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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Ant-Man

Genre: Action

Director: Peyton Reed

Screenplay: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, Paul Rudd

Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Bobby Cannavale, Michael Pena, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, Michael Douglas, Abby Ryder Fortson, Martin Donovan

Running Length:  117 minutes

Synopsis: Armed with a super-suit with the astonishing ability to shrink in scale but increase in strength, con-man Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) must embrace his inner hero and help his mentor, Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), plan and pull off a heist that will save the world.

Review: It may seem strange that Marvel has chosen Ant-Man as the film to close out Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, since he is definitely one of the smaller (in every sense of that word) heroes in the Marvel canon. However, if Guardians of the Galaxy is any indication, just because the character isn’t well-known doesn’t mean it won’t be a well-received film. And in this case, although Ant-Man doesn’t quite reach the heights of Guardians, it is very entertaining and as an origins film, sets the stage for yet another franchise opportunity for Marvel (although Ant-Man will already return in next year’s Captain America: Civil War).

There is this sense throughout the film that this is not considered a marquee Marvel property, and it shows in the anything-goes spirit that embodies the bulk of the movie. Even the trials and tribulations faced by the cast feel more personal than usual – there’s only the merest hint of a global crisis, and more often than not it is familial conflicts that propel the plot forward.

The amount of sight gags and humorous asides are second only to Guardians of the Galaxy, and it will be near impossible to not feel entertained by the film. Paul Rudd is an extremely amicable central protagonist, and his immense likeability, much like Chris Pratt’s Starlord, is one of the biggest reasons why Ant-Man works. Of the supporting cast, Evangeline Lilly once again takes on a strong female role as Hank Pym’s daughter Hope (though she isn’t given enough to do), but no one is as memorable as Michael Pena, and two excellent montages in which other characters “lip-sync” to his motor-mouth narration feel particularly inspired.

While audiences of any Marvel superhero movie would naturally expect a good number of action sequences, these scenes in Ant-Man aren’t particularly memorable, with a fair number of scenes that seem to exist simply to up the action to drama ratio. What does manage to impress is how effectively Reed manages to convey the differences in point of view between the human-sized and ant-sized Ant-Man – the sequence where Scott first uses the suit, where he literally falls through a number of “universes” is both fun and unique. There is, again, a lot of humour employed in these scenes, none more clearly so than during a climactic showdown on a Thomas the Train Engine toy track. Oddly, there does seem to be a higher-than-normal amount of product placement in Ant-Man, and though some of it is quite obvious, it never becomes excessive or too glaring.

Expectations may have been low for Ant-Man, the film has more than exceeded them, and quite easily ranks as one of the best films in Phase 2 of the MCU. It is also one of the most kid-friendly Marvel movies to date, an endearing smaller-scale film that is sure to be a crowd-pleaser and generate positive word of mouth.

P.S. Remember to stay throughout the end credits to catch two coda sequences, one mid-credits and one at the very end.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Spy

Genre: Action/Comedy

Director: Paul Feig

Screenplay: Paul Feig

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Peter Serafinowicz, Morena Baccarin, Jude Law

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a shy deskbound CIA analyst, goes on a mission to help a field agent in trouble. Employing not-so-outrageous identities and not-so-fancy spy gadgets, she attempts to infiltrate the shadowy world of an alluring but dangerous weapons dealer. She leaves a trail of mayhem crisscrossing Europe, utilizing deception and false bravado to try and outwit her quarry and locate a stolen nuke.

Review: No one has managed to make Melissa McCarthy shine like Paul Feig has (and that includes McCarthy’s husband, who directed her in the mediocre Tammy), and in Spy they have left everything else (so far) in the McCarthy canon in the dust. Spy is undeniably the best Feig-Mccarthy pairing in the three films they have worked together on (the breakout hit Bridesmaids and the equally successful The Heat), and despite it being positioned firstly as a comedy, Spy is also a totally legit espionage action film, and I foresee it scoring great success at the box office despite a pretty packed Summer roster.

The most impressive thing about Spy is how it manages to meld the comedy and action genres together so well, without diminishing either aspect. This is in large part due to the how deftly Melissa McCarthy balances between the two – her comic timing is impeccable here, but she also manages to pull off the action and physical comedy sequences with equal aplomb (though there are some scenes where a body double was quite clearly used). Not many actors can lay claim to such an achievement, and it firmly establishes McCarthy as the reigning queen of comedy with a few tricks up her sleeve.

