Power Rangers (2017)

At last, it is here. Power Rangers has been a roller coaster ride of emotions for me. When it was first announced they were making a new one I decided it would surely suck like all the others. But when I saw the first trailer and it looked like a mix between The Breakfast Club and Chronicle, I started to get a little excited for it. And when the reviews began rolling in and the buzz was “it was pretty good”, I got really pumped for it. And finally, I saw it, and now I’m like: Meh. It was OK.

I actually watched the Japanese Super Sentai version more when I was a kid and never really watched Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on TV growing up, so I didn’t know the film version followed the series so closely in terms of characters. The movie is also set in a small town called Angel Grove and features characters of the same name — Jason Lee Scott (not to be confused with Jason Scott Lee; played by Aussie Dacre Montgomery), Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott), Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler), Trini Kwan (Becky G), and Zach Taylor (Ludi Lin). They are all unusually attractive teenagers who happen upon these coloured rocks in a gold mine that turn them into superheroes!

Anyone who has seen the trailers will have a fairly good idea of exactly what happens throughout the movie. The kids are misfits for whatever reason and they suddenly have great powers they need to learn to control and harness, but they can’t truly become Power Rangers until they complete their training and learn how to work as a team. A pervy alien robot voiced by Bill Hader and the legendary leader Zordon, voiced by Bryan Cranston (no relation to Billy), offer them guidance along the way. Meanwhile, an alien villain named Rita Repulsa (played by Elizabeth Banks) awakens from her slumber and is set to take over/destroy the world. Guess who are the only people who can stop her?

It’s morphin time!

I really enjoyed how the film started and the first half or so. I’m a sucker for The Breakfast Club and thought the characters were given nice introductions. They’re likable kids, and it was good to see the filmmakers add an extra dimension to them by making one on the autistic spectrum and another LGBTQ. The way they discovered the rocks and how they were introduced to their powers is also indeed reminiscent of Chronicle, probably one of the only found footage films I can stand.

I also really loved Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa, which came as a total surprise. She was genuinely creepy and scary, but also funny when she wanted to be. She knew exactly what kind of role she was playing and she executed it to perfection. Bryan Cranston is always a welcome addition to any movie, even when it’s mostly just his face, though Bill Hader doesn’t leave much of an impression as the pervy robot — I have a feeling a lot of his scenes were probably left on the cutting room floor.

The action is, for the most part, pretty well-choreographed and exciting, but it suffered from two major problems. The first is that it took just too damn long for them to finally become Power Rangers! I know this is supposed to be the first film of a new franchise of many, though for a 2-hour movie, I think we only got about 15 minutes of genuine Ranger action. Every time I thought they were finally about to get there — nope. Just more moping and complaining about how they weren’t good enough yet. Secondly, so much of the action was already played out in the trailers. There just wasn’t anything fresh or unexpected, which was a huge shame.

I understand director Dan Israelite (Project Almanac) was likely going for more character development and all, and while the characters are generally affable, the balance was tipped too heavily away from the action sequences. And it’s not like we’re talking Oscar-quality drama anyway, as a lot of dialogue was clunky and frankly a little cringeworthy, especially when it was trying to be dramatic and heartfelt. The jokes weren’t bad, but they weren’t particularly funny either. I thought the film was kind of stuck in a weird place, as it had genuinely scary scenes that might frighten younger kids and some crude jokes that parents would not approve of, and yet a lot of the other elements were clearly directed at a super young audience.

Lastly, the editing was somewhat choppy in places too, and if you really think about it, many parts of the movie made no sense whatsoever and didn’t even try to give explanations. This is why I think the film actually suffers from a lot of the same problems that plagued the widely panned Fantastic Four reboot from 2015, which I didn’t think was quite as terrible as people made it out to be. To me, Power Rangers is on roughly the same level — not as bad as it could have been, but nowhere near as good as I thought it could be.

2.75 stars out of 5

Life (2017)

Wow. I really had no idea what to expect from Life, which I knew virtually nothing about other than that it was a horror sci-fi starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal (I didn’t even watch a single trailer). Such movies are usually a disappointment, so I am glad to report that I was thrilled with Life, a strong contender for biggest pleasant surprise of the year.

I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone, so I will simply say that the film takes place in the International Space Station following the return of a soil-collecting mission to Mars. I guess the title of the film explains the rest.

There are no big surprises in terms of the basic plot and its progression—you can more or less guess what happens on a general overall level. However, its the way director Daniel Espinosa deals with the story, characters and tension that makes Life one of the better if not best “man should not mess with nature” sci-fi horrors. It’s way better than the most recent one in the genre I watched, Morgan (from last year), and a notch above other ones I remember such as Splice (2009) and The Last Days on Mars (2013).

After an initial set-up introducing us to the premise and the characters, Life buckles down and becomes a terrifying and gripping horror movie that makes great use of man’s fear of the unknown and the claustrophobia provided by the interior of the space station. Some sci-fi movies are good at delivering an interesting idea but not at horror, while some horror movies are good at deliver the horror but not interesting ideas. Life is a rare film that manages to do both really well, and more than once I found myself either gripping the seat rest or reaching for my wife’s hand.

