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Movie Review: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a fun-filled and eye-popping sci-fi comedy action adventure that recalls the quirky, comic spirit of Besson's previous sci-fi extravaganza The Fifth Element, the CGI dimension of James Cameron's Avatar and the technologically imaginative and bizarre world of David Cronenberg's existenZ. Based on the influential comic book series of the same name, we follow 28th Century special operatives, Valerian and Laureline, who must race to identify a marauding menace and safeguard the future of the universe.

While spectacular and laden with The Fifth Element potential, blending the world of real and unreal is a challenge and while the CGI and design is superb at times, it's also unwieldy. The film's wacky sense of humour gives the tone some bend, but Besson reaches breaking point on several occasions, turning the adventure from epic sci-fi odyssey to cheesy knockabout misadventure. While Besson touches on some interesting allegorical terrain relating to indigenous people and resources, much like Avatar, Valerian's undermined by its flippant attitude and rickety Who Framed Roger Rabbit? dichotomy.

This tonal imbalance and visual incoherence make Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets a visual extravaganza on a rocky road to oblivion. Dane De Haan and Cara Delevingne are two beautiful next generation stars. While easy on the eye and delivering serviceable performances, they seem miscast and out-of-their-depth. The duo's youthful verve gives the sci-fi adventure a bouncier feel as if they were recruited from Ender's Game, yet the brother-sister dynamic and De Haan's "Keanu Reeves" voice is a bit disconcerting.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

"Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."

While adding credibility and backbone to a young pair of co-leads, the supporting cast seemed severely under-utilised. It's been some time since Clive Owen graced the silver screen and makes it seem like a mirage given his dead-eyed take on the Commander. Goodman's "Jabba Jr." digital character needed a wraparound story and much more screen time, while Hawke is comically lightweight as Jolly the Pimp, making it abundantly clear that they all needed meatier roles rather than glorified cameos. Rihanna's burlesque entertainer role as "Bubble" is fascinating and enchanting, but her performance is sub-par and the connection between her and her shape-shifting alter ego is frayed and laughable next to Mystique.

Being a fan of The Fifth Element, there was much expectation surrounding the release of this film in Valerian's 50th year and despite being moderately entertaining, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is ultimately underwhelming. It's like Besson was trying to resurrect his original success story using a similar formula and inspiration. Unfortunately, casting a beautiful lead actress with a difficult-to-pronounce name, embracing a campy oddball mix of real vs. unreal, leveraging a CGI wonderland and immersing us in a futuristic world of crime and evil overlords doesn't always do the trick.

While Valerian will pass the time with its beautiful cast, spectrum of colour and wonderful visuals... it's a fairly mindless exercise. You will need to roll with it, fill in the gaps and resist the urge to look at your watch. It's a shame that Besson still hasn't been able to match the magic of his '90s heydays. More consistency, grounded co-leads, substantial returning supporting roles and weightier themes could've made all the difference to this visually compelling yet lightweight and superficial sci-fi comedy adventure.

The bottom line: Unwieldy

 
Movie Review: War for the Planet of the Apes


Andy Serkis is the ringmaster in the reboot series of The Planet of the Apes. A pioneer of iconic digital characters, having played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he's done it again with Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and now War for the Planet of the Apes. His latest action-adventure sees Caesar, the figurehead and lead for the series, rightfully front and centre. The character has not only developed in terms of characterisation, but in terms of screen time, occupying the lead role without "help" from supporting name actors.

In fact, War for the Planet of the Apes is taken almost entirely from the ape perspective without the film-makers trying to balance things out with human actors. James Franco, Frieda Pinto and John Lithgow helped stabilise the series in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Gary Oldman augmented the ensemble in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, while War for the Planet of the Apes almost abandons this format completely. The only noteworthy human actors are Amiah Miller, who echoes Dakota Fanning's star-making role in War of the Worlds and Mr. Dependable, Woody Harrelson.

Perhaps the notion of being overshadowed by a digital actor has made many weary to play opposite Serkis, who has carried the new series with a brooding, guarded and soulful performance. Either way, Matt Reeves, the film-maker who took over directing the series from Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has done the near unthinkable by populating his film with digitally rendered motion capture performers. Toby Kebbell took on a bigger part for Dawn as Koba, a second-in-command and understudy role opposite Serkis. Now the ensemble is dominated by "ape" actors with more speaking parts emerging.

War for the Planet of the Apes

"It's too late to call shotgun!

