Pete’s Dragon Review: Flying High


Director: David Lowery

Writer: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks (screenplay), Malcolm Marmorstein (novel)

Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban

petes-dragon-poster


Release date: September 15th, 2016

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country:USA

Running time: 102 minutes


3/5

Best part: The dragon.

Worst part: Urban’s kooky antagonist.

Disney is a cash cow, able to take serious risks without losing large sums. The company – cashing up on Marvel, Star Wars etc. – is handing remakes of 20th century animated gems to interesting, independent-minded filmmakers. Jon Favreau and Kenneth Branagh dived into The Jungle Book and Cinderella before. Pete’s Dragon is the heavyweight studio’s latest satisfactory experiment.

Pete’s Dragon is based on one of Disney’s most eclectic animated works. The original is a miasmic tale of a boy and his pet. It delves into strange places – leaving some viewers scratching their heads. This version is more straightforward but less interesting. It begins with Pete finding Elliot the Dragon by chance. The story jumps years ahead, and Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a child running, jumping and living alongside his magical friend. One day, Pete stumbles upon park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) in the forest. After finding him and taking him in, Grace – along with her partner Jack (Wes Bentley), Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Lauence) and Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford) – learn more about Pete’s story and way of life. Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) has dastardly ideas for Elliot.

Like J. J. Abrams-helmed Super 8, Pete’s Dragon showcases Steven Spielberg’s long-lasting legacy and overall influence. This nostalgic fantasy-family epic lives and dies on director/co-writer David Lowery(Aint Them Bodies Saints)’s love of the classics. The opening scene encapsulates his style and storytelling prowess. This three-minute sequence is worth the admission cost. It glides through multiple emotions, a tragic event, our lead’s isolation and discovery of the big, green father figure. Indeed, the epilogue depicts love and loss effortlessly. Afterwards, the movie is fairly mundane. Lowery borrows every Spielberg convention (Spielberg face, country town charm, kids connecting with creatures and magic etc.) without quit. As other central characters come into play, the movie’s story and pace slow drastically.

The characters, of course, change from simple-minded to wide-eyed and adventurous as craziness occurs. However, none of them matter. Howard continues her run of underwritten characters flip-flopping between courageous and outrageous. Even her red hair and gorgeous looks cannot save her. Bentley is given less development as the concerned nice-guy. Redford’s charm pushes him through silly dialogue. Urban is given one of 2016’s most baffling characters; woefully switching between gruff redneck, hunting champion and slightly mentally challenged. Lowery spoon feeds his love of middle America. The twangy soundtrack and gleaming cinematography clumsily convey regional bliss.

Pete’s Dragon resembles every other 2016 blockbuster – easy on the eyes but hard to connect with. This year, this Spielberg admirer performed better than Spielberg himself. The cast perform admirably despite two dimensional, wacky material. The dragon himself is the runaway winner.

Verdict: A quaint family-adventure.

Ben-Hur Review: Sword and Sorrow


Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Writers: Keith Clarke, John Ridley

Stars: Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi

ben-hur-2016-poster


Release date: August 25th, 2016

Distributor: Paramount Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Country: USA

Running time: 123 minutes


2/5

Best part: The chariot race.

Worst part: The sluggish pace.

Hollywood has latched onto organised-religion crowds for greater box-office returns. Movies including God’s Not Dead, although strange to most, appeal to a large segment of the population. Tinseltown’s most talented are also getting on board, with Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings also aiming for that market. 2016’s Ben-Hur remake may single-handedly destroy this trend.

Actually, this is not the first ever Ben-Hur remake. The William Wyler-directed 1959 version is the quintessential version. The huge budget, Charlton Heston’s vigour, chariot race and epic scope helped it score 11 Academy Awards and become an instant classic. Surprisingly, there were multiple Ben-Hurs in the early 20th Century. This version never strays from convention. Here, Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) and adoptive Roman brother Messala (Toby Kebbell) grow up together in Jerusalem’s higher class. Messala, despite his affections for Tirzah (Sofia Black D’Elia), feels alienated by matriarch Naomi (Ayelet Zurer) and the family’s faith. After his enlistment and time in the Roman Army, he returns to warn Ben-Hur of oncoming threats. From there, the two butt heads and become fearsome foes.

