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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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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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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Star Trek Beyond

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Justin Lin

Screenplay: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung

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

Running Length: 122 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: J.J. Abrams

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

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

Running Length: 136 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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