Saturday, November 26, 2016

Arrival

Although one can argue that the advancement of modern CGI and film technology in general has enabled sci-fi film creators to bring to life their ideas much more effectively than ever before, one can also point out that the same advancements have made the industry over-reliant on these mechanisms. It’s easy to fall into the alluring trap of an excessive dependence on the visual aspect of a sci-fi film, which frequently leads to sci-fi romps that are more style than substance.

I’m happy to however report that Arrival masterfully sidesteps this trap, treating its audience to a refreshingly surprising sci-fi adventure that is equal parts thrilling and thought provoking. But please don’t misconstrue this observation as inferring that Arrival isn’t also a great looking sci-fi film: Arrival is exceptionally polished and although its CGI is not as indulgent as what we have come to expect from the genre, the film uses just the right sprinkle of CGI trickery needed to draw you into its enticingly strange, but at the same time, deliberately familiar world.


"...the film uses just the right sprinkle of CGI trickery needed to draw you into its enticingly strange, but at the same time, deliberately familiar world."


If there’s one standout quality of this film that differentiates it from the rest of its genre then it has to be its distinctly measured pace. In Arrival, humankind decides to take a refreshingly diplomatic approach to the potential alien threat, rather opting to try and understand the reason behind the alien race’s arrival before deciding on appropriate action.  Whilst this in itself might not sound like the most exciting cinematic plot for an alien invasion movie, it comes over as a much more plausible real world 2016 eventuality, resulting in a film that feels even more realistic and therefore, also involving.

Teaching someone else a new language, whilst simultaneously learning a new one yourself, is definitely PhD level affairs.
The film’s protagonist is also not your typical gun-blazing patriot who enjoys spewing out cheesy action lines before dishing out a can of proverbial whoop-ass on the alien race. Enter Dr Louise Banks, an accomplished and determined linguistics professor who specialises in translation work, tasked to lead a team aiming to decipher the alien race’s highly advanced language system. Amy Adams is simply put, amazing in this role and I’m confident in declaring it as one of her most commanding on-screen performances to date. Dr Banks is as professional and contained as one would expect a high-profile academic to be, but as the film progresses, she finds it harder and harder to hide the cracks in her elaborately woven emotional armour. Adams does a fantastic job at transitioning between her character’s various emotional states, the result of a complex combination of her troubled past, the immense pressure of her present situation and even, her future to be. The last time I recall a sci-fi film taking this much care in the development of its lead was back in 1997, with Jodie Foster in Contact.

Adams also becomes the main vehicle for how director Denis Villeneuve (Sicario) develops the film’s most enthralling and thought provoking themes. Although there are potentially endless thematic layers to Arrival (such as the intricacies of global politics, the fragility of human connections etc.) that one can delve into here, I myself was most intrigued by the film’s commentary on the role that language plays in shaping the reality of one’s world. The film’s argument for the benefits of learning a new language was so poignant to me, that it has actually motivated me to take up another language in the near future. I mention this to illustrate how involving and satisfying Arrival as a film experience was for me. There definitely hasn’t been another film this year that has left me with this much to think about and this is why I’m happy to announce it as my favourite film of 2016.

If you make the right choice (that is, to go and see this film of course), you’ll be treated to a refreshingly intelligent, but also non-pretentious sci-fi masterpiece that forces its audience to readjust their assumptions of what a sci-fi film should and shouldn’t be. And if you’re lucky, Arrival might even treat you to an experience that leads to a shift in the way you see the world. Either way, it’s easily one of the best ways to spend 2 hours this year.   

Highlight: The film's climactic ending is highly satisfying and expertly brings this great film full circle. 


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Hello, my name is Doris

The older I get, the more I start to appreciate the value in not knowing anything about a film before I go to see it. Case in point: 'Hello, my name is Doris', a character dramedy with an unconventional plot line and intriguing main protagonist played by Sally Field,  best known for her role in the drama series, Brothers & Sisters.
At first sight, the film seems to be nothing more than a slightly off-center romantic rom-com, but as the plot develops, you start to realise that the film contains an exceptional degree of layered complexity that makes it surprisingly enthralling.
Doris herself is an awkward 60+ year old accountant, suffering from a few mental disorders and a severe lack of emotional intelligence. But weirdly enough, all of this makes her highly intriguing to a modern culture of 'hipsterism', leading to Doris' weaknesses all being perceived as intriguing quirks within the context of the ironic world of Generation Y.
A match made in hipster heaven.
Although most of the film's best humorous moments sprouts from the way Doris' newfound younger friends perceive her and the situations it leads to, the film never resorts to hyperbolizing the situations that Doris finds herself in. Because of this, the film allows it itself to be infectiously funny, whilst at the same time, delivering thoughtful social commentary on today's modern generation.
Another of the film's greatest strengths is the depths of its character study. Although there are moments where Doris is irritating, aggravating and painfully awkward, you cannot help but develop a deep sense of empathy for her predicament, as you find yourself rooting for this unlikely anti-hero.
"Although there are moments where Doris is irritating, aggravating and painfully awkward, you cannot help but develop a deep sense of empathy for her predicament, as you find yourself rooting for this unlikely anti-hero."
The rest of the cast also do a great job in giving the film a true sense of honesty and grounding, creating a considered juxtaposition between Doris' more longer standing relationships and those with her newest community of friends. Special mention to Max Greenfield (Doris' love interest), Stephen Root and Tyne Daly.
Lastly, don't expect any form of fulfilment by the end of this film. Hello,  my name is Doris isn't the type of film that tries to hold its viewer's hand and instead leaves the final conclusion very much up in the air, a subtle 'zap sign' to romantic comedies who insults their audience center with predictable endings.
Highlight: Mid-way through the film,  Doris attends an electronic concert. The amount of fun that this 60+ year old lady has at the event puts any younger folk to shame.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Warcraft

