Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: James Gunn

Screenplay: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Glenn Close, Karen Gillan, Sylvester Stallone, Pom Klementieff, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Nathan Fillion, Tommy Flanagan

Running Length:  135 minutes

Synopsis: Set to the all-new sonic backdrop of Awesome Mixtape #2, Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” continues the team’s adventures as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mystery of Peter Quill’s true parentage. Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand.

Review: The first Guardians of the Galaxy was such a breath of fresh air in the world of superhero movies that it was nearly impossible to begrudge despite some rough spots. In the three intervening years, however, there has been a number of entrants into the genre that sported similar characteristics – most notably Deadpool, which took the irreverence found in Guardians to an extreme and yet delivered admirably. It also helped that most moviegoers went into Guardians of the Galaxy with little or no expectations, and most would walk away feeling it was time and money well spent.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, however, will not get a similar free pass. Although everything that made the first movie good still remains – the great chemistry amongst the lead actors, the excellent soundtrack, the eye-popping visuals, the laidback humour, the heart – there’s also an unshakeable feeling of sequelitis, where everything old doesn’t really feel new again. That’s not to say it’s not a good movie; in fact Vol. 2 still manages to (barely) sit amongst the best in the MCU, but it simply can’t measure up to the original, and not from a lack of trying.

One of the most problematic aspects of Vol. 2 is that James Gunn decided to one-up the first movie in every imaginable way, and the result is a film that honestly feels a little bloated. Despite not having to delve into each character’s backstory, there’s almost no real plot development until almost halfway through the movie, and even then the central plot feels a little underwhelming (true to its predecessor, the villains continue to remain the movie’s weakest link). This results in the film feeling just a bit tiresome at times, and I found myself glancing at my watch more than once throughout the movie’s 135-minute running time.

There’s quite a bit of unresolved plotlines and unexplained cameos (Sylvester Stallone literally does nothing in his cameo appearances here), ostensibly to set the stage for the inevitable sequel, but they figure so peripherally into the actual film that editing them out of the film is actually a rather compelling argument. The same applies for the five (!!) post-credit codas, which manages to up the ante of the first movie in serving up pointlessness

Fortunately, there’s still much left to like about Vol. 2. Baby Groot is inexorably adorable if a bit overused, the slapstick moments are still delicious nuggets to savor, and Chris Pratt still impresses with both his physicality and impeccable comic timing. While visuals for modern day sci-fi movies are all nearly without reproach, Vol. 2 still boasts a rather unique, nearly psychedelic visual style that impresses (but is also rather tiring in 3D). And the joyous soundtrack gets one star of its own even for an eclectic, ear-friendly selection almost on par with the first movie’s. And much like the first movie, there’s even a scene that would touch even a jaded moviegoer like myself. There’s no doubt that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 would do terrifically well at the box office, but if Vol. 3 doesn’t address the franchise’s weaknesses, it will assuredly end the trilogy on a low note, which would be a waste.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Beauty and the Beast

Genre: Musical

Director: Bill Condon

Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopolous

Cast: Emma Watson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Luke Evans, Dan Stevens, Stanley Tucci

Running Length:  130 minutes

Synopsis: Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” is a live-action re-telling of the studio’s animated classic which refashions the classic characters from the tale as old as time for a contemporary audience, staying true to the original music while updating the score with several new songs.

Review: Disney seems to have found a surefire formula in remaking its beloved animations into live-action films, and with Cinderella and The Jungle Book already done and dusted, this year’s release focuses on arguably one of the most enduring Disney cartoons of all time – 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, which holds the honour of being the first animated film ever to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. While 26 years (!) have passed, the magic of the cartoon has not faded with time, and therein lies the first issue with the 2017 Beauty and the Beast: while it is undoubtedly a well-produced, entertaining movie, this new film at many times feels like a poorer cousin of the original animation.

The best parts of the new film are all templated from the animation, and director Bill Condon has remained largely faithful in these recreations, down to the camera movement and choreography. Yet the most classic sequences all come up a little short in their recreation, none more evident than the iconic ballroom scene, which loses much of the multiplane magic that was presented in the then-groundbreaking usage of computer animation.

