces.

Derrickson also seems to have a knack for creating eye-popping visuals, particularly the Inception-esque scenes of the cityscape folding and twisting onto itself that are alone worth the price of admission. In particular, the chase sequence that takes place in one of these settings is possibly one of the most imaginative scenes in recent memory, and would make M.C. Escher proud. This is also a film that I highly recommend watching in 3D (this is probably the first movie since Avatar that I’ve made this statement), and together with some truly trippy imagery, Doctor Strange undoubtedly serves as a feast for the eyes.

British thespians Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor seem like odd choices for a superhero movie, but casting them is an inspired decision. The level of acting is so consistently high that it manages to elevate the film to the next level, allowing the audience to look past some of the more ludicrous pieces of dialogue or plot holes. While the film does end on a slightly weak (and rather psychedelic) denouement, this first Doctor Strange installment has successfully created a new Marvel franchise, and it would certainly be interesting to see how his mystical powers are put to use in subsequent Avengers or MCU films.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

P.S. Remember to stay for both post-credit sequences, one situated at the very end of the rather substantial end credits.

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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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Captain America: Civil War

Genre: Action

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Bruhl

Running Length: 146 minutes

Synopsis:  Captain America: Civil War finds Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) leading the newly formed team of Avengers in their continued efforts to safeguard humanity. But after another incident involving the Avengers results in collateral damage, political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability, headed by a governing body to oversee and direct the team. The new status quo fractures the Avengers, resulting in two camps – one led by Steve Rogers and his desire for the Avengers to remain free to defend humanity without government interference, and the other following Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) surprising decision to support government oversight and accountability.

Review:  It’s not surprising, given their track record, that Marvel has managed to hit yet another Marvel Cinematic Universe movie out of the park. This may sound repetitive, but Captain America: Civil War is possibly the best movie from the MCU so far – not only does it present an absorbing, complex and intellectual storyline, it is chock-full of impressive action set-pieces and even finds time to flesh out both old and new Marvel characters. This is the superhero movie that Batman v Superman wanted to be but failed terribly trying.

Although this is presented as the third Captain America movie, the number of superheroes involved in the story is as plentiful as a “proper” Avengers film. Apart from the rather obvious omissions of Thor and the Hulk, Civil War features almost all the Avengers, and introduces audiences to Black Panther and Spider-man (who makes a pretty triumphant, scene-stealing return to Disney after his stint in Sony Pictures). Impressively, scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also wrote first two Captain America movies) managed to flesh many of these superheroes out to be more than the sum of their superpowers, despite an already narratively dense film.

Refreshingly, Civil War is not all grim and dour like in Batman v Superman, and yet the film grapples with heavy subject matter with far greater aplomb than the clunky incoherence that populated BvS. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have applied their experience in TV comedies to the Marvel films they have directed, and the same is evident here – there are many moments of levity to be found amidst the seriousness, though never distractingly so. There is also some really great action sequences to be found here, including an excellent scene at the airport where the two opposing factions of the Avengers finally clash, and their superpowers being pitted against each other in very interesting and unexpected ways.

Civil War is the first salvo in Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of the very few criticisms that can be leveled at the movie is that it feels slightly incomplete as a standalone movie, and ends in a really abrupt manner. This is to be expected given the way the MCU is being structured now, with each movie being a cog in the wheel of a larger movement, but it is particularly apparent in Civil War that many plot lines are being laid in the film and aren’t fully realized by the time the credits roll, since the audience isn’t expected to watch this movie in isolation. While the uneven nature of Batman v Superman has called to question the viability of DC’s cinematic universe and roster of upcoming films, Civil War has merely reaffirmed that Marvel is at the top of the cinematic game, and even if the proceedings feel a little predictable at times, the film is a highly enjoyable opener to the next five years’ worth of the MCU.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

P.S. Like all Marvel movies, don’t miss the two post-credit sequences, although they aren’t particularly essential viewing.

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The Martian

Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi

Director: Ridley Scott

Screenplay: Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean

Running Length: 141 minutes

Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, Watney must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring “the Martian” home, while his crewmates concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible, rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney’s safe return.

Review: There has been a resurgence of space exploration movies in recent years, and while The Martian does not reach the heights of Interstellar and Gravity, it’s a very commendable effort nonetheless, featuring some of the best work from both Ridley Scott and Matt Damon in years. While the concept of The Martian certainly isn’t a new one (it would not be a stretch to describe the movie as “Cast Away” in space), it is an undeniably fun and fulfilling cinematic experience that will definitely be a crowd pleaser.

Despite what the trailers might suggest, The Martian is a movie that’s very light on action and very heavy on introspection and exposition. While it isn’t focused solely on Watney, with relatively big chunks of screen time split between the other crew members of the Ares 3 as well as the ground crew, a lot of time is spent observing Watney doing his utmost best to survive on a distant planet. Although some liberties have been taken with the science in the movie, a lot of it feels authentic and believable, which makes it even easier for the audience to identify with the proceedings, despite its alien setting. Both Andy Weir (author of the original novel) and NASA have been involved every step of the way, and the resulting authenticity of the movie is surely a direct result of this.

While the subject matter is quite serious, Ridley Scott maintains a light touch throughout the film, and there are many moments of humour that help to make the proceedings less dark than they could have been. Although The Martian runs over 2 hours, the film moves at a very brisk pace, and at no time does the film feel like it has lost any dramatic momentum despite cutting back and forth the three locales.The Martian is also a handsomely shot film, particularly when showcasing the barren vastness of Mars. There is, naturally, a large amount of visual effects employed in the film, but it never distracts from the actors or the storyline.

Although there is a very large and capable group of supporting actors, this is undoubtedly Matt Damon’s movie. Having to perform largely in isolation means that there are many stretches of the film where the thespian duties fall entirely on Damon, and he does an admirable job portraying the wide range of emotions that Watney undergoes. He easily becomes the emotional core of the movie, and audiences will assuredly be rooting for him long before the movie ends. It’s not difficult to imagine that he would likely be a frontrunner in the Oscar race in 2016. It’s not his first performance as a stranded astronaut (Interstellar being the first), but it’s definitely his best (so far).

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Amy

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)

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