The 1959 hit influenced Gladiator and sword-and-sandal epic in between. This Ben-Hur begs the question – Why now? No matter what the studio, cast, creatives etc. created, nothing would have eclipsed the 1959 version’s quality, exhaustive length, touching religious commentary and revolutionary tricks. Writers Keith Clarke and John Ridley (the latter behind 12 Years a Slave) deliver irritating and alienating dialogue. The first half relies on religious discussion between the characters, grinding the pace to a screeching halt. Non-religious folks will despise the movie’s feckless stance on faith and history. Sadly, director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is not fit for the material. Lacking Ridley Scott’s deft touch, the schlock filmmaker appears bored by everything besides the action, special effects etc.

Ben-Hur follows the long line of laughable, anachronistic and feeble-minded modern historical/mythical epics. The movie never diverts from the standard revenge-drama narrative. It’s predictability is almost cowardly – the good guys are sweet and vanilla, the love interest – Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) – is whispy, the bad guys snivel and twist moustaches, Morgan Freeman plays the wise cracking mystical-magical black man etc. Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro) pops up to deliver bumper-sticker lines. This version may be remembered for its South American-looking depiction of the famous carpenter. Bekmambetov, halfway through, appears to wake up. The slave-ship sequence, training montages and almighty chariot race are particularly inventive. The grand sound design and fun action beats reduce the tedium.

Ben-Hur, like most of 2016’s blockbusters, is unnecessary, generic and borderline offensive. This useless remake squanders a fantastic cast, capable director and momentous resources. Attention Hollywood: Not everything should be remade!

Verdict: Pointless and unnecessary. 

Sausage Party Review: Limp on arrival


Directors: Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon

Writers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir

Stars: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader

sausage-party-poster-405x600


Release date: August 11th, 2016

Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 88 minutes


2/5

Best part: The stellar cast.

Worst part: The racial stereotypes.

Writer/director/producers…actor…Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have made some of Hollywood’s most controversial gross-out comedies. Superbad explored teenage sexual angst, This is the End skewered Rogen and his friends’ fame, and The Interview almost kicked off World War III by pissing off North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. So, What next?

How about an animated sex-comedy about food? Sure, why not. Now, Sony will let them get away with anything. Sadly, Sausage Party proves studio notes and executive decisions are sometimes worthwhile. The movie’s plot is bizarre and simplistic. Hot dog Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen) and his girlfriend – hot dog bun Brenda (Kristen Wiig) – live next to one another in grocery store Shopwell’s. Frank, alongside fellow sausages Carl (Jonah Hill) and Barry (Michael Cera), believes they will be chosen by the gods, taken to ‘The Great Beyond’ and set free. However, the plan goes awry after an argument with feminine hygiene product Douche (Nick Kroll) leads to a spill, and mass casualties, in the isles. Frank finds out their situation isn’t as it seems.

Sausage Party and Suicide Squad are part of one of 2016’s most irritating trends. Both, featuring wholly predictable plots and characters, are covered in a nasty, immature allure catering to cheap desires. They also feature unique and interesting premises butchered by abysmal execution. Make no mistake, Sausage Party would have made for a kinetic, cutting short movie. Rogen and Goldberg are talented and interesting enough to know better. The final result leaves much to be desired. It lingers between parody and cheap dig at Pixar. Despite the allure, the basic plot follows Toy Story’s friends-finding-one-another story-line step by step. The twists and turns are wholly predictable and lack depth.

Sausage Party relies on the MA15+ rating and the filmmakers’ sense of humour. The comedy is pitifully hit and miss, relying on expletives and sexual references throughout. Every frame features lazy sex, fart, and weed jokes and food puns. If the first three-quarters weren’t haphazard enough, the finale takes some distressing and demeaning left turns. The movie, nowhere near as smart or interesting as it thinks, delivers a broad commentary on organised religion. The food products, convinced of the gods’ kindness, deliver a loud, brash musical number each morning about their fate. However, after that small splash of genius, we’re given borderline-offensive stereotypes from Woody Allen-esque bagel (Edward Norton) to angry Arabic lavash (David Krumholtz). Oy vey!

Sure, Sausage Party has a stellar voice cast and neat ideas. It’s clear Rogen and Goldberg had a clear vision from day one. However, their self-indulgence has gone too far. This may be 2016’s biggest disappointment.