Fortunately, the cast is largely beyond reproach, with everyone possessing at least adequate vocals (though my personal preference is still Paige O’Hara’s Belle and Angela Lansbury’s Mrs Potts), and Emma Watson being essentially the perfect casting choice for a real-life Belle. While this is billed as a live-action film, many of the actors exist for a great part of the film as voice actors, and only showing up in human form at the very end. In fact, the “Be Our Guest” segment can hardly be called live action apart from Emma Watson being present in the scene, and executed almost entirely via CG.

The added segments – which includes new songs and additional backstory – are unfortunately a mixed bag. The Beast’s new standalone song “Evermore” showcases Dan Stevens’ strong vocals, but much of the other additions feel extraneous. The original film ran an economical 84 minutes, but this over-padded version clocks in at over two hours, resulting in the film’s energy flagging multiple times.

Beauty and the Beast shows how nostalgia can be a double-edged sword – while it’s certainly a lovely walk down memory lane for those who are old enough to have experienced the original animation, the constant referencing also kneecaps this version from attaining true greatness. I believe viewers who have not seen the first film will undoubtedly find this version hugely enjoyable, both young and old(er).

And of course, there’s the elephant in the room that I have not addressed up to this point in the review – the “gay controversy” that erupted right before the film’s release, due to the “revelation” that LeFou is indeed intended to be an openly gay character. It has even resulted in the film being pulled entirely from the Malaysian market, due to Disney’s outright refusal to excise minutes of the film to meet the country’s censorship requests. While I applaud Disney’s stance on this issue, this so called “gay controversy” is nothing more than a storm in a (chipped) teacup, and is such a non-event that it is laughable (and sad) that so much outrage and handwringing have ensued. No need to break out the pitchforks and sing The Mob Song, because there’s virtually nothing there that wasn’t there before.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Oscar Predictions 2017

With such a diverse nominee list this year, the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of last year seems to be pretty much laid to rest. This season’s nominees are a particularly illustrious bunch, but there seems to be quite a number of categories where the winners are pretty locked. La La Land is the belle of the ball with an astounding 14 nominations, and is likely to walk away with a handful of statuettes, but the overly effusive love from the industry is a little puzzling to me, honestly. Sadly I am once again bereft of any Oscar pool or viewing party and so will be abstaining from the documentary and short film categories. Now, on to the predictions:

Best Motion Picture of the Year

Should win: Moonlight

Prediction: La La Land

Moonlight is easily the best movie of 2016 for me, and if it was any other year, it would easily have clinched the award, but with La La Land in the fray… This is a category where I would love to be proven wrong in.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Should win: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)

Prediction: Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)

This is Casey Affleck’s award to lose this year. Denzel Washington could have an outside chance with his mesmerizing performance in Fences, but it’s also a difficult role to identify and empathize with.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Should win: Emma Stone (La La Land)

Prediction: Emma Stone (La La Land)

Emma Stone is likely to win here, especially when it isn’t decided by the Hollywood Foreign Press, which likely explained Isabelle Huppert’s win for the Globes. Stone managed to turn in yet another impressive performance in La La Land, cementing her position as one of the best younger actresses of our time, and it should finally be her moment in the sun this year.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Should win: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)

Prediction: Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)

Honestly not a very inspiring list of performances to pick from, but I believe Mahershala’s performance just slightly edges out Jeff Bridge’s role in Hell or High Water.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Should win: Viola Davis (Fences)

Prediction: Viola Davis (Fences)

The African American actresses in this category are simply superb, and it’s a tough choice between Naomie Harris’ devastating turn as a drug-addled mother in Moonlight and Viola Davis’ equally impressive performance in Fences. Viola Davis has a more “Oscar-winning” performance and should win here.