The film would not have been as effective but for the strong performances of the star cast, which apart from Gyllenhaal and Reynolds also includes Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation‘s Rebecca Ferguson, The Last Samurai‘s Hiroyuki Sanada, British actor Ariyon Bakare (most recently seen in Rogue One), and Belarusian actress Olga Dihovichnaya. One of the weaknesses of the film is that there’s not a whole lot of character development (they’re too busy being terrified), and the dialogue designed to promote character development was often clunky, but the performances are good enough that you still end up thinking of them as real people and caring about their fate.

Additionally, the special effects are excellent, not just with the creature designs but also the space station itself as well as the outer space sequences. It’s great that CGI is so good these days that you don’t even think about it and simply accept it as real. You can also tell proper research was undertaken to make the science in the film feel legitimate.

I don’t want to create unrealistic expectations because there are limits to what a film like Life can achieve. Within those limits, however, it mostly ticks all the right boxes and hits the right notes to give us a genuinely terrifying, thoughtful, well-scripted and well-acted horror sci-fi. It may fall short of becoming a classic, but it’s certainly worth watching if you are a fan of the genre.

4 stars out of 5

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Tale as old as 1991, close as it can be.

The live-action adaptation of the 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast is real, and it’s spectacular. I’ve never really been fond of feature-length animated films, so naturally I was keen to check out the live-action version of the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. My kids really wanted to see it too.

Basically, if you like the original, you’ll like this version. Beauty and the Beast follows the animated film very closely, from all the characters to the plot points to the songs, with only a handful of things added to give the story an extra dimension. Given that it’s a timeless, universal tale, the adaptation doesn’t lose anything in terms of the appeal of the story, and with CGI as good as it is  now, the look of the Beast and the enchanted household appliances are generally good enough to get by.

This review, therefore, really comes down to what brings the live-action to life, which are the performances of the actors and the special effects. Yes, director Bill Condon (Dream Girls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 &2) and writers Stephen Chbosky (Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) played big roles, but let’s face it—a lot of other talented people in Hollywood probably could have produced something very similar.

For me, the clear standout was the villain Gaston, played wonderfully by Luke Evans. I didn’t think Gaston was all that memorable in the animated version, though here Evans makes Gaston a charismatic and insufferable douche who hits all the right notes in both performance and song. Alongside Gaston was enamored sidekick LeFou, played by Josh Gad, who I haven’t been a huge fan of but admit was great for this role. More on him later. Oh, and it’s always good to see Kevin Kline on screen, this time as Maurice, Belle’s protective father.

No complaints either in terms of the household appliances, played by the biggest stars of the movie. You’ve got Sir Ian McKellen as clock Cogsworth, Ewan McGregor as candelabra Lumiere, Stanley Tucci as harpsichord Maestro Cadenza, Emma Thompson as Mrs Potts, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as feather duster Plumette. All of them deliver voice performances that bring gravitas to the film without overshadowing the leads.

Speaking of the leads, I must say Emma Watson would not be my first choice for Belle, and I stand by that statement having watched her performance, which is passable but not fantastic. For me, she still had too many shades of Hermione in her expressions and delivery, but to be fair to her I am not as critical of her singing voice, which sounded fine to me. She’s not a broadway legend like Paige O’Hara, so you can’t expect her to sing like one. Let’s just say Watson was good as Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were in La La Land.

By contrast, I give a big thumbs up to Dan Stevens as the Beast. He must have had some computer help with his voice, but for the most part he gets the sounds perfect. And I have no complaints about his motion capture work. The Beast, whose look and sound I had worried about prior to the film’s release, turned out to be all right.

That said, I found some of the CGI for the Beast a little bit off 100%. Sometimes it’s in the facial expressions, sometimes it’s the hair, and sometimes it was the way he walked and moved. I may be nitpicking but when films like Rise/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and The Jungle Book are so flawless you know they could have done better.

These few minor quibbles aside, Beauty and the Beast is a solid and faithful live-action adaptation of a beloved classic. It’s certainly better than Maleficent, though I felt like it lacked the freshness of Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live-action version of Cinderella, which came across as a different experience. This was a safer, more direct, by-the-book adaptation, and there’s nothing wrong with that when the original is so good. Even though I knew everything that was going to happen I still had fun with it, though I think the film could have been elevated to another level with a slightly different take on the material.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: Don’t get and don’t care about the so-called “controversies”—LeFou being gay (big effing deal) and Belle being a victim of Stockholm syndrome (get a life, it’s based on a freaking fairy tale).

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

As my second most anticipated ape movie of 2017, Kong: Skull Island had some big expectations to fulfill. That said, the trailers did not fill me with hope—it looked like a lot of glorified CGI action mixed with a bunch of cheesy jokes, and despite occupying the same universe as the 2014 Gareth Edwards’ version of Godzilla (which I really liked), it seemed to have none of the atmosphere.