Verdict: A sorely missed opportunity.

Star Trek Beyond Review: Thrusters on Full


Director: Justin Lin

Writers: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung

Stars: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana

STAR-TREK-BEYOND-5


Release date: July 21st, 2016

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA, China

Running time: 122 minutes


4/5

Best part: The central cast.

Worst Part: The villain’s convoluted plot.

In its 50th year, Gene Roddenberry’s creation Star Trek is one of pop-culture’s most lucrative and unique franchises. Its run has been extended by TV series’, films, comic books, fan fiction and everything else in between. The Trekkies and Trekkers have helped the series become an ever-changing organism. With nerd being the new black, the franchise must bend and warp to gather as many fans as possible.

The newer Star Trek instalments have, for the most part, done a bang-up job. The 2009 reboot introduced a new timeline and cast. Fans grew to love the younger crew members, director J. J. Abrams’ love of lens flares and the USS Enterprise’s shinier aesthetic. The Sequel, Star Trek into Darkness, fumbled the ball. Star Trek Beyond, the third feature in the Kelvin timeline, sees the crew in the third year of a five-year mission to explore strange worlds, meet new beings and bring order to the galaxy. Flying peacekeeping group the Federation’s flag, Starfleet captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) feels lost in the deep, dark void of space. Key members including Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto), chief medical officer Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), communications officer Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana), chief engineer Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg), helmsman Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and main navigator Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) also hit the wall.

Of course, a movie about the crew hanging up their skivvies 10 minutes in would be deeply unsatisfying. Receiving a distress call from the nebulous zone outside Federation base Yorktown, they are ambushed and captured/disbanded by warlord Krall(Idris Elba)’s drone/alien army. The first third balances cute comedic moments and high stakes threats. The opening scene is a blast – detailing how some missions go better than others. The aforementioned ambush sequence is electrifying, with the Enterprise and its crew torn apart with devastating velocity. The second act takes a peculiar turn, splitting the lead cast into twos. Pegg and Doug Jung’s script provides greater insight into each key member. Although the plot and momentum stall, the middle section delivers infinite character development and wit. In true sequel fashion, new characters including alien warrior Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) create several surprises.

With Abrams off on Star Wars duties, director Justin Lin (Fast and FuriousTokyo Drift through to Six) takes control of the ship. Not to be underestimated, he balances between the original series and this franchise’s bold, blockbuster-y direction. The exhilarating filmmaker piles action sequences on top of one another in the third act. The motorcycle set-piece clicks with the movie’s tone and close-quarter scope. The finale combines a high-flying spaceship battle, clever banter and a Beastie Boys’ track with aplomb. Meanwhile, the fist-fight finale injects pathos and resonance into an otherwise light-weight story. Assisting Lin’s breezy direction, Michael Giacchino’s score is as slick and dynamic as the Enterprise herself. The talented, good-looking performers aptly bounce off each other. Pine and Quinto snuggly fit into their famous roles. Urban, Pegg and Boutella are standouts. Meanwhile, Elba is let down by the character’s befuddling backstory and master plan.

Star Trek Beyond ventures where the franchise both has and has never gone before. Credit belongs to the performers, living up to the original cast’s crackling chemistry. Lin and co. have refueled and beefed up the Enterprise for future adventures. Most importantly, Yelchin and Leonard Nimoy are given touching send offs.

Verdict: An exhilarating thrill-ride.

The Legend of Tarzan Review: Joke of the Jungle


Director: David Yates

Writers: Adam Cozard, Craig Brewer (screenplay), Edgar Rice Burroughs (novel)

Stars: Alexander Skarsgard, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz

cvzoijwuaaaefkb


Release date: July 7th, 2016

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 110 minutes


2/5

Best part: Samuel L. Jackson.

Worst part: The inconsistent visual effects.

Dear Hollywood, no one on Earth was asking for a ‘dark and gritty’ reboot of Tarzan. In fact, everyone is sick of those words being the basis for every reboot, reimagining and rejigging from the past ten years. 2016 in film, so far, proves tinseltown is having a major identity crisis. Almost every sequel has bombed, the smaller genre flicks have gone gangbusters and we responded to Zac Efron’s comedies with a collective shrug. What an age we live in!

