Arrival

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma

Running Length:  116 minutes

Synopsis: Taking place after alien crafts land around the world, an expert linguist is recruited by the military to determine whether they come in peace or are a threat.

Review: Arrival is a revelation in more ways than one – not only is it another feather in Denis Villeneuve’s increasingly crowded cap, it’s also Amy Adams’ best performance of her career so far, almost certain to score her another Academy Award nomination (and likely her first win), and one of the smartest sci-fi movies to hit the theatres in quite some time.

What’s truly refreshing about Arrival is how it bravely defies almost every single cliché of alien movies, and nothing will play out like what most audiences think they would. The trailers may seem to have given the plot away, but rest assured that there are plenty of surprises still to be had. To discuss more about the plot would be spoilerly, but trust that your mind will be thoroughly screwed (and possibly blown) by the time the credits roll.

Amy Adams has turned in solid work throughout her career, but this is certainly a defining moment for her. She is understated but nuanced, and manages to convey a complexity of emotions with minimal theatrics. In Arrival the lead performance is critical to the success of the film, and while supporting characters like Renner and Whitaker are perfectly fine, Adams is what turns the film into a superlative experience.

Denis Villeneuve has impressed time and again with his films, but Arrival manages to achieve the perfect balance of a cerebral film that still has mainstream appeal. While the pace might come across as ponderous to some, his patience in letting the audience slowly take to the engaging story of Arrival is why the film packs such a punch eventually. Add to the fact that the film is beautifully lensed by Bradford Young and accompanied by a spare, haunting score by Johann Johansson, and the result is hardly surprising – a film that is immediately one of the best of this new year, an instant classic, and warrants a repeat viewing on the big screen to take all its minutiae in.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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Inside Out

Genre: Animation

Directors: Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen

Screenplay: Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley

Voice Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle McLachlan

Running Length: 94 minutes

Synopsis: Growing up can be a bumpy road, and it’s no exception for Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), who is uprooted from her Midwest life when her father starts a new job in San Francisco. Like all of us, Riley is guided by her emotions – Joy (Amy Poehler), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith). The emotions live in Headquarters, the control center inside Riley’s mind, where they help advise her through everyday life. As Riley and her emotions struggle to adjust to a new life in San Francisco, turmoil ensues in Headquarters. Although Joy, Riley’s main and most important emotion, tries to keep things positive, the emotions conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.

Review: It had almost seemed like Pixar’s stellar run was at its end – Toy Story 3 was the last truly great Pixar film and that was way back in 2010. The following few films – Cars 2, Brave and Monster’s University – were good at best, mediocre at worst. I am glad to say that after a one year gap, Pixar has finally returned to form with Inside Out, which ranks amongst the very best films the studio has released since its inception. Inside Out is one of those rare films that will undoubtedly please the little ones, but bears much more poignancy and deeper meaning for the grown-ups. What’s also remarkable is how inventive this film is, with such a clean and easy-to-grasp take on neuropsychology that it really needs to be seen to be believed.

The premise of Inside Out is nearly impossible to articulate – essentially it asks the question “what if your feelings had feelings”? Yet, Pixar has managed to flesh out a fully-functioning universe based around the concept that everything we think and feel is governed by five emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust, and that our experiences form spheres that are being looked after by these emotions and a supporting crew. The really important experiences become core memory spheres, powering the “islands” that shape a person’s personality. It’s amazingly inventive – the Pixar team has managed to think of everything, from how a person loses some memories, to how dreams come about, and even why certain songs and jingles become annoying earworms that pop up at the most inopportune moments. While it may not look like it at first glance, Inside Out is certainly one of the smartest films I’ve seen in a very long time.

This actually poses a small problem for Inside Out – the cleverest, most poignant moments in the film will also be the ones that will connect least with the younger audiences. I cannot envision any child being able to appreciate why Joy, Sadness and Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong are reduced to Dadaist shapes when they enter Abstract Thought. Even more so, while Bing Bong has a zany but cute character design – he even cries tears of candy, adults should come prepared with tissues as his story plays out. The film remains generally a bright and colourful one, and there’s enough fun moments in it to please the kids, but suffice to say older viewers will be the one to really experience fully what Inside Out has to offer.

