Maleficent

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Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Robert Stromberg

Writer: Linda Woolverton, based on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” and Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au bois dormant”

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Sam Riley

Running Length: 97 minutes

Synopsis: Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic “Sleeping Beauty” and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king’s newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora (Elle Fanning) is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever.

Review: You may not know it from the official trailers, but Maleficent is both a kid- and family-friendly film. To say more would be slightly spoilerly, but this mismatch presents the biggest stumbling block for the film – that many viewers are going to watch the movie with the wrong expectations in tow. Given that the film is trying to flesh out the backstory of one of Disney’s most famous villains, and integrating that into one of the most famous “old-school” Disney animations, first-time director Robert Stromberg has a lot to achieve in a very short amount of time. It’s not entirely successful, and in a way it almost feels as though the original Sleeping Beauty had put some shackles around the way the movie unfolds, but almost all is forgiven solely by the extremely astute casting choice of Angelina Jolie as Maleficent.

Producer Joe Roth seems enamoured with films that retell a familiar story, including Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Oz the Great and Powerful, and Maleficent is a film cast in a similar mould. For Maleficent, unfortunately, it really has been done before (and arguably better) in Wicked, which means that there are very few surprises to be had here. In fact, the attempt to run a parallel story to the original Sleeping Beauty doesn’t nearly work as well as it should, because the film is simply too short to allow for more depth in the storytelling. The final third of the movie feels extremely rushed, as though the fact that this is a family movie means the running length can’t exceed 90 or so minutes (two words for Disney to consider: “Harry” and “Potter”). It’s almost hilarious how little time Aurora spends caught in her magical slumber, that it feels more like a quick nap than anything else. It’s things like these that make the links to Sleeping Beauty feels perfunctory, especially because there appeared to be a need to recreate certain key scenes from the alternate perspective.

However, there’s no denying that Richard Stromberg had realized a wonderful world in Maleficent – the art direction and set design (despite there being only two main sets in the film) is flawless, and the visual effects are extremely well done. This isn’t surprising, given Stromberg’s CV before taking the helm, which includes two Oscar wins for Art Direction for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. However, once again this is a film that doesn’t require viewing in 3D – there were scenes that should have looked better without 3D glasses on, and the already dark scenes look even murkier in the third dimension.

There is no doubt that Angelina Jolie totally owns the Maleficent character. She’s terrific in the role, all regal and menacing, her already distinct features made even more angular by Rick Baker’s incredible makeup. Her screen presence overshadows everyone else in the film, to the point that she is really the only character that matters or has any semblance of depth. This could be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective, but let’s get real – everyone is here for Angelina Jolie/Maleficent, and her performance does not disappoint.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

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Genre: Action

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Simon Kinberg, story by Jane Goldman, Simon Kinberg and Matthew Vaughn

Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart

Running Length: 131 mins

Synopsis: The ultimate X-Men ensemble fights a war for the survival of the species across two time periods in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The beloved characters from the original X-Men film trilogy join forces with their younger selves from the past, X-Men: First Class, in order to change a major historical event and fight in an epic battle that could save our future.

Review: To say that X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of the better installments in the X-Men franchise seems to be faint praise, given that there have been a number of clunkers in the seven films thus far. So let’s rephrase: this is the second best movie in the franchise so far (the first by far still being X-Men: First Class), and since it features actors from the original trilogy, also manages to more or less flush out the bad taste that remained after the rather terrible X-Men: The Last Stand.

Days of Future Past is not a perfect movie – it has way too many characters doing nothing, the dense plot requires a working knowledge of the X-Men universe to make head and tail of. However, it belongs to a rare breed of superhero movies where the action takes a back seat to plot development. While the action is fine in Days of Future Past (the most notable being an imaginative, series-best scene where Quicksilver uses his powers to get the mutants out of a tight bind), it is when some of the key actors get a chance to flesh out their characters where the movie shines.

There’s an impressively long list of mutants featured in Days of Future Past, but almost all of them are nothing more than wallpaper – this sadly even includes seasoned thespians Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as the future age Professor X and Magneto. Hugh Jackman is given top billing, but even his Wolverine is reduced to doing nothing much except be the plot device that marries the two timelines in the film. As for the minor mutants, the only ones who are really given any significant screen time are Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and Quicksilver, the rest seemingly present just to perform a technical demonstration of their powers – the most egregious example being Fan Bing Bing’s Blink, who didn’t even seem to get a single line of dialogue.

Thankfully, Singer does give the key actors in X-Men: First Class their time in the sun, and the film benefits immeasurably because of this. The trio of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence do most of the heavy lifting in the film, and it is not a stretch to say that the movie is successful largely due to their presence. Michael Fassbender once again reigns supreme, and his portrayal as Erik/Magneto is easily the strongest (and dare I say, most magnetic) amongst the trio. There’s a tragic quality about Erik Lensherr which Fassbender is able to bring out, both within and without his costume – a pretty rare occurrence for superhero movies.

