FILM REVIEW: FINDING DORY (2016)

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Dory: The best things happen by chance.

Director: Andrew Stanton (Co-Director) Angus MacLane

Writers: Andrew Stanton and Victoria Strouse

Starring: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Ty Burrell

Synopsis: A year after Finding Nemo, Dory remembers information which could reunite her with her estranged parents. What follows is a journey through the ocean and a marine aquarium to find her parents while Nemo and Marlin try and find Dory.

Finding Nemo (2003) is still perhaps one of the best Pixar films coming in the height of Pixar’s critical acclaim and popularity. The animators had created a beautiful and unique vision of the ocean and also included captivating characters such as Nemo, Marlin and Dory. Thirteen years later and Pixar has somewhat fallen from their throne. After 2003’s Finding Nemo, Pixar continued its stellar run with The Incredibles (2004), Wall E (2008), Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010). Personally I think they lost their way this decade with Cars 2 (2011), Brave (2012), and Monsters University (2013). However they acheived redemption last year with the brilliant Inside Out (2015). Finding Dory continues their upward tick in a charming and fun sequel to the classic Finding Nemo. They couldn’t top that original film however they simply continue the story and move the action to Dory’s point of view with Nemo and Marlin becoming the side characters.

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Dory is continuing to hang around Nemo and Marlin when one day she begins to remember things about her parents and how she lost them as a baby. She begins a journey to find them with the help of Marlin and Nemo. Along the way they again meet fun new characters such as the cantankerous Octopus (voiced by the renowned Ed O’Neil), Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) a wide eyed whale shark and Bailey the beluga whale (Ty Burrell). All of these characters provide fun and commentary as Dory continues through different set pieces to find her parents. Differing from the original film most of the story takes place in an aquarium rather than the open ocean which opens ideas about marine life in captivity and our favourite characters dealing with tourists and aquarium exhibits. However most of the film deals with being different and being accepted which is a strong theme for a children’s film in 2016.

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This film is so much fun with a lot of heart as well as you would expect from a Pixar film. It is not one of their best but it is very enjoyable and better than the sequels they have released this decade.

Rating: 4 Stars

FILM REVIEW: THE JUNGLE BOOK (2016)

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Baloo: [singing] Forget about your worries and your strife…
Mowgli: What’s that?
Baloo: That’s a song about the good life.

Director: Jon Favreau

Starring: Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken

Synopsis: The man-cub Mowgli flees the jungle after a threat from the tiger Shere Khan. Guided by Bagheera the panther and the bear Baloo, Mowgli embarks on a journey of self-discovery, though he also meets creatures who don’t have his best interests at heart.

Perhaps Jon Favreau’s most disappointing film in years after the game changing Iron Man films and 2014’s charming Chef. The film is visually stunning however there doesn’t appear to be any linking narrative aka beginning, middle, end or character development. It is simply random scenes connected together by the one-note Mowgli and various animals in the jungle. However I don’t completely blame Jon Favreau as he is merely reenacting the animated Disney original from 1967 with less songs.

The plot of The Jungle Book revolves around a young boy named Mowgli (Neel Sethi) who has been raised by wolves and the wise panther Bagheera (voiced regally by Ben Kingsley) in the Indian jungle. With threats from the chilling tiger Shere Khan (voiced menacingly by Idris Elba) Mowgli must leave the wolves and find his own people. Along the way he meets a sneaky snake (voiced seductively by Scarlett Johansson) and a laid back bear named Baloo (voiced with charm by the always great Bill Murray). He also ends up in a temple run by the gigantic ape King Louie (voiced by Christopher Walken playing The Godfather). These series of events barely connect with each other and the film eventually finds a climax where the hero prevails but little else really matters. In fact the whole film felt like a series of events that don’t really matter. Mowgli is constantly saved from any threats and the actor does such a poor job in gaining any respect from the viewer as he clumsily reads through his lines and stares blankly at cgi creatures. I understand it must have been difficult for him to stare at tennis balls or sticks and create a realistic performance but with Favreau’s past with child actors including Emjay Anthony from Chef or Ty Simpkins from Iron Man 3 I was expecting more.

Where Favreau doesn’t let the audience down is with the breath-taking special effects. All of the animals are uniquely structured with meticulous design to put you in a real world of walking talking animals with genuine personalities. It was amazing to watch however if only the story and protagonist were more impactful.

