A Star Is Born

Genre: Drama

Director: Bradley Cooper

Screenplay: Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters, based on a story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos, Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Harney

Running Length:135 minutes

Synopsis: A Star is Born stars four-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper and multiple award-winning, Oscar-nominated music superstar Lady Gaga, in her first leading role in a major motion picture. Cooper helms the drama, marking his directorial debut.

In this new take on the tragic love story, he plays seasoned musician Jackson Maine, who discovers – and falls in love with – struggling artist Ally (Lady Gaga). She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer, until Jack coaxes her into the spotlight. But even as Ally’s career takes off, the personal side of their relationship is breaking down, as Jack fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons.

Review: It’s easy to see why the word “Oscar” is being bandied around in almost every review of A Star is Born. While this is the story’s third cinematic iteration, it is easily the best, far outclassing Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson’s take 42 (!) years ago. Retaining the music industry setting of the ’76 film but updating the content to reflect a much more current sensibility, A Star is Born is surprising in first-time director Bradley Cooper’s assured helming. Coupled with excellent chemistry between Cooper and Gaga and equally impressive performances from both, a relatable storyline, and some truly well-produced musical numbers, the film has transformed what seemed like a low-key romantic melodrama with a few familiar faces into a full-blown frontrunner for awards season.

Much of the charm of the film lies in the leads. Bradley Cooper disappears into the role, and while he plays the part of an alcoholic, the performance is restrained and authentic, with minimal theatrics and thus allows the audience to identify with his character easily. Lady Gaga also impresses in her acting debut, giving a heartfelt and believable performance (particularly pre-fame Ally), faring much better than many pop stars that attempt to cross over to the acting world. What’s more important is that the narrative requires the leads to have an almost instant chemistry and connection, and Cooper and Gaga have chemistry in spades.

This being Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, what he had achieved here is impressive. Not only does he deftly handle the varied elements in the film – big and small musical set-pieces, low key romantic sequences and melodramatic scenes – but not once does he lose control of the narrative, and the end result is a film that’s wistfully melodramatic without ever being over the top. It has also been many years since I’ve seen a film that deals with alcoholism so matter-of-factly, never shying away from the seedier, unsavory aspects that the addiction brings, almost reminiscent of the seminal Leaving Las Vegas.

Music will also make or break a film like this one, and again in this aspect A Star Is Born scores very highly. It’s a given that Lady Gaga would excel in her performances, but surprisingly Cooper can also hold a tune and totally looks the part of a rock star on the decline. There are some very catchy songs included in the soundtrack, which ranges from country-rock to pop, and should see extended airplay.

In some ways, A Star is Born is a movie that feels like a throwback to the older, grander days of cinema, where it doesn’t take much more than a heartfelt story and committed performances from the actors to deliver a film that actually makes one feel something. Little wonder that it has resonated well with audiences, and potentially will stand the test of time (at least, far better than Barbra’s version).

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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Star Wars – The Last Jedi

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Rian Johnson

Screenplay: Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupit Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro          

Running Length: 152 minutes

Synopsis: Rey develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of Luke Skywalker, who is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares to do battle with the First Order.

Review: Now that we’re at the halfway mark of the six planned Star Wars movies, it’s time to put together a report card for the franchise, and take stock of both the new movie and the overarching Star Wars cinematic universe. It’s a mix of good and bad news – while it’s certain that The Last Jedi would be a winner at the box office, it also comes across as the most inconsequential film so far, surprisingly so especially considering that it follows last year’s Rogue One, a story that literally had a scorched earth denouement to ensure its characters would not “taint” the canonical Episodic installments. Although it aims high for its emotional impact, The Last Jedi ultimately comes across as being a bit hollow, despite the luxury of having the longest running time of any Star Wars movie so far.

While The Force Awakens understandably had to slavishly stick to the original trilogy’s canon, it was also the reason why the film felt like it didn’t manage to meet its full potential. Unfortunately, The Last Jedi continues this trend and feels like a reboot of The Empire Strikes Back, and while it will continue to please fans of the franchise, I am not sure that three movies in, audiences would be as forgiving of the flaws found in The Last Jedi. The three key plot threads are haphazardly woven together, and there’s so much padding in the middle of the film that I for one wished the film was cut down to a more manageable length, where digressions need not seem to go on interminably (particularly egregious is the entire sojourn onto the casino planet Canto Bight) before focus resumes on what truly matters.

All is almost forgiven in the final third of the film, where the plot thread involving Kylo Ren, Rey and Luke Skywalker comes to a head, and everything that makes Star Wars great is present and accounted for – rousing space battles, an amazing lightsaber confrontation, startling character revelations and plot twists – and enhanced further by truly breathtaking visuals and an excellent performance from Adam Driver (Daisy Ridley seems to be coasting on her far stronger turn in The Force Awakens). If only it didn’t take so long to get there.

