Ready Player One

Genre: Sci-Fi

Director: Steven Spielberg

Screenplay: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline, based on the novel by Ernest Cline

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Mark Rylance, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao, Susan Lynch, Hannah John-Kamen, Ralph Ineson, McKenne Grace, Letitia Wright

Running Length: 140 minutes

Synopsis: In the year 2045, the real world is a harsh place. The only time Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) truly feels alive is when he escapes to the OASIS, an immersive virtual universe where most of humanity spends their days. In the OASIS, you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone—the only limits are your own imagination. The OASIS was created by the brilliant and eccentric James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who left his immense fortune and total control of the Oasis to the winner of a three-part contest he designed to find a worthy heir. When Wade conquers the first challenge of the reality-bending treasure hunt, he and his friends—called the High Five—are hurled into a fantastical universe of discovery and danger to save the OASIS and their world.

Review: Without a doubt, Ready Player One is a fun time at the movies, especially if you have experienced the 70s or 80s while growing up. It’s amazing how many references have made it into the film – kudos to the team that managed the what must be insane rights negotiations for the hundreds of “cameos” and pop culture references peppering the movie – and it would be impossible to not feel a strong sense for nostalgia for anyone that’s above the age of 30. This film is one that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible at least once (IMAX 3D seems to be the only IMAX flavour locally, unfortunately), and should also find a healthy home video audience who will enjoy freeze-framing the film to catch the many small details.

However, Ready Player One is also clearly not going to rank in Spielberg’s best films, even though it is reminiscent of his earlier work (before he became a director of “serious movies”). While there’s really no need to compare and contrast films from Spierlberg’s own canon, there’s a nagging sensation that I had throughout the whole movie that it really could have been something more. Part of this can be attributed to the fact while the segments of the movie taking place in the OASIS virtual world is quite engaging, there’s a fair amount of time spent in the real world, which is honestly a fair bit less interesting. It’s understandably necessary to not turn Ready Player One into a really expensive animated movie, but there are times where the dichotomy hurts the film more than helping it.

The novel that Ready Player One is based on is accurately described as a “nerdgasm” but in all honesty, it simply doesn’t read that well except for a very niche audience (and this is coming from a self-professed geek). It was clear that a lot of work would be needed to transform the novel into something suited for the big screen, and in this aspect the creative decision taken by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (surprisingly, the author of the novel himself) to base the movie on the novel, but not slavishly adapt it, really pays off. There are many changes from the novel, and even the hunt for the three keys (and the easter egg) have been pared down to a much simpler flow of events. Whole sections of the novel have been rejigged, and none more impressively so than a journey by the protagonists into the setting of a very well-known movie in the 80s. To say more would be to spoil an excellent surprise, but suffice to say if every sequence could have been equally well-executed, Ready Player One would have been a four-star movie for sure.

While the narrative for Ready Player One is improved over the novel, it is still a somewhat bumpy ride at times, especially toward the final reels of the film where the plot suddenly moves at a breakneck speed. The visuals, on the other hand, is near-faultless. While the OASIS is all CGI, the world has a heft and the animated characters have a “real-ness”, something that is actually quite rare even in the highly advanced state of CGI these days. The threat of sensory overload is real, however, because of all the details that are stuffed into virtually every frame of the movie and the sheer speed at which scenes move along at times. Lesser directors than Spielberg would surely have found themselves swallowed by the sheer spectacle, but since it’s Spielberg, the film manages to achieve most of what it sets out to do, and with a fair amount of heart to boot.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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A Wrinkle in Time

Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy

Director: Ava DuVernay

Screenplay: Jennifer Lee, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle

Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, André Holland, Rowan Blanchard

Running Length: 109 minutes

Synopsis: After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg (Storm Reid), her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) to space in order to find him.

Review: A Wrinkle in Time is a mixed bag – while it’s a high budget (over US$100 million) remake of the beloved novel and checks off many boxes in the diversity checklist (black female director, racially diverse casting choices), a very unevenly developed storyline, wooden performances and sporadically subpar visual effects detract significantly from the film. It’s undoubtedly still entertaining and should appeal somewhat to the YA and younger demographic, but it’s hard to imagine audiences being enthused enough to recommend this film to friends and family, unlike, for example, Disney’s immensely successful (and still running) Black Panther.