With that in mind, I have to say Kong: Skull Island was better than anticipated. In contrast to the grim, dramatic, character-based (and insanely overlong) 2005 version of King Kong directed by Peter Jackson, this one is pure popcorn fun, with plenty of action involving not just Kong but also a variety of giant monsters (as opposed to dinosaurs). If a super-sized Kong wreaking havoc is what you want to see, it’s likely you won’t be disappointed.

The first great decision the film made was to set it in the 1970s at the end of the Vietnam War. Bill Randa (John Goodman), a senior government official, conjures up a scheme to arrange an expedition to the mysterious Skull Island with the aid of a young geologist (Corey Hawkins, who looks and sounds very little like his characters from Straight Outta ComptonThe Walking Dead and 24: Legacy, a testament to his versatility). For some reason, they hire a skilled tracker, Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) to assist them, together with US military forces headed by Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson). A photographer played by Brie Larson tags along for the ride.

And so begins their wild and perilous journey to Skull Island, where the monsters are big and abundant. King of the monsters is of course Kong, who acts as some sort of protector of the local natives who inhabit the island. This is a delicious premise on paper, with a whole bunch of characters with their own agendas and the biggest Kong we’ve ever seen (he dwarfs the 2005 version as he needs to be big enough to take on Godzilla next), all playing out with old school 70s rock music in the background and homages to classics such as Apocalypse Now.

The action is what the film thrives on, and thankfully, unlike the majority of monster flicks, you get to see Kong early and relatively often. Whether Kong is taking on humans or monsters, the action is spectacular, and the CGI is flawless enough that you can lose yourself in the fight scenes. I would still say the Kong vs T-rex x 3 in King Kong is the gold standard of Kong fight scenes in terms of creativity, epicness and length, though Kong: Skull Island gets pretty close with the sheer number of monster fights and the enlarged scale.

So in terms of what Kong: Skull Island needed to get right to be considered a good film, it does pretty well. However, in terms of the extra stuff that would have made it great, the film fares quite poorly. The first thing is that there are way too many characters for any of them to be developed properly. Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson are supposed to the glamorous human leads, but they are boring characters who really could have been cut out altogether. John Goodman, Corey Hawkins and Toby Kebbell are all underused, while the comedic relievers John C Reilly and Jason Mitchell (also from Straight Outta Compton) are poorly utilised, with the vast majority of their jokes falling embarrassing flat. Oh, and of course there’s also the arbitrary Chinese actress (Jing Tian) who is only there because the film was co-produced by China’s Tencent Pictures. The only human character who really has meat to his role is Samuel L Jackson, which surprised me as I thought he’d just do his usual schtick. In this case, it worked well for him.

In other words, the parts of Kong: Skull Island that don’t feature Kong are not very good, and there’s quite a bit of that given the film’s 118-minute running time. On the whole, I still enjoyed the movie because my expectations weren’t high and I just wanted to see the big fella smash stuff, which I got to do, though it’s a shame director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) couldn’t have delivered a more complete and memorable experience. Nonetheless, the post-credits scene still got me excited for upcoming showdown between Kong and Godzilla scheduled for May 29, 2020.

3.5 stars out of 5

Logan (2017)

I literally just got back from watching the highly anticipated Logan, supposedly the last time we will ever see Hugh Jackman as the clawed superhero that first made him famous 17 years ago. And in all honesty, I am still stunned by just how good it is. After the maligned X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the better-but-not-good-enough The Wolverine, we finally have a Wolverine standalone film that does the iconic character justice.

As the title of the film suggests, Logan is a deeply personal story about an aging, struggling Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) whose powers are fading. The only thing keeping him going is his sense of obligation to Professor X (Patrick Stewart), whose failing mental faculties make him an extremely dangerous mutant. As the trailers and posters foreshadow, a young girl named Laura is thrust into his life, turning all his plans upside down and setting the wheels of the narrative in motion.

The X-Men films have never really cared about continuity, and it would be wise to not get caught up in all the nitty gritty of past entries in the franchise. In fact, you don’t need to have watched a single X-Men film to get this movie or really enjoy it. It actually works perfectly as a standalone. All you really need is to know that it’s set in the not-too-distant future and have a general idea of who the characters are and what mutant powers they possess, because director and co-writer James Mangold does a fabulous job of immersing audiences in the world of the story without an excessive amount of exposition. But of course, if you’ve followed Jackman’s version of the character for 17 years, the bittersweet nostalgia gets pretty heavy too.

What drew me so much to Logan in the first place was the first trailer, which felt eerily similar in story and tone to The Last of Us (in my view the best video game of all time), which is about a disillusioned, bearded, middle-aged man and a young girl trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. I’m glad to say that Logan isn’t that similar to The Last of Us in premise, but it does have shades of what made the video game so engrossing — the characters, the character development, the relationships, and the world building. And that’s what really makes Logan a success — you feel for the characters and you feel their hopes and their pain. In many ways, it’s a film that transcends the superhero genre. It is indeed a superhero movie and an action flick, but it’s also a road movie, a hard-hitting drama, a western, and a movie about cross-generational relationships. I was really surprised by how much I was moved by it.

