Strange Magic

Genre: Animation

Director: Gary Rydstrom

Screenplay: David Berenbaum, Irene Mecchi, Gary Rydstrom, story by George Lucas

Voice Cast: Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Meredith Anne Bull, Sam Palladio, Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph, Alfred Molina, Bob Einstein, Peter Stormare

Running Length: 99 minutes

Synopsis: Strange Magic is a madcap fairy tale musical inspired by “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Popular songs from the past six decades help tell the tale of a colorful cast of goblins, elves, fairies and imps, and their hilarious misadventures sparked by the battle over a powerful potion.

Review: At first, it may seem like a strange decision to release Strange Magic in January, since it is not a window that usually favours animations. The realization, however, starts about 15 minutes into the film – it must have been a contractual agreement for Disney to release Strange Magic as part of its purchase of Lucasfilm, because it’s such a far cry from any Disney-related animation that I can’t imagine Disney voluntarily releasing this film as-is (another tell-tale sign: Strange Magic is released through Disney’s Touchstone Pictures). Hence, a January “dumping ground” release. Strange Magic is a bizarre train wreck of an animation, and despite its okay visuals and an eclectic soundtrack, just isn’t very entertaining to both young and old.

Apparently based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummmer’s Night Dream, the story was thought up by George Lucas, and plays out to a soundtrack of some of his favourite songs (spanning six decades). Therein lies the first of many conundrums – if it’s a film targeted at pre-teen girls, then why the karaoke renditions of songs that could be four or five times their age? (As a side note, some of these song rights surely weren’t cheap to obtain). The Glee-style mashups are also poorly executed, resulting in discordant musical numbers that simply don’t work.

And then there’s the story, which once again proves that George Lucas really can’t write love stories. It’s an awkward take on A Midsummer’s Night Dream, exacerbated by the fact that there’s absolutely no compelling reason for any of the leads to fall in love with each other. The conflicts are uninteresting and their resolutions aren’t much better. It’s really quite an achievement to have such oft-used tropes fail so spectacularly in execution.

Although the voice cast features a number of recognizable names, no one really seems to put in much of an effort – Alan Cumming and Evan Rachel Wood are sonically mismatched and both struggle in performing the songs, and while the supporting cast fare a bit better, even Broadway stalwarts like Kristin Chenoweth fail to impress. It does not help that while well animated (notably done in Lucasfilm Singapore), the character designs all look slightly creepy (I’m not even referring to the Bog King, whose design is actually one of the better ones in the film). It’s little surprise that Strange Magic was decimated in its US release, and I honestly do not expect the Singapore release to fare much better.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)


The Wedding Ringer

Genre: Comedy

Director: Jeremy Garelick

Screenplay: Jeremy Garelick, Jay Lavender

Cast: Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting

Running Length: 101 minutes

Synopsis: Doug Harris (Josh Gad) is a loveable but socially awkward groom-to-be with a problem: he has no best man. With less than two weeks to go until he marries the girl of his dreams (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting), Doug is referred to Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart), owner and CEO of Best Man, Inc., a company that provides flattering best men for socially challenged guys in need. What ensues is a hilarious wedding charade as they try to pull off the big con, and an unexpected budding bromance between Doug and his fake best man Jimmy.

Review: It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to call this movie “Best Men”, since this project was probably greenlit off the success of Bridesmaids (to be fair, director Jeremy Garelick started work on the screenplay together with Jay Lavender more than a decade ago). The concept is not new – see Wedding Crashers and I Love You, Man – and the jokes are for the most part rather predictable and uninspired, but what saves the movie is casting Kevin Hart in the lead role, and the chemistry he shares with Josh Gad.

The first reel of The Wedding Ringer is about as insipid as it gets, with virtually no plot development and very few laughs. Fortunately, things improve quite a bit in the subsequent reels, as Kevin Hart hits his stride and the bromance between him and Gad develops. It’s a believable pairing, and surprisingly can be quite touching at times. Although Gad is a good enough foil to Hart, this is Hart’s movie through and through. In the best scenes, Kevin Hart manages to channel top comedic talents like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams with his motor mouth and comedic timing, and since this is technically his first leading role it does bode well for his future in the movie industry. The rest of the ensemble cast are not particularly memorable, and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting is particularly underused, given that she’s quite the established comedic actor herself.

