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As far as he can remember, Lloyd is all about movies. With a passion for writing, Lloyd likes nothing more than to tell potential viewers why a person should or shouldn't spend their time and money on the movie under review.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Still fresh after multiple viewings
Writer-Director M. Night Shyamalan might be a hit or miss with his recent films, but the title that made him a household name as a master-twister was his third film The Sixth Sense. It was so good at the time, that almost every film Shyamalan wrote and directed after this film was expected to have a twist ending by default. On its own, The Sixth Sense is a well-made supernatural thriller starring Bruce Willis as a psychologist and child actor Haley Joel Osment (whose breakout role was Forrest Gump Jr) in his care. Their investigation into a series of paranormal incidents leads to a terrific revelation that no one saw coming at the time. While the scary bits may feel mediocre, the twist ending is still fresh for a film that is over two decades old. Just two years after the release of this film, writer-Director Alejandro Amenábar used this particular twist ending in the highly atmospheric horror-mystery The Others (starring Nicole Kidman) with great effect.
Still a great thriller with a terrific twist ending.
Any movie buff will tell you that the mid 90s were glorious years for Hollywood cinema. They will also tell you that Seven was and still is a great film from that era. Although Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt make a terrific pair in this buddy cop neo-noir psychological thriller, this film has one of the most intense, nail-biting, suspense driven final moments ever written for screen. And then, if that weren't enough, there is that unbelievable twist ending that no one saw coming. The secret weapon in this film is not only the serial killer who is always one step ahead of these cops, but the fact that this character remains hidden throughout of the story. You won't even find him in the official movie trailer and for good reason.
Redeemed by its major twist ending.
When seen solely as a horror film, this one has nothing new to offer. Packed with the usual and rather standard jump scares, Eli will seem like a fairly predictable horror film that you can yawn through. But as a horror/mystery, there is something else at work here, albeit with intent to throw us off. It works, and largely due to the fact that we are misdirected from the beginning, given to believe that the titular character is in need of a rare medical procedure to cure his auto-immune deficiency. His parents have spent a considerable sum of money that requires isolated treatment (and here begins the clichés) in a scary looking mansion. As the mystery unravels, so does everything else we have seen before - dark corridors, foggy mirrors, apparitions in the mirror, contorted creatures - which Eli is a victim of, and no one believes him. All this is thrown in, with intent, for two reasons. The first is to prolong the running time, which is never a good thing. But the second reason is where this film is redeemed - the major twist at the end that has the story spinning on its own head. It's a twist that viewers with either love or hate, but definitely one most won't see coming.
Dark, gritty and unsettling but also an imaginatively bold and beautiful origins story of the Joker.
Forget the title. Abandon everything you know about the Joker character from the Batman movies and DC Comics source material. Forget the previous screen iterations of the Joker. For just a moment, and I'll dare say, forget about the most popular and beloved version from Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Don't even think or expect this to be a superhero movie. There are no fancy latex costumes and certainly no studio powered CGI. Made from a frugal budget and running at a healthy 120 minutes, this film doesn't promise anything you would expect in a Hollywood blockbuster and doesn't ask for anything in return either. But right from the very first minute, you will be smitten, because this is essentially a story about Arthur Fleck, and not really about the Joker as we've seen before.
Never heard that name before? Don't worry, no one else has. That's because almost everything about this film is fresh and reimagined; but also masked with layers of familiarity. I'm referring to a very cinematic late 1970s New York City with a distinctive Martin Scorsese vibe. And although several scenes seem to say we are watching the story unfold in Gotham City, what we see is the naked soul of New York and not DC Comics' mirror image of the former. With this comes chaos and panic in flawed, fractured, vile and unsympathetic people. Arthur Fleck doesn't believe he is one of these people. He cares for his ageing mother while trying to make ends meet as a rent-a-clown. He has dreams of becoming a stand-up comedian, and an encounter with TV talk show host Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro) might give him half a chance at success. But no one ever said life is fair, right? Between dealing with a neurological disorder that causes uncontrollable bursts of laughter and retreating from the pain of everyday life, Arthur has to cope with being an outcast, a loner, a looser, a misunderstood bystander desperate to be accepted. If this weren't bad enough, his mother reveals a family secret that becomes a catalyst and turning point in the story.
What follows is a two-pronged approach into dissecting what Arthur is becoming, while simultaneously implying why he must pursue who his father is. The answer and consequences of finding the truth is an eye-popping moment because the subject is just boldly imaginative and equally subversive to everything we think we know about the character. Which to its credit, makes this film a head-smacking original. And while the Joker is much more than an origins story, this is a film made with a lot of creative freedom, which is clearly visible in the character arc of Arthur Fleck. That means very little or no studio arm twisting to rope in the cash cow. You could say director Todd Phillips and Joaquin Phoenix as the titular character have not only reimagined the Joker from an iconic villain to devastating vigilante, they have rewritten events and characters from DC Comics into Arthur's world. In doing so, they have written and published a cinematic language that was once lost, forgotten, eroded by the cash flow that came from tentpole Hollywood blockbusters, that ironically, includes superhero films to blame.
While the story is linear and simple to follow, it does everything but give you easy answers. What the film is really aiming at is the moral and mental conflict, and physical and psychological transformation of an ordinary man into a pathological killer. As this person, Joaquin Phoenix is incredibly and immensely watchable, going from childlike innocence to someone capable of unimaginable terror. Equally astonishing is his actual transformation into a sort of contortionist with a unique cackle that sounds like a crow on concentrated caffeine. You can't take your eyes off him, and while you are subconsciously aware Arthur is a work of fiction, at no point will you have the time to compare Phoenix to other actors who played the Joker. Another interesting inclusion is De Niro, who at first appears to be in a cameo role. But there is more to his inclusion than it seems. Outside throwing back to similarly introverted roles in Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull (1980), as the aforementioned Scorsese psychological dramas set in New York, De Niro also has a key role in molding Arthur. You may see it coming but when it happens, it's a shocker and in itself worthy of a second viewing.
Dark, gritty, and at times unsettling, this is Joaquin Phoenix like never before, and the same can be said about the new Joker; but also hauntingly beautiful and an impressive cinematic achievement. Unconcerned with any or all previous versions of the titular character, Joker will leave you with an overwhelming sense of empathy for a person just trying to fit in. If you don't see it that way, the joke's on you.
Little Monsters (2019)
A zombie movie with heart? Little Monsters has a lot of it and one sweet Caroline.
An Aussie zombie movie?
That's the first question that comes to mind when you hear about Little Monsters. But make no mistake, the only thing little about this film is its 90 minutes of runtime. The next question would be the odd casting choice of Lupita Nyong'o in the lead role. But anyone who saw - Us - Jordan Peele's terrorizing mystery-horror from earlier this year will attest to Nyong'o fitting the bill. And boy, does she!
Cinematically speaking, and with no pun intended, zombie films have been done to death. And yet, for some strange reason, 2019 has no less than three mainstream zombie films that all share a common thread. The first one was The Dead Don't Die, a curious deadpan horror-comedy staring Bill Murray and Adam Driver. Little Monsters, though not groundbreaking, is instantly and entirely gratifying over the latter film. You won't see a zombie for the first twenty minutes, and that's because writer-director Abe Forsythe is setting up a warmhearted story with some insane situational humour to boot. We follow failed rock band singer Dave (Alexander England) who is forced to live with his sister and nephew Felix after a botched attempt at trying to get his girlfriend back. All hell breaks loose in the literal and cinematic sense when Dave accompanies Felix and his kindergarten class on a field trip to an amusement park. For Dave, his nephew and the other kids, survival isn't an option and that's because they have no idea what they're up against. No one in this film has heard of the '47 Rules for surviving the Zombie Apocalypse' either, something that was groundbreaking to zombie movies in the hilariously action-packed Zombieland (2009), and whose follow-up Double Tap is the third zombie film for the year as mentioned earlier. But then no one in this film (and even the audience for that matter), would think salvation would come in the form of a super sweet kindergarten teacher - Caroline.
While that's a que for the Neil Diamond song of the same name, Nyong'o, in a bright yellow dress and an equally sunny disposition is literally gold as Caroline. With the ukulele Caroline's been empowered with, I'll even say that Nyong'o has the one up on Julie Andrews from The Sound of Music. But can you imagine Julie Andrews in a blood soaked dress? Between singing Taylor Swift's Shake it Off, hatching an escape plan, and assuring her kids that the blood on her dress is nothing but "strawberry jam", Nyong'o plays an atypical role for a zombie film but in a very refreshing way. Besides anchoring the film, you really start to appreciate her incredible range as an actress and why her Oscar winning debut role in 12 Years a Slave was so well deserved.
