Mortal Engines

Genre: Action, Sci-Fi

Director: Christian Rivers

Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, based on the book by Philip Reeve

Cast: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang

Running Length:129 minutes

Synopsis:Hundreds of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, a mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), emerges as the only one who can stop London — now a giant, predator city on wheels — from devouring everything in its path. Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang (Jihae), a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

Review: Having not read the source novels, I can only wonder why the Mortal Engines quadrilogy by Philip Reeve appealed so much to Peter Jackson as to justify spending triple-digit millions on the production of this first movie. Judging from the result, it’s really hard to imagine the film engaging the general masses, and seems highly unlikely that this spawning off an actual quadrilogy of films. Although Mortal Engines is a serviceable action film, it is almost entirely (and transparently) derivative, and despite having Peter Jackson in the mix, not very imaginative either. The fact that for many, the only truly recognizable face is that of Hugo Weaving will also mean it will be a challenge to get seats filled in theatres, especially in a crowded year-end release slate like this year.

Although Mortal Engines kicks things off with a relatively interesting “car chase” featuring two Traction Cities, it doesn’t ever pick up from there, even if the film remains consistently good to look at (WETA did an amazing job with the visual effects). It also cops elements from past films, from Howl’s Moving Castle to Terminator to Mad Max and especially Star Wars (pro tip: don’t play a Star Wars reference drinking game unless you’re ready to get stone-cold drunk) in the final reels. The unfortunate thing about Mortal Engines is that so much of it feels like such a slog – the interminable middle with the side story on Shrike and the entire sojourn to some city in the air comes across as being particularly extraneous and unnecessary.

Special dishonorable mention must go to Junkie XL’s score for the film, which could possibly be the most overblown and in-your-face scoring I’ve had to sit through the entire 2018. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more ridiculously overbearing, the choir joins the fray and punches you in the aural gut. It’s hugely distracting and never hits the right emotional beats, even in the quieter moments.

While the acting is all passable, no one actually impresses and therein is the final nail in Mortal Engines’ coffin. There’s really nothing to get excited about – no standout performances from the both the familiar and unfamiliar faces in the cast at all – it’s either just adequate or barely passable. While it’s never easy to act against a green screen, the actors here simply don’t make a dent at all. And this is reflective of the entire movie – it could have potentially made more bank if not released this month, but when there are so many higher-profile or simply better movies to choose from, it simply isn’t compelling enough to recommend the film to anyone, save perhaps for fans of the source novels.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

Genre: Fantasy

Director: David Yates

Screenplay: J.K. Rowling

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Zoe Kravitz, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, William Nadylam, Poppy Corby-Tuech, Kevin Guthrie, Brontis Jodorowsky, Victoria Yeates, Jude Law, Johnny Depp

Running Length: 133 minutes

Synopsis: At the end of the first film, the powerful Dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) was captured by MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with the help of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). But, making good on his threat, Grindelwald escaped custody and has set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda: to raise pure-blood wizards up to rule over all non-magical beings. In an effort to thwart Grindelwald’s plans, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander, who agrees to help, unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Lines are drawn as love and loyalty are tested, even among the truest friends and family, in an increasingly divided wizarding world.

Review: So here we are, waist deep in the new (sub?)franchise of Fantastic Beasts, with two movies done and (purportedly) three more to go, and there’s this unshakeable sense that the franchise is somewhat in the woods. While excuses can be given for the slightly faltering first film in 2016 – since it requires not just an understanding of the Harry Potter universe, but also require new world-building from Rowling herself – this second movie should have been the one where the franchise finally hits its stride, and we find ourselves whisked away on an amazing journey back in the Wizarding World. Unfortunately, that’s not really the case – and no, I’m not referring to what Newt Scamander is housing his menagerie of beasts in.

There’s no denying that J.K. Rowling is a master storyteller, and her Harry Potter novels and movies have enthralled millions for a reason. However, with Fantastic Beasts, and in particular The Crimes of Grindelwald, she seems to have fallen into the same trap as George Lucas, stuffing the movies full of Wizarding World minutia that honestly even the hardcore fans would find trouble following, and crushing the film under the sheer weight of subplot after subplot after subplot. The most frustrating element of The Crimes of Grindlewald is that it cannot stand alone as a feature movie, and only works when seen as being a chapter in an as-yet incomplete movie consisting of five parts.

