Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Rogue One (2016)

Disney plans to release one Star Wars movie every year. So far, they have hit the bullseye two out of two!

Rogue One's story serves as a prologue to Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). So if you've seen Episode IV (well, who hasn't?), you already know that Rogue's One objective is going to be achieved. This makes it similar to a historical drama (e.g., you already know which side won WWII). But an effective filmmaker can still make you excited and thrilled about what's going to happen!

The team behind Rogue One - directed by Gareth Edwards, and written by John Knoll, Gary Whitta, Chris Weitz, and Tony Gilroy - do a magnificent job of making you care about the characters as well as the outcome! The story makes a lot of sense! It even elevates Episode IV by giving sound explanations to some of Episode IV's plot holes. Rogue One also shows how the rebel alliance came to act as a unit in the New Hope. In short, the alliance had good leadership, but they were disjointed. The empire's deployment of the Death Star gave the alliance a common cause to put aside their differences and act together. This little plot development is analogue to many events in the past as well as recent history! But I digress...

The film is 134 minutes long. It paces the story pretty well. The first half is spent on character building, and it takes a while for the story to pick up. But the second half delivers in spades! I don't remember if I blinked an eye during the second half! Well, of course I'm exaggerating, but there were three battles going on at the same time (similar to the third act in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi)!... The slower progression of the first half was perhaps necessary to build up to the second half and make it this much better!

Rogue One doesn't have a main character. One could argue that Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has the most amount of screen time; thus, she is the star! But, in my opinion, Jyn was merely a plot device to tell the story. The other members of the ensemble were as integral to the plot as Jyn was. The connection that you make with the new droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), and Baze Maibus (Wen Jiang) is on par with what you felt for Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewy. Of course the characters from the original trilogy had names that were easier to remember! Other that this, Rogue One's characters are developed magnificently!

I should commend Disney for two reasons: first, they didn't spoil the movie during their marketing campaign (unlike Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice). The trailers didn't give away much of the plot - they had scenes that were not even in the movie! Second, Disney and LucasFilm were really bold with how they developed this story and let it come to fruition.!You expect these companies to milk a property till the last drop, but Disney let Rogue One to be a unique chapter within the Star Wars universe!

Hardcore and even casual fans of Star Wars (I'm actually in the latter category) would love this movie; the story is beautiful and complements the original trilogy really well! In addition, some of the small references (e.g., Red Leader) are really nostalgic! Newcomers to the Star Wars saga could also enjoy Rogue One immensely. It is a well-told story, with likeable characters, and beautiful cinematography and action! The score doesn't rise to John Williams' quality of work, but that is a small gripe...

For the sheer entertainment value, and out of respect for Disney for their leadership, I'd give Rogue One a 10/10!

Monday, December 19, 2016

WestWorld (2016) - Season 1

WestWorld is the must-see TV show of 2016! Although it is considered an adaptation from a movie by Dr. Michael Crichton (of Jurassic World fame), it is one of the most original scripts on TV! Of course one could argue it's not TV, it's HBO!

WestWorld takes place in the near future, where artificial intelligence and robotics have become so advanced that it is impossible to tell the difference between code and human brain, or between synthetic and organic tissue. WestWorld is a theme park set in the wild west era (late 19th century), and is filled with robots (or "hosts") that are indistinguishable from humans. The guests can pay $50,000/day to enter the park and take part in different quests - similar to role-playing video games that people play online.

WestWorld is an ensemble show that focuses on multiple story threads at the same time. These threads happen within the same geographical location (i.e., the WestWorld theme park), but during different time frames. Some of the interesting twists and reveals of the show are about deciphering the timelines and chronological order of events!

As an ensemble show, particularly within the first season, it might be hard to make a connection with individual characters. WestWorld, however, rose to the challenge and made us care about most players of the game. Credit goes to writers, as well as the actors.

Speaking of actors, the casting is magnificent! Sir Anthony Hopkins delivers a flawless and nuanced performance that could be studied for ages! Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, and Ed Harris also did great jobs with their respective characters. But as I mentioned earlier, perhaps the real stars are the writers. Not only they managed to tell an engaging story, they also put a lot of depth and symbolism in the narrative of the show.

