Musical, Reviews

Step Up 3D

Step Up 3D

Copyright © 2010 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Story
From Maryland to New York, Moose (Adam G. Sevani) is now a major in electrical engineering and about to begin his first year but a chance meeting with Luke Katcher (Rick Malambri) and his crew from the House of Pirates thrusts him back into the dance scene. He finds it increasingly difficult to balance his studies and practice for the ‘World Jam’ with the group but does not want to let his new friends down as the cash prize will ensure the Pirates’ warehouse-turned-club/home is not auctioned off due to unpaid rents. His friendship with Camille Gage (Alyson Stoner) is strained along the way but is repaired when she realises that he is great at what he does and encourages him to continue pursuing it.

Review
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, why is this slick but clichéd amalgam of better underdog tales not stepping up to the plate in its third showcase? Not that it is not a charm, just not the threequel that it could have been. After missing the mark twice, it does come out marginally improved in several areas but the basic ingredient that distinguishes it from being hokey and merely okay is sadly still missing in this installment.

The idea of a selfless leader whose aspirations in filming and dedication to dance is bursting with potential, enough material to not only fill the entire running time, it would make for a compelling watch also should there be a spin-off to his character. It does not stop right there as the other story arcs involving Natalie (Sharni Vinson) and Julien’s (Joe Slaughter) opposing views on loyalty and Moose’s struggle to do what he loves are all identifiable issues faced in real life.

If only they did not play second fiddle to another round of stunning choreography that takes centre stage once again. An unwise decision to box its reach to only its core faction of moviegoers. Smashes of the year like ‘Inception’, ‘Easy A’ and ‘The King’s Speech’ are just a few which gained from good word-of-mouth. This latest edition probably would have benefitted similarly if the powers that be did not take the safest route in fortifying its chances for the best financial returns.

The story’s predictability and superficiality erases the film’s promising start and progressive view on the impact dance has on the youth. Although it fails as a social commentary, the ‘candid’ moments Katcher captures from his fellow dancers and their sincere responses provide the loudest voice; enough to even drown out the eclectic mix from a masterfully chosen set of songs. The used of each song is carefully represented to advance the varying moods and frequently expanding dance genres.

There is no need for me to go into the details on the dance routines but if I have to sum it up in one word, it would be electrifying. Bringing back most of the creative team from ‘Step Up 2’ and promoting Sevani to co-lead are strokes of genius. He already was quite a charmer in number two but here, his passion for the arts and contradicting feelings to fulfill his parents’ dreams are ventured deeper in compensating for the movie’s hollowed yet still sultry looking shell.

Rating
Entirety: B-
Acting: B-
Plot: C+

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language

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Musical, Reviews

Step Up 2: The Streets

Step Up 2

Copyright © 2008 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Story
In the next chapter, the focus is on Andie West (Briana Evigan) who dreams of becoming a street dancer. She dances with her crew, the 410 but her legal guardian, Sarah (Sonja Sohn) is aware of the crimes the group participates and is concerned over the unhealthy influence it has on West. To appease both sides, Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum) suggests that she try auditioning for the Maryland School of Arts which he did a while back. She is accepted into the school with the help of Chase Collins (Robert Hoffman) but when the 410 learns of her enrollment, she is ousted from the team. West and Collins then decide to form a new group comprising of Collins’ contacts in school who are diversely talented but have been sidelined by the mainstream crowd including West’s new friend Moose (Adam G. Sevani) in preparation for the dance competition, ‘The Streets’ which is last won by the 410.

Review
Two years since Tatum danced his way into our hearts (and stardom), the mantel now goes to Evigan for picking up where the once bad boy left off. Only reduced to a cameo (unfortunately), Gage’s odyssey is ready for the next phase to adulthood and before he rides off into the sunset with his beloved, he encourages West to find her footing in an arena that she clearly is passionate about in a playful and well-conceived hip-hop routine. It sets the tone for other mind-blowing numbers to follow.

Blame it on the astounding box office returns from a $12 million production budget for the 2006 flick, we are basically watching a rehash of a familiar tread except for a few tweaks here and there (the boy gets to play the privilege sophomore with the heart of gold instead). The script’s clunky dialogue bordering on cheesiness is to be blamed for the actors’ inability to emote more convincingly and the handsome pairing of Evigan and Hoffman does feel awkward at times because of that.