Despite running a rather long 133 minutes, much of The Crimes of Grindelwald is simply moving chess pieces around, setting up a bigger story that fails to percolate or conclude meaningfully in this installment, leaving the film feeling even emptier and more incomplete than its predecessor. The storylines are also not easy to follow, and in one instance, Rowling actually leads audiences down one narrative and then literally gets another character to say “but wait, something else actually happened!” It’s largely unnecessary and coupled with the labyrinthine construction of links back to the larger Harry Potter universe, makes the viewing experience of The Crimes of Grindelwald in turns confusing and taxing. And since Rowling is the sole screenwriter credited for the screenplay, the blame really falls squarely on her shoulders.

It also doesn’t help that the central characters in this universe are actually less engaging than the “minor” players – the trio of Redmayne’s Newt Scamander, Depp’s Gellert Grindelwald and Ezra Miller’s Creedence Barebone are uninteresting and flat in terms of performance, and in this installment even the fantastic beasts come off as being rather one-dimensional. What does help is that some of the new additions to the cast fare better, notably Zoe Kravitz’s spirited performance as Leta Lestrange, as well as Jude Law’s youthful take on Albus Dumbeldore (and carrying off a waistcoat far better than most people could). Returning favourites Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob (Dan Fogler) continue to be delightful characters to watch, but unfortunately get very little screen time this installment.

Visually, however, The Crimes of Grindelwald is definitely one of the better looking films of the year. It is clear that a lot of thought has been put into making the 3D viewing experience a positive one, with 3D effects at times even seemingly extending beyond film’s borders (this isn’t something I’ve ever observed prior to this film). There are also plenty of visual effects that pack a punch, even though it really is par for the course these days. However, visual pizzazz can only do so much, and while The Crimes of Grindelwald is a guaranteed box office success, one wonders how much longer the Harry Potter goodwill will last if the films continue to be so lackluster.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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A Star Is Born

Genre: Drama

Director: Bradley Cooper

Screenplay: Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters, based on a story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos, Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Harney

Running Length:135 minutes

Synopsis: A Star is Born stars four-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper and multiple award-winning, Oscar-nominated music superstar Lady Gaga, in her first leading role in a major motion picture. Cooper helms the drama, marking his directorial debut.

In this new take on the tragic love story, he plays seasoned musician Jackson Maine, who discovers – and falls in love with – struggling artist Ally (Lady Gaga). She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer, until Jack coaxes her into the spotlight. But even as Ally’s career takes off, the personal side of their relationship is breaking down, as Jack fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons.

Review: It’s easy to see why the word “Oscar” is being bandied around in almost every review of A Star is Born. While this is the story’s third cinematic iteration, it is easily the best, far outclassing Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson’s take 42 (!) years ago. Retaining the music industry setting of the ’76 film but updating the content to reflect a much more current sensibility, A Star is Born is surprising in first-time director Bradley Cooper’s assured helming. Coupled with excellent chemistry between Cooper and Gaga and equally impressive performances from both, a relatable storyline, and some truly well-produced musical numbers, the film has transformed what seemed like a low-key romantic melodrama with a few familiar faces into a full-blown frontrunner for awards season.

Much of the charm of the film lies in the leads. Bradley Cooper disappears into the role, and while he plays the part of an alcoholic, the performance is restrained and authentic, with minimal theatrics and thus allows the audience to identify with his character easily. Lady Gaga also impresses in her acting debut, giving a heartfelt and believable performance (particularly pre-fame Ally), faring much better than many pop stars that attempt to cross over to the acting world. What’s more important is that the narrative requires the leads to have an almost instant chemistry and connection, and Cooper and Gaga have chemistry in spades.

This being Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, what he had achieved here is impressive. Not only does he deftly handle the varied elements in the film – big and small musical set-pieces, low key romantic sequences and melodramatic scenes – but not once does he lose control of the narrative, and the end result is a film that’s wistfully melodramatic without ever being over the top. It has also been many years since I’ve seen a film that deals with alcoholism so matter-of-factly, never shying away from the seedier, unsavory aspects that the addiction brings, almost reminiscent of the seminal Leaving Las Vegas.

