Saturday, 30 November 2019

Knives Out (Movie Review)


For a very vocal online minority, Rian Johnson would forever be the man that "ruined Star Wars." Not for me though, as I still stand by my original position that The Last Jedi is one of the very best Star Wars films. Talk of not living up to the legacy of the older films aside, the movie demonstrated the director's eye for filmmaking and quality storytelling, much like his prior work on Breaking Bad and Looper. So of course I was already sold on his next project even before I knew what it was.

Billed as a modern take on the classic whodunit formula, Rian Johnson's Knives Out is a murder mystery that stars an ensemble cast of A-listers. These include Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jaime Lee Curtis, Toni Collette and Christopher Plummer. The mystery at the center of the film is the death (murder?) of Harlan Thrombley (Christopher Plummer), a famous mystery writer that is found dead on the morning following his 85th birthday with what appears to be a self-inflicted knife wound.

The fact that his entire extended family was gathered at their family home at the time of death makes pretty much everyone a suspect. And at least three of them have very strong motives behind why they would want the eccentric writer dead. So it is left to the equally-eccentric private detective, Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), and police investigators Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Wagner (Noah Segan), to sift through all the motives and alibis and get to the bottom of the mystery.

The less that is said about the plot of Knives Out, the better, as half the fun comes from trying to piece together the pieces of the puzzle ahead of the on-screen actors themselves. But needless to say, there are several twists and turns along the way. What elevates the movie above other murder mysteries though is the way it manages to play around genre tropes while keeping the audience guessing with each new reveal. The end result is a movie that is part parody, part homage, but full-blown satisfying.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Frozen II (Movie Review)


2019 has not been without its fair share of hits and misses. But even so, this has been the only year where we've had up to seven movies gross over a billion dollars worldwide. And with films like Jumanji: The Next Level and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker just around the corner, it looks like that number is only going to grow. Whether or not Disney's Frozen II would be joining their ranks is up for debate. What is certain here is that the animated sequel is going to make tons of money this holiday season. The question though is does it deserve to?

Set three years after the events of the first movie, Frozen II finds the sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell), along with friends Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Olaf (Josh Gad) and Sven, going on a new adventure into an enchanted forest after Elsa answers the calls of a mysterious voice. This awakens some ancient powers that forces the people of Arendelle out of their homes. Now Elsa must push her magical powers to their limits to protect the entire kingdom, while Kristoff is busy trying to find the right time to propose to Anna.

Frozen II is a good-enough sequel that is sure to please fans of the original. The animation has improved tremendously since the release of the original in 2013, and this is immediately apparent from the very first frame. The soundtrack is also populated with a fresh batch of catchy tunes that will keep viewers humming for weeks to come. Where the movie falters though is with the story itself, a tale of adventure that never quite manages to match the original or break new ground, but still offers enough to remain entertaining in its own right.

It would be interesting if Frozen II matches or even manages to surpass the success of the original. Then we could be talking about having up to ten movies grossing over a billion dollars by the end of the year, eight of which were distributed by Disney. That is simply insane, and further proof that moviegoers would still show up for these movies in droves even in this day and age of streaming services like Netflix and Disney's very own recently-launched Disney+.

Monday, 18 November 2019

Ford v Ferrari (Movie Review)


While I've never had any kind of affinity towards sports in general, I've always had a soft spot for sports dramas. This is mainly due to how they (read: the good ones) are anchored upon larger-than-life personalities, which helps them go beyond the viewer's enjoyment of the particular sport in question. Ford v Ferrari is no different, except it also boasts some truly exhilarating race sequences and several laugh-out-loud moments that had me on the edge of my seat for the better part of its lengthy runtime.

Set in the mid 1960s, the film depicts the rivalry between the two car manufacturers, Ford and Ferrari. The rivalry is sparked into being after the former attempts to buy the latter but the deal falls through due to their inability to reach an agreement on which of the two companies would have final say in matters concerning their racing division. This prompts Ford to build a race car within 90 days that would be fast enough to compete in the Ferrari-dominated Le Mans, a grueling 24-hour race in France.

To accomplish this feat, they hire the former racecar driver and engineer, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who in turn must put together a dream team of drivers and engineers that would make this happen. Except things don't sit well between Shelby and Ford after he hires the hot-headed and very eccentric British driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). But Shelby is convinced that Ken is one of the only men skilled enough to handle whatever contraption they manage to build before the race, so much so that he is willing to stake everything he has worked for to prove it.

