Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Great Wall - Hollywood marries Chinese mythology to yield unexciting results

movie review

The Great Wall

Starring: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau
Director: Zhang Yimou
Tagline: 1700 years to build. 5500 miles long. What were they trying to keep out?

The East and the West have teamed up for the monster flick The Great Wall, a CGI-drenched big budget actionfest that comes off as nothing more than a wasted opportunity.

The Chinese-American co-production tries to marry Hollywood blockbuster sensibilities with Chinese mythology but forgets to add anything compelling to the mix.

The premise revolves around the legend that the Great Wall of China was constructed as a barrier against the Tao Tei – a horde of alien monsters that rise every 60 years as a reminder of what happens when greed is unchecked. Two European mercenaries – William Garin (Matt Damon) and Pero Tovar (Pedro Pascal) – stumble across this secret after running into one of these dinosaur-like creatures while searching for “black powder” in China. But when they are captured by soldiers of the Nameless Order – a military division that specializes in fighting the Tao Tei – and find themselves under attack from these vicious beasts, the foreigners must decide whether they want to help the locals by joining the resistance or steal the black powder and escape with the help of fellow prisoner Sir Ballard (Willem Dafoe) while the soldiers are occupied in battle.

How things unfold is an exercise in predictability. It’s hard to care about or be invested in anything that happens in The Great Wall. The plot is dull, the script is weak, the characters are unengaging, and the performances are lacklustre. Damon’s accent is all over the place. The female lead, Jing Tian, who plays the part of the unit’s commander, isn’t exactly going to win an Oscar for her acting. And Dafoe is completely wasted in his half-baked role.

Director Zhang Yimou keeps delivering non-stop action, probably to cover up the fact that nothing interesting is actually happening here. Ultimately, it’s a pity that so much money (the movie reportedly had a $150 million budget) and effort (there are a couple of standout visuals and sequences that clearly took a fair amount of work) was squandered on such an unexciting project. If only the filmmakers had focused a little less on CGI-driven action and more on character development and a better script, they might have been able to come up with something that was actually enjoyable.

Rating: 2 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 21 February, 2017 *

Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie - not as inventive as its prequel, but just as enjoyable

movie review

The Lego Batman Movie

Starring: Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, and Ralph Fiennes
Directed by: Chris McKay
Tagline: Always be yourself ... unless you can be Batman.

After the triumphant cinematic debut of the Lego franchise with 2014’s joyous The Lego Movie, we return to the interlocking¬-bricks realm in The Lego Batman Movie, an amusing spinoff that may not be as inventive as the first instalment, but certainly proves to be just as enjoyable as its Oscar-snubbed predecessor.

The focus of the animated adventure is on the Lego version of DC Comics’ Batman (voiced by Will Arnett), the Caped Crusader who watches over the streets of Gotham while trying to clean the “most crime-ridden city in the world”.

But when he isn’t fighting crime, Bruce Wayne is leading a lonely existence, unwilling to let people into his life. He is emotionally so closed off, in fact, that he even hurts his arch-nemesis The Joker’s (Zach Galifianakis) feelings by refusing to accept their antagonistic relationship or acknowledge that the supervillain is his greatest enemy.

Offended at being told that he is not important to Batman, The Joker sets out to seek revenge, and hatches a plan to unleash the most dangerous villains in the Lego Universe.

In order to defeat them, Batman must learn to give up his loner lifestyle, open up, and trust others, including his faithful butler Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes), his adopted son Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), and the city’s new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson).

Sharp and witty, The Lego Batman Movie presents a thoroughly entertaining take on the Dark Knight’s character and universe. Its self-awareness offers lots of comedy as it skewers the superhero franchise, alluding to Batman’s previous incarnations and making fun of oft-repeated tropes. It’s these references in particular that make the film such a treat for adults, because while younger viewers will certainly enjoy the zany proceedings, the film will perhaps be even more exciting for long-time fans who will get all the in-jokes.

Director Chris McKay has created a movie that is just as funny as you would expect but also surprisingly touching. The animation is terrific; its style adds to the film’s humour. The voice cast is impressive; Arnett and Galifianakis, in particular, are perfect as the superhero and supervillain respectively.

On the whole, The Lego Batman Movie may not be as wildly creative as the film it follows, but it makes terrific use of its superhero source material and delivers a thoroughly enjoyable adventure. Ultimately, this tale of the “night-stalking, crime-fighting vigilante, and heavy metal rapping machine” is sure to leave you amused and entertained.

