Movie Review: Victoria and Abdul

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Queen Victoria (Dame Judi Dench) and Abdul Karim (Ali Fazan) of India strike up an unlikely friendship in Victoria and Abdul. (Source: Vogue)

This is not the first time Judi Dench has played Queen Victoria. Her first outing was in 1997’s Mrs. Brown, in which she received her first Oscar nomination. It simply follows a servant helping her recover from her husband’s loss. Twenty years later, she is back as an aging yet wiser version of the Queen in Victoria and Abdul. Stephen Frears (who has been directing for more than 40 years) and screenwriter Lee Hall recreate the “mostly” true story if the Queen’s friendship with Abdul Karim, an Indian Muslim. The result is quite disappointing.

Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) has held the reign for 63 years. Her Golden Jubilee is coming up. Since India is ruled by Britain, she decides to call upon Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), a prison clerk, to participate. He–along with Mohammed (Adeel Akhtar)–arrive in Britain by ship. He eventually develops a beautiful friendship with the Queen. This pisses off her royal family, including her son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), to no end. For the Queen, however, this is one of those moments she will never forget.

Dench has been in a lot of movies for a long time. Some of her greatest performances are M in the James Bond films, Lady Catherine in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice, and an Irish woman looking for her son in Philomena (also directed by Frears). This is yet another miraculous performance to add in her long repertoire. As Queen Victoria, I just love how she is in control of everything. Nobody can stop her! It’s hard not to laugh or crack a smile when she is being taught by Abdul about his native language and the Qur’an. Their chemistry is so infectious.

While the movie is amusing at best and Danny Cohen’s cinematography is gorgeous (one scene involving having dinner in the hills of Scotland reminded me of The Queen), this movie is underwhelming. The tone shifts all over the place from very funny to very dramatic. The movie only pinpoints who Abdul is. The audience hardly know a lot about their friendship. Believe me, I know you want to Google about the entire story on which the movie is based. Hell, even the texts are rather vague. At the end, Victoria and Abdul feels incomplete. Now–I’m in the mood to watch Mrs. Brown.

2/4

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Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

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Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is on the search for some answers in Blade Runner 2049. (Source: Vox)

In 1982, Ridley Scott introduced a world unlike any other. From its imaginative sets and thoughtful allegory on life, Blade Runner is one of the best sci-fi films imaginable. It features Harrison Ford playing a quiet hero (as opposed to Indiana Jones or Han Solo) where he must get rid of a group of bioengineered people from the Earth. Since its release, people have been debating whether Deckard is a replicant or not. There’s no real answer to the debate; other than it’s up to the viewer.

Today, Scott returns to his futuristic world as producer, while Denis Villeneuve–whose Arrival has returned to the traditional, thought-provoking science-fiction–is in the director’s chair. Blade Runner 2049 is certainly up his alley!

30 years after the events of Blade Runner, newer replicant models are now becoming a part of society. Officer K (Ryan Gosling) works as the new “blade runner” for the LAPD. He is assigned to take down (or “retire”) older replicants. One day, he sees the remains of an adult replicant and their child. Preventing a possible war against humans and replicants, K begins to investigate the murder, which might connect to Officer Deckard (Harrison Ford), who went missing all these years.

What I love about Villeneuve’s direction is he never wastes anyone’s time relying on mindless action or manipulative emotion. With Blade Runner 2049, it keeps the similar tone and themes of the original while giving a fresh take on the futuristic world. Roger Deakins’ cinematography feels like a painting coming to life. From the 3D holograms to the impressive architecture to the scene where K walks through the ruins of erotic statues, this contains some of the most visually stunning visuals I’ve ever seen (Deakins has a good chance of winning an Oscar).

While the movie can be quite brutal at times, the movie contains the theme of nostalgia. It asks the important question: Are memories artificial memories implanted in our heads? Or is it the exact opposite? As a replicant, this is what K tries to figure out. In one particular scene, he explains his only childhood memory involves getting bullied as he plays with a toy horse.

Gosling is familiar playing characters who can be violent yet have subtle emotions (i.e. Drive). He and Harrison Ford lead a marvelous cast including Robin Wright, Dave Bautista, Barkhad Abdi, and Jared Leto. Let’s hope Villeneuve crafts more original sci-fi films in the near future. Not only is Blade Runner 2049 one of the best sequels in recent memory, it surpasses the original by a slight margin.

