27 July 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Valerian is The Fifth Element for the 21st Century: louder, brighter and just as audacious and over-the-top but sadly, without the melodrama or memorable sequences (Rihanna doing a burlesque/pole dance does not top the diva dance opera...not even close). Nonetheless, it was a fun, rollicking, space adventure that zipped from one adventure to the next with exciting visuals that were neither terribly groundbreaking or innovative, and populated with characters that we never really cared about.

Besson's vision for Valerian was clear. A space opera spectacle that was grand in scope and epic in storytelling. He was successful on the first count, with an impressive CGI-ed world and aliens that could only be made possible now. However, the time spent in these alien worlds were too short to be fully immersive or appreciative. Most of the plot wound up in generic space sets that neither excites or wows.

And with regards to the second point, generously one could say that Besson tried to tell an epic story. Besson got too distracted by the romance/love-story between Valerian and Laureline that in the end, the narrative only served as background fodder. And yet, the love story itself was limpid and anaemic. Again, this was neither Avatar or The Fifth Element, but at least it was many steps up from Jupiter Ascending in terms of plot (the Wachowskis' had a more distinct and thrilling visual eye).

One of the biggest distraction in Valerian was Luc Besson's odd choice to case Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as the leads. Sure, the both of them were pretty and they do have some sort of screen chemistry, but yet they lacked a certain X-factor and screen gravitas to convincingly play action heroes or carry the film. Neither were as magnetic or enigmatic or The Fifth Element's Bruce Willis and Milla Johovich. Valerian is unlikely to launch Delevingne's career like The Fifth Element did for Johovich, although she might have a career out of sci-fi/action and in comedy. And DeHaan would still have a rather impressive indie career to fall back on.

At least we had Clive Owen chewing the scenery.

And thankfully RiRi was in just one (and a half) scene.

Alexandre Desplat scored the film, and except for certain quieter (less action-packed) moments and the closing credits, most of the score was just serviceable.

I would not mind more Adventures of Valerian and Laureline because I think there can be many great stories to tell about these two fascinating characters - even with DeHaan and Delevingne reprising the roles - as long as the focus is either on the story or them, and not both.

24 July 2017

Baby Driver

Part musical, part heist flick, part YA romance, part revenge thriller, but definitely all comedy and car chases, Baby Driver was an exhilarating and utterly original story that defied easy categorisation. But yet for all its genre-challenging bravados, Edgar Wright's baby failed to really slam the pedal to the metal and break out of its genre(s) confinements - succumbing to the cliches and expectations - to establish something new.

With a great soundtrack that was literally almost start to end, Edgar Wright definitely put a new spin on the meaning of a musical. And he wisely chose to ignore pop music and went for a more esoteric 60s/70s reggae/jazzy and 90s rap/hip hop kinda vibe, letting the rhythms and beats drive the action. Seriously, who has not driven in a car to the beat of a song?

As for the car chase scenes, the musicality of it kept it fresh, but, to be honest, they were not terribly exciting. We have seen better. Initial D any one? Or even the early Fast and the Furious entries. Then there was also the ultimate - in my opinion - cinematic care-chase scene in Ronin. What Wright did here was a lot of fancy edits and the killer sound tracks to drive the action.

However, other than the car chases, Wright's directing was superb. That fantastic long-take opening scene with the credits...brilliant! And timed together with the music/lyrics...phenomenal! Then we also have the great pacing. At under 120 minutes, it never felt that long. The story kept moving forward and we always remained interested to know how the shit is going to fall. Because, the shit has to fall.

Classic Wright humour of suffused throughout the film. Often wry and deadpanned, many of it were not laugh out loud broad comedy the likes of Judd Apatow or Ben Stiller, but the humour really shone through the sight gags, the witty and quippy dialogue and the fantastic dry humour of Kevin Spacey and Jon Hamm.

Ansel Elgort was well cast as our titular hero. With his baby-face and slightly bashful, self-conscious demeanour, he was an apt choice to play the unlikely getaway driver who just want to date the cute waitress in the diner.

Lily James shone as the love interest, giving her a bit of an edge and enigma rather than being just the pretty blonde thing.

James and Elgort had great chemistry and their scenes were actually high points of the show. Wright had managed to interweave a believable meet cute, and a surprisingly sweet and tender, YA-esque  love story, into an high octane car chase / heist thriller. It was important that we buy into their romance for the third act to really work.

Speaking of the third act, Wright zagged right there and we slid right into revenge thriller territory. In somebody else's hand this might have been ridiculous, but by now we are so invested in these over-the-top, yet so damn earnest characters, that we just take it all in and go along with it.