Music will also make or break a film like this one, and again in this aspect A Star Is Born scores very highly. It’s a given that Lady Gaga would excel in her performances, but surprisingly Cooper can also hold a tune and totally looks the part of a rock star on the decline. There are some very catchy songs included in the soundtrack, which ranges from country-rock to pop, and should see extended airplay.

In some ways, A Star is Born is a movie that feels like a throwback to the older, grander days of cinema, where it doesn’t take much more than a heartfelt story and committed performances from the actors to deliver a film that actually makes one feel something. Little wonder that it has resonated well with audiences, and potentially will stand the test of time (at least, far better than Barbra’s version).

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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Venom

Genre: Action

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Screenplay: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel

Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Reid Scott, Michelle Lee

Running Length: 112 minutes

Synopsis: Investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) attempts a comeback following a scandal, but accidentally becomes the host of an alien symbiote that gives him a violent super alter-ego: Venom. Soon, he must rely on his newfound powers to protect the world from a shadowy organisation looking for a symbiote of their own.

Review: The only question on my mind when the credits started rolling on Venom was “what happened?” Where was the dark, gritty movie that the trailers advertised? Why does it feel like director Ruben Fleischer made two totally different movies, but couldn’t decide which version of Venom to go with? Honestly, Venom in its current form is a mess, and its only saving grace is a somewhat decent performance by Tom Hardy, as well as some genuine laughs that could be had – as long as you go into the cinema cognizant that this film is a weird love-child between Deadpool and Spider-Man.

A large part of the problem with Venom is its screenplay – the group effort from Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel is unfocused and takes too much time to get to the point, with an overlong first act that sets up the story but presents Eddie Brock as a bumbling buffoon more than a sharp, street-smart reporter he’s supposed to be. It’s only when Venom starts manifesting himself that the proceedings get more interesting, but then the film pivots too far in the other direction, presenting the combination of Eddie and Venom more like bros than antiheroes, ineffective buddy cops rather than a powerful alien symbiote and its unwilling human host. It’s entertaining, without a doubt, but having seen Tom Hardy in far more impressive performances, this does feel like a step down.

The other actors fare even worse than Hardy – Michelle Williams struggles to do something meaningful with her bland, rote love interest character, and the usually interesting Riz Ahmed is unable to break out of the clichéd confines of his megalomaniac role. Both actors are literally there as plot devices, and not even very essential ones at that.

It doesn’t help that Fleischer has made some pretty questionable directorial choices as well – he somehow decided that the best way to showcase the (anti)climactic final showdown between two near-black characters is at night with minimal lighting, and similarly the action sequences throughout the movie are not particularly well-choreographed nor visually interesting. The effects also come across as rather sub-par (especially when we are all so used to the top-tier effects in both Marvel and DC superhero movies), and it’s even more apparent in IMAX 3D (save your money and go for 2D).

In a recent interview, Tom Hardy groused that all his favourite parts of Venom was cut out of the movie, and there is a strong sense that what he said is true. Venom is a wasted opportunity to take the Sony part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a different direction. While obviously Sony will have a vested interest to milk more titles out of the Venom sub-universe (and clearly indicated in the film’s mid-credits), the way this first film ended up will likely put the franchise’s future in jeopardy.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Crazy Rich Asians

Genre: Romance, Comedy

Director: Jon M. Chu

Screenplay: Peter Chiarelli, Adele Lim, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan

Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Carmen Soo, Pierre Png, Fiona Xie

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: Crazy Rich Asians follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she accompanies her longtime boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Excited about visiting Asia for the first time but nervous about meeting Nick’s family, Rachel is unprepared to learn that Nick has neglected to mention a few key details about his life. It turns out that he is not only the scion of one of the country’s wealthiest families but also one of its most sought-after bachelors. Being on Nick’s arm puts a target on Rachel’s back, with jealous socialites and, worse, Nick’s own disapproving mother (Michelle Yeoh) taking aim. And it soon becomes clear that while money can’t buy love, it can definitely complicate things.