4/4

Movie Review: Gerald’s Game

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Jessie (Carla Gugino) and Gerald (Bruce Greenwood) prepare to have some sex in Gerald’s Game. What could possible go wrong? (Source: Phoenix New Times)

Netflix is releasing two Stephen King film adaptations. Gerald’s Game, which came out last Friday, and 1922, which is coming out on the 20th. They both can be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home during this Halloween season.

Recently, I watched the home-invasion thriller Hush, directed by Mike Flanagan (Oculus). I was really impressed what he did with the movie. Featuring minimal dialogue; not to mention a deaf protagonist (different for the horror genre), he never lets up the suspense. Everyone can relate to this movie about having the feeling that somebody maybe watching you. However, in Flanagan’s latest, Gerald’s Game, the main fear is losing someone close, as well as the past.

Jessie (Cara Gugino) and Gerald Burlingame (Bruce Greenwood) are a middle-aged couple struggling to keep their marriage afloat. They decide to spice things up a bit for the weekend at a lake house in the middle of nowhere. While having sex, Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bedpost. She thinks Gerald has taken things too far. “This is turning into some rape fantasy I never knew you had,” she tells him.

Then, the unthinkable happens. Gerald dies from a heart attack; leaving Jessie still in handcuffs. Spending hours on end yelling for help with any lack of thirst, Jessie begins to hallucinate and have terrible dreams.  She begins to fight for her life.

Since its 1992 publication, Gerald’s Game has been deemed as “unfilmable”. Fast forward to 2017, where anything can be possible. Flanagan simply breaks that barrier, and turns one of King’s least popular books into a disturbing work of art. His bag of tricks come to good use here. For instance, the use of the red filters during Jessie’s shocking flashbacks of her as a little girl anticipating the solar eclipse with her father (Henry Thomas, Elliott from E.T.) over the lake.

Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood are at the top of their game here. Greenwood, an understated actor, has starred in plenty of films for many years, from Racing Stripes to Eight Below to Star Trek to Flight, among others. His turn as Gerald is one of the best of his career. As for Gugino, it’s hard to imagine the physical and emotional pain she had to endure.

While Gerald’s Game is far from perfect (the final act is a little weird), this white-knuckling psychological thriller is what 50 Shades of Grey should have been.

3/4

Movie Review: It (2017)

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In It, Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgård) is out to get you. (Source: IMDb)

It by Stephen King is one of my all-time favorite books. It features humor, scares, and memorable characters (not to mention an iconic villain who smells people’s fears) that we get to know and sympathize with. The first attempt at adapting Stephen King’s ambitious magnum opus about good vs. evil into a film happened in 1990 on ABC, starring Tim Curry as the titular monster. With a gifted ensemble cast, it started off alright during the first half. Then—it derailed in the second half resulting in becoming more as a sitcom/soap opera than a straight-up horror movie.

Now, the second adaptation is the first to be released in theaters. After last year’s clown epidemic, I can’t think of a more appropriate time for people to be terrified of clowns again. Well—it finally happened! Argentine director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and three screenwriters have crafted something scary, hilarious, and heartbreaking while keeping the nature of Stephen King’s book without any of the ridiculous stuff. Even Stephen King stated how much he loved this version of It. “I wasn’t prepared how good it really was,” he said in an interview. “It’s something that’s different, and at the same time, it’s something that audiences are going to relate to.”

Every 27 years, an extraterrestrial creature, known as It, preys on children and their fears. It takes the form of what they fear the most, and brings them to their doom.

This happens to one of the kids in the beginning of the film; where it opens up on rainy fall day in 1988 in the town of Derry, Maine. Bill Denborough (Jaeden Lieberher, Midnight Special and St. Vincent), a 12-year-old with a terrible stutter, has finished making a paper boat for his young brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott). He chases it to a storm drain and meets Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), a seemingly cheerful clown, in the sewer, who…well—you know what happens next.

Eight months later, school is out for the summer. Derry seems to be a little quieter after Georgie’s death. A lot more kids have either disappeared or pronounced dead. Bill decides to team up with his friends—asthmatic germaphobe Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), trashtalking Richie (Finn Wolfhard, Stranger Things), tomboy Beverly (Sophia Lillis), new-kid-on-the-block Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), homeschooled Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and Jewish kid Stan (Wyatt Oleff)—to defeat It.

