Sunday, June 26, 2016

Independence Day: Resurgence

Year: 2016
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Liam Hemsworth, Jeff Goldblum, Maika Monroe, Bill Pullman, Jessie T. Usher, Judd Hirsch, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Brent Spiner, Travis Tope, William Fichtner

Plot: Twenty years after President Whitmore, David Levinson and Captain Steven Hiller stopped aliens from destroying Earth, the planet has thrived on upgraded technology and peace among mankind. But the aliens have now returned with a bigger ship, to finish what they started.

Review: In 1996, Independence Day became a worldwide hit, and despite being pretty much a popcorn flick, is still considered a top notch blockbuster by movie fans everywhere.

Director Roland Emmerich takes us back to this world twenty years later, where Earth has thrived after defeating the aliens. Captain Hiller has perished in an air tragedy, and his son Dylan is now a pilot. President Whitmore is now an old man who still has nightmares from his encounter with the aliens, with his daughter Patricia as the current president's aide. David Levinson is now the director of the Space Defense program, monitoring any and all alien activity around the globe and in space. Trouble brews when the aliens return with a mega huge ship and squashes their defense systems easily. Levinson, Whitmore and a handful of brave young people have to team up and save the day.

Let's start with what's good about IDR. The special effects are awesome, as it was back then. When the big bad mothership arrives, the level of destruction you see is just like in Emmerich's 2012, and while it looks familiar, it's still no less exciting. There's a new subplot here involving a new alien entity that was one of many victims of these hostile ones, who offer our heroes a possible way to defeat them. Admittedly, this plot could have been played out better as the film makes it look too easy, but it does present a fresh angle to an already familiar story. Lastly, the returning cast members all seem game for the film, with Brent Spiner getting more screen time here and Vivica A. Fox and Robert Loggia making brief appearances as well (Loggia's final role before his recent death), though Bill Pullman, Judd Hirsch and especially Jeff Goldblum all fit right back in like they never left. 

Now for the downsides. If you recall the original's plot, it's really not that much different here. Aliens arrive. Aliens make a big impact. Earth responds and fails spectacularly. Earth finds another way to win. Someone makes a grand speech. Earth fights back and wins. So if you're expecting any surprises, there aren't any. The new cast don't seem to match the old cast's enthusiasm for the material, though they do try. Maika Monroe and Liam Hemsworth do alright but their romance is not convincing. Jessie T. Usher fares slightly better as Dylan Hiller. Sela Ward doesn't get much to do as new President Lanford, with William Fichtner doing much better as her replacement later on. There are also a couple of unnecessary elements here, like Judd Hirsch's subplot of finding a group of kids to babysit during the attack, and an auditor played by the same guy playing the tour guide from White House Down (another Emmerich piece) as the film's comic relief, which misses more than hits. Lastly, despite the final battle sequence looking good on screen, it all looks like one big video game where you have to beat a final boss to succeed.

In summation, I'd say Independence Day: Resurgence is just like the original as far as popcorn flicks go, but not quite as memorable. It's a fun way to spend 2 hours, but that's about it. (7/10)

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Finding Dory

Year: 2016
Directors: Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane
Voice cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O'Neill, Hayden Rolence, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Eugene Levy, Diane Keaton, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell

Plot: When Dory starts to remember details of her parents, she persuades Marlin and Nemo to follow her on a quest across the ocean to find them.

Review: It's been 13 years since Finding Nemo came out, and it is still one of the best Pixar works out there. So Finding Dory has its work cut out for it to match its predecessor.

Like in the first film, our characters embark on an adventure to find a loved one, in this case Dory's parents. Dory convinces Marlin and his son Nemo to follow her all the way to California to find Jenny and Charlie, her parents. They wind up at the Marine Life Institute, where Dory gets separated from the two clownfishes. And again, just like the first film, they all meet a colorful set of characters, which include a short sighted whale shark, a beluga whale, a couple of sea lions, a talking clam and a grumpy octopus.

Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton, shares duties with Angus MacLane on Finding Dory and does a splendid job once again, though it isn't quite as endearing as the original. As mentioned, the sequel shares many things in common with the original, such as the theme of family, a journey across the ocean, an assortment of characters to help the leads, and of course a healthy dose of humour. More importantly, this film sees a development of Dory's character as we see flashbacks of her life as a young blue tang fish who was already forgetful and how her parents helped her with her memory problems, and how she eventually got separated from them.

The new set of characters here may not be as memorable as the original Tank Gang or the trio of sharks from Nemo, but they do come close. The standout one would be Hank the octopus, whose camouflaging abilities makes for several hilarious moments, not to mention his grumpy attitude towards Dory.

The reason Finding Dory falls a bit short of Finding Nemo is the feel that Stanton and co. are trying too hard to milk the drama in the film's more tender moments. The climax of the film is also quite similar to Toy Story 2 but still very fun to watch.

Overall I enjoyed Finding Dory, and if you loved Finding Nemo, you ought to go see this. And do stay till the end credits for one final scene. (8/10)

Sunday, June 19, 2016


Year: 2016
Director: Duncan Jones
Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Daniel Wu, Clancy Brown, Ben Foster, Rob Kazinsky, Ben Schnetzer

Plot: Based on the popular video game. Because their world is dying, orcs under the leadership of the ruthless Gul'dan open a portal to the human world of Azeroth and invade it. Alliance commander Lothar leads the defence of the kingdom of Stormwind with the help of young mage Khadgar, who learns that dark magic known as Fel is being used by both Gul'dan and someone in Azeroth to make the invasion possible. Meanwhile, an orc clan leader called Durotan is aware of Gul'dan's dark magic and wants to stop it.

Review: Fantasy films are tough to make, video game films even more so. For every Lord Of The Rings, there are two failed fantasy films like The Golden Compass or Eragon, and for every Resident Evil film, there are two failed video game films like Hitman or Street Fighter. So Warcraft, based on the hit video game, and very much a fantasy film, has the deck stacked against it from the word go. Personally I have never played the game, but I can already tell that this film will appeal more to players than non-players.

It's quite obvious that the film has a huge scope with a very wide universe, and thus would need a Lord Of The Rings style of approach to make it work. Director Duncan Jones must have put a lot of work into the film, judging from the way it looks, but one feels that the studio must have heavily edited it since a lot of the story doesn't make sense for at least the first half of the film. LOTR needed five to seven minutes to explain their world at the start before Frodo begins his story. But here, we are given an oh so brief glimpse into the Warcraft universe before Jones plunges us deep into the orcs' invasion of Azeroth. 

The key characters are swiftly introduced with quickly explained backstories, barely enough time for the audience to digest on who's who and why they exist, before the story keeps going. For the first half or so, I was struggling to understand what was going on, and how to differentiate the orcs from each other. It's only when Durotan the orc meets up with Lothar and King Llane to discuss a truce that Warcraft feels like it's starting to gel and come together. However the film drops the ball towards the finish line, just when things were starting to look up. There is a scene where Lothar and Khadgar battle a possessed wizard and his stone golem, which is probably the best action sequence in the entire film, and after that you'd think things will get better, but it doesn't. A couple of sacrifices are made and the film ends with a wide opening for a sequel. It certainly should end better than that.

The cast just manages to scrape through with their performances unfortunately, being somewhere between good and passable. Travis Fimmel (Lothar), Paula Patton as half-orc Garona, Ben Schnetzer's Khadgar and Toby Kebbell's motion capture orc Durotan are the main standouts, but nothing to write home about. 

But there are some good things to mention, like the costumes, CGI especially magic sequences and Ramin Djawadi's music score. But the over reliance of green screen instead of practical use of locations work against the film somewhat. 

As of right now, Warcraft has made a killing at the Chinese box office despite doing poorly at home. Will there be a sequel? It obviously needs one, but one wonders if a sequel can repair the damage the studio has already done here. (6/10) 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

The Conjuring 2

Year: 2016
Director: James Wan
Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O'Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente

Plot: After investigating the Amityville haunting case in 1977, Ed and Lorraine Warren decide to cease taking on new cases. Unfortunately they are called in by the church to go to Enfield in north London, to investigate the haunting of the Hodgson family, particularly the youngest daughter, Janet.

