Thursday, January 9, 2020

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) - Review

Offering a satisfying conclusion to a nine-episode saga is a difficult and unenviable task that Rise of Skywalker had to undertake. With a lot of corporate oversight - classic example of too many cooks spoiling the broth - the writers and director delivered a product that did not resonate with the majority of Star Wars fans.

Steering clear of spoilers is almost impossible, but I will do my best to review this movie in abstract terms:
Rise of Skywalker is two movies crammed into one. It's fast-paced, yet feels slow. After the fan backlash on Episode 8: Return of the Jedi, Disney tried to undo some of the developments from that movie. Hence, the first half of Rise of Skywalker is course correction. I myself did not like Return of the Jedi at all, but it at least had a handful of spectacular nerd-gasmic scenes. Rise of Skywalker, unfortunately, doesn't even have that silver lining.

My biggest problem with this movie, and all the other sequels (e.g., the new Terminator movie), is that they tarnish childhood nostalgia and good memories that we had by rewriting the past. In the particular case of Episode 9: Rise of Skywalker, we see (spoiled in the trailers) the return of Emperor Palpatine. The fact that Palpatine is still alive, means that Anakin Skywalker (the redeemed Darth Vader) was NOT the promised Chosen One... His sacrifice did NOT bring balance to the force - the balance did not even last for a full generation... He did NOT end the Sith... Hence, there is no end to the struggle between Jedi and Sith. It is an inevitable fate that is going to repeat itself over and over and over again. There is no finality to the story, which negates the significance of any victory or conclusion.

Jenny Nicholson, a Youtube personality, has listed all the flaws of Episode 9 masterfully. Therefore, instead of repeating a subset of those points, I'll just embed her analysis below:

I understand why Hollywood doesn't take risk in new intellectual properties (IP) and wants to invest in what is proven to sell. I wish they rebooted the Star Wars or Terminator IP - like how we have a new Batman every decade, and it does not affect what the previous ones meant. Or if they made these movie franchises procedural like James Bond movies where every movie is just a new standalone mission.

All said, Rise of Skywalker has to be seen by everyone who has followed the franchise. It is just an Okay movie worthy of a 6/10.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

6 Underground (2019) - Review

6 Underground is a bombastic Bay-hem born out of Michael Bay's creatively bankrupt brain that violates your visual and auditory sensors to the point of numbness.

I can't call 6 Underground the worst movie of the year, but certainly the worst utilization of talent and budget. The cast could have led or supported any other movie much better, but in 6 Underground, people just yell and quip (lamely) for two hours straight. The plot is thinner than a strand of hair, with the only saving grace of the production being its stunts department. They did their best to use practical driving and parkour effects, but Michael Bay's 10 cuts/second made me dizzy and somewhat nauseous.

In the age of good blockbusters (e.g., all the Marvel movies), 6 Underground has a much harder time meeting anyone's expectations. Maybe 25 years ago, the Bay-hem was fresh and appealing, but in 2019, Netflix's 6 Underground is a 2/10 at best.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Irishman (2019) - Review

Martin Scorsese came under a lot of scrutiny for claiming that Marvel (and all the other comic book) movies are not cinema. I myself found it impossible to find a definition of, let alone make one up for cinema. But I'm quite certain about one thing; Martin Scorsese has been delivering masterpieces one after another since early 1970's. Human creativity and ingenuity is finite and everybody reaches their plateau at some point, but the quality of Scorsese's work hasn't dropped yet. Irishman might even be his best work to date!

Irishman tells the life story of Frank Sheeran (the narrator) from late 1950's to early 2000's. The movie is based on a book written by Frank's lawyer who documented his retelling of his life and interactions with real people who played somewhat significant roles in American history. Whether this narration is reliable or not is beyond anybody's comprehension. The historians have not reached a consensus on what actually transpired with regards to this story, and there is no objective truth. What we see, however, is a deeply grounded story of an outsider's journey in a foreign land: an Irish man who works at the front line of Italian Mafia in New York and Philadelphia and his dealings with a political figure of Dutch and German origin.