Following a devastating blow to the apes, the herd seek a more long-term sanctuary as Caesar sets out on a quest to take revenge on those responsible. The third installment has been influenced by Biblical epics, more specifically the war film, Apocalypse Now. Set against a cold and icy winter, the migration scenes and story's impetus have correlations with the Exodus. Then, following a similar trajectory to Apocalypse Now, Caesar's epic journey to confront the his aggressor echoes the classic rivalry between Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz.

Harrelson's not as immense as Kurtz, yet conveys a darker maniacal side than we're used to seeing. He's a worthy adversary for Caesar and makes it easy for the audience to pick sides. The magic of War for the Planet of the Apes is that Reeves is able to bring us to the realisation that while good and bad exist for both species, we've got more empathy for the anthropomorphic ape kind. While the adventure is epic and the action is enthralling, he takes the time to exact some heartfelt drama as moments of innocence and mercy spring up in the snow. While the struggle is serious and the running time is long, Reeves employs some comedy to lighten the intense and brooding atmosphere.

While these bursts of levity are welcome and funny, the tonal shift isn't quite as welcome. One character drives this comic relief gimmick, adding to the entertainment value in an almost plausible manner with a style of comedy that is jarring against the big picture. Then, various story elements just don't add up and could've used more forethought and extrapolation. It's hampered by the treatment of Caesar in the third act, the consistency of communication among the herd and even a few contrivances and cliches in terms of bringing it home.

Apart from some strong performances, the real wonder of War for the Planet of the Apes is the visual effects wizardry. We're completely immersed in the story as one amazing film location is populated with digital hybrids only to segue into another. The balance of landscape and characters is quite breathtaking at times as we marvel at the fine detail of a close up of the orangutan, Maurice, only to return to Andy Serkis and his complete embodiment of Caesar. While this is the third film in the series, there's a marked maturity, greater understanding and improvement over its predecessors and not only in terms of the ape characters.

War for the Planet of the Apes has its flaws, but the majesty of the visual tapestry, the ambitious role reversal, heartrending war drama and nature of the performances makes for an entertaining and spellbinding epic. It's the best film in the trilogy, showcasing just how far Hollywood has come in terms of CGI and mocap, delivering an awe-inspiring spectacle that chalks up a big win for the evolution of live-action digital characters under the rightful command of Andy Serkis.

The bottom line: Captivating


 
Movie Review: Spider-Man - Homecoming


"Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Spider-Man..." no, this isn't the theme tune. It's how you'd sound counting the number of Spider-Man franchises over the last 15 years. While this superhero has had as many actors don the web-tangled red-and-blue as there have been Hulks in as many years, it's starting to get ridiculous. No one ever thought they'd see Garfield and Spider-Man in the same movie, let alone the same sentence, and yet it happened with The Amazing Spider-Man. Andrew Garfield is a terrific actor and did a great job, picking up from where Tobey Maguire and Sam Raimi left off, teaming up with Marc Webb (yes, Webb) to reboot a franchise that self-imploded in the sandblasted Spider-Man 3.

While The Amazing Spider-Man was actually fresh, it also struggled with an "electrifying" sequel that tried to capture the Twilight audience at the behest of its fan boy populace. As peppy as Emma Stone was, the sequel was overcooked like Spider-Man 3 and left audiences bewildered. If you want a superhero movie done right, leave it to Marvel, which is probably why they swooped in like a valkyrie to pick up the troubled franchise for yet another reboot. To get things started, Spidey was introduced in Captain America: Civil War, giving Tom Holland a chance to dip his toe in the superhero hot tub. The cameo was most welcome, injecting the Marvel machismo with a bit of goofy youth and cuing the tone of Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Homecoming was also a big clue. Much like Edgar Wright re-imagined the heist caper as a superhero movie with Ant-Man, we're dealing with a high school comedy romance retooled as a superhero flick with Spidey. In an age where superhero movies are spawning quicker than well... spawn, filmmakers are trying to keep things zippy and fresh. This can be said for Spider-Man: Homecoming, which is enthralling and full of zest thanks to its youthful energy and playful tone.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

"I wear this mask because... you know, stranger danger!"

Tom Holland is an unassumingly likable go-getter, who will inevitably play Bond when he comes of age. His British-ness makes him a bit more reserved than the recent spate of superheroes and this works magically for the awkward teen comedy. Homecoming is reminiscent of films like Superbad in terms of offbeat comedy and great chemistry between Peter and his best friend, Ned. While the language and dick jokes are thankfully retired, Holland and Batalon have got a super vibe that borrows a bit of The Big Bang Theory's charm to spice up their underdog bromance and girlfriend troubles.