Having watched the film in 2D, it’s hard to say if 3D would add to the viewing experience, but it does not look like to be the case. While the quality of the CG in any action blockbuster worth its salt (or its $200 million production budget in this case) is a given, there are spots in the film where the visual effects do seem a little sloppy, particularly the finale sequence, easily the weakest scene both visually and in the grander scheme of things.

Bryan Singer was the director who truly established the end-credits sequence in superhero movies, and it’s no surprise that there’s one such scene in Days of Future Past, an obvious teaser for the already announced X-Men: Apocalypse. Having reboot the franchise’s beginnings with X-Men: First Class, and now resetting the present X-Men universe with the time travel premise in Days of Future Past, the X-Men franchise is now at its strongest in its entire 14-year cinematic history. Hopefully Apocalypse will be able to continue the streak and not waste the build-up when it arrives in 2016.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Grace of Monaco

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Genre: Drama

Director: Oliver Dahan

Writer: Arash Amel

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Tim Roth, Frank Langella, Paz Vega, Parker Posey, Milo Ventimiglia, Derek Jacobi, Robert Lindsay   

Running Length: 103 mins

Synopsis: The story of former Hollywood star Grace Kelly’s (Nicole Kidman) crisis of marriage and identity, during a political dispute between Monaco’s Prince Rainier III (Tim Roth) and France’s Charles De Gaulle (Andre Penvern), and a looming French invasion of Monaco in the early 1960s.

Review: If Nicole Kidman was looking to end her poor run at the box office, Grace of Monaco is not going to be the one to do it. Critically ravaged at Cannes, the film – though not as bad as what early reviewers have indicated – is still a terrible misstep in more ways than one. Perhaps the title card that opens the movie already says it all – instead of the typical “based on a true story”, it is instead “a fictional account inspired by real events”, which suggests that much of what transpires on screen belongs strictly in the imagination of Dahan and probably Arash Amel. (I’m quite sure that Grace Kelly’s role in the blockade was far smaller than what was intimated here) I will not be alone in feeling that the film does not do justice to Grace Kelly or any of the other real life characters.

Although Nicole Kidman had obviously put a lot of effort into the role, her portrayal of Grace Kelly remains unconvincing, though one must give kudos to Kidman putting up with the ridiculous extreme close ups that Dahan subjects her to. While it’s understandable that close ups allow the audience to observe the smaller nuances in expression, when the actress’s face is pressed right up to the lens, allowing one unfettered access to even her nostril hairs, I would believe that backing the camera up is the wiser thing to do. There’s absolutely no chance that this performance would generate any Oscar buzz, although it had seemed promising before the film was released.

There’s also a sense that no one really knew what direction to take this movie, which echoes the equally misguided Diana from last year, starring Nicole Kidman’s good friend Naomi Watts. The film is alarmingly superficial in its treatment, and the audience neither gets an in-depth look at Grace Kelly nor at the 1962 blockade, which means it essentially is a daytime soap opera with a bigger budget. That parts of it isn’t even real just makes things worse – were the real life developments not interesting enough that it required pointless re-imagination?  

There are nice things to look at in the film, as it boasts exotic locales, attention to period detail, and a lavish set design. Fans of Nicole Kidman will surely be placated by the numerous costume changes she goes through, as well as the beautiful jewelry she dons throughout. However, it’s extremely difficult to muster up a genuine recommendation for the film based simply on these positives, and one cannot help but feel that Grace Kelly and Nicole Kidman both deserved something better than this.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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Godzilla

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Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Gareth Edwards

Writer: Max Borenstein, story by David Callaham

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, CJ Adams, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Carson Bolde, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Straitham

Running Length: 123 mins

Synopsis: An epic rebirth to Toho’s iconic Godzilla, this spectacular adventure pits the world’s most famous monster against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.

Review: It’s been 16 years since Hollywood has put Godzilla on the big screen, and little wonder since the 1998 version was quite a misstep in terms of establishing the (then-planned) franchise. I’m pleased to say that the 2014 (re)incarnation is a far, far better movie.  Although it hiccups in terms of human drama, Godzilla manages to deliver on most other aspects, especially on Godzilla himself, and is a very satisfying stompy movie indeed.

The film does take its time to get started, with Godzilla not making a formal appearance till about the halfway point. This is largely due to Gareth Edwards attempting to ramp up the human drama in the movie, though it is somewhat unsuccessful. Despite populating the cast with an amazing amount of talent, no one actually gets to do much apart from Bryan Cranston. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins are particularly wasted, reduced to nothing more than reciting expository dialogue. It is a pretty shocking waste of thespian chops, and the film would probably have done better just by focusing more on the monsters from the get-go.

