All posts by pacejmiller

Blade Runner 2049 (IMAX 3D)

Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario, Prisoners) said he decided to take on Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to the classic 1982 sci-fi hit, because he didn’t anyone else to “f#$% it up.” In the end, not only did he not f#$% it up, he might have made one of the best sci-fi sequels of all time.

It’s visually breathtaking, deeply atmospheric, thought-provoking and narratively satisfying. The scale is epic and yet the story is deeply personal. An instant classic that has shot right to the top of my 2017 list. For me, the most frustrating thing about Blade Runner 2049 is that I have to wait another week before I can see it again (and that’s because of a family vacation)!

I actually didn’t really know what to expect going into this one. I saw the original Blade Runner by Ridley Scott when I was in my late teens and didn’t find it particularly memorable apart from the visuals. What made me watch the movie in the first place was the Blade Runner PC game (released in 1997), which was a pretty shitty game in terms of gameplay but captivated me because of the bleak, rainy, neon-filled futuristic world it depicted. That awe-inspiring vision and atmosphere from the original film and the game (set in 2019) has been transferred to perfection and updated in the sequel (now set in 2049). The world is bleak

That awe-inspiring vision and atmosphere from the original film and the game (set in 2019) has been transferred to perfection and updated in the sequel (now set in 2049). The world still has those same elements but is now as bleak as ever, filled with desolate landscapes of metal and sand. The cities provide a stark contrast with their constant rain, seediness, neon lights and glowing hologram advertisements.

Ryan Gosling plays the central protagonist, a “blade runner” who tracks down old replicants (human clones) and “retires” them, just as Harrison Ford’s character Deckard did in the 1982 film. I don’t want to get into the plot much more than that, but suffice it to say that you don’t need to have seen the original to watch this movie.

There are some fantastic action sequences throughout Blade Runner 2049, but don’t expect an action movie — this is not the Star Trek reboot or Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It’s a true sci-fi film that explores big questions about the human condition, about who we are and what we are, about cloning and nature, about raw feelings and emotions and memories and how all of these things shape us and our reality.

Visually, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most captivating and jaw-dropping films of the last decade along with Inception and Mad Max: Fury Road. If nothing else, this is the type of movie where you can just sit back and enjoy the visual feast. It’s not just the seamless special effects but also the fabulous set designs, costumes, and cinematography of the amazing Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption and Fargo, two of my favourite movies all time, as well as Sicario, Unbroke, No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, Prisoners, etc.) I saw it IMAX 3D — I like IMAX but hate 3D (it’s a shame they lump the two together to jack up ticket prices) — and will watch it in 2D next time. You really don’t notice the 3D beyond the first 15 minutes or so anyway, but having the massive IMAX screen was definitely a plus.

The film is a confident 2 hours and 43 minutes but doesn’t feel overlong or exhausting. It unfolds at its own pace — with a near-perfect rhythm that gives audiences time to breathe and think. While the storyline itself is unexceptional, the film is a joy to watch largely because of Villeneuve’s sublime vision and direction, well-crafted and thought-provoking ambiguities, gorgeous visuals and world-building, wonderful performances, and its simple yet blaring soundtrack.

There are layers of mysteries, some built upon the first film and some newly created. The script by Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original film) and Michael Green (Logan and the upcoming Murder on the Orient Express) keeps many things intentionally vague and open to interpretation. Amazingly, it manages to expand on the same world and deliver a fresh story while preserving some of the most intriguing elements from the first film.  It trusts that viewers are intelligent enough to follow the film and make up their own minds. It’s the kind of movie that can be seen multiple times to spot more clues and be discussed and debated between friends and movie-lovers alike.

As for the performances, Ryan Gosling is absolutely superb, as good as anything he has been in. Harrison Ford is integral to the story but his top billing on the promotional material is a little misleading. The same can be said for Jared Leto, whose role is surprisingly small. The standouts for me are Dutch actress Silvia Hoeks as Luv and Cuban actress Ana de Armas as Joi, who both deliver a lot of power to the film but in different ways. Robin Wright and Dave Bautista also have relatively minor roles. Everyone is really good.

In all, Blade Runner 2049 is a masterclass in filmmaking from Villeneuve. We’ve seen plenty of sequels that come decades after the original in recent years, and pretty much all of them have failed. This is not just a rare exception — it’s arguably better than the original (not sure if it will be revered as much but time will tell) and certainly one of the best sequels and sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen. I’m going to check out the Final Cut version of the orginal and check out the three short films made for the release of the sequel (see below) — and then see it again.

