Category Archives: Rating: 4-4.75 stars

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.

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

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

Moonlight (2016)

The Academy sure likes movies that break your heart. After watching Manchester by the SeaI was pretty sure I wouldn’t see a movie this year capable of punching me in the gut as violently as that one. As usual, I was wrong. Moonlight made me just as sad and depressed.

Written and directed by the marvellous Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is a portrait of an African American growing up in the projects in Florida. The story has a three-act structure that offers three separate snapshots of the protagonist, Chiron, at different stages of his life — as a quiet, innocent child (Alex Hibbert), as an awkward teen discovering who he is (Ashton Sanders), and as a hardened adult (Trevante Rhodes).

Each segment is harrowing, heartbreaking and devastating in its own way, and yet so beautifully shot by Jenkins, who admits paying homage to the exquisite visuals of legendary Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express). There are side-by-side videos available on YouTube now that show how the scenes mirror each other.

Unlike Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight doesn’t really have any moments of levity or hints of hope and inspiration. There’s no humour in Chiron’s world, just darkness, despair and loneliness. Like Hidden Figures, it’s an important film that will open eyes, and like Hell or High Water, it’s a film that reflects contemporary American society and gives a voice to those who have been forgotten or stigmatized.

What really stood out about Moonlight for me, apart from the muted style of Jenkin’s direction, is how genuine it felt watching Chiron’s story. The dialogue, the facial expressions, the body language — everything came across as authentic.It’s done so much better than a film like Precious, which also portrays a sad existence but shoves it in your face way too hard. On the other hand, though Chiron’s world could not be further from mine, I was able to sympathise and empathise because the film touches on so many universal values, from love and hate to friendship, bullying, discrimination, loneliness, identity, isolation, hypocrisy, and forgiveness.

Personally, I liked the first  two segments more than the final one, which was slower and more contemplative, but also more cliched. I think it’s good to know the film’s three-act structure because I didn’t know about it going in and I was almost disappointed every time the story jumped in time to the next act. I wanted to know more about kid Chiron and I wanted to know more about teenage Chiron. I even wanted to know about what happened between gaps. That’s the sign of great storytelling and character building.

Of course, the film wouldn’t be as effective without some wonderful performances. It’s hard to pick a standout from the three versions of Chiron, each played to near-perfection by the three actors. They looked very different and developed different personality traits, and yet you could sense the same person underneath. Special mention also goes to Best Supporting Actor favourite Mahershala Ali, who shines in the first act as a drug dealer who befriends Chiron. Naomie Harris is also great as Chiron’s abusive mother.

In the end, Moonlight is a film I wish was longer because I wanted to know more about what happened to Chiron, and yet it’s also a film I don’t want to watch again because it’s so heavy — almost too heavy — and because of how sad it made me. As a piece of art, however, the quality of the movie is undeniable, delivering not just a great portrayal of a character and his life with tremendous realism but also well-crafted storytelling, poignant drama, and stylish aesthetics. It’s a film that will strike a chord no matter who you are.

4.25 stars out of 5

The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

With the film adaptation of The Last of Us — in my opinion the greatest video game of all time — looking less and less likely by the day, I decided to check out the movie people are calling the next best thing: The Girl with All the Gifts (well, at least until Logan comes out later this year).

Yes, it’s a low budget British film, but I was still surprised how little buzz the film received, especially considering that it stars two very recognisable names in Gemma Arterton and Glenn Close. And it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie movie too, and the genre is super popular these days.

Whatever the reason, the world is missing out on a great zombie movie, one that would have easily been the best of the year but for the awesome Train to BusanThe Girl with All the Gifts is intriguing, thought-provoking, tense, dramatic, and above all, pretty darn horrific. It’s an excellent standalone film that ticks all the boxes, including being based on a celebrated genre book (by MR Carey).

I don’t want to give away too much, as part of the pleasure of this movie is gradually discovering the world in which it is set. But basically, the film starts off in a future in which a bunch of kids are kept in cells as prisoners and rolled out in wheelchairs every day to undergo lessons given by a teacher named Helen (Gemma Arterton). There is one young girl, played by the phenomenal newcomer Sennia Nanua, who appears to be particularly intelligent and makes a connection with Helen, much to the displeasure of a military sergeant (Paddy Considine). Meanwhile, Glenn Close is hanging around as a mysterious authority figure.