I can think of three philosophical issues that WestWorld incorporated in its story - they didn't necessarily give definitive answers to these questions/issues, but I think it was a faithful representation. Okay, the first one is about the moral fibre of the society. It shows what people would do when there are no (legal) consequences to their actions! Guests can simply do whatever they want in the park with the robots. They can play the hero and save the damsel in distress, or they can become an outlaw and commit heinous acts (e.g., steal, rape, or murder). Although there is no impact on the real humans, the intentions are still the same - ethic scholars talk about morality of consequences vs. morality of intentions. WestWorld is an interesting case study of this debate (consequences vs. intentions), and shows what people would do when they are not limited by the consequences of their actions.

The second important issue that WestWorld covers is about awakening! As I mentioned earlier, the artificial intelligence has become so advanced that the robots are almost sentient. The robots (or hosts) in the show have started asking questions about their own existence and their creators. They began to refuse the bans and restrictions, and seek objective facts. This might be analogue to what humans went through during the renaissance era!

Finally, the third topic is about what it feels to be a (or "the") god in the world! The creators of the theme park have ultimate control over everything that goes on in WestWorld. They can control weather, events, settings, and even beliefs! Sir Anthony Hopkins, as Dr. Robert Ford, brilliantly shows what godhood feels like!

I praised the story a lot, but it is not without flaws! There was one particular storyline that simply didn't make sense! I'll try to avoid spoilers as much as possible: in this thread, one of the robots managed to manipulate the human technicians and turned herself into a god! Her arc was interesting and her character was sympathetic, but the progression of her status defied reason and logic! The show tried to imply that it was all part of the plan, but it was too coincidental! The other "miss" that the show had was perhaps about playing with different time frames. Most of the story arcs were happening within a span of months, expect for one that covered a few decades. That little disparity did not mesh well with the rest, in my opinion...

The creators of the show, Jonathan Nolan, Lisa Joy, and J.J. Abrams, have developed a story that has the potential of going on for many seasons, and having multiple spin-offs (e.g., Shogun World)! I, however, hope they don't overstay their welcome and conclude the story before they have to jump the shark!

The first season was 9.5/10 for me. I cannot wait for the next season (probably in 2018?) to see how deep the rabbit hole goes!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Moana (2016)

The latest movie from Walt Disney Animation Studios is targeted at younger audience and tries to position itself in a rather untapped setting/culture. The results are mixed!

The big names behind the movie are Ron Clements and John Musker (the directors who were also responsible for classics like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin), Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (voice of Maui), and Lin Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame, who wrote the songs).

Don't expect Moana to enter the stable of Disney classics such as The Little Mermaid or Aladdin, or even Frozen. I'm not fully sold on the message of the movie either. It tells the story of a young girl whose father is the chief of the tribe, and she is next in line to be the chief. Moana feels that the ocean is calling her. The father/chief, though, is against the idea since he himself lost people chasing that dream. Considering this background, the father's reason seemed rational to me. But the film tells audience to defy the authority, even when they have good reasons.

Other than the initial motivation for embarking on the adventure, the movie suffers from a weak villain, or lack thereof. I wasn't sure who the antagonist was until the last 10 minutes of the movie, and then I found out that the villain was not actually a villain!

As for entertainment value, Moana suffers in the first third, but then after the introduction of Maui (voiced by The Rock), it changes significantly! The Rock delivers in spades, and he deserves all the praise that he gets these days! As for the other big player (Lin Manuel Miranda) I only liked two of the songs that he wrote - one sang by Maui, and the other one by the crab! The rest of the songs were some of the weakest that you could find in the Disney animation catalogue!

So, if you are going to see the movie with a young person, it wouldn't be the worst experience! But more adult fans of animation should perhaps skip this one! The saving grace of the movie is the visuals. Well, Hawaii is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and a Disney cartoon set in Hawaii should also look beautiful. Overall, I'd give Moana a 6/10.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Allied (2016)

The Oscar season has come again, and with it, some of the more mature movies with great direction and acting! Allied is still a Hollywood movie, but written and directed by masters!