Crude sight gags and humour are now almost gold standards in R-rated comedies, and this is no different in The Wedding Ringer. It is actually quite tame compared to some of the other comedies in the same rating band, and thankfully doesn’t go out of its way to gross out audiences. There are moments that don’t work – the entire football match with Doug’s future father in law is overlong and pointless, for example – but The Wedding Ringer does serve up a good number of belly laughs (and a great parting shot for those familiar with Jorge Garcia’s body of work). It may be a flawed comedy, but in awards season it’s actually pretty astute counterprogramming, and manages to be an entertaining enough diversion.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


The Imitation Game

Genre: Drama

Director: Morten Tyldum

Screenplay: Graham Moore, based on the book “Alan Turing: The Enigma” by Andrew Hodges

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Charles Dance, Mark Strong

Running Length: 114 minutes

Synopsis: Famously leading a motley group of scholars, linguists, chess champions and intelligence officers, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) was credited with cracking the so-called unbreakable codes of Germany’s World War II Enigma machine. An intense and haunting portrayal of a brilliant, complicated man, The Imitation Game follows a genius who under nail-biting pressure helped to shorten the war and, in turn, save thousands of lives.

Review: Although The Imitation Game is thematically similar to The Theory of Everything, it ranks as the better biopic. The Imitation Game is more willing to show the darker side of things, occasionally dips its toes into thriller category, and boasts equally strong lead performances, which makes it a better cinematic experience overall. While Eddie Redmayne astonishes with his physical transformation, Benedict Cumberbatch impresses with superior thespian skills.

Intertwining three periods in Turing’s life, The Imitation Game begins in 1952, with Alan Turing being investigated and arrested for “gross indecency” – as homosexuality was still illegal back in the 50s – and using the police interrogation as the launching point of a recounting of his exploits in World War II at Bletchley Park. Turing was instrumental in cracking the German Enigma machine, which helped decode German radio messages and led to an earlier conclusion of the War, but he sadly committed suicide at the young age of 41, one year after he was found guilty and chose chemical castration over prison time. There are also earlier flashbacks to the 1920s, when Turing was a schoolboy who is just discovering his sexuality and experiencing his first crush.

The decision to focus on just three periods in Turing’s life is an astute one. By going deep instead of going wide, Tyldum and Moore have managed to create a multidimensional portrait of Turing, aided of course by the superlative performance of Benedict Cumberbatch. Cumberbatch manages to capture the essence of Turing, from his complete social awkwardness to his laser-like focus on solving Enigma, from his brilliance to his isolation. It is a pitch-perfect performance, and firmly establishes Cumberbatch as one of the top talents in the industry.

Special mention must also go to Alex Lawther playing the younger Alan Turing, who also manages to capture the nuances required to realistically portray a conflicted teenager coming to terms with his love for a fellow schoolboy. Keira Knightley once again shows that she is best in unconventional roles and not as a wide-eyed ingénue, though she isn’t given that much to do in the film.

Opting to eschew the more technical aspects of how Enigma was solved, certain scenes in The Imitation Game do stretch plausibility somewhat, though they do add more excitement to what’s essentially a very academic activity. Solving Enigma takes place around the midpoint of the film, but it’s really what unfolds after that makes the film an engrossing one. In the end, Turing’s brilliance and his contributions to ending the war is undermined by a society that condemned his sexuality, resulting in a life that ended way before it should have. The Imitation Game does not shy away from the ugly truth, making it an engrossing if dark movie to watch.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)


The Theory of Everything

Genre: Drama

Director: James Marsh

Screenplay: Anthony McCarten, based on the book “Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen” by Jane Hawking

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson, Simon McBurney, David Thewlis, Maxine Peake

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: The Theory of Everything tells the story of one of the world’s greatest living minds, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), and his marriage to Jane Hawking (Felicity Jones), and their eventual separation.

Review: There’s an inherent difficulty, presumably, when making a biopic of someone who is still alive, and in The Theory of Everything, this is exacerbated since it is about one of the most brilliant minds of our time. There is a reverence in James Marsh’s direction, a restraint in portraying the more negative aspects between Stephen Hawking’s marriage to his first wife, Jane, that makes the film feel detached and a little neutered. Fortunately, Eddie Redmayne’s performance is a spectacular one, so much so that it manages to make the flaws of the film a lot easier to bear.

The Theory of Everything is a well-made film – production values are good and the cast’s performances are all fine, but it all comes across as feeling very safe and conventional. Perhaps due to covering such an extended time period, there are only superficial looks into Hawking’s life and loves, providing as much insight into Hawking as skimming through his Wikipedia entry.

Eddie Redmayne’s portrayal of Hawking is a revelation, rising head and shoulders above the rather mediocre script. An actor with a relatively short CV, there’s nothing in his career prior to The Theory of Everything that suggested his acting capabilities being able to pull off something of this magnitude. And yet he does, not just in his ability to mimic the real Hawking, trapped in a wheelchair and his body contorted and ravaged by motor neurone disease, but in the scenes leading up to the disease becoming full-blown, where little movements suggest the eventual onset of the disease.

