Category Archives: Genre: Action

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

I never thought much of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, to be honest. The first one was OK, I suppose, but I’ve actually dozed off in all of them (including the first one) — until now. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales probably should not have been made, but I’m surprisingly glad they did. Somehow, some way, Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg gave this fifth installment of a stale franchise a shot of unexpected vitality.

Set years after the previous installment, On Stranger Tides, the story of Dead Men Tell No Tales follows Henry Turner, the son of Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Kiera Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan, as he tries to track down Captain Jack Sparrow. Of course, this sparks a new adventure that feels like a bit of a reboot of sorts, though at the same time there are a lot of old faces and names that keep popping up. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know who some of them are. Personally, I thought they should have been kept out of the trailers because they could have been pleasant surprises.

Anyway, it’s another swashbuckling adventure with plenty of action on the high seas, supernatural powers and magical objects, and of course, Jack Sparrow being Jack Sparrow. Like everyone else, I thought Sparrow was hilarious in Curse of the Black Pearl, the first film, but with each subsequent entry I found him more and more annoying and unfunny. Upon Sparrow’s first scene in this film I was already growing wary as it seemed like the same old schtick was being trotted out again, but fortunately, as the film progressed, the directors didn’t overplay his quirks and utilised the other pirates in Sparrow’s crew to share the comedic burden. Depp, for his part, also seemed to have reined in his performance a little, which made him feel less overbearing. Either that or perhaps I had just not seen the character for such a long time that he felt fresher.

Aussie Brenton Thwaites continues to get one notable role after another. This time he is Henry Turner, effectively the “new Will Turner character”, while Kaya Scodelario (from Maze Runner fame) plays new heroine Carina Smyth, effectively the “new Elizabeth Swann character”. They’re both pretty good, without taking away the spotlight from Depp.

As with the other installments in the franchise, Dead Men Tell No Tales has a fabulous villain, this time a ghostly Spanish Captain played by the frightening Javier Bardem. I loved the way Bardem looked and moved, with his hair floating as though he were in water and parts of his face cracking and missing. It might be a little scary for children though.

Visually, the film is absolutely stunning, with amazing CGI effects of the ships and seas that look as seamless as ever. Special mention goes to the anti-ageing effects they plastered on Depp’s face for a flashback sequence. It made me nostalgic and a little sad to remember what a fine looking human being Mr. Depp was back in his heyday.

I know the film has been panned by most critics (27% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I actually thought it wasn’t a bad reboot effort and a fun flick overall if looked upon independently from the rest of the franchise. It has a lively vibe, innovative action and even some decent humour littered throughout, although the I suspect the main reason I enjoyed it more than most people is because I practically have no recollection of the first four films with the exception of a couple of scenes and plot points (that’s how unmemorable I found them). As a result, the viewing experience felt rather fresh, and coupled with low expectations, Dead Men Tell No Tales turned out to be quite a fun ride. At least I didn’t doze off this time.

3.5 stars out of 5

Power Rangers (2017)

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

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

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

It’s morphin time!

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

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

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

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

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

2.75 stars out of 5

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 stars out of 5

Logan (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 stars out of 5!

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

Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)

For me, the Underworld franchise is kind of like the Resident Evil film franchise — seemed like a cool idea initially, but with every passing entry I’ve cared less, albeit still enough to check it out just because they’ve gone to the effort of making another one. And it was with this indifference that I stumbled across Underworld: Blood Wars, the latest installment in the adventures of Selene (Kate Beckinsale).

In all honesty, I don’t really know what’s going on in the Underworld movies any more, and I doubt the makers of this movie had any idea either. Does it matter? Not particularly. All that matters is that Kate Beckinsale again dons her tight leather outfit and kicks a lot of ass amid some everlasting feud between vampires and werewolves — sorry, I mean lycans.

Underworld: Blood Wars seems to take a page out of the Game of Thrones handbook. The look of the sets and the new characters have a distinct Thrones feel, as does the convoluted plot full of backstabbing and double-crossing. You do need some knowledge of the previous installments to fully follow what’s going on. That said, even though I have seen the previous films I could not remember anything pertinent. Not that it made much of a difference to the experience.

The nicest things I can say about Underworld: Blood Wars is that it did not suck as bad as I thought it would, and that it’s a much better-made movie than Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.  The action is at least coherent and with a little more creativity, there seems to be some inherent logic in the storyline, and the performances from the cast — Beckinsale, Theo James (from the Divergent series), Tobias Menzies, Lara Pulver, and the great Charles Dance himself — are not embarrassing despite the shoddy lines they have to recite.

On the other hand, it really does feel like more of the same old stuff, without any genuine thrills or excitement. There are only so many ways vampires can fight werewolves. The plot is also full of annoying exposition and convenient inventions — when it needs X to happen for the sake of the plot, it concocts some character or item or special ability to make it happen. It gets tedious after a while.

So there you have it, yet another unnecessary sequel that will unlikely please anyone except the diehard, hardcore fans of the franchise. Underworld: Blood Wars is not pure trash, but there’s just nothing interesting or fresh about it to warrant your precious time.

