Jupiter Ascending

Genre: Sci-Fi

Directors: The Wachowskis

Screenplay: The Wachowskis

Cast: Mila Kunis, Channing Tatum, Eddie Redmayne, Sean Bean, Douglas Booth, Tuppence Middleton

Running Length: 125 minutes

Synopsis: Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) was born under a night sky, with signs predicting that she was destined for great things. Now grown, Jupiter dreams of the stars but wakes up to the cold reality of a job cleaning other people’s houses and an endless run of bad breaks. Only when Caine (Channing Tatum), a genetically engineered ex-military hunter, arrives on Earth to track her down does Jupiter begin to glimpse the fate that has been waiting for her all along – her genetic signature marks her as next in line for an extraordinary inheritance that could alter the balance of the cosmos.

Review: Originally slated to open in July 2014, Jupiter Ascending was delayed for a full six months, and is now opening in a non-typical February window (particularly considering it cost US$175 million to make). That in itself is quite an ominous sign, that perhaps The Wachowskis are following the career trajectory of M. Night Shyamalan, and that Jupiter Ascending is not the film that will return them to greatness. Unfortunately, that is exactly the case here – Jupiter Ascending is overproduced, overwrought, and overdone, with a half-baked story and underdeveloped characters in a movie that truly ends in a whimper. While it may have aspirations to be the next big space opera, all it manages to achieve is to be vapid, thoroughly forgettable eye candy. It’s not even in the “so bad, it’s good” category of films, so all it manages is to be a bad sci-fi movie.

While the plot may aspire to be a cautionary fable for modern capitalism, Jupiter Ascending really feels more like a Disney princess fairy tale more than anything else – it has the rags to riches transformation of Jupiter and a tame, PG-13 romantic subplot with an unconventional Prince Charming . Unfortunately, because the Wachowskis obviously weren’t satisfied with something that “prosaic”, they chose to bury the simple plot with layers upon layers of pointless exposition and a frustrating lack of resolution, with multiple characters appearing to do their bit then disappearing for the rest of the film, and an inconsequential conclusion that just does not do the grandiose setting any justice. And despite the baseline simplicity and the endless exposition, the plot still doesn’t make sense, with so many logical gaps that one truly needs to check their brain at the door to wring more enjoyment out of the movie.

There’s no middle ground to the performances in Jupiter Ascending – they are either bland and uninteresting or extremely overwrought. Both Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum (and almost everyone else, honestly) fall into the first category, plus a total lack of chemistry between the two means it’s nearly impossible to feel vested in Jupiter’s plight or their romance. This may be a fault of the script more than the actors, since the whole movie positions Jupiter as a near-hapless damsel in distress, and Caine repeatedly swooping in on his jet boots to rescue her as a literal deus ex machina. This kind of setup does not lend much need to emoting on any level. And then there’s Eddie Redmayne, who is so exceedingly campy in his performance that he seems to be channeling a parody of Meryl Streep – delivering a good portion of his dialogue in a breathy whisper, then suddenly switching to shrieking, nostril-flaring, scenery-chewing mode as an indicator of his rage. Honestly, it’s lazy acting and a far cry from his outstanding performance in The Theory of Everything.

That’s not to say that there isn’t any brilliance in Jupiter Ascending, and that’s exactly why The Wachowskis’ output has been so frustrating to watch. Amidst all the chaff there are actually some good things about the movie. The CGI-laden visuals are impressive and near faultless (though pointless to watch in 3D), and it is clear that much though and effort have been put into bringing the Jupiter Ascending world to life. There are so many interesting spacecraft, technological gadgets, alien species, costumes, landscapes and more, that there seems to be enough to populate a whole TV series, not just a two-hour movie. Alas, it all shuffles by so quickly that one wonders why so much effort was put into realizing the universe and its accoutrements.

One of the most interesting scenes in Jupiter Ascending was a bureaucratic shuffle when Jupiter is first trying to claim her royal title, which sees her being pushed from one bureaucrat to another in a seemingly endless cycle, culminating in an unexpected, but very pleasantly surprising cameo. It’s a telltale sign that the best scene is one entirely devoid of action and flashy CGI (and without Michael Giacchino’s bombastic, overbearing score – a misstep for him), and one wonders that perhaps it is now time for the Wachowskis to go back to their roots and make movies on a limited budget, because it seems the more money they get, the worse their output gets.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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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)

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Horns

Genre: Horror, Romance, Comedy

Director: Alexander Aja

Writer: Keith Bunin, based on the novel of the same name by Joe Hill

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Juno Temple, Max Minghella, Joe Anderson, Kelli Garner, Heather Graham, David Morse, Kathleen Quinlan, James Remar

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: Horns is a supernatural thriller driven by fantasy, mystery and romance. The film follows Ig Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe), the number one suspect for the violent rape and murder of his girlfriend, Merrin (Juno Temple). Hungover from a night of hard drinking, Ig awakens one morning to find horns starting to grow from his own head and soon realizes their power drives people to confess their sins and give in to their most selfish and unspeakable impulses – an effective tool in his quest to discover the true circumstances of his late girlfriend’s tragedy and for exacting revenge on her killer.