Logan is also the first R-rated Wolverine film, and it certainly does not waste that classification. From the very first scene and line of dialogue, the film lets you know that it doesn’t intend on holding back, delivering f-bombs and copious amounts of brutal violence, blood and gore. Those used to the more tame X-Men films might find it jarring at first, but let’s face it — what do you expect when someone waves those sharp metal claws around like that? Personally, I didn’t find the violence gratuitous — it only added to the realism and the raw emotion of the film. Besides, it’s not just the violence either, as the story itself is really dark and tackles some very depressing issues. A PG-13 version of this movie just would not have worked.

Both Jackman and Stewart deliver what are easily their best performances in the X-Men franchise to date. Admittedly, part of it is because of the story and the added screen time their characters have been given, but they really do make the most of it. This felt like the kind of Wolverine movie Jackman had wanted to make back in 2009 and again in 2013, one where it’s really about who the character is as a person rather than his claws.

As good as they both are, newcomer Dafne Keen absolutely steals the show as the mysterious young girl named Laura. She is just unbelievably badass in this movie and I would love to see her (or at least her character) featured in future X-Men films.

The rest of the supporting cast is fantastic as well. It took me a while before I recognised him, but towering comedian Stephen Merchant is great as albino mutant Caliban, while Boyd Holbrook (Run All Night, A Walk Among the Tombstones, Morgan) surprised me with how good he is as Donald Pierce, the leader of a security squad working for a scientist played by British film veteran Richard E Grant. Special props too to the actor who plays the main supervillain of the film, who shall remain unnamed.

No movie is perfect, though the only main complaint I have regarding Logan — apart from a couple of minor logistic quibbles — is the 137-minute length, which could have had a few minutes here and there trimmed (120-125 minutes would have been perfect). That said, I never found the film slow, even during its more contemplative moments, and I wouldn’t mind seeing an extended cut that’s even longer.

There are going to be a lot of blockbusters coming out in the next few weeks (Kong: Skull IslandBeauty and the Beast, Life), but I would be very, very surprised if any of them even come close to the awesomeness that is Logan. What a way to send off Hugh Jackman’s version of the character. Logan is the best Wolverine movie ever, the best X-Men movie ever, and one of the best superhero movie of all time. It’s that good.

5 stars out of 5!

Oscar Predictions 2017

It’s my favourite time of the year again: Oscar time!

I have just finished reviewing all nine Best Picture nominees for 2017, so it’s time to roll out some predictions. As expected, La La Land leads the way with 14 nominations and is likely to be the big winner of the night, including Best Picture, Best Director for Damien Chazelle and Best Actress for Emma Stone. That said, things aren’t exactly as cut and dried now as they were probably a month or two ago, as there has been significant backlash against La La Land for the usual stupid political reasons and because people just like to criticise. The same thing goes for the Best Actor category, which most pundits believed was a lock for Casey Affleck until unproven sexual harassment allegations from years ago came back to haunt him. I guess we’ll see.

Without further ado, here are my guesses for who will win tomorrow and who should.

Best Picture

Nominees: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight

Will win: La La Land

Despite the backlash, I think La La Land has enough goodwill left to hold off late charges from Moonlight and Hidden Figures. Knowing the way Hollywood is and the demographic of Academy voters, it will be a bit of a shock if either movie with predominantly black actors ends up topping one with predominantly white actors. Just sayin’.

Should win: La La Land

For the first time in forever, my feeling is that the movie that will most likely win Best Picture at the Oscars is the most deserving one. I never thought it was possible, but I absolutely adored La La Land and think it deserves all the accolades it has been getting. Sure, the singing and dancing is not at Broadway level and the story is seemingly generic, but this film just gave me a magical feeling I seldom experience. By the way, if not for La La Land, my vote would have gone to Arrival.

Best Director

Nominees: Damien Chazelle (La La Land), Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge), Barry Jenkins (Moonlight), Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea), Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)

Will win: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

Chazelle was tipped as a future heavyweight after Whiplash, and now he will be crowned the top director of 2017. Well-deserved too. Jenkins has an outside chance, but it will be a stunner if Chazelle doesn’t take home the gong.

Should win: Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

All great directors and great films, but Chazelle pulled off one of the most difficult genres (musical) with spectacular results and got the best performances of out of his leads.

Best Actor

Nominees: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea), Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge), Ryan Gosling (La La Land), Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic), Denzel Washington (Fences)

Will win: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)

I think Affleck, unlike Nate Parker (Birth of a Nation), will escape from his scandal with the acting Oscar his older brother Ben will never get. Affleck’s nuanced performance in Manchester by the Sea was a stab in the heart, and he made audiences shed tears without shedding tears himself on screen, a true testament to his performance

Should win: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)

See above, but I wouldn’t mind if Denzel took home the award either. I actually wished Garfield could have gotten nominated for Silence instead, and I think he would have been a deserving winner for that too.