Review: Easily the most talked-about movie to hit local theatres in months, Crazy Rich Asians comes with a lot of additional baggage for its Singapore release. After all, Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel is set in Singapore, and this movie adaptation features not only many glamour shots of Singapore, but also a whole slew of Singaporean actors. One cannot deny the initial thrill of seeing this many familiar faces and places in a true-blue Hollywood production, but once the rush fades, is Crazy Rich Asians actually a good movie? The answer is… kind of.

At its heart, Crazy Rich Asians is simply a good old-fashioned fish-out-of-water romantic comedy, containing almost every trope that a film of the genre would (or should) have, which makes the film quite enjoyable at its most basic level. It helps that Golding and Wu share a good onscreen chemistry, and in particular Wu’s engaging performance would make audiences root for her from very early on in the proceedings. However, it’s Michelle Yeoh that truly impresses as Eleanor, and she’s transformed the stern matriarch from a rather one-dimensional villain into a complex, believable character who values family above all else.

Kevin Kwan’s novel was a sprawling book with many characters, and while Chiarelli and Lim’s screenplay tries its best to corral the narrative, the film is an uneven one, especially whenever the central couple spends time apart and the film gets caught up with one of the many underdeveloped subplots. Particularly under-baked is the troubled relationship of Astrid and Michael, which is a pity because both Gemma Chan and Pierre Png seem to have so much more to offer. And while there are many recognizable faces for most Singaporean audiences, none of the other supporting cast members leave much of an impression apart from Awkwafina (effortlessly stealing the limelight just like in Ocean’s 8) as Rachel’s college friend Peik Lin and Nico Santos as Nick’s gay cousin Oliver.

There has been some blowback amongst locals regarding the underrepresentation of minorities in Singapore in the film, but the fact of the matter is that this is after all a Hollywood production of a novel that didn’t make any minority representation in the first place. It’s a film that’s made with American sensibilities in mind, and any illusions that this is a “true” Asian film should have been cast aside from the beginning. There are plenty of Asian filmmakers making Asian films with Asian casts, so why would we even look to this Hollywood film to make this kind of representation for us? It’s an unnecessary criticism of a show that’s not designed to be anything more than a romantic comedy that appeals to the masses.

And mass appeal is what Crazy Rich Asians has in spades. It is a film that has something for almost everyone while not really excelling in any one aspect – it has some luxury and food porn, a somewhat engaging central romance, occasionally entertaining comedic sequences, and familial moments that would resonate with some Asian audiences. It’s great that the film has performed well in the US domestic market (and I foresee it doing well in Singapore as well), which importantly keeps the door open for future shows with stronger Asian American representation. This is no Black Panther or Get Out, to be sure, but it’s legitimately entertaining fluff as long as one goes in with the right expectations.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Genre: Action

Director: Peyton Reed

Screenplay:Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari

Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Greer, Tip. “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Forston, Randall Park

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: From the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes Ant-Man and The Wasp, a new chapter featuring heroes with the astonishing ability to shrink. In the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) grapples with the consequences of his choices as both a super hero and a father. As he struggles to rebalance his life with his responsibilities as Ant-Man, he’s confronted by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) with an urgent new mission. Scott must once again put on the suit and learn to fight alongside the Wasp as the team works together to uncover secrets from the past.

Review: After the seismic events in Avengers: Infinity War that shook the Marvel Cinematic Universe to its core – and left many Marvel fans hoping for 2019 to come round much sooner – we suddenly take an extremely leisurely, benign diversion in Ant-Man and the Wasp, where nothing much is seemingly at stake apart from family life. It’s not always a bad thing to be lightweight – after all there’s only that much world-ending seriousness one can take – but there are brief moments in the film where it feels like there’s actually no real reason for this sequel to be in existence.

I had enjoyed the original Ant-Man despite its similarly lightweight ambitions, but a second film revolving around familiar ground (size shifting shenanigans and unmemorable villains, to name two) does seem to be pushing it a little. Fortunately, Evangeline Lilly is given a much meatier role this time round as the Wasp, and she’s far more entertaining to observe as a second superhero with a size-altering suit than Paul Rudd himself, with the added bonus of there being excellent chemistry (romantic and otherwise) between the two. Paul Rudd continues to charm as the everyman superhero, but make no mistake, this movie’s true star is Wasp/Lilly.

