Tag Archives: JJ Abrams

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

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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

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

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First of all, you’re not going to get any spoilers here. Not even any mention of the plot. Zero. Nada. And you know my threshold for spoilers is extremely low, so don’t worry. Disney and Lucasfilm and the entire internet in general have all done a commendable job of keeping the show under wraps, and it’s because of their resilience that I enjoyed the film as much as I did. Seriously, avoid spoilers at all costs because — despite the rampant speculation across the internet — there are some surprises to be found. I actually wish now that I had skipped the relatively spoiler-free trailers.

Secondly, if there is only one piece of advice I could give to would be viewers, it would be to keep your expectations in check. I know it’s hard, considering it’s probably the most anticipated movie of all time. Some people have been waiting for the movie for years, if not decades, and the buzz surrounding it all from the second the film was announced has been out of this galaxy. But just remember that it’s still just a two-hour movie (135 minutes to be exact) and that there is no human, droid or Wookie who can make a film that lives up to the hype. Even I, more a fan of the idea of Star Wars than Star Wars itself, got swept up in the drama and had a dream last night where I arrived at the cinema only to discover that all tickets for the morning session I intended to see had been sold out (I woke up in the morning and pre-booked online immediately).

Now that I’ve gotten the formalities out of the way, it’s time for my spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens. All things considered, the film is a major triumph, a near-perfect blend of space opera and fantasy, fighter jet and lightsaber action, practical and CGI effects, mythology and nostalgia, old and new faces, drama and humour. Provided expectations are reasonable, the film will please everyone from newcomers to hardcore fans alike.

The film begins like all Star Wars movies and will surely give fans chills and goosebumps when the opening scrawl appears on the big screen. The story itself is simple to follow, with just enough exposition to allow those less familiar with the history of the franchise (like my wife) to keep up, without feeling like we’re getting a rehash of previous events.

This already gives The Force Awakens a distinct advantage over the three disappointing Star Wars prequels. JJ Abrams has clearly learned from George Lucas’s mistakes and gone back to the roots of the franchise. He said himself that he was trying to recapture the magic of the first film that entranced him when he was just a child.

Accordingly, there was — as many of you will already know — a special emphasis on costumes and practical effects, with the CGI kept to a minimum where possible. The difference in the visual experience is profound, giving the film that tangible look and feel that has been missing from most major blockbusters in recent years.

What really elevates The Force Awakens to the level of the original films, however, is the characters. Kudos to Abrams for creating and putting a lot of effort into developing the three new-generation leads: Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn) and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren). All of them are kick-ass characters who have already exhibited more depth than Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala put together in the three prequels. I was originally worried that casting a female/black lead may come across as trying too hard, or that Kylo Ren would just be a carbon copy of Darth Vader — but boy was I wrong on all counts. All will be household names soon enough and they deserve to be.

Special mention also goes to the new CGI characters played by the king of motion capture, Andy Serkis, as well as Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. Fans will already know who they play, but if you didn’t know they are in it you probably wouldn’t be able to figure out which characters they play. That’s one of the things I loved about the movie — it’s not about the name of the star but the character they play that stands out.

As awesome as the new characters are and as much freshness as they inject into the franchise, the movie just wouldn’t have been the same without the members of the original cast. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know who they are, and you can tell all of them are happy to be back. Far from just being there to infuse a healthy dose of nostalgia, these beloved characters are pivotal to the story and serve important purposes without stealing anyone’s thunder. The balance and blend of new and old must not have been easy to get right, but JJ got it as close as you could hope for.

As for the action, for my money it was at least on par with the original trilogy. Thanks to modern technology, the spacecraft sequences are sensational and make use of innovative angles and maneuvers. The prequel trilogy may have had better lightsaber duels, but they don’t mean much when the emotional connection isn’t there. In The Force Awakens, the duels actually feel like they mean something, and as a result they come across as much more powerful and impactful.

Having said all that, The Force Awakens isn’t without flaws. Not all the dialogue and humour worked all the time, and there were a couple of occasions where time appears to be stretched or condensed to fit the narrative. Apart from Kylo Ren, the villains didn’t get as much screen time as I had hoped, in particular Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma and Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux, though I do get the feeling that they are playing the long game with these two and that they will feature more prominently in episodes VIII and IX.

Perhaps the biggest complaint that has leaked out since the worldwide premiere is that The Force Awakens has too many parallels to — without being too specific — some of the previous films in the series. I admit this is true as it is something I noticed myself, though there are enough differences and new ideas for The Force Awakens to be both a sequel and a reboot of sorts — something I believe Abrams was aiming for in the first place.

In all, The Force Awakens delivers. While it didn’t blow my mind, it’s a fun, exciting experience that brings back memories, creates new ones, and sets things up magnificently for what is yet to come. As long as you can accept that it will never live up to your impossible expectations, the film might very well turn out to be one of your best cinematic experiences of the year.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: Episode VIII, scheduled for release in May 2017, will be directed by Rian Johnson, best known for Looper and directing three episodes of Breaking Bad, most notably “Ozymandias”,  arguably the show’s greatest episode. Episode IX will be directed by Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World).