Paul Feig’s script does the same – it’s filled with excellent zingers and visual gags, so rich in material that one can easily watch the film a second time round and find even more to belly laugh at, and yet the spy story is equally engaging, with twists and turns that would surprise even the most jaded moviegoers. All the things that make a good spy movie are present here: exotic locations, over-the-top action sequences, a doomsday device and yes, even the classic Bond-style opening sequence makes an appearance.

Both McCarthy and the script are also bolstered greatly by a uniformly excellent supporting cast, almost all playing against type (and obviously having a great time doing it). The most notable are Rose Byrne, who is fantastic as the cruel but vapid villainess with a ridiculous accent and even more ridiculous coiffure, and Jason Statham, gleefully sending up his usual tough guy routine as a British spy who is all bark and no bite. Spy is possibly the most fun that will be had this Summer season, and is an easy recommendation to make to virtually any moviegoer.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Cinderella

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Screenplay: Chris Weitz

Cast: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden, Helena Bonham Carter, Holliday Grainger, Sophie McShera

Running Length: 113 minutes

Synopsis: Kenneth Branagh directs Disney’s 2015, live-action take on the classic fairy tale Cinderella, which stars Lily James as Ella, forced to endure a life of labor at the hands of her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) after her father dies unexpectedly. Although forced into a life of a servant and cruelly nicknamed “Cinder-ella”, Ella maintains her good spirits and serendipitously makes the acquaintance of a stranger in the woods, who turns out to be the prince (Richard Madden). When the royal court holds a gala ball, Cinderella wants nothing more to attend, and although her stepmother won’t allow it, she gets help from a surprising source.

Review: It’s not easy to turn a well-loved, enduring Disney animation into a live-action movie, but Kenneth Branagh manages to get everything right – this 2015 version of Cinderella not only manages to retain the spirit of the original cartoon, but also adds a little of “something there that wasn’t there before”, quite possibly making it the definitive Cinderella moving forward.

Unlike Maleficent, this is a mostly straight-up adaptation of the 1950 animation, and almost everything that you remember from the animated film is present, but with the new adaptation comes deeper characterization, particularly for the two leads. Ella’s backstory is deepened and she is fleshed out a bit more, and Prince Charming (well, Prince Kit in this version) is not just a pretty face. In fact, a tender deathbed scene with Kit and his father (played by Branagh stalwart Derek Jacobi) is one of the most heartfelt and affecting in the film. Even the evil stepmother (flawlessly portrayed by Cate Blanchett) is made a little more human with a peek into what made her so.

On top of that, Cinderella is an absolutely gorgeous movie to look at from start to finish. Every scene is lush, colourful and packed to the gills with details – this is a movie that really needs to be experienced on the biggest screen possible.  Dante Ferreti’s production design is amazing, and the attention to detail can be seen in nearly every frame of the movie (the gilded carriage is literally a work of art when observed up close). Also, I’ll be extremely surprised if the costumes and jewellery by Sandy Powell do not earn multiple nominations in next year’s awards race, because simply put, they are stunning pieces of work.

Because of these additions, the live-action Cinderella will not only appeal to the children (yes, this is a totally family friendly film, and would be my top pick for the school holidays next week), but also to older viewers. Perhaps the social message of the movie is repeated a little too many times – I’m sure everyone would remember to “have courage and be kind” after the tenth time it’s mentioned – but it’s hard to begrudge a movie that is so well-made and yet remains so accessible to audiences of every age group.  I have to admit that I was initially quite skeptical of the film despite the talent attached to it, but I am now quite the convert.

P.S. The film is preceded by an animated short film, Frozen Fever (yes, THAT Frozen), but unfortunately aside from the fact that the new characters (the Snowgies) are pretty cute, it’s a rather uninspired short film, with a rather bland musical number. I was not impressed but for the children still caught up in Frozen-mania, I’m sure there would be no complaints.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Imitation Game

Genre: Drama

Director: Morten Tyldum

Screenplay: Graham Moore, based on the book “Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong

Running Length: 114 minutes

Synopsis: Famously leading a motley group of scholars, linguists, chess champions and intelligence officers, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) was credited with cracking the so-called unbreakable codes of Germany’s World War II Enigma machine. An intense and haunting portrayal of a brilliant, complicated man, The Imitation Game follows a genius who under nail-biting pressure helped to shorten the war and, in turn, save thousands of lives.

