Category Archives: Genre: Drama

Dunkirk (2017) (IMAX)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5 stars out of 5

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

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

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

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

And I was blown away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 stars out of 5

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!

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

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,

Swiss Army Man (2016)

Swiss Army Man is undoubtedly the wackiest movie I’ve seen in years. I have no doubt it will end up on some people’s “Best Of” lists and others’ “Worst Of” lists. You either get it or you don’t.

The film is about a depressed, suicidal man named Hank (Paul Dano) who befriends a very farty corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) on a desert island. The corpse turns out to be extremely useful in a variety of situations throughout Hank’s efforts to return to civilization (hence the title, a nod to the utility of the Swiss army knife). Yes, the movie is as weird as it sounds.

It’s very obvious from the first fart that Swiss Army Man is not your typical movie. There are plenty of outrageous and farcical situations all throughout that will invoke as much laughter as feelings or being weirded out. It’s not afraid of being rude and crude and disgusting, and kudos to both Dano and especially Harry Potter for fully embracing the absurdity. It’s totally out there, and you can either go along for the ride or scoff at the stupidity of it all.

And yet, the film is laced with a strange sense of melancholy and poignancy. If you dig deeper than the artificial layers on top, you’ll find that the film actually says a lot about loneliness and depression, and sends a strong message about living life to the fullest and not being afraid to put yourself out there–before it’s too late.

As for me, I liked Swiss Army Man, to an extent. I enjoyed how original and wacky it was, and I definitely laughed out loud way more than I thought I would at the relentless jokes, many of which were actually on the low-brow end. I also developed an entirely new appreciation for the talents of Daniel Radcliffe, who played the best corpse since Weekend at Bernie’s (though another film I recently watched, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, sure has a performance that gives him a run for his money). On the other hand, I don’t think the film, even at just 97 minutes, had enough material to sustain the running time. There were moments where I felt the gimmick was wearing thin and lost a bit of interest, though I have to say the ending was brilliant and redeemed some of my misgivings. Definitely worth checking out, but be prepared for what you are getting yourself into.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: It’s a real shame hardly anyone saw the film, which made less than US$5m on a US$3m budget.

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

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