The trailers and other synopses give away a lot more than that, but I would advise trying to stay away from such spoilers and finding them out for yourself throughout the movie. I love that sense of not knowing what’s going on and having to figure it out from the hints that the film drops. Having said that, I have noted that the film has been hailed as “similar” to The Last of Us, so you can probably connect the dots, though I will also say that there are sufficient differences in both premise, plot and characters to give audiences a fresh experience.

The biggest strength of The Girl with All the Gifts is the girl, Sennia Nanua, who just steals every scene she is in with this blend of innocence, curiosity and fear. It’s a remarkably self-assured performance that carries the film from start to finish, and really helps audiences empathise with her character and care about her fate. As with most zombie movies, it’s the characters that make all the difference. You know the kind of quality you’re getting with veteran actors like Arterton and Close, so I was pleasantly surprised by how Nanua dominated the film with her presence.

The zombies in the film are fantastic and look, as far as I can tell, like they are played by real people in most of the scenes as opposed to CGI. They’re genuinely freaky, and director Colm McCarthy does a great job of utilising their characteristics to build suspense and deliver thrills. The set designs and visuals of the landscapes do remind me a lot of The Last of Us, so I do wonder if McCarthy has played the game and/or is a fan of it.

The main negatives about the film are some of the rules regarding how the zombies operate, which don’t appear to be consistent or logical all the time. There are also parts of the movie, particular in the beginning, that have that ugly greyish tone a lot of British movies have (and signifies boring), which is the main reason why it took me a little while to fully get into it.

In all, The Girl with All the Gifts still gets a big two thumbs up from me. Intelligent, scary, provocative and heartfelt, it’s everything I want from a Last of Us adaptation if they ever get around to it.

4 stars out of 5

Lion (2016)

I hopped on the Lion bandwagon long before I even saw the movie. I remember stumbling across a “Dev Patel movie” trailer on YouTube months ago and was immediately taken aback by how well he nailed the Aussie accent (yes, way better than Meryl Streep!). The true story premise was so intriguing that I just couldn’t wait to watch it, and the anticipation then went through the room when I found out it was one of the 9 films nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars this year.

And so I finally managed to watch Lion the other day, and it was just as beautiful and emotional as I imagined it would be. Perhaps not quite as good as I hoped it would be, especially considering its reputation as one of the best 9 films of the year, though I would still definitely recommend anyone with a heart to check it out.

Directed by Garth Davis in his feature debut, Lion tells the remarkable true story of an impoverished five-year-old boy named Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar)  from a small village in India who is accidentally transported on a train to more than a thousand miles from his home and is eventually adopted by an Australian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). More than 20 years later, Saroo, now all grown up (and played by Dev Patel), begins to use Google Earth in an effort to find the home and family he had long lost and almost forgotten about.

As one would imagine, Lion is a gut-wrenching yet heartwarming tale full of sadness, longing, and ultimately inspiration. It’s one of those films that is just as powerful and impactful even when you know the ending. Expect to cry buckets of tears, especially if you are a parent who has ever feared losing a child, or in Nicole Kidman’s case, an adoptive parent in real life. That said, it’s not like director Garth Davis intentionally tries to milk tears out of his audience — it’s simply the effect of the story itself.

Of course, the film would not have worked as well without the amazing performances, starting with the little kid, Sunny Pawar, who comes across as believable as you could possibly get in a situation like that. Dev Patel shines in his best role since Slumdog Millionaire and is well-deserving of his Oscar nomination, though it’s a little bit of a shame that they chose to put in the Best Supporting Actor category as opposed to Best Actor in order to boost his odds. Nicole Kidman is also as good as she has ever been, and I’m admittedly not the greatest fan of her work.

Interestingly, Davis chose to tell the story essentially in two chronological parts — first telling the child’s story in its entirety before telling the adult’s version — as opposed to starting off as an adult and using flashbacks. I personally think it worked quite well this way, because the first half of the film is definitely the stronger half. That sense of fear and “oh no” from seeing a child’s life change forever before your eyes and the struggles he went through before getting adopted is some really heavy stuff, and using flashbacks to tell that part of the story wouldn’t have done it justice.