Rating: 2 Stars

FILM REVIEW: FURIOUS 7 (2015)

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Dominic Toretto: I used to say I live my life a quarter mile at a time and I think that’s why we were brothers – because you did too. No matter where you are, whether it’s a quarter mile away or half way across the world. The most important thing in life will always be the people in this room, right here, right now. Salute mi familia. You’ll always be with me. And you’ll always be my brother.

Director: James Wan

Starring: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Nathalie Emmanuel, Jordana Brewster, Jason Statham, Kurt Russell and Dwayne Johnson

Synopsis: After the death of a close ally, Dominic Toretto, brings his gang back together to seek revenge and also go on a worldwide mission to help the government get their hands on a new form of GPS tracking equipment that can trace anyone in the world.

Unfortunately franchise fatigue and tragic behind the scenes events weigh heavy on the seventh instalment of the Fast and Furious saga. It has been said again and again but it is quite the feat to have a b level action film from 2001 with no stars or credibility to go on to become a billion dollar franchise over ten years later. After the original The Fast and the Furious (2001) was a surprise hit and made street car racing popular the studio quickly went on to develop a sequel with the partnership of Vin Diesel’s stoic bad boy car racer, Dominic Toretto, and Paul Walker’s good boy charming undercover cop, Brian O’Conner to recapture the magic of the original. However Diesel didn’t want to be a part of it (believing he’d have a stronger career in more dramatic roles) so the studio went ahead and replaced him with Tyrese Gibson’s bad boy, Roman, who was essentially a more charming version of Toretto in 2003’s 2 Fast 2 Furious (great title). Then in 2006 Universal released The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, which essentially strayed away from the buddy cop genre conventions of the previous two and went with a new story revolving around a troubled youth who has to move to Japan and discovers car racing and drifting. The film was the least successful of the franchise but did introduce Sung Kan’s Han who would become a series regular. The film also ended with a surprise cameo from Vin Diesel tying the film to the franchise. Perhaps the most important asset the third film brought was the introduction of director Justin Lin who would go on to re-establish the franchise for the better. In 2009, Lin brought the original four back together with the reunion of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez. It was a fun reunion and was a huge success at the box office showing that the franchise could live on. In 2011, Lin directed the best in the series with Fast Five, taking the gang on a wild heist and introducing Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s Hobbs a federal Marshall on the hunt for Toretto. Johnson brought swagger and charm to the role of Hobb’s and Lin brought breathtaking action sequences to new heights and the series was now a phenomenon. In 2013, Lin made his final bow with Fast Six, which was another action masterpiece with incredible set pieces. However Lin decided to leave the franchise when Universal wanted to rush production and have Furious Seven released a year later. James Wan, successful from horror hits such as Saw, Insidious and The Conjuring was brought in to complete the film. Wan a talented director wanted to explore an action film and things were on the way however only months into production, Paul Walker tragically passed away in a car crash. The film appeared to be over however with time away and further negotiations, Diesel and crew decided to complete the film as a tribute to Walker. With CGI, Walker’s brothers as stand ins and existing footage they were going to complete the scenes of Brian and also send him off with a farewell from the team/franchise.

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With Walker’s death changing everything the film suffers on two levels. One it is hard to watch Walker drive into death defying situations without feeling uncomfortable knowing he died in reality doing the same sort of thing. Also his later scenes feel clunky with him speaking on the phone filmed from his back or fighting Tony Jaa in the dark to obscure his face it shows that despite their noble efforts the filmmakers still couldn’t hide the fact that Brian was no longer played by Walker. Also the films narrative switches to accommodate his characters departure from the franchise. Although in previous films Brian partnered with Torreto’s sister, Mia (played by Jordana Brewster) and even had a child with her. Now he decides to leave the gang and live with her far away. The final scenes are an emotional tribute to Walker and Brian however after further thought his character could have had a stronger exit.

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Now for the rest of the film the gang is on two missions. One is to fight Jason Statham’s new character of Dereck Shaw, brother of Owen Shaw from Fast Six that was put into a coma by Torreto. As Torreto and his gang fight Shaw they meet a new ally in Kurt Russell’s Mr Nobody, a shady government agent who gets Torreto’s crew to work for him to find a GPS tracker which can find anyone in the world. Despite some great action scenes the films multiple plots are hard to keep track of and at 137 minutes of exploding cars, helicopters, city streets it all becomes a bit too much. Lin was better equipped at handling action scenes in FF 3 – 6 with slower panning and longer edits. Unfortunately Wan films his action in quick cuts and it is hard to keep up with the space of the characters, cars, helicopters, etc in most of the action scenes. Wan shows some impressive camera angles in the first fist fight between Johnson and Statham however as the film moves on to car chases and explosions Wan suffers under the pressure to top the last films action creativity.

