Transformers: Dark of the Moon * *

Genre: Action

Director: Michael Bay

Writer: Ehren Krueger

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel, John Tuturro, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich

Voice Cast: Peter Cullen, Leonard Nimoy, Hugo Weaving

Running Length: 157 minutes

Synopsis: Picking up from where the last Transformers movie left off, the Autobots are now working with humans to fend off the Decepticons and also help to battle (believe it or not) terrorists in the name of world peace. However, when Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) discovers a secret that the US Government has been hiding from them on the moon, this sets off a chain of events that begins with the revival of the powerful Autobot Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy) and eventually to a secret from Cybertron’s past that causes the future of Earth to hang in the balance.

In the mean time, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is finding difficulty adjusting to a normal lifestyle after graduating from college, and is not even able to find a proper job, despite being in a relationship with yet another hot girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). He uncovers a Decepticon plot but has difficulty getting anyone to listen to him, much less believe in what he says. In desperation, Sam tries to put his motley crew back together, including the now-wealthy conspiracy theorist Simmons (John Turturro), but they have to get past the no-nonsense FBI Security Director Mearing (Frances McDormand) first.

Review: It’s perhaps redundant to review Transformers: Dark of the Moon as essentially nothing has changed since the movie franchise started, and the exact same flaws that plagued the previous two films are back in the third. However, since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was such a terrible film, there was really no way to go but up. So yes, Dark of the Moon is a better film than Revenge of the Fallen, but is that saying much?

Michael Bay himself had expressed disappointment in the screenplay of Revenge of the Fallen, but in all honesty Dark of the Moon doesn’t fare much better. Running at a very bloated 157 minutes, Bay and screenwriter Krueger spend almost an hour on largely pointless exposition, punctuated only briefly by much-needed action sequences. Is there really a need to see Sam getting relationship advice from his parents? Or stilted, emotionless scenes in which Shia LaBeouf and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley try to convince the audience (unsuccessfully) of their deep love for each other? The entire film shudders to a halt repeatedly due to these superfluous sequences, and any hope of Dark of the Moon being able to tell a compelling story dissipates in this first hour.

The human actors are all deeply unimpressive, and this includes (much as it pains me to say) Frances McDormand and John Malkovich, who are obviously slumming it for the money. In fact, the human performances are so weak that all of them could have been wiped out without me feeling much for their plight. This is particularly true of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, whose complete lack of acting skills makes Megan Fox’s vapid performances in the first two Transformers seem like thespian masterpieces in comparison. It’s quite telltale that the most emotionally affecting scenes in the film are those that deal with the Transformers. In fact, the bro-mance between Sam and Bumblebee comes across as being more believable that the romance between Sam and Carly, and it’s due to Bumblebee’s emoting, not LaBeouf’s.

Michael Bay isn’t known, of course, for his storytelling ability, but one thing he manages to do well is in action sequences. The action in Dark of the Moon is thankfully less confusing than before, with Bay actually managing to slow down most action sequences that they become discernible, something that was sorely lacking in Revenge of the Fallen. And the special effects and CGI are really top notch, with the most memorable being the scene where the main characters are trapped in a crumbling building –almost reminiscent of 9/11, and is easily the most visceral of the many, many action set-pieces in the movie.

Bay had recanted on his initial decision to eschew 3D midway through production, and it shows in the finished product. This is possibly the least 3D film I have ever seen, and it’s easy to forget that one is watching a 3D film in long stretches, not because the environment is immersive, but because there’s no sense of the third dimension at all. My advice is to save the money and the eye fatigue and go with normal 2D instead.

In the end, Dark of the Moon would probably have worked better if Michael Bay had elected to keep it short and sweet instead of trying to aim for an “epic”. Though the action sequences work well, viewer fatigue quickly sets in when so much of it is crammed into the movie. Add to that the unnecessarily lengthy exposition, and Dark of the Moon becomes a numbing cinematic experience that goes on far longer than it should have been. If there’s a fourth movie in the franchise, let’s hope that Bay would finally be able to exercise some self-restraint and not turn it into another overburdened behemoth.

