Category Archives: Rating: 5 stars

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

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

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!

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

Arrival (2016)

At last! I finally got to see Arrival, the sci-fi movie directed by Prisoners and Sicario (and soon Blade Runner 2049) filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. Of all the Best Picture nominees at the Oscars this year, Arrival was hands down the one I wanted to see above all others. Villeneuve is a master at creating atmosphere, tension, and stunning visuals, and I couldn’t wait to see what he could do with a film based on an award-winning science fiction story.

With expectations that high, I almost anticipated disappointment as I walked into the darkened cinema today. I intentionally avoided most of the trailers and all reviews so nothing will be spoiled, though I did hear a throwaway line in a podcast that revealed a little too much for my liking. Still, I felt like I knew little enough to make the experience fresh and unencumbered.

When I walked out of Arrival, I was speechless. I didn’t say anything more than a couple of words for quite a long time. My mind just couldn’t stop spinning and thinking about what I had watched and what it all meant. It’s 116 minutes long but I felt like I could watch another 116 minutes of it. I have no doubt I will be thinking about the film for days and I can’t wait to watch it again. It’s a thinking-person’s sci-fi movie—my favourite kind.

The plot is very simple. Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a top linguist who is contacted by the US government when mysterious alien crafts suddenly appear around the world with no apparent agenda. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) plays physicist Ian Connelly, while Forest Whitaker plays an US Army colonel. The film takes quite a realistic approach to what would happen in the event of an alien arrival event, providing its own subtle takes on government relations, societal reactions, religious beliefs and individual emotions.

The film is absolutely stunning to look at. I was very excited about the visuals of this movie after seeing Sicario, and though Arrival has a different cinematographer (Bradford Young, who was the DP for Selma; Roger Deakins was the DP for Sicario), the look is nonetheless beautiful. I’m not talking about just the special effects, which are seamless, but the landscapes and Villeneuve’s use of camera angles and focus. I’m very surprised the film was not nominated for Best Cinematography.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that Arrival is some kind of alien invasion blockbuster. It’s a much more contemplative film where the pace is very measured. There was a section of the movie after the initial contact that felt a little slow and had me worried about where the narrative was heading, but fortunately, it soon got out of that rut and dragged me into its world. Before long, Arrival developed one of the most immersive film experiences I’ve had in years. I became completely lost in its story, characters and intrigue. There are so many fascinating little revelations and twists and turns — not all of them are shocking or unpredictable, but even the ones I could see coming nonetheless sent chills through my body.

The performances are, as expected, wonderful. Amy Adams should have been nominated for her portrayal, which carried the film from start to finish and was full of raw, nuanced emotion. Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, and Michael Stuhlbarg are all solid in supporting roles. I imagine much of the acting from Adams and Renner came in front of green screens, which only makes their performances more remarkable.

The closest film I can compare Arrival to is the 1997 classic Contact, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Jodie Foster. Both are very personal sci-fi films that are fantastic at creating intrigue — they show enough to whet the appetite and satisfy your curiosity, but not too much so that the sense of mystery remains in tact. Both films are also very philosophical and emotional. I like how they don’t explain everything and leave the audience with unanswered questions and room for open-ended interpretations.

In the end, Arrival turned out to be every bit as good as I hoped it would be, albeit via an experience that was very different to what I had expected. It’s fascinating, thought-provoking, and ultimately very moving and heartbreaking. It is definitely one of movies on my list of favourite films of 2016 — the only question is whether it’s at the very top.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: The film isn’t perfect though. Apart from that slow patch I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t a fan of the Chinese general character played by veteran Asian actor Tzi Ma. The big blunder the film makes is that the head of the People’s Liberation Army should actually also be the President of China (and also the General Secretary of the Communist Party). Also, as hard as Amy Adams tried, her Mandarin pronunciation was poor,

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

I thought Tom Ford only made suits? Well, it seems the fashion icon can make a wicked movie too. Nocturnal Animals, Ford’s second film after 2009’s A Single Man, is a damn masterpiece of a thriller.