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) (2D)

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I’ve allowed a few weeks for Star Trek Into Darkness to sink in, but my opinion of it remains the same.

It’s a very good film that is extremely entertaining and features excellent action sequences, special effects and a brilliant villain, but it ultimately lacks the wow factor of its predecessor and somehow ends up feeling like a glorified big screen season finale of a TV series.

The 2009 reboot, Star Trek, also directed by JJ Abrams (who will now also take over the Star Wars franchise, yikes) was phenomenal. It was a film non-Trekkies such as myself could enjoy but it also had something for the die hard fans (or so I have been told). Apart from a slightly disappointing villain (not Eric Bana’s fault — more a problem with the character itself), it was a film that had it all — action, drama and romance; and enough space fantasies to make fan boys spray their shorts and casual fans become fan boys.

Four years later, we have the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, which hits the ground running with a spectacular opening sequence featuring the crew of the USS Enterprise headed by captain James T Kirk (Chris Pine) and first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto).

Naturally, Kirk’s maverick decision-making lands him in hot water and at odds with Spock, but then disaster strikes courtesy of a brand new villain played by the man with the best name and arguably best voice in Hollywood, Benedict Cumberbatch. It is then up to the regrouped Enterprise crew to track him down and avenge their losses.

Into Darkness has a lot going for it. The cast, of course, is fantastic. Apart from the aforementioned Pine, Quinto and Cumberbatch, there’s the old gang of John Cho (ie, Harold), Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban (who provides the dry humour), Simon Pegg (who provides the Simon Pegg humour), Anton Yelchin and Bruce Greenwood. Another newcomer is Alice Eve, who provides the obligatory eye candy. All of them have key roles to play and don’t just blend into the background, which is a reflection of Abrams’ mastery of character and character development. At its core, however, the film is still driven by the love/hate/trust/loyalty relationship between Kirk and Spock, which takes another big step forward in this sequel (it’s getting to that bizarre bromance, bizarre sexual tension level). As for Cumberbatch, all I can say is that this dude rocks. He’s terrifying, he arouses sympathy; he’s just an electrifying and magnetic screen presence. I think I love this man.

Given how fantastic Star Trek was as a reboot of a legendary franchise, it was always going to be difficult for the sequel to match it. You have to strike a balance between reintroducing the characters and not rehashing too much; you have to take the action and relationships to new heights; you have to make the faithfuls happy with references to the original series; you have to try and do something different, be it the storyline, the action or even the jokes.

For the most part, Into Darkness achieves all of these. For the Trekkies in particular, there are some special treats, especially if you have stayed away from the trailers and the gossip. As a non-Trekkie, even I had an inkling that some of the revelations in this film were HUGE. It sets things up nicely if they decide to extend the franchise, which they almost definitely will.

I have few complaints. The pace of the film moves so quickly that you rarely have time to stop and think about how illogical or improbable the things happening on screen are, which is a sign of good filmmaking. I was sort of expecting more despair given that the title of the film is, after all, Into Darkness. I thought there would be more “darkness”, more hopelessness for Kirk and the gang to crawl out of, but it wasn’t that bad, all things considered. (Speaking of which, it seems Hollywood has been using the exact same formula for these big action blockbusters for quite some time now. Hero gets defeated — absolutely smashed, really — by a seemingly unstoppable villain. Hero rises from the dead and goes on a journey of recovery. Hero returns and triumphs against all odds. Celebration!)

The more troubling thing for me was that the film, or maybe the script, didn’t feel like it was depicting an extraordinary event too big for the small screen. It’s difficult to describe the feeling, but at times it felt like I was watching an epic season finale on a big screen rather than a blockbuster made especially for the big screen. It’s a strange thing to say considering the scale of the film, the star power and the special effects were all more than sufficient, but that was just the way I felt.

Does that mean Into Darkness is an unworthy sequel? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s one of the better executed sequels in recent years. It didn’t blow me away like the first film, but it still provides 133 minutes of solid entertainment that everyone from old Trekkies, new-Trekkies and non-Trekkies to casual science-fiction and blockbuster fans can thoroughly enjoy.

4 stars out of 5

PS: You don’t need me to tell you again. Ignore the 3D version. Please. I beg you. Don’t waste your time and money.

Movie Review: Super 8 (2011)

I was on a high after last week’s X-Men: First Class so I decided to check out the much-anticipated but somewhat mysterious Super 8, written and directed by JJ Abrams (Star Trek, Cloverfield and the TV shows Lost and Fringe) and produced by Steven Spielberg (no explanation necessary).

If I could sum up the film in one word it would be ‘Wow’.  The trailers of Super 8 show relatively little compared to the spoil-all trailers we tend to get these days, and thank goodness for that.  This is really a film where you should go in with as little knowledge as possible.