* * (out of four stars)


Super 8 * * * *

Genre: Action/Drama

Director: J.J. Abrams  

Writer: J.J. Abrams

Cast: Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich, Gabriel Basso, Joel Courtney, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Amanda Michalka

Running Length: 112 minutes

Synopsis: In the summer of 1979, a group of friends in a small Ohio town witness a catastrophic train crash while making a super 8mm movie and soon suspect that it was not an accident. Shortly after, unusual disappearances and inexplicable events begin to take place in town, and the local Deputy (Kyle Chandler) tries to uncover the truth – which is more terrifying than any of them could have possibly imagined… 

Review: Super 8 is a movie that defies easy classification – it’s an old school creature feature, a coming of age movie, a teen romance and a nostalgic homage to the era that many of us are familiar with – and perhaps only the talented J. J. Abrams could have pulled it off with such panache. Make no mistake: Super 8 has become the movie to beat this summer season, a film that perfectly balances action, sci-fi, romance, comedy and drama, and augmented by some fine performances and great dialogue to boot. It may come as little surprise that the executive producer of the film is Steven Spielberg, because this is practically a loving tribute to Spielberg’s earlier canon of work. 

Part of the fun of Super 8 is finding out what exactly happens in the little town of Lillian and the film’s protagonists, so to delve any further into the plot would be rather spoilerly. Suffice to say, however, that not only is the central mystery a fun one to figure out (and really wouldn’t take too much brain power), even the film’s subplots are interesting and involving, and everything is paced so well that it’s hard to imagine that the person responsible for such movie magic only has three films under his belt (to be fair Abrams has had a long and rather successful TV career before this). The only criticism that can be levelled at the film would be for the denouement – it ends a little too abruptly, and the conclusion is so soft, cuddly and Spielbergian that it almost descends into the realm of parody. 

Despite the old-school sensibilities of Super 8, the film boasts some cutting edge visual effects and fantastic action set pieces, none more impressive than the heart-stopping train crash that occurs early on in the film. It’s hands down one of the most intense action sequences I’ve seen played out, and the level of realism is incredible. The monster animation isn’t quite as successful, but perhaps this is due more to the film being somewhat of a facsimile of old creature films, and the animation is intended to be cheesier. 

Special mention must be made of the child actors in Super 8, who give stellar performances and are very much a big part of the reason why the film is so engaging. Elle Fanning is very impressive (and there’s even a memorable “performance of a performance” early on), but even the less famous child actors manage to deliver. The fact that audiences will almost certainly become vested in these children is core to the film’s emotional resonance, and only with such unexpectedly great acting does the entire film come into its own as first-rate.  

Super 8 is a great film that holds wide appeal to both young and old viewers, but one wonders if the typical attention-deficit cinemagoer will eschew this film for the more famous faces and stories that other summer blockbusters would boast of. Those that do take the plunge, however, will find themselves (and their inner child) richly rewarded with one of the best cinematic experiences of the year so far. One last thing – remember to stay for the first part of the end credits for a very, very enjoyable short film that is guaranteed to make you leave the cinema with a smile on your face. 

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


The Hangover Part II * * *

Genre: Comedy

Director: Todd Philips

Writers: Craig Mazin, Scott Armstrong and Todd Philips

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Zach Galiafinakis, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong

Running Length: 102 minutes

Synopsis: The Hangover Part II is director Todd Phillips’ follow-up to 2009’s smash hit The Hangover, which became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all-time and also won the Golden Globe for Best Film – Comedy or Musical. Reprising their roles from The Hangover, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Justin Bartha star in the film. In the sequel, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and Doug (Justin Bartha) travel to exotic Thailand for Stu’s wedding. After the unforgettable bachelor party in Las Vegas, Stu is taking no chances and has opted for a safe, subdued pre-wedding brunch. However, things don’t always go as planned. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in Bangkok can’t even be imagined…

Review: Nobody expected The Hangover to do as well as it did when it was released in 2009, and it eventually became the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time. This is obviously the biggest reason why The Hangover Part II is seeing light of day this year, but can lightning strike twice? The answer, unsurprisingly, is both yes and no. While The Hangover Part II is very entertaining, it’s almost an identical rehash of The Hangover despite the change in locale, and lacking the element of surprise the sequel just feels less inspired than its predecessor.