While much of this film is inspired by George A Romero's Night of the Living Dead and its sequels, Forsythe infuses Little Monsters with his own brand of crass comedy, some utterly tasteless and even crude with the inclusion of Josh Gad as a child TV personality. Gad is super bad, albeit intentional with profanity, but also a scene stealer when it comes to iterating how conflicted celebrities can be in showbiz. The film also has questionable origins to the zombie outbreak in an undisclosed location in Australia, where the amusement park is conveniently set next to a 'US Army Testing Facility'. This doesn't live up to the Romero films that inspired it, but as a zombie film, Little Monsters is cuteness overload with a lot of heart and a lot of cheer, and also blood and gore to match.
Spider-Man: Far from Home (2019)
Far From Home is goofy fun with lot more screen time for Peter Parker and why Spider-Man could be the next big thing in the MCU.
Remember what superhero films were like many years ago? Eleven years ago, there was no such thing as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It wasn't until 2008 when Robert Downey Jr (in the mother of all comebacks) set the ball rolling in Iron Man. And even then, we had no clue that that film would pilot an entire franchise to its grand finale a few months ago. Avengers: End Game, though epic in proportion and conclusion, did leave some lingering questions about the fate of many of the Avengers and the franchise itself. But now that the battle smoke has settled and along with it, the hype and anticipation too, Marvel fans can sit back and enjoy a superhero film that doesn't take itself too seriously. You could also call Spider-Man: Far From Home a Marvel Lite film, because that's all it is and tries to be.
Like Superhero films many years ago, Far From Home isn't about an elaborate plan to save the world. You won't have to keep track of a superhero ensemble trying to outwit an evil mastermind or why said mastermind wants to wipe out humanity in the first place. At its purest level, Far From Home is about a boy who likes a girl, but doesn't know how to profess his feelings for her. That's a highly relatable predicament for anyone who has been a high school teenager, which is the case with Peter when he learns that his crush MJ (Zendaya) is on the summer field trip to Europe. Also onboard is Peter's best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon), who like the other kids in his class, is still 16-years-old. Why they are not 21 (after Bruce Banner snapped everyone back to the 'present day' storyline in End Game) is cleverly explained within the first ten minutes of the film. In fact, a lot happens in the first ten minutes of this film, including a spoof farewell to the slain Avengers in End Game (looking at you, Academy Awards). As expected, one of them is Tony Stark, who lives on as Peter's mentor in memory. But Stark didn't die without leaving something behind for Peter - a pair of sunglasses with UV protection, and, tactical support. This little device will prove more than handy during the whirlwind tour through Venice, Prague, Berlin and London where Peter encounters a new friend and mentor - Mysterio.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio, is a new and terrific addition to the MCU's ever increasing list of superhero characters. There is unaffected charisma and noble determination that Gyllenhaal gives in Mysterio, but it's his brotherly fondness for Peter that makes us believe the latter is in the good hands after the demise of Tony Stark. Where Far From Home excels is not in the expensive CGI built action scenes, which in my opinion has become tiresomely explosive and repetitive, but in the character dynamics that are equally goofy and down-to-earth candid. Sure, every superhero must battle worthy supervillains, and all that, but Peter's greatest nemesis is his own every-day life. The peer-group pressure arising from several awkward situations Peter and his friends find themselves in significantly dials up the humour quotation in this film, while keeping the story rooted to the reality of kids being naïve, curious, expressive, and yet fragile at the same time. Holland has a nuanced awareness of this which gives his Peter Parker a steep learning curve in even the very mundane aspects of being a teenager. Such is his delivery in this film that holistically, you could say Tom Holland is the best actor to dawn the Spidey suit, even surpassing his own role in 2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming.
At its core, Far From Home is a teen romantic comedy resonant of the dreadful years of adolescence but also the rewards that come with it. But as a superhero film, we get a lot of screen time to focus on the character development of just one superhero, and just like the good old day. Yet Arguably, the film's release is in close proximity to End Game. This also means the film is either the final chapter to the Infinity Saga, or the beginning of a new era which could see Spider-Man as a significant character in the continuously evolving MCU. Either way, what happens during the film is well worth the price of admittance, but stay seated for the two head-smacking end credits scenes and you might just walk out with notion that you got more than you paid for.
Hotel Mumbai (2018)
At times hard to watch, Hotel Mumbai reminds us of the dark times we live in, but also humanity's innate ability to prevail.
"26/11" is a date many people will never forget; perhaps as many as a billion people. It's the day terror struck the heart of India through separate but coordinated attacks across various parts of the Mumbai metropolis. Even now, a decade later, the very mention of that tragic event can open wounds that have barely healed. Debut feature director Antony Maras knows and respects this, which is why Hotel Mumbai is not only a gripping thriller based on those events, but also one with an unusual perspective.
Maras also knows that as a docudrama, re-enactment of that terrible day can hardly pass for popcorn entertainment. Having co-written the script based on interviews with eye witnesses and news reporters, Maras also avoids offering any political commentary other than what is already known. As such, we know very little about the ten young men who infiltrate the Mumbai slums on nothing but a rubber dinghy. The film doesn't even say where they have come from except for implied clues in their Punjabi accents and extremist ideologies. What is certainly clear are their instructions to inflict maximum carnage for the whole world to see. And so it begins - civilians from the Chhatrapati Shivaji railway terminal to the popular Leopold Café, and ultimately the Taj Palace Hotel are gunned down mercilessly by perpetrators armed to the teeth. In nail-biting detail, the film goes to great lengths to depict the fate of those victims - panic, terror, and massacre - in that order. Editing teams have also done a bang on job in seamlessly blending the film's dramatized events with real news footage. There is also restraint applied in not going over the top with what could have been gruesome but exploitative violence.
And yet, Hotel Mumbai is far from perfect. In reality, over 170 people lost their lives in twelve separate attacks over a period of three days. In the film, the bulk of the narrative centers on four assailants who terrorize guests and employees of The Taj Palace. The perspective shifts from them receiving cellular instructions from a voice referred to as "The Bull," to the opulence of the famed hotel, followed by its systematic destruction from within. Opposite these four terrorists are a few key people handpicked to either survive or perish - Dev Patel as an eager young waiter and father, Anupam Kher as daring head chef Hemant Oberoi, Armie Hammer and Nazanin Boniadi as newlywed hotel guests and Jason Isaacs as a Russian businessman, among few others. With the only interjections being brief TV footage of other areas under attack (including a shot segment showing terrorist Ajmal Kasab detained in hospital following his capture), you start to wonder why the narrative doesn't shift from the hotel to the remaining ten or eleven other places hit. This is followed by absurd and misplaced humour depicting these terrorists as fresh off the boat (no pun intended) and naïve to modern amenities of civilisation - a stark contrast to their otherwise unsympathetic and deadly composure.
Hotel Mumbai doesn't raise the bar if perceived as an action thriller (especially for a global audience). To be fair, I doubt this film was intended as such. But if the film is intended to showcase an outburst of humanity, resilience to persecution, unimaginable selflessness, and the miraculous will to survive, then Maras, along with the cast and crew, have crafted a heart wrenching film that will become a crowd-pleaser, albeit unintentionally. And adding to its merit, there isn't a single character that can be defined as either a hero or a villain. Patel himself is back to his career roots, but is masked out (along with Hammer) in all the ensuing chaos, that there isn't an actual lead character. But as the title suggests, Mumbai's sons and daughters were slaughtered along with foreign visitors. The fact that the siege culminated at the Taj Palace Hotel is of no consequence given the diabolical nature of pure hatred. The film gets this right without being too on the nose. And then some. In the wake of recent and similar atrocities in Christchurch, New Zealand, the horror and the realism in the act of snuffing out innocent lives can be hard to watch. It's a reminder of the dark times we live in, but also that we prevail because we are human.
As the conclusion to this original superhero trilogy, Glass feels unfinished and empty.