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With a confusing plot and action scenes with jarring quick cuts unfortunately Furious Seven ends up being one of the least enjoyable in the franchise. The film isn’t terrible with a moving tribute to Walker and a few enjoyable action scenes. It is disappointing as the previous entries have set the bar extremely high. Only Dwayne Johnson’s Hobbs saves the film with a bit of humour but he is also taken out far too quickly in the opening scenes of the film.

Rating: 2 Stars

Ranking of the Fast and Furious Franchise.

1. Fast Five (2011)
2. Fast Six (2013)
3. The Fast and the Furious (2001)
4. Fast & Furious (2004)
5. Furious Seven (2015)
6. 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)
7. The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

FILM REVIEW: THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)

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Stephen Hawking: There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.

Director: James Marsh

Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones

Synopsis: The story of physician Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane.

The Theory of Everything is an above average biopic which unfortunately doesn’t rise above its strong subject matter. The problem with biopics is that they end up being clips of important parts of a famous person’s life. Biopics such as A Beautiful Mind and The Aviator although have strong performances from its lead actors only skim the surface of powerful lives. Films such as The Social Network and Schindler’s List provide an accurate take of a part of that person’s life (possibly the most important part). The Theory of Everything unfortunately falls into the former category by trying to fit in twenty or more years into a two hour frame. Therefore we don’t quite get into Hawking’s theories or how he came to them (except for clumsy scenes depicting a look into a fireplace birthing his theory of the black hole). Where the film succeeds is in its extraordinary performances. Eddie Redmayne’s performance of Hawking captures the physicality and heart of a man paralysed by ALS. His performance never feels false and this is quite an achievement to capture the speech and physical bodily tension of Hawking over the years as his body slowly degenerates. Felicity Jones also excels as his wife Jane. She could have played it as the sad wife constantly trying to help however Jones fills Jane with a strong spirit and a will all her own as she tries to find her own identity as a wife of not only a successful and popular physicist but also a man whose body is failing him. Also she must take care of her children and find time for herself to finish her own studies. It is a powerful and heartbreaking story which elevates this biopic to something greater.

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The film is visually striking and captures its time quite perfectly. Overall a better than average biopic which often falls into the pitfalls of telling a vast story in two hours but the lead performances make it memorable.

Rating: 3 Stars

FILM REVIEW: AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)

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Wayne Kyle: There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs, Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. Then you’ve got predators, who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves. And then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression, an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog.

Director: Clint Eastwood

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller

Synopsis: The true story of Chris Kyle, the most deadly sniper in American history with over 160 confirmed kills over four tours during the Iraq war. However when he returns home to his family he can’t easily escape the war that now lives inside him.

Clint Eastwood returns to fine form in this gripping true story of American soldier Chris Kyle. The film opens in Kyle’s childhood with his strict Catholic father teaching him the respect for guns and to protect your own no matter what. It is these values that follow Kyle into adulthood when he begins to see America is under attack from foreign enemies. He joins the army and becomes a NAVY seal. His skills with a sniper rifle are quickly discovered by his superiors and he is promoted. Meanwhile Chris meets Taya and they soon fall in love and get married. However just before they get married the tragic events of 9/11 occur which sparks the American war with Iraq.

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Eastwood has a strong eye for action scenes from his early works such as The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) to Sudden Impact (1983) to Unforgiven (1992). Even his dramas can contain gripping action sequences such as Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Gran Torino (2008). It is during Kyle’s tours in Iraq where Eastwood’s direction really shines in his gripping and tension filled sequences involving Kyle having to take a shot, whether it is a child or mother or another skilled sniper these action sequences are breathtaking and elevate this film to a very high standard. Eastwood knows there is no black and white reason for the war or for taking a life and Kyle’s story is filled with compromised choices that no man should ever have to make. Eastwood also shows the human frailty of being in the war and taking so many lives as Kyle returns to a quiet and loving home but can’t get the screams and gunshots out of his head.

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Bradley Cooper gives a gripping performance as Chris Kyle not only physically (he put on mass pounds to appear bulky as the real Kyle) but also emotionally with his piercing eyes showing us the cost of war. He is riveting throughout and elevates the film to near classic status. Sienna Miller also turns in a strong performance as Kyle’s wife Taya who also must deal with raising a family and trying to save her husband from the war he can’t leave behind. The politics do become a bit shaky by the end of the film as Eastwood and Cooper show a man struggling with this devastating war however as the film ends Eastwood begins to portray Kyle as a true American hero however Cooper portrays him as a broken man who had given too much to his country with little reward. Although the politics are a tad unsteady, Eastwood and Cooper deliver a strong and riveting drama.

