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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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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