Best Actress

Nominees: Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Ruth Negga (Loving), Natalie Portman (Jackie), Emma Stone (La La Land), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

Will win: Emma Stone (La La Land)

The stars are aligned this year for Emma Stone, who should sing, dance and act her way to her first Oscar. She is facing tough competition, with Huppert being touted as a serious contender rather than a dark horse. And of course, you can never count out Meryl Streep.

Should win: Emma Stone (La La Land)

Unfortunately, Stone and Portman’s performances are the only ones I’ve seen so far. Portman was good Jackie, but I think Stone blows her out of the water here.

Best Supporting Actor

Nominees: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water), Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), Dev Patel (Lion), Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

Will win: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)

A small role that only lasts the first third of the film, but Ali is the odds on favourite to win the award. He was very, very good in limited screen time.

Should win: Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)

This is quite a weird category in that there is no clear standout. As I said above, Ali is great in the role, but he’s not in the film much. Jeff Bridges delivers a performance I feel like I’ve seen a few times already (True Grit?), and Dev Patel really should be in the Best Actor category for Lion, while I personally think Aaron Taylor-Johnson would have been a better pick than Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals. So that leaves by default Lucas Hedges, who kind of came out of nowhere to deliver a very powerful performance that boosted Casey Affleck’s.

Best Supporting Actress

Nominees: Viola Davis (Fences), Naomie Harris (Moonlight), Nicole Kidman (Lion), Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures), Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)

Will win: Viola Davis (Fences)

Easiest pick of the acting categories. Viola Davis was dynamite in Fences, and though she should have been in the Best Actress category, there’s no denying that she’s absolutely deserving of an Oscar.

Should win: Viola Davis (Fences)

All great performances, but Davis’s stands out head and shoulders above the rest. She gave me the chills.

Best Original Screenplay

Nominees: Hell or High Water, La La Land, The Lobster, Manchester by the Sea, 20th Century Women

Will win: La La Land

This is La La’s night, so I’m assuming the big awards are going to all go its way.

Should win: Hell or High Water

I loved Hell or High Water, and the dialogue is huge part of it. The film just felt authentic and managed to flesh out the characters really well.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Nominees: Arrival, Fences, Hidden Figures, Lion, Moonlight

Will win: Moonlight

Moonlight is such a lauded film, one which many think is the best film of the year, and so it should take home at least a few awards in which La La Land has not been nominated.

Should win: Arrival

Have you seen Arrival? Amazing story, insanely good adaptation consider the difficulty of the material.

Best Animated Film

Nominees: Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, My Life as a Zucchini, The Red Turtle, Zootopia

Will win: Zootopia

Haven’t seen it yet but the bookmakers seem to have this one ahead.

Should win: Moana

I’ve seen Kubo and Moana, and both are great animated films in their own right. If I were forced to choose, however, I’d go with Moana. Though it doesn’t have the same stunning stop-motion animation, I felt the story and characters were stronger. And the songs are catchy!

Visual Effects

Nominees: Deepwater Horizon, Doctor Strange, The Jungle Book, Kubo and the Two Strings, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Will win: Jungle Book

All fantastic effects this year, with Doctor Strange and The Jungle Book vying for the award. I would be very annoyed in The Jungle Book didn’t win. This was the first time shot entirely in a studio that made me believe everything was real, down to the talking animals.

Should win: Jungle Book

Every nominee had great special effects, but only The Jungle Book‘s was revolutionary.

Cinematography

Nominees: Arrival, La La Land, Lion, Moonlight, Silence

Will win: Arrival

Tempted to go with La La again but I’m guessing that it can’t win everything it’s nominated for. If there’s one category it’s in danger of missing out on, this could be it. Arrival‘s cinematography is breathtakingly good too, and I hope it at least takes home something.

Should win: Silence

Silence should have been nominated for way more categories, including Best Picture, so it’s a travesty that it only has this one nomination to show for it. But this is not a pity vote from me because the cinematography in this movie is absolutely beautiful.

Costume Design

Nominees: Allied, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Florence Foster Jenkins, Jackie, La La Land

Will win: La La Land

No comment.

Should win: Jackie

Recreating all the classic pieces must have been a lot of work.

Editing

Nominees: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, La La Land, Moonlight

Will win: Moonlight

Another one of those categories where La La might not reign supreme. Just a hunch.

Should win: Hacksaw Ridge

With all those flying limbs and exploding skulls it must have been a difficult task editing this film.

Make-up and Hair

Nominees: A Man Called Ove, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad

Will win: Star Trek Beyond

I just can’t imagine Suicide Squad winning anything, and A Man Called Ove might not have been seen by enough voters?

Should win: Star Trek Beyond

I just can’t imagine Suicide Squad winning anything

Best Original Score

Nominees: Jackie, La La Land Lion Moonlight Passengers

Will win: La La Land

The best musical absolutely has to win best music right? In all seriousness, I loved the music in this movie and still listen to it regularly.