With an intriguing storytelling structure that features a story within a story and well-timed flashbacks, Nocturnal Animals revolves around the character Susan Morrow (played by Amy Adams), an art gallery owner who receives a novel manuscript dedicated to her entitled “Nocturnal Animals” from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Susan seemingly has the perfect life, living in a luxury mansion in LA, mixing with the sophisticated crowd and married to the dashing Hutton (Armie Hammer), and yet she feels rather empty. When she reads the manuscript, we are transported into the world of the novel, in which Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Aussie Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber) are on a road trip through Texas when they encounter a group of troublemakers led by Ray Marcus (played by an unrecognisable Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

The film thus jumps back and forth between the real world and the fictional world, and as Susan begins to ponder the imagery and parallels in the manuscript — as well as Edward’s intentions in sending the novel to her — she also begins to have flashbacks that reveal why their marriage collapsed in the first place. It’s a rather complex narrative structure that somehow works thanks to Ford’s brilliant script and storytelling. What I found most amazing about it is that the impact of the story in the fictional world was never muted or lessened by the fact that we know it’s just a novel. To the contrary, it almost felt more real than the real world, which had a hollow, surreal edge to it.

In any case, Nocturnal Animals is a fantastically controlled piece of cinema. You could tell Ford knew exactly what he wanted and what he was doing, from the portrayal of the characters to the costumes to the beautiful cinematography of the Texan landscape and the parallel images in the two worlds. The tension in the fictional world is incredibly crafted and is one of the most harrowing and devastating cinematic ordeals I’ve ever sat through. It was an absolute gut punch that had me wondering what I would do in the same situation and has been haunting me even days after watching the movie.

Much of the credit should go to Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s performance as Ray Marcus. To be honest, I couldn’t even tell it was him until nearly the very end of the film. From Kick-Ass to Savages to Godzilla to Avengers: Age of Ultron to now, he has proven himself to be one of the best chameleons of this generation, and it’s a travesty he was overlooked for Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (though he did win a Golden Globe). Instead, the only Academy Award nomination Nocturnal Animals garnered was for Michael Shannon, who plays a detective in the fictional world. Yes, he’s very good in it, but I don’t think Shannon was any more deserving of a nomination than Adams or Gyllenhaal, both of whom delivered excellent and nuanced performances.

Kick-Ass (2010)
Savages (2012)
Godzilla (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Nocturnal Animals

There are 9 films nominated for Best Picture this year (out of a possible 10), and I think it’s a shame Nocturnal Animals isn’t part of that list. Apart from a narrative that expertly weaves multilayered stories together, edge-of-your-seat tension, and having a distinct visual flair and powerful performances, I also love how the film leaves a lot of room for interpretation all the way through to the end, which really makes you think about everything you’ve watched and what it could mean. It could have been so easy for Nocturnal Animals to fall into pretentious arty-farty territory, but what we ended up with instead was undoubtedly  one of the best films of the year.

5 stars out of 5

La La Land (2016)

Of all the movie genres out there, I would say the musical is probably my least favourite, followed by romance. There’s just something about suddenly breaking into song and dance that takes me out of a film, and most romance flicks are done so poorly that they make me cringe with embarrassment. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part I try to avoid them. La La Land, the eagerly anticipated follow-up to director Damien Chapelle’s Whiplash, has received a lot of acclaim, and yet I still did not know what to expect because it is both a musical and a romance.

Well, I finally got around to watching it at the cinema today, and all I can say is, “Wow”. I don’t think I have ever watched a movie knowing it has received good reviews and then having it exceed my expectations this much. 

The premise is actually quite simple: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone play a jazz pianist and an aspiring actress, respectively, who come to Los Angeles to pursue their dreams.  That’s pretty much all you need to know, but it is a romance after all. so you know they are going to meet and fall in love. However, it is the way that this is portrayed that makes the film so engrossing. We already know that Gosling and Stone have excellent chemistry from Crazy, Stupid, Love, and here they elevated to a whole other level. There is just something really organic about their interactions, which never feel forced or contrived. It also helps that they are both well-developed and likable characters you want to root for. 