Like The Lone Ranger and The Man from U.N.C.L.E, The Legend of Tarzan brings an old-school franchise into the 21st Century. Sadly, it resembles the former – a bloated, out-of-touch product that should have stayed hidden. Based on acclaimed author Edgar Rice Burroughs famous stories, this reboot does start promisingly. After the Berlin Conference, the United Kingdom and Belgium divided up the Congo. The Belgian government is close to bankruptcy and left with a useless railroad and other infrastructure. King Leopold of Belgium II sends Leon Rom (Christoph Waltz) to claim mineral deposits including the diamonds of Opar, protected by Chief Mbonga (Djimon Hounsou). Meanwhile, the British Prime Minister (Jim Broadbent) and US envoy George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) convince John Clayton III/Lord Greystoke (Alexander Skarsgard) to return to Africa and become Lord of the Apes once again.

Tarzan – despite leading multiple films, books, serials etc. – came from a more ‘innocent’ era in the Western world. This version attempts an elaborate balancing act between classic action-adventure and revisionist perspective. It’s a refreshing premise; throwing us into a world already aware of Tarzan’s existence. Screenwriters Adam Cozard and Craig Brewer manufacture false drama from the outset. The first act spins its wheels as the Tarzan rejects the offer, mulls it over with wife Jane (Margot Robbie), and agrees to tag along. From there, the movie leaps between plot-holes and overused plot-points. Its colonialist overtones are wholly uncomfortable, with every scene showing this impressive white man coming to native Africa’s rescue.

Despite mediocre results, director David Yates (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix to The Deathly Hallows Part 2) swings for the fences. The director juggles Tarzan’s backstory (his parents’ deaths, an upbringing helped by apes, reason for leaving etc.) at inopportune moments with narration and flashbacks. His vision forcefully compares the Belgian Congo and American Civil War’s atrocities. The mix of fictional aura and historical events calls Hollywood’s racial politics into question. Yates’ visual style distorts every frame with anachronisms, confusing camerawork and sepia tone, while the action sequences and CGI are shoddily handled. Worse still, bland performances by Skarsgard, Robbie and Waltz are inexcusable. Jackson, thankfully, provides some much-needed levity and charisma.

The Legend of Tarzan, like the many animals in starring roles, is a fascinating but destructive creation. Despite the cute comedic timing and aim-high attitude, this reboot/reimagining/whatever proves a worthwhile director, cast and budget can falter spectacularly.

Verdict: A limp, uninspired reimagining.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates Review: The Dating Game


Director: Jake Szymanski

Writers: Andrew J. Cohen, Brendan O’Brien

Stars: Zac Efron, Adam DeVine, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza

mike-dave-need-wedding-dates-movie-poster


Release date: July 7th, 2016

Distributor: 20th Century Fox 

Country: USA

Running time: 98 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Efron and DeVine’s chemistry.

Worst part: The characters’ sheer stupidity.

Hollywood has made multi-million dollar creations out of other movies, TV shows, video games, board games etc. and now true stories based around Craigslist ads. Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates comes from a strange and concerning place in popular culture from the past few years. With that said, the movie could have actually been a lot worse. Objectively speaking, however, it definitely should have been better.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is actor/female Viagra Zac Efron’s third comedy of 2016 after Dirty Grandpa and Bad Neighbours 2. In fact, this one fuses the other two’s best and worst elements. It kicks off with Mike (Adam DeVine) and Dave Stangle (Efron) ‘winning at life’ as slimy liquor salesmen. The pair – living and working together – survive on hormones, drugs, expletives and danger. Parents Burt (Stephen Root) and Rosie (Stephanie Faracy) call for an intervention, blaming them for causing disasters at all family gatherings. Their little sister Jeanie (Stephanie Beard) asks them to bring dates to her wedding to Eric (Sam Richardson) in Hawaii. Their Craigslist ad, and appearance on morning TV, attracts attention from women everywhere, including Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick).

Anyone who’s seen the poster can beat-by-beat predict the plot. Unsurprisingly, Tatiana and Alice are more adventurous, disgusting and psychotic than Mike and Dave. Handling this many purposefully unlikable characters, the director and screenwriters are forced to create a series of increasingly unfortunate events. This scenario grinds this gross-out comedy to a screeching halt. It copies almost every plot point from Wedding Crashers without achieving the same hilarious results. It also boils down to repulsive, strung-together sequences and slapstick gags. The trailer even spoils the movie’s biggest set-pieces, landing with a thud in the final cut.