Should win: La La Land

No brainer.

Best Original Song

Nominees:
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” from La La Land
“Can’t Stop The Feeling” from Trolls
“City Of Stars” from La La Land
“The Empty Chair” from Jim: The James Foley Story
“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana

Will win: “City Of Stars” from La La Land

Actually think “Audition” is the better song, but the title “City of Stars” is probably enough to sway the voters. Just wonder if the two songs will end up splitting the votes and another film will end up coming out on top.

Should win: “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana

I actually like some of the other songs in La La Land more, but of the songs nominated, I liked “How Far I’ll Go” the most.

Production Design

Nominees: Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Hail, Caesar! La La Land, Passengers

Will win: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

JK Rowling should get some love. Fantastic Beasts does have a lot of nice looking sets.

Should win: Arrival

Have you seen Arrival? Those alien ships were mind-blowing. Actually, Passengers wasn’t all that bad either, it’s just that the film was not very well received, so I don’t expect much love from voters.

Sound Editing

Nominees: Arrival, Deepwater Horizon, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Sully

Will win: Arrival

Have you seeeeeen Arrival?

Should win: Arrival

Have you seeeeeeeeeen Arrival? Those alien ship sounds! They should have dubbed Amy Adams’ Mandarin though.

Sound Mixing

Nominees: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Should win: Hacksaw Ridge

Loads of bombs and explosions is all I can remember. Must have been exhausting work,

Will win: Hacksaw Ridge

Yada yada yada.

Note: The rest of the categories are going to be mostly guesses, and I’m assuming no one really cares about them (sorry), so for the sake of brevity it’s just going to be the nominees plus my pick in bold.

Documentary Feature

Fire at Sea, I Am Not Your Negro, Life, Animated, O.J.: Made in America, 13th

The only one I’ve seen, and given this is OJ’s year, so to speak, my guess is that it will win. The bigger question is: Can a doco with 4 parts and clocking in at around 7 hours be a “film”?

Documentary Short

Extremis, 4.1 Miles, Joe’s Violin, Watani: My Homeland, The White Helmets

Pure speculation.

Foreign Language Film

Land of MineA Man Called Ove, The Salesman, Tanna, Toni Erdmann

Land of Mine has gotten a bit of buzz around here, so I’m sticking with it.

Short Film (Live Action)

Ennemis Intérieurs, La Femme et le TGV, Silent Nights, Sing Timecode

Like I would have a clue.

Short Film (Animated)

Blind Vaysha, Borrowed Time, Pear, Cider and Cigarettes, Pearl Piper

Sounds like a winning title.

Fences (2016)

Fences is the final Oscar 2017 Best Picture nominee I had yet to watch, so I wanted to go into it completely fresh and without any expectations. All I knew was that it’s a drama directed by and starring Denzel Freaking Washington.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that Fences must be an adaptation of a stage play, because the majority of the film takes place in a limited location and it’s pretty much just all talking. As a Google search confirmed later, Fences is based on the Pulitzer-winning play of the same name by American playwright August Wilson.

The premise is very simple: Denzel plays Troy Maxson, a sanitation worker who lives in Pittsburg during the 1950s with his wife, Rose (played by Viola Davis), and teenage son Cory (Jovan Adepo). His best friend, Jim, is played by Stephen Henderson, and he also has a younger brother played by Mykelti Williamson and a grown-up son from a previous relationship played by Lyons Hornsby.

I don’t want to give away much more than that, because the joy of Fences comes from gradually finding out who these people are and who they once were. Troy Maxson starts off as just an affable, garrulous, baseball-loving regular guy, but our perceptions of him change as the film progresses and we find out more about his past and his deep flaws. He’s essentially both the protagonist and the antagonist of the film.

The film is more or less a performance vehicle for Denzel and Viola Davis, both of whom put in remarkable performances. Denzel is deservingly the biggest threat to Casey Affleck for Best Actor. Just the sheer number of lines he reels off with apparent ease and the way he articulates those lines — in typical suave Denzel fashion — is awesome. In the beginning, I still saw Denzel rather than the character he was playing, but less than 30 minutes in, I forgot about the actor and only saw Troy Maxson.

As good as Denzel is, however, he is somewhat overshadowed by Viola Davis, whose heartbreaking portrayal of Rose could very well be the best performance of anyone in 2016 — male or female. It’s a shame she was shoved into the Best Supporting Actor category because she is no doubt the lead actress of the film, and while she is a lock to win the award I would have liked to have seen her take on Emma Stone for Best Actress, a fight I think she could have won.

Ultimately, Fences is an intimate, powerful family drama and a character piece that focuses on relationships, hopes and dreams, and the hardships of the black community from that period in time. In all honesty, it’s the type of film I doubt I would have been able to appreciate in my 20s — it’s almost all dialogue and “drama” — but as a man in my 30s I think it’s great. That said, despite being emotionally invested in the story and characters and feeling that gut punch on multiple occasions, it is still probably the weakest of the nine Best Picture nominees this year.