The lines spouted do not progress the romance organically and the forced partnership does little to ignite the sparks of a fiery chemistry. But put this two on a dance floor, they sure know how to keep the momentum going. What is sorely missing for meatier substance in a skeletal frame is made up again with the raw energy emitting from the cast who encompasses a majority of dancers-turned-actors. Dance enthusiasts no doubt will have plenty to relish as the ante is consistently upped from one performance to another.

In the producer seat for the second time is Adam Shankman and the talent he has assembled off screen for crafting some fine footwork are recognisable faces from the hit reality television show, ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ which he is also a part of in the judging panel. The combination of styles from Jamal Sims and Dave Scott are vividly brought to life by John M. Chu in his directing debut. Chu’s keen eye for visuals and confidence in his actors’ strengths are assuredly a step up from his predecessor (no pun intended).

Two of the supporting players that rise from the mediocrity are Sevani and Mari Koda. Through their quirkiness and naiveté, they are hands down the best human element to a technically proficient piece of film making. Their non-conforming stance to individuality is humorous yet sincere; all made more memorable when each get to shine in the final dance off. If only the movie actually followed its own advice on the individualism it so strongly celebrates, it would be up in the streets front and centre as opposed to being relegated unceremoniously in a hidden alley.

Rating
Entirety: C+
Acting: B-
Plot: C-

Rated PG-13 for language, some suggestive material and brief violence

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Musical, Reviews

Step Up

Step Up

Copyright © 2006 by Buena Vista Pictures

Story
Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum), a troubled teen with his friends, brothers Mac (Damaine Radcliff) and Skinny Carter (De’Shawn Washington) break into the Maryland School of Arts and destroy the props in the school’s theatre. He is caught and accepts full responsibility for the act without giving away any of his friends’ identities. As punishment, he is sentenced to community service to be served in the same school he vandalised. Shortly, he meets Nora Clark (Jenna Dewan) who is in the middle of preparing her audition performance. When she is left without her partner, Gage offers to help her with rehearsals. Initially reluctant, she changes her mind after being impressed by his talent. Together, they learn more about each other and hope the support and love they have developed over time will lead them to a better future.

Review
After a very profitable run in the multiplexes, ‘Save the Last Dance’ revived a sub-musical genre which had lay dormant since the 1980s via hits like ‘Fame’, ‘Flashdance’, ‘Footloose’ and ‘Dirty Dancing’; movies dedicated to the world of dance. As with all other success stories, Hollywood has its way of milking the cow dry with many variations of the tried and tested. That is why we are being bombarded with formulaic derivatives for the past decade through half-baked products ranging from ‘You Got Served’ to ‘Make It Happen’.

Only one seemed to have been unscathed from being ripped apart by critics all over and nabbed a ‘Best Actress in a Leading Role’ Oscar for its star, Natalie Portman. Oh wait, the movie was more about the ballerina’s ongoing turmoil with herself in achieving perfection and its repercussions to her sanity rather than a two hour fluff to showcase her dance agility. So I guess it does not count. We will just have to keep an open mind for that day to come. It could be this year’s latest ‘Step Up’ to do it.

Seeing as how the original has set the bar so low, I doubt there will be a tremendous shift in quality storytelling. Taking a cue from the Julia Stiles romance, the same novelty is applied to the idea of anything can be updated to appeal a generation more affluent with krumping, b-boying and twerking as the next wave of modern dances. If you can even call the latter dancing, it is certainly a step back to the art of movement (a fad hopefully will pass in time if only Ms Cyrus will give it up already and stick to what she does best instead – whatever that is).

While the combination of regal and streetwise does look improbable from a theoretical point of view, it is not as absurd as it sounds. The best parts of the movie are being attributed to the human body’s fluidity for sound and being in sync with the rhythm (no surprise there). The group’s showcase piece has to be seen to be believed. Tatum knows how to work the stage to his advantage. He may not be the best dancer but he gets the job done and you just cannot keep your eyes off of him.

Although hailed as just another pretty face with abs, Tatum has been building a steady career for himself to critical praise such as ’21 Jump Street’, ‘Haywire’, ‘Side Effects’ and ‘Magic Mike’ (his smooth moves are put to good use once again sans the clothes). Too bad, this is not of them. Like the rest of the cast, they are wasted on a wafer-thin plot which does not provide any real insight to the struggles living in a ghetto or the pressures faced in an elite school where ferocious competition is just waiting to tip you off your flawless pirouettes at any given time.