5 stars out of 5

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

I was a little late to the party with the first Kingsman movie. When I finally watched it after hearing all the rave reviews, I inevitably a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good movie, full of energy and fuelled with sharp humour and one-liners, plus some exquisitely filmed action sequences (the church one in particular) by director Matthew Vaughn (did you know he’s married to Claudia Schiffer?), who already one of my favourite directors because of Kick-Ass and X-men: First Class. So perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps the film didn’t quite hit all the right notes for me — sometimes it just went a little too far for my liking with the crassness. I am one of several people who thought the final gag ended the movie on a sour note.

Accordingly, my expectations for the sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, were therefore significantly lower. It dropped even more after I glanced some pretty unflattering early reviews suggesting the second instalment had lost the magic of the first. For me, the first film wasn’t magical anyway. And so it surprises me to say that I actually enjoyed The Golden Circle. There was a lot I didn’t like about it, but as a popcorn experience, I still felt it had enough entertainment, humour and fresh ideas to make it a fun time at the cinema.

As with most sequels of this nature, The Golden Circle picks up a little while after the end of the first film, with Taron Egerton’s “Eggsy” well into his new career as a secret service agent for the Kingsman. He’s had a lot of growing up to do since the “death” of his mentor (played by Colin Firth) in the first film and continues to rely on the intel offered by agent Merlin (Mark Strong) and good friend Roxy (Sophie Cookson). But a blast from the past comes back to haunt him, along with a brand new, ruthless villain played by Julianne Moore. This eventually leads them to a trip to the United States, where they encounter their American counterparts, the Statesman, featuring the likes of Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal (Oberyn!) and Jeff Bridges.

It’s a solid storyline that expands on the mythology of the original while introducing fresh faces and ideas. The way the Statesman mirrors the Kingsman is pretty witty, though it’s a shame that we couldn’t have seen a little more of them in action throughout the movie (perhaps in the third film?). The smart gadgets are as innovative as they were in the first film, and the action sequences are generally well choreographed, albeit lacking an iconic scene like the church one from the first film (more on this later). I also admit there are plenty of great jokes — typically sharp one-liners — that made me laugh out loud multiple times.

On the flip side, The Golden Circle is also riddled with problems. The first one arrives very early on in the film: Over-reliance on CGI. I like the camera movements and the pace of the action sequences, but it is so obviously cartoonish that it strips away reality and a sense of genuine tension. The car chase and Julianne Moore’s pet dogs, in particular,  just came across as too fake. Speaking of Julianne Moore, I love her and think she’s fantastic in pretty much everything she’s in, except here. It felt like she was acting in a different movie to everyone else. Part of it is the writing, part of it is the way she portrays the character.

Secondly, there are also quite a few misses with the humour this time around, with another crass idea that went a little too far again and made me cringe (not in a good way). I don’t mind rude jokes, though I don’t think they suit a film like this. It cheapens the otherwise classy feel of the production. There’s also a very famous celebrity who plays himself throughout the movie. The schtick works well at first before he comes back again and again and you realise it’s not a cameo but an idea that has been stretched way too thin.

Thirdly — and I don’t consider this a spoiler because it’s in all the trailers and posters — the return of Colin Firth. I understand the desire to bring him back given that he was an integral part of the success of the first film, but the whole arc containing his character took the sequel backwards instead of forward. When someone can die so comprehensively and then come back with ease, it really takes away from the emotions of the storyline.

Having said all that, I liked The Golden Circle for what it was—a fun sequel that tries to amp up on everything the original provided. I think Matthew Vaughn had the right idea because that’s what sequels generally need to do in order to please the audience, but there were just too many missteps along the way to make it as good as we all wanted it to be. Nevertheless, I grinned, I laughed, and I was entertained. That’s good enough for me.

3.25 stars out of 5

Baby Driver (2017)

Edgar Wright is an awesome filmmaker, but none of his films that I’ve seen — Shaun of the DeadThe World’s End, Scott Pilgrim vs The World — have ever really been at the top of my lists. Very good, funny and wacky, and usually a little different, for sure, but nothing that has truly blown me away. His latest effort, Baby Driver, could be his best movie to date, though it still didn’t quite get there for me — at least not to the extent of the astounding 93% Rotten Tomato rating that it currently holds.

We’ve seen plenty of movies centred around getaway drivers before, with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (starring Ryan Gosling) being one of my favourite movies of 2011. In a similar vein, Baby Driver revolves around the young eponymous hero of the film, played by Ansel Elgort, who seems to be just a natural at the wheel. He’s not much of a talker and he loves his music (for an interesting reason). Unfortunately, Baby owes a heist mastermind played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey, and is forced to carry out more robberies with a fascinating bunch of characters led by Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Jon Bernthal. Things get especially complicated when he gets involved with a pretty waitress at the local diner, played by Lily James.