4 stars out of 5

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

I remember in 2014, I went into this Keanu Reeves movie that seemed to pop up out of nowhere. There was very little advertising and not even an announcement or trailer until just a month or two before it was released. It was called John Wick.

No one expected John Wick is tear it up at the box office, earning nearly US$90m worldwide on a US$20 million budget, and transforming Keanu into the best middle-aged action superstar since Liam Neeson in Taken. And for once, John Wick did not feel like just yet another movie trying to mimic Taken — it had its own story hook and visual style, inventive action sequences, and created its own mythology with the “Continental”, essentially an assassin hotel.

In all honesty, while I liked John Wick, I wasn’t quite as enamored with it as most others who thought it was one of the best action movies ever. I believe one of the reasons is because the film was already so hyped up by the time I got around to it. So this time, though I knew the reviews were great, I avoided trailers and reading about the movie, and went into John Wick 2 with tempered expectations.

And wow, I absolutely loved it!

Continuing on almost immediately from the end of the first film, the titular John Wick begins the story by trying to get his car back from a Russian mobster played by the awesome Peter Stromare. So it’s crazy action from the get-go and things only get more insane when Wick’s past comes back to haunt him. It’s a one-man-against-the-rest premise like Die Hard, except for John Wick, the dangers lurk wherever he is in the world.

John Wick 2 is still ultra-violent and super stylish, with loads of action that utilises minimal cuts and immersive camera work. At times it feels like you are watching the best adaptation of a first-person shooter (or over-the-shoulder) video game ever, and at others it’s as though you are watching a comic book come to life on the big screen. It is no wonder that director John Stahelski was hired to help out on the brilliant action sequences in Captain America: Civil War.

I used video games and comic books to describe the sensibilities of John Wick 2 because it’s the type of film you need to suspend a lot of disbelief. Apart from cranking the action and the stakes up to 11, the film also builds on the assassin mythology from its predecessor, extending beyond just the Continental to a whole world of assassin services. It’s fascinating and loads of fun, but only if you buy into. I compare it to the latest entries in the Fast & Furious franchise, in that if you don’t accept it for what it is, you’ll be rolling your eyes throughout the entire film, but if you do, you’ll have a whale of a time.

I was surprised just how much of the original cast returned, including the super assassin played by Common, the car repair dude played by John Leguizamo, and the friendly neighbourhood cop played by Thomas Sadoski, as well as the Continental’s Ian Mcshane and Lance Reddick. Notable newcomers are Riccardo Scamarcio and Aussie DJ Ruby Rose (who is just about everywhere these days), while those looking forward to a Matrix reunion between Keanu and Lawrence Fishburne will finally have their wish granted.

As for Keanu, he’s still Keanu. John Wick doesn’t have a lot of lines, but the lines he does have are delivered in the classic Keanu style — ie, pretty badly. Nonetheless, the physical stuff Keanu pulls off is absolutely astounding, and apparently the film went out of its way to ensure that the physics of the action is as close to reality as possible. It’s a strange form of surrealistic realism that works and makes John Wick the kind of unique universe I’d love to return to.

On the whole, even though it’s only February, I’ll be surprised if I end up watching a better pure action film than John Wick 2 this year. So if you’re old enough and can stomach the violence, do yourself a favour and check out a John Wick 2 with a big bag of popcorn.

4.5 stars out of 5

The Lego Batman Movie (2017)

In all honesty, I thought The Lego Movie would suck. Instead, it turned out to be one of the craziest, funnest and funniest movies of 2014. A big part of that is the character of Batman, voiced by Will Arnett, and so it was no surprise that the first spin-off film Warner Bros decided on was The Lego Batman Movie.

Given how funny The Lego Movie was, I went into Lego Batman with heightened expectations, but also wary that it could turn out to be another Minions situation (ie, good in small doses as a side character, annoying and incapable of sustaining its own film). I shouldn’t have been worried.

Lego Batman is, like its predecessor, loads of irreverent, stupid fun, It again delivers relentless, rapid-fire jokes from all directions, some misses but mostly hits, and this time, with the added bonus of many inside jokes poking fun at not just the Batman franchise throughout its long history but also the entire DC universe — including the current cinematic universe. Actually it goes even beyond that and borrows characters from other franchises too (that’s the great thing about Lego), but I’m not going to spoil the surprises here. All I’ll say is that at least one real-life counterpart of one of the characters from another franchise voices a different character in the film.  I’m sure I missed a whole bunch of the jokes, references and characters, and I wouldn’t mind checking out the film again when it comes out on DVD to catch all the Easter eggs.

Conversely, as it centres around Batman, Lego Batman is more limited in scope than The Lego Movie, and as a result, most of the jokes are more confined in subject matter. Accordingly, I have to say I did laugh less this time around, though another reason could also be because I was on the ONLY person in the theatre watching the movie (it was a Thursday matinee session)!