If the drama is inconsequential, at least knock it out of the park with more dancing, right? There are just too few of such scenes and impressions on any of them are barely felt. It could be a strategy for the big payoff at the end but with top-notch choreographers’ expertise in the industry not maximised to the fullest and producer Adam Shankman’s experience seemingly underused, this is the kind of hybrid you wished was not spawned in the first place.

Rating
Entirety: C+
Acting: B-
Plot: C

Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, brief violence and innuendo

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Reviews, Science Fiction

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Copyright © 2014 by 20th Century Fox

Story
It has been ten years since the spread of the ALZ-113 virus wiped out the majority of human life form, leaving the intelligently enhanced ape community to live in the Muir Woods led by Caesar (Andy Serkis). Their habitat is discovered by a group of humans who are immune to the virus. Malcolm (Jason Clarke), the group’s leader explains to Caesar about their need for long-term power to sustain the city which they are currently dwelling. A hydroelectric dam that is situated in the apes’ territory is the key to their survival. The humans are allowed to repair the dam but Koba (Toby Kebbell), Caesar’s second in command fears a forthcoming assault from their temporary visitors and launches an offensive strike first, culminating to a war that will define who is the stronger species.

Review
Now this is what I am talking about! A blockbuster with brains and plenty of brawn to boot. After Tim Burton’s 2001 remake underperformed due to an uneven tone and did not offer anything new, it appears that hope for any future sequels seems unlikely. Hooray for Fox; it took a chance on Rick Jaffa’s original idea to incorporate into its existing canon and rebooted this fading franchise with the extremely enjoyable and thought-provoking ‘Rise’. One of the surprising breakout hits of summer 2011 and further sealing Serkis’ career as the go-to guy for motion capture performance.

Already immortalising two other unforgettable screen presence i.e. Gollum and King Kong, Serkis can proudly include Caesar as his finest accomplishment thus far. More heroic than the mighty ape and less tragic than the wretched one, ‘Rise’ gives us a glimpse to his rise as champion for his less privilege simian friends. In this excellent follow up, the leader is seen as authoritarian but never forsakes the peace he so tightly clings on for his colony after a decade of uniting and managing a growing population of vastly evolved primates.

The arrival of Malcolm and the other human survivors threaten to tip the scale; the distrust on either side ranges from the diplomatic to the noticeably hostile. Serkis’ conviction derives directly from the strength of his eyes. Every word uttered and action taken are believably understated with hints of supremacy to keep his followers in check. Like an untreated wound, the disagreements between Caesar and Koba are left to fester and the toxicity comes at a costly price. The brutality of the two warriors is unflinchingly disturbing that filtering should be exercise appropriately.

Caution to those who are easily irked by graphic violence, it could be a little too hot for some to handle in the final act of the film where an all-out war is orchestrated by Koba against the humans while Caesar is simultaneously trying to regain control over the coup that has severely fractured his monarchy. The disfigured bonobo is driven mad for his hatred towards men and Kebbell’s gruff and unpolished mannerisms fit Koba to a tee. The human players are also game with their limited token roles, most notably Clarke who has been raking in an impressive list of movies e.g. ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’, ‘Public Enemies’ and ‘Zero Dark Thirty’.

Taking over from James Franco as the kindly patriarch to his motley crew, Clarke is your everyman who is put in an extraordinary position by an uneven level playing field. In contrast to his compassionate nature, we are pummeled with the fact that people like Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Carver (Kirk Acevedo) will always exist to purge any chance for peace. Only difference here is that we are not pandered into rooting for a particular side but rather for the characters from both sides who have worked so hard to prevent the dawning of such fate.

Rating
Entirety: A
Acting: A
Plot: A

Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and brief strong language

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Drama, Reviews

The Great Gatsby

Great Gatsby

Copyright © 2013 by Warner Bros. Pictures

Story
From the 1925 novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald, it chronicles the life of Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his undying love to the woman he met five years ago, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). Due to circumstances, the couple is separated and Daisy eventually marries Tom (Joel Edgerton). More resolute than ever, Gatsby regularly throws extravagant parties hoping to meet her again. With the help of his new neighbour, Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), they are reunited but the happy occasion is short-lived when tragedy strikes.