Having Jon Hamm sure helped. Don Draper lives.

Kevin Spacey had a non-showy role and he did not chew the scenery as much as Frank Underwood, but that role is so engrained in our expectations of him, that it was hard to not associate him with it. Spacey should do more comedy.

Jamie Foxx does crazy well and he sure is someone that is easy to dislike. Acting? Or for reals?

Shoutouts to Jon Bernthal - nothing more than a glorified cameo - and Eiza Gonzalez - as the femme fatale cliche.

Baby Driver was a wholly fun mixed-genre entertainment that proved that original content can still be great. Wright could have taken more risks veering a bit more toward his Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy but that might not have suited his Hollywood partners as much. Pity.

22 July 2017

Dunkirk [IMAX]

Christopher Nolan is back...at last. Dunkirk is an unequivocally, amazingly, visceral piece of film. Superbly stunning directing, cinematography, score, sound design and mixing, action sequences, production design and well-acted by a stellar ensemble cast. This was a great war film: riveting, exciting, tightly paced and emotional without being overly expositive or manipulative; Nolan's best film to date. Must be watched in IMAX.

At a trim 106 minutes, Dunkirk is the rare summer blockbuster to clock in under 2 hours and Nolan had smartly maximised the time with nary any excess baggage nor extraneous scenes. Almost every scene and moment served a purpose, showing the heroic deliverance and rescue at Dunkirk. 

Together with Hans Zimmer's brilliant score and Nolan's terrific directing, the dialogue-scarce film was able to effectively identify our heroes, illustrate the perils and frantic desperation and ultimately earned an absolutely deserving climax and emotional catharsis. And all without the Spielberg / John Williams-esque manipulation. 

All the disparate and non-chronological storylines came together neatly in the final act, all to achieve a common goal, and it will be difficult to not be at the edge of your seat throughout. And even then, Nolan ensured that the audience never really relaxed till the epilogue. Bravo film-making!

However, for all of Spielberg's unabashed emotional manipulation, his stories are often centred on character and the human heart, for which is lacking in Nolan's Dunkirk despite all its technical and narrative excellence.

Perhaps the biggest misstep in this cinematic showcase was the decision to have Harry Styles' character talk so much. This is nothing against Styles and he proved to be a rather competent actor, but in a film that had throughout chose to show - so much - rather than tell, Nolan had decided that Styles' character, in the final act, needed to voice out all his thoughts and feelings. Maybe Nolan was worried the audience would not get it, or he felt that Styles could not pull that emotional complexity off, or perhaps it was the invisible hands of Hollywood pulling the strings. Regardless, all that exposition was really unnecessary and felt jarring. 

Otherwise, the gifted ensemble was stellar. All the big-named stars definitely earned their keeps! We had the steely leadersship of Kenneth Branagh, the loyal compassion of James D'Arcy, the complex guilt of Cillian Murphy, the resolute patriotism of Mark Rylance and another stoic heroism of Tom Hardy. Murphy and Rylance could possibly be in the running for Best Supporting Actor. 

Then we also had an exciting showcase for the lesser-known actors. War & Peace alums Jack Lowden and Aneurin Barnard stood out. As did the young actors Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan (the last of which was the closest that Nolan came to emotional manipulation, but yet his arc felt earned).

Newcomer Fionn Whitehead was a great choice as our main protagonist. Having an unfamiliar face helped to not distract from the story. He is reminiscent of Jeremy Irvine in Spielberg's War Horse. And he definitely played the audience surrogate and was a worthy character for us to get behind. Cue Les Miserable: Bring him home!

Cinematography was by frequent Hoyte van Hoytema, and in a word: stunning. Roger Deakins, for Blade Runner 2049, is gonna have competition (again) this year.

Dunkirk is easily the best movie of 2017 thus far. And, like Mad Max: Fury Road, it will be a Summer film that will undoubtedly be in the running for multiple categories in the Oscars. Best Picture, Director, Cinematography, Score, Sound Design, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Effects, Supporting Actor and maybe even Original Screenplay, Hair and Makeup and Costume.

Dunkirk must be watched in IMAX.

19 July 2017

Miss Sloane [SQ Inflight Entertainment]

This film laid on the strong, capable shoulders of Jessica Chastain. But otherwise, the film was an uncomplicated, wannabe political thriller that only superficially skimmed through the issues at hand. Similarly, other than the eponymous Miss Sloane, the other characters served to only advance the narrative and reinforce her badass-ry.