Review: Although The Imitation Game is thematically similar to The Theory of Everything, it ranks as the better biopic. The Imitation Game is more willing to show the darker side of things, occasionally dips its toes into thriller category, and boasts equally strong lead performances, which makes it a better cinematic experience overall. While Eddie Redmayne astonishes with his physical transformation, Benedict Cumberbatch impresses with superior thespian skills.

Intertwining three periods in Turing’s life, The Imitation Game begins in 1952, with Alan Turing being investigated and arrested for “gross indecency” – as homosexuality was still illegal back in the 50s – and using the police interrogation as the launching point of a recounting of his exploits in World War II at Bletchley Park. Turing was instrumental in cracking the German Enigma machine, which helped decode German radio messages and led to an earlier conclusion of the War, but he sadly committed suicide at the young age of 41, one year after he was found guilty and chose chemical castration over prison time. There are also earlier flashbacks to the 1920s, when Turing was a schoolboy who is just discovering his sexuality and experiencing his first crush.

The decision to focus on just three periods in Turing’s life is an astute one. By going deep instead of going wide, Tyldum and Moore have managed to create a multidimensional portrait of Turing, aided of course by the superlative performance of Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch manages to capture the essence of Turing, from his complete social awkwardness to his laser-like focus on solving Enigma, from his brilliance to his isolation. It is a pitch-perfect performance, and firmly establishes Cumberbatch as one of the top talents in the industry.

Special mention must also go to Alex Lawther playing the younger Alan Turing, who also manages to capture the nuances required to realistically portray a conflicted teenager coming to terms with his love for a fellow schoolboy. Keira Knightley once again shows that she is best in unconventional roles and not as a wide-eyed ingénue, though she isn’t given that much to do in the film.

Opting to eschew the more technical aspects of how Enigma was solved, certain scenes in The Imitation Game do stretch plausibility somewhat, though they do add more excitement to what’s essentially a very academic activity. Solving Enigma takes place around the midpoint of the film, but it’s really what unfolds after that makes the film an engrossing one. In the end, Turing’s brilliance and his contributions to ending the war is undermined by a society that condemned his sexuality, resulting in a life that ended way before it should have. The Imitation Game does not shy away from the ugly truth, making it an engrossing if dark movie to watch.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Peter Jackson

Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson & Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel “The Hobbit” by J. R. R. Tolkien

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Luke Evans, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Stephen Fry, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Benedict Cumberbatch (voice)

Running Length: 144 minutes

Synopsis: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies brings to an epic conclusion the adventures of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and the Company of Dwarves. The Dwarves of Erebor have reclaimed the vast wealth of their homeland, but now must face the consequences of having unleashed the terrifying Dragon, Smaug, upon the defenseless men, women and children of Lake-town.

As he succumbs to dragon-sickness, the King Under the Mountain, Thorin Oakenshield, sacrifices friendship and honor in his search for the legendary Arkenstone. Unable to help Thorin see reason, Bilbo is driven to make a desperate and dangerous choice, not knowing that even greater perils lie ahead. An ancient enemy has returned to Middle-earth. Sauron, the Dark Lord, has sent forth legions of Orcs in a stealth attack upon the Lonely Mountain. As darkness converges on their escalating conflict, the races of Dwarves, Elves and Men must decide—unite or be destroyed. Bilbo finds himself fighting for his life and the lives of his friends as five great armies go to war.

Review: By this third installment, it’s safe to say that The Hobbit trilogy is kind of a misnomer, since the titular character doesn’t really factor all that much into the proceedings, made most abundantly clear in this episode, The Battle of the Five Armies. This is a natural outcome of trying to stretch out what is essentially a children’s storybook into a fantasy epic, in an attempt to make The Hobbit trilogy’s breadth and scope similar to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. So much material in the three Hobbit movies aren’t even in the novel that it is moot to discuss the faithfulness of the movie to the source, and not all additions work in the movies’ favour.

That said, The Battle of the Five Armies is easily the best film in the trilogy, far trumping the soporific An Unexpected Journey and an improvement upon the sporadically interesting The Desolation of Smaug. The film opens with Smaug raining fiery destruction on Lake-town, and the CG effects, especially Smaug himself, remain a sight to behold. The action never really lets up from there, culminating in an epic battle sequence lasting more than an hour, with the expansive battle coming close to the best scenes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bookended by these two setpieces, The Battle of the Five Armies feels closest to being a complete entity of its own, unlike the two films that came before it, both of which ended very abruptly. There can be a case made for too much CGI as the trilogy progresses, but it’s hard to argue that the end results are very impressive and rightfully lends an epic feel to the sequences. (A side note: HFR 3D remains a little too sharp for my own preferences, but at least the 3D is not entirely redundant in the film, unlike almost every other title that decides to open in 3D.)