Review
“It’s perfect. From your perfect irresistible imagination”, says a playful Mrs Buchanan to Mr Gatsby of his lavish and elaborate parties. It also sums up quite aptly about Baz Luhrmann’s stylised influences on his latest production. Only a Luhrmann can put grandiose and grounded into the same sentence. The successful experimentations that married the new and the old are the contemporary versions of ‘Romeo + Juliet’ (another DiCaprio starrer) and ‘Moulin Rouge!’, a musical set in 1899, Paris to a collage of radio-friendly tunes.

The latter was nominated for a staggering eight Academy Awards including ‘Best Picture’ and ‘Best Actress in a Leading Role’ for Nicole Kidman. Those winning sensibilities are repeated here but the camp may prove too much for fans who prefer a more subdued approach. This latest remake suffers from another bout of overstuffing the viewers with frivolous antics of the rich and famous and their ‘pitiful’ lives while overlooking the book’s view on social status and racial (in)tolerance. The leads’ shenanigans and bad decisions do feel tiresome after a while.

However, it sheds some light on the eroding morality from the corruption of wealth with aplomb. I could not care less of the Buchanans’ hypocrisy and infidelity if they did not come in the form of Mulligan and Edgerton, two rising stars we hope will endure in an industry not known for longevity. Mulligan’s vulnerability and sincerity are the biggest attributes used in conveying the conflicted and weak Daisy while Edgerton’s commitment to character as the philandering husband is so repulsively good, it even upstages DiCaprio’s bravura feat.

And brilliance is what he brings every single time. The camera sure loves a man dressed in his finest (Gatsby’s first facial close-up to the climax of George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ is a great introduction to this suave and usually cool entrepreneur with a mysterious past). Channeling the best of Clark Gable and Cary Grant, DiCaprio’s interpretation is the definitive catch women all over will clamour for. His earnestness and loyalty to his former flame add on to the growing list in his ‘wow’ factor; a surreal return to more romantic fare.

A film of such distinct style would not be complete without the caliber comprising Catherine Martin and Beverley Dunn, the Oscar-winning team for the ‘Best Production Design’ and Martin’s sole winning costume designs. The details are simply exquisite and vibrant – well supplemented to Jay-Z’s executive produced-hit soundtrack. The fusion of dance, pop, soul and rock into the sound of the Roaring 1920s set for a rollicking good time. Though it may be a case of style over substance, the sprawling picture has at least regenerated an interest in the novel and started a fashion frenzy among the uninitiated.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: A
Plot: B+

Rated PG-13 for some violent images, sexual content, smoking, partying and brief language

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Animation, Reviews

How to Train Your Dragon 2

How to Train Your Dragon 2

Copyright © 2014 by 20th Century Fox

Story
The action takes place five years after the events in part one and the villagers of Berk are living symbiotically with their newfound allies. Being an inquisitive one, Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel) frequently travels to undiscovered terrains with Toothless and in his latest outing, he meets Eret (Kit Harington), a dragon trapper who sells captured dragons to a tyrant named Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou). Bludvist has been acquiring these dragons for his conquest on all free lands but foiling his plans is a mysterious rider, Valka (Cate Blanchett) who later reveals herself to be Hiccup’s long lost mother. When it is known that the megalomaniac has his sights on Berk, Hiccup, his family and friends will do all they can to defend it from being taken over.

Review
In the vein of ‘Shrek 2’ and ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’, ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ completes the holy trinity of sequels from DreamWorks Animation that improve upon the high standards set by the originals. They exist not only for the purpose of continued merchandising (which is probably where the bulk of the profit comes from a demographic not to be underestimated of their spending power) but as a means to venture deeper into unchartered territories.

Instead of rehashing the tried-and-tested, all share one thing in common; the stories bear more emotional resonance and act as superior companion pieces. Shrek is saddled with the fact that his unconventional good looks will always be ridiculed by his soon-to-be in-laws and Panda Po learns about his devastating past. Hiccup’s new adventure unfolds in his ongoing quest to search for unknown lands but stumbles onto something far more precious.

The interactions between Hiccup and Toothless are featured heavily early on to establish believability for a heartbreaking twist I did not see coming in a frenetic second act. The demise of an essential character may seem contrived but it is necessary for Hiccup’s evolvement into adulthood. Besides being in fine form for the returning cast, the new additions of Blanchett, Hounsou and Harington offer a wider dimension to its fairly simplistic narrative.

