Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

 

image credit: lmronline.com

download-3Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Forest Whitaker, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelsen,  Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Wen Jiang

Directed by: Gareth Edwards

Rated PG-13 for pervasive sci-fi violence and action (no blood) that may be frightening for younger children

Release Date: December 16th, 2016

 

Hey, did you ever wonder exactly how those clever Rebels managed to get ahold of the plans that brought about the Death Star’s destruction in Star Wars: A New Hope? Not really? Well, Disney decided to make an entire movie out of this minor detail. Since taking the helm from George Lucas, they have made more than a few changes to Star Wars canon, and Rogue One is no exception.

We are introduced to our heroine, Jyn Erso (Jones), the daughter of a retired Imperial science officer, as a child living peacefully on an Icelandic-looking planet with her family. That is, until Imperial baddie Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn) comes to shanghai her father (Mikkelsen) into working on the Empire’s latest project: a planet-killing weapon known as the Death Star. Left in hiding, she is rescued by family friend and extremist Rebel militant Saw Gerrera (Whitaker). Fast forward 15 years later, Jyn is rescued from the clutches of the Empire by Cassian Andor (Luna) and his reprogrammed Imperial droid-turned-copilot K-2so (voiced by Tudyk). She’s very important to the Rebel Alliance, you see. They want to use her to get Saw Gerrera back on their side (since he’s been a lone-wolf crackpot for many years) and to find her father, who is now the chief engineer of the Death Star.

It’s a very complicated plotline and the viewer is given very little time to process it as we director Edwards whisks us from planet to planet. We meet some very interesting characters along the way; the most interesting of which is a blind, Force-using monk named Chirrut Îmwe (Yen). Towards the end of the film, there is so much going on that you get lost in the movie, but only because if you don’t pay attention you feel like you’re going to miss something. Epic battle scenes rage on with a lot more violence and firepower than previous installments, meaning this is a movie that might be a little too intense for younger viewers. It’s a fast-paced thrill ride that will leave you gripping your seat.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Star Wars film without exotic locales, stormtroopers who still can’t shoot worth a damn, and a character saying “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” (Minor spoiler: It’s K-2SO, who easily gets the best lines in the entire film. )However, Rogue One does lack some of the usual Star Wars formula. Gone is the florid language of the first six movies. There’s no John Williams-scored soundtrack. There are no Jedi, no lightsabers save for a scene at the very end. The real villain of the movie is Krennic, and while Mendelsohn brings a certain sneering malice to the part, he’s not as terrifying as Darth Vader. This movie is not so much Star Wars as it is a story set in its universe. As a lifelong fan, I found this somewhat of a letdown. A fellow Star Wars buff pointed out that much of the climactic Rebels vs Imperials battle scene is recycled footage from A New Hope. Since this film had an estimated budget of 200 million USD, this felt rather lazy on the director’s part.

Did I enjoy this film? Yes. There are enough cameos, including a very unexpected CGI one, that will keep longtime fans entertained. I also found it to be a fun watch despite the complicated plot. Will I watch it again? Also yes. However, I think this movie is for those who are already fans of the franchise; with the way it is set up, it definitely won’t win any new converts. Overall, a passable installment in the Star Wars saga, but is it the prequel the fans have been waiting for? I’m going to lean towards no.

VERDICT: See it and decide for yourself. If you’re new to the franchise, watch Episodes 4-6 first.

 

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Deadpool (2016)

Image: 20th Century Fox

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Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ed Skrein, Morena Baccarin, TJ Miller, Gina Carano

Directed by: Tim Miller

Rated R for graphic nudity, violence, adult language and sexuality

Release Date: February 12th, 2016

 

Over the past few years, the movie market has been saturated with superhero films. Both DC and Marvel are churning out all the reboots, remakes, and re-imaginings you could possibly think of. Hell, they’re even trotting out lesser-known heroes (Ant-Man, anyone?) for our viewing pleasure.  Since the box office receipts for these films have remained high, the studios are content to keep trotting them out ad nauseaum, and frankly, I’m pretty over it. They keep using the same tired tropes, over-doing the gratuitous violence, and either skimping on the plot or overloading you so much with backstory that you want to explode (see X-Men Origins: Wolverine). 