It’s no secret that there are plenty of embellishments in The Hobbit trilogy to pad out the thin storyline, even creating characters that were not part of the canon – most notably the female Wood Elf Tauriel. Sure, the interspecies romance between Tauriel and Kili will probably make the film more appealing to a greater number of moviegoers, but it just flat out does not work well as a plot device because it feels so ill-fitted in the Tolkien universe. The decision to include Legolas as more than just a cameo probably stems from the same desire to appeal to a specific fan base, but the action sequences involving Legolas have devolved into near-farce, especially one in which he seems to be in a different movie – Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon perhaps – altogether.

The same can be said of many returning faces, and everyone (save for Gollum) makes an appearance, making it feel almost like some Middle-Earth reunion movie of sorts. However, such extraneous filler also manages to diminish the central plot and character, and much of The Battle of the Five Armies sees Bilbo Baggins being sidelined as a spectator of the proceedings. It’s a shame, because Martin Freeman is excellent in his role, but the audience simply does not get to see enough of him despite it being an almost two-and-a-half-hour movie (for those keeping count, this means the combined running length of The Hobbit trilogy is a whopping 474 minutes).

And so, thirteen years after embarking on a journey to Middle-Earth, Peter Jackson finally concludes his six-film saga with a big (enough) bang. Jackson has stated that there will be no third set of films based on The Silmarillon from him, but one can never be too sure about such things – after all it does seem that rights issues is what’s stopping potential production. When looked upon as a complete body of work or as a part of the entire Middle Earth saga, The Hobbit doesn’t do all that badly (though I still maintain that it should never had become three movies – even the originally planned two-parter was a dubious decision), and is already a qualified box office success even before The Battle of the Five Armies opened. This last movie singlehandedly raises the trilogy to above mediocrity, and whilst The Hobbit never comes close to its predecessor on any level, The Battle of the Five Armies rounds out one of the better film trilogies in recent years, paling only to Christopher Nolan’s superlative Dark Knight trilogy. That’s not to say that the films are without their flaws, but at the very least the journey there and back again has a decent payoff.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

Overall Rating for The Hobbit trilogy: * * * (out of four stars)

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Nightcrawler

Genre: Drama

Director: Dan Gilroy

Writer: Dan Gilroy

Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton

Running Length: 117 minutes

Synopsis: Nightcrawler is a thriller set in the nocturnal underbelly of contemporary Los Angeles. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a driven young man desperate for work who discovers the high-speed world of L.A. crime journalism. Finding a group of freelance camera crews who film crashes, fires, murder and other mayhem, Lou muscles into the cut-throat, dangerous realm of nightcrawling – where each police siren wail equals a possible windfall and victims are converted into dollars and cents. Aided by Rene Russo as Nina, a veteran of the blood-sport that is local TV news, Lou blurs the line between observer and participant to become the star of his own story.

Review: Jake Gyllenhaal has had an excellent body of work so far, with wide-ranging roles that manage to impress time and again (Enemy, Brokeback Mountain, Jarhead, Prisoners, and many more). However, his performance in Nightcrawler is undoubtedly his best yet, and that says a lot about how good it is – highly deserving of a great run at the awards season next year, and on its own is reason enough to give Nightcrawler a go. While Nightcrawler is not without some flaws, it has a mesmerising central performance around a smart, always engaging film, making it impossible to look away for the entire 2-hour running time. This is the poster child for movies that don’t accord audiences any good moments for a pee break.

The most immediate comparison that one can make to Gyllenhaal’s performance is that of Robert De Niro’s in Taxi Driver – Lou Bloom is as much of an anti-hero as Travis Bickle was, although Bloom definitely has less of a moral compass than Bickle. And it’s an equally transformative, unforgettable performance – Gyllenhaal totally disappears into the role, fully embodifying Bloom not just in his physicality (he lost over 20 pounds of weight for the role) but in every aspect. It’s clear that in Nightcrawler, Bloom is the antagonist, and his soulless eyes, forced smile and ruthless, sociopathic focus on the end game is unyieldingly creepy yet fascinating to observe. This is easily one of the best performances of the year, on par with the mind searing turn by Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl.