It sounds like a typical premise and it is, but Wright is able to inject Baby Driver with a really fun, pop-corny vibe that really gets audiences into a groove. I was a little worried at the start when Elgort breaks into a bit of a dance while walking down the street, feeling as though it could be a movie that tries too hard to be “cool” and “hip”. Luckily, Wright prevented the film from straying into trite territory, keeping things light-hearted and slick without tipping over the edge — well, at least not for me.

Of course, there are plenty of car chase scenes and they are all executed marvellously along with a slamming soundtrack that seems to match each beat and shot to perfection (I wish I cared more about music in general though, that would have scored the movie a lot more points for me); however, that’s not what made Baby Driver more than just another typical heist comedy. Despite the cookie-cutter premise, the characters are wonderfully written and performed, with Elgort proving he has what it takes to be a leading man in Hollywood for years and both Hamm and Foxx standing out with a great blend of affability and menace. Lily James was fine, though her character could have offered more in my opinion, while Kevin Spacey always delivers as usual.

Another strong point of the film is the dialogue, which is sharp and snappy, and most of all it brings out the personalities of the characters. There are some great one-liners which made me laugh out loud — the film definitely passes the 6-laugh test for a comedy. There are cliches to put up with, though I felt there were enough surprises to keep the plot from getting stale. For a movie of this type, I also felt it could have been a tad shorter (perhaps 10-15 mins off the 113-minute running time).

In all, I found Baby Driver to be a fun and enjoyable ride fuelled by Wright’s crisp writing and direction and solid performances all around. Is it a little overrated? Probably, if you measure it by the critic metrics available. But that shouldn’t detract from what is undoubtedly an excellent effort that stands as one of the better action-comedies in recent years.

3.75 stars out of 5

It (2017)

I wouldn’t call myself a coulrophobe, but I did name the 1990 It miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s famous novel as the number one film that scared the crap out of me as a kid. I know it probably doesn’t hold up over time and I would likely laugh at it now, though back in the day, Pennywise the clown definitely made me scared to go to the toilet at night.

And now, 27 years later, It is back! Directed by Andrés Muschietti (the dude who delivered the pretty decent horror flick Mama back in 2013), the new big screen version of It is fabulous and terrifying, not just bringing back memories I haven’t been able to forget all these years but also adding to them.

The storyline is I remembered: A mysterious clown named Pennywise suddenly appears in the tiny US town of Derry and kids start disappearing at an alarming rate. For some reason, Pennywise appears able to morph into whatever you’re most of afraid of (which in my case would just be him), and the only people who seem to give a damn in Derry are a group known as the “Losers”, seven kids with very different backgrounds and personalities.

The main difference is that the plot only focuses on the seven main characters as children as opposed to also depicting them as adults (as was the case in the 1990 miniseries). Smart move, because this provided flexibility to keep the film as a standalone if it didn’t achieve the financial success to warrant a sequel (more on this later). Besides, from memory, the children’s part of the 1990 It miniseries was much better than the adult’s part.

Despite my vague recollection of the miniseries, I can tell there are many differences to this film version. I haven’t read the book myself (the door stopper just looks too daunting to even attempt), but from what I have heard and read, it’s one of the best Stephen King adaptations out there, and that’s a huge compliment when you look at the list: Shawshank, Stand by Me, The Green Mile, The Shining. Misery, and so forth.

Despite having admittedly big expectations going in, I knew it was going to be hard for It to live up to what I hoped it would be. The early trailers got this thing hyped up to the extreme, and there were already talks of the film smashing box office records for both the horror genre and September openings before the first public screening.

The feeling that the movie would be unlikely to live up to expectations kept my emotions quite balanced going in. In the end, the film was much better than I thought it would be, largely because there was a surprising amount of heart thanks to the brilliant performances of the children. I didn’t think that I would be so invested in the fate of the children and their bond, nor did I anticipate that so much of the humour in the film to be effective (not all of it worked, but most of it did). There was a real Stand By Me vibe with the way the kids talked and cursed (yes, there’s plenty of cursing), as well as a Stranger Things vibe from the 1980s setting, the sense adventure, and depicting the story from the children’s perspective. All seven of the leads were amazing and believable, with Stranger Things‘ Finn Wolfhard (also the best name in showbiz) as the wisecracking Richie and Jack Dylan Grazer as hypochondriac Eddie being the standouts for me, though all of them appear to have stardom written in their future. but also not quite as scary as I hoped it would be.

On the other hand, the film was also not quite as scary as I hoped it would be. Make no doubt, it is indeed very scary, but not to the extent where I felt like I could not continue looking at the screen or squirmed in my seat. I don’t know why that was the case for me, though I do know that it’s definitely not the fault of Bill Skarsgard, who portrays a phenomenal Pennywise. From the look to the voice to the sinister creepiness, Skarsgard pulls it off to perfection. I really liked the fact that Muschietti was not afraid to push the boundaries by showing us brutal, bloody violence committed against children, which is typically taboo in almost all horror movies. I also liked that the horror comes from much more than just the monster, showing us that adults and bullies can be equally terrifying, if not more so.

