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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Super 8 * * * *

Genre: Action/Drama

Director: J.J. Abrams  

Writer: J.J. Abrams

Cast: Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich, Gabriel Basso, Joel Courtney, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Amanda Michalka

Running Length: 112 minutes

Synopsis: In the summer of 1979, a group of friends in a small Ohio town witness a catastrophic train crash while making a super 8mm movie and soon suspect that it was not an accident. Shortly after, unusual disappearances and inexplicable events begin to take place in town, and the local Deputy (Kyle Chandler) tries to uncover the truth – which is more terrifying than any of them could have possibly imagined… 

Review: Super 8 is a movie that defies easy classification – it’s an old school creature feature, a coming of age movie, a teen romance and a nostalgic homage to the era that many of us are familiar with – and perhaps only the talented J. J. Abrams could have pulled it off with such panache. Make no mistake: Super 8 has become the movie to beat this summer season, a film that perfectly balances action, sci-fi, romance, comedy and drama, and augmented by some fine performances and great dialogue to boot. It may come as little surprise that the executive producer of the film is Steven Spielberg, because this is practically a loving tribute to Spielberg’s earlier canon of work. 

Part of the fun of Super 8 is finding out what exactly happens in the little town of Lillian and the film’s protagonists, so to delve any further into the plot would be rather spoilerly. Suffice to say, however, that not only is the central mystery a fun one to figure out (and really wouldn’t take too much brain power), even the film’s subplots are interesting and involving, and everything is paced so well that it’s hard to imagine that the person responsible for such movie magic only has three films under his belt (to be fair Abrams has had a long and rather successful TV career before this). The only criticism that can be levelled at the film would be for the denouement – it ends a little too abruptly, and the conclusion is so soft, cuddly and Spielbergian that it almost descends into the realm of parody. 

Despite the old-school sensibilities of Super 8, the film boasts some cutting edge visual effects and fantastic action set pieces, none more impressive than the heart-stopping train crash that occurs early on in the film. It’s hands down one of the most intense action sequences I’ve seen played out, and the level of realism is incredible. The monster animation isn’t quite as successful, but perhaps this is due more to the film being somewhat of a facsimile of old creature films, and the animation is intended to be cheesier. 

Special mention must be made of the child actors in Super 8, who give stellar performances and are very much a big part of the reason why the film is so engaging. Elle Fanning is very impressive (and there’s even a memorable “performance of a performance” early on), but even the less famous child actors manage to deliver. The fact that audiences will almost certainly become vested in these children is core to the film’s emotional resonance, and only with such unexpectedly great acting does the entire film come into its own as first-rate.  

Super 8 is a great film that holds wide appeal to both young and old viewers, but one wonders if the typical attention-deficit cinemagoer will eschew this film for the more famous faces and stories that other summer blockbusters would boast of. Those that do take the plunge, however, will find themselves (and their inner child) richly rewarded with one of the best cinematic experiences of the year so far. One last thing – remember to stay for the first part of the end credits for a very, very enjoyable short film that is guaranteed to make you leave the cinema with a smile on your face. 

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

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X-Men: First Class * * * *

Genre: Action

Director: Matthew Vaughn  

Writers: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn

Cast: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne

Running Length: 132 minutes

Synopsis: Charting the epic beginning of the X-Men saga, X-Men: First Class is set in the 60s, before Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) took on the names Professor X and Magneto and became archenemies. The two were young men discovering their powers for the first time, and were close friends working together to discover other mutants who have so far lived in hiding. However, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), aided by other mutants, is trying to ignite World War III by manipulating both the Russians and the Americans into the Cuban Missile Crisis. Charles and Erik must put aside their differences to defeat Shaw, but their alliance grows weaker by the day as the rifts begin to form.  

Review: I will be the first to admit that I hadn’t expected much from X-Men: First Class. After all, the X-Men movie franchise had been in a steady decline, apparent especially in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and it would not have been surprising if this fifth film (though chronologically the first) simply continued the trend. Surprise, surprise – X-Men: First Class is a summer blockbuster with brains, and apart from the usual assault on the senses, this is a film that actually remembers what makes a movie truly great: telling a compelling story.

The narrative weight of X-Men: First Class could have done the movie in – the 132-minute movie probably contains one of the densest superhero movie plots ever, packed with multiple plot threads, a whole slew of characters and origin stories, and integrating real-life events (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) into the fictional X-Men universe to boot. However, the screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn manages to pull it off, and the end result is a film that strikes a great balance between emotional character moments and exhilarating action set pieces, while moving things along at a very good pace throughout. Even the slightly weaker middle portion doesn’t feel like a drag, which in such a long film is no mean feat. 

This is further augmented by an almost uniformly excellent cast, with major props going to both James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, whose nuanced portrayals of the tragic heroes form the emotional centre of the movie. There’s also great chemistry between the two, allowing audiences to become vested in their friendship and their eventual split. Kudos must also go to Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult, who are key characters in an important subplot and stand out from the supporting cast.

