The Magnificent Seven

Genre: Western

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Screenplay: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk

Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier

Running Length:  132 minutes

Synopsis: With the town of Rose Creek under the deadly control of industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), the desperate townspeople employ protection from seven outlaws, bounty hunters, gamblers and hired guns – Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-Hun), Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). As they prepare the town for the violent showdown that they know is coming, these seven mercenaries find themselves fighting for more than money.

Review: The Magnificent Seven is a remake of the 1960 film of the same name, but this is one of “those movies” in which it would actually do the viewer more good if they have never watched the original (which itself is actually also a remake of Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai). While it doesn’t measure up to either original, this remake of The Magnificent Seven is a serviceable, entertaining film that should appeal to most audiences.

While the concept of a motley crew could have been new and fresh in the 60s, in the new millennium it is the norm – ensemble casts can be found across the board in multiple genres of film, most notably the superhero genre that is now the mainstay of blockbuster movies. Apart from the “been there, done that” vibe, the common weakness of many similar films is also found here in The Magnificent Seven – there simply isn’t enough flesh on the bone for many of the ensemble characters, so much so that the audience won’t really feel vested in their outcomes at all.

In a cast that is filled with well-known faces, Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt are the only two that manage to make a mark. Denzel Washington is positioned as the emotional centre of the film, and the seasoned thespian assumes this role with aplomb. Chris Pratt is once again cast as a roguish charmer with all the best lines in the script, and his sharpshooting, sass-talking Josh Faraday is easily the most memorable (and likeable) character in the entire film. Unfortunately, Peter Sarsgaard comes across as a one-dimensional villain and his Bogue fails to convince (on a positive note, at least they didn’t cast Christoph Waltz yet again in this role).

The first hour of The Magnificent Seven is focused on the backstories of the seven-plus characters that populate the show, and is the more interesting half of the movie even if some of the backstories feel a little generic. In the second hour, Fuqua goes back to his action film roots, and it’s essentially one giant, protracted shootout where the vastly outnumbered good guys are able to mow down a ridiculous number of bad guys. While it does go on for a little too long, the action remains engaging enough to not feel tiresome. These seven may not necessarily be magnificent, but are at least a hair above “good enough”.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Lights Out

Genre: Horror

Director: David F. Sandberg

Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the short film by Sandberg

Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten

Running Length: 81 minutes

Synopsis: When Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) left home, she thought she left her childhood fears behind.  Growing up, she was never really sure of what was and wasn’t real when the lights went out…and now her little brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), is experiencing the same unexplained and terrifying events that had once tested her sanity and threatened her safety. A frightening entity with a mysterious attachment to their mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), has reemerged.

But this time, as Rebecca gets closer to unlocking the truth, there is no denying that all their lives are in danger…once the lights go out.

Review: David F. Sandberg’s 3-minute short film in 2013 was an exercise in horror simplicity – a creature that only manifests itself when the lights are out. It was a relatively fun and clever film, and it wasn’t surprising that Lights Out went viral, and more importantly, it got popular enough to get the attention of horror master James Wan. Sandberg’s first full-length feature is based on the same premise, and although it is a little rough around the edges, works very effectively as a commercial horror film, and should please fans of the genre.

The entire 80 minutes of Lights Out is essentially designed as setting up one jump scare after another, and there’s really nothing much else to say except that almost all the scares work as planned. Sure, the mythology behind the female entity is a little muddled and requires a very healthy amount of suspension of disbelief, and like all horror movies the protagonists behave in inexplicably silly (and hence life-threatening) ways, but the film delivers enough thrills for audiences to look past these flaws.

Palmer is effective as the lead, bringing a gravitas to the role while not being cheesy or over the top, like how some scream queens could be. Bello is a little underused as the anguished mother, but the small number of cast members and their general likeability goes a long way in making the audience root for all of them. The most memorable performance, however, belongs to Alexander DiPersia as the slightly clueless love interest of Palmer, and his one big escape sequence from the entity delivers all the goods – it’s scary, it’s thrilling, and it’s actually very funny. Lights Out is the quintessential effective low budget horror film, and I for one will be looking forward to seeing what Sandberg can do in his sophomore effort.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

 

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The BFG

Genre: Drama

Director: Steven Spielberg

Screenplay: Melissa Mathison, based on the book by Roald Dahl

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jermaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader

Running Length: 117 minutes

Synopsis: The tale of a young girl (Ruby Barnhill), the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton) and a benevolent giant known as the BFG (Mark Rylance), who set out on an adventure to capture the evil, man-eating giants who have been invading the human world.