That the film looks amazing is almost a given, but it does come across as rather surprising that almost no effort has been made to make Inside Out pop a bit more in the third dimension – this will be a film best seen without the encumbrance of 3D glasses. But really, this is all nitpicking – Inside Out is not only one of the best animated films I’ve seen in recent years, I believe it has a legitimate chance of a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars next year, and automatically gets a slot in my best-of list for 2015. It may sound a little hyperbolic, but Inside Out is a masterpiece that should not be missed, and one that will stand the test of time, still enjoyable and meaningful years down the road.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Genre: Drama, Comedy

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Screenplay: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo

Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Zach Galiafianakis, Lindsay Duncan

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: Birdman is a black comedy that tells the story of an actor, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) – famous for portraying an iconic superhero – as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself.

Review: If I had to pick just one word to describe Birdman, it would have to be “dazzling”. Not only is the film breathtaking in its technical achievements, it also happens to be an excellent ensemble film, with superlative performances coming from almost everyone in the cast, and boasts an entertaining plot to boot. This is one of the best cinematic experiences I have had in quite some time, and even this early into 2015, I would imagine it to be pretty difficult for any movie to trump Birdman for pole position for the rest of the year.

Although Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has had a pretty impressive CV to date (his four previous feature films – Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful – have all received critical acclaim), they have uniformly been pretty serious, “downer” films. Birdman seems to be the first time the director is having fun, and the result is a film that is a joy to sit through from start to finish, and is so intricately layered that it would be wise to plan ahead and avoid any toilet breaks throughout the 2-hour running time.

It almost seems like an impossible task, but Inarritu, together with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (fresh off his Oscar win for Gravity last year), has managed to create an illusion of a film that is composed of a single, uninterrupted take. Yes, it is essentially a one trick pony, but when the trick is so visually impressive it’s hard to criticize the endeavour. The long and immaculately choreographed tracking shots are incredible to observe, and although not entirely seamless, is an exhilarating cinematic accomplishment. As expected, Lubezki has secured an Oscar nomination and I cannot see any more deserving winner this year.

Michael Keaton gives a career-best performance as Riggan Thompson, and because the role of Riggan Thompson seems to mirror Keaton’s real life career (Keaton walked away from the Batman franchise almost 20 years ago, after a successful two-movie run), the lines between make-believe and reality are blurred to the benefit of the film’s narrative. Equally on form is Edward Norton, perfectly cast as the equally talented and egotistic Mike Shiner, again seemingly lampooning Norton’s real-life method acting quirks. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, with special mention going to Emma Stone, who knocks it out of the park playing the damaged, fresh out of rehab daughter of Thompson (and sets the screen alight with the crackling chemistry between her and Norton in a few short, but key sequences).

In this era of tired sequels, endless remakes and big budget Hollywood blockbusters, gems like Birdman come few and far between. That it is both technically accomplished and still an eminently entertaining film is the cherry on top. It feels fresh despite treading familiar tropes, and much like its jazz soundtrack, is reminiscent of improv of the highest caliber. I cannot recommend this enough, and anyone who professes a love for cinema needs to watch Birdman at least once.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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Gone Girl

Genre: Drama

Director: David Fincher

Writer: Gillian Flynn, based on her novel of the same name

Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, David Clennon, Lisa Banes, Missi Pyle, Emily Ratajkowski, Casey Wilson, Lola Kirke, Boyd Holbrook, Sela A. Ward

Running Length: 149 minutes

Synopsis: On the occasion of his fifth wedding anniversary, Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) reports that his beautiful wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike), has gone missing. Under pressure from the police and a growing media frenzy, Nicks portrait of a blissful union begins to crumble. Soon his lies, deceits and strange behavior have everyone asking the same dark question: Did Nick Dunne kill his wife?

Review: I have long been an ardent fan of David Fincher’s work, and it comes as no surprise (to me at least) that his latest, Gone Girl, is yet another excellent cinematic achievement. Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s bestselling 2012 novel of the same name, Gone Girl is flawlessly directed, capably supported by Fincher’s regular crew, and features a number of brilliant performances, none more so than Rosamund Pike’s career-defining turn as Amy Dunne. Gone Girl is an impossibly deft mix of a police procedural, a whodunit, a domestic drama, and a darkly comic exploration of the state of media culture in present times. It runs a long 149 minutes, but is deeply absorbing from the get-go, and qualifies easily as one of the must-watch films this year.