X-Men: First Class also boasts excellent art direction and production design with a keen eye for the period it is set in, allowing the film to exude a James Bond-esque vibe that adds to the allure of the movie. Special effects are top rate, as is expected these days, and the action sequences are well-choreographed and thrilling, with an almost operatic grandeur that is not often seen in movies of this genre. Additional brownie points go the filmmakers for not resorting to gimmicky 3D, presenting the film in glorious, old-school 2D.

Truly a first class movie, and not just in the superhero genre, one can only hope that this reinvigoration of the X-Men franchise will lead to other similarly excellent films down the line. Although there are a number of superhero films due to be released later this year, it’s going to take a lot to knock X-Men: First Class off the top spot.

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

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The King’s Speech * * * *

Genre: Drama

Director: Tom Hooper

Writer: David Seidler

Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Derek Jacobi, Guy Pearce, Timothy Spall

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: Beginning in 1925, The King’s Speech tells the story of Prince Albert (Colin Firth), the second son of King George V (Michael Gambon). As he’s not the eldest son, he is not expected to ascend to the throne. However, when his older brother Prince Edward (Guy Pearce) abdicates after the death of their father, the unwilling Prince Albert is forced to take his brother’s place. Albert’s wife, Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) is equally unwilling to take up residence in Buckingham Palace. Also, the King is expected to make live speeches over the radio, another problem arises – Albert has a severe stuttering problem, and renders him virtually incapable of public speaking. In an attempt to rid himself of this speech impediment, he seeks out Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), a speech therapist harking from Australia and is known for his unorthodox (but effective) methods. The importance of overcoming his stutter is increased when the world is on the brink of descending into another World War, and Albert has to inspire and lead his people into war. 

Review: The synopsis for The King’s Speech may make it out to be a stuffy, boring biopic, but the end result is anything but. In fact, The King’s Speech is likely to be one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences in 2011, with an accessible, fascinating storyline (and a true one, at that), and some of the best ensemble acting I have seen in years. All the acting award nominations and accolades that the cast have received so far this awards season are truly deserving. Coupled with the polished, rousing screenplay and the assured direction of Tom Hooper, and it’s easy to see why The King’s Speech will end up as one of the best films in 2011 despite its early release date. 

There’s no denying that Colin Firth is an excellent actor, and in The King’s Speech he gives a performance that mirrors Helen Mirren’s equally brilliant turn as Queen Elizabeth in The Queen. Firth completely immerses himself in the role, effectively transforming into Prince Albert, and easily becomes the emotional centre of the movie. It’s not easy acting out a convincing stutter, but Firth more or less nails it.    Colin Firth deserves not just his Oscar nomination, but the win itself. 

Geoffrey Rush has the unenviable task of being cast opposite Firth as his foil, but Rush more than holds his own with a equally good performance as the quirky speech therapist who doesn’t quite know how to deal with a “celebrity client” like Prince Albert. Helena Bonham Carter is delightful in her small number of scenes, and the added bonus is that both these supporting actors have very good chemistry with Firth. Even the minor characters are rather impressive – Timothy Spall does a pretty convincing interpretation of Winston Churchill, and Michael Gambon exudes a regal air as King George V, amongst others. Fans of the Pride and Prejudice mini-series that made Colin Firth a household name would also be pleased to note that Jennifer Ehle, his co-star in the series, also shares screen time with him in The King’s Speech as Lionel’s wife (this is their first collaboration since P&P). 

The final scene of the movie, which revolves around the delivery of the titular speech, is a stellar example of top-notch filmmaking – the environment is sparsely adorned both visually and aurally, and only the two performers, Rush and Firth, factor into the scene. Hooper leads the audience into focusing on the back-and-forth that occurs between the two actors during the delivery of the speech, and when it concludes, it’s almost impossible to not feel a sense of exhilaration at what had just transpired. There’s no fancy camerawork, no visual trickery, and definitely no 3D – The King’s Speech harkens back to a time where films are taken solely on their core merits and not the pointless frills, and this it does very, very well. 

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

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Buried * * * *

Genre: Thriller

Director: Rodrigo Cortes

Writer: Chris Sparling

Cast: Ryan Reynolds

Running Length: 94 minutes

Synopsis: Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) is an American working in Iraq as a non-military truck driver. Unfortunately, his convoy comes under attack and he blacks out; when he comes to, Paul discovers that he is buried alive in a wooden coffin. Fortunately, Paul discovers that he has, amongst other items, a lighter, a pencil, and a working mobile phone with half its battery life and a weak reception. Using the mobile phone, Paul desperately tries to make connections with anyone that can help him out of his predicament, but not everyone he manages to contact with the phone have his best interests at heart…

Review: It is perhaps not surprising that this movie, though starring Ryan Reynolds, was birthed not in the USA but in Spain. Very few movies made in the USA would have the audacity to try to accomplish what Rodrigo Cortes has tried to do here, but what’s even more impressive is that it works. Buried is not an easy film to watch, and it might not be even considered an entertaining film, but it manages to present its single-minded proposition with such clarity and purpose that it is impossible not to feel impressed. Rodrigo Cortes has done an amazing job (although I question his choice of denouement), and Ryan Reynolds manages to put forth what is probably his best performance to date.