Redmayne completely disappears into character and it’s one of those physical transformations that Hollywood loves (in the Oscar wars, he seems to be shaping up to be the one to beat, despite an extremely stacked nominations list this year). When eventually Redmayne has to play the entirely incapacitated Hawking (who has also by then lost his ability to speak), he is essentially acting with just his eyes and is akin to Mathieu Amalric’s seminal performance  in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Felicity Jones put forth a spirited performance as Jane Hawking, but no one else really manages to come close to him.

Although the film is based on Jane Hawking’s second memoir about her life with Stephen, the speed at which the narrative goes through the years means that there’s actually very little meaningful conflict between the leads, resulting in a pretty flat narrative tone. This is particularly noticeable in the final reels, when Stephen and Jane’s marriage is on the rocks, because everyone still remains unyieldingly nice and civil towards each other. Treating the subject matter with kid gloves neuters it, rendering some of the scenes less powerful than they should have been. As it stands, while it’s a good, well-made biopic, it probably wouldn’t stand the test of time as being a definitive biopic of Stephen (or Jane) Hawking.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Genre: Drama, Comedy

Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Screenplay: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo

Cast: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Emma Stone, Amy Ryan, Zach Galiafianakis, Lindsay Duncan

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: Birdman is a black comedy that tells the story of an actor, Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) – famous for portraying an iconic superhero – as he struggles to mount a Broadway play. In the days leading up to opening night, he battles his ego and attempts to recover his family, his career, and himself.

Review: If I had to pick just one word to describe Birdman, it would have to be “dazzling”. Not only is the film breathtaking in its technical achievements, it also happens to be an excellent ensemble film, with superlative performances coming from almost everyone in the cast, and boasts an entertaining plot to boot. This is one of the best cinematic experiences I have had in quite some time, and even this early into 2015, I would imagine it to be pretty difficult for any movie to trump Birdman for pole position for the rest of the year.

Although Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has had a pretty impressive CV to date (his four previous feature films – Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel and Biutiful – have all received critical acclaim), they have uniformly been pretty serious, “downer” films. Birdman seems to be the first time the director is having fun, and the result is a film that is a joy to sit through from start to finish, and is so intricately layered that it would be wise to plan ahead and avoid any toilet breaks throughout the 2-hour running time.

It almost seems like an impossible task, but Inarritu, together with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (fresh off his Oscar win for Gravity last year), has managed to create an illusion of a film that is composed of a single, uninterrupted take. Yes, it is essentially a one trick pony, but when the trick is so visually impressive it’s hard to criticize the endeavour. The long and immaculately choreographed tracking shots are incredible to observe, and although not entirely seamless, is an exhilarating cinematic accomplishment. As expected, Lubezki has secured an Oscar nomination and I cannot see any more deserving winner this year.

Michael Keaton gives a career-best performance as Riggan Thompson, and because the role of Riggan Thompson seems to mirror Keaton’s real life career (Keaton walked away from the Batman franchise almost 20 years ago, after a successful two-movie run), the lines between make-believe and reality are blurred to the benefit of the film’s narrative. Equally on form is Edward Norton, perfectly cast as the equally talented and egotistic Mike Shiner, again seemingly lampooning Norton’s real-life method acting quirks. The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, with special mention going to Emma Stone, who knocks it out of the park playing the damaged, fresh out of rehab daughter of Thompson (and sets the screen alight with the crackling chemistry between her and Norton in a few short, but key sequences).

In this era of tired sequels, endless remakes and big budget Hollywood blockbusters, gems like Birdman come few and far between. That it is both technically accomplished and still an eminently entertaining film is the cherry on top. It feels fresh despite treading familiar tropes, and much like its jazz soundtrack, is reminiscent of improv of the highest caliber. I cannot recommend this enough, and anyone who professes a love for cinema needs to watch Birdman at least once.

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


Into the Woods

Genre: Musical

Director: Rob Marshall

Screenplay: James Lapine, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Tracey Ullman, Lilla Crawford, Meryl Streep, Simon Ruddell Beale, Joanna Riding, Johnny Depp, Billy Magnussen, Mackenzie Mauzy, Annette Crosbie, Chris Pine, Richard Glover, Frances de la Tour

Running Length: 124 minutes

Synopsis: Into the Woods is a modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests. The musical follows the classic tales of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy)—all tied together by an original story involving a baker and his wife (James Corden & Emily Blunt), their wish to begin a family and their interaction with the witch (Meryl Streep) who has put a curse on them.

Review: Although it may seem like a kid-friendly movie – after all, it’s a mashup of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Rapunzel – Into the Woods is anything but. Adapted from Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 musical, there has been some modifications to the tale (unsurprising, given it’s Disney releasing the film and the story features a bunch of Disney Princesses), but the story is still a dark, albeit comical one. Rob Marshall has won acclaim previously for directing a stage-to-screen musical (Chicago), and although Into the Woods is perfectly serviceable as an adaptation, there’s no real wow factor in the transition, despite the star-studded cast.

