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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The Martian

Genre: Drama, Sci-Fi

Director: Ridley Scott

Screenplay: Drew Goddard, based on the novel by Andy Weir

Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristin Wiig, Sean Bean

Running Length: 141 minutes

Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, Watney must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring “the Martian” home, while his crewmates concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible, rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney’s safe return.

Review: There has been a resurgence of space exploration movies in recent years, and while The Martian does not reach the heights of Interstellar and Gravity, it’s a very commendable effort nonetheless, featuring some of the best work from both Ridley Scott and Matt Damon in years. While the concept of The Martian certainly isn’t a new one (it would not be a stretch to describe the movie as “Cast Away” in space), it is an undeniably fun and fulfilling cinematic experience that will definitely be a crowd pleaser.

Despite what the trailers might suggest, The Martian is a movie that’s very light on action and very heavy on introspection and exposition. While it isn’t focused solely on Watney, with relatively big chunks of screen time split between the other crew members of the Ares 3 as well as the ground crew, a lot of time is spent observing Watney doing his utmost best to survive on a distant planet. Although some liberties have been taken with the science in the movie, a lot of it feels authentic and believable, which makes it even easier for the audience to identify with the proceedings, despite its alien setting. Both Andy Weir (author of the original novel) and NASA have been involved every step of the way, and the resulting authenticity of the movie is surely a direct result of this.

While the subject matter is quite serious, Ridley Scott maintains a light touch throughout the film, and there are many moments of humour that help to make the proceedings less dark than they could have been. Although The Martian runs over 2 hours, the film moves at a very brisk pace, and at no time does the film feel like it has lost any dramatic momentum despite cutting back and forth the three locales.The Martian is also a handsomely shot film, particularly when showcasing the barren vastness of Mars. There is, naturally, a large amount of visual effects employed in the film, but it never distracts from the actors or the storyline.

Although there is a very large and capable group of supporting actors, this is undoubtedly Matt Damon’s movie. Having to perform largely in isolation means that there are many stretches of the film where the thespian duties fall entirely on Damon, and he does an admirable job portraying the wide range of emotions that Watney undergoes. He easily becomes the emotional core of the movie, and audiences will assuredly be rooting for him long before the movie ends. It’s not difficult to imagine that he would likely be a frontrunner in the Oscar race in 2016. It’s not his first performance as a stranded astronaut (Interstellar being the first), but it’s definitely his best (so far).

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Jurassic World

Genre: Action/Sci-Fi

Director: Colin Trevorrow

Screenplay: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, based on the novels by Michael Crichton

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins, B.D. Wong, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: Located off the coast of Costa Rica, the Jurassic World luxury resort provides a habitat for an array of genetically engineered dinosaurs, including the vicious and intelligent Indominus Rex. When the massive creature escapes, it sets off a chain reaction that causes the other dinosaurs to run amok. Now, it’s up to a former military man and animal expert (Chris Pratt) to use his special skills to save two young boys and the rest of the guests from an all-out, prehistoric assault.

Review: It has been a long time since the Jurassic Park franchise has seen the big screen, with the last (rather dismal) movie, Jurassic Park III released in 2001. Stuck in development hell for over a decade, Jurassic World represents a somewhat triumphant return for the franchise, though it would be hard to imagine there being enough interest for a fifth installment. Jurassic World boasts excellent visuals, and strong performances from leads Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, but is a little let down near the end when the CG takes over the movie, like so many films these days are wont to do.

The 22-year old Jurassic Park was one of the first movies to make use of the then cutting-edge computer generated imagery, and the awe and wonder of seeing dinosaurs come to “life” can never be replicated in present times. The CGI in Jurassic World is miles ahead of the original film, but that’s honestly a given these days when technology has advanced so far. But, probably akin to the jaded amusement park attendees that populate Jurassic World, it doesn’t stir the soul like that Brachiosaurus reveal in the first film. Perhaps that’s the power of nostalgia speaking, but Jurassic World also falls to the uniquely present-day trap of letting the CGI do the acting – without going into spoilers, the finale sequence feels entirely (and probably is) artificial, and hence it was difficult to vest myself in the outcome in any way.

Although it works as a standalone film, Jurassic World assumes prior knowledge of the Jurassic Park films, never really delving into the backstory of the theme park. There are also a multitude of references to the first movie, which will particularly resonate with fans of Jurassic Park (aren’t we all, though). Michael Giacchino, who takes over the scoring of the movie from John Williams, does not shy away from the well-known musical cues from Jurassic Park either, although his score can feel a bit too bombastic at times. While it would be good to see Jurassic Park on as large a screen as possible to take in the majesty of the imagery, 3D is once again absolutely pointless and should be avoided.