It would always be a challenge to adapt Madeleine L’Engle’s novel for the big screen due to the massive number of ideas and plot threads L’Engle had placed in a relatively short novel, and even with the deep pockets of this film’s production budget, the end result is hit and miss. The Christian subtext has been gutted from the screenplay, and a rather pivotal character (Aunt Beast) has been excised entirely, and even the villain’s appearance and methods have been altered somewhat. What does remain is thus even more confusing, and character motivations come across as being very muddled. While Storm Reid does a decent job as a Meg Murry, the same cannot be said of the remainder of the cast – Deric McCabe in particular is landed with a thankless role of trying to be a precocious child prodigy (but ends up being more Children of the Corn than anything), and the many famous faces that are in the film end up being celebrity cameos that bring nothing to the plate.

Some of the worlds that the ensemble “tesser” to are indeed gorgeous works of art (as are some of the crazy outfits that the Mrs Ws wear), but then there are also sequences where it just feels like the production ran out of budget to complete the CG work, none more egregious than the protracted (and ultimately unnecessary) visit to the Happy Medium (unfortunately played by a rather miscast Zach Galiafianakis), which is so terribly rendered it looked like a stage production more than a location in a film that cost many millions to make.

Most frustratingly, however, is how all the storytelling and world-building ends up for naught. The denouement of A Wrinkle in Time lacks any form of true coherence and concludes the film on a whimper, leaving many questions unanswered and most audiences who haven’t read the novel prior feeling puzzled and underwhelmed. It really is a darn shame, because there are moments where it almost seems like the film is destined for greatness, but it just falls short on so many levels that all it can do is be a somewhat entertaining diversion for a couple of hours.

Rating: * * (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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The Dark Tower

Genre: Sci-Fi

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen & Nikolaj Arcel, based on the novels by Stephen King

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba, Tom Taylor, Katheryn Winnick, Jackie Earle Haley, Abbey Lee, Claudia Kim

Running Length: 95 minutes

Synopsis: The last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), has been locked in an eternal battle with Walter O’Dim, also known as the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prevent him from toppling the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together. With the fate of the worlds at stake, good and evil will collide in the ultimate battle as only Roland can defend the Tower from the Man in Black.

Review: Full disclosure: although I am quite an avid reader of Stephen King’s novels, I was somehow never able to complete The Dark Tower series, his 8 volume, 4,000+ page magnum opus, never having progressed beyond the second novel. It was clear from the get-go, however, that The Dark Tower movie adaptation could not possibly be a faithful reproduction of the series, especially with a scant running time of 95 minutes. And indeed, The Dark Tower is more a movie based on the idea behind the novels, and ends up feeling quite a bit more generic than what the fully realized world of the Dark Tower novels could have delivered in a film.

It was clear that the movie would be at best a superficial peek into the Dark Tower universe given its surprisingly short running time, but the lack of exposition makes it hard for audiences to develop any sense of context, especially anyone who has no exposure to the novels prior to watching the movie. The film flits from scene to scene without a sense of gravity, so even key sequences with character demises feel strangely lightweight, and it is near impossible for the audience to be vested in even the story arcs of the main characters, much less anyone else in the periphery.

One of the most inexplicable creative decisions is to shift the main focus of the film from the Gunslinger (an excellent portrayal by Idris Elba to boot) to the young Tom Taylor’s Jake, whose performance does not impress. This causes the film to feel even more generic and like a mediocre YA novel adaptation, which does the film no favours. Matthew McConaughey obviously had a fine time hamming it up as the villain, but this is certainly not one of his more memorable roles in recent years.

The Dark Tower also looks decidedly low-rent, with barely passable special effects and muddled cinematography that suggests most of the film’s budget went towards paying the salaries of Elba and McConaughey. While being released in the tail end of the summer blockbuster season, the film feels anything but. It’s not a bad movie by most measures, but feels more at home on the small screen – in fact, one wonders how improved the adaptation could have been if it was greenlit as a TV series rather than a one-off feature presentation.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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War for the Planet of the Apes

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Matt Reeves

Screenplay: Matt Reeves, Mark Bomback, based on characters created by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Amiah Miller, Judy Greer, Max Lloyd-Jones, Devyn Dalton

Running Length:  140 minutes

Synopsis: In War for the Planet of the Apes, the third chapter of the critically acclaimed blockbuster franchise, Caesar and his apes are forced into a deadly conflict with an army of humans led by a ruthless Colonel.  After the apes suffer unimaginable losses, Caesar wrestles with his darker instincts and begins his own mythic quest to avenge his kind.  As the journey finally brings them face to face, Caesar and the Colonel are pitted against each other in an epic battle that will determine the fate of both their species and the future of the planet.

