Real Steel * * *

Genre: Action/Drama

Director: Shawn Levy

Writer: John Gatins, suggested by the short story “Steel” by Richard Matheson

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Dakota Goyo, Evangeline Lilly, Anthony Mackie, Kevin Durand, Hope Davis, James Rebhorn

Running Length: 127 minutes

Synopsis: A gritty, white-knuckle, action ride set in the near-future where the sport of boxing has gone high-tech, Real Steel stars Hugh Jackman as Charlie Kenton, a washed-up fighter who lost his chance at a title when 2000-pound, 8-foot-tall steel robots took over the ring. Now nothing but a small-time promoter, Charlie earns just enough money piecing together low-end bots from scrap metal to get from one underground boxing venue to the next. When Charlie hits rock bottom, he reluctantly teams up with his estranged son Max (Dakota Goyo) to build and train a championship contender. As the stakes in the brutal, no-holds-barred arena are raised, Charlie and Max, against all odds, get one last shot at a comeback.

Review: It’s not often said for a two-plus hour movie, but there’s so much going on in Real Steel that the running time actually feels too short to accommodate everything. This isn’t exactly a compliment, since it points to the film being slightly overstuffed, but the good news is that Real Steel is a pretty decent attempt at merging the father-and-son movie together with the David-vs-Goliath sports movie despite its flaws.

Much like how a romantic comedy works, the sports movie needs to have the audience rallying behind the protagonists, and this Real Steel manages to do well. The robot bouts are high energy and quite exciting to watch, especially because the robots are given very distinct visual identities and are extremely convincing works of CGI, which coupled with the good action choreography, presents quite a spectacle.

Although the conclusion is pretty foregone from the beginning, it does help that most audiences will be quite vested in Atom’s fate. The human actors are all pretty decent, with the best developed interactions being between father and son (of course), and only Evangeline Lilly being shafted by being an almost one-dimensional love interest to Hugh Jackman.

However, one of the biggest issues of Real Steel is how heavily the film ladles on the sentiment. The omnipresent score by Danny Elfman rises and ebbs, providing an extremely blatant indicator to how audiences should be feeling at any one point. The finale is replete with schmaltzy scenes of tears rolling slowly down cheeks and almost every other cliché in the playbook, and the very heavy-handed manipulation may turn off the more jaded cinemagoers in the theatre.

Having said that, most of Real Steel is very watchable, and the final bout between Atom and Zeus is about as exciting as any other well-directed boxing flick, even with it being constructed wholly with CGI. And despite the 127-minute running time, very little of the film feels draggy or superfluous. If you can get past the cheesiness of it all, Real Steel will present a solid two hours of entertainment.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Friends with Benefits * * *

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Director: Will Gluck

Writers: Keith Merryman & David A. Newman and Will Gluck

Cast: Mila Kunis, Justin Timberlake, Patricia Clarkson, Richard Jenkins, Woody Harrelson, Jenna Elfman  

Running Length: 109 minutes

Synopsis: Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) think it's going to be easy to add the simple act of sex to their friendship, despite what Hollywood romantic comedies would have them believe. They soon discover however that getting physical really does always lead to complications.

Review: I hate to sound like a broken record, but this is a necessary precursor to reviews of any romantic comedy – it’s never the plot and always the chemistry. Yes, we’ve all seen movies like Friends with Benefits a thousand times before, and the ground it treads is so well worn that there are really zero surprises to be had (in fact, just earlier this year we had the similarly-themed No Strings Attached). However, Friends with Benefits has one thing in its favour: there’s excellent chemistry between Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake, which makes this a relatively enjoyable romantic comedy to sit through.

Since the storyline makes zero deviations from the norm, apart from the slightly cheekier aspect of the couple being sexual partners before true feelings develop, there’s really no point speaking about the plot. Friends with Benefits’ strength lies in its actors – sparks fly between Mila and Justin, but the supporting cast is what really pushes the film one level higher. Patricia Clarkson is perfectly cast as the bohemian, devil-may-care mother of Jamie, and Richard Jenkins is outstanding as Dylan’s father, suffering from Alzheimer’s. Even Woody Harrelson is highly memorable as the flamboyant gay sports editor of GQ magazine, whose transportation to work is more than a little unusual. And then there's the excellent snippets of a "romantic comedy" that plays out as a film within a film, with great cameos of Jason Segel and Rashida Jones.

Having directed Easy A before this, director Will Gluck seems to be developing a modus operandi – taking a familiar genre and coaxing great performances out from the cast members to differentiate the film from the run-of-the-mill – and so far it’s been quite successful. Many small scenes in Friends with Benefits take jabs at the conventions in romantic comedies, and it does seem a little “meta” that the film itself ticks off so many checkboxes in that same list, but as long as the film works as a whole, this isn’t really an issue at all. Friends with Benefits is a pleasant romp through familiar scenery that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and a good enough hour-plus diversion to warrant a trip to the cinemas.

P.S. If you’re so inclined, there’s a very short (but largely inconsequential) coda at the end of the credits that you could stay for.

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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Contagion * * *

Genre: Thriller

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Scott Z. Burns

Cast: Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Marion Cotillard, Laurence Fishburne, Jude Law, Jennifer Ehle, Kate Winslet

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: Contagion follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days. As the fast moving epidemic grows, the worldwide medical community races to find a cure and control the panic that spreads faster than the virus itself. At the same time, ordinary people struggle to survive in a society coming apart.