One final positive is the way the film blended CGI with practical effects — it brought out a different, more unpredictable side to Pennywise, adding to the horror without going over the top.

I do wish I could have seen a little more of the adults and how they were reacting to the scary and mysterious things that were happening in Derry, but I understand why Muschietti left this part out given that the film had to develop 7 protagonists on a running time that’s already on the long side at 135 minutes.

 

At the end of the film, I was left wanting a sequel, which will definitely be forthcoming after It proved to be a monster hit by raking in US$123 on its opening weekend in the US market alone, crushing solid “expert predictions” of US$55 million. As at the time of this review, the film has already made more than US$210 million worldwide on a US$35 million budget.

Minute-for-minute and scare-for-scare, I found Annabelle: Creation to be the more frightening movie, but there is no doubt It is the superior film across technical aspects, from the direction and the cinematography to the script, dialogue, and performances. It’s up there as one of the best Stephen King adaptations and a lock to end up as one of the best horror movies of the year.

4 stars out of 5

Annabelle: Creation (2017)

Wow, it’s been a long time since my last movie review, and it’s not because I haven’t been going to the cinema. I’ve just been busy with work and, well, lazy.

Anyway, I’ve got a massive backlog now so I a bunch of reviews should be forthcoming. I’ve decided to start off with the films that have left the deepest impression on me as of late, and for some, it will be no surprise that I’m kicking things off with Annabelle: Creation, the prequel to the lacklustre 2014 doll horror Annabelle, which was itself a prequel/spin-off to The Conjuring.

I have to admit, I didn’t have high expectations going in. Commercial horror films are mostly bad these days with a few notable exceptions, and it is rare for a sequel to be better than its predecessor, especially in this genre. However, there was cause for optimism given that it’s directed by Lights Out filmmaker David F. Sandberg (I actually still have to review it!), and producer James Wan clearly still had enough confidence in the franchise to give the creepy doll another shot.

Set in 1943, Annabelle: Creation goes back to how the eponymous doll was created in the first place. Aussie Anthony LaPaglia plays a doll maker living in some rural place in America, while fellow Aussie Miranda Otto plays his wife. Years following a tragic accident, a bunch of orphaned girls (led by Ouija: Origin of Evil‘s Lulu Wilson and Talitha Bateman) and a nun (Stephanie Sigman) move into their house. And so the horror begins.

I’m not gonna lie: Annabelle: Creation scared the crap out of me. It’s actually quite a typical horror movie with the usual set-ups and jump scares, but as they say, it’s all in the execution. David S. Sandberg has proven himself to be a real talent in his sophomore effort, employing his full bag of tricks to deliver relentless scare after scare. There’s gore, but not too much, and there are horrific images and loud, thumping sounds and blaring music, but often the real terror comes from his use of silence and darkness — it’s what you can’t see that creates the tense atmosphere and sense of dread. I’m also glad that the film doesn’t show too much and it doesn’t show things too early. Sandberg deserves a lot of credit for his restraint and knowing just how to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

It’s not one of those horror movies that creeps into your core and keeps you up at night thinking about it like say The Exorcist. It also doesn’t have much depth or originality like say It Follows or Don’t Breathe. The performances are fantastic, with Lulu Wilson really standing out, though some of the lines they’re given don’t sound like they should be spoken by children their age. My biggest problem with it is that the script is quite poor and there are loads of problematic things in it that make very little sense — almost to the extent that it takes you out of the movie.

But as a popcorn horror flick, Annabelle: Creation definitely delivers. It doesn’t slow down once it gets going, and you could argue that it gets going right from the opening scene. I felt like it was one scare after another and I had no time to catch my breath throughout pretty much the entire 109-minute running time. Even though a lot of the set-ups were obvious and I knew I was just being manipulated into the next scare, I still had plenty of fun going along with the ride.

In all honesty, Annabelle: Creation is not a great movie and has too many flaws to count. But I watch horror movies to be scared, and pound for pound, scare for scare, it could very well be the most terrifying movie I’ll see this year.

4 stars out of 5

Dunkirk (2017) (IMAX)

In anticipation of the release of Christopher Nolan’s new WWII epic Dunkirk, I was chatting with a friend last night about Nolan’s impressive back catalogue: Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar — arguably four of my top 100 movies of all time, or at least in the top 200 (or maybe 300? I’ve never tried to do a list). Nolan is that great of a filmmaker, and that’s why I’m always excited whenever he announces a new project.

Accordingly, I went to watch the very first session of Dunkirk today, and in recommended IMAX too. And I’m glad I did, because the 70mm film is a beautiful, visceral spectacle where the sense of immersion is amplified by the IMAX screen and incredible sound and soundtrack. It’s about as close as you can get to being in the action while sitting comfortably in your cinema chair.