It is best to enter a viewing of Gone Girl with little to no foreknowledge of the plot, and thankfully the trailers released for the film has not managed to give anything away (kudos to 20th Century Fox for showing enough restraint and respect for the film). As is my practice, this review will not contain any obvious spoilers, but readers who are averse to spoilers of any magnitude may want to avoid proceeding any further till after watching the movie.

It’s really quite impossible to take the story of Gone Girl seriously, and it goes far, far down the rabbit hole in terms of implausibility. But therein lies the beauty of pairing the source material with Fincher – even though I knew it made no sense whatsoever, it did not detract from the viewing experience at all because the film was so well made. All the Fincher regulars are involved – the film is shot beautifully by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, edited flawlessly by Kirk Baxter (the dual timeline narrative structure could not have been easy to edit coherently), and the pulsing, electronica-infused classical score is perfectly suited to the film’s unsettling nature.

What truly makes the movie stand out, however, is the quality of performances from all the actors involved. Every speaking role leaves a strong impression, particularly Kim Dickens whose hard-as-nails police investigator effortlessly steals the limelight every time she makes an appearance. Then there are the twin performances from Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike – Affleck has proven his solid acting skills in previous outings, but here he is an inspired choice as the cocky writer who gradually loses his dignity and pride. The constantly shifting perspective means you can never be too sure of Nick’s intents and motives, and Affleck manages to convince in an understated, restrained yet nuanced performance.

And then there’s Rosamund Pike. Pike has done solid work in supporting roles over the years, but here she is a revelation as Amy. The role requires a truly broad emotional scope, and she manages to nail all of them, from wide-eyed ingénue to demure enchantress to being cold and calculative. Charismatic yet chilling, her performance consistently demands the attention of the audience, and feels like it’s multiple roles compressed into one.  That she manages to fully embody this complex character is a triumph – this is a star-making role for Pike and one I feel that’s deserving of an Oscar nomination, if not a win. (A side anecdote – her performance in a scene was so impressive that some audience members in the normal screening I attended began to applaud spontaneously.)

That the story and its internal logic starts to unravel in Gone Girl’s final reels isn’t all too material to the enjoyment of the film – by then, Fincher and team have managed to weave such an engrossing, deliciously macabre tale that the old adage that it’s the journey, not the destination rings true. Anyone with a penchant for the twisted will definitely relish this dark, stylish and sexy movie.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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Before Midnight

Genre: Drama

Director: Richard Linklater

Writers: Richard Linklater & Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Running Length: 109 minutes

Synopsis: In Before Midnight, we meet Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) 9 years on. Almost 2 decades have passed since that first meeting on a train bound for Vienna, and we now find them in their early 40’s in Greece. Before the clock strikes midnight, we will again become part of their story.

Review: It’s rare for a movie these days to be entirely about dialogue, but Richard Linklater’s sequel to the well-loved Before Sunrise and Before Sunset movies is exactly that. Yes, this is about as much of a “talkie” as one can get, but when the dialogue is of such high quality it’s impossible to fault. Before Midnight bucks the increasingly popular trend of dumbing down movies for the largest possible mass audience, and yet remains such a pleasure to watch that audiences who are mentally prepared for the movie would find themselves richly rewarded.

A caveat: although Before Midnight can be viewed as a standalone movie, much of the context would be lost if one has not watched Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, so much so that it should almost be a prerequisite. Having gotten that out of the way, for viewers who are familiar with Jesse and Celine, this movie answers the “what if?” definitively – the two have become an item, and in the time the audience have spent apart from them, they have also become parents to a pair of twins. While it was all magical romance in the previous instalments, Before Midnight takes the duo in a slightly different direction. Interactions between the couple are now tinged with more real world weariness and bitterness, although it’s still clear that love remains between the two.