The humour is bafflingly hit and miss. Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O’Brien’s screenplay delivers many funny lines and cute moments. However, thanks to first-time director Jake Szymanski, the actors are given too much improv leeway. Mike and Dave’s dynamic is still effective. Efron and DeVine’s winning chemistry elevates the majority of their scenes. Dave, sporting potential compared to his shrewd older brother, is a sympathetic presence in amongst the screwball antics. He and Alice develop a somewhat sweet relationship – proving Efron and Kendrick deserve better material. However, the movie is hamstrung by DeVine and Plaza’s grating schtick. DeVine pulls out Kevin Hart’s arsenal of fast-taking monologues and screams. Plaza is weighed down by her over-the-top, personality-free character.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates is the prime example of potential undercut by execution. Like Efron’s other 2016 comedies, the actors put 110% effort into a mediocre product. If anything, these young and charming cast members might be motivated to move on to bigger and better things.

Verdict: A mildly amusing frat-comedy.

The BFG Review: Spielbergian Schmaltz


Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Melissa Mathison (screenplay), Roald Dahl (novel)

Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement

the-bfg-poster


Release date: June 30th, 2016

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 117 minutes


3/5

Best part: Mark Rylance.

Worst part: The uneven pacing.

If you have even a mild interest in cinema, you cannot go past Filmmaker Steven Spielberg’s excellent multi-decade career. It is so hard to believe the director of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, ET: The Extra Terrestrial, The Indiana Jones franchise, Jurassic Park, The Colour Purple, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich is the same guy!

Spielberg is the best action/drama/comedy/family-adventure filmmaker in cinema history. He can transport millions to other worlds thanks to his style, command of the system and collection of regular collaborators. He returns with the adaptation of one of Roald Dahl’s many seminal children’s stories. The BFG begins with miserable child Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), living in an orphanage fittingly labelled ‘The Orphanage’, wandering the halls until 3am. Sophie unexpectedly sees the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance) traipsing the streets of 1980s London. The BFG, seeing Sophie seeing him, takes her well north of Great Britain to Giant Country.

Spielberg, despite immense critical and commercial acclaim over an extensive career, has been a little hit and miss throughout the past decade. For every Lincoln or Adventures of Tintin, there’s a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or War Horse. The BFG is certainly one of the filmmaker’s lesser efforts. Unlike his children’s classics, it never finds the balance between comedy and drama. In love with the late Melissa Mathison’s screenplay, the director leaves little on the cutting room floor. After a brisk opening, this fantasy-adventure plods through its first two-thirds. Sophie and BFG spend an exorbitant amount of time in and around his multi-layered home. Restricted to a handful of settings and characters, it sorely cries out for a more epic scope and tighter pacing. Although the focus on conversation over action is intriguing, the story and characters aren’t quite interesting enough for a 2-hour run-time.

The antagonists – some much bigger and nastier giants including Fleshlumpeater (Jemaine Clement) and Bloodbottler (Bill Hader) – show up to cause trouble. One set-piece focuses on the book’s arresting themes. Sophie can only watch on in horror as the bigger giants needlessly pick on BFG for being kind and subdued. To a certain extent, Sophie and BFG’s core dynamic is quaint. The movie finds a new lease on life when the two meet up with Queen Elizabeth II (Penelope Wilton) and servants Mary (Rebecca Hall) and Tibbs (Rafe Spall). Slapstick hijinks and fart jokes galore, Spielberg dives into new territory here. Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and composer John Williams once again serve Spielberg’s vision with aplomb. Rylance, backing up his Oscar win for Bridge of Spies, returns to Spielberg’s realm with a fizzy mo-cap performance. However, Barnhill immediately veers into over-the-top-child-actor mode.

The BFG, unquestionably, provides a warm and fuzzy time at the movies. Its chases, dream-catching sequences, and commendable cast make for several memorable ‘Spielberg Face’ moments. However, the woe and whimsy trip Spielberg over; failing to delve deeper into the material’s darker shades.

Verdict: A light-hearted, hollow adaptation.