Perhaps in response to the backlash of the complexity and melodrama of Interstellar, Nolan went for a much simpler film this time in Dunkirk, based on the true story of the Dunkirk evacuation during WWII as Allied soldiers found themselves under siege from the Germans in the Battle of France. It’s a lesson in “showing” rather than “telling”, as Dunkirk is all about a visual narration of what the soldiers experienced on the land, on the sea, and in the air. It features an ensemble cast with some notable names (Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy,  Mark Rylance, Harry Styles, and so forth) but not a whole lot of dialogue. It is sometimes chaotic and there’s a sense of not knowing exactly what is going on at times, which I felt was aimed at reflecting the sentiments of the soldiers living through the ordeal.

Unlike some war films you may have seen recently, such as Hacksaw Ridge or 13 HoursDunkirk is less about exalting heroism and patriotism and more about the realities of survival. It’s about ordinary people trying to get back to their families no matter what and civilians putting their lives on the line to serve their country. As noted above, the narrative is split into three strands — a group of soldiers trying to get home on the land, a civilian mobilised by the military to rescue the stranded soldiers on the sea, and two fighter jet pilots taking on enemy fire in the air. The three strands intersect, though the film does not follow a linear timeline, primarily for narrative and tension creation purposes. Despite this and the lack of one central protagonist, the film does feel cohesive and compelling thanks to the cast of great actors who can get the most out of just a few lines and facial expressions.

Nolan has come out and criticised streaming platform Netflix for its awkward foray into feature film productions. With Dunkirk, you can see why he feels that way because it’s a film that really needs to be seen on the big screen, preferably an IMAX one. It puts you right between the gunfire and the torpedoes and the corpses, with a booming soundtrack that keeps ratcheting up the tension and crisp sound effects that make you jump with every bullet that shoots by your ear.

The sheer scale is amazing, with breathtaking sweeping shots of the beach and the sea and the horizon, while the fighter jet sequences made it felt like you were sitting inside one as it turned and dipped and shot at enemy aircraft with machine guns. It felt like a movie without CGI because everything just seemed so seamlessly grounded in reality. And interestingly, there’s very little blood and gore in the movie for the sake of a more viewer-friending rating from the censors, but it somehow gets away with it. I do wonder, however, if the impact would have been even greater if Nolan ignored the classification and just went down the flying limbs route, or whether that would have instead taken away from the aspect of the war he was trying to depict.

At 106 minutes, Dunkirk is short for both a Nolan film and a war film, but I think that was all it needed given the intensity audiences have to sit through. Without a doubt, it’s one of the best cinematic experiences of the year, though it’s also a film that speaks more to the senses than your mind and heart. While there are indeed some subtle moving moments throughout the film, it is not as emotionally resonating as I hoped it would be, probably because of the way the narrative and characters are structured. I admire the film from a technical perspective and for the epic sensory experience it delivers, but years from now I may not look back upon it as fondly as some of Nolan’s other classics.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: Unfortunately for my wife, the immersive experience got too much for her (probably a combination of the size of the screen, the blaring sounds and the camera movements) and she had to leave the cinema to throw up. She hadn’t done that since we watched Cloverfield back in 2008.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

If you follow this blog or know me personally, you’ll know War for the Planet of the Apes has been my most anticipated movie for three years, ever since the 2014 release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my most anticipated movie since 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the awesomeness that came out of nowhere to become my No. 1 film of that year. What can I say? I’m just obsessed with apes.

With expectations through the roof, I knew I was probably in for a disappointing experience, especially after the spectacular early critic reviews started rolling in a couple of weeks prior to the release (it’s currently 93% on Rotten Tomatoes). But I somehow managed to compose myself as I stepped into the cinema today, not too high and not too low, with as clean of a slate as I could bring.

And I was blown away.

Let’s just say War for the Planet of the Apes was as good as I expected, but—like its two predecessors—it also wasn’t what I was expecting. You know how you get an idea in your mind of how a movie is going to play out after you see a trailer or two? Well, War did not play out like how I thought it would. There are plot points I knew the film had to hit, and it does that, but the story was a little different, the progression was a little different, and there were some nice surprises thrown in for good measure. Kudos to the people who cut the trailer too because they didn’t show too much as I had feared.

Set two years after DawnWar pits ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) against a ruthless colonel played by Woody Harrelson in a war that will determine the fate of apes and humans. Despite being a film centred around apes, it’s a story full of humanity. It’s the reason why every entry in the trilogy works so well. Yes, there are the revolutionary special effects and the heart-thumping action, but the core of the films have always been about the humanity of the apes and the relationships between humans and apes and apes and apes.