Todd Philips and his creative team obviously decided to justify the existence of this sequel by upping the ante, but this is a ploy that works unevenly. Everything is bigger – the setup of the gags, the stakes, and even the (somewhat pointless) action – but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. And that really is the biggest weakness of the film, likely to overlooked by most audiences since the cinematic experience remains pretty much on par with that of its predecessor.

There are still plenty of things to like about The Hangover Part II despite this. The politically incorrect and crude humour can still be very funny, even if it gets a little forced at times. It may not be a laugh a minute, but it does come pretty close. The central mystery is still intriguing despite being extremely far-fetched, and the denouement is pretty satisfactory, even if it seems a bit rushed. And like the first film, the end credit photo montage packs some of the best visual gags in the movie.  

It is undeniable that the leads are very flawed and yet very likeable characters, and the chemistry between the actors have only grown stronger in the sequel. Much as they are in a totally improbable situation, the audience is always rooting for the group to solve the mystery and ride off into the sunset. And this is essentially why The Hangover Part II will be a box office success – even though the proceedings are a bit old-hat, there will be enough empathy/sympathy with these characters that most audiences will be very forgiving. One wonders, however, if audiences would be as forgiving the third inevitable time around.  

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


X-Men: First Class * * * *

Genre: Action

Director: Matthew Vaughn  

Writers: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn

Cast: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne

Running Length: 132 minutes

Synopsis: Charting the epic beginning of the X-Men saga, X-Men: First Class is set in the 60s, before Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) took on the names Professor X and Magneto and became archenemies. The two were young men discovering their powers for the first time, and were close friends working together to discover other mutants who have so far lived in hiding. However, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), aided by other mutants, is trying to ignite World War III by manipulating both the Russians and the Americans into the Cuban Missile Crisis. Charles and Erik must put aside their differences to defeat Shaw, but their alliance grows weaker by the day as the rifts begin to form.  

Review: I will be the first to admit that I hadn’t expected much from X-Men: First Class. After all, the X-Men movie franchise had been in a steady decline, apparent especially in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and it would not have been surprising if this fifth film (though chronologically the first) simply continued the trend. Surprise, surprise – X-Men: First Class is a summer blockbuster with brains, and apart from the usual assault on the senses, this is a film that actually remembers what makes a movie truly great: telling a compelling story.

The narrative weight of X-Men: First Class could have done the movie in – the 132-minute movie probably contains one of the densest superhero movie plots ever, packed with multiple plot threads, a whole slew of characters and origin stories, and integrating real-life events (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) into the fictional X-Men universe to boot. However, the screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn manages to pull it off, and the end result is a film that strikes a great balance between emotional character moments and exhilarating action set pieces, while moving things along at a very good pace throughout. Even the slightly weaker middle portion doesn’t feel like a drag, which in such a long film is no mean feat. 

This is further augmented by an almost uniformly excellent cast, with major props going to both James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, whose nuanced portrayals of the tragic heroes form the emotional centre of the movie. There’s also great chemistry between the two, allowing audiences to become vested in their friendship and their eventual split. Kudos must also go to Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult, who are key characters in an important subplot and stand out from the supporting cast.

X-Men: First Class also boasts excellent art direction and production design with a keen eye for the period it is set in, allowing the film to exude a James Bond-esque vibe that adds to the allure of the movie. Special effects are top rate, as is expected these days, and the action sequences are well-choreographed and thrilling, with an almost operatic grandeur that is not often seen in movies of this genre. Additional brownie points go the filmmakers for not resorting to gimmicky 3D, presenting the film in glorious, old-school 2D.

Truly a first class movie, and not just in the superhero genre, one can only hope that this reinvigoration of the X-Men franchise will lead to other similarly excellent films down the line. Although there are a number of superhero films due to be released later this year, it’s going to take a lot to knock X-Men: First Class off the top spot.

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