The star of Allied is Robert Zemeckis - the director who is best known for Back to the Future franchise, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Forrest Gump. Allied is not on par with Roger Rabbit or Forrest Gump as auteur movies of this generation, but still, it is a convincing yet unpredictable story that keeps you on the edge of your seat!

Allied belongs to the genres of action, thriller, and romance, but manages to juggle between them seamlessly! The ticking clock makes you anxious, the fight scenes make you excited, and the personal scenes make you care about the characters! All of that takes place during the 124 minute run-time of the film, and I do not remember looking at my watch more than twice!

Brad Pitt deserves a shoutout for his understated performance!There was nuance in the poker face that he showed during those stressful times. I'm not sure if it was an Oscar-winning performance, but he sure deserves a nomination! Marion Cotillard (who has already won the Oscar once) delivered an intriguing performance. She does such a magnificent job that makes it hard to believe that her real-life personality is different from her character in the movie!

Allied is one of the best movies in theatres at the moment, and deserves to be enjoyed by many. I'd give it a 9/10!

Accountant (2016)

Accountant is a self-contained action thriller with franchise potential!

Ben Affleck plays a math savant (read autistic) hero-for-hire. His acting was understated and engaging. Props to the screenwriter and director for believably developing this character and putting him in a techno-thriller-corporate-espionage movie for the 21st century. They also left the door open for sequels, but I commend them for telling a cohesive three-act story - unlike some other entries this year.

By no means I could say that this is a must-see movie. But it sure is entertaining with interesting characters and story, and also a very well-choreographed fight between Ben Affleck and Jon Bernthal  - or Batman vs. Punisher!

As one of the few good action movies of the Fall season, I'd give it an 8/10!

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

This prequel to the Harry Potter films takes us back to J.K. Rowling's wizarding world. But it seems the only purpose of this movie was to build a franchise instead of telling a stand-alone story!

I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and read them all within the first week of their release dates. J.K. Rowling is a master storyteller - there's simply no other writer that could make you turn pages faster than Rowling! I, however, was not a fan of Harry's character! Of course I sympathized with him and wanted him to succeed, but I was irritated by his stubbornness and obnoxiousness - which were the cause of many of the problems, including the death of Sirius Black. Harry's characterization aside, the pacing and storytelling in the books were simply perfect.

These strengths did not completely transfer to the movie adaptations though! It was nice to see the characters come to life, but the films couldn't capture the magic of the books! The movies were filled with cheap-looking CGI, and were rushed to fit in 600-page books into two hours.

Revisiting that movie franchise is bitter-sweet. It is of course familiar, and hearing the Harry Potter theme at the beginning of the Fantastic Beasts was nostalgic. In addition to the music and aura, the ridiculous CGI has come back too!

Looks aside, characters are not fleshed out either. Newt is a neutral character (forgive the pun), but I prefer him to Harry since I didn't find Newt insufferable! Kowalski as the comic relief was hit or miss. Tina Goldstein - the disgraced auror - was perhaps the best developed character in the film. Also hats off to Colin Farrell's Percival Graves.

As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the movie fails in telling a complete story. It just tries to set the table for the next four sequels that are already planned! In case you desperately miss the wizarding world, then perhaps Fantastic Beasts is worth the price of admission. Otherwise, I'd wait for it to come to streaming services. I give it a 6.5/10.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)

Tom Cruise is the ultimate action star of this generation. Having the Mission Impossible franchise as his ultimate offering, perhaps it made sense to him to have an entry-level brand in this genre in the name of Jack Reacher. Now that Tom Cruise involved in the Mummy and Universal Monsters Cinematic Universe, Jack Reacher may get pushed down to even a lower status in his repertoire.

The second film in the Jack Reacher franchise does not reinvent the formula, nor does it improve on the first entry. It tries to incorporate elements such as romance (with Cobie Smulders) and fatherhood into the action. The problem is that the action or plot don't go beyond the standards of some of the high quality TV shows such as 24, Homeland, or even Banshee!

Tom Cruise is a superstar and he knows how to deliver one-liners with a straight face! I consider myself a fan, and I managed to enjoy the movie because of his performance. There's not much to be said; just try to lower your expectations, and you could enjoy this movie on a Sunday afternoon. I'd give it a 6/10.