The first half of the film is sweet, dreamy and full of energy, just like the characters pursuing their dreams and falling in love. The second half is darker and more serious as it deals with the practical realities of their lives and careers. I don’t recall a movie in recent memory that got me genuinely smiling (not because of a joke, but because of how joyful it is) and then genuinely on the verge of tears. It’s one of nose rare bittersweet films that sucked me in right from the beginning, warmed my heart, then damn near broke it. I can’t imagine how people who are have really gone to LA to pursue their dreams feel when they watch this movie. As I said, I usually don’t like romance films because they’re so poorly made. La La Land, on the other hand, nails it perfectly.

The other thing I was afraid of, the singing and dancing, surprisingly did not bother me. Part of it is because the songs are so fantastic and catchy, and part of it because the lyrics fit the emotions of the narrative so well. And part of it is because the amazing choreography and the way it was shot is so flawless. I was sold from the opening  sequence that really set the tone for the rest of the film. I had always felt that musicals would be better confined to stage plays, but the incredible long takes and creative camera angles, as well as the way Chazelle blends them in with the stunning cinematography, makes La La Land an experience built for the big screen.

Full credit must go to Gosling and stone for their performances, both of which deserve Oscar nominations if not wins. They play off each other seamlessly, from the silly banter to the serious conversations to the cute duets and dance numbers. It was almost a little annoying to see such highly attractive and fit people be able to sing and dance this well. And who the heck knew that Gosling was such a good piano player?

Chazelle has also made himself a favorite for Best Director and Best Screenplay by proving that Whiplash was no fluke. La La Land is so different from Whiplash, and yet both films exude the same type of self-assured confidence and controlled pacing. I can’t wait to see what Chazelle comes up with next. 

I’ve heard some people call La La Land a love letter to Los Angeles, and I guess you could construe it that way. I just think it’s a brilliant, funny, sweet, heart-felt movie from start to finish. There were a couple of decisions I perceive as minor missteps, though on the whole, there’s really nothing to dampen how I feel about the movie. Perhaps it’s just the dreamer in me talking, but I just can’t believe how much I love it.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: I literally walked out of the cinema after watching La La land to discover that it had won a record seven awards at the Golden Globes with a clean sweep. I’m not usually one for hyperboles, but it’s well-deserved. I still have a few films left to watch that could potentially knock it off its perch, but as of now, La La Land is the best 2016 release I’ve seen.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

10cl_poster

There are some movies that are remembered to be better than they really are. The 2008 Matt Reeves film, Cloverfield, is one such movie. The found-footage alien-monster horror flick has a solid reputation today, but in my opinion it is vastly overrated. The shaky-cam literally made scores of people vomit (and brought me perilously close to it), while the characters were annoying and the dialogue insipid. Yeah, it was an innovative idea for its time, had a cool marketing campaign with a memorable poster (the one with the Statue of Liberty missing its head) and a well-designed monster at the end, but we had to endure 80 minutes of filler before a brief glimpse of it at the very end.

Still, Cloverfield earned its reputation and became a recognisable brand, which is why, eight years later, we got 10 Cloverfied Lane, a little side project described as a “blood relative” and also produced by JJ Abrams. Like the film it got its name from, 10 Cloverfield Lane was made on a super low budget (US$15 million, compared to US$25 million for Cloverfield) and got a fantastic marketing campaign. No one even knew the film existed until the start of this year, and even after the trailer was released people still didn’t know what it was about or what to make of it. In other words, huge success, because the less you know about this movie the better.

I saw it after having managed to avoid all spoilers (I only saw the moronic super-spoiler international poster later) and was absolutely blown away by the film. Simply put, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the best movie I’ve seen on the big screen thus far in 2016. It’s clever, incredibly tense and full of twists and turns. It’s one of those films where you don’t really know where it is heading, which makes it an absolute rarity in today’s cinematic landscape.

The premise is simple. A young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a mysterious location after an accident. There are two other people there — a middle-aged man (John Goodman) and a young man (John Gallagher Jr — ie, Jim from The Newsroom). She’s being told there’s a reason why she’s there, but she doesn’t know if it’s true. She’s not sure what to believe and who to trust. And it’s all a matter of life and death.