The stakes are high and the feel of the film is epic, almost biblical. Indeed, there are various religious references as Caesar has shades of both Moses and Jesus. Matt Reeves, who helmed Dawn, returns again as director as well as co-writer of an excellent script along with Matt Bomback (who also wrote Dawn). As such, the look and feel of the film is closer to Dawn than Rise, with a sombre tone that has only a few lighter moments sprinkled throughout thanks to Steve Zahn’s new character, Bad Ape.

What really impressed me about Bomback and Reeves’ script is the way it pieces everything together, linking up not just the other films in the series but also the original 1968 adaptation with Charlton Heston. I also liked the allusions to other classics which I won’t spoil. There are a few small holes and plot points I would have liked to have seen simmer for a little longer before being resolved, but it’s otherwise virtually seamless.

Needless to say, the action sequences are fantastic. War is indeed a war movie, and even though a lot of the blood and violence is toned down or skillfully avoided for rating reasons, you do get a lot of carnage and a feel for the horrors of war. However, it is because the characters are so well-developed that the action actually means something and provides that emotional punch rather than just loud noises and explosions, something another movie I saw recently (ah hem, Transformers 5), failed at miserably.

And of course, the special effects. Weta Digital once again proves it is the best in the business and absolutely deserves an Academy Award for making Caesar and all the apes come to life once again. The amount of detail on the apes’ faces, especially the close-ups, is jaw-dropping and conveys as much emotion as any human performance. No other film CGI I’ve seen has been able to capture the soul in the eyes quite like this franchise has, not even Rogue One or The Jungle Book. The special effects are so good that you don’t really even think about them during the movie—you simply take it for granted.

Speaking of Oscars, it’s about damn time Andy Serkis gets at least a nomination for his portrayal of Caesar. This whole film, this entire franchise, has hinged on his performance capture, and Serkis once again hits it out of the park. The emotional depth he conveys with every facial expression, every look, every movement of his body, is just amazing. The other apes are also very good, but Serkis is what makes War the film that it is.

On the human side, Woody Harrelson is a splendid and perfectly cast villain who delivers both a terrifying madness but also enough humanity to make us understand his actions. A lesser actor would not have been able to pull it off, especially a couple of longer monologues of exposition that could have been dry without Harrelson’s intensity and charisma.

War for the Planet of the Apes is the finale I had been dreaming of, a finale that completes one of the best movie franchises of all time. Yes, I’m putting it in the same category as The Godfather trilogythe original Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and of course, the Harold and Kumar trilogy (just kidding). It really is that good, both in isolation and as part of the wider series. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call it a masterpiece.

5 stars out of 5

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

After years of negotiations, Sony finally did the smart thing and shared its precious rights to Spider-Man with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Because of that, Spider-Man ended up being one of the highlights of the awesome Captain America: Civil War, which got everyone super excited for his first Sony-Marvel solo film, Spider-Man: Homecoming.

The verdict? Pretty damn good. Homecoming was just about everything I had hoped it would be, and many of my concerns about it turned out to be unfounded.

First of all, as promised, Homecoming is part of the MCU but also a standalone film. It helps if you have seen Civil War, where Tom Holland’s version of Spider-Man first appeared, but it’s not imperative. The film uses the famous airport scene as a segway so we don’t have to be reintroduced to the origins story all over again. In that sense, Homecoming feels like a sequel of sorts at times.

Second, Homecoming is, as they claimed, a different Marvel film. They weren’t lying when they said it was a high school movie, a teenage coming-of-age film with a John Hughes vibe. For those too young to know who John Hughes is, think Lindsay Lohan’s Mean Girls or Emma Stone’s Easy A, or Hailee Steinfeld’s The Edge of Seventeen. It’s got a lot of light humour and witty dialogue, not too much heavy drama, and plenty of high school-related themes. In other words, it actually features an environment and issues a high school Spider-Man would be dealing with, like girls, popularity, keeping secrets, etc.

Third, the trailers did not give too much away, as I had feared. After seeing the first couple of trailers, I had in my mind how the movie would pan out, and I’m glad to say it was quite different to what I had expected in terms of progression and characters. There are a few neat surprises and choices I thought worked well.

Fourth, and thank goodness, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) did not dominate the film as the marketing suggested. Iron Man was in all the posters and a good chunk of the trailers, but that was just to sell the movie. This is very much a Spider-Man movie in which Tony Stark plays a small but pivotal role. He has a significant presence, but  Downey Jr doesn’t take up much screen time — more than a cameo but less than a major supporting character. I think director John Watts gets it just right.

The performances are excellent. Tom Holland shined as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in limited screen time in Civil War, and he’s just as good carrying a 133-minute movie. Apart from actually looking like a real teenager, he’s extremely likeable and captures that teenage angst perfectly. He’s my favourite Spider-Man to date.