Chris Pratt has really stepped up his Hollywood leading man game, and in Jurassic Park he channels his performance in Guardians of the Galaxy – funny and macho at the same time, he’s instantly likeable as Owen. Bryce Dallas Howard has the slightly more uphill task, since she needs to play both the “modern” action heroine and the “traditional” damsel in distress, and the duality does not work very well at times. She does share great onscreen chemistry with Pratt, which makes much of their interaction pleasant to watch. However, the Jurassic Park franchise has never been about the human actors, and relies more on its dinosaur counterparts. In this aspect the movie is not as successful. Although the Indominus Rex is positioned as a bad-ass dinosaur that’s even more dangerous than a T-Rex, she doesn’t really feel all that menacing onscreen. The velociraptors also make a return, but once again they come across as rather tame and certainly not as intelligent as the old raptors seemed to be.

No movie in the franchise will ever compare to the original, but it’s easy to place Jurassic World as the second-best film thus far. I am firmly of the opinion, however, that this should mark the end of the franchise – there’s no room in the franchise for any additional plot development, and any sequel after this one will be flogging a dead horse. I won’t put it past the studio executives to greenlight more films, especially if Jurassic World does well, but if this is indeed the swan song, it will conclude the franchise on a relatively high note.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Jupiter Ascending

Genre: Sci-Fi

Directors: The Wachowskis

Screenplay: The Wachowskis

Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton

Running Length: 125 minutes

Synopsis: Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) was born under a night sky, with signs predicting that she was destined for great things. Now grown, Jupiter dreams of the stars but wakes up to the cold reality of a job cleaning other people’s houses and an endless run of bad breaks. Only when Caine (Channing Tatum), a genetically engineered ex-military hunter, arrives on Earth to track her down does Jupiter begin to glimpse the fate that has been waiting for her all along – her genetic signature marks her as next in line for an extraordinary inheritance that could alter the balance of the cosmos.

Review: Originally slated to open in July 2014, Jupiter Ascending was delayed for a full six months, and is now opening in a non-typical February window (particularly considering it cost US$175 million to make). That in itself is quite an ominous sign, that perhaps The Wachowskis are following the career trajectory of M. Night Shyamalan, and that Jupiter Ascending is not the film that will return them to greatness. Unfortunately, that is exactly the case here – Jupiter Ascending is overproduced, overwrought, and overdone, with a half-baked story and underdeveloped characters in a movie that truly ends in a whimper. While it may have aspirations to be the next big space opera, all it manages to achieve is to be vapid, thoroughly forgettable eye candy. It’s not even in the “so bad, it’s good” category of films, so all it manages is to be a bad sci-fi movie.

While the plot may aspire to be a cautionary fable for modern capitalism, Jupiter Ascending really feels more like a Disney princess fairy tale more than anything else – it has the rags to riches transformation of Jupiter and a tame, PG-13 romantic subplot with an unconventional Prince Charming . Unfortunately, because the Wachowskis obviously weren’t satisfied with something that “prosaic”, they chose to bury the simple plot with layers upon layers of pointless exposition and a frustrating lack of resolution, with multiple characters appearing to do their bit then disappearing for the rest of the film, and an inconsequential conclusion that just does not do the grandiose setting any justice. And despite the baseline simplicity and the endless exposition, the plot still doesn’t make sense, with so many logical gaps that one truly needs to check their brain at the door to wring more enjoyment out of the movie.

There’s no middle ground to the performances in Jupiter Ascending – they are either bland and uninteresting or extremely overwrought. Both Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum (and almost everyone else, honestly) fall into the first category, plus a total lack of chemistry between the two means it’s nearly impossible to feel vested in Jupiter’s plight or their romance. This may be a fault of the script more than the actors, since the whole movie positions Jupiter as a near-hapless damsel in distress, and Caine repeatedly swooping in on his jet boots to rescue her as a literal deus ex machina. This kind of setup does not lend much need to emoting on any level. And then there’s Eddie Redmayne, who is so exceedingly campy in his performance that he seems to be channeling a parody of Meryl Streep – delivering a good portion of his dialogue in a breathy whisper, then suddenly switching to shrieking, nostril-flaring, scenery-chewing mode as an indicator of his rage. Honestly, it’s lazy acting and a far cry from his outstanding performance in The Theory of Everything.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any brilliance in Jupiter Ascending, and that’s exactly why The Wachowskis’ output has been so frustrating to watch. Amidst all the chaff there are actually some good things about the movie. The CGI-laden visuals are impressive and near faultless (though pointless to watch in 3D), and it is clear that much though and effort have been put into bringing the Jupiter Ascending world to life. There are so many interesting spacecraft, technological gadgets, alien species, costumes, landscapes and more, that there seems to be enough to populate a whole TV series, not just a two-hour movie. Alas, it all shuffles by so quickly that one wonders why so much effort was put into realizing the universe and its accoutrements.