As with most of his films, Writer-Director M. Knight Shyamalan's widely appreciated trait is to pull the rug under our feet during the film's closing minute. Which is why we all thought Split was a psychological horror film until the last minute, where that final unbroken shot sweeps across a diner until it stops over Bruce Willis' David Dunn. That's when we realised we were watching the sequel to one of Shyamalan's best films - Unbreakable. When Spilt revealed that it existed in the same universe as Unbreakable, it instantly positioned those films as two-thirds of a trilogy. And almost immediately after, Shyamalan revealed that Glass would be the finale to an idea gestating for nearly 20 years. That itself sounds like a labour of love for Shyamalan who not only embraces but also defies popular comic book logic.
Picking up roughly a few weeks after the climactic events in the previous film, Glass has Willis' vigilante David Dunn, James McAvoy's deeply disturbed serial killer Kevin Crumb, and Samuel L Jackson's titular criminal mastermind assemble for a face to face showdown for the first time. You just have to wait for nearly the entire length of the film for that to happen. To get there, Shyamalan takes us through a long and elaborate setup where he's showing us one thing but secretly doing something else; His preferred modus operandi maybe, but this time employing the illusion of delusion. Which is where Sarah Paulson joins the story as a psychiatrist whose speciality is in debunking people deluded into thinking they are superhuman. Read that again. In other words, there may have been others who think they are superheroes. This is the single most commendable idea in the entirety of this trilogy. It simply means that unlike popular characters from the Marvel and DC comics, Shyamalan's superheroes are not from another planet, or a result of lab experiments gone wrong. It's an idea that has immense potential, not only for this film but also for any indie filmmaker who wants to tell a superhero story in the future. Shyamalan got this right, but only in theory.
The execution is a different story, and why Glass is a shattered mess. As much as Dunn, Crumb and Mr. Glass are fleshed out characters on their own, they are strangely incompatible together. It's as if Shyamalan has invested so much attention on their individual character development that he has overlooked the whole purpose of what they were meant to become. Instead, a lot of time is spent reintroducing the same characters again. That's an unforgivable mistake for the final episode in a trilogy. The passage of time is also another questionable flaw. Dunn is seen in his rain poncho from 19 years ago and he is helped by his son Joseph track down petty street criminals. If not for a fully grown Spencer Clark Treat as Joseph, you would think nothing has changed since the first film. On the other hand, McAvoy was praised for his outstanding versatility in Split. Shyamalan knows that and so gives us a triple dose of McAvoy cycling between Hedwig, Kevin, Barry, Dennis, Patricia and even more of growling and wall crawling from The Beast. The air of mystery and terror turns to repetition, which feels like a stall for time and a full hour before Jackson's catatonic Mr. Glass has anything to say. Have you ever seen a film where the notoriously verbose Samuel L Jackson does nothing but blink?
In time everything falls to pieces. The biggest problem with this film isn't how disjointed the narrative is, or the unnecessary recap of the previous two films at laborious pacing, or even the complicated attempt at another twist ending. The problem is that despite nearly 20 years in the making, Glass feels unfinished and empty. Akin to the concept in the film, it's like finding a solid gold bar and then throwing it out through a window.
A meticulous crafted film that transcends stereotypical bias on gender, class and race.
If you were asked to tell a story to a bunch of strangers, what would it be about? A colourful and grand tale of adventure, or a more somber and subjective story you would rather not talk about? Mexican writer/director Alfonso Cuaron's Roma is one such story where ordinary characters find themselves in situations so commonplace, you could say these situations occur to a million people every day. But if a thing of beauty is a joy forever, Roma will be remembered for a long time, simply due to the immersive nature in which this story is told.
Known for his sweeping long takes, Cuaron's opening shot is just over four minutes long of a driveway being washed with soap and water. For a Netfilx release, there is an ever present danger when watching this film on TV or a handheld device, in that viewers could be tempted to fast forward seemingly unimportant segments through the course of the film. A little bit of patience will go a long way in rewarding the viewer with not just one, but two incredibly emotive moments that are both staggering to take in. For this to achieve full impact, we are first conditioned by the mesmerizing nature in which the story unfolds. When the camera finally lifts up, we see the person cleaning the driveway. She is the domestic help to an upper middle-class family in the titular Mexican city. Though indigenous, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) is very much part of the family she serves, yet her place as the help is clearly defined. Cleo's Caucasian employers are Sofia and her husband Antonio, their four children, and the children's grandmother. But there's trouble brewing in the family. Antonio's unexplained and lengthy travels (as a doctor) often leaves Sofia and the kids in a state of dysfunction. From regularly cleaning up dog poop to comforting the kids when they fight, Cleo is eager to help out in every way possible. All this changes the day Cleo learns she is pregnant. Worse, the egocentric would-be-father wants nothing to do with it.
From Children of Men in 2006 and Gravity in 2013, Cuaron's nuance is in the way his characters are subjected to an impending crisis and the chaotic nature of said crisis. Roma has a lot of that crisis, but this time Cuaron is invoking a very personal story in what has been referred to as a semi-biographical episode during his upbringing. There is both a clear adoration and tribute to the women who raised him, but it's the manner in which they are presented that makes this film more of a memoir than a conventionally told narrative. After an hour or so of runtime, it becomes clear that there is not much of a plot, but a series of events strung together like sequences from a dream. This is where the film gets its heft. Circa early 1970s, Mexican socio-political events unfold in several frames, but mainly in the background. Like a renaissance painting, there is so much happening on almost all corners of the screen that it's easy to lose track of the strong bond forming between Cleo and the family she serves - Testament of which lies in the last fifteen minutes of the film, or the second of two powerfully crafted moments in the story; Powerful and moving, and all without a musical score or even the expressive sound of a violin.
Presented in crisp, clean, 65mm black and white, this is also Cuaron serving as cinematographer for the first time. The result is a rich, visually stunning array of compositions filled with jaw dropping texture and depth. Coupled with Cuaron's signature long takes and stupendously juxtaposed satire, we are drawn into an entire world made with gorgeous micro-macro detail. But it's a world we watch objectively and from the sidelines. Perhaps that is part of the point of this film - a monochromatic introspection that transcends stereotypical bias on gender, class and race. Aparicio (in her debut role) conjures this feeling in Cleo with remarkable realism. It's in the way she looks, talks, and nurtures the family. It's in the way she mothers those kids as her own. It's in the way she is needed but also taken for granted. Yet, when it's her turn to receive help, all she has is us looking back in awe but also suffering with her. In any other film, all this would be mere melodrama but with Cuaron's as the auteur, Roma is a beautiful film crafted with meticulous detail. With limited release in cinemas, most people will be limited to watching this film on a Netflix streaming device. That shouldn't be a problem when the best part of this film is its soul and not its size.
Creed II (2018)
Creed II isn't as impressive as its predecessor, but it's a film Rocky fans cannot miss.
At a time when Hollywood is increasingly dependent on CGI fueled blockbusters about saving the world (is it seven superhero films for 2018?), it's always a joy when an old franchise has something new to offer, much like an unexpected visit from an old friend. Right from the first Rocky film in 1976, almost every film in the franchise has managed to raise a lump in your throat. That's because the Rocky films, though fictional, have maintained an almost true to life timeline of characters for over two generations. Fans will also tell you that the Rocky films, especially the first two, were less about boxing and more about two conflicted individuals who find happiness and then closure in each other. Somewhere along, we felt a kinship while forgetting that these were just characters played by actors. Then came Creed, an unexpected but wonderful film that many believed to be a spin-off in the right direction. But as much as we enjoyed that film, little did we know (or even foresee) that this was the padded beginning of the end of a beloved 40-year-old franchise.
Part of what made Creed immensely watchable was the gaping wounds in Michael B. Jordan's Adonis Johnson, the illegitimate son of Apollo Creed. This sequel digs deeper into those wounds and even rubs it with salt. But those wounds don't belong to Donnie alone. Opening in Ukraine, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) - the former Russian boxer who left Apollo dying in Rocky's arms in Rocky IV - is training his son Victor for a grudge match against Donnie. Whatever political undertone there was in the Raegan era 1985 film is left unexplored, instead, we are given to understand that Drago has been living in scorn for the last 30 odd years. Following the defeat at the end of Rocky IV, his wife left him and Victor, and the USSR has despised him for losing to the Americans. His only chance at redeeming himself is by using Victor to challenge Donnie, who is now the new WBC Heavyweight Champion. Although clearly outmatched in strength, height, reach and even weight, Donnie accepts the challenge. Eye for an eye maybe, but a recipe for disaster as Rocky puts it.