It is a lovely tribute to the 1980s culture. Focusing more on the kids than on the clown, their interactions are reminiscent to Stand by Me, another Stephen King adaptation. The adults are mostly absent, but whenever they appear, they are portrayed as either abusive or overbearing. The kids are grown up in a time where they are neglected by their parents, and need to escape from their troubles to stand up for one another. The audience fears what the children fear (which is what horror is all about).

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The kids are out to get It in Stephen King’s latest adaptation of It. (Source: Horror Freak News)

I can’t imagine a better cast. Finn Wolfhard’s Richie is a laugh riot; he tends to get out of every situation by wisecracking or doing voices. Sophia Lillis is the new Molly Ringwald (even one of the characters calls her that); her Beverly has the kind-hearted bravery like the boys. Although she is the outcast at school (her classmates call her a slut) and goes home to her abusive father (Stephen Bogaert), she feels more at home with the boys. If Tim Curry’s goofy yet eerie portrayal of Pennywise was to Jack Nicholson’s Joker in Batman, Bill Skarsgård’s is to Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. Whenever he is on screen, he is terrifying; from the buck-toothed grin to the vintage clothes to his line deliveries (i.e. “You’ll float, too”).

What makes It shine is the imaginative sets, clever angles, Benjamin Wallfisch’s eerie score, and Muschietti’s direction and atmosphere. It’s hard not to get a tingle down one’s spine whenever the kids’ fears come to pure life, ranging from a Leper to a child walking with its head blown off. The scary stuff is a ton of fun to watch; even The House on Neibolt Street is the haunted house you wished you have ever been a part of. I can’t ask for anything more perfect. It is officially one of my favorite horror movies.

With the sequel coming out sooner than everyone hoped, it wouldn’t work without Bill Hader cast as Richie and Jessica Chastain as Beverly.

4/4

Movie Review: It (1990)

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The cast of It (1990) strike a pose. (Source: Warner Bros.)

In 1986, Stephen King has published his most ambitious book. It, a book about a group of kids teaming up to fight off a supernatural being that kills children, became the best-selling book of that year. This 1,000-page long epic has the full package: humor, heart, and straight-up horror. Adapting the book into a feature-length film isn’t a bad idea, unless it airs on television. Four years later, director Tommy Lee Wallace, screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen (Carrie), and a gifted cast collaborate on bringing Stephen King’s book to life on ABC as a two-part miniseries.

Does It work? No—but it doesn’t mean it’s a complete waste of time.

Instead of taking place in 1957 and 1985 (like in the book), the movie takes place in 1960 and 1990. A shape-shifting creature known as “It”, who preys on children taking form on what they fear the most. Primarily taking the form of Pennywise the Clown (Tim Curry), he terrorizes the town of Derry, Maine, every 30 years. Every day, kids either go missing or end up getting killed by Pennywise. Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid), the only African-American living in Maine, calls his childhood friends about It resurfacing from the Earth.

His friends are as follows:

– Bill Denborough (Richard Thomas, The Waltons), a successful writer with a stutter that gotten worse as a child after his young brother Georgie (Tony Dakota) got killed by Pennywise while trying to retrieve his paper boat down a storm drain.

– Ben Hanscom (John Ritter, Three’s Company), the new kid in town who went on to become an architect.

– Eddie Kaspbrak (Dennis Christopher), the one with asthma who runs a successful limousine business.

­– Richie Tozier (Harry Anderson, Night Court), the goofball with a talent of doing voices, who would eventually become a comedian.

­­­­– Beverly Marsh (Annette O’Toole, Smallville), the only female in the group, who grew up with an abusive father (Frank C. Turner), joins the group after running away from it all. She has a great eye when it comes to using a slingshot. Later on, she became a fashion designer.

– Stan Uris (Richard Masur), a Jewish kid who is the biggest smart-ass of the group. He later becomes a successful accountant.

While known as “The Losers”, they must reminisce about their childhoods until they reunite to get rid of It once and for all.

Adapting a marvelous novel into a made-for-TV movie would mean to take out every graphic detail and language from the novel. As a result, the movie plays it safe. The movie does have its moments. The first half is particularly strong, due to the chemistry between the child actors (it’s a shame Jonathan Brandis, who played young Bill, died too soon) and conjuring up some pretty decent scares. The second half, however, falters from being too soapy and too silly (not to mention the image of the dog dressed up as the clown). Tim Curry’s Pennywise is the main reason why the movie is worth watching. He maybe goofy and innocent-looking wearing bright colors, but his sinister side is what makes his performance shine. But—the sets and the effects do not hold up 27 years later (don’t get me started on that climax). I’m glad It is being remade into something much darker. Bring on, Friday night!

