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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Underworld: Blood Wars

Genre: Action

Director: Anna Foerster

Screenplay: Cory Goodman

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Lara Pulver, Bradley James, Tobias Menzies

Running Length:  92 minutes

Synopsis: The next installment in the Underworld franchise follows vampire death dealer, Selene (Kate Beckinsale) as she fends off brutal attacks from both the lycan clan and the vampire faction that betrayed her. With her only allies, David (Theo James) and his father Thomas (Charles Dance), she must stop the eternal war between lycans and vampires, even if it means she has to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Review: The seemingly ageless Kate Beckinsale reprises her role as vampire assassin Selene for a fifth time in Underworld: Blood Wars, and while she looks none the worse for wear, the same cannot be said of the Underworld franchise. Most audiences would have ceased to care about what happens between the vampires and the lycans, and Blood Wars would not make anyone sit up and take notice either.

Although the film is clearly targeted at existing fans of the franchise, new director to the series Anna Foerster (also the series’ first female director) puts in a fair number of flashback sequences to help the uninitiated along. However, these flashbacks actually drag the film out much more than they should, and the film sags under the weight of unnecessary exposition – after all, everyone is here for Selene and the action sequences, and the plot is really more of an afterthought. Even so, some of the writing in Blood Wars is laughably bad, especially anything that involves the hokey albino vampire coven that looks literally ripped out of Game of Thrones.

Unfortunately, even the action sequences do not do the franchise much justice. It’s very clear that Blood Wars was made with a smaller (much smaller) budget, but even basic wirework looks and feels clumsily executed. CGI looks clunky and unpolished as well, often so poorly executed that the film would have done better with less.

That the film ends abruptly without any real resolution and clearly signals a sixth film (which Beckinsale has already signed up for) is just adding salt to the wound. The mystery around Selene’s (now missing) daughter remains almost entirely unresolved, and Selene’s only character development is unbelievably limited to frosted hair tips and a new fur coat. Even for fans, Blood Wars is a tough sell.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Genre: Fantasy

Director: David Yates

Screenplay: J.K. Rowling

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell

Running Length:  133 minutes

Synopsis: Based on a textbook Harry Potter reads while at Hogwarts, this first film in a new prequel franchise of the Harry Potter universe is set in New York during the 1920s, and follows the adventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he makes his way through a secret wizarding community in search of magical creatures.

Review: 5 years has passed since the eighth and “final” movie in the Harry Potter universe made it to the big screens, but there really was no doubt that the Potterverse was too lucrative to be left alone. Not long after, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was announced, set 70 years prior to the events that unfolded in the original Harry Potter franchise. It has since been revealed that this would be the first of five movies, and while this is a good thing for fans, I had reservations – the Harry Potter films to me were a highly functional (read: $$$) but a decidedly average franchise. Would Fantastic Beasts fare any better? The answer is – yes and no.

The Harry Potter films got gradually darker as they progressed, but Fantastic Beasts takes it even further. This is easily the darkest film in the Harry Potter universe, and deals not just with multiple character deaths, but also touches on child abuse and bigotry (amongst others), difficult subjects for any film to handle, and even more so for a film that is at least partially targeted at younger viewers. This is probably a conscious decision on J.K. Rowling’s end, since she takes on the screenwriting duties for the first time, and one can somewhat appreciate the fact that she chose not to talk down to the audience. This does mean that Fantastic Beasts will not work well as a family film if there are younger children in the mix.

Fantastic Beasts is heavily steeped in Potter-speak, and a newcomer to the universe would likely feel a bit alienated by the lack of an introduction into the world of wizardry. It is, however, still quite a wonderful universe to be lost in, and David Yates, with his plentiful experience in Harry Potter movies, has managed to bring some conceptually difficult sequences to life. The highlight of the show is definitely the myriad fantastic beasts featured, and really shows off Rowling’s imagination as a writer. The actors largely do a reasonable job, with Eddie Redmayne seemingly becoming typecast as the awkward, slightly bumbling protagonist (which he plays to the hilt here), but the bigger names in the cast list do nothing more than what amounts to cameo appearances. The only problem is that the beasts boast more personality than the actors, which isn’t something that could be said of the original Harry Potter franchise.

Fantastic Beasts also exposes one of the weaknesses that Rowling has as an author. Every installment of the Harry Potter franchise unfolds in largely similar manners (surprise villain, characters with secrets – good or bad – to hide, and so on), and the same predictability dogs Fantastic Beasts. There is no surprise to be had, and even though the universe is an enchanting one, at times Fantastic Beasts feels like the pilot episode of a drama series, building towards something potentially greater a couple of movies down the line. It remains to be seen whether this new franchise would take off, but given the amount of fan service that Yates and Rowling have offered here, the likelihood of commercial failure seems remote.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Doctor Strange

Genre: Action

Director: Scott Derrickson

Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Burden

Running Length: 115 minutes

Synopsis: After his career is destroyed, a brilliant but arrogant surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets a new lease on life when a sorcerer takes him under his wing and trains him to defend the world against evil.

Review: It has become increasingly difficult to innovate in the genre of superhero movies, since there is now an expectation that comes with the territory (just look at the number of moviegoers that patiently wait for the end credits to finish rolling nowadays). Marvel has proven significantly better at carving out new spaces within the crowded genre, however, and Doctor Strange is yet another Marvel film that has managed to defy expectations. Delving into the mystical facet of the Marvel Comic Universe was surely a gamble, but it is one that has paid off handsomely. Doctor Strange is easily the best superhero movie to be released in 2016, and a breath of fresh air for the MCU.

Scott Derrickson is not the most obvious choice of director for Doctor Strange, having cut his teeth on horror films like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but perhaps he was exactly what the doctor (ahem) ordered – a fresh pair of eyes that would be able to dispense with convention. Doctor Strange doesn’t deviate that far from other MCU movies, but is different enough to warrant a second look, even for audiences who have grown tired of the neverending barrage of films in the same mould. Derrickson and co-writers Spaihts and Cargill are also not afraid of adding humor into the mix, and there are almost as many comedic sequences as there are action set pieces.

Derrickson also seems to have a knack for creating eye-popping visuals, particularly the Inception-esque scenes of the cityscape folding and twisting onto itself that are alone worth the price of admission. In particular, the chase sequence that takes place in one of these settings is possibly one of the most imaginative scenes in recent memory, and would make M.C. Escher proud. This is also a film that I highly recommend watching in 3D (this is probably the first movie since Avatar that I’ve made this statement), and together with some truly trippy imagery, Doctor Strange undoubtedly serves as a feast for the eyes.

British thespians Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor seem like odd choices for a superhero movie, but casting them is an inspired decision. The level of acting is so consistently high that it manages to elevate the film to the next level, allowing the audience to look past some of the more ludicrous pieces of dialogue or plot holes. While the film does end on a slightly weak (and rather psychedelic) denouement, this first Doctor Strange installment has successfully created a new Marvel franchise, and it would certainly be interesting to see how his mystical powers are put to use in subsequent Avengers or MCU films.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

P.S. Remember to stay for both post-credit sequences, one situated at the very end of the rather substantial end credits.

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