Rating: 4 out of 5

- Sameen Amer 

The Express Tribune Blogs - 19th February, 2017 *

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Live by Night brings nothing new to the crime drama genre

movie review

Live by Night

Starring: Ben Affleck, Elle Fanning, Brendan Gleeson, Chris Messina, Sienna Miller, Zoe Saldana, and Chris Cooper
Directed by: Ben Affleck
Tagline: Joe was once a good man.

Even though Ben Affleck’s acting career has been decidedly uneven, his directorial efforts have generally been impressive. Which is why it is quite disappointing that his latest project, Live by Night, fails to deliver anything interesting, compelling, or original.

Set in the 1920s prohibition era, the film tells the (ludicrous) tale of World War I veteran Joe Coughlin (Affleck), who turns to robbery after his return from the war. But when he falls in love with Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), the mistress of Irish gangster Albert White (Robert Glenister), their relationship, as you would expect, doesn’t have a happy ending. Joe sets out to seek revenge against White, becoming an enforcer in the rum empire of Italian Mafia boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone), and falling for the sister (Zoe Saldana) of a local Cuban businessman in the process. As the drama unfolds, Joe has to face moral dilemmas while dealing with the many risks of his chosen profession.

Populated by way too many characters, none of whom are developed beyond cardboard cut-outs, Live by Night proceeds at a slow, plodding pace. Its predictability drains the movie of any potential suspense. It is easy to guess why each character is being introduced as soon as they enter the narrative, and all their arcs unfold in banal, ham-fisted ways.

The plot is scattershot, the execution uneven. Affleck – who directed the film, and also wrote the screenplay (based on Dennis Lehane’s 2012 novel of the same name) – appears to have taken on too many responsibilities in the project; the input of other talented filmmakers or writers could have helped him work out the kinks in his script and polish his piece. His performance, too, is monotone. And while he has assembled a very impressive supporting cast – which includes the likes of Brendan Gleeson as his police captain father and Elle Fanning as an ingénue turned fallen woman turned evangelical preacher – he fails to bring out anything memorable from these actors; most of them don’t have the chance to make the requisite emotional impact simply because they aren’t given enough screen time.

Ultimately, Live by Night is a bland, muddled crime drama that doesn’t bring anything new to the genre. The proceedings lack tension, and despite the effort of a talented cast, leave you indifferent to the characters and their fate. In the end, the film feels dull, overlong, and downright disappointing.

Rating: 2 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 11th February, 2017 *

Friday, February 10, 2017

La La Land - here’s to the ones who dream...

movie review

La La Land

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J. K. Simmons
Written and directed by: Damien Chazelle
Tagline: Here’s to the fools who dream.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock for the last few months, you certainly must have heard of La La Land, the musical comedy drama that has been the talk of Tinseltown ever since its release in December. With the Hollywood award season in full swing, Damien Chazelle’s brainchild has emerged as a leading contender for some of the film industry’s highest accolades, and has indeed bagged numerous trophies at various ceremonies. So just why is everyone going gaga over La La Land? Simply because this ode to Hollywood is itself a glorious example of movie magic.

The film follows the story of two struggling artists who fall for each other in Los Angeles while trying to realize their ambitions.

Mia (Emma Stone) is an aspiring actress who works as a barista at a coffee shop on the Warner Bros. lot. Despite going for a string of auditions, she hasn’t landed any roles and her acting career hasn’t made any head way. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who hopes to open his own club but has to make a living by performing in bars.

As the two struggle to achieve their dreams, their paths cross. Sparks (eventually) fly, but their dreams and romance take bittersweet turns over the course of a year, the changing of each season announced on the screen.

A beautiful love letter to passion, art, and classic cinema, La La Land is mesmerizing from start to finish. Everything from the cinematography and camera work to the acting and direction is impressive. Chazelle – who both directed the movie and wrote its script – knows how to make the audience feel the heartache that his characters experience, and has created a modern day masterpiece that harks back to the era of the mid-20th century musicals which clearly inspired this project.

But Chazelle isn’t the only one who merits props here; equally deserving of praise is Justin Hurwitz, who composed the beautiful music that drives the film. His score covers the spectrum from buoyant and joyous to haunting and heartbreaking (often simultaneously), gently becoming an integral part of the narrative.

The film also benefits from the captivating performances delivered by both its leads. Stone and Gosling may not be the most amazing vocalists and dancers, but that appears to be exactly what Chazelle is going for; the sequences aren’t as intricate or demanding as some of the most celebrated moments from classic musicals, but the actors’ limitations have been designed to add to the beauty of the film, making their performances more relatable, more charming.