Star Wars is so firmly ingrained in our culture that it is impossible to not feel the thrill when the opening title card crawls into the horizon, accompanied by John Williams’ iconic cinematic score. It is very hard to squander away the goodwill accumulated over 40 years (as evidenced by Episodes I to III), and The Last Jedi is still largely a triumph, ranking in the upper echelons of the Star Wars cinematic universe. Rian Johnson has crafted a technically excellent film in the franchise, but again it seems the collective financial expectations put on such an important film has made it impossible for him to stray too far from the tried and tested. While there is a chance that Episode IX would be able to take the story down a path less travelled, it does seem increasingly unlikely. The sequels now feel more like reboots of the original trilogy, and though that’s really not a bad thing, one wonders now if what George Lucas said is true – the reason why he didn’t move forward with Episodes VII to IX himself was because there were no stories left to tell.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Fifty Shades Darker

Genre: Drama

Director: James Foley

Screenplay: Niall Leonard, adapted from the novel by E. L. James

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Marcia Gay Harden, Kim Basinger, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Eloise Mumford, Max Martini, Victor Rasuk, Robinne Lee, Bruce Altman, Fay Masterson, Andrew Airlie

Running Length:  118 minutes

Synopsis: Daunted by the singular tastes and dark secrets of the handsome, tormented young entrepreneur Christian Grey, Anastasia Steele has broken off their relationship to start a new career with a Seattle Independent Publishing House (SIP); but desire for Christian still dominates her every waking thought, and when he proposes a new arrangement, Anastasia cannot resist. They rekindle their searing sexual affair, and Anastasia learns more about the harrowing past of her damaged, driven and demanding Fifty Shades.

Review: The biggest offense that Fifty Shades Darker commits isn’t that it’s a juvenile, teenage-girl fantasy of a film, or that the leads look great but seem to have virtually no thespian talent to speak of, or that the storyline is nothing short of ridiculous… It’s that the movie is terribly, terribly bland. It’s near impossible to feel vested in any of the characters because of how vanilla and uninteresting they are, and none of the plot’s few twists and turns are worth vesting more than a moment’s thought. It’s not like there was a depth to the source material that failed to make the translation to the silver screen, but it’s kind of surreal how completely lacking in edge a movie that’s supposed to be about S&M is.

Picking up right where Fifty Shades of Grey left off, we are reintroduced to the dewy-eyed Anastasia Steel (Dakota Johnson), who’s secretly still pining for, and eventually rejoined, with the dashing Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), despite his pervy predilections in the bedroom. And yet, the numerous sex scenes in Fifty Shades Darker barely quickens one’s pulse, much less come across as being an accurate portrayal of deviant sex. At least the actors seemed to enjoy the process, and Dakota Johnson can add “perfected O-face” to her resume.

The second film in a trilogy will almost always suffer from middle child syndrome, having no proper start and no proper ending, and this is of course the case in Fifty Shades Darker. There’s no resolution to the major plot points, and the limp attempt at creating a cliffhanger for Fifty Shades Freed does not impress either. Having not read the source novels in their entirety, it is hard to tell if the flaws in Fifty Shades Darker are merely literal translations from page to screen, or if it’s something that’s native to the film.

However, the film does boast a very ear-friendly soundtrack with a slew of famous performers attached to it, and even though the settings are wildly unrealistic (how Anastasia can afford such a huge apartment on an editorial assistant’s paycheck is a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes), it certainly is a rather aesthetically pleasing film to look at (lead actors included). Thankfully.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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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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The Age of Shadows

Genre: Drama

Director: Kim Jee Woon

Screenplay: Lee Ji-min, Park Jong-dae

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Park Hee-soon, Um Tae-goo, Shin Sung-rok, Shingo Tsurumi, Park Hee-soon, Seo Young-joo, Han Soo-yeon, Yoo Jae-sang, Lee Soo-kwang, Kim Dong-young, Lee Byung-hun

Running Length:  141 minutes

Synopsis: Set in the late 1920s, The Age of Shadows follows the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds between a group of resistance fighters trying to bring in explosives from Shanghai to destroy key Japanese facilities in Seoul, and Japanese agents trying to stop them. A talented Korean-born Japanese police officer, who was previously in the independence movement himself, is thrown into a dilemma between the demands of his reality and the instinct to support a greater cause.

Review: After a three-year hiatus, director Kim Jee Woon makes a big budget return to the big screen with The Age of Shadows, a slick, stylish and somewhat overblown spy thriller set in the 1920s. While there are some top-notch set pieces, the story is almost impossible to make head or tail of, involving more twists and turns than one can shake two fists at, and additionally hampered if one needs to read the subtitles. However, it remains an engaging film throughout its 2-plus hour running time, and for fans of his recent work in Train to Busan, Gong Yoo turns in another decent performance, though Song Kang-ho is the true star here.