The clumsy teen comedy and full-tilt action fit together quite masterfully as director Jon Watts steers a screenplay with six writing credits. While the action sequences are fresh and well-choreographed, the real strength of Spider-Man: Homecoming is in the characters. Sporting an ensemble including: Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Gwyneth Paltrow and Zendaya, they've brought some strong acting talent to support Holland. Michael Keaton gets a chance to expel some of that Birdman energy, Robert Downey Jr. is enjoyable albeit purposefully awkward in a father role, Jon Favreau is funny as Happy, the dog's body, Zendaya is a blast as a quirky high schooler and it would have been good to see more of Marisa Tomei and Gwyneth Paltrow.

Every actor pulls their weight and shares the screen like a team, maintaining the dramatic integrity of each scene whilst keeping the audience invested in Peter's coming-of-age journey. Watts maintains visual integrity too, seamlessly integrating some thrilling stunts and visual effects into the action. The mentor/father figure relationship between Peter and Tony is a bit awkward, even if purposefully so, and there are question marks hanging over Stark's domination of the Marvel universe. Then, there are one or two crucial moments that don't make complete sense, but these are little hiccups in the big picture.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is an all-rounder: packing a punch, activating a belly laugh, jam-packing surprises while keeping us in suspense. The characters are delightful, lovable and easy to get behind thanks to full performances. The visual effects are ever-present and yet ever-invisible, while the film-makers keep things upbeat, fun, well-balanced and entertaining. Spider-Man: Homecoming is a blast and for the most part, manages to duck under falling debris. It may not be the best Spider-Man, but it's right up there with the best of them!

 
Movie Review: The Promise


The Promise is a film by Terry George, the same writer-director who brought us the terrifying vision of genocide in Africa, Hotel Rwanda. He's covering an epic romance drama in the same sweeping fashion as David Lean's Doctor Zhivago set against the last days of the Ottoman Empire. The Promise hinges on a love triangle between Mikael, a gifted apothecary turned medical student, Ana, a budding artist and her partner, Chris, an American journalist. While the windswept romance remains centre stage, George keeps the Armenian genocide as the backdrop, encountering some similar issues to Sean Penn's well-meaning yet fundamentally-flawed, The Last Face.

We're whisked from a small town to the ornate churches and architecture of Constantinople, Turkey, where our young Mikael enrolls at a medical academy in 1914. Being betrothed to a woman from his community, things become more complicated when he's introduced to the beautiful Ana and her stoic partner, Chris. The wartime situation aggravates matters of the heart as Mikael, Ana and Chris are subject to the chaos of hostile powers, intercepted by soldiers and fall in the path of an ever-encroaching army.

Oscar Isaac is a fine actor, who demonstrates his versatility in The Promise, managing to keep the thread of the film almost based on his performance alone. Charlotte Le Bon is given a chance to stretch her wings in a role that could've been based on Princess Diana, while Christian Bale delves into another serious role that recalls his performances in films like The Flowers of War and Empire of the Sun. The Flowers of War serves as a reasonable litmus test to decide whether you should see The Promise, since both films have a similar balance of drama, war, ethical, melodrama and symbolic power.

The Promise

"It's safe as houses, not safe as horses..."

Part history, part drama, The Promise plays out like a sprawling Biblical epic with a soaring score to match the vivid visuals. Journeying through parts of Armenia on donkey, gathering with crowds and weaving between churches and pastors, there's a spiritual dimension to the film as the story of Moses reverberates. While the Biblical element is mostly experienced in the scope of The Promise, rather than the dialogue, the sheer weight of the drama threatens its foundations. The net result is an unwieldy multi-genre film that moves from sweeping romance to dusty survival to harrowing historical war film. These transitions make the continual evolution entertaining, yet keep one on the periphery.

The central concept could have used more gravity and time in setting the scene and loses some power into the third act. Much like Australia, the quality of the ingredients make some moments heartbreaking and powerful, yet the overall impression is a bit shaky as they reinvent the film halfway in. Then, while the intentions are noble, it's difficult to side with the lead whose dubious and shadowy decision-making alienates despite Isaac's inviting performance. George tries to elevate the love triangle but this jars with the overpowering history of the environment, making it seem at odds.

While it has its struggles, George delivers some beautifully understated scenes and mines some heartbreaking and powerful moments. The talented trio give their all, despite the off-key casting of Christian Bale... and make it easier to simply accept the overarching story and plight of the characters. It's pleasing to see that sprawling epics like The Promise are still being made and while it lacks storytelling focus, the finesse of the visuals, score, history and performances make it admirable and important.

The bottom line: Evocative


 
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