Unlike most movies founded on similar “locked room” concepts (Devil is a recent example), Buried never shifts its focus from the coffin and devotes the full 94-minute running time to Ryan Reynolds and the box he is trapped in. There are no flashbacks to fill out the story, no other peripheral characters on screen (although a fair number of characters are heard via Paul’s many phone conversations), and perhaps most surprisingly, no situations that don’t work in the film’s internal logic. The film’s plot feels watertight even after the credits roll, which is quite a rare occurrence these days.

Rodrigo Cortes manages to avoid visual monotony by offering up a surprising number of camera angles and introducing new plot elements just when the film seems to settle into a comfortable (relatively) groove. This creates an excellent atmosphere for the film, and the pacing is spot on, relentlessly piling on the sense of dread, never letting up till the very end.

Ryan Reynolds is perhaps better known for his pretty boy looks and his excellent physique, but in Buried he actually puts forth a very strong performance. This being literally a one-man show, Reynolds carries the entire weight of the movie on his shoulders and yet manages to do so with great aplomb. This is not an easy role – he is confined to a small space and yet has to portray a wide gamut of emotions, ranging from fear to anger to resignation. And because Reynolds’ portrayal is so believable, it is very easy to identify with and have a vested interest in his character’s fate. 

Buried is a very intense cinematic experience which honestly isn’t for everyone – if you’re looking for the typical action thriller movie then this would not fit neatly into the mould. However, if you are willing to give the movie a chance, this could possibly be one of the best movies you’ll see this year. Even if you don’t agree, be assured that this will not be a movie that you will forget anytime soon, and in a sea of same-old, me-too movies, that in itself is a quality that’s increasingly hard to find in the theatres nowadays.

Rating:  * * * * (out of four stars)

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Inception * * * *

Genre: Science Fiction / Thriller

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cilian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine

Running Length: 148 minutes

Synopsis: The less one knows about the plot of Inception, the better – so I will be brief. Set in a world when humans are able to enter the dreams of others, information that has been hidden away in the mind is no longer safe from prying hands. These thieves of dreams are known as “extractors”, and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is one of the best in the field. However, when corporate magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe) contacts Cobb and partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he is not looking for extraction but “inception” – the planting of an idea in one’s head. Cobb is convinced to take on the job, and has to assemble a motley crew, each fulfilling a specific purpose, to try to successfully attempt inception.

Review: Can Christopher Nolan do no wrong? First noticed for the exceptional mind bender that was Memento, Nolan has moved on to create two of the best superhero movies of all time (namely Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), and now Inception – his 10-year old project – has finally made it to the big screens. I’m happy to say that Inception continues Nolan’s winning streak, and it’s very simply the best live-action film I’ve seen this year.

Inception has an amazingly detailed story, working on multiple levels at one go, augmented by exceptional action sequences, good performances from its leads, some stunning camerawork and stuntwork, a great score and has been edited faultlessly. Seems like a lot of superlatives in one sentence, but Inception really manages to tick off almost every check box – to say that it’s an instant classic isn’t an overstatement.

Inception is a film that demands your undivided attention – it’s a long movie (almost two and a half hours), and the storyline is so complex that even a quick toilet break may mean a gap in comprehension. Make no mistake, this is a film that stands up to repeat viewings, and practically demands it. The concept may not be very new – there are shades of The Matrix, Dark City, Minority Report and more in Inception, but much like the best of these films, Inception presents it in a new light. The multi-layered narrative structure – at one point in the movie, four narrative layers were unfolding at the same time – could have been extremely confusing, but Nolan manages to weave the narratives together seamlessly, augmented by some excellent editing, and surrounds it with a watertight internal logic that helps with audience immersion.

Intellectual stimulation aside, Inception is also very accomplished as an action movie. A number of action set pieces are very thrilling and high-octane, rivaling any big budget actioner out there for adrenaline kicks. Visual effects do not overpower the raw action, and it’s very encouraging to note that Nolan had used physical sets in a fair number of scenes instead of relying solely on green screen wizadry. One particularly impressive scene involves Joseph Gordon-Levitt careening through a hotel corridor with varying levels of gravity, and it’s an extremely well-choreographed action sequence that truly excites the mind. This level of accomplishment comes as no surprise, since Nolan has managed to put together equally impressive action set pieces in the Batman movies. This is, to use a clichéd but apt phrase, truly a thinking man’s action movie. 