I feel like I’ve already revealed too much, but all of this is in the trailer. As I said, the less the better. The screenplay by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle is something every wannabe screenwriter ought to aspire to. It’s (relatively) cheap to make, it has only a handful of characters, and most of the story takes place in one place. And yet, it is one of the most suspenseful movies I’ve seen in a while. There is so much tension in the dialogue, the actions of the characters, and even the silences; the growing sense of dread, the paranoia, the claustrophobia from the confined spaces. And it’s not like the film is dead serious all the time — there are lighter moments that bring some welcome relief and remind you to breathe. All of it is crafted so well, with a kick-ass musical score to boot, and executed to near-perfection by director Dan Trachtenberg in his feature debut.

I love how, like Michelle, you don’t know who or what to believe, and that what you believe could keep changing, sometimes in an instant. I had my suspicions throughout the film, but I could never be sure and kept second-guessing myself. I knew the title of the film would lead to certain insinuations, though at the same time I wondered if it was merely a red herring. And after being gripped by the story for more than an hour, the climatic payoff was, at least in my opinion, worth the wait. It might not be what some people are hoping for, but I enjoyed how bold it was and how certain it was of its vision.

The performances are outstanding — all three of the leads shape their characters the way they need to be. John Goodman, in particular, is ridiculous, and I’m sure some nominations (for whatever awards) are going to be coming his way. I’ve been watching him in movies for decades and I never knew he could be this good in a non-comedy role.

Of course, this is still a small film for which expectations need to be kept in check. You’re not going to be getting loads of action or special effects, and to make the story work there are certain contrivances and deliberate tactics that might not be entirely realistic. Having said that, 10 Cloverfield Lane is still intelligent, thrilling, horrifying and fun — it’s the type of film cinemagoers should relish because they don’t come around very often. In a year where we’re getting more than half a dozen big superhero movies, several major epics/blockbusters and another Star Wars film, it’s great to be able to see a little gem like this come out of nowhere and remind us that great movies can come in all shapes and sizes.

5 stars out of 5

The Revenant (2015)

revenant-leo

I wasn’t as big of a fan of Birdman, last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner, as most other people, as sublime an example of filmmaking as it is. Nor was I rooting for its director, Alejandro G Iñárritu, to win Best Director, not because he wasn’t deserving, but because I was rooting for Boyhood‘s Richard Linklater. This year, however, with just a couple of weeks before the Oscars, I’m seriously leaning towards rooting for both the director and his movie, The Revenant, without a doubt one of the most remarkably executed, jaw-droppingly beautiful and suffocatingly intense films of the year.

The film is loosely based on the story of 1820s frontiersman Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who was among a group of military hunters attacked by Native Americans in the wilderness. There is another major event that happens after this which I’m not going to share for the sake of those who haven’t seen the trailer. Yes, it’s in the trailer, but I was one of those people who saw the trailer after the movie and thought it gave away too much, spoiling a lot of big plot points.

Anyway, The Revenant is as harrowing of a movie experience as you can imagine. Centred around themes of survival, revenge and redemption, the film is highlighted by its brutal, visceral violence, juxtaposed against the harsh and unforgiving, but undeniably majestic beauty of the Lousiana Purchase landscape.

I was blown away. Part of it is Iñárritu’s spectacular visual style, filled with long takes and sweeping, constantly moving shots. The scenes are so fluid, so perfectly choreographed, the camera angles so unique — it’s the type of thing I thought was only possible in animation or video games, never in live-action feature films. I’m sure there are plenty of special effects, but it’s all done so seamlessly that the visual experience comes across as terrifyingly real. With the possible exception of his friend and fellow Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, I don’t think anyone else could have done it with as much flair as Iñárritu.

Despite a 156-minute running time, which may be too long for some, there is never a dull moment. The film is always moving along, the story always progressing. As a fetishist for watching personal hardships in the wild (one of my favourite movies is Into the Wild, and I also really liked Reese Witherspoon’s Wild from a year ago), I loved the torturous solitary survival scenes. I don’t exactly know why — maybe it’s the man vs wild dynamic or the exhilaration from seeing the ultimate will to survive, or perhaps I just have problems.

The quieter moments have the effect of amping up the several major action set pieces in the film, which are among the most amazing I’ve seen this year alongside Mad Max: Fury Road. Everything is presumably choreographed but looks and feels raw and realistic, making the experience so much more tense than the modern CGI-dominated superhero action we’re accustomed to these days.