Best Achievement in Directing

Should win: Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

Prediction: Damian Chazelle (La La Land)

It would be foolish to bet against Damian Chazelle in this category, but once again I feel Barry Jenkins deserves the nod more.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Should win: La La Land

Prediction: La La Land

La La Land should be able to win here, unless they decide to give Kenneth Lonergan a consolation prize here for Manchester by the Sea.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Should win: Moonlight

Prediction: Moonlight

Every nominee here is deserving of the win, honestly, but the beautiful story and handling of Moonlight would hopefully give it the nod.

Best Achievement in Cinematography
Should Win: Bradford Young, Arrival

Prediction: Linus Sandgren, La La Land

Bradford Young did amazing work in Arrival, but Linus Sandgren manages to display a lot of breadth and depth in the lensing of La La Land.

Best Achievement in Editing

Prediction: La La Land

Best Achievement in Production Design

Prediction: La La Land

La La Land is a love story to Old Hollywood, and so should be an easy win here.

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Prediction: Jackie

Perhaps the only other that impresses in Jackie apart from Natalie Portman’s performance is the costume design, and this should be one category that La La Land can’t clinch.

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

Prediction: Star Trek Beyond

When in doubt, root for the movie with aliens in it.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

Prediction: La La Land

A pretty locked category in my opinion.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Prediction: City of Stars, La La Land

An insane earworm and another lock for La La Land – would be extremely surprising if any other song managed to win here.

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

Prediction: La La Land

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

Prediction: La La Land

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Prediction: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

It’s Disney’s award to lose here, as the two most likely winners would be The Jungle Book and Rogue One. Star Wars got snubbed last year so this year it may stand a higher chance of winning.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Prediction: Zootopia

Honestly I hope Kubo and the Two Strings will win here, but it seems silly to bet against Disney.

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Prediction: The Salesman

Full disclosure that I have not watched any of the movies in this category, so this is an educated guess based on Oscar buzz.

 

 

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Fifty Shades Darker

Genre: Drama

Director: James Foley

Screenplay: Niall Leonard, adapted from the novel by E. L. James

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Marcia Gay Harden, Kim Basinger, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Eloise Mumford, Max Martini, Victor Rasuk, Robinne Lee, Bruce Altman, Fay Masterson, Andrew Airlie

Running Length:  118 minutes

Synopsis: Daunted by the singular tastes and dark secrets of the handsome, tormented young entrepreneur Christian Grey, Anastasia Steele has broken off their relationship to start a new career with a Seattle Independent Publishing House (SIP); but desire for Christian still dominates her every waking thought, and when he proposes a new arrangement, Anastasia cannot resist. They rekindle their searing sexual affair, and Anastasia learns more about the harrowing past of her damaged, driven and demanding Fifty Shades.

Review: The biggest offense that Fifty Shades Darker commits isn’t that it’s a juvenile, teenage-girl fantasy of a film, or that the leads look great but seem to have virtually no thespian talent to speak of, or that the storyline is nothing short of ridiculous… It’s that the movie is terribly, terribly bland. It’s near impossible to feel vested in any of the characters because of how vanilla and uninteresting they are, and none of the plot’s few twists and turns are worth vesting more than a moment’s thought. It’s not like there was a depth to the source material that failed to make the translation to the silver screen, but it’s kind of surreal how completely lacking in edge a movie that’s supposed to be about S&M is.

Picking up right where Fifty Shades of Grey left off, we are reintroduced to the dewy-eyed Anastasia Steel (Dakota Johnson), who’s secretly still pining for, and eventually rejoined, with the dashing Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), despite his pervy predilections in the bedroom. And yet, the numerous sex scenes in Fifty Shades Darker barely quickens one’s pulse, much less come across as being an accurate portrayal of deviant sex. At least the actors seemed to enjoy the process, and Dakota Johnson can add “perfected O-face” to her resume.

The second film in a trilogy will almost always suffer from middle child syndrome, having no proper start and no proper ending, and this is of course the case in Fifty Shades Darker. There’s no resolution to the major plot points, and the limp attempt at creating a cliffhanger for Fifty Shades Freed does not impress either. Having not read the source novels in their entirety, it is hard to tell if the flaws in Fifty Shades Darker are merely literal translations from page to screen, or if it’s something that’s native to the film.