Deadpool takes all of these things and swiftly turns them on their collective heads. It is a film that dares to make fun of itself and breaks the fourth wall multiple times. Ryan Reynolds is brash and obnoxious, but he keeps you in stitches the entire time. He’s not your typical hero: hellbent on revenge, he serves up destruction and carnage quite frequently, even encouraging a cabbie to kill a romantic rival and leave his body on his beloved’s doorstep. Despite all this, he manages to remain sympathetic. Seriously, you just can’t help rooting for the guy.

While most Marvel movies are PG-13 fare, you should definitely leave your kids at home. Deadpool is rated R for a reason. Besides the obvious violence, there is some graphic nudity, adult language (including several references to masturbation), and an extended sex scene. This is an adult film, and you don’t want to be that parent who has to drag their traumatized child out of theatre after seeing Ryan Reynolds service himself while clutching his favorite stuffed unicorn.

I realise that I said very little about the movie’s plot, and that’s because I want you to experience Deadpool for yourself. While I certainly don’t think it’s going to win any Oscars, it will probably be one of the better performing films this year, and at least one of the more memorable. Of course, stay after the end credits are over for a special treat.

VERDICT: See it with someone you love. Preferably not a stuffed unicorn.

 

 

 

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

 

Star Wars: The Force AwakensPh: Film Frame

©Lucasfilm 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm 2015

 

Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac
Directed by: JJ Abrams
Release Date: December 18th, 2015
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence throughout

Let me preface this review by saying I am not a huge fan of JJ Abrams. I was especially disappointed with the Star Trek reboots. So, having been a lifelong fan of Star Wars, I was hoping that he would do right by the franchise.

And do right he does. Gone is the clunky dialogue, the passable (but often weak) acting, the relentless CGI of the prequels, the pacing issues… I could go on and on. Instead, we are given a film that feels fresh and new. As another reviewer put it, it’s like “JJ Abrams is atoning for the sins of George Lucas.” We have Rey (Ridley), a young woman from the desert planet of Jakku, who takes the helm without the whininess and reluctance of A New Hope’s  Luke Skywalker. Instead, she is bold, determined and resolute.  We have Finn, born FN-2187, a stormtrooper who has a change of heart. Newcomer Boyega infuses the role with charisma and charm. We also have a new addition to the cast who isn’t human: the droid BB-8. Unlike R2-D2, he emotes rather well, and in doing so makes himself endearing from the get-go.

The baddies this time around are the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (played to perfection by Gollum, I mean, Andy Serkis) and his apprentice, Kylo Ren (Driver). For me, this is where the film fell a little flat. While Ren is capable of doing some spectacular things with the Force, as a man he comes across as weak and uncertain. (See the film to know what I’m talking about.) At the same time, we do see what kind of evil he is capable of, and believe me, it is a complete shock.

Without giving too much away, I will say that the film’s plot parallels A New Hope (unlikely heroes, impossible mission, mysterious bad guys) without feeling like a carbon copy. Instead, Abrams and Co manage to breathe new life into the franchise, appeasing already-fans such as myself and captivating new fans. Prepare yourself for a nonstop thrill ride (seriously, The Force Awakens never stops to take a breath) you’ll love just about every minute of. When it’s over, you’ll wish that the next film’s release date wasn’t so far away.

VERDICT: SEE. Again. And Again. And Again.

 

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Goosebumps (2015)

Starring: Jack Black, Dylan Minnette, Odeya Rush, Ryan Lee, Amy Ryan, Jillian Bell
Directed By: Rob Letterman
Release Date: October 16th, 2015
Rated PG for some rude humor, creatures and images which may frighten young children