While Creed II might seem like a double-edged revenge film at first, its true intention is more about closure. New director Steven Caple Jr. gives this film a visual grandiose that surpasses its predecessor but only so much. It's bigger, longer, meaner, and stitched together with narrative clichés, but also reminds us of the frailty of relationships. This is well appointed in the effortless chemistry between Jordan and Thompson (returning as girlfriend Bianca) and between Jordan and Stallone in several scenes. Yet, the best and most tense moment in the film is a sort of face-off between Stallone and Lundgren at Rocky's restaurant. Drago blames Rocky for ruining his life. He also notices there are no pictures of him or the fight in Russia on the restaurant wall. For just a moment, you think they will pummel each other again. The story captures a lot of mental and emotional turmoil in Drago, who is thankfully not the campy villain he was in Rocky IV but a man who must make things right for himself and his son.
Ryan Coogler's Creed was a near masterpiece in not only reviving an ageing franchise, but also giving it a fresh new narrative. The fight scenes were tense and exceptional, a feat Coogler repeated with Jordan in Black Panther. The fight scenes in this sequel are satisfying at best, safe at worst. To be fair, sophomore director Caple Jr. had big shoes to fill, and it shows. Like Rocky II, Creed II has its merits but also its flaws. It also shows that this is a film written and produced in the way fans would expect. While this could spawn a whole new generation of fans, there's also a danger to the original franchise. The danger is that we may never see Rocky (the character) again and as played by Stallone. If that happens, this film would be Stallone's last outing as Rocky. And if that's the case, we either didn't see it coming or they completely ignored a swan song in favour of fan service. Either way, not to be missed for Stallone alone. Good bye Rocky!
Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
An uplifting and electrifying encore to some of Queen's best music and a salute to the man that made it all happen.
Are you ready? Are you ready for this?
The world's population in 1985 was well over four billion people. That same year, close to two billion people across 150 countries witnessed one of the greatest performances in the history of live music. It would also be one of the last performances by British rock band Queen, led by singer, songwriter and the greatest frontman of all time - Freddie Mercury. That was Live Aid and that's old news now. Bohemian Rhapsody serves as a biopic into the short but brilliant life of Mercury, his music, his struggles as person and the choices he had to make at a time when society wasn't so liberal. Yet no matter what you know or how much you love the sound of their music, nothing can prepare you for the final twenty minutes, or the 20 most important minutes in Mercury's life. For every Gen X or pre-millennial watching this film, this is the closest any of us will come to seeing Freddie Mercury and Queen perform on stage. Again.
The film begins and ends with Mercury in his iconic acid jeans and wife-beater vest at Live Aid. In between, we follow the transformation of Farrokh Bulsara from a shy baggage handler at Heathrow airport to the rock legend he would become. A brief and early segment tells us about his conservative Parsi-Indian upbringing, which ultimately serves as an important arc to the two sides of Freddie Mercury - the musical genius and the man in the closet. In retrospect, this is a very important part of Mercury's life that the film either gets right or terribly wrong. That's because the film is content in revealing Mercury's relationship with his girlfriend and then wife Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). She was everything to him and the film respects that. But when Mercury gets seductive looks from other men, we are only given a hint of his confusion that questions his sexual orientation. As it seems, Bohemian Rhapsody has little interest in Mercury's personal life with other men and nothing more than mere implication. Instead, the focus is and where it should be - the camaraderie with bandmates Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon - their love, joy, hate and heartbreak during the course of Queen's ascent into the household name it is today.
If Bohemian Rhapsody feels underdeveloped at times, it would be because many viewers may have been expecting a more detailed story behind Queen, the band's rapid rise to fame, and why their music continues to enjoy such longevity. While this part of the film feels patchy, with bits and pieces time stamped by years and concerts around the world, the film is really about Mercury's vision to write and produce music that was outrageous and outstanding, yet universally infectious. In the film, his lyrics and melodies come to him in epiphanies. It's a nice touch in trying to understand the brilliance behind his outrageously flamboyant stage persona, while also nodding to the fact that Mercury was known to be a shy introvert when not performing.
As Mercury, Rami Malek nails every scene with commanding aplomb, while struggling to cover his buck teeth with his upper lip. Like Queen, it's a meteoric performance for Malek who gathered a large fan following on TV's Mr. Robot. There are others too, Ben Hardy as drummer Roger Taylor, Gwilym Lee as lead guitarist Brian May, and an unrecognizable Mike Myers as a record label executive who together add supporting characters aid the story. But even if the biopic doesn't add up with which, who and what came first, all credit goes to Malek for capturing and almost reveling in Mercury's dynamic and electric stage presence, yet equally childlike innocence. Ultimately, Bohemian Rhapsody is a celebration of Queen's music, but with focus on Mercury as the band's creator. If that means controversies are left out, then it also leaves Mercury's brilliance and conflicts obscured in mystery. And that's the best way to remember a legend with an incredibly diverse set of octaves. "We will rock you", they said. They do and you better believe it. By the time you realise the end credits are rolling up, you'll find yourself hanging on the edge of your seat.
Summer of 84 (2018)
Summer of 84 offers nostalgia as the blue pill and horror film as the red pill. You can only digest one.
They say real outdoor fun ended with the 80s kid. Not just in the literal sense, but anything outside the confines of home - hours at the gaming arcade, playing neighborhood watch on bicycles, skipping school to be with a sick buddy, widely made-up conspiracy theories, and an endless list of everything typical of adolescence before the modern internet boom. Summer of 84 begins with a familiar kinship to the 80s, a story of four teenage boys desperate to prove that each is more man than boy. Even their names, Davey, Tommy, Woody, and Curtis seem cut out of the 80s cinema era from The Goonies to Stand by Me to the recent and hugely popular TV series Stranger Things. Throw in synthesized retro music, rebellious hip-hop fashion, a mere mention of Reagan and Bush Sr. and the film starts to conjure nostalgia specific to that period. Easier said than done? The real proof of the pudding is in actually tasting it. And here's where the film runs into a fundamental problem - a setup so big that it loses sight of the little details that goes into its own foundation.
Taking cues from films like Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, which by itself spawned a generation of suspense driven thrillers from Fright Night to Disturbia, the premise here isn't new but the crux of the film is in the opening line that "Even serial killers live next door to somebody". That's protagonist Davey Armstrong's theory, amongst several others plastered across his bedroom wall. As the neighborhood newspaper delivery boy, Davey (Graham Verchere) is also privy to tabloid headlines before everyone else. When news of a second teenage boy goes missing, Davey is obsessed with finding the killer. Together with his buddies and armed with walkie-talkies, flashlights and a trusty pair of binoculars, Davey sets out to prove that his neighbor, police officer Mr. Mackey, is the serial killer.
Aesthetically, Summer of 84 will please every adult viewer who grew up in the titular era, and is bound to find something relatable in this film. Be it the music, the pop culture of the time or when opinions were in good faith and not obscured by the so called 'politically correct' atmosphere of modern society. But as a thriller, the story is only half as believable. Peppered with holes, the story also has us wired into believing that Davey and his friends have everything figured out, while precious little is done to make us care if they live or die. Then there's the problem with length. As much as fifty minutes goes by before we get the first and forced jump scare. The remaining fifty minutes is when things get interesting, of which the high point is when Mr. Mackey makes a house call. It's a well-played out scene and perhaps the most chilling moment in the film. Ultimately, the film ends up with a forked conclusion - one is the twist and one is the actual ending. Only one of these is successful in leaving a strong afterthought - and maybe, just maybe, the birth of a new serial killer in horror films.
First Man (2018)
First Man is an intimate account of how far one man went for the rest of mankind.
The year 2019 will mark 50 years since an American astronaut landed and walked on the moon. In Hollywood fashion, it's only fair that a film celebrates this event as a glorious and patriotic anniversary. First Man is not that film. Neither is it a full-fledged biopic as the title seems to suggest.
If Whiplash, followed by La La Land were astounding films about the burning desire to go above and beyond the ordinary, returning director Damien Chazelle put's everything he's got into making First Man a poignant yet important story on what is probably the single most dangerous mission in the history of mankind. Yet until now, it hasn't seemed that way because junior school history books barely talked about the event without earmarking it as a historic date. Which is why Chazelle, along with scriptwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight and The Post) is audaciously tasked with not only gathering every detail that went into the Apollo 11 mission but also the brilliant yet impenetrable psyche of mission commander Neil Armstrong.
