Men in Black: International

Genre: Sci-Fi, Comedy

Director: F. Gary Gray

Screenplay: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois

Running Length: 115 minutes

Synopsis: The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

Review: While the original Men in Black was a great movie, the franchise itself hasn’t managed to do as well, with both Men in Black 2 and 3 treading familiar ground but bringing nothing much new to the table. However, there was always the faultless pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to lean back on. 22 years later, we now have a fourth installment in the franchise that no longer involves the duo, replaced instead by Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. While there’s an easy camaraderie between Hemsworth and Thompson (undoubtedly aided by the fact that they have worked together previously in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame), it may really be asking too much for them to replicate the franchise-defining chemistry between Jones and Smith. That does leave the door open for Kumail Nanjiani, voicing Pawny, a miniature alien sidekick to Tessa’s Agent M, to steal every single scene that he appears in, and his presence is easily the best thing in the entire show.

Men in Black: International demands very little from its viewers, and in more ways than one the film seems to reflect this mentality – CGI is surprisingly dodgy at times, and very often the settings ring false, from a totally deserted Paris to a really generic desert landscape that suggests a lot of soundstage and greenscreen work. This is not new, but is particularly apparent in MIB: International especially because of the inconsistent CGI. The plot is also paper-thin and the so-called twists are so painfully obvious that they really shouldn’t even have bothered. While the film runs a relatively short 115 minutes, the screenplay is inexplicably plodding at times (take for example the entire subplot featuring Rebecca Ferguson as an alien arms trader), and while all the essential summer blockbuster movie beats are present and accounted for, there’s really nothing that comes across as being new or different.

While Hemsworth and Thompson don’t replicate the onscreen chemistry they shared in Thor: Ragnarok, the audience goodwill that their previous MCU pairing had fostered cannot be denied, and there is an affability between the two that still works quite well here. It also helps, of course, that both Hemsworth and Thompson are charismatic actors that are very easy on the eye, and look great in the Paul Smith suits created for the roles. Yet, it’s quite telling that the movie actually left so much of the heavy lifting to Nanjiani, as though not trusting that the Hemsworth and Thompson alone are able to carry the movie. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Pawny ends up with some of the best lines and sequences in the film, which in a way undermines what the two lead actors could have brought to the table.

As a summer film, Men in Black: International is a largely harmless offering – if you enter the cinema with the aim of leaving your brain at the door and getting entertained, it really isn’t all that bad. Like the previous MIB sequels, MIB: International will not stand the test of time, and is unlikely something that anyone would hanker to watch again after one outing, but that doesn’t make them bad movies, just not good ones either.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

 

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Captain Marvel

Genre: Action

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Screenplay: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg, Jude Law, Annette Bening

Running Length: 124 minutes

Synopsis: Set in the 1990s, Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel is an all-new adventure from a previously unseen period in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that follows the journey of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) as she becomes one of the universes most powerful heroes. While a galactic war between two alien races reaches Earth, Danvers finds herself and a small cadre of allies at the center of the maelstrom.

Review: It’s “only” taken 10 years and 20 films for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to finally produce a female-led superhero movie, but if you were hoping for Captain Marvel to do for female empowerment what Black Panther did for black representation, I would suggest you look elsewhere. There’s no denying that Captain Marvel does what a Marvel superhero movie typically sets out to do – it is an entertaining (if less than consequential) romp through the MCU via an origins story – but the marketing around the movie is positioning it as a positive beacon of female empowerment, which really quite overstates the case. 

When the directors of Captain Marvel were announced, it seemed like a pretty interesting decision – Boden and Fleck are more known for their indie films, and helming a big budget action movie may not make them the most intuitive choice. And honestly, this could be part of the reason why Captain Marvel comes across as a rather uneven movie. While the comedic beats are quite good (the regular jibes at 90s tech will be particularly amusing to anyone who’s actually lived through the era) and there’s an easygoing camaraderie amongst the cast (channeling a little bit of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies), the action sequences in the film are some of the most inadequately choreographed, muddied scenes in recent memory. In fact, even the money shots of spaceships engaging in battle feel like they belong more to a TV episode of Star Trek than a mega-budget movie like this one. 

It’s also unfortunate that while Brie Larson is a perfectly capable actress, the fact that she needs to spend almost half a movie in an amnesiac haze does her no favours. Carol Danvers is simply far less interesting as a character than she should be, and while there are occasional glimpses back to a time where she’s a livelier person, the supporting cast members like Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Lashana Lynch and even Annette Bening are actually far more engaging throughout the film. Special mention must be made of Goose, the super adorable orange tabby (played by four different cats!), who plays a pretty important role in the movie and manages to steal whatever scene he shows up in. (P.S. stay through the entire credits sequence for a cute but none-too-consequential second coda.)

The key drive of many female-led movies seem to be centred around the idea of “if men can do it, women can do it too”, and this is an old, tired trope we should already have moved away from years ago. Female empowerment in Captain Marvel literally refers to imbuing a woman with superhuman abilities that allow her to stand toe to toe with male counterparts, but how is that identifiable or teachable in any meaningful way? The solitary scene that bucks this typecasting is a collage where we see Carol Danvers literally standing up to adversity near the end of the film, but it’s too little, too late.