Review: Who could have anticipated that the best summer blockbuster this year would belong to the simians, rather than the superheroes that have come along thus far? But here we are, three movies deep into the second Planet of the Apes reboot, and it’s easy to give War for the Planet of the Apes the crown because it’s so starkly different from everything that has come before it this year. Trumping even the excellent Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (also directed by Reeves), the only thing working against the movie is its serious tone – not every moviegoer would like to be preached to by Reeves on his soapbox, especially midway through the Summer blockbuster season – but audiences who do make the decision to give War a try would likely find themselves well rewarded.

Ostensibly the last prequel film in this reboot trilogy (though there’s now a fourth movie planned), the events in War would logically lead up to what transpires in the original Planet of the Apes, and there are throwbacks (throwforwards?) to the characters found in the 1968 movie. While there’s no necessity to have seen the original movies, War does presume that the audience is familiar with what has been covered so far in the 2011 and 2014 films – any moviegoer that watches this film “cold” would likely find themselves quite lost indeed, so consider this fair warning.

While the film is not without flaws, War for the Planet of the Apes is quite simply, a very well-made movie. CGI is usually peripheral to the plot of a movie, but in this case, without the bleeding-edge CGI, there very simply would not have been a movie at all. The franchise has progressed to not just rendering one hyper-realistic chimpanzee, to a literal army of various simians. Andy Serkis is at the top of the motion capture acting game, and his performance of Caesar quite simply transcends any description – it’s still shocking to see the depth and nuances of emotion that can flicker across Caesar’s face as a fully rendered character.

War is also a movie that doesn’t shy away from a complex plot, and while it may get a bit preachy at times, kudos must be given to any summer blockbuster that is willing to take the risk of alienating a group of audience members who do not expect to be mentally taxed. That’s not to say War isn’t entertaining – not only is there plenty of well-choreographed, riveting action to be found, there’s even a character that seems to be inserted purely for comic relief purposes.

Matt Reeves has proven his capabilities in the two Apes movies he has directed, and War in particular feels almost like a loving homage to some of the best war movies (think Apocalypse Now, The Great Escape and The Bridge Over River Kwai), except with apes. It’s a beautifully lensed film, though each scene is so meticulously constructed there’s almost an artificiality at times. While it’s a rather heavy-going movie, there’s no denying that each Planet of the Apes movie has managed to outdo its predecessor, and it’s easy to see War for the Planet of the Apes ending up on many Top 10 lists come the end of 2017.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Wonder Woman

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Patty Jenkins

Screenplay: Allan Heinberg, from a story by Heinberg, Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs, based on DC’s Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marsto

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya

Running Length:  141 minutes

Synopsis: Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained to be an unconquerable warrior. Raised on a sheltered island paradise, when an American pilot crashes on their shores and tells of a massive conflict raging in the outside world, Diana leaves her home, convinced she can stop the threat. Fighting alongside man in a war to end all wars, Diana will discover her full powers…and her true destiny.

Review: With Wonder Woman, audiences have finally received the DC Extended Universe movie that they deserved – a stark departure from the dank, monochrome, Debbie Downer movies helmed by Zach Snyder, that reached a new DCEU low with Batman v Superman last year. Patti Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is a far more optimistic and colourful movie, bolstered by 2 very good lead performances and a generally positive vibe that finally bodes well for the franchise. Gal Gardot may not be the most iconic Wonder Woman of my time (Lynda Carter’s incarnation will forever hold a special place in my heart), but she certainly does an excellent job here, and establishes a tone that hopefully the subsequent DCEU films will be able to adopt.