2.25 stars out of 5

Skiptrace (2016)

It’s hard to believe that Jackie Chan was just awarded with an Oscar for lifetime achievements late last year! In celebration of the man’s career, I decided to watch Skiptrace, an action movie that apparently came out in 2016 but I had no idea even existed.

To be honest, I expected absolutely nothing from this movie. The last couple of Jackie Chan films I watched were all garbage — Dragon Blade, Chinese Zodiac, The Spy Next Door — essentially lame efforts to promote cross-border collaboration for the mainland Chinese film industry. Skiptrace seemed like more of the same, with Chinese actress Fan Bingbing being cast in the lead female role and Johnnie Knoxville as the American buddy sidekick. But you know what? I actually didn’t mind it. It’s definitely one of Jackie’s more watchable movies in recent memory.

The plot is pretty non-existent. Chan plays a Hong Kong cop trying to track down a criminal mastermind called the “Matador”, and somehow he has to track down a conman gambler played by Knoxville who witnessed a murder. Naturally, this takes the two of them on a trip around from Russia to China through Mongolia. Oh, and Fan Bingbing plays his goddaughter and the damsel in distress.

It’s a fairly typical Jackie Chan script, with the usual cringeworthy plot points, dialogue, jokes, and Asian actors forced to speak uncomfortable English. I’m actually quite sure some of Fan Bingbing’s lines were dubbed, or at least recorded later. Like many of his previous movies, Skiptrace felt like a tourism commercial, this time for Mongolia and parts of scenic China.

Having said that, I was surprised by the chemistry between Chan and Knoxville, who gets thrown around an awful lot (his forte, I suppose). Chan also seems to have a bit more of a spring in his step despite having hit the age of 62 and is involved in more action and stunts than in his prior films of the last few years. The action sequences and fights in general are just more creative and better choreographed too.

These positives don’t quite make up for the cringe moments and the bad Jackie Chan movie trademarks (such as always having a woman young enough to be his daughter as his love interest), though on the whole, Skiptrace turned out to be a surprisingly entertaining movie. Perhaps five-time Golden Raspberry Award nominee for Worst Director, Renny Harlin, somehow managed to turn back the clock to work his magic this time.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Accountant (2016)

Ever wondered what the Bourne movies would have been like had they cast Ben Affleck instead of Matt Damon? Well, The Accountant is probably about as close as you’re gonna get.

Directed by the acclaimed director of Warrior, Gavin O’Connor, The Accountant stars Affleck as a highly functional autistic mathematics genius named Christian, who makes a living uncooking the books of some of the most dangerous criminals in the world.

Christian’s world is turned upside down when he ends up working on a new case for a company run by John Lithgow, and finds himself in mortal danger along with the young company employee who found a discrepancy in the company’s books (Anna Kendrick). Pursuing him is Oscar-winner JK Simmons, playing a Treasury agent, with the assistance of a junior data analyst (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), as well as a hitman played by Jon Bernthal.

One important fact I forgot to mention in the above synopsis is that Christian is also a Jason Bourne/John Wick-type ass-kicker who is incredible with a sniper rifle and deadly in hand-to-hand combat. Don’t freak out — there is an explanation for this, but it sure does elevate the threshold for suspension for disbelief.

And that’s the really just one of the many problems of The Accountant — it takes itself a little too seriously for a premise you’re more likely to see in a comic book movie. There are moments of humour and levity, but for the most part O’Connor keeps the film as a straight action-thriller, and as a result there’s a bit of a disconnect. This is particularly so as the film moves into the final act and there are a few plot twists and reveals — the first  is telegraphed from very early on and not a surprise at all, and the second, which comes at the very end, is pretty ridiculous.

My other main problem with it is the casting of Anna Kendrick, who could not be a worse match for Ben Affleck. The two just look so wrong together on screen, and even decent performances from both can’t make the chemistry work. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Affleck’s acting, though here he is good enough because he simply needs to be expressionless or dopey-looking the majority of the time. I do have to say that he executes the action sequences flawlessly (maybe it’s the Batman training) and makes you believe that he really has all those moves.

Weirdly, not withstanding all the flaws, I actually really enjoyed The Accountant. I thought the premise and concept were intriguing and the plot itself compelling enough to keep my interest. The action scenes were also extremely well done, nearly on par with what you might see in a Bourne film. I just had to take a step back and treat it as more or less a superhero movie — not of the fantastical Thor or Iron Man nature but more grounded, like say Netflix’s Daredevil or Luke Cage — and I soon found it highly watchable and entertaining. Go in with reasonable expectations and you might too.

3.75 stars out of 5

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but even after watching Kubo and the Two Strings, I had no idea it was a stop-motion animation movie. It was only when I saw a short featurette of the movie on YouTube a week later that my mind was blown. They did all that? I guess you could say it’s a testament to the incredible hard work and dedication of stop-motion animators and filmmakers, or if you want to be cruel, that it’s a waste of time because technology has advanced to the point where computer animation is basically indistinguishable.