How much of it is true? I really don't care! I care that I witnessed 50 years of one person's life in a span of 3.5 hours. I had the privilege of spending time with fascinating characters who I could understand, sympathize, and sometimes despise. The acting, music, visuals (even the de-aging effects), cinematography, and the edits were top-notch! I highly doubt if anybody could have done a better job (even by the smallest margins).

I just have high praise for a magnificent viewing experience that made me care about the characters, with a story that made sense, and pacing that was a joy from beginning to end. Building up expectations is only going to lead to disappointments, but in all honesty, Irishman was the best movie of the decade for me. I would happily give it a 15/10!

Friday, November 1, 2019

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019) - Review

Besides "I'll be back" and "hasta la vista, baby", perhaps the other memorable quote from the Terminator franchise is: "There's no fate but what we make". But the underlying message of the latest entry, Terminator: Dark Fate, is that regardless of what these characters do (or make), the fate is still going to be the same!! Let me elaborate:

As shown in the trailers (no spoilers), there is a terminator and a guardian sent from the future to fight over someone's life. This plot device had been used in four of the previous five Terminator movies. The only 'supposed' novelty of Dark Fate is that it ignores Terminator 3-5 and goes on an alternative timeline that branches out of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Regardless of continuity (whether Terminators 1-5, or 1-2 and then Dark Fate), the fate of humanity remains the same: robots rebel against humans sometime in the future. It only may get delayed, but seems inevitable... In that very future, even though the robots have the upper hand, they still send a machine back in time to kill a human who might end up being important on day. In response, human rebels send a guardian back to protect that individual.

As someone who used to be a fan of the franchise, I have recently realized that the logic makes no sense - at least the plot of the five out of six Terminator movies (i.e., all except for Salvation). Why the robots, who are dominating in the battlefields, need to change anything in the past? From their point of view, the status quo must be perfect! Why do they (i.e., robots) need to take a proactive role in this scenario?

Those highly intelligent robots must be familiar with the butterfly effect! With the smallest change, the robots may cease to exist. At best they may eradicate a troublesome human leader, but worst case, is that their domination might end..  It would have made much more sense if humans decided to rewrite the past and sent someone (whether machine or human) in the terminator role to change/terminate the timeline, and then the robots (i.e., SkyNet or Legion) sent a guardian to protect/guard the chain of events leading to their supremacy!!

Now back to Dark Fate: I went to see this movie with great enthusiasm. The first two entries in the franchise (logic aside) are masterpieces in my opinion. In particular, Terminator 2 is (or maybe was... need to sleep on it) one of my favourite movies of all time. In T2, Arnold (T-800) was an unstoppable bear sent to protect John Connor from a fast and elusive wolf, T-1000 or the mercury man - played by Robert Patrick. Dark Fate, does a good job of replicating T2's animalistic dynamic between the guardian and terminator. The terminator is of the Rev-9 model (Gabriel Luna) and is more like a Jaguar with unlimited stamina, can leave a copy of himself behind, and instead of mercury, perhaps 'tar' could be the substance that you associate it with. The guardian, Grace (Mackenzie Davis), is almost as relentless and strong, but can only operate in short bursts - very much like a video game character that has a special move and you need to replenish it before it can be used again - and also moves like a fast feline predator (I'll let the reader pick the animal).

These two characters match up really well, and make a few memorable scenes, particularly their confrontations in the first act. Throughout the movie, the fight choreography was fast, smooth, and beautiful to watch. More positive comments can be said about Linda Hamilton's return as Sarah Connor and the always impressive Arnold Schwarzenegger. Their limitless charm is on full display. The pacing of the movie is good too. I only looked at my watch once, and it was after 1hr 45mins - only 15 minutes before the credits started rolling.

Overall, Dark Fate is an entertaining movie, but my gripes are with overuse of computer-generated images (CGI), and the flaws in the plot of endless attempts at sending guardians and terminators back in time, with a seemingly unavoidable fate. I'm also disappointed in the marketing team for overhyping James Cameron's involvement. Has Cameron become creatively bankrupt? Is he out of fresh ideas? Is he going to repeat and contradict himself from now on? I wish Cameron and the studio stop milking this cash cow before it reaches the very last drop... The cast, budget, and choreography should have been utilized to build a new franchise (rather than rehashing this old story). In case of staying with this old Terminator story, Salvation was the freshest idea that we had. Showing how the future pans out is much more interesting than yet another foolish attempt at rewriting the past.