The truly impressive feat about Before Midnight is how real it all feels. There are moments in Before Midnight where it almost doesn’t feel like a scripted movie at all, and there’s a distinct sense of deja vu because all of it feels so familiar and so true to real life. The centrepiece in the latter part of the film is an argument between Jesse and Celine, and I dare say anyone who’s attached or married would find that scene eerily close to at least one occasion that they would have experienced themselves.  The first half of the film also features a dinner table conversation amongst friends that would possibly rank as the most memorable and impressive dramatic set piece this year. It may all seem prosaic at first, but the way that scene builds and builds (and its eventual conclusion) is simply remarkable writing and filmmaking.

Linklater never allows anything to overtake the interaction between the couple, with camerawork (and even the soundtrack) kept to a very simplistic level. Together with the fact that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are both intimately acquainted with their respective characters (they are also credited as co-writers in this instalment, as they were in Before Sunset), it is little wonder that the level of verisimilitude is so high. It’s tempting to suggest that these characters are at least in part a reflection of the actors’ true selves, because it almost doesn’t feel like they are inhabiting a character at times.

While the previous films have been left relatively open-ended, the denouement of Before Midnight feels more definite. There seems to be little wiggle room and does seem to close off the possibility of another sequel, but when the level of enjoyment one can obtain from the trifecta, it would be a pleasure either way. It’s hard to imagine any other movie being able to reach such dramatic perfection this year.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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The Dark Knight Rises * * * *

Genre: Action

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan, based on characters written by Bob Kane

Cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Anne Hathaway, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Running Length: 165 minutes

Synopsis: It’s been eight years since the events that unfolded in The Dark Knight, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) is now a shadow of his former self, broken both physically and emotionally, casting himself into self-seclusion. An encounter with the sexy cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) jolts him out of his stupor, and with a new villain Bane (Tom Hardy) in Gotham City threatening the city’s survival, Bruce has to decide whether to become the caped crusader again. He is aided by his trusty butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), his right-hand man at Wayne Enterprises, and Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman). Several other characters also enter the fray, including police officer John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as well as Wayne Enterprises board member and potential love interest of Bruce Wayne, Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard).

Review: All good things have to come to an end, and after 7 long years, the final installment of Christopher Nolan’s game-changing Batman trilogy has finally arrived. The Dark Knight is a very tough act to follow, and whilst The Dark Knight Rises does not manage to reach the same heights that its predecessor attained, the film is about as good a sendoff to the series as one would hope to get.  

Let’s get the downsides out of the way first: there’s a slight sense of overreach when it comes to The Dark Knight Rises, as though there really isn’t enough time (even in a movie that runs close to 3 hours long) to cover every aspect of the complex narrative web that Christopher and his brother Jonathan have weaved. There are just a touch too many characters involved in the proceedings, to the point where it does seem that some of these characters have been given short shrift – even Batman himself doesn’t take centerstage all that often, despite this being a movie that ostensibly revolves around him.

Yet, these are merely minor quibbles in the grander scheme of things, and The Dark Knight Rises satisfies in ways that few superhero movies can hope to do. Things are never simple in Nolan’s cinematic universes, and in the realm of his Dark Knight, the characters carry far greater emotional weight than one would expect for a superhero movie, and the universally excellent performances (except perhaps for a blander than usual Marion Cotillard) help to give multi-dimensionality. Combined, this means much greater audience investment into the outcomes of these characters, which is never a bad thing.

The Dark Knight Rises also focuses on something that is usually left by the wayside for a superhero movie – it reminds us that beneath the mask, Batman is a normal human being. From the walking stick that Bruce Wayne now depends on, to Alfred’s questioning his intentions for returning as Batman, the caped crusader’s physical vulnerability is underscored repeatedly.

Christian Bale continues to give a superlative performance as Bruce Wayne and Batman, and despite the significant female presence in the movie (Anne Hathaway is particularly memorable as Selina Kyle/Catwoman, although it’s very different from Michelle Pfeiffer’s campy Catwoman), the best emotional sequences arise from interactions between Wayne and his butler Alfred. Christian Bale and Michael Caine will quite possibly be the best iterations of these two characters ever, much like how the late Heath Ledger has completely overshadowed any other actor that have been (or will become) the Joker. Tom Hardy’s Bane is menacing and yet charismatic, though his performance is somewhat hampered by the large mask that he wears. An additional caveat: the distortion of Bane’s voice does makes some of his dialogue almost unintelligible.