2/4

2017 Summer Movie Review: Logan Lucky

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Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) go through their heist plan in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky. (Source: Charlotte Observer)

In his review of Side Effects, Roger Ebert wrote, “Steven Soderbergh has announced that, at 50, this will be his last feature. Well, that’s up to him. This one brings together threads from a lot of his work. Crime. Sex. Complicated yuppies. Smart people doing heedless things. Corruption in high places. Soderbergh came, he saw, he conquered, and now he’s moving on.”

It’s such a shame Ebert didn’t get to see his return to filmmaking.

After directing Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra, Soderbergh decided to take a break from directing to become a painter. Known for directing the suave heist film Ocean’s Eleven and the excellent Magic Mike (based on Channing Tatum’s experiences as a stripper in Tampa) he has helped Spike Jonze with his brilliant film Her. And he also was attached to some projects during his retirement, including being the executive producer of two television shows—The Knick and Red Oaks—and the cinematographer for Magic Mike XXL (under pseudonym Peter Andrews). Now, he’s back to the director’s chair to return to his Ocean’s roots in Logan Lucky, the year’s best comedy.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum, a frequent collaborator of Soderbergh) has lost his construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway (the home of NASCAR) due to insurance liability issues. He was a football star in high school whose career fell short when he gets a permanent limp. In desperate need of money, he plans to rob the speedway during the Coca-Cola 600. Jimmy recruits the following people:

– His brother Clyde (Adam Driver), a bartender who lost an arm in Iraq.

– Their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), who works as a hair dresser.

– Demolition expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig)—I know, awesome name!—who is serving time in prison. Jimmy and Clyde plan on breaking him out of prison to do the heist, and sneak him back in once it’s over without getting caught.

– And, lastly, Joe’s two whack-job brothers—Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid), who both claim to be experts in computers.

Once they begin the heist, it doesn’t take long for them to run into problems.

2017 is officially called “The Year of John Denver in the Movies”. Logan Lucky is the fourth film this year (the others being Free Fire, Alien: Covenant, and the overrated Okja) to use John Denver in its soundtrack. In the film’s opening scene, Jimmy talks to his daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) about why he’s a big fan of Denver. Given it also takes place in West Virginia, “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is the perfect theme song for the film; not to mention being used in a delightful scene near the end of the film.

With Soderbergh’s slick direction and cinematography and Rebecca Blunt’s wondrous screenplay, there are plenty of laughs and thrills to be given. The heist feels authentic, due to it not being an easy job and the complications these characters face. Kudos to the wonderful editing (going back and forth between the race, the heist, and the prison), there’s a possibility that this movie will get an Oscar nomination for Best Editing.

The cast is having a wonderful time here. It’s amazing how Tatum has matured as an actor; from being in misfires, such as G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and Dear John, to massive successes, such as 21 Jump Street, 22 Jump Street and Magic Mike. There is this charm he has that is damn near impossible to resist, even with that Southern drawl. Logan Lucky is the finest moment of his entire career. With the offbeat likes of Driver, Keough, and Hilary Swank as an FBI agent, the biggest scene-stealer goes to Craig as the bleach-haired, tattooed criminal Joe Bang. His accent never slips, and he is nothing short of a laugh riot.

I think the movie would be better off without Seth MacFarlane as the British businessman sponsoring his energy drink at the race. His performance isn’t terrible, but it feels unnatural to the rest of the movie. But—Soderbergh gets back on track with the main plot. Logan Lucky is great end-of-summer entertainment.

3.5/4

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes”: Let’s Bring the Franchise to a Whole New Level!

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Hail, Caesar! (Source: Forbes)

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Rupert Wyatt brilliantly brings the popular franchise back to life. A San Francisco scientist created a drug that would cure Alzheimer’s disease. After deeming it a success to chimps, his co-workers decide to make a powerful version of the drug. This causes a worldwide epidemic after the apes had a rebellion on the Golden Gate Bridge to escape to Muir Woods National Monument. This leads up to the next film.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) introduces somebody else to the director’s chair, and known for making some of the most ambitious films of this century. Enter Matt Reeves, the director of the sci-fi found-footage film Cloverfield and the vampire drama Let Me In (remake of 2008’s Let the Right One In). I’m glad he stepped in to direct more Planet of the Apes films. What he does with Dawn is as ambitious as it is pretty damn captivating.