I read about the horror stories in making this film, how nearly everything was shot in natural light, an astounding feat in itself. I’m sure it was as freezing as it looked on screen, and Leo, who just picked up the Golden Globe for Best Actor, absolutely deserves his first Oscar for his portrayal of Glass. With not much dialogue to deliver, it’s a much more subtle performance than what he delivered in The Wolf of Wall Street, but boy did he go through hell to get the job done. His dedication and professionalism notwithstanding the success he has already achieved is impressive.

Likewise, kudos to the rest of the super cast, which includes Tom Hardy, Will Poulter and Domnhall Gleeson. Hardy, in particular, gives a marvellous performance that’s much more nuanced than it would have been in lesser hands, and I’m pretty certain an Oscar nomination is heading his way (though I’d still say Mark Rylance from Bridge of Spies is the favourite.

If there is something to nitpick, it would probably be that it is sometimes a little difficult to decipher what some of the characters are saying because of the way they spoke back then, coupled with the mumbling and the twang. That said, this is the type of film you can watch and figure out without understanding a single word of the dialogue.

When all the elements are put together, it’s hard for me to deny that The Revenant is anything but a modern masterpiece. The combination of Iñárritu’s visual style, strong script and masterful pacing, combined with the simple yet intense plot and fabulous performances, results in a unique journey that ranks right at the top of my 2015 cinematic experiences.

5 stars out of 5!

Bridge of Spies (2015)

bridge of spies

Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies is to me this year’s version of The Imitation Game. I went into it anticipating a good wartime drama with strong performances, but never did I expect a home run that would definitely end up on my top 10 list for the year.

That’s how much I loved Bridge of Spies, a true story set in the paranoid Cold War era about a lawyer “chosen” by the US government to defend a suspected Russian spy. The lawyer is James Donovan (Tom Hanks) and the spy is Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), and I’m willing to bet now that both will be nominated for Academy Awards next year, with Rylance taking home the prize for Best Supporting Actor.

Award-worthy performances aside, Bridge of Spies is fantastic in every other way, a truly intriguing and fascinating story about a heroic man whose pivotal role in history has been largely forgotten. I don’t want to give away too much for those not familiar with Donovan, because one of the best things about this film for me was the experience of going on this strange and thrilling adventure with him.

Spielberg is the greatest cinematic storyteller in the world, and he proves it once again by making a deeply moving and inspirational film that can resonate with and be enjoyed by everyone.

To be honest, I was initially not that hyped to see the movie. Political intrigue, courtroom drama, Tom Hanks doing his usual thing, etc — it just didn’t seem that exciting to me. I thought it would be like another Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy with the slow sensibilities of Spielberg’s previous film, Lincoln, meaning I would probably need a strong coffee beforehand to stay awake through the 141-minute running time.

Instead, Spielberg has crafted a surprisingly accessible film, one that perfectly captures the tit-for-tat and absurd posturing of the Cold War period while educating those less informed in a simple and non-condescending manner. And for those thinking it might be a contemplative (ie, boring) drama, think again, because something interesting is always happening on screen; the film is constantly moving along at just the right pace and neither feels rushed nor slow. It is rare for such a long film to feel like it’s the exact length it should be.

Credit must also go to screenwriters Matt Charman and my favourites, the Coen brothers, who somehow manage to tie together the various strands of the seemingly complex historical storyline with minimal confusion but without dumbing it down too much for more sophisticated audiences.

Contrary to what I thought it would be (judging from the title, poster, etc), Bridge of Spies is not a slick thriller full of twists and turns and clever dialogue. It was never aiming to be such a film. Rather, it is surprisingly funny, with that devilishly dark Coen brothers style I think is the most hilarious thing in the world. It is driven by well-developed characters, with even the minor ones leaving lasting impressions because of the way they’ve been written and/or the memorable performances. The tone is also masterfully controlled, light when it needs to be, heavy when it should be, and subtly “f@&@ yeah!” when it has to be done.

When it’s all said and done, Bridge of Spies isn’t going to be remembered as fondly as say Schindler’s List or even Saying Private Ryan, though it certainly belongs in the conversation of the top movies of 2015. I think it’s Spielberg’s best-directed film since 2002’s Minority Report.

5 stars out of 5!