While the entire film is handsomely lensed, Kim Jee Woon manages to outdo himself in the setup of a number of set pieces, none more evident than the extended sequence on the train (zombie-free), in which Kang-ho’s Jung-chool traverses multiple times through the train, his loyalties seemingly being tested and changing constantly, the tension ratcheting up multiple times till an almost unbearable degree, finally culminating in an expected but still shockingly violent conclusion. The opening sequence comes a close second, in which an expertly choreographed chase resembles almost like a ballet more so than a squad of policemen chasing down their quarry. It’s all extremely impressive camera and editing work, further enhanced by an excellent soundtrack.

However, the dense plot threatens to derail (ahem) The Age of Shadows at times, and this is a movie that heavily punishes any lapse in attention – even without any distractions, one might find difficulty in following the labyrinthine plot. This does the film no favours, especially when one of the weakest characterizations is that of Japanese police chief Hashimoto, a one-dimensional villain that fails to convince, posing zero moral ambiguity and hence a certainty to Jung-chool’s character arc and his decisions along the way despite being the film’s main focus. While these do prevent the film from reaching greater heights, there’s no denying that The Age of Shadows is easily one of the best Korean films I’ve seen in a while, and certainly explains why South Korea chose this to be their entry for the Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards this year.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Gareth Edwards

Screenplay: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Beau Gadson, Dolly Gadson

Running Length:  133 minutes

Synopsis: From Lucasfilm comes the first of the Star Wars standalone films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” an all-new epic adventure. In a time of conflict, a group of unlikely heroes band together on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves.

Review: As the first “non-Episodic” movie in the Star Wars cinematic universe, Rogue One is a triumph – although it caters mostly to the (rabid) Star Wars fanbase, there is enough on display here that would please anyone who is a fan of space operas (and to an extent, war movies). Harkening back to the original trilogy, and yet a couple of shades darker, Rogue One can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the canonic Episodes on almost every level. This is great news especially for fans, since it means that the Star Wars cinematic universe is set to expand far beyond what George Lucas had achieved with his six films.

Rogue One is far from being a perfect movie – it starts off slowly, and the amount of exposition in the first hour threatens to bog the film down multiple times. Thankfully, once the heavy exposition gets out of the way, and the audience is reintroduced to the menace of Darth Vader, Rogue One does kick into high gear and delivers the payload. No spoilers here, but suffice to say the most iconic Darth Vader sequence in Star Wars now resides in Rogue One (yes, even more so than “I am your father”, though that scene is far more ingrained in pop culture).

Rogue One once again has a strong female protagonist in Jyn Ersa, and Felicity Jones puts in an excellent performance, being able to emote and kick ass with aplomb. However, Diego Luna doesn’t manage to match Jones’ performance, and there’s a distinct lack of chemistry between the two – just as well that the film does not really try to force a romance. Donnie Yen does good work as the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe, though it does seem at times that he’s merely reprising his most iconic role of Ip Man in a different setting. His presence, together with Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus, will almost certainly ensure very healthy box office takings in China.

Mirroring The Force Awakens, however, the most memorable character in Rogue One is a non-human – K-2SO, voiced flawlessly by Alan Tudyk. K-2 not only has some of the best lines in the show, but is one of the few sources of levity in a film that is almost relentlessly grim, though not annoyingly so like C-3PO.

Special effects are employed sparingly in the action sequences, resulting in an organic, old-school feel to many of the scenes (the aerial dogfights in particular), but the CGI is top-notch when used. Much of the ground assault sequences feel equally at home in a war movie, and the stakes of the fight between the rebels and the Imperial Army have never been as personal and high as presented in Rogue One.

An interesting point of note is that the most impressive special effect isn’t in the “big” scenes, but the digital sleight of hand that was employed to bring Peter Cushing back to “life” as Grand Moff Tarkin, despite him being dead for 22 years. One can only imagine the amount of work that was required to recreate Cushing’s likeness (using a stand-in actor, a voice actor and CG) in such a convincing manner.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Rogue One is one of the most anticipated movies of 2016. Fortunately, it has managed to deliver, and has even stirred a desire in me to rewatch the original trilogy once again. While it bears the moniker of a “Star Wars Story”, Rogue One should more accurately be called Episode 3.5, because it dovetails so perfectly into the opening of A New Hope. Ranked amongst the two films since J. J. Abrams’ reboot last year, Rogue One actually ends up a notch above The Force Awakens, especially in terms of rewatchability.

Rating: * * * ½ (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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