Following the development of the space programme through the 1960s, much of Armstrong's story is told from a first-person perspective. His personal tragedy early in the film along with his real life repute as an introvert sets the tone of the film. There was nothing stopping Universal Pictures, including Executive Producer Steven Spielberg, from throwing in an extra 100 million bucks to make this film an action packed white-knuckle crowd pleaser. Instead, the entire film feels like a modest presentation of one of the most applauded events that contributed towards the modern space age. Through Ryan Gosling's deadpan eyes, Armstrong is a recluse and never the hero history says he is. In retrospect to the eventual moon landing, the space programme in this film is marred with failure after disastrous failure with funerals of fellow astronauts as the only punctuation. But all through Armstrong's progression from flight engineer to test pilot to eventually being strapped into a Saturn V Rocket aimed at the moon, we are also shown what he was as an ordinary civilian. His sorrow and self-doubt, coupled with remarkable calm and restraint, escalate into a vicious circle with each setback. Yet caught between the political pressure of the tax payer's dollar and his personal will to succeed, the film's most powerful moments are the sacrifices he makes as a father and a husband. Gosling gets this right in equal measure as Armstrong the man, the astronaut and the icon he would become.
Equally decisive is Armstrong's wife Janet (The Crown's Claire Foy) who in two limited but explosive scenes jumps the que for a Supporting Actress nomination. Whether Foy gets it isn't nearly as important as her conviction in portraying the anguish of a wife whose picture-perfect family is under constant threat by her husband's employer. This is a highly relatable predicament for millions of home-alone mothers whose waking nightmare is seeing their spouse return in a casket from a job they loved more. Such was the dwindling expectation from the mission that one moving scene even has a NASA representative pen a generalised obituary to the would-be widows of the few remaining astronauts. All the courage, sacrifice and tragedy are supplemented by a large assembly of supporting roles whose teamwork and on-screen camaraderie builds a formidable launch pad (no pun intended) for the best and most rewarding segment - the lunar landing.
Both technically and visually, First Man is almost flawless and deserves to be seen on the largest cinema screen available. Just like Armstrong, Chazelle also applies a lot of restraint in not only limiting exposition to a trickle, but also employing just the right amount of visual effects to tell the story. But even the little in this film instantly puts to shame the overuse of lavish visual and sound effects in big sci-fi titles like Gravity or Mission to Mars. Watching a group of suited up astronauts stuffed into a steel bucket held together with nuts and bolts is not only a claustrophobic experience for the viewer, watching that tiny capsule rattle and roll and hurtle at a speed of more than a thousand feet a second can be exhilarating and immersive. That's more than enough for the billions on Earth who can only dream of taking that flight of fantasy towards another world. First Man does that in a very intimate and down-to-earth way, when everything about this film is about a giant leap from the earth to the moon and beyond.
A Star Is Born (2018)
A Star is born isn't just a great remake, it's really about Cooper and Gaga's unseen talents that makes this one of the best films of the year
Remakes can be risky. While films have been remade within short proximity of preceding films, there have been iterations that once stood out but faded away with time. This is one such film where the story is well known but it's popularity rose and fell generations ago. Which is where debut director Bradley Cooper finds himself up against his first challenge - did we really need a fourth remake of A Star is Born?
The answer is resoundingly affirmative and all you need is the first ten minutes to be reeled in hook, line and sinker. But as much as this film is an absorbing crowd-pleaser, this is also an incredibly moving obituary to the fallen heroes in show business. Anyone who has seen the previous films should be aware how this will end and although Cooper respects the original story, his approach is fresh and captivating. Even so, Cooper's greatest triumph is the spell this film casts on its audience. There is magic and chemistry, which together brews a huge bowl of soul.
The first half of A Star is Born is absolutely charming in the boy-meets-girl department. Playing an alternative country music rock star, this is Cooper faced with his second challenge - as the lead character he had to also learn to sing convincingly well. But as the story goes, Cooper's Jackson Maine is past his prime. There is little joy left in electrifying a sold-out concert. There is nothing more to pursue but addiction and self abuse. Ironically, and throughout the film, the chorus to Jackson's main song plays out "It takes a lot to change a man and it takes a lot to try; maybe it's time to let the old ways die". It doesn't happen. Not until Jackson is smitten the moment he sees Ally (Lady Gaga), an unknown singer performing at a drag bar. What follows is a new and fresh take on a timeless love story of two souls on opposite trajectories but whose paths are destined to intersect.
There's a perfect blend of magnetic pull and charm between two characters, and then between said characters and the audience. This is known as screen chemistry but it isn't always convincing. We thought Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence were dynamite together in Silver Linings Playbook. Then came Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone's widely appreciated chemistry in the (almost) Academy Award winning Best Picture La La Land. In A Star is Born, Cooper and Gaga are not only incredibly convincing, their character bonding happens like street magic - right before our eyes but never really sure when it happens. And if this isn't convincing for the hardest of cynics, wait till you see them sing together. There can't be anything more real than the goosebumps that follow. Music as the essence of this film rings true but the story looses some traction in the second half once focus turns to Ally as the new supernova in showbiz. It's a stall for time until the inevitable happens and why A Star is Born is a heartfelt reach-out to the oft unseen and undesirable effects of being an adored entertainer. But as films like The Artist and Birdman have taught us, every star has a cycle from birth to death. Fundamentally, this film serves as a austere reminder of just that. Although Cooper has starred in some big films before, he has never performed as a singer (let alone film director). And although Lady Gaga has won multiple Grammy awards as a singer, she has never performed theatrically. This could have been the most disastrous pairing in cinema history but it's another challenge that Cooper has pulled off, albeit with near-exceptional results. There have been many before, even music divas like Madonna and Whitney Houston who attempted crossing over into cinema. Not many have succeeded. For Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, or Lady Gaga the pop star, this is the first and we certainly hope not the last. Insecure yet audacious, vulnerable yet spirited, Gaga's Ally is the literal and figurative definition of an underdog making it big in show business. Together, they make it worth every penny you pay to watch this film and it's a film you never want to end. But be warned. As the co-writer and co-producer of this film, Cooper doesn't stray far from the original story. If anything, the conclusion is far more overwhelming than expected. But backed by a strong supporting cast and a terrific list of songs, this version is not only the best compared to the previous films but also one of the best films of the year.
Ghost Stories (2017)
Ghost Stories doesn't raise the bar in horror films but feels strangely original. And then there's that twist ending.
Adapted from a hugely successful West End stage play of the same name, Ghost Stories will appeal to old-school horror fans where the journey has more importance than the destination. For this, co-director Jeremy Dyson (who shares scripting and directing duties with lead actor Andy Nyman) uses every opportunity to rattle our nerves but applies restrain to great effect. Jump scares are also limited in favour of an icy atmosphere that harkens back to classic British horror films. In keeping with that tradition, viewers can expect this horror film to have all manner of spooky threats from all corners of the screen. While this can be perceived as a limitation to the original stage production, the story remains the same and the main reason why this is a well assembled chiller.
Because of the plurality in the title, the film appears to be an anthology of short stories. Or does it? There is a common thread running through each of the stories and that is co-director Nyman as Professor Phillip Goodman - a cynic devoted to exposing urban superstition and fraudulent psychics. The opening credits show why Goodman has a chip on the shoulder for superstition, but having climbed the ladder and become a television presenter, the chip on the other shoulder tells us that he is also hungry for fame. Opportunity arrives in the form of Charles Cameron, a renowned paranormal investigator Goodman has idolised since he was a child. The sick and dying Cameron asks Goodman to investigate three cases of unexplainable paranormal incidents. Little does Goodman know, or is prepared for what lies ahead. And neither are we.
Each of the three stories are barely twenty minutes long but ensures a good fright at the end. If that isn't enough, a fourth story emerges, which according to a very special character is "the last key that unlocks everything". But we want even more, right? Patience will be rewarded, but not before realising that even as the title is obvious, the black humour is equally evident. "The brain sees what it wants to see", says that same character, setting into motion a cruel joke that not only serves as a devilish twist ending but also ribbon-wraps the entire package.
While true horror fans may think this film is more bizarre than it is scary (which could be a let-down for some viewers when each story ends), the real meat of the film is in the build-up and not so much in the actual confrontation with the paranormal. This is evident in the old-fashioned campfire approach to telling a ghost story, and with almost the same potency from the works of Stanley Kubrick to Stephen King. Technically, this also means the directors were trying their hands at all possible ways to scare the audience. That doesn't say much about raising the bar as a horror film but to its merit, delivery from key roles played by Martin Freeman and Alex Lawther nails it as tight as a tomb. Lawther, in the second story, is as creepy as a ventriloquist's dummy, while Freeman's character brings an ethereal crowning to the entire film. Ultimately, Ghost Stories is assembled from a deep love for the genre. While that can include certain familiarities, the film is also smart and sophisticated. Which when stacked up against modern day horror films, feels strangely original yet playfully subversive.