While Gyllenhaal carries the film on his performance alone, the supporting cast is also quite capable – Rene Russo (Dan Gilroy’s wife, by the way) is the only female presence in the film and leaves a strong impression as the network executive that’s almost willing to do anything for ratings. Bill Paxton plays a small but important role in the film, and despite limited screen time gives a memorable performance as well. Riz Ahmed’s Rick acts as the human foil for Lou, but at times does feel more like a convenient plot device rather than a convincingly written character.

Dan Gilroy pulls double duty as director (his debut) and screenwriter, and manages to excel at both. With such solid performers on board, he wisely chooses a straightforward, unflashy directorial style, but is aided by Robert Elswit hitting it out of the park with excellent cinematography – nighttime Los Angeles has not looked so spectacular since the equally lush take in 2011’s Drive. The scripting is impeccable, and although I question the veracity of how network news footage is acquired (and the sensationalism of news is a very tired, old trope), Gilroy is masterful in ramping up the suspense all the way to the explosive, macabre, yet strangely satisfying denouement.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Interstellar

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Chris Nolan

Cast: Matthew McConnaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Foy, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Timothee Chalamet, David Oyelowo, Will Devane, Matt Damon

Running Length: 169 minutes

Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Review: If I were to pick just one word to describe Christopher Nolan’s latest film, it would have to be “ambitious” – Interstellar is an epic undertaking that doesn’t always succeed, but you have to give Nolan brownie points just for trying. Although this sounds like faint praise, Interstellar is actually an excellent cinematic experience – the sheer scope and spectacle of the film is more than enough reason to give this movie a once-over on the big screen (and I am serious about “big screen” – this movie deserves to be seen on IMAX – more on this later), and even if the final reels come a little unhinged, it does not undo what happens in the two hours prior.

Although the film runs almost three hours long, it never feels belaboured, and plotlines are so engaging and well developed that the 169 minute running time passes by very quickly. Nolan smartly intertwines plot heavy scenes with action setpieces which are nothing short of stunning, taking place on a variety of very different landscapes. If you thought the action setpieces in Nolan’s Inception and Batman trilogy were impressive, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

While Interstellar is essentially a sci-fi film, Nolan manages to inject a lot of emotionality into the proceedings. It treads the fine line between emotional resonance and cheesiness, but most of the time the drama does hit the right notes, none more so than a mid-movie segment in which the time warping capabilities of a black hole is brought into stark relief. Matthew McConnaughey is extremely impressive in this sequence, and without spoiling the proceedings, the range and depth of emotions that he displays in those five minutes could rival the entire cast of some other sci-fi films, and brings to mind Sandra Bullock’s similarly excellent turn in Gravity. The supporting cast is strong, but undeniably McConnaughey is the one that holds the entire film together. It would not be a surprise to see him nominated second year running for Best Actor.

That the film throws so many scientific principles and terms at the audience, and yet still remains rather accessible, is a feat in itself. Most of it seems legit too, especially since famed CalTech astrophysicist Kip Thorne consults on the film and is credited as an Executive Producer. It does get a bit too farfetched and clunky near the end, and the denouement feels a little rushed, as though Nolan is aware that dwelling too long on the postscript would bring the plot holes into focus. Interstellar is not as mind-bending as some of Nolan’s other work (it was pretty clear to me how the plot would pan out eventually, midway through), but audience members will nevertheless need to prepare for a mental workout when watching the film – this is not your usual Hollywood sci-fi action blockbuster.

In terms of technical accomplishment, Interstellar is about as flawless as it gets. Every technical aspect is remarkably executed – art direction, production design, sound, visual effects, CG work, cinematography, editing, musical score and more – one simply cannot ask for more in a movie. This is a big budget Hollywood movie done right, and I will be surprised if there would not be a flurry of nominations and awards in technical categories come awards season next year. Having been shot entirely on celluloid, bucking the digital trend, the film’s scale and beauty is best appreciated in IMAX, and is a necessity in my opinion.