One of the most interesting scenes in Jupiter Ascending was a bureaucratic shuffle when Jupiter is first trying to claim her royal title, which sees her being pushed from one bureaucrat to another in a seemingly endless cycle, culminating in an unexpected, but very pleasantly surprising cameo. It’s a telltale sign that the best scene is one entirely devoid of action and flashy CGI (and without Michael Giacchino’s bombastic, overbearing score – a misstep for him), and one wonders that perhaps it is now time for the Wachowskis to go back to their roots and make movies on a limited budget, because it seems the more money they get, the worse their output gets.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Peter Craig and Danny Strong, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, Natalie Dormer

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 opens with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in District 13 after she literally shatters the Hunger Games forever. Under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her trusted friends, Katniss spreads her wings as she fights to save Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and a nation moved by her courage.

Review: Despite its best intentions, Mockingjay Part 1 is easily the weakest installment in the Hunger Games franchise thus far. Lionsgate had made the financially-lucrative (but creatively bankrupt) decision to cleave the final installment in two, but unfortunately Mockingjay Part 1 does not work well as a standalone movie, and ends in such an abrupt manner that it can potentially turn casual audiences off from making a return visit for Mockingjay Part 2. The final novel in the Hunger Games trilogy was the grandest in scale, but does not lend itself well to a (probable) 4-plus hour transition to the big screen. Mockingjay Part 1 is ponderously paced, meanders and feels drawn out, and is only sporadically interesting in its two hour plus running time. While the elements that made the first two movies good are still present, they are weighed down by too much unnecessary baggage.

Although “The Hunger Games” is still part of the title of Mockingjay, it is important to note that while there’s war and strife, there’s no Hunger Games being conducted in the movie. While this is not surprising for anyone who has read the novels (like myself), expectations of some audience members will surely be confounded. Mockingjay is a far more static movie, with a very minimal number of action setpieces. Much of it is set underground, in District 13, and with Katniss essentially neutered from most of the action (of any kind), it’s almost like the franchise is banking on the halo effect of her past two cinematic outings to coast by. Even though Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress, she’s really only effective in a handful of scenes in Mockingjay Part 1, a stark difference from the previous two films where she held the audience’s attention from beginning to end. The film does boast a very strong supporting cast of veteran actors, especially the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but none of them are really given enough time to shine, despite the film’s length.

It doesn’t help that Peeta is separated from Katniss for essentially the whole movie – while Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is around Katniss, the love triangle is essentially DOA since there’s no chemistry whatsoever between Hemsworth and Lawrence, which has already been confirmed in the last two movies, but brought into starker contrast this time round. Fortunately, the romance is a smaller and less consequential component of the film compared to other YA offerings, so it doesn’t completely undermine the movie despite the clunkiness.

Since it’s essentially half a movie, it is difficult to judge if Mockingjay is a befitting swansong for the franchise until Part 2 is released (a full year later, in November 2015). It cannot be denied, however, that nothing much really happens in Mockingjay Part 1, since it’s merely a placeholder for the true conclusion of the film in Part 2, where surely there’s less inaction and an actual denouement. This is the film’s most glaring fault and drowns out almost every positive aspect. While it’s still a perfectly serviceable YA film (albeit a fair bit darker and brooding than most films in the same genre), Catching Fire had set up higher expectations which unfortunately are not met with this half of the finale.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Interstellar

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Chris Nolan

Cast: Matthew McConnaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Foy, Topher Grace, David Gyasi, Timothee Chalamet, David Oyelowo, Will Devane, Matt Damon

Running Length: 169 minutes

Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Review: If I were to pick just one word to describe Christopher Nolan’s latest film, it would have to be “ambitious” – Interstellar is an epic undertaking that doesn’t always succeed, but you have to give Nolan brownie points just for trying. Although this sounds like faint praise, Interstellar is actually an excellent cinematic experience – the sheer scope and spectacle of the film is more than enough reason to give this movie a once-over on the big screen (and I am serious about “big screen” – this movie deserves to be seen on IMAX – more on this later), and even if the final reels come a little unhinged, it does not undo what happens in the two hours prior.

Although the film runs almost three hours long, it never feels belaboured, and plotlines are so engaging and well developed that the 169 minute running time passes by very quickly. Nolan smartly intertwines plot heavy scenes with action setpieces which are nothing short of stunning, taking place on a variety of very different landscapes. If you thought the action setpieces in Nolan’s Inception and Batman trilogy were impressive, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

While Interstellar is essentially a sci-fi film, Nolan manages to inject a lot of emotionality into the proceedings. It treads the fine line between emotional resonance and cheesiness, but most of the time the drama does hit the right notes, none more so than a mid-movie segment in which the time warping capabilities of a black hole is brought into stark relief. Matthew McConnaughey is extremely impressive in this sequence, and without spoiling the proceedings, the range and depth of emotions that he displays in those five minutes could rival the entire cast of some other sci-fi films, and brings to mind Sandra Bullock’s similarly excellent turn in Gravity. The supporting cast is strong, but undeniably McConnaughey is the one that holds the entire film together. It would not be a surprise to see him nominated second year running for Best Actor.