At the risk of sounding redundant (much like this movie), Dark Fate's biggest sin was to tarnish the reputation and impact of Terminators 1 and 2! All it does is reaffirming that this loop or vicious cycle (or dark fate) is inevitable; the gender and race of characters might change, but the roles stay the same. So... why care at all? Clearly there will be sequels, but they will become void one day when the a new war between humans vs. machines begins.

As an entertaining Fast and Furious clone, Terminator: Dark Fate is a 6.5/10.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Joker (2019) - Review

Joker, the movie, is very much like a detailed sculpture that was crafted by a true master craftsman. I've been reflecting on what I experienced for almost a day now, and find myself still peeling layers and identifying new ways to interpret the film. From this perspective, I dare call this sculpture a masterpiece. But for sure I don't want to have this sculpture in my living room... or even see it again!

First, let me preface this review by saying that I am a hardcore fan of the Batman mythology and hence, better-versed in the history of Joker than the general public. I have read most (if not all) of the seminal Joker stories, and consider The Killing Joke (by Alan Moore and Brian Bolland) and Mad Love (by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm) to be the top two defining character studies. One thing that both have in common is depicting the Joker's chaotic thought process vividly. A key quote from the Killing Joke, by the Joker, is: "if I'm going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!". The Mad Love also shows how Joker fabricates different stories in order to manipulate others - in that particular case, his mark was his psychiatrist, Dr. Harleen Quinzel who later transformed into Harley Quinn. Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight also adopted this in Joker's characterization. Case in point: "You wanna know how I got these scars?"

I initially had an apprehension towards the 2019 movie thinking that the "multiple choice" aspect of Joker's past is going to be lost with a movie focusing solely on the character's origin. While the movie covers one cohesive story line, it makes the viewer question what part of it was real and what was in Arthur Fleck's mind. His name even could be a sad joke, implying that he was just a fleck of little to no significance.

The Arthur in this story is a mental health patient who laughs uncontrollably when he gets emotional (happy, sad, nervous, or stressed) and lives with his ailing mother, Penny. He earns a living as a party clown working for the HaHa agency in the rougher parts of Gotham City. After the city cuts down the budget on social services, Arthur is left without professional support and access to his medication.

On one bad day (referring to the theme from The Killing Joke), Arthur is fired from the agency for taking a gun to a children's hospital - a gun that maybe a colleague gave it to him or maybe he bought it himself... On a train ride, three businessmen pick on Arthur. He kills two of them in self-defence and chases after the third one on an empty train and catches up with him in an empty station to shoot him in point blank. The murders are reported in the press in the following days - some call it an abhorrent crime by a serial killer, and some call it vigilante justice by the disenfranchised...

The two other plot threads that we follow before the third act are the romantic relationship that Arthur establishes with his neighbour, and also the information about Arthur's parentage and childhood. The final act takes a leap of faith in how Arthur instigates a revolution in the city, but again, we are just seeing what Arthur sees.

The themes of ambiguity and unreliable narration make it much in line with Joker's personality and chaotic mind. The audience is left questioning how much of it was real, and how much of it was actually happening in Joker's mind. One clue that I'm certain was not accidental was two clocks (one in the asylum in the very beginning of the movie, and one at the HaHa agency) showing 11:11 - the exact time that many people make a wish upon noticing.  Is it all wishful thinking inside Arthur's mind? Was he at the mental hospital the whole time? Or did most of it actually happen? Well... a good Joker story keeps it multiple choice!

Joaquin Phoenix's acting is certainly Oscar worthy. The pain in his eyes, the laughs (from crying laughs to the one that was actually genuine), the body language to the the way he ran, are all going to be studied by acting students for many years to come! Todd Phillips is also deserving of all the praise that he's receiving for his masterful direction. He was a writer and producer on the film as well!

It might be obvious from all the praise that I consider this film a masterpiece and worthy of a 10/10 score! However, it was an uncomfortable experience and I may never watch it again. I only recommend it to true fans of the character, and those who appreciate a finely crafted character study (although very disturbing).