Review: The Conjuring still is one of the best horror films out there in recent years and certified director James Wan's fame as a horror director. So it's no surprise that there should be a sequel, pitting real life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren against yet another demon causing havoc in someone's home.

An incident at Amityville prompts Lorraine to convince Ed not to do any more demon fighting for a while. But the couple are called in soon enough to take on a case in Enfield, north London, where the Hodgson family, made up of divorced mum Peggy and her four kids, Margaret, Janet, Billy and Johnny, are terrorised by demons. Janet is the specific target of the entity, taking the form of an old man who claims to be a former resident of the house. Ed and Lorraine attempt to help the family but soon realize that this entity is more than a handful.

Wan follows the same route he took before with the first film: presenting Ed and Lorraine as the lead characters and showing the story mainly through their eyes. Thus the Warrens' relationship takes centre stage again, which puts The Conjuring films a step above most horror flicks out there. Sure, Wan has plenty of tricks in his bag, and if you're familiar with his style, you'd know how the scares will come, but the real strength of his films lies in his characters and how they relate to one another. Ed and Lorraine's love and trust for each other stand out here, especially when Lorraine fears for her husband's well being after seeing him die in a vision she had. The Hodgsons on the other hand may seem like a scared family on the surface, but they exhibit a strong need to stand by one another when the chips are down, which is also commendable.

As for the scares, don't you worry. While Wan resorts to some familiar tricks like darkness, things that move by themselves or loud sounds, he still manages to conjure (no pun intended) a lot of well timed frights, with a minimal amount of jump scares.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are still on point as Ed and Lorraine respectively, as if they're comfortably slipping into shoes they've worn before. Frances O'Connor is solid as Peggy Hodgson but young actress Madison Wolfe is just splendid as Janet, giving a tour de force performance as a scared and possessed girl.

There are only two downsides I can mention, the first being Sterling Jerins' appearance as Judy Warren, which is nearly an afterthought, just so Wan can tell his audience that she exists. The second downside is the report of the Enfield haunting being an elaborate hoax, and that the Warrens' weren't involved in a major way like the film describes. Wan does try to address the hoax in the form of Franka Potente's sceptical character Anita Gregory, who does not believe in the Hodgsons' situation, but it's tough to tell if this part of the film was accurate. Therefore to a lot of people, this story is a huge embellishment so if you're a fan of the truth, you'd have to watch this with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, as a horror film, it scores on most levels and for horror enthusiasts, that's what counts.

Wan had recently stated he would do a third if he could, so things look bright for The Conjuring series. If you're a fan of horror, there's no reason to not check this out. (8/10)  

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Money Monster

Year: 2016
Director: Jodie Foster
Cast: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O'Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe

Plot: A financial TV host is taken hostage on air by an investor who lost all his money from one of his stock tips.

Review: Jodie Foster's latest film, as director and not star, attempts to be both a hostage thriller and a commentary on financial complications, but only succeeds in the former and doesn't quite manage to merge the two genres.

The story begins with charming and over the top financial guru Lee Gates (George Clooney) hosting his show Money Monster, like he always does, when irate investor Kyle Budwell (Jack O'Connell) walks in, pulls a gun and takes him hostage. He forces Lee to wear a suicide bomb vest and demands answers, as to how he had lost $60000 the week before, after acting on one of Lee's financial tips. Lee's producer, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts) attempts to manage the situation by getting her crew to safety while trying to give Kyle what he wants.

For the first half of Money Monster, everything works pretty well. Foster keeps the tension high and the pace swift as Clooney, Roberts and O'Connell work together like a well-oiled machine. Then the pace starts to drop significantly once Foster tries to explain how all this happened, by tracing the cause back to the sneaky CEO (Dominic West) of the company Kyle invested in. The shift in focus from the lead trio to West's character and his assistant (Caitriona Balfe) who attempts to get some real answers (which involves Korean algorithm writers and Icelandic hackers) works against the film, and also kinda ruins the plot. If you've seen The Big Short, you would know that these things happen for far more complicated reasons than what this film is trying to tell you.