Review: On paper, The BFG movie is something that should see resounding success – after all, it’s based on Roald Dahl’s universally loved book, and the screenplay is written by (the late) Melissa Mathison, who had worked with Steven Spielberg on ET previously. It is surprising that this has not been the case, and The BFG had suffered a disappointing run at the box office in the USA. While there are some slight issues with the pacing, The BFG is an eminently watchable film, and though it is clearly aimed at young audiences, it will likely also appeal to those who have waited a very long time for this book to make the leap to the big screen.

Spielberg has always been at the forefront of technology in his films, and while The BFG doesn’t incorporate any groundbreaking CG work, the motion capture performance of Mark Rylance’s BFG is nothing short of flawless. It’s a testament to how far technology has come, and the BFG (and to a lesser extent, the other nine giants) feels like a living, breathing entity with emotions and personality instead of a digital construct. Landscapes are all impressively rendered, none more so than Dream Country, which forms one of the most visually stunning sequences in the film, well worth the price of entry on its own.

The chemistry between Rylance and newcomer Ruby Barnhill is palpable and their friendship is believable. However, their friendship also remains largely superficial and it does get a little hard to feel vested in the outcome of their caper to Buckingham Palace, even though the entire sequence with the Queen of England is undoubtedly the highlight and most enjoyable part of the film. The darker aspects of Dahl’s original story have been toned down somewhat, which makes The BFG an easy recommendation for family viewing.

One of the few flaws in The BFG is that the screenplay moves at a slightly sluggish pace, and there are scenes in which the film grinds to a near-halt. Given the source material, it was probably unnecessary to have the film run at close to two hours long, and a snappier edit may have given more immediacy to the proceedings. Despite the technological achievements of the film, The BFG feels like a “small” movie, especially with Spielberg at the helm.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

 

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Star Trek Beyond

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Justin Lin

Screenplay: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella

Running Length: 122 minutes

Synopsis: In Star Trek Beyond, the Enterprise crew explores the furthest reaches of uncharted space, where they encounter a mysterious new enemy who puts them and everything the Federation stands for to the test.

Review: The first post-reboot Star Trek movie not helmed by J. J. Abrams himself (directorial reins have been passed to Fast & Furious’ Justin Lin, while Abrams is preoccupied with Star Wars), Star Trek Beyond continues the winning streak that the new Star Trek franchise has been enjoying. It brings back everything that made the previous two films a success – a space adventure, comedy, excellent action set pieces and a great ensemble cast. However, the 13th movie in the Star Trek universe does seem to be spinning its wheels a bit, and instead of boldly taking audiences where they’ve never gone before, Star Trek Beyond ends up feeling more like an extended, big-budget episode of the various Star Trek TV series.

While Star Trek Beyond is ostensibly about the captain and the crew of the USS Enterprise, the bulk of the film actually takes place outside the starship. While it’s commendable that screenwriter-actors Pegg and Jung (who shows up as Sulu’s husband, another first for the franchise) for making this creative decision, it does detract somewhat from the “Star Trek experience” where you see all the core crew members of the USS Enterprise interact with each other. That is mitigated somewhat by deeper interactions within small pairings of the crew – Kirk with Chekhov (one of Anton Yelchin’s last roles before his untimely demise), Bones with Spock, Sulu with Uhura, Scotty and newcomer Jaylah (a very effective Sofia Boutella) and so on.

It is this aspect of Star Trek Beyond that truly seems to harken to the series’ TV roots, and despite the big budget and big effects, the film feels small in terms of plot and payoff, and the denouement doesn’t really move the needle either in terms of character or franchise development. The various Star Trek TV series had the luxury of time to build characters and storylines week by week, which is not the case in a summer blockbuster film with a running time of just over two hours, and Star Trek Beyond’s narrative suffers a little due to this.

Justin Lin is an old hand at action sequences, and while it does take some time to get started, the action set pieces are indeed quite well done. Be it an extended unarmed combat sequence, or massive dogfights in space, the action is consistently engaging and thrilling, though it can come across as being slightly confusing at times. 3D looks like it’s another post-production conversion and there was very little in terms of dimensionality that would make shelling out extra for a 3D screening. The soundtrack by Michael Giacchino does its job a little too well at times, and can come across as being just slightly overbearing in key moments of the film. The song choices for the film are quite inspired, however, and feature an excellent, highly memorable use of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”.