Rating: 4 Stars

FILM REVIEW: FOCUS (2015)

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Nicky: It’s about distraction. It’s about focus. The brain is slow and it can’t multitask. Tap him here, take from there.

Director: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie

Synopsis: Veteran con man Nicky teaches a young apprentice Jess in the art of the con. Never lose focus, however as Nicky grows feelings for his apprentice their latest con may become more difficult for everyone involved.

The old school charming Will Smith is back in form in his latest con caper romantic drama, Focus. Smith was the hottest star of the 90s with blockbuster hits such as Bad Boys (1995), Independence Day (1996), and Men in Black (1997). In the 2000’s he began to explore his dramatic side with the biopics Ali (2001) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) but still found time to provide blockbusters such as I, Robot (2004) and I Am Legend (2007) however the 10s haven’t been as kind to him with the box office and critical failures such as After Earth (2013) and Winter’s Tale (2014). As a comeback vehicle Smith has chosen a con artist caper film in the vein of Ocean’s Eleven (2001) and American Hustle (2013) however this film is a pale imitation at best.

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Although Smith returns to form with his charming one liners and buff muscles flexing through his stylish clothes, the film has a flawed script which never lives up to the potential of its excellent leads. Matching Smith’s charm is the beautiful Margot Robbie hot off her impressive debut in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). Robbie is not only a sexy foil for Smith but she also has the acting ability to stretch her character from inept pocket thief to a skilled, sexy and appealing hustler. The plot revolves around Smith’s Nicky training Robbie’s Jess into a skilled con artist. Soon enough Nicky falls for Jess and decides to abandon her so he doesn’t “lose his focus” as a skilled con artist who can’t have anything or anyone stop him from completing the long con. Predictably they meet again three years later as Nicky is planning his next con which could make him millions.

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In a film like this I was expecting plenty of plot twists and clever set pieces involving people getting conned. Unfortunately there aren’t many twists and the final act is a convoluted mess which should have left the audience surprised instead of scratching their heads wondering what the point of the last two hours were. With impressive cinematography and good actors unfortunately the script and its surprises aren’t impressive and leaves this film feeling like a waste of everyone’s time.

Rating: 1 Star

FILM REVIEW: FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (2015)

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Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson

Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan

Synopsis: College student Anastasia Steele has to interview Billionaire Christian Grey for one of her papers. After their meeting begins a journey of passion, desire, love and pain…lots of pain.

The popular erotic fiction novel Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James has been long in development and after four years of speculation finally makes it to the big screen. It has taken long to develop due to its source material, I have not read the novels however it is common knowledge that the books delve into the ideas of S&M quite deeply and a feature film would not be able to translate word to screen without appearing in a XXX theatre. The filmmakers including director Sam Taylor-Johnson decided to tone down the sex and bondage and concentrate on its two lead characters Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. Unfortunately the two lead characters aren’t that interesting and what is left is a mediocre pilot episode for a series that could have been a lot better on cable television such as recent book adaptations; Game of Thrones, True Blood and Dexter.

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The film overall is essentially a will they or won’t they pull back and forth between Christian and Anastasia. Anastasia meets Christian, in a particularly awkward scene which shows the lack of experience of actors Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan. Thankfully the actors eventually grow into their roles and the film does get interesting when we discover Christian’s darker side and Anastasia’s curiosity in it. The film is slick and glossy throughout and the sex scenes are well executed and harken back to the 90’s erotic thrillers Basic Instinct and Sliver. However the film has nowhere to go, with little plot other than Christian and Anastasia’s will they or won’t they all we are left with is….nothing. The abrupt ending can only lead to further sequels but doesn’t satisfy the casual viewer looking for a self-contained story involving introduction, conflict and resolution. Instead we get introduction, conflict and cliffhanger. Which as I stated earlier could work well for a pilot episode of a television show but unfortunately I expect more from a feature film. The film reminds me of the Twilight franchise with the awkward female lead falling for the brooding and dark male lead. However even the first Twilight film had a side mystery which kept the casual viewer interested. This film simply follows its two leads and expects the audience to buy into their twisted romance. I didn’t.

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The film overall looks great with glossy cinematography and sensual lighting throughout. The director does his best with the material he has. The two leads begin awkwardly but grow into their roles by the end. For fans of the novels only.

Rating: 1.5 Stars