While this could potentially be asking too much of a superhero movie, coming off a high watermark year of 2018 (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and even Ant Man & the Wasp had more convincing female empowerment on display), Captain Marvel feels more like a throwaway sidestep before April’s Avengers: Endgame (where Captain Marvel purported plays a pivotal role) comes around. The film is a perfunctory, middle of the pack Marvel film that does just enough to justify its existence, but is a retread of a path already frequently trod on by its MCU predecessors, rather than taking the mega-franchise in any new direction. 

Rating: * * ½ (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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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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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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Jason Bourne

Genre: Action

Director: Paul Greengrass

Screenplay: Paul Greengrass & Christopher Rouse, based on characters created by Robert Ludlum

Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp, Vinzenz Kiefer, Stephen Kunken, Gregg Henry

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: Matt Damon returns to his most iconic role in Jason Bourne. Paul Greengrass, the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, once again joins Damon for the next chapter of Universal Pictures’ Bourne franchise, which finds the CIA’s most lethal former operative drawn out of the shadows.

Review: I’ve never enjoyed films that overemployed the use of shakycams, because I firmly believe that cinema verite can be achieved without having to nauseate your audience. While shakycams can be used to good effect in found footage films, an action movie like Jason Bourne shouldn’t have to resort to such a measure. Those familiar with the two prior Paul Greengrass-helmed Bourne movies would probably have come prepared (as did I), but the film not only left me feeling mildly ill, it also left me feeling dissatisfied despite Greengrass’ and Damon’s return to the franchise.

While there has been an additional Bourne movie (The Bourne Legacy in 2012, starring Jeremy Renner), most Bourne fans would really only recognize the Bourne Ultimatum as canon – this means that the “real” Bourne has not appeared on the big screen for almost a decade. The formula remains largely the same, but something seems to have been lost in the nine years. Greengrass has added too much bluster to the proceedings, and in the midst of car crash after car crash after car crash, the script seems to have forgotten to give Damon’s Bourne any room for performance or introspection, diluting what was one of the strongest aspects of the original trilogy.

While the action sequences are well-choreographed, the dizzying camerawork and rapid-fire editing leaves much to be desired. The Athens chase scene near the start is the highlight of the film, but by the time the near 40-minute long chase sequence in Las Vegas takes place in the final reels, exhaustion has set in, and no matter how grand each successive crash is, it simply doesn’t feel rousing anymore. The only bright spot was an impressive hand-to-hand combat sequence between Damon and Cassel that brings to mind similar visceral, hard-hitting scenes in the previous installments.

Coupled with a weak, suspense-less plot, there’s this general sense that Jason Bourne is an unnecessary sequel to a trilogy that had more or less given closure to the protagonist’s story. The denouement leaves the door open for another sequel, but there is very little compelling reason, based on what is seen here, to warrant yet another outing with the cast and crew.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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Ghostbusters

Genre: Comedy

Director: Paul Feig

Screenplay: Paul Feig, Katie Dippold, based on the 1984 film written by Day Aykroyd, Harold Ramis

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Cecily Strong, Matt Walsh, Ed Begley Jr., Andy Garcia, Bill Murray, Day Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Sigourney Weaver

Running Length: 117 minutes

Synopsis: Thirty years after the original film took the world by storm, Ghostbusters is back and fully rebooted for a new generation.  Director Paul Feig combines all the paranormal fighting elements that made the original franchise so beloved with a cast of new characters, played by the funniest actors working today.

Review: Paul Feig has had a pretty good track record so far of crossing genres with comedy with female-centric films (The Heat, Spy), and while Ghostbusters follows in the same vein, it isn’t quite as successful a venture as his previous outings. The fault doesn’t lie on the female leads however, but to the script trying too hard to reference the original film at every turn. It’s still a relatively entertaining Summer film, but ends up feeling somewhat like a missed opportunity.

While this is a reboot of the 32-year old Ghostbusters, the clear difference is that instead of a team of male comedy actors, Feig has decided to go with a team of female comedy actors. It has created a rather vicious backlash but in my opinion (and this is coming from someone who literally grew up watching Ghostbusters multiple times) it doesn’t hurt the movie at all. McCarthy and Wiig both seem a little muted in their performances here, however, and though their friendship is positioned as being central to the plot, it actually ends up being a non-starter. Leslie Jones is unfortunately playing a rather stereotyped black character, but she does the best she could within the confines of the role. The true gem in the cast, however, is Kate McKinnon, and her portrayal as the eccentric Holtzmann brings some of the best lines and big laughs in the film. The four women also share an affable chumminess onscreen, and in spots where the script starts to sputter, the movie survives purely on the goodwill generated by the quartet’s presence.

One of the biggest challenges that Feig and co-writer Dippold probably dealt with for the remake is the amount of baggage that comes with rebooting a much beloved franchise, and in this aspect they are only moderately successful. There seems to be an over-insistence on making unnecessary references to the original Ghostbusters (including walk-on roles for almost every surviving cast member of the 1984 film), and it really does needlessly encumber the film in many aspects, right down to the soundtrack. Of course, audiences that have not seen the film’s predecessors would probably not have the same response.

Visual effects have of course vastly improved over the past three decades, but Feig seems to have also relied a little too much on CGI, and the finale especially is lost amidst a literal swirling mass of CG imagery, failing to resonate on most levels. It is quite a pity, since what made the original great weren’t the visual effects but the collective comedic strength of a bunch of very talented comedians. While it would have been an extremely tall order to surpass the original, this 2016 iteration of Ghostbusters could certainly have done better than it did. While the relatively entertaining end credits sequence and coda seems to leave the door open for a sequel, one wonders if the film would do well enough to justify one.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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