If you grew up in the 90s like I did, you probably read R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” books. You may have even read some of his many other series, such as “Fear Street”, “Give Yourself Goosebumps”, “Goosebumps 2000”, and so on. Each “Goosebumps” novel featured a preteen protagonist who had to fight a supernatural monster, and they were breezy, fun reads. Well, it was only a matter of time before Scholastic decided to add to Stine’s empire (and their pocketbooks) and release a feature-length movie.
The film is very typical of a Goosebumps novel, except that our hero, Zach Cooper (Minnette) is in high school, so he is older than the usual Goosebumps protagonist. He and his mother have just moved to the tiny town of Madison, Delaware. Almost immediately he falls in love with the lovely girl next door, Hannah, (Rush) and makes enemies with her father, Mr. Shivers (Black). Zach believes that Mr. Shivers is abusing his daughter and enlists his new friend Champ (Lee) to investigate while her father is out of the house. While there, the two discover that Mr. Shivers is actually R.L. Stine, the author of the “Goosebumps” novels. To their horror, they find that Stine’s monsters are real, trapped in books, and they accidentally release the monsters from the books. When they start destroying the town, Zach, Mr. Stine, Champ, and Hannah must team up to get the monsters back where they belong.
At 103 minutes, it’s a fast-paced thrill ride that does not disappoint. While younger children may find some of the monsters terrifying, they reminded me of the rampaging animals from “Jumanji”, except perhaps better rendered. The only “monster” I found scary was Slappy the Dummy (who is voiced by Black). He is essentially the embodiment of all of Stine’s inner demons, and his gleeful malice is believable, without being campy or over-the-top, as is Black’s wont.
A common criticism of the novels is that the characters don’t seem to learn any lessons or grow. This is not the case with the film. Both Zach and Stine must learn to let go, and they do so in a touching way. (The plot twist toward the end almost brought me to tears.) While it’s certainly no Oscar contender, it’s an entertaining watch, and my inner child was thrilled to see his favourite book series brought to life for a new generation.

VERDICT: SEE

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The Visit (2015)

The Visit still

Starring: Kathryn Hahn, Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie
Directed by: M. Night Shymalayan
Release Date: September 11, 2015
Rated PG-13 for violence, some nudity, brief language

Your favourite director that you love to hate is back. M. Night Shyamalan is very well known for such fine films as “The Sixth Sense”, “Signs”, “Unbreakable”, and “The Village”. However, he has also directed disastrous, critically panned flops like “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth.” His latest writing/directing foray is into the “found footage” genre (think Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project). I will preface this review by saying I am not a fan of found footage. I think it is lazy, monotonous, and a chore to watch. This film is rather unique in that it does have somewhat of a soundtrack (mostly generic piano music and oldies).
The story centers around Becca (DeJonge), a fifteen year old aspiring filmmaker and her nerdy brother Tyler (Oxenbould). Their mother (Hahn) has decided to send them on a trip to see their grandparents, whom they’ve never met, for a week while she takes a cruise with her boyfriend. Quickly the kids realise that Nana (Dunagan) and Pop-Pop (McRobbie) have something seriously wrong with them. Pop-Pop hides used incontinence pads in the shed. Nana crawls the halls and vomits during the night. They both seem paranoid and demented. Will Becca and Tyler escape their clutches before it’s too late?
The child actors in this film are brilliant, likeable, and funny. They really make the film. Of the 94 minute runtime, the first 45 minutes or so are filled with tame thrills and quite a bit of monologuing. The problem with this film is the same problem that plagues many of Shyamalan’s films: once you start thinking about the plot too much, it starts to unravel. It is stated in the beginning that the grandparents live out in the country and they have no cell service or Wi-Fi. Yet somehow, the kids manage to have several Skype sessions with their mother. Also, what kind of mother would send her children to spend a week with her parents she hadn’t seen in over a decade, whom she didn’t get along with? It doesn’t add up. There are also several scenes in the movie that seem to have been thrown in the movie to add cheap scares, like the scene where Nana is shown hovering ominously over a well, but they lead nowhere.
The Visit is more believable as a horror-comedy but it has not been marketed as such. It isn’t until the tail end of the movie where Shyamalan delivers the surprise twist that is his trademark, but by then I just didn’t care anymore. Personally, I found Tyler’s brand of white rap much more entertaining than this scare-less, predictable snorefest.

VERDICT: Skip, if you want to conserve some brain cells and 94 minutes of your life you’ll never get back.