However, the film does boast a very ear-friendly soundtrack with a slew of famous performers attached to it, and even though the settings are wildly unrealistic (how Anastasia can afford such a huge apartment on an editorial assistant’s paycheck is a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes), it certainly is a rather aesthetically pleasing film to look at (lead actors included). Thankfully.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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Arrival

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma

Running Length:  116 minutes

Synopsis: Taking place after alien crafts land around the world, an expert linguist is recruited by the military to determine whether they come in peace or are a threat.

Review: Arrival is a revelation in more ways than one – not only is it another feather in Denis Villeneuve’s increasingly crowded cap, it’s also Amy Adams’ best performance of her career so far, almost certain to score her another Academy Award nomination (and likely her first win), and one of the smartest sci-fi movies to hit the theatres in quite some time.

What’s truly refreshing about Arrival is how it bravely defies almost every single cliché of alien movies, and nothing will play out like what most audiences think they would. The trailers may seem to have given the plot away, but rest assured that there are plenty of surprises still to be had. To discuss more about the plot would be spoilerly, but trust that your mind will be thoroughly screwed (and possibly blown) by the time the credits roll.

Amy Adams has turned in solid work throughout her career, but this is certainly a defining moment for her. She is understated but nuanced, and manages to convey a complexity of emotions with minimal theatrics. In Arrival the lead performance is critical to the success of the film, and while supporting characters like Renner and Whitaker are perfectly fine, Adams is what turns the film into a superlative experience.

Denis Villeneuve has impressed time and again with his films, but Arrival manages to achieve the perfect balance of a cerebral film that still has mainstream appeal. While the pace might come across as ponderous to some, his patience in letting the audience slowly take to the engaging story of Arrival is why the film packs such a punch eventually. Add to the fact that the film is beautifully lensed by Bradford Young and accompanied by a spare, haunting score by Johann Johansson, and the result is hardly surprising – a film that is immediately one of the best of this new year, an instant classic, and warrants a repeat viewing on the big screen to take all its minutiae in.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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The Age of Shadows

Genre: Drama

Director: Kim Jee Woon

Screenplay: Lee Ji-min, Park Jong-dae

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Park Hee-soon, Um Tae-goo, Shin Sung-rok, Shingo Tsurumi, Park Hee-soon, Seo Young-joo, Han Soo-yeon, Yoo Jae-sang, Lee Soo-kwang, Kim Dong-young, Lee Byung-hun

Running Length:  141 minutes

Synopsis: Set in the late 1920s, The Age of Shadows follows the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds between a group of resistance fighters trying to bring in explosives from Shanghai to destroy key Japanese facilities in Seoul, and Japanese agents trying to stop them. A talented Korean-born Japanese police officer, who was previously in the independence movement himself, is thrown into a dilemma between the demands of his reality and the instinct to support a greater cause.

Review: After a three-year hiatus, director Kim Jee Woon makes a big budget return to the big screen with The Age of Shadows, a slick, stylish and somewhat overblown spy thriller set in the 1920s. While there are some top-notch set pieces, the story is almost impossible to make head or tail of, involving more twists and turns than one can shake two fists at, and additionally hampered if one needs to read the subtitles. However, it remains an engaging film throughout its 2-plus hour running time, and for fans of his recent work in Train to Busan, Gong Yoo turns in another decent performance, though Song Kang-ho is the true star here.

While the entire film is handsomely lensed, Kim Jee Woon manages to outdo himself in the setup of a number of set pieces, none more evident than the extended sequence on the train (zombie-free), in which Kang-ho’s Jung-chool traverses multiple times through the train, his loyalties seemingly being tested and changing constantly, the tension ratcheting up multiple times till an almost unbearable degree, finally culminating in an expected but still shockingly violent conclusion. The opening sequence comes a close second, in which an expertly choreographed chase resembles almost like a ballet more so than a squad of policemen chasing down their quarry. It’s all extremely impressive camera and editing work, further enhanced by an excellent soundtrack.