It’s not often that I’m inspired to write a review of a film that by all standard and objective metrics of measurement, can be considered a ‘bad movie’.  In this case, my drive to write the review comes from my intense connection with and dare I call it ‘love’ for the source material itself. And in most cases, I’ll admit, I think this is one of the most dangerous positions from which to assess the quality of a film. Very rarely does a film adaption live up to the unjustly high expectations that fan boys place on them.

It’s for this reason that I entered the cinema with, what I believed to be a very open, unassuming frame of mind regarding what to expect from Warcraft, a film adaptation of one of the most iconic strategy PC games ever created. Sadly, even with my open minded approach to what I was about to experience, I have to admit, Warcraft was a massive disappointment that is unlikely to satisfy fantasy film lovers or fans of the original game series.

The first and most painstakingly obvious issue with Warcraft is the negative impact of an extreme degree of post-production editing. Most (if not almost all) scenes of the film feel like they were cut short by a considerable amount more than what was originally planned or expected (possibly to try and get the final film down to a specific runtime), resulting in a constant feeling that every scene in the movie has been rushed. Not only does this lead to a muddled up plotline (many motivations and plot mechanisms feel poorly contextualised), but even more damagingly, leads to a apparent lack of character development and ultimately, a group of characters that you don’t care much for.

Durotan is the only character with a considerable degree of depth.
This became most apparent to me when I realised I had experiences no sense of emotional significance during a scene that I presume was attended to be one of the film’s most moving. This bland and uninvolving quality to the film is by far the most frustrating and disappointing aspect thereof, as when I look back at the Warcraft gaming series itself, the games’ distinctive personality and atmosphere are one of the series’ greatest accomplishments. Sure, director Duncan Jones (best known for directing ‘Moon’ and also being David Bowie’s offspring) might have not intended on creating a film with an immense of amount of depth and substance (the Warcraft games don’t have the most profound story anyways), but this didn’t have to be at the expense of the film’s heart and conviction.

Something that amplifies the film’s overarching issues even more are some painful casting, dialogue and acting issues. Most of the film’s characters come over as so stereotypical in their personalities and approach that you sometimes wonder if some of them weren’t meant to function as ironic commentary on the fantasy film genre. From the sickly righteous, but ignorant king to the awkwardly insecure young mage figure – Warcraft’s cast doesn’t do much to elevate the film above the clichés of its genre.

"From the sickly righteous, but ignorant king to the awkwardly insecure young mage figure – Warcraft’s cast doesn’t do much to elevate the film above the clichés of its genre."


But it’s not all doom and gloom, humans. On the bright side, Warcraft boasts some amazing CGI and action sequences that complements a generous helping of cinema popcorn. For fans of the game series itself, the film contains a deliberate sprinkling of fanfare and nostalgic nods to the source material that you’re sure to appreciate. The film’s score is also aptly anthemic, helping to lend some much needed drama to some of the film’s bigger moments. 

There are some amazing action sequences, but it's not enough to redeem the film.
Considering the heritage and potential that the source material offered for creating an epic and immersive fantasy experience, it’s impossible to ignore the magnitude of the missed opportunity that Warcraft the film represents.  And to make things worse, I’m not even confident in labelling Warcraft as an ‘average’ film. If the Narnia series of films represent the average quality of the fantasy film standard, then I’m afraid that Warcraft is far below the standards of what we’ve come to expect from the genre. To be completely frank, Warcraft actually manages to put the genre back a few years to a time before Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. It’s my sincere hope that Blizzard learns from the failure that is Warcraft and uses it as a case study of how not to approach their next cinematic outing.

Lowlight: The film includes (in my opinion) one of the most painful, derivative and cheap ‘my family has died and now I need to go get drunk to illustrate to the audience that I am grieving’ scenes that I have ever witnessed in a film. Luckily, due to the film’s baffling degree of editing, the scene isn’t long enough to cause any permanent mental damage. 


Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Jungle Book

Remakes are all the craze these days. Whilst they have been most prevalent in the superhero genre lately, there has also been some noticeable remakes across other film genres. One of the latest of these is a reliving of Walt Disney’s classic tale, The Jungle Book. What makes this remake particularly remarkable is that instead of the film being a standard animation (like its predecessor), the film has been re-envisioned as a real-life adventure, with of course, a substantial degree of assistance from modern day CGI artistry.