Ford v Ferrari is one of those rare movies that manages to tick all the required boxes without feeling over-produced or soulless. It is beautifully shot and tightly edited to the point where you can actually feel every lurch of the cars on the race track, as though you were sitting there in the cockpit. It is also beautifully acted, with both Matt Damon and Christian Bale giving Oscar-worthy performances.

But I think the highest praise should be reserved for director James Mangold, who somehow manages to keep the two-and-a-half movie moving at a good and steady pace, doling out the laughs and thrills without glossing over any of the human drama at its center.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Charlie's Angels (Movie Review)


The fall movie season is already proving to be almost as packed with blockbusters as summer, with what seems to be big release after big release enticing moviegoers to visit the multiplexes. I am of course referring to the likes of Joker and It Chapter Two, even though we've also had a few misses amongst the bunch, with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Gemini Man and Terminator: Dark Fate all failing to find an audience. Charlie's Angels is primed to take a stab at the box office this weekend, but of all the aforementioned films, it is the one that has surprised me the most.

Rather than make this iteration of the classic franchise a reboot or reimagining, the filmmakers have opted to make it a continuation. The basic premise is that the classic trio of angels has grown to include multiple teams of women from all walks of like, each one being directed by a handler holding the rank of Bosley, all of whom report to the eponymous disembodied voice of Charlie. These angels have been trained in the art of espionage, and they put those skills to good use working for the Townsend Agency.

When the oldest of the Bosleys (Patrick Stewark) retires, one of the older angels (Elizabeth Banks) is promoted to take his place. But her leadership abilities are immediately put to the test after she and the angels are drawn into a conspiracy involving an energy company with a revolutionary technology that could be weaponized if it falls into the wrong hands. The cast includes Kristen Stewart and Naomi Scott, as well as newcomer Ella Balinska, and Mrs. Banks pulls double duty as star and director.

I'll admit, I wasn't particular keen on seeing this movie. Sure it looked like it could offer a fun night at the movies, but all its preceding trailers and promotional material had felt shallow, making the movie itself feel like another unnecessary cash grab. Well, not only was I wrong about this but I was also pleasantly surprised. The film is helped by the great chemistry between its three leads. It also boasts some fun action, smart stroytelling and a collection of catchy tunes on its original soundtrack.

I felt it took a while for things to click, but by the halfway mark, I was invested enough in its storyline to be genuinely engaged by its twists and turns. Ultimately, I feel it is another fun addition to the franchise, even though it lacks a lot of the over-the-top action and overall campiness that made the last two movies memorable. Still, it is a hopeful indicator of what can be done with the franchise going forward, should the movie prove successful enough to warrant a sequel.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Terminator: Dark Fate (Movie Review)


Remember all those times Arnold Schwarzenegger had told us "I'll back back?" Well, the aging action star was not kidding as he returns yet again as one of the titular terminators in Terminator: Dark Fate. Directed by Tim Miller (Deadpool), the films serves as a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, ignoring all of the events that took place in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation and Terminator: Genisys, for better or worse.

Not long after Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) had managed to prevent Judgement Day, a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from the future manages to carry out Skynet's mission to kill the human resistance leader, John Conner. And right off the bat, the film showcases some incredible use of CGI to recreate the likenesses of the three actors from 1991's Terminator 2: Judgement Day. But the focus quickly shifts after a time jump to 2020, when much like the previous films, two time travellers arrive from the future.

The first one is a woman named Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a cybernetically-enhanced soldier from 2042 who has been sent to protect Dani (Natalie Reyes), a girl being hunted by the second time traveller, a Rev-9 terminator (Gabriel Luna) with the ability to split itself into two. The basic premise here is that a new AI called Legion had risen after Skynet's defeat, so while Sarah had prevented Judgement Day, she still couldn't alter humanity's fate. Now she must help Grace and Dani while joining forces with an unlikely ally as they try to prevent the end of humanity once again.

The best thing about Terminator: Dark Fate is the return of the franchise's two leads, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both actors bring a certain level of charm and chemistry that was sorely missing in the other sequels. The film also boasts some truly "special" special effects as previously mentioned. But it never quite manages to shake that "been there, done that" feeling it leaves you with by retreading much of same story beats from the first two movies.

That said, Terminator: Dark Fate can still be considered a success as it succeeds at bringing the story arch from the first two movies to a somewhat satisfying close, while also leaving the door open to a new chapter in the franchise. Let's just wait and see if it succeeds where it truly counts, at the box office.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Gemini Man (Movie Review)


Not many films end up spending 20 years in development hell. But that is precisely what had happened with Gemini Man, a technothriller that was originally conceptualized way back in 1997. The main reason for this delay was the fact that it has taken that long for the technology required to bring the story to life to come into its own. I am of course referring to the film's main elevator pitch of an actor being pitted against a younger version of himself, a feat only made possible through recent advancements in CGI rendering. So how does the finished product stack up you ask? Well, not so good, but definitely not as bad as I had feared.

Directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the film stars Will Smith as an aging assassin called Henry Brogan. After barely managing to kill his latest mark without incurring some collateral damage, Henry decides to retire from life as a marksman for a government agency. His decision is met with some aversion from his superiors though, which prompts them to send one of their agents, Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), undercover in order to keep an eye on him. But after Henry learns that his last target had been an innocent man, they decide to take more drastic measures to contain the situation.

This culminates in the villanious Clayton Varis (Clive Owen), director of the eponymous GEMINI, sending in his ultimate weapon, a cloned version of Henry dubbed Junior (also played by Will Smith). Having raised and trained Junior as his adopted son, Clayton tasks him with killing Henry. But when both assassins butt heads, it quickly becomes apparent that they were equally matched. And after Henry learns the true nature of his latest foe, he takes it upon himself to set things right as he tries to save his younger self from following in his footsteps.

Much of the hype surrounding the release of Gemini Man is about its use of 3D and a high-frame rate, neither of which I was able to experience as I'd seen the film on a regular 2D screen. But even in that standard format, it was still possible to tell just how ambitious Ang Lee's vision was. The action scenes were impeccably shot and choreographed, giving it a lifelike quality that was nothing short of captivating. It is just a shame that those setpieces felt like they deserved to be in a better movie, one with a less generic plot and a villain that wasn't so laughably bad.

The CGI used to create the character of Junior also needs to be commended, even though it did start to create an uncanny valley effect by the end of the movie, especially in those scenes where both characters were shown side-by-side under direct sunlight. Movies like Rogue One have already shown us what is possible with fully CGI characters, but Gemini Man somehow manages to move the needle even closer towards photorealism, thanks to some great performance capture from Will Smith in conjunction with the magic of the visual effects team.

Overall, the movie is not the unwatchable mess I'd feared it would be when I'd first caught wind of its impending release, even though its story does fall short of the high standards of its director's previous efforts.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Joker (Movie Review)


I can still remember my initial skepticism when I'd learnt that Joaquin Phoenix would be playing the title role in a standalone Joker movie. And I guess you could say that this was understandable; after all, the late Heath Ledger had already given us a nigh-on-perfect performance as the Clown Prince of Crime in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. But in retrospect, I was mainly concerned that the movie would be nothing more than a villain-centric cash grab in the same vein as last year's Venom. Well, it turns out I was wrong, and I couldn't be happier as a result.

What sets Joker apart then? Is it the film's mature take on a character whose origin is often glossed over or left to mystery in other film adaptations? Or Joaquin Phoenix's nuanced portrayal of that character in what is sure to get him a Best Actor nod at next year's Academy Awards at the very least? Or perhaps it is the fact that director Todd Phillips attempts to take comic book adaptations into previously unexplored territory and succeeds? I think it is a mix of all three factors, and much more.

Set in 1981, the film depicts a version of Gotham City on the verge of collapse. The people are increasingly unhappy with an ineffective government. An ongoing worker's union strikes means that the city streets are practically overflowing with garbage. And in the midst of all that filth and unrest lives Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an aspiring stand-up comedian who just can't seem to catch a break. He is routinely bullied and made fun of for a medical condition that sends him into uncontrollable bouts of laughter.

He is forced to work as a clown-for-hire just to make barely enough money to continue caring for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy). But in spite of all that, he still dreams of one day appearing on a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), an aging comedian he views as a father figure and the pinnacle of his aspirations. But when Arthur is attacked by a group of drunk businessmen one night after losing his job, he finally reaches breaking point and decides to fight back, an action that sets in motion a chain of events that would shake the entire city to its very core.

There is quite a lot to unpack in Joker, from its cautionary tale of how society is oftentimes responsible for giving birth to our most fearsome villains, to the way it manages to make the viewer feel actual empathy towards such people. I won't even attempt to get into such discussions here though. I would instead just state how utterly mind blowing the experience of seeing the events of this movie play out was.

Joker is another shining example of what can be done with comic book material when placed in capable hands. It is a character study that is not only thought-provoking, but also beautiful to look at. Every single scene is meticulously shot and scored to mirror the emotional rollercoaster its title character is on. And what a wild ride it was as well. Unburdened from all the overarching world-building that the typical connected universe movie has to do, Todd Phillips has crafted an origin story that would go down in history as one of the very best in filmmaking.