Star Trek Beyond is certainly an entertaining Summer blockbuster, and should be able to appeal to general audiences and Trekkies alike. It may not mark a high point in the post-reboot canon, but it has at least maintained the momentum the franchise has gained since 2009. With the new TV series coming in 2017, and the likelihood of at least a fourth film with the current cast, it certainly looks like Star Trek has quite a bright future ahead.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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The Conjuring 2

Genre: Horror

Director: James Wan

Screenplay: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, James Wan, David Leslie Johnson

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente, Lauren Esposito, David Thewlis, Bonnie Aarons

Running Length: 133 minutes

Synopsis: Reprising their roles, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson star as Lorraine and Ed Warren, who, in one of their most terrifying paranormal investigations, travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.

Review: The Conjuring was a breath of fresh air back when it was released in 2013 – an old-school horror film that managed to deliver genuine scares and a very engrossing storyline. While The Conjuring 2 was a sequel born out of financial necessity (The Conjuring made close to $400 million on a $20 million budget), it is still a very, very well-made horror film, even if it doesn’t feel as fresh the second time round.

James Wan is a true master at horror films, and his wizardry is clearly on show in The Conjuring 2. Virtually every scene in the film boasts excellent camerawork, and even the most mundane sequences pulses with menace and dread. Coupled with a terrific (and at times terrifying) soundtrack, even the most jaded moviegoer will be guaranteed a couple of scares. This is despite the truly old-school subject matter in The Conjuring 2 – haunted house, poltergeist activity, an old man apparition, demonic possession – nothing even a casual horror movie fan would be unfamiliar with. I can confidently say that Wan is currently at the top of the horror game with his multiple movie franchises, with no competitor coming even close.

Both Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are back in The Conjuring 2, and a good part of why the film works is due to the strong performances by both actors. Not only are they able to keep the audience vested in their investigations, the couple dynamics are also quite convincing and really help to sell the Warrens’ cause as benevolent paranormal investigators.

While the film does run a little too long, with too much wheel spinning (almost an hour) before truly delving into the actual plot, the film does remain rather engrossing, resembling almost like a whodunit more than a horror film. This could dismay horror film purists, but for general audiences this may actually be seen as a plus point, since there’s more meat on the bones versus the “typical” horror film. While there seems to be a potential for a third film in the franchise, I doubt there is enough material left in the haunted house/demonology barrel for even Wan to not scrape the bottom.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Deadpool

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: Tim Miller

Screenplay: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Leslie Uggams, Brianna Hildebrand, Karan Soni, Jed Rees, Stefan Kapicic, Randal Reeder, Isaac C. Singleton Jr.

Running Length:  107 minutes

Synopsis: Based upon Marvel Comics’ most unconventional anti-hero, Deadpool tells the origin story of former Special Forces operative turned mercenary Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), who after being subjected to a rogue experiment that leaves him with accelerated healing powers, adopts the alter ego Deadpool. Armed with his new abilities and a dark, twisted sense of humor, Deadpool hunts down the man who nearly destroyed his life.

Review:  There’s no denying that the superhero movie genre is now one of the most popular, and in 2016 alone there are a whopping 7 superhero movies being released from both the Marvel and DC camps, with many more planned in the few years ahead. There’s also no denying that everyone is suffering from a little bit of superhero fatigue, which helps explain why Deadpool is such an appealing movie for many cinemagoers. After all, Deadpool is pretty much an anti-superhero, and together with one of the best movie marketing campaigns in recent years, have left many (including myself) anticipating the film with bated breath. Of course, it also helps that the film is being released in February instead of during the summer blockbuster season, with a much sparser release schedule.

Inspired marketing campaign aside, the actual Deadpool movie is indeed quite a refreshing change of pace, even though beneath that irreverent façade lies a pretty standard superhero origins movie. I’ve never witnessed any superhero (or movie, including spoofs) take so many potshots at the superhero movie genre, and in this aspect Deadpool is a tremendous success. Ryan Reynolds is totally in his element as the wisecracking, manic Deadpool, and his comic timing and delivery is close to flawless. Nothing is spared, and everything is fearlessly skewered – Ryan’s own failure in Green Lantern, the X-Men, even 20th Century Fox, and much, much more.

Deadpool also breaks the fourth wall repeatedly, turning to the audience and addressing them directly multiple times, and in one scene, even managing to break the fourth wall a second time while breaking the fourth wall (it truly needs to be seen to be believed). It’s smart to the point of being smart-alecky, and while a lot of it works, there are times where the self-aware, ironic shtick becomes a little tiresome.

The film is also not suited for everyone, as it is far raunchier and violent than usual superhero films, more than deserving of its R (locally, M18) rating.  However, if you have a stomach for the violence and are a fan of off-kilter humour, Deadpool will be a very rewarding cinematic experience that is refreshingly different from any other superhero movie before it.

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: J.J. Abrams

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

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

Running Length: 136 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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