Although I believe that Meryl Streep is likely to get her 19th Oscar nomination for her role as the witch (her singing is, surprisingly, quite decent), she’s not the focal point of the movie. And despite once again displaying her formidable talent in singing, neither is Anna Kendrick’s turn as Cinderella, which is honestly quite a bland, dispirited performance. It is Emily Blunt and James Corden who form the emotional centre of the film, and Blunt especially impresses, managing to steal the limelight from anyone sharing her scenes (yes, even Streep) and having a nice enough singing voice to complement her acting chops. Chris Pine also deserves a special mention for his extremely exuberant performance as Prince Charming.

This is Rob Marshall’s third movie musical, and yet the director still shows little flair in translating stage to screen. Although already more expansive than both Chicago and Nine’s stage-bound setpieces, Into the Woods still feels somewhat claustrophobic despite its woods settings, with little visual invention. That is, except the excellent “Agony” sequence, which sees Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen unabashedly hamming it up in what is essentially a medieval MTV. If more of Into the Woods was filmed in the same vein, it would definitely have stood out from the rest of the pack.

In other aspects, the film generally fares well. Art direction and production design (particularly the costumes) are well done, and most of the CG effects are acceptable, apart from the really lackluster work on the giantess. One could assume that Disney picked up on this adaption because it is a reimagining of its own Disney Princesses franchise (Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were however excluded from the film version, ostensibly because their appearance in the musical wasn’t the most family friendly, if you catch my drift), much like how it greenlit the live action Maleficent. However, while Maleficent is a far more imaginative work, Into the Woods is just a rudimentary adaptation that thankfully still manages to entertain.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Taken 3

Genre: Action

Director: Oliver Megaton

Screenplay: Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen

Cast: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen, Forest Whitaker, Dougray Scott, Sam Spruell, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, Al Sapienza

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: Liam Neeson returns as ex-covert operative Bryan Mills, whose reconciliation with his ex-wife is tragically cut short when she is brutally murdered. Consumed with rage, and framed for the crime, he goes on the run to evade the relentless pursuit of the CIA, FBI and the police. For one last time, Mills must use his “particular set of skills,” to track down the real killers, exact his unique brand of justice, and protect the only thing that matters to him now – his daughter.

Review: Taken 3 is a perfect example of how Hollywood manages to run some movie franchises into the ground. When the first (and at that time, only) Taken movie was released, what was originally probably intended to be a B-list movie became an international hit, netting over US$200 million in box office, and establishing Liam Neeson’s second career as a bona-fide action star. The menacing voice message Bryan Miller leaves for his daughter’s captor is highly memorable even after seven years, and has become immortalized in pop culture. While spawning a sequel was an inevitability, this third (and seemingly final – thankfully) film in the franchise feels wholly unnecessary, and takes the franchise in a direction that betrays its origins: while the title is Taken 3, no one actually gets taken (except perhaps the audience, for a ride).

Playing out more like a knockoff of The Fugitive, this time around it’s Bryan’s ex-wife (a woefully underused Famke Janssen) who is murdered and Bryan conveniently being framed for her murder. This alone shifts the tone of the movie quite drastically versus the first two films – since no one is taken, there’s never that tension of Bryan doing the best he can to protect his family and free them from the grasp of the villains, which results in a far more subdued performance by Neeson. Neeson’s no-holds-barred takedown of the bad guys was what made the first Taken so eminently watchable, and outwitting the police in a largely blood-free manner for much of the movie makes Taken 3 feel like a geriatric, neutered outing when compared to its predecessors.

Gone too are the European locales, with the action centered in Los Angeles this time, yet the film still manages to whip out a Russian mobster villain on demand (and introduced in a terribly hackneyed flashback sequence), I guess to make the film feel just that bit more exotic. Although this is Oliver Megaton’s second Taken movie, the camerawork is just plain awful. Most of the action sequences are framed so poorly that it’s hard to discern the action, and Megaton’s questionable choice of employing shakycam movements even in non-action scenes, and a predilection for extreme closeups make viewing Taken 3 a potentially nauseating experience.

Unfortunately, in a film franchise not known for strength in plotting, Taken 3’s plot is the most convoluted and muddled of the three films, and by the final reel it seems that even the director has decided to no longer bother about the plot and just wrap it up at the earliest possible moment. I personally found the final reveals and the denouement to make no sense whatsoever, and would be appreciative of anyone who will be watching the movie to enlighten me on the finer workings of the plot (particularly “the warm bagel theory”). To add insult to injury, despite repeating ad nauseum in its marketing materials that Taken 3 is “one last time”, the film still chooses to leave a door open for a potential sequel. For the love of all that’s good and decent, dear Hollywood executives, please do not green light that project.

Rating: * (out of four stars)