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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The Angry Birds Movie

Genre: Animation

Directors: Fergal Reilly, Clay Kaytis

Screenplay: Jon Vitti, from a story by Mikko Polla, Mikael Hed, John Cohen

Voice Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Peter Dinklage, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Sean Penn, Titus Burgess, Kate McKinnon, Ike Barinholtz, Hannibal Buress, Billy Eichner, Danielle Brooks, Tony Hale, Blake Shelton

Running Length: 97 minutes

Synopsis:  In The Angry Birds Movie, we finally find out why the birds are so angry. The movie takes us to an island populated entirely by happy, flightless birds – or almost entirely. In this paradise, Red (Jason Sudeikis), a bird with a temper problem, speedy Chuck (Josh Gad), and the volatile Bomb (Danny McBride) have always been outsiders. But when the island is visited by mysterious green piggies, it’s up to these unlikely outcasts to figure out what the pigs are up to.

Review: I could never have envisioned that a game like Angry Birds would be able to evolve into a somewhat engaging movie, but here we are with that exact result. While it’s not pushing any envelope or boundary in any meaningful way, The Angry Birds Movie is a pleasant enough distraction, certainly more suited for the younger audiences but not entirely without value for older audience members. It is obvious that the Angry Birds game and brand is past its prime, but the bright, colorful animation and a “leave no pun behind” script filled to the brim with terrible groaners (wordplay is something I personally always appreciate in any film) translates to quite an enjoyable if mindless cinematic experience.

The Angry Birds Movie features quite a number of A-listers in its voice cast, and everyone does a decent job at it, including an… interesting performance by Sean Penn consisting mostly of menacing grunts and odd noises. Narratively, the movie starts out pretty strong with its introduction of the various inhabitants on Bird Island, but loses steam rather quickly and has virtually flatlined by the time the pigs show up on the island. Fortunately, there’s a relatively interesting diversion where a number of birds go in search for the Mighty Eagle, which gives the proceedings a much needed boost in the film’s second half.

The movie also does a decent job in translating the gameplay mechanics into elements in the film, and the final reel’s mayhem and destruction truly mirror what goes on in the game. This is more than can be said of many videogame adaptations. Coupled with the manic script by The Simpsons alum Jon Vitti, and it’s certainly not difficult to find the movie an amusing one regardless of whether one is familiar with the Angry Birds franchise. It probably wouldn’t be enough to spawn a sequel (and in all honesty it shouldn’t), and offers no deep viewer experience akin to Inside Out and its Pixar alums, but it’s actually one of the more decent videogame adaptations I have seen in years.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Joy

Joy

 

Genre: Drama

Director: David O. Russell

Screenplay: David O. Russell, based on a story by Annie Mumolo and David O. Russell

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Rohm, Edgar Ramirez, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd, Dascha Polanco

Running Length:  124 minutes

Synopsis: Joy is the wild story of a family across four generations centered on Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), the girl who becomes the woman who founds a business dynasty and becomes a matriarch in her own right. Betrayal, treachery, the loss of innocence and the scars of love, pave the road in this intense emotional and human comedy about becoming a true boss of family and enterprise facing a world of unforgiving commerce.

Review: If not for the interesting (true but heavily fictionalized) story of Joy Mangano and a riveting central performance by Jennifer Lawrence as the rags-to-riches businesswoman, Joy would have been a much more joyless affair to watch. This is David O. Russell’s first movie centred entirely on a female character, but Erin Brockovich this is not. It’s almost as though O. Russell is unable to make up his mind about how to go about making this “biopic” and the wild tonal and narrative shifts actually detract quite a bit from the cinematic experience.

The ensemble sequences and sprawling narrative in Joy don’t work as well as in O. Russell’s previous films, and his tendency of putting everyone in an enclosed space, shouting at one another really grates after a while. There are also odd surrealist moments that are absolutely unnecessary, jarring viewers out of the moment and probably scratching their heads in puzzlement. Even though many of O. Russell’s alumni make a return in the film, the sparks simply fail to fly in many of the interactions, because the characters are basically reduced to plot-forwarding caricatures this time round.

There is a glorious 30 minutes in Joy in which everything actually comes together, and that is the sequence which traces her first interaction with TV studio exec Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) to when she makes her first live pitch on QVC. Lawrence’s transformation from unsure inventor to QVC pitchwoman is indeed magical, and her performance really sells it very well. Jennifer Lawrence has established herself as one of the best young actresses around, and her credible and sympathetic turn as Joy Mangano is yet another feather in her cap, though it’s not her best performance thus far.

Unfortunately, after the high of the QVC sequence, the film never finds a sure footing again, with the denouement feeling uncharacteristically rushed (case in point – a haircut is the sole visual shorthand O. Russell employs to signify the change and growth of Joy in a pivotal scene) and somehow inconsequential. While still a sporadically entertaining film, Joy doesn’t measure up to the previous efforts of O. Russell and feels like a rare misstep for the director.

Rating: ** ½ (out of four stars)

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