Ten years after a simian flu outbreak, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his apes have called the Muir Woods their home. They create their own laws (“Ape Not Kill Ape” being one of the key laws) and teach the young. The movie opens up with them hunting for elk (accompanied by Michael Giacchino’s haunting score, the choir feels reminiscent to Ligetti’s “Atmospheres”, used in the star gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey). Seeing his son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) almost killed, Caesar tells him to “Think before you act.”

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The apes prepare for a battle in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. (Source: Red Brick)

Meanwhile, a group of survivors, including Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his wife Ellie (Keri Russell), and son Alex (Kodi-Smit McPhee), are living in a now-devastated San Francisco. They need to get the power running through the city; however, the dam that connects the power throughout the city is on the other side of ape territory. While Caesar wants to keep peace between apes and humans, Koba (Toby Kebbell) has a strong hatred for humans. He goes out of his way to kill every last of them for revenge.

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Koba (Toby Kebbell) kills in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. (Source: Cinema Blend)

Dawn has plenty of connections to Battle. To be fair, this throws every single Planet of the Apes sequel out of the water. Reeves uses the connections from the original films to his full advantage. The movie has a marvelous theme involving supremacy with allegorical connections to Cain and Abel and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Caesar and Koba are two distinct yet different characters. Caesar’s leadership is through compassion. He might miss having a human companion, but he has to focus on protecting the apes in their sanctuary even his wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) sick after giving birth. A lot of apes join his side, including orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval). In contrast, Koba is sick of the abuse being brought upon by the humans. In one scene involving dark humor, he encounters two people—Terry (Lombardo Boyar) and McVeigh (Kevin Renkin)—who sit back and having a drink after target practice. Koba entertains them until he picks up a gun and starts shooting them. The reason why Koba is one of the franchise’s most memorable villains is because he is so unpredictable at what might happen to him. It amazes me how smarter the apes are with each movie.

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Behind-the-scenes of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes with Jason Clarke and others. (Source: Wall Street Journal)

Motion capture has certainly come a long way after The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Weta Digital is back to make the CGI apes as seamless as ever. I’m surprised Andy Serkis has not received a special Academy Award for bringing these characters to life. His performance as Caesar is one of the most powerful I have seen in many years. Furthermore, he’s one of the only characters performed through motion-capture that moved me to tears. His affection for humans is just the same for his affection for his ape friends. While Malcolm (wonderfully played by Clarke, fresh from starring as one of the NAVY seals assigned to kill Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty) may not be like Will, but he has a similar motivation as Caesar in every way. He has suffered so much during the ten years, and wants to have peace in the world as opposed to violence. After losing his youngest daughter to the outbreak, the only people he has to care about is Ellie and Alex. Once Malcolm finds shelter at Caesar’s childhood home, he and his family must help him get back to health. In one powerful scene, Caesar goes through the attic and sees a video camera. He watches a video of him as an infant learning sign language from Will. Malcolm asks who that was in the video. Caesar says, “A good man…like you.”

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Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) looking badass holding that machine gun in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. (Source: Internet Movie Firearms Database)

Dawn is perhaps the most complex film in the series, filled with compelling characters. Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus, for instance, is particularly complicated. It’s obvious that he has a law enforcement background. He lost everything, from his family to his job as a police officer. He’s not happy with Caesar and the apes living on this planet. He’s struggling just as much as everyone else. From the villain in The Fifth Element, Sirius Black, Commissioner Gordon, and now he’s going to play Winston Churchill in the upcoming Darkest Hour, it proves how great of an actor Oldman is.

This movie is most certainly not without its action. Nothing looks more awesome than seeing a group of apes riding on horseback (the shot of the tank is also just as gorgeous as the miraculous sets of post-apocalyptic San Francisco and the apes’ sanctuary). When they finally go at it against the humans, it makes the audience root for both sides. Meanwhile, Caesar has reached his breaking point with Koba, they fight in one of the most thrilling fights set on top of a tower.

It is impossible to top such a classic like the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes, but Matt Reeves has made a wonderful piece of science-fiction with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. It has just enough thrills, emotion, dark comedy, and visual wonder to make it my personal favorite film in the series. Bring on, War for the Planet of the Apes!