Simple but never deprive of heart. Valka’s revelation as mother to Hiccup and wife to Stoick is nothing short on sweet and the reunion that follows will tug at your heartstrings (John Powell’s rousing score blends effortlessly with the folk-tinged hymn he penned specifically for this joyous occasion which is sung affectionately by ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ star). Blanchett, having won her second Oscar last year proves her versatility through a stealthy but no less poignant portrayal of an empathetic dragon keeper.

It is contrasted well against Bludvist, the film’s antagonist brought out with sheer menace from the underrated Hounsou. Under proficient direction from Dean DeBlois sans his frequent collaborator Chris Sanders, what we get does not feel like it is merely a business decision but made out of respect for its source material. A carefully constructed tale on everything that worked four years ago is retained and raised to dizzying heights.

Rating
Entirety: A
Acting (Voice): A
Plot: A

Rated PG for adventure action and some mild rude humor

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Animation, Reviews

How to Train Your Dragon

How to Train Your Dragon

Copyright © 2010 by Paramount Pictures

Story
In the island of Berk lies a Viking village overwhelmed with many dragon attacks to steal its livestock. Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel), son of the Viking chief, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler) hopes to emulate his father’s achievements as a revered dragon slayer himself. Though not as typically built as the other boys, Hiccup excels in forging mechanical contraptions to assist in the village’s defense against the dragons. He manages to bring down one, a rare Night Fury but cannot bring himself to kill it. Setting it free, the young inventor befriends the creature and begins to study its true nature, a side seen by none until now. With that knowledge, Hiccup hopes he will be able to convince the villagers of their unwarranted fear and thus uniting a peaceful cohabitation between men and beasts.

Review
DreamWorks Animation has always been defined by the success of its ‘Shrek’ quadrilogy (the first two anyway). The original introduces pop culture into a mainstream animated feature and connected with filmgoers of all ages via a witty script bolstered with familiar references from past to present classics. A rare combination of cartoon and parody, it is the antithesis to Disney’s faintly saccharine-coated ‘princess looking for love’ stories. It rewrites character stereotypes, reiterates physical beauty is only skin deep and begins the ongoing equality movement.

For a decade it seems like the green ogre is reigning unchallenged…until now. If ‘Shrek’ is the pinnacle to the studio’s most original and funniest output to date, then ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is deservingly the most stirring of the lot. The animation is rendered beautifully; each dragon has its own unique look equaling just as much significance put on their human counterparts. The Night Fury, Toothless who does not speak at all unlike some of his more eloquent competition uses only his ears and eyes to express his feelings but are captured fittingly humanlike.

The voice work from Baruchel, Butler, America Ferrera and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the Vikings with a ‘pest’ problem are particularly memorable. Butler and Ferrera are strong-willed and believable as the quintessential epitome of a fearless alpha in the pack whilst Baruchel and Mintz-Plasse bring a certain level of lovability to their characters’ goofy charm. Hiccup’s wisecracks are never overly cynical and the fact that his neurosis and eccentricity are highlighted as part of his appeal, it comes across as a smart move on advocating the magnitude of always staying true to oneself.

Having already played another remarkable figure as the fearless King Leonidas in ‘300’, Butler’s Stoick is no less intimidating and hulking, successfully capturing the gruffness of a Viking chieftain. Just like his other defining-making role, the tender aspects to his stoic persona are fully realised and weaved organically into the father and son relationship subplot on top of its aforementioned title. The ecologically-inclined tale about an unlikely friendship is cleverly incorporated into some of the niftiest ways Hiccup summons to understand and befriend these fire-breathing beasts.

Things may not have panned out the way they are if directors Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois had not been involved in the scripting process. As with their other collaboration, ‘Lilo & Stitch’ (one of the more adult-themed efforts from the House of Mouse), the notion of loss is fundamental to one’s growth and a part of growing up. It serves as a reminder for the kids (and adults) to treasure what is dear in a materialistic-dependent society. Rightfully, this leggy hit comes appropriately close to Pixar’s level of intricacy and should not be missed.

Rating
Entirety: A
Acting (Voice): A
Plot: A

Rated PG for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language

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