Where the film does succeed, however, is giving the audience the human’s-eye view of the action once it gets going. Gareth Edwards regularly films the proceedings from the perspective of the humans, and this really helps to put the audience smack in the heart of the action. One particularly impressive scene is seen through Ford’s (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) face mask as he skydives past Godzilla – it is an impossibly intimate look at the big monsters and delivers dramatic flair in spades.

Kudos to the effects team as well for crafting Godzilla and monsters that look stunningly realistic (well, as realistic as we think giant monsters would look like anyway), and all the computer-generated mayhem and destruction are presented most convincingly. An excellent score by Alexander Desplat perfect augments the fantastic sound effects and mixing in the movie – it’s highly recommended that you watch Godzilla in a theatre with great acoustics, and rest assured that you can feel Godzilla’s roar in your bones if you do so. What’s not so recommended is the 3D in the movie – once again, the post-production 3D does nothing to enhance the viewing experience, and it would be better to stick to a big screen that’s devoid of the third dimension.

Although this isn’t identical to the Toho Godzilla movies that some of us grew up with, Gareth Edwards has done a very commendable job in maintaining the spirit of the old movies. Sure, the science is a bit junky still, and the central humans just aren’t interesting enough, but Godzilla himself is most impressively brought to life, in a mould that’s similar to the Japanese films that he once starred in. In fact, the movie could have been significantly improved if more focus was brought onto the monsters instead of the humans, but this is so much better than Hollywood’s previous attempt that it would seem nitpicky to ask for more. This may be Edwards’ first big budget directorial effort, but he has lived up to expectations (and more), and this film more than makes up for the 1998 travesty that almost killed Godzilla for good.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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Genre: Action

Director: Marc Webb

Writers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, James Vanderbilt, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane Dehaan, Sally Field, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidz, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti

Running Length: 141 mins

Synopsis: For Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), life is busy between taking out the bad guys as Spider-Man and spending time with the person he loves, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and high school graduation can’t come quickly enough. Peter hasn’t forgotten about the promise he made to Gwen’s father to protect her by staying away – but that’s a promise he just can’t keep. Things will change for Peter when a new villain, Electro (Jamie Foxx), emerges, an old friend, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), returns, and Peter uncovers new clues about his past.

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 may be far from being the perfect superhero movie, but as far as Spider-Man movies go, the film has now taken over the mantle from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 as the best Spider-Man movie so far. It may not boast the best action sequences, or the tightest of editing (at almost two and a half hours, the film runs way too long), but it is certainly the film that is closest in spirit to the comic book version of Spidey. One of the criticisms of the first installment in the Spider-Man reboot was that it took too long to get the establishing story out of the way, but it does pays off partially in this sequel.

Although it’s clear that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 cost a pretty penny to make – the 3D is surprisingly decent throughout, and the CGI, particularly in the final showdown with Electro, is as good as it gets these days – what really makes the film stand out is in the “smaller” sequences. There’s no doubt that being a real-life couple makes the chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone easily the best and most tangible in any superhero movie to date (far better than the Tobey Maguire-Kirsten Dunst pairing in the original Spider-Man trilogy, at the very least), but even other characters also get a chance to shine. Sally Field particularly impresses (again) as Aunt May, and her performance is the strongest one in the film despite a rather limited screen time. Unsurprisingly, the most emotionally engaging scenes in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 are when everyone is out of their costumes. 

For a Summer action blockbuster, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is surprisingly light on action, and although the limited action sequences are all well choreographed and make good use of technology, I suspect that many moviegoers will still have preferred something that isn’t so skewed in favour of exposition and storyline, especially since the first installment already spent a good amount of time doing the same. There’s no doubt that the film is a little durdly, particularly in the middle, but the eventual payoff does make it somewhat worth the time.

The single largest misstep in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is its entirely forgettable villains. Electro is the worst offender, and though he is supposed to be the central villain, he is such a broad caricature – bringing to mind Jim Carrey’s Riddler in Batman & Robin – that it’s impossible to take the character seriously. Even an accomplished actor like Jamie Foxx can’t do much to rescue a character that is this poorly written and developed. While Harry Osborn/Green Goblin is significantly better written, with Dan DeHaan doing a capable enough job, his introduction and eventual transformation does seem rather rushed, and it’s surprising to see such a major villain in the comic book series getting such short shrift in the film. And the less that’s said about the Rhino and Norman Osborn the better – suffice to say that it’s a colossal waste of talent for both Paul Giamatti and Chris Cooper.

With The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Marc Webb and his creative team have managed to create a Spider-Man that’s closest to the comic book version, but despite the positives of the film, it very nearly comes apart at the seams due to its flaws. Whether one would enjoy the film depends very much on how much weight is placed on the film having an emotional centre, which in my opinion is one of the things that the film manages to get very right. With The Amazing Spider-Man 3 slated for a 2016 release, hopefully the franchise will finally hit its stride in its third outing, and deliver the best Spider-Man movie yet.  

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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