And thanks to Michael Keaton, who plays his third-winged superhero/villain (Batman, Birdman, and now Vulture), Homecoming has one of the best bad guys in the MCU. I was a bit meh about Vulture before because he felt like just a bad version of Falcon, but Keaton elevates his character, giving not just justifications for his actions but also multiple dimensions to his character. It’s not his abilities or gadgets but his character and demeanour that makes him great. He’s empathetic when he needs to be and menacing and terrifying when wants to be. Kudos to Keaton, because villains have always been the weakest link in the MCU, and now they have a new baddie who can rival Loki.

The minor characters are a bit of a mixed bag. I initially thought going for the diverse casting might end up being a problem, though eventually, it all worked out for the best. Jacob Batalon plays Ned, a new Asian character and Peter’s affable best friend. There were a few times he got somewhat irritating, but that’s what he’s supposed to do. Laura Harrier is Liz, the girl Peter has a crush on. At first I didn’t think she was a good fit for the love interest, but later on, I understood why they chose her. Two bigger names that made splashes when they were cast — Zendaya and Donald Glover — were relative disappointments in that they barely go to do anything. On the other hand, Tony Revolori gave us an interesting and funny version of bully Flash Thompson, while Marisa Tomei did her thing as “hot Aunt May”.

In terms of action, Homecoming is not revolutionary but holds its own in the MCU. I would say it’s on par with any of the action sequences we’ve seen in any of the previous Spider-Man films in terms of excitement and creativity, except with better special effects (the movements of the pure CGI Spider-Man are more realistic). That said, despite some excellent set pieces, I would have preferred a little more action and a better climatic battle. But that’s just me.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t say Homecoming is one of the best MCU movies, but it’s a very good one targeted more at teenagers and young adults rather than small children and older audiences. It’s a very good Spider-Man movie, a very good coming-of-age movie, a very good high school movie, and a very good comedy, plus it’s got one of the best Marvel villains ever in Vulture (Michael Keaton).  I Throw all of that together and what you end up with is a light, fun and entertaining experience that doesn’t quite add up to “great”. It’s nothing that will absolutely blow you away, but hey, Marvel can’t give us Iron Man, The Avengers, or Civil War every time. I’d put it on the same level as say an Ant-Man, maybe even a shade higher.

3.75 stars out of 5

Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)

Transformers: The Last Knight is the loudest movie of the year. And it still made me fell asleep. Twice.

Yes, the fifth and latest instalment in the Transformers franchise is, as most expected, very bad. I don’t know if it’s the worst of the lot — mainly because I can’t remember any of them after the solid first one — but it sure feels the same old crap that Michael Bay keeps rolling out, the same old crap that keeps making over a billion dollars at the box office.

This one was supposed to be different, I had some hope for a different kind of Transformers movie after early reports that they gathered a clan of renowned writers to brainstorm new and innovative ideas. Optimism quickly turned to doubt when I heard they were going to go draw from the well of King Arthur, and that Nazis were also going to be involved. It just sounded like they were grasping at straws.

Indeed, neither idea worked well, though I think at least one of them was pivotal to whatever the plot was. I’m still not quite sure what it was all about. All I know is that Marky Mark Walhberg came back for another paycheck, and he dragged Sir Anthony Hopkins along with him. The storyline was simply all over the place, a mish-mash of tired ideas executed much better in other films. You have the Autobots fighting the Decepticons still, with the humans dancing on the sidelines pretending to be relevant. Optimus Prime is for some reason hypnotized by some evil robot, and there’s Sir Anthony Hopkins playing the guy who explains everything, an annoying teenage girl (Isabela Moner) who runs around war zones acting tough, an annoying blue robot who can only say one word, an annoying and obvious rip-off of C3PO, and British Megan Fox (Laura Haddock).

I don’t know why I expected something different from Michael Bay this time.

Anyway, despite all the explosions and car chases and robot-fighting action, Tranformers: The Last Knight is mind-numbingly dull. And it’s 149 minutes long. Marky Mark is a professional and does his best to pretend he’s not in utter trash, but all the other returning characters appear to have no idea why they are in the film, or care. Josh Duhamel is back as a military commander who again does almost nothing, while John Turturro spends most of his time acting like an idiot in Cuba. I don’t remember that Stanley Tucci is in the movie.

As for the newcomers, Sir Anthony Hopkins appears to have a smirk on his face throughout every scene, probably thinking about his bank account. He basically has a role similar to Ian McKellan’s in The Da Vinci Code, ie, a wealthy old man who lives in a mansion and seems to know everything the protagonists need to know, and then goes about explaining it to the audience. British Megan Fox (Haddock) is basically just that, except she plays an Oxford professor (I’m not kidding) with multiple PhDs. She also likes wearing tight outfits, which is all that matters.