Director John Madden competently steered the story towards its inevitable conclusion, but with so much signposting and blatant foreshadowing, the audience was kept wanting the other shoe to drop rather than teetering on the edge not knowing how our anti-hero(ine) was going to win. 

Writer Jonathan Perera similarly painted the whole scenario is broad strokes and never really explored new grounds. This could have just been an episode of a Shondaland drama and we would not have even noticed the difference. Even his characterisation of Miss Sloane, for all its blustering and balls-breaking innuendo, actually bordered on misogyny. If it was not for Chastain’s strong performance, Miss Sloane could have easily been just another angry white female that needed a man to save/balance her. 

Chastain – in all her Amazonian make-up – ruled the screen. And she deserved better material. But as strong as she was, the material offered to her was too simple and it therefore was not surprising that she was mostly overlooked during the 2016/17 awards season. 

Gugu Mbatha-Raw came closest to a rounded character, but eventually she served as nothing more than a plot tool with no real resolution to her arc or her relationship with Chastain’s character.

Mark Strong, Alison Pill and Michael Stuhlbarg were all competent actors but similarly they played stock characters: Boss-man who loves and hates the rebel he just hired, Minion-friend turned foe, Man who hates her just because.

If the producers had shopped this film to cable tv, stretched out the story to 6-9 episodes, and maybe even get Aaron Sorkin to write the script (looking forward to the Sorkin/Chastain collab that is Molly’s Game) this could easily have been a top-rated prestige drama. But as for now, it just felt like a network TV-movie political thriller bolstered by a great actress (hmmm…that sounds a lot like Viola Davis and How To Get Away With Murder).

The Lost City of Z [SQ Inflight Entertainment]

A very well executed adventure epic by writer-director James Gray that was equally riveting, inspiring and touching, with a superb performance by Charlie Hunman. Co-stars Sienna Mille exuded subliminal graces, Robert Pattinson remains underrated and Tom Holland cements both his undeniable talent and star calibre.

Gray has crafted a story that traced the mysterious true story of Percy Fawcett but he did not mine it for unnecessary sensationalism or Indiana Jones-esque adventure/thriller. Instead what we got was an intimate exploration of a man’s obsession and how it informed his life’s decision. Smartly, Gray also chose to put some focus on how such obsession affects his family instead of broadly brushing it aside. And it was these moments that Miller shone in a role that would have otherwise been nothing but accessorising. 

Hunman deserves a leading man role as deep/complex as Percy Fawcett. Sure, he could also convincingly play an action character a la King Arthur, but Guy Ritchie’s material failed to bring out his potential.

Pattinson remains a young actor deserving of our attention. Like his Twilight co-star, Kirsten Stewart, they are both talented actors and are trying hard to break out of that pre-conceived stereotype from that franchise. It would not be long that he gets recognised.

Holland had a bit role but he has a screen charisma that makes him stand out. His slight built, reminiscence of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, may be to his disadvantage, but thankfully he has Spider-Man to build off. Here’s hoping his career will be on the right path.

The cinematography was by Darius Khondji and it really was quite stunning, both of the countryside and within the jungle. Speaking of the latter, the biggest mistake of the film was the production design of the jungle/villages. They barely looked like the rainforest you would expect of the Amazon.

The Lost City of Z was a beautiful and entertaining film. Wished I had managed to catch it in the theatres, and now I do want to go read the book.

17 July 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

The strength of this film laid in its narrative. Director and co-writer Matt Reeves had, unexpectedly, gone smaller and more intimate in this three-quel and that has paid off. Together with yet another amazing performance by Andy Serkis, the film related the inevitable fall of Humanity without sacrificing character. If anything, the film could have been tighter and its tone less scattered. At times the film felt like a Western, and at other moments, a heist film, a buddy film, a spy thriller and even a biblical epic. But otherwise, this was an entertaining film with a satisfying conclusion to Caeser's story.

Reeves and co-writer Mark Bomback wisely used this film to further explore their main character. Instead of expanding the universe and just going for bigger, louder and flashier - like most sequels are prone to do - they chose to look inwards and used the exploration of Caesar's character to illuminate the situation of the movie-world.

In the film, the apes exhibited more humane qualities than the brutalistic men, and this really forced the audience to question their own Humanity and possibly reflect on the current socio-political happenings around them with questions of tolerance, acceptance, border-control and leadership.

Serkis was again amazing in his embodiment of Caesar. And even in this deep-dive into his character, his nuanced and layered performance continues to astound and is easy to forget that what we see on screen is a mo-cap performance and not an actual actor.