Conversely, it also meant the second half of the film wasn’t quite as impactful. My concerns on how they were going to depict the Google Earth search turned out to be unfounded as they did it in a way that was not boring at all, though even then, it felt as though there was no enough material to sustain half a movie. For me, the interesting part was Saroo’s inner torment from leaving his brother, mother and sister behind and his struggles with identity, but the film put too much attention on this love story with an American character played by Rooney Mara, which I thought wasn’t really necessary for the story at all. I would have rather the movie focus more on Saroo’s relationship with his father and troubled adoptive brother (Divian Ladwa), two areas that weren’t fully fleshed out. As a result, there were some scenes in the second half that I found plodding.

Flaws aside, Lion is still an incredibly uplifting and powerful film. The fact it is a true story amplifies everything even further. While it is not exactly subtle, the film deserves credit for finding the right balance between empathy and entertainment, drama and melodrama. I think it’s an even better film than Slumdog, certainly deeper on an emotional level and with greater resonance.

4.25 stars out of 5

Hidden Figures (2016)

Of all the nine nominees for Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year, Hidden Figures could well be the pick for most general moviegoing audiences. Seriously, not everyone is up for delightful song and dance (La La Land), heartbreaking/hard-hitting drama (Manchester by the Sea, Lion, Fences, Moonlight), the horrors of war (Hacksaw Ridge), modern westerns (Hell or High Water), thought-provoking sci-fi (Arrival), or the greatest movie ever (War for the Planet of the Apes) — okay, so one of these movies isn’t a nominee or even out yet, but still.

Embarrassingly, I knew nothing about the three remarkable African-American women Hidden Figures is inspired by — Katherine G Johnson (played by Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughn (played by Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monáe). These three mathematicians overcame incredible social obstacles in the 1960s to essentially change NASA and were integral to some of the most important space missions in history.

While the film focuses on all three women, the central lead is Johnson (Henson), who was brought onto the Space Task Group headed by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) to play catch up to the Russians, the first country to launch a man into orbit. Vaughn (Spencer), who was unfairly held back from a supervisory role, and Jackson (Monáe), who sought to attend an all-white college so she could become an engineer, are more like important supporting characters with subplots that take place around the core story.

It’s easy to forget that the film was set in a time when blacks still had to sit at the back of the bus and use different bathrooms. Moreover, it was also still a deeply sexist era, where women’s ambitions in the workplace were frowned upon if not overtly discouraged. It really was a double-whammy for the heroes of this film, who took on the system with amazing courage and determination. Director Theodore Melfi (who passed up a Spider-Man film to do this) does a fantastic job of depicting this period with the right amount of awareness, subtlety and delicacy, never falling too deeply into self-pity or outrage. Instead, NASA is shown to be rather advanced for its time and as a place that values ability and contribution rather than the colour of one’s skin.

Thanks to Melfi’s direction, Hidden Figures has a fun, lively energy to it that is as entertaining as it is uplifting. There are serious scenes of drama but also plenty of comedic moments and tense, thrilling space sequences. It’s a sign of great storytelling when you can be completely engrossed in the story even though you know how things will turn out.

The three leads deliver wonderful performances, and to be honest I wouldn’t have had a problem had all three earned Oscar nominations. Spencer did have the more lively personality of the three and got more of a chance to strut her stuff, which is probably why she was the only one to get the nod in the end.

The rest of the supporting cast is also really good, in particular Kevin Costner as the likable Harrison. Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst, and Mahershala Ali (nominated for Moonlight) round off what is a fantastic cast that absolutely deserved the Outstanding Performance by a Cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

To me, Hidden Figures is like last year’s Bridge of Spies or The Imitation Game from the year before — it’s  based on a very important, inspirational, little-known true story; it’s driven by wonderful performances; and the direction and storytelling are top-notch. While I don’t think it’s quite as good as the aforementioned two, I do think Hidden Figures is definitely one of the best films of the year and certainly one of the most enjoyable and crowd-pleasing.

4.5 stars out of 5