Anyway, Kubo has been hailed as one of the best animated motion pictures of the year for being original, visually spectacular and funny. I decided to go see it because my son started begging me to take him after he saw a trailer with a giant monster and a sword. As I’ve repeated ad nauseam, animated flicks are usually not my thing, and with that in mind, I have to say Kubo was a slight disappointment for me solely because of the high expectations.

Though it’s produced by American stop-motion animation company Laika, Kubo is set in ancient Japan and tells the story of the eponymous boy who lives in a seaside cave with his ill mother. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) can play this musical instrument called a shamisen (literally “three strings”), which can magically bring origami to life. He uses this skill to tell stories in the village to make ends meet. Of course, something dramatic happens to spark Kubo’s quest out into the world to find three magical items, with a talking Monkey (voiced by Charlize Theron) and giant Beetle (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) by his side. In his way are his two aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara) and the evil Moon King (who else but Ralph Fiennes?).

It’s an adventure film filled samurai sword action, cool monsters and family drama. I suppose in contrast to all the animation sequels we tend to get these days, it’s fair to call Kubo original. But for someone who grew up on anime and manga like me, the story is par for the course.

My main problem with the film, however, is that it didn’t make a whole lot of sense from a narrative or logic perspective. Yes, fables don’t always necessarily make perfect sense, though for me the contrivances of the plot took me out of the film a little bit. The humour was fine, but I didn’t laugh that much, and the twists were quite easy to predict too, so I never found myself really impressed by the film apart from the visuals.

I sound more negative than I intend to be, because I actually thought Kubo was very good. The animation is seamless and the details in both the characters and the sets are absolutely incredible. Watching the featurette certainly improved my appreciation of what a tedious and momentous task such films are to make. I’m merely saying that I was not as blown away by the film as many others were (97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 84% on Metacritic).

My two sons had different reactions to the movie. My elder son (4.5 years old at the time) loved it, especially the creatures, while my younger son (3 years at the time) found some the scenes frightening. Indeed, some of the characters had scary designs and the darker moments were quite eerie, so parents should keep that in mind when deciding whether or not to show it to younger children.

Ultimately, Kubo and the Two Strings is still worth watching simply for the amazing stop-motion visuals and the refreshing concept. Those who enjoy samurai swords and quest adventures should also find it enjoyable because the action sequences are well choreographed and the creature designs look really cool. But as with all films, keep expectations in check, or you might reach the same conclusions about it as I did: Not a disappointment as a film but disappointing relative to high expectations.

3.5 stars out of 5

Deepwater Horizon (2016)

I finally got around to watching Deepwater Horizon, hailed by many as one of the biggest “pleasant surprises” of 2016. I intentionally avoided the trailer and the poster looked fairly generic, so I wasn’t really sure of what to expect. I had seen Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg collaborate on Lone Survivor, which was pretty decent, and I heard their next project, Patriots Day, is a real winner. Incidentally, all three movies are based on true stories.

Anyway, while I knew Deepwater Horizon was about the 2010 explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I had expected the movie to be an action flick where Marky Mark springs into action to save the day. I couldn’t have been more wrong. What I got instead was a pure disaster movie with incredible tension and spectacular visuals, while at the same time remaining respectful to those who sadly lost their lives in the tragedy. There are heroic elements, but the characters are not painted as heroes, merely victims.

The film begins as you would expect a film of this kind to begin, introducing us to the key characters and their normal lives. There is a bit of a lead-up to the beginning of the disaster itself, though it never comes across as time filler. The ominous vibe is handled really well, and even though you know what’s about to happen there is still a sense of unease and dread.

And when it finally hits — wow. I have not been so afraid of fire since watching Backdraft as a kid — which incidentally also starred Kurt Russell. In fact, Deepwater Horizon actually reminds me a lot of Backdraft, from the sense of danger to the deft explanations of the technical aspects of the science. Not that you need to know how oil rigs work to enjoy the movie, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

I’m sure Berg took a lot of liberties in the telling of the story, but it felt real, looked real, and sounded real. The visuals and sound are both very important because there are so many explosions and fires, and for the most part, the special effects are seamless. You feel the force of it all, without ever feeling like it’s just CGI.

Sure, there is not much time for character development. That said, you do get a sense of who each character is, though I’m not sure if that’s good writing/directing or just because there are so many recognisable faces. You’ve got Marky Mark and Kurt Russell, of course, as members of the rig team. Kate Hudson plays Marky Mark’s wife, while John Malkovich, as you would expect, plays a dickish BP executive. Gina Rodriguez plays a rig navigation office, and Dylan O’Brien (the lead from the Maze Runner franchise) is member of the drilling team.

In all, Deepwater Horizon is deserving of its “highly underrated” status. Accuracy aside, it’s a shame the film didn’t even make back its budget because it is definitely one of the more spectacular movies of 2016. It’s very hard to pull off a serious disaster movie that is not only gripping but has a bit of heart as well. Berg manages to do it without ever making the film feel exploitative. Definitely worth catching this one if you haven’t already.

4 stars out of 5