Review: It was probably a mistake from the get-go to adapt Horns into a film – I have not had the opportunity to read the novel by Joe Hill (son of Stephen King), but if all the elements in the movie were found in the source novel, it should definitely be classified under the “unfilmable” category. Horns simply fails to work as a movie – it is overstuffed with clashing elements and can’t decide whether it wants to be a dark comedy, a horror, a whodunit or a romance, and tries to be everything all at once. The end result is unsurprisingly a muddled mess that even Harry Potter can’t save, and a film that swings so wildly in tone and pace that it feels like it was helmed by an amateur.

And to be honest, Daniel Radcliffe is actually part of the problem. One can definitely understand the need to divorce himself from an iconic role like Harry Potter, but whilst Radcliffe has appeared in a good number of indie films in the process, his performance in Horns is too much. Radcliffe has to realize that his dial need not be set at 11 the entire film, and just because it’s a forceful performance doesn’t mean it’s a good one. Radcliffe’s portrayal of Ig is so forced that all subtlety is lost, and although he does prove that he can work with a broad range of emotions, and there are moments of brilliance amidst all the overacting.

Although it seems that Horns has aspirations to be a genre bender, it does not do so very successfully. The coming of age flashbacks are pretty decent, but the romance, the mystery and the horror are all subpar. We’re never fully convinced of the supposedly deep love between Ig and Merrin, and the mystery has a laughably obvious reveal, done in by screenwriter Keith Bunin’s script which telegraphs every twist way in advance. The horror just comes across at best as being darkly comic (not exactly a bad thing, but the film doesn’t go far enough with this aspect either), and at worst it’s farcical and underscored by awful CG effects (some of the worst I’ve seen in a long while).

The final reel of Horns is really what takes the cake – it feels as though the writers were making up the ending as they went along, and the result is a lazy, inexplicable, genuinely ridiculous denouement that threatens to unravel the entire movie. The film ends with a whimper instead of a bang, and that it took a good two hours to get to the unsatisfying finale is just rubbing salt in the wound. Although there were a number of enjoyable moments in the film, Horns is simply too inconsistent to earn  a solid recommendation.

Rating: * ½ (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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Tom Yum Goong 2

Genre: Action

Director: Prachya Pinkaew

Writer: Prachya Pinkaew

Cast: Tony Jaa, Petchai Wongkamlao, Jeeja Yanin, Marrese Crump, RZA

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: Kham (Tony Jaa) has once again been separated from his pet elephant, and Kham must fight anyone in his way to be reunited with his pet.

Review:  There’s no denying that Tony Jaa is a bonafide action star, successfully breaking into Hollywood and slated to appear next in Fast and Furious 7. However, he is best known for his kick-assery in the Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong movies, and in Tom Yum Goong 2 he continues to show why he’s probably one of the best martial artists/actors of our time. Unfortunately, that does not make Tom Yum Goong 2 (henceforth known as TYG2) a good movie, and the film comes off as being barely (just barely) passable, plagued with issues like bad acting, dodgy CGI, questionable plot lines and a complete disregard for the laws of physics (and common sense). The only saving grace are the fight sequences, and even some of these come off being poorly edited and choreographed. Although the viewing I was at wasn’t a 3D screening, it was clear even in 2D that the third dimension is just a cheesy gimmick. Even with tempered expectations, TYG2 just can’t warrant a recommendation, except for the most hardcore fans of Tony Jaa or Jeeja Yanin.

One wouldn’t expect the plot of a show like TYG2 to be complicated, but there are so many plot threads running amok that it just all becomes a rather convoluted mess. Characters are simply forgotten along the way, and Jeeja’s character and storyline in particular feel like throwaways. Even the action sequences are somewhat questionable in their execution, none more so than a protracted scene involving motorcycles and some truly heinous green screen work. The film also seems to be subject to particularly overzealous but substandard sound work – there were scenes where it was painfully clear too much celery was being crunched in post production. Don’t even get me started on the scene where a fight is conducted on a electrified railway track, where Tony Jaa and Marrese Gump both sound like they are wielding Star Wars lightsabers. If it is intended humor that the director was going for, then he has definitely raised the bar. 

Unlike the original TYG which really showcased the martial arts prowess of the actors, there seems to be an over reliance on CG in TYG2, with quite a number of scenes shot too close and edited way too rapidly. This wouldn’t be so glaring if the CG was done well, but it is painfully obvious when green screen work is done, which is jarring and does not serve the suspension of disbelief well at all. There are still some rather hard-hitting and well choreographed fight scenes despite this, so it’s not a total wash. Unfortunately, instead of showcasing near-impossible martial arts moves like before, TYG2 showcases impossible moves, for example a truly ridiculous scene that involves what seems like fire retardant shoes and flame kicks. It’s a waste really, that Tony Jaa’s body of work in Thai would end (for now at least) on such a lackluster note, but hopefully his Hollywood foray would prove to be more fruitful.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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After Earth * 1/2

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Writers: Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan, based on a story by Will Smith

Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith

Running Length: 100 minutes

Synopsis: A crash landing leaves teenager Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) and his legendary father Cypher (Will Smith) stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after cataclysmic events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher critically injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help, facing uncharted terrain, evolved animal species that now rule the planet, and an unstoppable alien creature that escaped during the crash. Father and son must learn to work together and trust one another if they want any chance of returning home.