The bulk of my disdain goes to this young teenage girl named Izabella (Moner), who is supposed to be this symbol of courage and likable, but turns out to be the complete opposite. She’s like nails on a chalkboard unbearable from the moment she appears on screen. The more the movie tries to make us like her the more I could not stand her. The funny thing is that after the film spends ages building her up to make her seem like the new protagonist of the franchise, she then disappears for pretty much the rest of the movie. Not like I was complaining.

Ultimately, there just isn’t much to like about Transformers: The Last Knight. Stupid premise, stale ideas. Tons of pointless exposition. Tasteless and unfunny humour. Unlikable characters. Poor performances. Cringeworthy dialogue. Way too long. It’s very messy and noisy. And despite all the crazy robot fights and excellent special effects (which, let’s face it, we’ve all seen before), it simply isn’t exciting or compelling to watch. I honestly fell asleep twice, and the second time was when the film was in the middle of its climactic final battle. I guess that says it all.

1.5 star out of 5

The Mummy (2017)

The Dark Universe franchise is off to a rough start.

Universal went all out for its new “monsters” shared universe film series by forking out the big bucks for megastars Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe in the first entry, The Mummy. The hope was that the film would kick off a lucrative Avengers-style franchise that would later feature the likes of Johnny Depp’s The Invisible Man, Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster, and possibly Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the Wolfman.

Unfortunately, and to be honest, not to my complete surprise, The Mummy turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment. Not even Tom Cruise’s usual energy and Russell Crowe’s deep voice could save this ambitious but ultimately dull and inconsistent affair that compares unfavourably to Brendan Fraser’s adventure-packed 1999 version of The Mummy .

In this film, directed by Alex Kurtzman, Tom Cruise plays a soldier who stumbles across the tomb of an ancient Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella) and unleashes a powerful curse that proceeds to wreak havoc on the world. Annabelle Wallis (from Annabelle) plays a frighteningly attractive archaeologist and Jake Johnson is the sidekick, while Russell Crowe makes a pivotal appearance as Dr. Henry Jekyll (you know, Jekyll and Hyde).

It’s clear, with Mission: Impossible‘s Christopher McQuarrie as a co-writer, The Mummy was aiming to be a similar action spectacular with a Tom Cruise doing crazy stunts plus a mix of genuine horror elements and a dash of humour.  And to be fair, the film does have each of those things, but they never fit together comfortably or transition from one tone to the other with the smoothness it required. The action is pretty good but nothing I would call awesome. The centerpiece is the zero gravity stunt Tom Cruise has been selling, but the majority of it is sadly spoiled by the trailers, along with most of the other decent action sequences. If you’ve seen a trailer or two for this movie like I had then chances are there won’t be anything that comes close to wowing you.

On the other hand, there were some solid horror moments featuring grotesque creatures, but you wouldn’t really classify them as legitimately scary. It’s certainly not at the same level as a “proper” horror film in terms of generating scares. And the humour littered throughout is sporadic and mostly cheesy. Together, the three elements failed to mesh, and it was hard to get a good feel of exactly what the film was trying to be.

The film’s biggest problem is the pains it goes to in order to set up this new extended universe. The plot is steered towards creating this world of evil and monsters, and it’s not done with much of subtlety. The result is a lot of forced dialogue and exposition, which sagged the pace and the sense of adventure I hoped the film could have had. I actually guessed the ending before I even stepped into the cinema, and it’s really not that hard to do if you think about where they are going with this franchise. I will say though that it didn’t make much sense either.

I don’t put any of the blame on Tom Cruise, who clearly did everything he could for the film. Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson and Russell Crowe were all actually very solid too. Ultimately, I fault the script, which was heavily hampered by the need to lay the foundations for the future of the franchise. The story started off quite well and was exciting up to a point, but there was a lengthy middle section after Dr. Jekyll appeared that stagnated the plot to do a lot of unnecessary explaining. It’s cool they got a female mummy and all, though Sofia Boutella’s character isn’t particularly memorable and even comes across as similar to Patricia Velasquez’s Anck-su-Namun from the 1999 version.

In the end, I wouldn’t say The Mummy was horrible — it just wasn’t very good or as good as it needed to be. I wish Universal could have worked on The Mummy as a standalone first and ensured that it was a success before planning out all the later installments. They should have learned their lesson from the DCEU, which produced the similarly disappointing Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. It seems unlikely that Universal will pull the plug on the Dark Universe franchise because Tom Cruise movies typically do gangbusters in overseas markets (I saw it in a packed house on a Wednesday afternoon during work hours) — and as we’ve seen with Wonder Woman, the ship can be straightened — but it’s going to be an uphill battle after this disappointing first entry.

2.75 stars out of 5