Peyton Reed is an old hand at directing comedies, and it will probably come as no surprise that his second superhero action movie is much more assured in its pacing and comic timing. While there are still the requisite CG-heavy action sequences, Reed deftly inserts in more comedic moments that you can shake a stick at, and even though some of the gags feel a bit tired the second time round (I wasn’t really impressed by Michael Pena’s “lip sync” sequence in this film), it still makes for a breezy movie experience overall.

Perhaps it’s because Marvel has had such a good run of late that Ant-Man and the Wasp comes across as underwhelming despite good intentions. By no means is it a bad movie, but it just feels so inconsequential especially following the footsteps of Infinity War, and even more jarringly so when it’s clear that these characters exist on the same planet/plane as the rest of the Avengers. Both Guardians of the Galaxy and (to a lesser extent) Thor had the benefit of being siloed from the main MCU storyline, but given that everything has now converged, even a side-story like Ant-Man and the Wasp seems to stick out like a sore thumb when it doesn’t fall in line with the rest of the titles. Add to that some of the worst, most unconvincing (and confusing!) pseudo-science spouted in the MCU thus far, and it’s quite clear that Ant-Man and the Wasp is the textbook definition of “a mixed bag”.

P.S. The requisite end-credit codas are in place, but if you are pressed for time, the coda that sits at the very end of the credits is totally inconsequential (and feels like it’s there simply to “reward” every audience member that sat through the rather lengthy list of names).

Rating:* * * (out of four stars)

 

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Genre: Action

Director: J.A. Bayona

Screenplay: Colin Trevorrow, Derek Conolly

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Ted Levine, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, BD Wong, Rafe Spall, Daniella Pineda, Geraldine Chaplin, Kamil Lemieszewski, Justice Smith, Peter Jason

Running Length: 128 minutes

Synopsis: Three years after the destruction of Jurassic World, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) return to the island of Isla Nublar to save the remaining dinosaurs from a volcano that’s about to erupt. They soon encounter terrifying new breeds of gigantic dinosaurs while uncovering a conspiracy that threatens the entire planet.

Review: Back in my review of Jurassic World in 2015, I had commented that there didn’t seem to be much narrative space left in the Jurassic Park/World universe to warrant a fifth film. Given the massive box office success that Jurassic World was (a staggering US$1.6 billion), however, it was only natural that a sequel would be planned. Fast forward three years later, and the resulting film is Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which wisely moves the action out of the theme park setting but doesn’t take the franchise anywhere it hasn’t already been. While visuals are top notch and director J.A. Bayona has managed to create a number of effective “close quarters” set-pieces, there’s this nagging sense that the movie is an extraneous one, except that it has a very big budget to play with.

The focus of the Jurassic franchise has never been the human actors, and once again the leads are passable but not memorable. While Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady was still quite refreshing the first time round, the fact that we’ve seen the same Dude persona in three Marvel movies plus the previous Jurassic World means that the charm is wearing off. Bryce Dallas Howard reprises her role but has even less to do this time round. The newcomers barely leave a dent despite a pretty persistent presence in the film, likewise for some of the more recognizable faces like Jeff Goldblum, James Cromwell and B.D. Wong.

What does impress in Fallen Kingdom remains the dinosaurs – it seems quite clear that J.A. Bayona was aiming for more believability than the previous film, and there’s a lot of animatronic work on top of excellently rendered dinosaurs. This is a definite improvement over Jurassic World, and there are moments where the use of puppets over CG helps make interactions between humans and dinosaurs feel more authentic. And while the action is largely predictable, the major set-pieces are actually genuinely thrilling, particularly the opening reel as well as the latter scenes involving the Indoraptor.

Unfortunately, Fallen Kingdom seems to lose momentum in its final half hour, and the denouement feels underwhelming given the rather extensive buildup. The fact that most of the dinosaurs are seen confined in very small spaces doing nothing for much of the movie is also quite disappointing, especially since the film prides itself on featuring the most species of dinosaurs in the franchise’s history. Taken as a summer action blockbuster, Fallen Kingdom still manages to deliver, but it will not hold up to closer scrutiny nor stand the test of time like the original Jurassic Park. The open-ended conclusion leaves the door open for another sequel, but if the franchise doesn’t do more to evolve, it will likely end up going extinct.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

 

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