In the tradition of superhero movies, this first Wonder Woman film (discounting her extended appearance in BvS) is an origins story, but unlike the somewhat similarly set Captain America: The First Avenger, the entire film essentially transpires in the early 19th Century, during WWI. There’s great attention to period detail here, and this is a film that is not afraid to get its fingers dirty – while the tone is lighter, it also does not shy away from depicting the horrors of war, from a mustard gas attack on a village, to an attack on a fortified German position in the frontline of war. In fact, these scenes are impressively choreographed and shot, almost being able to stand toe-to-toe with dedicated war movies – this is something new for the superhero movie genre, and Jenkins and her crew ought to be commended for achieving what they have here.

Both Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are well-cast in their roles here – Gadot is a very beautiful, elegant woman that can convincingly emote and kick ass, which makes her iteration of Wonder Woman a near-perfect one (except perhaps, the few scenes in which she somehow seems to suffer from a bad hair day). Chris Pine brings the right amount of bravado and charm to his Steve Trevor despite playing the thankless (and for once, male) role of the love interest in distress, and the strong, playful chemistry between the two helps to lend more emotional impact to the film versus most superhero movies.

While the finale drops the ball a bit and ends up being too much of a CG-fest (which comes across as being a little shoddily done, strangely) and leans to the cheesy side of things, the entire movie remains entertaining, and the decision to lighten the mood with the occasional wisecrack or fish-out-of-water gag, as well as developing a romantic subplot, really helps to balance out the film despite its 2-plus hour running time. This is the most Marvel-like DCEU film yet, which may sound like an insult to fans of the DC Universe, but is actually quite high praise, given the high watermark that the MCU has set.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: James Gunn

Screenplay: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Glenn Close, Karen Gillan, Sylvester Stallone, Pom Klementieff, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Nathan Fillion, Tommy Flanagan

Running Length:  135 minutes

Synopsis: Set to the all-new sonic backdrop of Awesome Mixtape #2, Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” continues the team’s adventures as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mystery of Peter Quill’s true parentage. Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand.

Review: The first Guardians of the Galaxy was such a breath of fresh air in the world of superhero movies that it was nearly impossible to begrudge despite some rough spots. In the three intervening years, however, there has been a number of entrants into the genre that sported similar characteristics – most notably Deadpool, which took the irreverence found in Guardians to an extreme and yet delivered admirably. It also helped that most moviegoers went into Guardians of the Galaxy with little or no expectations, and most would walk away feeling it was time and money well spent.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, however, will not get a similar free pass. Although everything that made the first movie good still remains – the great chemistry amongst the lead actors, the excellent soundtrack, the eye-popping visuals, the laidback humour, the heart – there’s also an unshakeable feeling of sequelitis, where everything old doesn’t really feel new again. That’s not to say it’s not a good movie; in fact Vol. 2 still manages to (barely) sit amongst the best in the MCU, but it simply can’t measure up to the original, and not from a lack of trying.

One of the most problematic aspects of Vol. 2 is that James Gunn decided to one-up the first movie in every imaginable way, and the result is a film that honestly feels a little bloated. Despite not having to delve into each character’s backstory, there’s almost no real plot development until almost halfway through the movie, and even then the central plot feels a little underwhelming (true to its predecessor, the villains continue to remain the movie’s weakest link). This results in the film feeling just a bit tiresome at times, and I found myself glancing at my watch more than once throughout the movie’s 135-minute running time.

There’s quite a bit of unresolved plotlines and unexplained cameos (Sylvester Stallone literally does nothing in his cameo appearances here), ostensibly to set the stage for the inevitable sequel, but they figure so peripherally into the actual film that editing them out of the film is actually a rather compelling argument. The same applies for the five (!!) post-credit codas, which manages to up the ante of the first movie in serving up pointlessness

Fortunately, there’s still much left to like about Vol. 2. Baby Groot is inexorably adorable if a bit overused, the slapstick moments are still delicious nuggets to savor, and Chris Pratt still impresses with both his physicality and impeccable comic timing. While visuals for modern day sci-fi movies are all nearly without reproach, Vol. 2 still boasts a rather unique, nearly psychedelic visual style that impresses (but is also rather tiring in 3D). And the joyous soundtrack gets one star of its own even for an eclectic, ear-friendly selection almost on par with the first movie’s. And much like the first movie, there’s even a scene that would touch even a jaded moviegoer like myself. There’s no doubt that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 would do terrifically well at the box office, but if Vol. 3 doesn’t address the franchise’s weaknesses, it will assuredly end the trilogy on a low note, which would be a waste.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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