Review: It’s quite obvious that Will Smith had designed After Earth to be a star vehicle for his son Jaden – after all, he wrote the story the screenplay was based on, and produced this movie together with his wife Jada. Unfortunately, it would seem that the payoff he would be getting out of the movie is likely going to be inadequate – there are so many misfires in After Earth it’s actually hard to pinpoint which is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Suffice to say that if it’s true that Will Smith had intended the movie as the first of a trilogy, he’s going to have a really hard time making the next two films.

It’s not that After Earth is a bad movie, more that it is an ill-conceived one. Ostensibly a coming of age sci-fi flick that also features major father-son bonding, the fact that the two protagonists are separated for a large part of the film makes it nearly impossible for audiences to get a sense of any kinship between the two. This is not aided by the fact that Will Smith essentially spends the movie sitting in a chair, and Jaden’s perfunctory acting skills are not good enough for him to carry lengths of the movie on his own. In fact, there are times where the CGI and the set design (which are both genuinely well done) manage to make more of an impression than Jaden’s stilted performance.

This is exacerbated by the total lack of suspense – since Kitai is honestly the only actively moving actor in the movie, there’s never a true sense of danger even when Kitai gets into trouble. There’s never doubt that he would make it through the ordeal, so even if the character is placed in a situation that seems to lead to impending doom, his continued survival is the only outcome that would make any sense. This predictability greatly detracts from the viewing experience, resulting in a film that seems to drag even though it has a relatively short running time of under two hours.

M. Night Shyamalan has fallen so far from grace that the film has been marketed largely without his name on it, and After Earth would not be the movie that would pull him out from his downward spiral. There are no third-act twists in this film, but it may actually have fared better if there were one (and this is coming from someone who grew very tired of Shyamalan’s plot twists). It would at least have made the proceedings more interesting to sit through.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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Paranormal Activity 2 * 1/2

Genre: Horror

Director: Tod Williams

Writer: Michael R. Perry

Cast: Sprague Grayden, Brian Boland, Molly Ehpraim, Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

Running Length: 91 minutes

Synopsis: Events in Paranormal Activity 2 take place between one and two months before those that were featured in Paranormal Activity. Instead of a couple, the cast has expanded to include a whole family. Kristi (Sprague Grayden) is the sister of Katie (Katie Featherstone, of the first film), and is married to Dan (Brian Boland), his second marriage after the death of his wife. Dan has a teenage daughter Ali (Molly Ehpraim), and the couple has a new baby boy, Hunter. However, things start to go bump in the night when Hunter turns one…

Review: The phenomenal box office success of the first Paranormal Activity all but assured the birth of this sequel (it’s actually both a prequel AND a sequel), but the important question is – apart from a money grab, was there any other compelling reason Paranormal Activity 2 should be made? The answer is no, and it’s quite clear as this film unfolds.

Audiences who have watched the first movie already know how this second movie is going to develop, and thus the creepiness of the first film is almost entirely obliterated. Whilst Paranormal Activity 2 has a good number of cheap “boo!” scares, it never feels as spontaneous as its predecessor. Put in another way, this movie is almost spiritually (pun not intended) identical to the first film, which is not a good thing if the only way the movie can scare its audience is by catching them off guard.

With Paranormal Activity 2, the decision was made to integrate footage from a number of fixed CCTV cameras. This reduces the contrived nature of the first film where the leads seem to be carrying their camera everywhere they went, but this artifice does not go away completely. There are still a handful of scenes which require a great suspension of disbelief: why would anyone not in a reality TV show bring along a camera wherever they went? How does a teenage girl manage to do her online research so well that she could pinpoint exactly what’s wrong in the house, and yet not manage to convince anyone in her family to get out of the house right away?

Credit should be given where it’s due, however, and at least the producers and writers (the director of the first Paranormal Activity, Oren Peli, takes a back seat and is merely credited as a writer on the second film) made an effort to integrate the events into the chronology of the first film’s events. This also allows the two leads in Paranormal Activity to return as supporting characters, and also sets in place, unsurprisingly, the possibility of a third movie.

Is Paranormal Activity 2 a true horror movie? I would have to say “not really” – much as there are many shocking moments, truly scary scenes are virtually nonexistent. The audience is fully prepared to be shocked, and there just isn’t anything new enough to pull the rug out from beneath the audience’s feet. The movie never fills one with dread, and the entire atmosphere feels watered down from the first film. It’s difficult to say if the Paranormal Activity movies can become a franchise since it’s essentially a one-trick pony, but with its first weekend box office in the USA being a runaway success, Paranormal Activity 3 is surely not far behind. Taken on its own, Paranormal Activity 2 still entertains, but as a horror film it’s a decidedly middling one. 

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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