Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Genre: Animation 

Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Screenplay: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber

Running Time: 117 minutes

Synopsis: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative minds behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, bring their unique talents to a fresh vision of a different Spider-Man Universe, with a groundbreaking visual style that’s the first of its kind. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduces Brooklyn teen Miles Morales, and the limitless possibilities of the Spider-Verse, where more than one can wear the mask.

Review: Spider-Man is possibly the comic book hero that has seen the most reboots in his cinematic career. Since 2002 and Spidey’s proper big screen debut, there have been no less than three actors donning the Spider-Man costume over 6 dedicated films (with a seventh arriving in 2019), and this makes what Into the Spider-Verse has achieved even more impressive – not only is this the best animated film I have seen in 2018, it is also the best Spider-Man movie yet. 

A large part of what makes Into the Spider-Verse so special is because of long time creative partners-in-crime Phil Lord & Christopher Miller. Despite not actually being billed as directors on Into the Spider-Verse due to them working on (and then later leaving) Solo: A Star Wars Story, it’s clear that they have left their mark all over the project, and the genre-bending creativity and willingness to take risks that was found in The Lego Movie is found quite intact here.

Rarely can it be said nowadays that a superhero movie is innovative and ground-breaking, but Into the Spider-Verse is exactly that – not only is the movie an origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man, it also functions as origins stories for a multitude of Spider-People from parallel universes, setting up exciting potential directions for future films set in the Spider-Verse. That the film actually manages to adequately introduce SIX iterations of Spideys in its under-two-hour running time is a feat on its own. That the story manages to make viewers care about every single one of them (yes, including Spider-Ham) is near unprecedented in the world of superhero movies. 

The innovation extends to the visual style of the film as well. This is the first animated film I have seen that so closely resembles an actual comic book, and having a different stylistic flourish for each of the Spider-People is a move that pays off well. Although it can get a bit too busy at times, the film is truly a dazzling breath of fresh air, as animated films of recent years have generally all converged towards a similar “look” that Into the Spider-Verse completely veers away from.

Unlike many of its brethren, Into the Spider-Verse is actually effervescent and fun, coming closer to the spirit of comic books than many live-action adaptations. It seems weird to describe the film this way, but Into the Spider-Verse comes across as being actually delighted in its own existence, and has such a joyous, carefree feel to it, releasing the film in the December holiday season suddenly starts to make a lot of sense. A note-perfect mix of verve, wit (stay through the entire credits for a coda with a somewhat interesting payoff) and authenticity, this has surprisingly become the movie to beat this holiday season (even if its box office is unlikely to outclass fellow December release.

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

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Aquaman

Genre: Action

Director: James Wan

Screenplay: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall

Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Ludi Lin, Michael Beach, Randall Park, Graham McTavish

Running Length: 143 minutes

Synopsis: Aquaman reveals the origin story of half-human, half-Atlantean Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and takes him on the journey of his lifetime—one that will not only force him to face who he really is, but to discover if he is worthy of who he was born to be…a king.

Review: After having appeared in two previous DC Extended Universe movies, it’s finally time for Aquaman to get his own origins movie (take that, Entourage!). Given the spotty track record of the DCEU thus far, one could rightly say that expectations for the film was tempered, even though the trailers seem to point to a rather decent effort. And indeed Aquaman is just that – a decent effort from James Wan, a somewhat overlong but entertaining film in spite of its many flaws. At least it’s a fun movie and never takes itself too seriously, which cannot be said of almost all previous DCEU outings. 

It won’t come as a rude shock that the movie version of Aquaman is a towering, hirsute brute of a man, since moviegoers have already seen him on multiple occasions. Jason Momoa continues to own the role, and the mix of his physicality and a tongue-in-cheek sensibility makes him an eminently watchable superhero. Unfortunately, the rest of the main cast don’t fare as well, from the one-note performance of Amber Heard to the distracted “I’m here for the paycheque” delivery of Willem Dafoe, and particularly Patrick Wilson, who delivers his somewhat ludicrous lines with such serious thespian effort that it becomes comical to observe. It doesn’t help that he has the most distractingly bad wig amongst a sea (ahem) of bad hairpieces (the film’s apparently limitless budget didn’t seem to have catered resources to making hair move realistically under “water”). 

Aquaman is split into two (unequal) halves, the first half being reminiscent of treasure hunt movies like Romancing the Stone, where Aquaman and Mera venture into unlikely locales to hunt down a powerful trident (never mind that the first clue is seemingly millions of years old, but points to a second clue that is merely a few thousand years old). This does go on for a bit too long, and interest in the search starts to flag, especially when punctuated by a long sequence with Black Manta, the secondary villain. In fact, the entire Black Manta storyline could probably have been excised without much impact to the overall film, except to maybe make it feel a tad less bloated and waterlogged. 

The second half is where Aquaman truly goes balls to the wall and eventually builds to an insane finale where every possible form of seafood (I apologize for my Asian culinary sensibilities) comes together in an eye-popping underwater battle royale. It even has an octopus playing drums underwater! It is impossible to take in all the detail found in this denouement, but it certainly does look impressive enough, especially in IMAX. Aquaman is a step in the right direction for the DCEU, and for once it’s a film that recognizes and celebrates the inherent silliness of some of the worlds these superheroes exist in. Yet despite all the visual pizzazz, exotic locales, and its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, there’s really no denying that there is just too little substance in the film to really justify an almost 2.5 hour running time.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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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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