When I first heard that a remake of this scale was being undertaken, I must admit, I was understandably skeptical. How well would the charm and wonder of the original film translate in this new real-life format? Fortunately, Jon Favreau, best known for his directorial credits behind two of the Iron Man films, seems to be fully aware and considerate of the legacy that the film has, providing a cinematic experience that feels both new and charmingly nostalgic.

Not only has Favreau done a great job in introducing this enchanting tale to a modern day audience, but he has also managed to imbue the film with a unique atmosphere, which effectively distinguishes it from its original source material. Where the original Jungle Book was mostly known for its distinct sense of charm, Favreau’s version adds a deliberate sprinkling of tension and even, dark drama. Noted that the original film did also have some tense and darker moments, but in the new film, Favreau utilises his real-life canvas masterfully to amplify the inherently darker side of the Jungle Book tale.Whilst I must admit, I’m not sure if this new version is as suitable for kids of all ages (as the original), it does make for a captivating and addictively tense adventure film.

"Not only has Favreau done a great job in introducing this enchanting tale to a modern day audience, but he has also managed to imbue the film with a unique atmosphere, which effectively distinguishes it from its original source material."

The best achievement here, is that this darker and tenser atmosphere does not come at the expense of the original film’s characteristic charm - Favreau has managed to perfectly balance the film’s darker moments with poignant and whimsical feel-good moments, which are helped along greatly by including renditions of some of the orginal film’s signature musical pieces. 

All the necessities of a classic.
Another standout aspect of the film is its stellar CGI effects that make it possible to tell the Jungle Book story in a way that would never before have been possible. These amazing effects are also complemented with powerful performances from an A-list Hollywood voice acting cast, which include Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Ben Kingsley and the film’s brightest star, Neel Sethi fulfilling the role of the film’s beloved protagonist, Mowgli.

The truth of the matter is that there really isn’t much to fault when it comes to this film. Not only does this new take on Jungle Book do justice to the film’s respected heritage, but it also imbues it with new qualities, that take it beyond the labeling of a mere remake. It’s a film that needs to be seen by both fans of the original and those that are still to be mesmerised by its legacy. 

Highlight: King Louie's scene is terrifying and wondrous all at once. A perfect example of all the elements that make this film exceptional.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Revenant

As an avid member of the highly unofficial "Let's get Leo to finally win an Oscar" group, I really did have exceptionally high hopes for this film, directed by the same Mexican genius (Alejandro González Iñárritu) that brought us Birdman about a year ago.

First thing you need to know is that The Revenant is as visceral and unforgiving as it is beautiful and majestic. As is the case with Birdman, The Revenant shines blindingly brightly when it comes to the cinematography. The landscapes and general environment in which the film's events play out in allows for a plethora of awestrucking scenes and moments. Pair this with Alejandro's painstaking attention to the minutest of details and you are left with an amazing overall product.

The Revenant does a masterful job in carefully juxtaposing scenes of extreme quietness and tranquillity with moments of profound dread and anxiety. Be warned: there is an intense visceral aspect to the film that will take the wind out of your sails on numerous occasions, with some scenes proving quite difficult to 'stomach' (there's a funny, yet relatively inappropriate nod to the film's plot here, by the way). In saying that though, nothing ever feels too over-the-top or as if any particular scene was only added for sheer shock value. At the end of the film, you'll come to realize that every scene has a highly functional role in that it all ultimately allows the film to expertly showcase the unforgiving nature of both the wild and more importantly, mankind itself in a way that will leave its viewer profoundly impacted.

"Be warned: there is an intense visceral aspect to the film that will take the wind out of your sails on numerous occasions, with some scenes proving quite difficult to 'stomach'..." 

And then of course, there's Leo's Oscar-worthy performance (I write whilst simultaneously trying to hold all the thumbs in my possession). What's most intriguing about Leo's performance is that it's one with very minimal dialogue, as Leo is for most of the film's runtime,  either incapable of talking or, not around other humans to converse with in the first place. Leo is therefore forced to mostly utilise non-verbal emotes to communicate a wide range of extreme emotional states: from love, care, fear, distress, hope, sadness, hate, dread, anger and hopelessness (to name but a few). Leo really does an exceptional job in showcasing the impact and extremity of the events that his character is subjected to during the course of the film. Although a lot of praise must go to DiCaprio, it's important to also give a nod to the rest of the cast, in particular Tom Hardy as the film's main antagonist and Domhnall Gleeson as a strong-willed and righteous commander, known primarily for his role in the Harry Potter series of films.

Life just got really tough, really fast. 
There's a lot more to say about Alejandro's latest masterpiece, but at the end of the day, all you really need to know is that although it's a film that will be emotionally taxing to endure, it's a powerful and impactful journey that is definitely worth each moment of potential distress and discomfort.

Highlight: There is a scene involving a furry animal that will leave you awe.