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Rambo: Last Blood (2019) - Review

As a life-long fan of Sylvester Stallone, I was very much excited for the supposed last entry in the Rambo franchise. What seemed to be an analogue to Logan (2017 - Wolverine's swan song) , turned out to be a cross between Taken and Home Alone!

The movie picks up almost a decade after the fourth film with John Rambo breeding horses in his father's ranch. We are quickly introduced to the two other residents on the ranch: a family friend (a middle-aged Mexican woman) and her niece, who is seemingly Rambo's god-daughter. The young girl is about to leave town for college, but before getting too far from her hometown, despite Rambo's warnings she decides to go on a road trip to Mexico to meet her long-lost biological father .

The god-daughter meets and gets rejected by her absentee father, and later that night, is abducted by the cartel and forced into prostitution. Cue in the plot from Taken where the old man goes to save the young girl... After the rescue operation, the cartel is looking for retaliation and they decide to attack Rambo at his home. The last 30 minutes of the movie is split between Rambo setting traps, followed by the cartel facing violent deaths.

The plot is thin and derivative, and the characters are poorly developed. John Rambo does not change much compared to the previous movies - the only bit of development comes from a short monologue by Rambo explaining how his love for his god-daughter changed his outlook for a while... The characters are also either extremely evil in case of the cartel members, or portrayed as heavenly angels (i.e., the god-daughter and her aunt). Worst of all, the pacing is slow too. The 89-minute runtime felt much longer...

I've been a fan of both Rocky and Rambo franchises, and have a lot of respect for Sylvester Stallone and how he started from zero and made himself the powerhouse that has been for the last four decades. Despite this favourable bias, I only recommend watching this movie to hardcore fans once it hits the streaming services.
I give Rambo: Last blood a 5/10.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019) - Review

Quentin Tarantino's ninth movie is a love letter to Hollywood and filmmaking. Tarantino the director is at his very best in constructing beautiful long shots and getting the best performance from his actors. Tarantino the writer, however, has written a fan fiction with inconsistencies, non-organic tonal changes, and unearned subversion of expectations.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the character of Rick Dalton, a former A-list TV actor who is past his prime and has been relegated to guest appearances as the villain in other TV shows. His loyal stunt double, Cliff Booth - played by Brad Pitt, has his destiny tied to Dalton's star power. Besides these two fictional character, the rest are real people acting or residing in Hollywood in 1969.

The first 90 minutes out of the 161-minute runtime of the movie is very much about how movies and TV shows were (and still are) made, rise and fall of fame, and the struggles of show business. As a life-long fan of movies, I very much enjoyed this part and I simply couldn't get enough! Not tonally, but spiritually, it was similar to Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar from 2016. DiCaprio was phenomenal acting as an actor on a production (very meta!), and how he dealt with an identity crisis. Brad Pitt also made me believe he had been a stunt performer all his life! As the trailers have shows, there are short appearances by other prominent Hollywood figures from 1969 (including Bruce Lee, Roman Polanski, and James Stacey).

The latter hour of the movie transforms from a character study to a horror film when Brad Pitt's character visits the Spahn Movie Ranch after giving a ride to a member of the Manson family. The horror and thriller aspects reach their peak with Manson's disciples trip to Hollywood. This section is where the tone changes unexpectedly with a rather long narration by Kurt Russell.  What was disorienting most about this narration was the fact that Kurt Russell had appeared earlier as a stuntman, and really had no reason to be the omniscient narrator 90 minutes into the movie!

We also spend a few minutes looking at Margot Robbie (acting as Sharon Tate), watching a Sharon Tate movie! It's bordering on spoilers territory, but inclusion of Sharon Tate in "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" did not contribute to the plot one iota other than subverting an expectation near the end!

Tarantino has expressed in interviews that he was a huge fan of Sharon Tate in his childhood, and this gives the impression that he simply wanted to write a fan fiction to appease his teenage self. I'm sure almost everyone has created scenarios about their childhood celebrity crushes in their minds. Of course, only an infinitesimal portion of us have the power and resources to make a movie based on the fan fiction. Quentin Tarantino is among that select few...

The movie's high points are its actors' performances as well as the beautiful shots of Los Angeles. Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood is still a pretty good film, but I'd rank it seventh out of the nine that Tarantino has made (above Hateful Eight and Death Proof), and give it a 7.5/10.