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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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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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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Max Steel

Genre: Action

Director: Stewart Hendler

Screenplay: Christopher Yost

Cast: Ben Winchell, Josh Brenner, Ana Villafañe, Andy Garcia, Maria Bello, Mike Doyle

Running Length:  91 minutes

Synopsis: 16-year old Max McGrath (Ben Winchell) has just moved to a new town – and is desperately trying to fit in – when he discovers his body can generate the universe’s most powerful energy. Unbeknown to Max, a techno-organic extraterrestrial named Steel (Josh Brenner) has been keeping an eye on him, hungry for his super-human energy. When they finally meet, they discover that together they form Max Steel, a superhero possessing powerful strength beyond anything in our world. These two unlikely friends soon find themselves hunted by sinister forces who want to control Max’s powers, as well as an unstoppable enemy from another galaxy.

Review: There is a reason why Max Steel was not screened for the media prior to its unheralded opening this week – because the assuredly unenthusiastic reviews of this mediocre superhero movie would have killed any chance it had at the box office. Max Steel is based on the Mattel toy and TV cartoon title, but the result is so underwhelming and unimpressive that Mattel would probably have done better spending that money on a Barbie direct-to-video movie. Bowing against the colossal Doctor Strange in Singapore is also a strange (ahem) decision – what chance of success would Max Steel stand against a marquee MCU superhero title?

Max Steel was clearly positioned as an origins movie and a start of a franchise, but this also means that an inordinate amount of time in this film is devoted to setting up the backstory of Max and robot/alien sidekick Steel. Yet, so little is explained clearly that it is never really certain exactly how Max and Steel came about, much less the Ultralinks that are after them. Almost an hour goes by before Max even discovers his true legacy, and to be honest most audiences would have ceased to care by then.

The acting in Max Steel leaves much to be desired. While Ben Winchell is fresh-faced and relatively good looking, he doesn’t seem to possess much thespian talent and as such struggles to deliver in scenes that call on even a tad bit of emoting. Both Mario Bello and Andy Garcia phone in unengaging performances, with Andy Garcia given the thankless role of being the stereotypical tech millionaire villain. The special effects are passable, but on the whole Max Steel feels more like a film developed for the small screen, and if you choose to watch one superhero movie this week, this should not be the one to pick.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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Warcraft: The Beginning

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Duncan Jones

Screenplay: Charles Leavitt, Duncan Jones

Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Rob Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Negga, Anna Galvin, Callum Keith Rennie, Burkely Duffield, Ryan Robbins, Dean Redman, Glenn Close

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: The peaceful realm of Azeroth stands on the brink of war as its civilization faces a fearsome race of invaders: Orc warriors fleeing their dying home to colonize another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, one army faces destruction and the other faces extinction. From opposing sides, two heroes are set on a collision course that will decide the fate of their family, their people and their home.

Review: Where to begin…? While Warcraft will hold some appeal for fans of the various games set in the Warcraft universe, it will almost assuredly be a complete miss for anyone who isn’t deeply acquainted with Azeroth and its denizens.

Not only is the film overstuffed with arcane references to the Warcraft universe, there’s little to no effort made in explaining any of it to the audience. Strip away the somewhat decent CG and the strength of the brand name, and what’s left is an overlong film featuring way too many characters that is nothing more than a mediocre entry into the fantasy movie genre. It’s truly hard to imagine how Duncan Jones moved from projects like Moon and Source Code (both rather good, low budget films) to something that feels like a B-movie through and through, despite the big budget spent to produce it.

Very few fantasy movies are able to juggle multiple characters and plotlines well, and it is clear in Warcraft’s case that it is no Lord of the Rings in this aspect. There are so many lead characters and so many different subplots that everything is given short shrift. Nothing and no one is given more than a superficial treatment, and it’s difficult for viewers to feel vested in any single character, when one may not be even able to remember their names until the movie is halfway through. At times it felt like I needed a cheat sheet to make sense of the film’s comings and goings. The film also cuts from scene to scene without much of any segue, serving to muddle things to an even greater extent. That the live-action acting is universally poor (ironically the CG actors do a far better job) doesn’t help matters either.

Apart from the inability to present a coherent or engaging storyline, Warcraft’s steadfast refusal to explain anything in its two-hour plus running time makes for a frustrating viewing experience. What exactly is “fel”? Why is that black chunk of rock that is spinning in the air? Who are those elders with glowing eyes and what exactly do they do? What makes the Guardian a Guardian? Why are there dwarves and elves and other tribes doing absolutely nothing while showing up in the movie? This is coming from someone who has a passing knowledge of Warcraft and World of Warcraft, so I cannot imagine how the viewing experience would be like for someone who is new to the franchise or the genre. Maybe the ambition was to make this a first installment in a newly-minted film franchise, and hence everyone and everything showing up in this movie is merely a precursor to future films; but given how clunky and uninteresting this film has ended up, I somehow doubt that Hollywood would be forgiving enough to give the orcs and humans a second outing.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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Zoolander 2

Genre: Comedy

Director: Ben Stiller

Screenplay: Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller, John Hamburg, Nicholas Stoller, based on the characters created by Drake Sather, Ben Stiller

Cast: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Penelope Cruz, Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Kyle Mooney, Milla Jovovich, Christine Taylor, Justin Theroux, Nathan Lee Graham, Cyrus Arnold, Billy Zane, Jon Daly

Running Length:  102 minutes

Synopsis: Derek (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) are lured into modeling again, in Rome, where they find themselves the target of a sinister conspiracy.