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The Man from U.N.C.L.E (2015)

The Man From UNCLE

Starring: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Hugh Grant, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki

Directed by: Guy Ritchie

Release Date: August 14th, 2015

Rated PG-13 for partial nudity (side boob), violence, thematic elements and suggestive content)

Another reboot/remake/reimagining! Do we really need another one of those? The Man from U.N.C.L.E is based on the 1960s TV series of the same name. Before I get into this review, I will admit that I am not too knowledgable about the spy movie genre. Therefore, I will review this film based on substance, casting, plot, etc… the usual and try my best not to critique based on a genre I know almost nothing about.

Our hero, Napoleon Solo (Cavill), is an ex-con turned CIA agent during the beginning of the Cold War. He is unexpectedly paired with KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) with the mission of finding a missing rocket scientist and getting their hands on his research before villainous socialite Victoria Vinciaguerra (Debicki) uses for nuclear warhead production. The scientist’s daughter, Gaby (Vikander), joins them as it is believed that she is the key to locating him. Naturally, Solo and Kuryakin can’t stand each other and are forced to put aside their differences if they are to avert a potential disaster.

What struck me the most about this film were the richly shot locations, the fashion, and the dazzlingly good looks of the leads, the women in particular. Hollywood tends to under-use female characters in movies; this is certainly not the case here. Victoria’s character is a combination of cool, patrician beauty and lethal genius, while Gaby is stylish, smart and just a tad bit vulnerable. The soundtrack is also perfectly choreographed to each scene, adding to the 1960s atmosphere of the film. It’s both an aural and visual treat.

The plot, on the other hand, is muddled, paper thin, and somewhat cliche. (Is there any spy ever who wasn’t a good-looking, well dressed playboy?) But what this film lacks in substance it more than makes up for in style. It’s a smart mix of comedy and stylized action.  My only complaint was not enough Hugh Grant. He got so little screen time and  very little opportunity to really showcase the acting skills he is known for. Perhaps, in the rumored sequel, we’ll see more of him.

VERDICT: SEE. 

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Vacation (2015)

Vacation

Starring: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemworth, Leslie Mann
Directed by: Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley
Release Date: July 29th,2015
Rated R for strong language throughout, brief nudity and some violence

National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983), starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo, is comedy gold. It has achieved cult status and received widespread critical acclaim. You can often catch it making the rounds on late-night cable TV.   For those of you who have been living under a cinematic rock, the original Vacation tells the story of the Griswold family’s ill-fated trip to Walley World, a fictional theme park in Santa Monica, California.  Who knew family bonding could inspire so much belly laughter and Schadenfreude?

In the 2015 not-quite-sequel, not-quite-remake, Rusty Griswold (who was played as a child by Anthony Michael Hall in the original) is all grown up and bent on taking his own family to Walley World to bond with them. His two sons ( Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins) are constantly at each other’s throats, and his wife Debbie (Applegate) is bored and frustrated. Naturally, getting everyone in a car together for a week straight is a great idea. Like its source material, the road to Walley World is filled with hijinks, mishaps and disasters. And like its source material, the laughs keep coming and they don’t stop until the credits roll.

However, I will point out that while I enjoyed the shoutouts to the original film (especially red convertible girl), this film felt completely unnecessary. The directors, who are the same team behind Horrible Bosses, seemed to feel the need to cram as many cringeworthy, offensive, and disgusting gags in the runtime as they could. I still don’t understand why Hollywood finds sexism and pedophilia jokes mandatory in R-rated comedies, but maybe that’s just my inner social justice warrior showing. There were also a few moments in the film I found downright cringe-worthy. One in particular was the scene in which the older son is awkwardly trying to woo a girl at a motel hot tub and his father decides to play wingman. By “wingman”, I mean he comes off as a deranged pervert, thereby scaring the girl away and an overhearing motel patron.

Thus far, Ed Helms has proven that he is excellent as a supporting actor (see: the first Hangover and We’re the Millers) but he doesn’t quite have the acting chops or comedic talent to carry a film. Christina Applegate, who is a very talented actress otherwise, isn’t given much to do but be the typical bored middle-aged housewife, and she infuses the part with a thinly veiled sense of treachery. Did I enjoy the film? Yes, immensely. Do I believe it will be a classic? Absolutely not. If you’re looking for a fun, simple popcorn film chock-full of laughs, this is it. Try not to gape too much at Chris Hemsworth’s *ahem* six-pack.

VERDICT: Rent.

 

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