A gripping thriller from a new and upcoming master of the macabre.
The choices we make will ultimately define consequences we must face in the future. Or so, we've been told since a young age. Writer-director Matt Palmer gives that axiom a wicked spin in Calibre, a Netflix release not to be underestimated by its lean length and production budget.
Before the film reaches its inevitable and horrifying conclusion, Calibre will have the audience questioning what is right and wrong. Viewers may even find themselves rooting for either the timid and polite Vaughn (Jack Lowden) or the confident and outgoing (Marcus Martin McCann), old friends off to the Sottish highlands for a bit of deer hunting. This would also be their last getaway as bachelors before Vaughn marries his newly pregnant fiancé. Upon arrival at the local tavern, the duo find the locals less than hospitable. At first it's not clear whether the locals don't take kindly to outsiders or they just don't like big city executives flirting with the local women. A night of pub-hopping later, the next morning starts with a hangover and ends with a nightmare that doesn't end.
Thus begins Palmer's feature debut until it takes you to its mind-numbing and gripping final thirty minutes. If you survive this, the very last scene will leave you with an icy shiver. Very bad things happen in this film, some of which in quick succession and before we get a chance to digest the gravity of the horror unfolding on screen. While it's not about whether viewers can stomach some of the violence, the question that emerges is in identifying who the real villains are. Getting into more detail would be doing this shocking and edgy thriller a disservice but the two male leads are excellent, each in their own way. Lowden, fresh of the success of Christopher Nolan's war epic Dunkirk, and McCann building on his terrific performance in the 2016 post-apocalyptic thriller The Survivalist, are both exceptional in a simple story of a stag-weekend gone terribly wrong. Even so, they are both matched by strong talent from the likes of Tony Curran and Ian Pirie, playing village locals who are essentially law of the land.
Calibre is evidently shot on a low budget but still manages to keep the viewer arrested with a sinking feeling that the worst is yet to come. While the premise of a stag night gone bad, or outsiders having to outsmart suspicious locals have been done many times before, Palmer's story is somehow counter-intuitive to what one would expect. In between balancing our sympathies for the two leads against a situation that gets gruesome by the minute, Palmer deserves the most praise for taking a familiar story and giving it a diabolical yet intentional twist. Neatly embedded in the story are also subtle questions about the disparity of power, wealth, and justice, while offering nothing but a bleak answer as to how and why bad things happen to good people. It isn't a joyous film to recommend and neither is there anything pleasant about the film but if so much can be delivered with so little, then Matt Palmer is the name to look for as the new and upcoming master of the macabre.
Tom Cruise saves the world again, and this film.
I must have missed something fundamentally riveting about this film, or, the film is mostly the same as any other Mission Impossible film - Bike chases, car chases, aerial chases - it's all there and as good or as cheesy as the previous films. The story, however, did not hold my interest. Simply put, it's about thwarting a terrorist attack by double crossing double agents. Seen that before? The issue isn't just the tired old save-the-world generic script but the heavy onus on Tom Cruise to hoist and thus save the film from mediocrity; which he does single-handedly. But it isn't enough. The action choreography, though thrilling, has all been done before. Not only in previous films of this franchise, but the same as in the Die Hard and Bond films. If John McClane can take down a helicopter with a car and James Bond can take out a motorcade with a plane, then guess what? So can Ethan Hunt. But if these are standard expectations in superspy films, then there should also be a super villain we all love to hate. How good was Philip Seymour Hoffman in MI3? In this film, the villain, who turns out to be a double agent (SURPRISE!) is an embarrassment to the entire cinematic world of villains. But I like how he ended up resembling Two-face from the DC comics (so much for being a double agent...two face, get it?).
So if I recommend this film, it would only be for Tom Cruise and his infectious energy in every scene, with one in particular revealing Ethen Hunt has a heart of gold. As Maveric, Ron Kovic, Cole Trickle, Lt. Kaffee, Lestat, Jerry Maguir, Les Grossman, Tom Cruise has immense versatility matched only by his onscreen magnetism. At 56 he's still got it and probably the only reason "Mission Impossible - Fallout" is watchable. That said, the second biggest disappointment (after the wooden villain) is the lack of any real mission that is seemingly impossible to pull off. Part of what made the earlier films thrilling was just that: the hi-tech heist. From dangling upside down to steal a microchip in the first film to actually holding his breath for six minutes underwater in "Rogue Nation" (to steal another computer chip), doing the impossible was one of the highlights of those films. None of that here and no hi-tech gizmos either. Instead, new director Christopher McQuarrie (who previously wrote the brilliant "The Usual Suspects" and "Edge of Tomorrow") settles for oomph over an actual story that lets us care about any of the characters. Even the whimsical team camaraderie we loved about the previous films are missing here with Ving Rhames and Simon Pegg taking a back seat (and Jeremy Renner nowhere to be seen). Driven by its strong action formula, "Fallout" will entertain the masses, but memories of which will self-destruct in less than five months. If that sounds corny, wait till you see the last thirty minutes...or the longest 15 minutes in cinema to diffuse a nuclear bomb.
A Prayer Before Dawn (2017)
Brutal, hellish and unrelenting, but also a painfully true story told with conviction.
As much as I love the Rocky films and the franchise offspring Creed, I must admit that A Prayer Before Dawn makes those films seem like feel-good Hollywood fairytales. And as much as I recommend this film for its cinematic achievements, I must also say that this film isn't for everyone. Why? As a brutal assault on the senses, there isn't a single moment that allows the viewer to think "it's only a movie". Your only choice is to either look away, or absorb every horrific moment and wish it never happens to you or anyone you know.
Based on the memoirs of British boxer Billy Moore, his heroin addiction and ensuing drug bust in Bangkok, the film begins with his arrest and incarceration in a Thai prison. Not only is Billy (Joe Cole) the only white face in a prison cell with dozens of other hardened local criminals, the deplorable living conditions and lack of any sort of law and order would comparatively make life in Alcatraz seem like a privilege. And then, during his first night in, Billy is held with a knife to his throat and forced to watch an act of gut-wrenching, nerve-rattling brutality. French director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire uses this scene to set the tone for the rest of the film where it remains consistently bleak and unapologetic. After days of copious cruelty and violence (or months, as a timeline is not revealed), Billy realises that his survival depends on his skills as kick-boxer. With sympathetic help from a lady-boy he befriends in jail, Billy starts training as a Muay Thai fighter. It might just let him live another day.
Billy's training scenes are a stark contrast to the trumpet blaring training montage in any of the Rocky films. That's because this film isn't about the glory of winning a fight but solely about staying alive. Which is why A Prayer Before Dawn is first and foremost a survival film, followed by a blood sport film as a close second. Green Room actor Cole is remarkable as Billy and the main reason for recommending this film despite its ugly premise. Somewhere along the film's two-hour runtime, Cole's Billy transforms from a beat-down British expat to a fighter releasing his fears and frustration into every explosive blow with brute force. It's a physically demanding role that Cole gets right but also helped by the jarring camerawork that puts us in the ring and under the skin of relentlessly pounded flesh. It all feels so authentic and immersive that one can't really say if they are acting or beating each other senseless. Add to that, the film was not only shot in an actual Thai prison, Cole was also working with real life prisoners who were still under detention. For the millions of tourists who visit Thailand every year, this film doesn't paint a pretty picture and neither does it intend to. Like Nicolas Winding Refn's moody Only God Forgives, Sauvaire has a story to tell about Bangkok's seedy underworld that most tourists don't often see. The anti-drugs message is severe and the price to pay is extreme, but as a real life story told with conviction, A Prayer Before Dawn is about humanity's most defining virtue of persistence even in the most hellish of places.
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Ant-Man and The Wasp is big on laughs and action yet self-aware of its limits as a sequel.
It's been just over two months since Avengers: Infinity War left viewers paralysed with that unexpected and somber ending. Yet film forums and chatrooms are still endemic with what happened, why it happened and how it can be undone in Avengers 4 (currently untitled). Which is why Ant-man and The Wasp couldn't have come out at a better time. There's none of that do or die scenario which immediately elevates this film above something as colossal and imposing as saving the universe, essentially making this sequel a story with a little charm and a lot of humour and with just the right amount of action.