Review:  Full disclosure: I am a fan of the original Zoolander, and have watched the 2001 film multiple times outside of the cinema (the first Zoolander has the dubious honour of being banned in Singapore, due to its featuring the “Malaysian Prime Minister”). Over the years, the film had built up quite a cult following, and when Zoolander 2 was announced, I (and many other Zoolander fans) was rather stoked. Unfortunately, the sequel is a half-baked, overstuffed movie that proves pretty joyless to watch, despite the copious number of celebrity cameos and a handful of somewhat funny sequences.

One of the biggest issues of Zoolander 2 is the number of things going on at any one time. Not only does the espionage plot make a somewhat unwelcome return, there’s also the Zoolander father-and-son reunion, and then there’s the unresolved grudge between Derek and Hansel, the return of arch-nemesis Mugatu (Will Ferrell) and a whole bunch of other inconsequential plot threads, none of which feel satisfactorily resolved by the end of the movie.

It seems that Ben Stiller and his posse of screenwriters can’t bear to divorce the sequel from the original film, and almost constantly makes references to the 15 year-old movie, which is unnecessary and limits the appeal of the movie even further. Much as Zoolander has a cult following, this unabashed nudging and winking serve nothing more than make the proceedings feel ever more like drudgery, especially after the novelty of seeing these characters back on the big screen fades after the first reel.

It doesn’t help that Zoolander 2 is a little too self-aware for its own good. If everyone is in on the joke – and in this film that’s certainly the case, given the frankly ridiculous number of cameos of both celebrities and fashion industry mavens, even more so than the first film – then the joke ceases to be funny. While it may be a somewhat interesting diversion to spot the cameos (including Benedict Cumberbatch in an appearance that will haunt him for many, many years to come), much of it feels shoehorned into the scattershot scenes, and in the end it just feels like a chain of middling SNL skits stringed into a movie. Zoolander 2 is a sporadically funny film and thus not without merit, but it certainly is questionable if that is sufficient to justify paying the price of entry to watch it on the big screen.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Forest

Genre: Horror

Director: Jason Zada

Screenplay: Sarah Cornwell, Nick Antosca, Ben Ketai

Cast: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa, Eoin Macken

Running Length: 94 minutes

Synopsis: The story is set in the Aokigahara Forest, a real-life place in Japan where people go to end their lives. Against this backdrop, a young American woman comes in search of her twin sister, who has mysteriously disappeared. Despite everyone’s warnings not to “stray from the path”, Saraa (Natalie Dormer) dares to enter the forest to discover the truth about her sister’s fate.

Review: For horror aficionados, The Forest does not bring anything new to the table – it is a run of the mill horror film that, whilst showing some promise and serving up some decent “boo” moments in the first hour, completely unravels in its final reel. While no one expects new ground to be broken in a genre as well-covered as the haunted house (in this case a haunted forest, which isn’t exactly new either), at the very least the film should deliver a coherent plot and a proper denouement. Both are unfortunately missing in The Forest (pun not intended).

While it really may not be the best idea in the world to follow your missing twin sister into a “suicide forest” in Japan (which is a  genuine location, by the way), it’s a somewhat interesting premise to base a horror movie on. Unfortunately, the plot of The Forest is severely muddled, and the film concludes with multiple plot threads still hanging in mid-air, which diminishes the horror element simply because audiences are left puzzling over these plot points than focusing on the horror. For example, it is never clear if there is indeed a presence in the forest that is actively seeking out new victims, or if it is simply an outward manifestation of one’s internal demons.

Natalie Dormer tries her best to put forth a convincing performance, but we’ve definitely seen better work from her elsewhere. Since almost the entire film is focused on Sara, it is almost irrelevant that she is playing two characters in the film (conveniently – and some would say lazily – demarcated by different hair colours). While she does a great job looking scared, there’s very little depth of character to be seen.  Taylor Kinney is ostensibly the romantic interest in the film but comes across as a dimensionless character existing solely to advance the plot at key points in the film.

There’s a sense that too much of The Forest has been left on the cutting room floor – there are moments in which an almost good horror film seems to be peeking out from behind the obfuscated plotting, but the speed at which the film hurtles towards its confusing, unsatisfying conclusion seems to suggest that given a different edit, The Forest would have had more of a fighting chance to leave a positive impression.

Rating: * ½  (out of four stars)

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