I would say it’s both good and bad — if crazy, silly laughs are all you’re after, Lego Batman is arguably a step down from The Lego Movie, but if you prefer a more structured story (yes, there is actually a story and character development and all that), then Lego Batman might be more up your alley.

As you would expect, the action is fun and inventive and the visuals are bright and colourful.  I would say the quality all the non-humour elements are on par with The Lego Movie. The idea of rapidly “building” things with Lego pieces on the run is still pretty cool to watch every time.

Will Arnett is perfect as Lego Batman. He pretty much speaks in a Batman voice as Job on Arrested Development anyway, so this performance came naturally for him. Joining Arnett is his nephew from AR, Michael Cera, who plays Robin with the same wide-eyed innocent as George Michael (by the way, there might be a George Michael joke or two in there — and you can interpret that however you want). Ralph Fiennes is also terrific as Alfred the butler, while Zach Galifianakis is a solid Joker and Rosario Dawson is cool as Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Commissioner Gordon. There are loads of other big names on the cast list, including some familiar returning names from The Lego Movie such as Channing Tatum as Superman and Jonah Hill as the Green Lantern. Billy Dee Williams, Mariah Carey, Chris Hardwick, Zoe Kravitz, Adam DeVine, Conan O’Brien — the list goes on and on.

On the whole, I personally preferred The Lego Movie just because of the sheer range of the jokes and because it was fresher and more surprising, but Lego Batman is not very far behind. I would say there were less laugh-out-loud jokes but more witty bits and pieces that will keep you smiling and giggling. Anyway, if you enjoyed one you will absolutely enjoy the other. I’ve said countless times that I’m not usually a fan of animated films, so when I am this positive it usually means it’s pretty, pretty good.

3.75 stars out of 5

Silence (2016)

I’m a sucker for movies about the supernatural, the occult, a higher power, God (or gods) and faith. And so when I heard one of the greatest directors of all-time, Martin Scorsese, was making Silence, a film about 1600 Jesuit priests in Japan starring Spider-Man, Kylo Ren and Qui-Gon Jinn, I was like “Sign me up!”

I intentionally avoided reading too much info about the movie, and thankfully the fantastic trailer did not reveal anything major. Accordingly, I did not know what to expect going in, and boy, nothing could prepare me for what I was about to see.

Twenty-five years in the making and based on the acclaimed 1966 novel of the same name by Shusaku Endo, Silence is unlike any film I have ever seen. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play two Portuguese priests from the 1600s who venture to Japan — where Christianity is outlawed — in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has gone missing after sending back a letter describing the horrors he witnessed — horrors that allegedly made him renounce his faith. This thus kicks off a harrowing journey of incredible danger as the two young priests are thrust into beautiful Japanese seaside villages where pockets of Christians remain hiding in fear and despair due to the brutal Christianity suppression campaign of a man known as the  “Inquisitor”.

Silence is without a doubt a difficult movie to sit through and is definitely not for everyone. The priests are subject to test after test of faith, many of which are impossible to bear from both a physical and emotional standpoint. I guess it could be called slow and torturous “religious persecution porn”, and despite how that sounds, I found the film so engrossing that I could not turn away at the horrors happening on the screen. Scorsese’s control of storytelling and the characters’ inner turmoil is downright masterful, and his use of sound and silence is incredibly powerful. From a visual perspective, the film — entirely shot in Taiwan — is stunning and accords with Japanese beliefs about nature while offering an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the ugly human conduct depicted in the film. The simple sets and foggy landscapes appear authentic and with no sense of CGI whatsoever, and now having seen all the Best Cinematography Oscar nominees this year, I would say that the Silence‘s DP, Rodrigo Prieto, should be the favorite.

The performances are of course great and should have garnered Oscar consideration. I don’t have a problem with Garfield getting his nomination for Hacksaw Ridge instead of this movie, though I think Liam Neeson should have gotten a nod for his difficult and heartbreaking portrayal. I’ve always known that Neeson has a very particular set of skills, but I never thought it would be playing a broken 1600s Jesuit priest who has had his faith shattered.

Silence is not so much a Christian film as it is a film about faith. It’s a movie that people of all faiths, regardless of religion, can appreciate and empathise with. I’d go further and say that even atheists and agnostics can gain valuable insights from this film, especially the extent to which one can have faith in a higher power that never speaks back no matter how much you pray and does nothing to put an end to unjust suffering. I was fascinated by the film’s portrayal of different types of people of faith, from those who succumb to persecution and betray their faith easily, only to ask for forgiveness again and again, to those who long for death — and thus entry into their promised paradise — as sweet relief from their wretched lives.

It’s a shame Silence was almost entirely overlooked by the Academy because it’s easily one of the best films of the year in my book. I found it significantly better and deeper than The Passion of the Christ, which can also be classified as suffering porn, though Silence is more about the mental than the physical, and goes much further by questioning the very nature of faith itself.

5 stars out of 5