What's also strange is how Lee and Patty seem to genuinely want to help Kyle the longer they're in this mess. Yeah, at first it seems like they're trying to keep Lee alive, but the finale, which involves Lee and Kyle confronting West's character on live TV, is rather sudden and not convincing. What's also sudden is how Lee is suddenly absolved of blame by this point.

Clooney is good as always, with Roberts faring slightly better as Patty, giving a believable performance as a studio producer. O'Connell is the best of them as Kyle, the working class hero trying to get some answers. I was rooting for him the whole time. I also liked how the police, led by Giancarlo Esposito is almost a non-factor here, allowing O'Connell to do his thing.

Overall, Money Monster is a good thriller, but flawed. It starts well but runs out of steam towards the finish line. (7/10) 

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out Of The Shadows

Year: 2016
Director: Dave Green
Cast: Megan Fox, Stephen Amell, Tyler Perry, Will Arnett, Laura Linney, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson

Plot: Slightly mad scientist Baxter Stockman helps break Shredder out of prison. Shredder teams up with Krang, an alien from another dimension to help bring the latter's war machine to Earth. The turtles join forces with April, Vern and rookie cop Casey Jones to stop them.

Review: As it turns out, director Dave Green is actually a huge fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles growing up, which would probably explain why he brought in some well loved characters that were not in the previous instalment, such as Bebop, Rocksteady, Baxter Stockman, Krang and Casey Jones. But unfortunately, the end result isn't quite satisfying.

Just like the first film, Out Of The Shadows has our four heroes team up to stop Shredder, who has yet another diabolical plan in store. This time, he has a bit of help in the form of two thugs turned mutants, Bebop and Rocksteady. His plan is to collect three items which allows him to open a portal to another dimension, where Krang, a talking brain with tentacles resides. Krang will use the portal to come over to Earth with his big machine, the Technodrome and destroy everything. The turtles team up with April, Vern and a hockey loving cop named Casey Jones to save the day. In the meantime, the foursome once again deal with personal issues, particularly when they discover they can possibly turn human using the same substance that created Rocksteady and Bebop.

Plotwise, it doesn't sound too bad, right? Except that Green's execution isn't quite as good as it ought to be. Despite running at 112 minutes, Green paces the film too fast, barely allowing the plot to simmer, instead choosing to throw out all the necessary information quickly and furiously, ignoring logic along the way. The script itself is problematic, heavily borrowing from Avengers and Transformers (that final sequence is very reminiscent of Transformers 4, but it's Michael Bay, so not surprising at all) and just too juvenile overall. It's clear the filmmakers are aiming for the kiddie audience, which is fine. But there isn't enough stuff for the adults to chew on, even if they were fans of the 80's cartoon, like I was.

The humor was the script's biggest problem, as it pales in comparison to the cartoon. Most of the jokes are either juvenile or slapstick. Bebop and Rocksteady are reduced to dumb CGI effects spewing size and fart jokes. The cartoon version had them being dumb too, but extremely funny. Shredder was a solid yet flawed baddie in the cartoon, but here he barely registers as a threat, mainly looking constipated most of the time. Krang looks and sounds okay, but he doesn't seem very threatening either. And Tyler Perry? Why the heck is he here as Baxter Stockman? Total miscast.

But with all that being said, the film is for the most part serviceable. Megan Fox doesn't add as much to the plot as she did before, her role as a reporter only coming in at the end, but she does what she can with the role. Will Arnett provides the good humor as Vern while Arrow's Stephen Amell is watchable as Casey Jones, though I wished he was a little more serious in the role. The best thing about this film is the turtles arguing with each other, caused by Donatello's discovery that they have a chance to be human and not having to hide anymore, as well as people's perception of them when they run into the cops later on. These are the moments when the film actually works and not feel like a cash grab.

To sum it up, despite the first TMNT film being somewhat flawed, it's a tad better than this sequel. We all know there will be another sequel coming up, it had damn well be better than this. (6/10)


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