Two years after backing Cap in Civil War, Paul Rudd's Scott Lang is under house arrest and nearing the end of his sentence. Although this could explain why the Ant-Man wasn't seen in Infinity War, the story suggests that the film isn't too concerned of its position in the MCU. Instead, the story builds on the hypothesis that if Lang could return to his fully functional form after his subatomic adventure in the previous film, then there's a slim possibility of finding Hank Pym's (Michael Douglas) long lost superhero wife and the first Wasp (Michelle Pfeiffer). Together with Hank's daughter Hope (Evangeline Lily as the new Wasp) this is their mission until a new and dangerous character surfaces with an opposing agenda.
In the ensuing conflict, Ant-Man and The Wasp erupts into a ton of fun with the inclusion of a motley mix of wacky characters led by Walter Goggins as petty criminal Sunny Birch, Randal Park as a zany FBI agent, Lang's friend and ex-con Michael Peña's Luis (who they pronounce as Louise), and Lawrence Fishburn as Hank's old associate. In the wake of the mass-destruction seriousness of previous MCU films, these characters ground the story with an everyman feel to a level where this superhero story is reduced to a more relatable human scale. But while the film is content with exploring the frailty of family dynamics and kinship, the story feels underdeveloped when it comes to a few essential plot points; the big one being - Ghost - a new and never-before-seen character in MCU films. With the ability to manifest between apparition and physical form, a condition Hank calls "Molecular Dequilibrium", Ghost is a welcome addition to the franchise with vast potential as an anti-hero. Perhaps we will know more about this character if there is a third film but until then it suffices to say that this character deserved to be better explored.
With the use of scientific jargon in the film, returning director Peyton Reed and his team of five screenwriters (including Rudd himself) also had to throw in some exposition to keep us following. The first half has a lot of this and most viewers will see through the superficiality of it all being just a build-up for what comes later. As a sequel this is expected, along with product placements where we see the product logo cropped to fit the screen. The film really opens up when it stops holding back and then unleashes everything we have been waiting for and more. The action is thick and fast, outdone only by the comic timing from Rudd and Peña. By this time Ant-Man and The Wasp has also devolved the notion that a superhero film doesn't have to be boosted with hype or shrouded in secrecy. In its own 'little' way, this is a superhero film like the good old days and that's all it tries to be - a small and lighthearted story that doesn't require viewers to pull out pivot tables after the film.
Fallen Kingdom lacks the heft to stand out in the franchise but has enough bite for a monster movie.
It's no coincidence to say that around the time Michael Crichton conceived the idea of bringing dinosaurs back to life, a sheep was born at a biotech institute somewhere in Scotland, but without biological parents. Asking which came first is as debatable as the chicken and the egg conundrum but the fact remains that 25 years on, the concept of cloning is as progressive in the real world as it is in cinema. In that line of thought, Crichton's 1993 cinema adaptation - Jurassic Park - finds itself cloned for the fifth time but as it turns out, what was once artificially magical is now organically ordinary.
Fallen Kingdom's basic setup is to take the audience back to Isla Nublar, where after the pandemonium in the last film Jurassic World, dinosaurs now roam freely in a theme park decimated and reclaimed by nature; and nature is very angry. With the island now volcanically active, all the dinosaurs face extinction from the imminent eruption. Not again! That satire is kicked up a notch with a grand cameo from Jeff Goldblum, who besides cutting the ribbon for this 25th anniversary celebration, adds a bit of franchise nostalgia and insight into what is about to happen. The plan is to relocate the dinosaurs to a new island and who better than John Hammond's chum Sir Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell) to hire Claire and Owen to get the job done. Simple as it sounds but where's the fun if everything goes according to plan?
There's more to the story that's best left for the audience to discover but that's all you need to know about the plot. What follows is an action packed first act followed by a sluggish middle section topped off in a finale that's a bit dark and whacky. Has anything changed since the last film? Not much but Bryce Dallas Howard's Claire isn't trying to outrun dinosaurs in stilettos anymore. On the other hand, Chris Pratt reprises his charming role as Owen but is nowhere near as funny as Star-Lord. Together, and like the last film, their onscreen chemistry is as palatable as a dollop of ice-cream on a sizzling steak. The real meat, literally and figuratively, is the dinosaurs and they've never looked better. From the terrific underwater opening montage, to Owen's fully grown raptor friend Blue, to the film's new and ferocious hybrid called 'Indoraptor', Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is at its best when there's a dinosaur on screen. To that effect, a staggering scene where a Brachiosaurus looks at the audience while the island implodes on itself is worth mentioning as the film's most memorable moment.
As much as there's a lot of mayhem and fun in the film, Fallen Kingdom lacks the heft to stand out in the franchise. That's a bit of a letdown for anyone expecting a worthy homage to the original. Having said that, the introduction of a new character, along with and an interesting plot development suggests vast potential in giving the franchise a new twist. If Dolly the Sheep went on to deliver six lambs, then there's no reason Crichton's beloved dinosaur epic won't see a sixth installment. For now, it suffices to say that although Fallen Kingdom isn't anywhere near extraordinary, it still has enough bite to officiate the 2018 summer movie mania.
Super Dark Times (2017)
A horror film above convention with a seminal look at how innocence can quickly turn feral.
They say the most effective horror films are not about what happens on screen but about what you don't see happening. With the inclusion of a strong and foreboding sense of dread, mood is the other component that makes or breaks that effectiveness. Right from its opening scene, Super Dark Times is a just that - a highly effective horror-thriller with mood as thick as a blanket of silent but steadily creeping fog. It is also cleverly written and slyly presented in a way where what you see is just half the story.
The bait to lure us in is the premise that this is a coming-of-age film. While that is relatable to any adult watching this film, the scariest part is its rhetoric preface leading up to almost everything that is evil in the world today. Set in the early 1990s - a time before the modern day internet when teenagers would actually leave home to meet their friends, or use a brick-sized telephone to speak to them, or listen to a Sony Discman to shut out the rest of the world - Super Dark Times begins as a familiar story of adolescent teenage boys. Transitioning between the boys they were and the men they are becoming, the sense of carnal frustration and pent-up repression is hard to miss. They ride bikes, talk about movies, fantasise about girls, get into fights with other kids and everything typical of teenagers those days, until too much fooling around leads to a terrible accident.
What follows is the cover-up but also where the film launches itself into the bizarre psyche of a teen's turbulent mind. Best friends Zach and Josh spiral out of control, experience an emotional disconnect, embrace solitude, struggle with guilt and grief, and all before we realise that both of them have a thing for Allison, a girl everyone seems to take for granted. During all this time, debut director Kevin Phillips examines how an unchecked act of juvenile folly can trigger unimaginable acts of cruelty. Keep in mind this film is set in an era prior to the infamous Columbine Massacre but during the onset of a social climate perceived in high school students suffering from boredom, insecurity, and a strong need for attention. Phillips not only brings this out as the film's centripetal force that draws everything inward but also uses this to propel the story towards its inevitable and bloody conclusion.
While the conclusion can seem rushed or clichéd, the ending is actually brilliant when you really think about it. For instance, the twist in the story is so cleverly hidden that you may never even know you are watching a twist ending. Likewise, there are several other takeaways that can have viewers mulling over for days. In that vein of thought, Super Dark Days can be considered the next best thing after the seminal Donnie Darko. Is it scary? Not in the conventional sense of a horror film, but the subject matter is terrifyingly honest and always lurking beneath the surface. Yet you don't always see it and perhaps some of it is left to imagination. But when you do, it's like watching someone throwing a brick; only to have that brick hit you square in the face.
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Infinity War is the biggest, baddest, boldest superhero film in a long time. Thank Thanos.
With a never ending horde of superhero characters, you could call this the biggest superhero ensemble in Marvel's Cinematic Universe. Heck, even without the searing white excitement generated by all the hype, this was going to be the superhero event of the year. Anyway you look at it, Avengers: Infinity War is the biggest, baddest, boldest superhero film in a long time.