However, the dense plot threatens to derail (ahem) The Age of Shadows at times, and this is a movie that heavily punishes any lapse in attention – even without any distractions, one might find difficulty in following the labyrinthine plot. This does the film no favours, especially when one of the weakest characterizations is that of Japanese police chief Hashimoto, a one-dimensional villain that fails to convince, posing zero moral ambiguity and hence a certainty to Jung-chool’s character arc and his decisions along the way despite being the film’s main focus. While these do prevent the film from reaching greater heights, there’s no denying that The Age of Shadows is easily one of the best Korean films I’ve seen in a while, and certainly explains why South Korea chose this to be their entry for the Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards this year.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Gareth Edwards

Screenplay: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Beau Gadson, Dolly Gadson

Running Length:  133 minutes

Synopsis: From Lucasfilm comes the first of the Star Wars standalone films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” an all-new epic adventure. In a time of conflict, a group of unlikely heroes band together on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves.

Review: As the first “non-Episodic” movie in the Star Wars cinematic universe, Rogue One is a triumph – although it caters mostly to the (rabid) Star Wars fanbase, there is enough on display here that would please anyone who is a fan of space operas (and to an extent, war movies). Harkening back to the original trilogy, and yet a couple of shades darker, Rogue One can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the canonic Episodes on almost every level. This is great news especially for fans, since it means that the Star Wars cinematic universe is set to expand far beyond what George Lucas had achieved with his six films.

Rogue One is far from being a perfect movie – it starts off slowly, and the amount of exposition in the first hour threatens to bog the film down multiple times. Thankfully, once the heavy exposition gets out of the way, and the audience is reintroduced to the menace of Darth Vader, Rogue One does kick into high gear and delivers the payload. No spoilers here, but suffice to say the most iconic Darth Vader sequence in Star Wars now resides in Rogue One (yes, even more so than “I am your father”, though that scene is far more ingrained in pop culture).

Rogue One once again has a strong female protagonist in Jyn Ersa, and Felicity Jones puts in an excellent performance, being able to emote and kick ass with aplomb. However, Diego Luna doesn’t manage to match Jones’ performance, and there’s a distinct lack of chemistry between the two – just as well that the film does not really try to force a romance. Donnie Yen does good work as the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe, though it does seem at times that he’s merely reprising his most iconic role of Ip Man in a different setting. His presence, together with Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus, will almost certainly ensure very healthy box office takings in China.

Mirroring The Force Awakens, however, the most memorable character in Rogue One is a non-human – K-2SO, voiced flawlessly by Alan Tudyk. K-2 not only has some of the best lines in the show, but is one of the few sources of levity in a film that is almost relentlessly grim, though not annoyingly so like C-3PO.

Special effects are employed sparingly in the action sequences, resulting in an organic, old-school feel to many of the scenes (the aerial dogfights in particular), but the CGI is top-notch when used. Much of the ground assault sequences feel equally at home in a war movie, and the stakes of the fight between the rebels and the Imperial Army have never been as personal and high as presented in Rogue One.

An interesting point of note is that the most impressive special effect isn’t in the “big” scenes, but the digital sleight of hand that was employed to bring Peter Cushing back to “life” as Grand Moff Tarkin, despite him being dead for 22 years. One can only imagine the amount of work that was required to recreate Cushing’s likeness (using a stand-in actor, a voice actor and CG) in such a convincing manner.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Rogue One is one of the most anticipated movies of 2016. Fortunately, it has managed to deliver, and has even stirred a desire in me to rewatch the original trilogy once again. While it bears the moniker of a “Star Wars Story”, Rogue One should more accurately be called Episode 3.5, because it dovetails so perfectly into the opening of A New Hope. Ranked amongst the two films since J. J. Abrams’ reboot last year, Rogue One actually ends up a notch above The Force Awakens, especially in terms of rewatchability.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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