This is Leonardo DiCaprio’s second outing in a psychological thriller this year, the first being Scorsese’s Shutter Island. His performance here is more subdued and not quite so over the top (read: less “crazy eyes”) than in Shutter Island, which makes Cobb a fair bit more believable as a character and serves as a good emotional anchor in the film. Ellen Page is saddled with the unenviable task of delivering almost all the expository lines in the film, but still manages to do a pretty decent job as Cobb’s muse (of sorts). Amongst the rest of the strong supporting cast, Marion Cotillard’s performance is the standout – although she appears in a mere handful of scenes, they are impactful and memorable, and Mal easily becomes a central character despite having the least screen time.  

Inception bucks the trend of remakes, retreads, sequels and mindless action films that have overwhelmingly populated cinemas in recent years, and is a fresh, new piece of cinema that excites the senses and the mind. With the commercial success of the Batman movies, Nolan could have churned out cookie-cutter action films with guaranteed box office returns, but with Inception it’s clear he was willing to make a gamble for a project that’s close to his heart. Inception succeeds on many levels and is testament to Nolan’s talent, and is the first live-action film this year that I can recommend to any moviegoer without any reservation.

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

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Toy Story 3 * * * *

Genre: Animation

Director: Lee Unkrich

Writer:  Michael Arndt, based on a story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich

Voice Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Ned Beatty, Don Rickles, Michael Keaton, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris

Running Length: 98 minutes

Synopsis: Years have passed and Andy is now preparing to go to college. The few toys that remain – which include Woody (Tom Hanks), Jessie (Joan Cusack) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen),  are naturally worried for their fates, but Woody reassures them that they will all live in the attic until the next generation comes along and plays with them. Unfortunately, a series of incidents occur that lead to the toys ending up at a daycare centre, which initially seems like a dream come true as there is no lack of children to play with the toys. However, the daycare centre is ruled with an iron fist by Lots-o’-Huggin’-Bear (Ned Beatty), and Andy’s toys soon realize they need to make their way back to their owner. Escaping the daycare centre, however, is not going to be an easy task…

Review:  It’s been 15 years since the first Toy Story enchanted audiences both young and old, and 11 years since Toy Story 2 upped the ante even further. I am very pleased to say that Toy Story 3 has managed to maintain the pedigree of the Toy Story franchise, and manages to (presumably) conclude the Toy Story movies on a level that other animation studios can only dream of. With an excellent mix of action, comedy, and pathos, coupled with great characterization, good visuals, and a compelling plot for both children and adults alike, it’s not hard to presume, even at this point, that Toy Story 3 will be the best summer film I’ll see this year. I’ll even go out on a limb and say that this is probably one of the best movies of the year, if not the best.

It’s a given nowadays that computer animated films will look very polished and highly detailed, and of course Pixar is no different in this aspect. The look of Toy Story 3 is of course improved over the previous two films, but when computer animated films are released with such frequency these days, it’s no longer as easy to impress. And of course there’s the issue of 3D, which seems to be the Holy Grail for movies released of late. I believe the cinema in which I had caught the preview was not calibrated properly for 3D, which resulted in a very distracting background “shimmer” that made viewing a very taxing and distracting experience. However, even if this is accounted for, the 3D implementation of Toy Story 3 is woefully inadequate, and there are extended moments in the film where nothing very 3D seems to be going on. This is perhaps the only true blemish I can find in Toy Story 3, and hence my recommendation is to save the money and just catch the film in “plain” 2D.

Like many of its Pixar predecessors, the aspect in which Toy Story 3 truly shines is story, story, story. Although children will be able to enjoy the movie on a basic level (note that some scenes may be a little too intense for the very young), much of the movie will only truly resonate with adult viewers. Many of the gags, especially those involving Ken and Barbie’s romantic endeavours, will definitely be better appreciated by the secondary audience. Also, the amazing depth of emotion that can be found in this animated film is not even usually achieved by a live-action film, and huge props must go to Pixar for having crafted such a masterful work. One of the best examples of this is near the film’s end, after all the action has come and gone, where Andy introduces each of his toys to a little girl. Much like the first 10 minutes of Up, this scene packs such a massive emotional wallop that it wouldn’t be surprising to find more than a few audience members with tears in their eyes as the credits roll.

Few movie franchises manage to deliver after a couple of sequels, and it’s great to see that whilst Toy Story 3 has pulled it off, the denouement does also seem to suggest that there won’t be another sequel somewhere down the road. It’s possibly the best send-off we can get for these familiar and well-loved characters, and the Toy Story trilogy will live on timelessly as all great movies do. If you pick one animated film to watch in 2010, make sure it’s Toy Story 3.

Rating:  * * * * (out of four stars)

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