Visually stunning and emotionally resonant, La La Land proves to be a memorable cinematic experience, both because of its artistry and poignancy. This musical romance will touch your heart, leave you humming its catchy songs, and make you marvel at the effort that has gone into the conception, preparation, and execution of this project.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 10th February 2017 *

Friday, February 03, 2017

The Lego Batman Movie preview

trailer review

The Lego Batman Movie

The Academy may not have given the film its proper dues – and yes, some of us may still be a tad miffed about this major award show injustice – but the fact remains that The Lego Movie (2014) was downright awesome. Both joyous and thought-provoking, the wildly entertaining animated romp ushered us into the zany Lego realm. Now, three years later, we finally get the chance to revisit Lego land in the spin-off instalment The Lego Batman Movie.

The flick is centred on the character of The Dark Knight (voiced by Will Arnett) and its trailers promise an amusing adventure in Gotham City.

As per the prevue, Bruce Wayne’s trusty butler Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes) is concerned about his lonely lifestyle, and urges him to raise the young orphan he adopted (Michael Cera), just as Batman squares off against his old nemesis The Joker (Zach Galifianakis).

Off the bat, the project seems quite amusing; the ribbing of the superhero franchise in particular is entertaining. But by the looks of it, the film (obviously) lacks the novelty of its predecessor. We’re already familiar with the Batman world, plus The Lego Movie masterminds Phil Lord and Christopher Miller created such a (surprisingly) interesting, detailed world and filled it with so much excitement and joy that for this very reason the follow-up doesn’t seem as imaginative as the original. Still, their efforts do give director Chris McKay a uniquely fascinating universe to explore.

And even though we have seen Batman in so many incarnations already, this Lego persona still feels fresh and fun. Based on the few glimpses we’ve had of the film so far, it is very likely that The Lego Batman Movie will be better than the recent DC Comics films, like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad (simply because almost everything is better than Suicide Squad). So far, it certainly looks smarter and wittier than the latest DC offering. Here’s hoping the film lives up to its potential.

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 3rd February, 2017 *

Thursday, February 02, 2017

Passengers - an absurd cliché of a film

movie review

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, and Laurence Fishburne
Directed by: Morten Tyldum
Tagline: There is a reason they woke up.

Why do good actors choose bad projects? That is the biggest mystery that runs through Passengers, a clunky sci-fi vehicle that can neither justify nor make the most of the star power at its helm.

The film is set aboard the Starship Avalon, an interstellar starliner that is on a voyage from an overpopulated Earth to the colony world of Homestead II. Its 5000 passengers and 258 crew members are in hibernation, and are set to spend 120 years in suspended animation before they are awakened upon reaching their new home.

But a malfunction brings one passenger, mechanical engineer James Preston (Chris Pratt), out of hibernation 90 years too soon, leaving him stranded and alone on the ship. His only companion is an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen). James comes across the sleeping beauty, journalist Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), and, struggling with loneliness, makes the hard decision to wake her up. But he doesn’t tell her he is the reason she is awake, instead blaming it on hibernation pod failure.

This secret looms over the proceedings, and Passengers promptly collapses under its implications. While you do empathize with the morally difficult circumstances that James finds himself in, the story unfolds in a way that feels more creepy than romantic. The movie doesn’t have the guts to delve into the intensity and heartache that the setup demands and instead settles for absurdity and clichés.

At times, Passengers feels like Titanic in space, only way worse. Plot holes abound; there are issues that the film doesn’t even try to make sense of. Things are either left unexplained or are downright unexplainable.

As for the cast, while their individual performances are serviceable, Lawrence and Pratt lack on-screen chemistry and mostly seem to be there for their overinflated paycheques. And even though Sheen is quite charming as James’s robot friend, the dull script doesn’t give his character anything original to say or do.

The premise at its core – a man stranded on a spaceship – is promising, and in the hands of a better filmmaker, this theme could have led to an interesting, compelling exploration of loneliness, love, survival, and sacrifice. But director Morten Tyldum and screenwriter Jon Spaihts emphatically falter in their attempt to create affecting drama here. Passengers starts promisingly, then veers into disturbing territory before lurching towards a preposterous, nonsensical climax, and ultimately leaves you feeling uncomfortable and underwhelmed.

Rating: 2 out of 5
- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blog - 2nd February, 2017 *