That the film throws so many scientific principles and terms at the audience, and yet still remains rather accessible, is a feat in itself. Most of it seems legit too, especially since famed CalTech astrophysicist Kip Thorne consults on the film and is credited as an Executive Producer. It does get a bit too farfetched and clunky near the end, and the denouement feels a little rushed, as though Nolan is aware that dwelling too long on the postscript would bring the plot holes into focus. Interstellar is not as mind-bending as some of Nolan’s other work (it was pretty clear to me how the plot would pan out eventually, midway through), but audience members will nevertheless need to prepare for a mental workout when watching the film – this is not your usual Hollywood sci-fi action blockbuster.

In terms of technical accomplishment, Interstellar is about as flawless as it gets. Every technical aspect is remarkably executed – art direction, production design, sound, visual effects, CG work, cinematography, editing, musical score and more – one simply cannot ask for more in a movie. This is a big budget Hollywood movie done right, and I will be surprised if there would not be a flurry of nominations and awards in technical categories come awards season next year. Having been shot entirely on celluloid, bucking the digital trend, the film’s scale and beauty is best appreciated in IMAX, and is a necessity in my opinion.

Interstellar is such a massive undertaking that the fact that Nolan manages to pull it off is impressive enough, and for the film to actually be this accomplished means it automatically takes a spot in my best-of list for 2014. Despite some blemishes, it is the cinematic experience to beat in 2014, and much as it sounds like a cliché: if you watch one movie this year, make it Interstellar.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Edge of Tomorrow

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Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Doug Liman

Writers: Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, based on the novel “All You Need is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka

Cast: Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brandon Gleeson, Noah Taylor

Running Length: 113 minutes

Synopsis: Edge of Tomorrow unfolds in a near future in which an alien race has hit Earth in an unrelenting assault, unbeatable by any military unit in the world. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is an officer who has never seen a day of combat when he is unceremoniously dropped into what amounts to a suicide mission. Killed within minutes, Cage now finds himself inexplicably thrown into a time loop forcing him to live out the same brutal combat over and over, fighting and dying again… and again. But with each battle, Cage becomes able to engage the adversaries with increasing skill, alongside Special Forces warrior Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt). As Cage and Rita take the fight to the aliens, each repeated encounter gets them one step closer to defeating the enemy.

Review: Groundhog Day has withstood the test of time and almost two decades later, still remains one of my favourite movies. In my books, it’s no mean feat to be compared favourably to Groundhog Day, but that’s exactly what Edge of Tomorrow manages to achieve – it is essentially a sci-fi version of Groundhog Day, and although it’s a big budget action movie, the film is much better thought-out than the usual mindless summer action flick, and it’s the smaller moments that manages to impress more so than the effects-laden action setpieces.

While Edge of Tomorrow falters a little at the start, complete with the used-to-death news montage to set up the story, once the time loop starts kicking in the film becomes far more interesting. Doug Liman has obviously worked hard with the screenwriters to try and figure out exactly how much repetition audiences can take, and much like Groundhog Day, chooses to show only parts of each cycle to prevent audience fatigue. It generally works well, but there are moments where the plot does get lost. What really helps the movie is that it is not shy to inject humour into the proceedings, and indeed that are a handful of sequences that are laugh-out-loud funny, which makes Edge of Tomorrow a better-rounded movie than a typical sci-fi action film.

Tom Cruise is excellent as William Cage, mainly because he manages to dial his usual all-in-all-the-time intensity down for the role, and it certainly is refreshing to see him play a coward that dies and gets beaten down literally hundreds of times in the movie. Of course he does eventually blossom into the usual hero character he plays, but present here is at least a progression that is hardly seen in other movies headlined by Cruise. He is ably partnered by Emily Blunt, who is impossibly athletic and graceful in the film, and puts in a mesmerizing and believable performance. The only misstep is the attempt to develop a romantic liaison between the two actors, as while they share a good onscreen chemistry, the romance subplot feels undercooked and unconvincing.

And then there’s the film’s denouement, which is surely going to split audiences down the middle. Edge of Tomorrow ends with the usual CGI-laden, guns blazing finale, which really carries very little emotional heft as both the aliens and the cannon fodder are one-dimensional, and audience members are unlikely to feel vested. To avoid being spoilerly, all I can say is that the final scene is sure to throw audiences for a loop, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. Fortunately, the movie has built up enough goodwill along the way that even the head-scratching conclusion is unlikely to derail the positive sentiments. Will Edge of Tomorrow stand up to repeat viewings like Groundhog Day? I don’t think so, but at least the first time round will be fun and rather entertaining.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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