The Dark Knight Rises is equally accomplished on the technical front. This is an incredibly good looking film, benefiting from Wally Pfister’s excellent cinematography and Nolan’s masterful framing of shots. Over an hour of footage has been shot on IMAX film, and the movie is best appreciated on an IMAX screen. Nolan is known for avoiding CGI whenever possible, and there’s an organic feel to the movie (which is entirely shot on film as well) which is hard to find in any action movie these days. Hans Zimmer’s score also forms an integral part of the movie, punctuating the action sequences with percussion heavy cues, but also judiciously using silence and dialing back on the pomposity whenever needed.

Without giving anything away, let’s just say that Nolan has given as much closure to his trilogy as possible, but has still left the door slightly open for the studio’s benefit. The denouement of The Dark Knight Rises isn’t as ambiguous as Inception, but this is without a doubt a “thinking man’s superhero movie”, requiring a consistent engagement of the mind. It’s a change of pace from most summer action films, but the film remains thrilling and engrossing throughout, despite its extended running time.

Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight have largely missed out on Oscar action, barring Heath Ledger’s posthumous Supporting Actor win. Hopefully the Academy will belatedly recognize the greatness of this genre-bending trilogy, and we’ll see a more representative list of nominations for what is undoubtedly the best superhero movie to be released this year.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes * * * *

Genre: Action Thriller

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Writers: Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, suggested by the novel La Planete des Singes by Pierre Boulle

Cast: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow

Running Length: 106 minutes

Synopsis: Set in present day San Francisco, Rise of the Planet of the Apes deals with the aftermath of experiments in genetic engineering that leads to the creation of apes with super intelligence, beginning with Caesar (Andy Serkis), who is adopted by Will Rodman (James Franco), one of the lead scientists in the project. Will has a vested interest in the success of the project because his father (John Lithgow) is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, but Will doesn’t realize how he will eventually play a crucial role in the war between the humans and the apes.

Review: Perhaps this is a new formula for success in Hollywood – instead of tackling the remake of an old movie, creating a prequel to a familiar franchise seems to work extremely well. Cases in point: Batman Begins, Casino Royale and Star Trek. 20th Century Fox has managed to strike gold twice in the same movie season with this formula, first with the seminal X-Men: First Class, and now with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. To be honest, after the disappointing Tim Burton remake a decade back, my expectations of Rise of the Planet of the Apes were not high. Confounding my expectations, this film has turned out to be a late summer season surprise, and is now for me as one of the best films released this year so far.

Much of why Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes such a deep impression is because of the depth of emotion it plumbs. The modern day setting means this is the closest to reality the Apes franchise has been (not factoring in the Burton remake), and hence it’s far easier to identify with the events that unfold on screen. This is also the first time that the apes are not human actors in cheesy costumes and prosthetics, and the CGI is so lifelike there really are only a small number of scenes where the primates look artificial. No surprise that the visual effects are handled by Weta Digital, the company who were behind the effects of the Lord of the Rings franchise and more tellingly, the King Kong remake in 2005.

Most importantly, Andy Serkis seems to have gotten performance capture acting down to an art, and his portrayal of Caesar is so expressive and so believable that he becomes the most sympathetic and fully fleshed out character in the whole film, overshadowing the human actors (who all put in decent performances). Coupled with the fact that a good portion of the film is centred around Caesar and his growth and change, and this strong emotional connection with the central protagonist (and surprisingly, some of the other primate performers) is what pushes the film from being simply good to great. I don’t recall many other movies in recent years that have moved me to such an extent, much less one that is populated at times entirely only by CG characters.

Although there are few classic action set pieces in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, every minute of the film is compellingly building towards the denouement, and nothing feels superfluous. The final showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge is breathtakingly executed, guaranteed to leave audiences on the edge of their seats yet while still being emotionally powerful. Viewers familiar with the original films will find references here and there, but the film is self-contained and accessible to newcomers and veterans alike. Rise of the Planet of the Apes concludes with a setup that leaves the door open for future films, but if they can be as outstanding as this one, it will definitely be a series to look out for.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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