So I won’t say much about the plot except that it’s about a bunch of kids making a movie in 1979.  It’s a throwback (and I believe has been referred to as a ‘homage’) to those amazing Spielberg films of the 80s, such as E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  I just loved those films when I was growing up and it’s obvious from Super 8 that Abrams did too.  In the MTV age, they just don’t make movies like this anymore, and it’s a tremendous accomplishment to even attempt to recreate the nostalgia.

Like Spielberg before him, Abrams has created a marvellous motion picture experience with a clever premise, likable, relatable characters, thrilling action, top-notch special effects, awe-inspiring, memorable images, plenty of heart — and most of all — masterful storytelling.  I was hooked from the very first image, which I thought was pure genius.

The likability of the film makes it easy to overlook its shortcomings (and granted, there are a few), but Spielberg’s films weren’t exactly perfect either.  It remains to be seen whether decades from now Super 8 will be remembered in the same vein of those classic Spielberg films.  My guess is probably no, but that doesn’t change the fact that I think it’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year.  I would recommend parents taking their kids to check it out.  It’s the type of film that made me fall in love with movies in the first place.

5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Star Trek (2009)

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Today I took some time out of my busy study schedule to go check out the new Star Trek movie.  Some call it the new JJ Abrams movie.  You know, the one everybody’s talking about.

Just a disclaimer: I’ve never been a Star Trek fan, never seen an episode of the TV show, and only saw one of the films (I can’t even remember which one – perhaps First Contact or Nemesis – and I can’t remember a single thing about it).  Like most normal people though, I have heard of some of the catchphrases and I know of Kirk, Spock (including his ears and hand gesture) and Scotty, but that’s the extent of my Star Trek knowledge.

And so, I went into the movie relatively optimistic but unsure of what to expect.  I came out of the film raving about it.  Honestly, it blew my mind!

The new Star Trek is what has been called a ‘reboot’ (kind of like the new Batman films with Christian Bale) that explores the origins of its two most famous characters, Captain James T Kirk and his pointy-eared Vulcan friend, Spock.  It’s also considered a ‘prequel’ that sets the foundation for a whole new series of films.  With the exception of one person, the film sports an all-new cast that is fresh, young and brimming with vitality.

As per my usual review code of conduct, I won’t give away the plot, and honestly, I don’t even know if I could explain it even if I wanted to.  There’s a fair bit of what I assume is ‘Trekkie’ jargon (but it could also be basic science stuff) that went right over my head and the film didn’t exactly take its time to explain everything in detail.  But it’s not hard to figure out the basic premise of the storyline and what is going on.

In any case, the story, while interesting in its own right, is not the strength of the film.  The strength lies in the way in which director JJ Abrams (the genius that created Alias, Lost and Fringe and produced Cloverfield) has reinvigorated the franchise with freshness, excitement and enthusiasm. You don’t have to be a Trekkie to enjoy this movie.  Star Trek WAS, for the most part, seen as a thing for die-hard fans and sci-fi geeks only.  One of the reasons I never got into it in the first place was because it seemed old and out-dated (despite being set in the future!), and the world it created was so extensive (with so many series, movies and novels) that I couldn’t be bothered making the effort to get to know it.  This film has provided the perfect spark to inject some much-needed life back into the franchise, and because it’s set right at the beginning, newbies to Star Trek (like me) can be eased into its world.

Abrams has inserted his unique directorial style and visual flair to the film.  Fans of his other works can probably spot the best elements of Lost and Fringe somewhere in there.  The new franchise players, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto were knockouts. Pine delivered a scruffy yet charismatic Kirk, brash and arrogant but a born leader, whereas Quinto showed he could be much more than a psychopath killer (what happened to Sylar’s eyebrows?!), inhabiting the character of Spock.  The supporting cast is also great.  John Cho managed to leave Harold (of Harold and Kumar fame) behind, and Simon Pegg stole the show as Scotty.  Guys like Karl Urban and Anton Yelchin were also solid.

The film was action-packed right from the start and didn’t let up.  It also had just the right dash of humor.  As for the special effects – I didn’t really notice it that much because I expected to see space ships and lasers flying through space – but I suppose that means they did an excellent job of it by not allowing the effects to overwhelm the film.

There were only two weaknesses I could point out.  The first was probably the antagonist played by Eric Bana  (almost unrecognisable in heavy make-up), which I felt wasn’t really terrifying or imposing enough.  It wasn’t really his fault though because the focus of the film was firmly on the young Kirk and Spock.  The second was some of the action sequences, which still relied too heavily on the rapid cut scenes.

On the whole, however, the new Star Trek was fantastic.  I’m sure old Trekkies will enjoy it, as will those who simply like to watch a fun, exciting movie.  Despite its significant running length (126 minutes), I was left wanting more by the time the credits began rolling.

I’m not going to rush out to buy the series on DVD any time soon, but I’m glad to hear that this film could be the first of many.  Bring on the sequels!

4.5 stars out of 5