Interstellar is such a massive undertaking that the fact that Nolan manages to pull it off is impressive enough, and for the film to actually be this accomplished means it automatically takes a spot in my best-of list for 2014. Despite some blemishes, it is the cinematic experience to beat in 2014, and much as it sounds like a cliché: if you watch one movie this year, make it Interstellar.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: James Gunn

Writers: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, based on the Marvel comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Laura Haddock

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: An action-packed, epic space adventure, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the cosmos, where brash adventurer Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finds himself the object of an unrelenting bounty hunt after stealing a mysterious orb coveted by Ronan (Lee Pace), a powerful villain with ambitions that threaten the entire universe. To evade the ever-persistent Ronan, Quill is forced into an uneasy truce with a quartet of disparate misfits-Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a gun-toting raccoon, Groot (Vin Diesel), a tree-like humanoid, the deadly and enigmatic Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the revenge-driven Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). But when Quill discovers the true power of the orb and the menace it poses to the cosmos, he must do his best to rally his ragtag rivals for a last, desperate stand-with the galaxy’s fate in the balance.

Review: This is going to sound like hyperbole, but Guardians of the Galaxy is probably one of the best comedies I’ve seen in years, the most entertaining Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet, and definitely the most fun movie I’ve managed to watch this Summer. Is it perfect? Nope, but it is almost impossible to harbour any ill will against an action blockbuster that’s this entertaining and so full of heart. That it comes with an amazing 1970s soundtrack is just the cherry on top – as we all already know from X-Men: Days of Future Past, 70s songs tend to make superhero films better.

Perhaps it’s because Guardians of the Galaxy is such an obscure part of the Marvel canon, that director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman have a freedom that not many other directors and scribes involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are allowed. That sense of irreverence is what makes Guardians of the Galaxy such a pleasure to watch – this is what the MCU is like after-hours, kicking back on the recliner with a Bud Light in hand. I am willing to bet that even the most seasoned moviegoers will find themselves surprised by some of the plot turns in the film, because the film is not afraid to confound expectations unlike the usual “serious” superhero movies.

Yet, what makes Guardians of the Galaxy extra special is that despite the humour and the zaniness, this is a movie with a lot of heart. Even in the confines of an action movie, the main characters are fully developed – yes, even Groot, who is about two levels above being monosyllabic – and very relatable to the audience. These are not inaccessible superheroes, billionaires or gods, but a bunch of adventurers who have less than noble motives, and are all damaged in their own ways. This organic emotional vulnerability (versus say, Superman’s weakness to kryptonite) is refreshing and adds a dimensionality to the movie that is rarely seen in other movies in the same genre.

I must admit I had doubts when Chris Pratt was cast in the lead role of Guardians of the Galaxy – he’s been a dependable costar both in films and on TV, but is he able to shoulder the lead role of a multimillion dollar action blockbuster? My doubts are totally unfounded, as Chris Pratt is a perfect fit for the role. Not only did he buff up for the role (Pratt can justifiably be called hot now), his perfect comic timing is actually critical for the movie’s success. In fact, his performance here reminds me of Harrison Ford’s two iconic roles as Han Solo and Indiana Jones. While Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista are both serviceable complements, what’s truly impressive is that the two animated characters of Rocket and Groot are not only voiced perfectly by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, they actually carry as much thespian weight as the other live action characters. All five lead characters share great onscreen chemistry, and any combination of the five works well, which is truly a rarity. It’s also a testament to the advance of CG imagery that they manage to integrate so well into the proceedings. The villains don’t fare as well, however, and everyone from Lee Pace to Karen Gillan to Josh Brolin are unmemorable and merely serve to advance the plot along.

The film is also very capable in its other technical aspects. Production design and art direction is excellent, with brand new worlds that are vibrant and meticulously built, with great attention to detail. For once, watching the movie in 3D also seems to be a worthy investment and not an unnecessary expense. It also lives up to its name as an action blockbuster, with a number of well-choreographed, well-animated space dog fights as well as close quarter battles that get the adrenalin flowing.

Personally, despite a Summer season with a good number of quality superhero movies, Guardians of the Galaxy ranks as number one for me. Although the MCU output so far has had relatively few clunkers, Guardians of the Galaxy still stands out as being such a unique and special entity that gets so many things right, that I’m inclined to also say that this is the best MCU movie to date. There does seem to be a surfeit of unresolved plotlines, but given that the sequel is already greenlit, it’s not too major a concern. It’s going to be a long, long wait to July 2017 when we will finally be able to rejoin the Guardians on their next, hopefully equally zany and entertaining, adventure.

P.S If you thought that nothing could be more inane than The Avengers’ shawarma end credits coda, well, stay around for the coda to this one. One only hopes that the character reference in the coda does not suggest a remake to what I feel was a TERRIBLE movie the first time round.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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