Woody Harrelson as the main human antagonist was sufficiently crazy. And despite Reeves and Bombacks attempts at trying to huamnise him, that clunky exposition-heavy scene just tripped the pace of the film up to that point.

Michael Giacchino's score here was much better than his most recent turn in Spider-Man: Homecoming. But even so, like the film itself, the score sounded schizophrenic. Michael Seresin lensed the film and he managed to capture some really amazing scenes and light.

With this film, the trilogy has thus far managed to maintain its standard and quality, and it really should end here on a high note before subsequent entries ruin the goodwill accumulated.

14 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming [IMAX 3D]

As a second reboot, Spider-Man: Homecoming had a lot stacked against it, but what Marvel/Sony had wisely chosen to do was to steer away from the over-trodden origin story and instead focused on the growing pains of a being (super)hero. And also casting Tom Holland in the lead. With Holland, the MCU had hit another gold mine in casting like what they had with Robert Downey Jr. That being said, the film itself, unfortunately, was a mid-tier entry in the MCU. It was fun, enjoyable and entertaining - everything one would expect from a Marvel-film and a summer popcorn release. However. for all its quips and maniacal energy, it lacked the kinetic and effortless humour of Ant-Man, The Avengers (both parts) and Guardians of the Galaxy (part one only), and also the thrilling excitement and adrenaline-pumping actions of the first two Tobey Maguire/Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies and Andrew Garfield/Marc Webb's first The Amazing Spider-Man.

Jon Watts' direction was apt and competent, but his storytelling felt simplistic and lacked urgency. Partially it could be the invisible strings of the Marvel Studio at work as the film worked best when the story was simply focused on Peter Parker instead of trying to tie it neatly into the vast, money-making franchise that is the MCU. Perhaps because this is a co-production with Sony, but that integration had never been more apparent and jarring. Watts will likely be invited back for the sequel since he did complete the film without being fired (see Rouge One and the young Hans Solo film).

The army of credited writers could have also been a factor in the haphazard nature of the film. With so many voices, it was not surprising that the screenplay did not come across as entirely coherent.

Watts' ability was also lacking in the action sequences. There were not any big, exciting fight scenes nor were there any little, fun sequences (who could forget Maguire deftly saving his lunch in his first film? Or the epic, train sequence with Doctor Octopus?). So that was a real shame.

Luckily, we had Holland. For one, he looks and acts appropriately like a teenager. More so than Maguire or Garfield. Outwardly, he was a perfect balance between Garfield's dorky likability and Maguire's bumbling earnestness. He could also pull off the snarky, snippy, motor-mouth quips that the comic-book Spider-Man is known for. The show is built around him and revolves around him and it shows. However, his chemistry with the rest of the cast was weak at best and this was also perhaps due to the shadows cast by his predecessors. Holland and Marisa Tomei's Aunt May felt more like an Aunt-Nephew relationship than a close knitted one that it is supposed to be, unlike Maguire and Rosemary Harris or Garfield and Sally Field; Holland and Laura Harrier (as love interest Liz) did not had much chemistry, unlike Garfield and Emma Stone; Holland and Jacob Batalon (as best friend Ned) kind of lacked the depth and over-familiarity that was so strong between Maguire and James Franco. Maybe the next film, they can focused on rounding out Peter's character.

Michael Keaton's Vulture/Adrian Toomes was the rare superhero villain that was actually genuine sympathetic. Sure. Keaton can be scary as hell, but at least Watts et al tried to make his character less flat with proper "motivations" and purpose that was not all about death and destruction. That one scene in the car between Keaton and Holland was the best piece of acting from both parties and in the whole film.

Of the young cast. only the other big-named star - Zendaya - stood out. Mainly because of her character's enigma and nonchalant attitude.  And her character does not really revolve around that of Parker.

RDJ in small amounts is good.

Jon Favreau's Happy is the new Agent Coulson, the (cheap) glue to the franchise.

The other best casting was that of Jennifer Connelly aka Karen aka "Suit Lady" aka Mrs Paul Bettany aka wife of Vision aka wife of J.A.R.V.I.S. How meta!

Music was by Michael Giacchino and his output has been getting disappointing. Previously an exciting and innovative composer, now most of his recent scores had been for franchises and they have been generic and uninspiring.

The mid-credits scene was a great nod to the character involved. And the post-credits scene was a great gag/laugh.

3D was fun, as expected what with the web-swingings; IMAX was great but not really necessary.

Here's hoping Holland doesn't lose his way (remember The Impossible, The Lost City of Z and Billy Elliot).

Little Women

This was a good and entertaining film that was far from perfect. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, this film was anchored by great pe...