And it's a long time coming with 19 preceding films in three phases over the last 10 years - it was all coming down to this. Viewers who stayed back for the post credits scene during those films (now a Marvel gold standard), were already in on it, and will be the most rewarded during this film. Although the plotline is simple, old and tired - ala save the world from an intergalactic despot - the mythology behind the story and how it is penned for the screen is by the far the best part about this film, and perhaps one of the best from the MCU. Equally praise worthy is the writing and rendition of Thanos, who is not only the best villain in the franchise but somehow the central character too. What makes Thanos even more lovable (as a villain you love to hate to love) is his human-like flaws despite his colossal repute as the most destructive and feared force in the universe. Even better is the fact that amongst the entire star cast (count at least 25 top name appearances) Thanos, voiced by Josh Brolin, is entirely CGI rendered yet still remains at the forefront of this film. In some ways, and despite the atrocities committed by Thanos, you still find a soft corner and empathetically sound reasons to believe why he does what he does. Now this is the modus operandi of a true villain and not even the avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy teamed together can stop him.
Despite the expected humour throughout the film, those atrocities make Avengers: Infinity War the darkest film in the MCU. This means viewers and fans will have to brace themselves for quite a few unexpected turns in the story, some of which may seem straight out of a Greek tragedy. That is the nature of this film, and at times irresistibly devastating. However prepared you think you are, and no matter what you've heard before going to watch this film, Avengers: Infinity War is always two steps ahead. Just like Thanos. I can hardly wait to see his reincarnation as Cable.
Big gets bigger as dumb gets dumber in a monster movie with bark but no bite.
Based on the 1986 button mashing video game of the same name, Rampage has Dwayne Johnson playing a role similar to those seen in some of his previous films - the lone hero who must save the world. That's not such a bad thing as there are several other action movie icons tasked with similar roles. But Johnson also makes two types of films in conventional roles - the action film meant to be funny, and the action film meant to be serious. Rampage tries to be both but succeeds at neither. The film is instead in the same boat as Johnson's 2015 CGI potpourri of disaster, devastation, and destruction - San Andreas. While that film revelled in the complete destruction of California, this film does the same with the city of Chicago but in a tired old way - adding size to spectacle.
That's what happens to George, a blue eyed albino gorilla under the care of a primatologist played by Johnson. Thanks to a mysterious virus from a doomed space station that crashes into Chicago, George is in a furious fit and there's no way of containing his rage nor his increasing body mass. While it would have been tried and tested to go the King Kong route, the film tries to remain loosely based on the video game it is named after by introducing two more ferocious creatures that have mutated along with George. Two would have been fine, but three's a crowd and Chicago serves as the proverbial China Shop.
With the inclusion of some violence and creature terror, Rampage is only watchable for its action segments and a few scenes of standard quality visual effects. The story and sci-fi mumbo jumbo about the mutation are not just dull, it's an early warning indication that goes from lame to lazy and stays that way. Even so, nothing can be worse than the excruciating fact that Rampage tries to be a very serious film in everything it tries to be. What little humour the film has also feels juvenile, even if it means imagining an ape making lurid gestures on a big screen. If that's the highlight of this film, you can just imagine how unintelligent the rest can get. And that's before the film abandons any sense of common sense. Sorry George. Kong is still King!
Ready Player One (2018)
Ready Player One lacks a solid story but excels as pure escapism at the movies.
Breaking the post Oscars lull is Spielberg's Ready Player One, a Sci-fi action-adventure throwback to not only the golden 80s of cinema, but also popular video games and music of that era. In fact, there are so many references in rapid succession that if you blink, you'd miss a few. That's not saying the film is perfect. For a project assembled with layer after layer of pop culture references, including the movie magic of Spielberg's yesteryears, Ready Player One lacks a solid story. Also, what should be a thoroughly nostalgic experience at the cinema is overladen with visual effects just because the studio (own Amblin Entertainment) can afford it.
Still reading? Good, because despite some blaring faults, the film is still watchable thanks to a few terrific moments that hold everything together. Now imagine stepping into a virtual world where you can be whoever you want to be. Thanks to our current and rising addiction to social media forums, the film predicts that by 2045 much of humanity will live in isolation but connected through virtual reality. Called the OASIS and linked in via VR headsets, anyone can do pretty much what they want, and accordingly reap benefits or face the consequences. Staying alive and rising to the top of the leaderboards often require expensive power-ups and upgrades in both the OASIS and the real world. Which is where we meet Wade Watts, the underprivileged teen protagonist who dreams of winning the ultimate prize - a glowing Easter egg that comes with immense fame and fortune in both worlds. But getting there is the ultimate challenge, especially when Wade has to compete with villainous corporations in addition to the A-Team, King Kong, T-Rex, Freddy Krueger and Lara Croft to name just a few. With the Easter break round the corner, Ready Player One is perfectly placed as an understated pun in itself. But in blaring its trumpet, the film tries to be the mother goose of golden Easter eggs with references to several cinematic 'events', the pinnacle of which is a fantastic tribute to a classic horror film. It's gets heavy handed from there, and because we are looking at photorealistic CGI characters, the film turns out to be more animation (albeit in ultra-high definition) than live action. While that's not such a bad thing, watching this for nearly the entire length of the film can get rather tedious. The teen romance that begins to take shape midway doesn't help either and neither is it required.
Yet among all the frantic action and chaos, Ready Player One has a nuanced message about the disintegration of society and everything that's joyful about real human feelings. As Mark Rylance's James Halliday, founder of the OASIS puts it, "As painful as reality is, it's the only place you'll get a good meal". That's an insignificant line in the film if you don't stop and understand what it means. Ponder a bit and it's clear that we wouldn't need any form of escapism if we were all living in a perfect world. But reality bites. We know it and that's why we invented escapism. The movies have always been an escape, and despite the lack of any relatable character, the film more than makes up with social commentary that stings. The fact that the film is set in the future but made to look like the past only cements the notion that while the future is blank, the past has many fond memories we can always escape to. Without really trying hard, that's all this film tries to be. And who better than fanboy number-one to take us back, to the future.
I, Tonya (2017)
I, Tonya subverts a tragic story into a black, comical and unexpected piece of pop culture history.
Introducing itself as "irony free, wildly contradicting, and totally true", I, Tonya is a fiercely entertaining exposé on one of America's most famous yet equally hated personalities in sports history - Tonya Harding. That name not only generated a media frenzy in US championship figure skating, it was also riddled with infamy owing to events that were both outrageous and scandalous. But at the heart, this is a tragic story of a sports star fallen from grace.
Contrary to the introduction, the film is indeed a huge irony that asks whether Tonya had any grace at all. And if she did, was it unfairly snatched away by the all-encompassing judge and jury we know as society. But before we get to the film's first most anticipated moment - the incredible triple-Axel jump which no other American figure skater had previously attempted - we are introduced to Tonya at age 4. She is on the ice with her skates. She is a natural. The ice skating teacher can see that. The teacher also sees that Tonya and her mother are from the wrong side of the tracks. This would prove to be Tonya's single biggest challenge but also her drive to fulfil her dream of becoming an Olympian.
The second most anticipated moment is what everyone in the film refers to as "the incident". The narration, nevertheless, through fake interviews or by breaking the fourth-wall, doesn't detract from the fact that this was the last straw in Tonya's career as a figure skater. While every sports magazine and TV channel were quick to turn Tonya into a villainous monster, I, Tonya is nuanced by the black comical moments leading up to "the incident". Instead of answering the question on every viewer's mind (there's a pause where she directly addresses this to the audience), the film is at its gripping best when we learn about Tonya's many personal issues, including domestic and emotional abuse involving her mother and her (now) ex-husband. Between the constant mother-daughter squabbles and love-hate relationship with her husband, Tonya emerges as young woman with true grit rather than the ice skating princess everyone expected her to be. Sharply written by Steve Rogers (rom-com screenwriter and not Captain America) and directed by Craig Gillespie, this dark satire not only takes a stab at the hideous and vain nature of the sport but also the sacrifice, pain, physical and emotional bruising Tonya endured just to be accepted as any other aspiring figure skater. Lending a wide range of emotions (and even a glint of Harley Quinn), Margot Robbie is at her best as manic Tonya and impressive in every scene. But even as Robbie delivers her best performance to date, Allison Janney as Tonya's iron-fisted mother is an absolute treat with an unending library of expletives. From her introductory scene to the tune of Cliff Richard's 'Devil Woman' to messing with Tonya's head, to shaping her into a champion, Janney's LaVona Fay Golden is just that - show stealing gold in every scene. Together, Robbie and Janney are the muscle and sinew of this film while subverting a tragic story of a sports star fallen from grace into an unexpected yet unforgettable piece of pop culture history.