Review: if not for the multitude of A-list stars that populate this movie, it would be easy to mistake Contagion to be a documentary of a real virus outbreak. The trailer may lead one to believe that this is a melodramatic, high-octane thriller, but the truth is quite far removed from that. This is a controlled, meticulously filmed movie that almost feels like a reality program, and the extent to which it potentially mirrors real life is rather disturbing to say the least.

Soderbergh is one of the most versatile directors of our time, and although the multi-prong structure is something that he had already explored (with great success) in Traffic, the complex narrative in Contagion is still a welcome change from the current norm. The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns runs the gamut, covering personal, familial life to much broader national and global perspectives, and yet manages to marry most of them together pretty well. There are almost no melodramatic moments in Contagion, but the film cuts so close to home that it is more gripping and disconcerting than any action-thriller that I have seen in a long while.       

With the amount of talent on hand, it’s not difficult to find at least a couple of great performances in Contagion. Matt Damon is quietly effective as the grieving husband and overprotective father, and both Kate Winslet and Marion Cotillard are highly memorable in the handful of scenes they feature in. The standout, however, is Jennifer Ehle, whose portrayal of the fearless Dr Ally Haskell is one of the most dimensional, and easily becomes one of the emotional centres of the film that many audience members would identify with.

This isn’t a perfect film by any measure – it does begin to lose steam in its final reel, and with the many varied storylines and characters it was only natural that a few of the subplots feel unfinished even when the credits roll. It may probably have been better to have left some parts out – the Jude Law component to me felt particularly superfluous – but as a whole this is a very absorbing movie, and one that will definitely leave you with much food for thought (and reaching for the hand sanitizer).

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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Crazy Stupid Love * * *

Genre: Romantic Comedy

Directors: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Writer: Dan Fogelman

Cast: Steve Carrell, Julianne Moore, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: Fortysomething, straight-laced Cal Weaver (Steve Carell) is living the dream – good job, nice house, great kids and marriage to his high school sweetheart. But when Cal learns that his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore), has cheated on him and wants a divorce, his “perfect” life quickly unravels. Worse, in today’s single world, Cal, who hasn’t dated in decades, stands out as the epitome of un-smooth. Now spending his free evenings sulking alone at a local bar, the hapless Cal is taken on as wingman and protégé to handsome, thirtysomething player Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling). In an effort to help Cal get over his wife and start living his life, Jacob opens Cal’s eyes to the many options before him: flirty women, manly drinks and a sense of style that can’t be found at Supercuts or The Gap. Despite Cal’s makeover and his many new conquests, the one thing that can’t be made over is his heart, which seems to keep leading him back to where he began.  

Review: It’s very difficult to find a fresh romantic comedy these days, as this is one of the genres that have literally been done to death. This is why Crazy Stupid Love comes across as a surprise – it’s funny and touching at the same time, and whilst not all its attempts at breaking out of the confines of the romantic comedy are successful, it’s different enough to set it apart from many similar films.

Crazy Stupid Love is essentially an ensemble movie much like Love, Actually and its ilk, but the film has a smaller cast with stronger associations to each other. However, the film also suffers from character bias, with some characters getting much more screen time than the rest. This isn’t necessarily a flaw, but all the characters in Crazy Stupid Love are so interesting that the imbalance may leave some audiences craving for more. It is to the cast’s credit that almost the entire ensemble is engaging, with even the younger actors putting in a relatively good effort.

The standout is Ryan Gosling, who has proven repeatedly that he is a great actor, and in Crazy Stupid Love he brings the right mix of smarminess and vulnerability, and although he has relatively less screen time compared to Steve Carrell, Gosling’s scenes (especially those with Emma Stone) are very memorable. Julianne Moore has even less face time, but her nuanced portrayal of a middle-aged woman in a quandary about her love and married life is one of the best I’ve seen in years. There’s also great chemistry between the main leads, and in a romantic comedy this is what ultimately makes or breaks the film.

One of the other little pleasures of Crazy Stupid Love lies in its excellent soundtrack, which features an eclectic mix of music ranging from Thievery Corporation to Nina Simone. Music can add a lot of texture to a film, and this is definitely the case in Crazy Stupid Love. (A side note, Late Night Alumni’s You Can Be the One is featured in the film but not on the soundtrack album – definitely a song to check out)

Interestingly, it’s the smaller scenes in Crazy Stupid Love that work well – some truly standout sequences include a phone conversation between Steve Carrell and Julianne Moore, and another scene in which Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone make drunken small talk. In contrast, the big, plot-resolving set pieces near the end of the film feel farcical and artificial, and is one of the reasons why the film doesn’t rank higher on my list of romantic comedies. However, it manages to hit a good number of right notes as a romantic comedy, and is definitely one of the better films released of late.

Rating: *** (out of four stars)

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Cars 2 * * 1/2

Genre: Animation

Directors: John Lasseter and Brad Lewis

Writer: Ben Queen

Voice Cast: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Bonnie Hunt

Running Length: 105 minutes

Synopsis: Star racecar Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) and the incomparable tow truck Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy) take their friendship to exciting new places in Cars 2 when they head overseas to compete in the first-ever World Grand Prix to determine the world’s fastest car. But the road to the championship is filled with plenty of potholes, detours and surprises when Mater gets caught up in an intriguing adventure of his own: international espionage. Torn between assisting Lightning McQueen in the high-profile race and towing the line in a top-secret spy mission, Mater’s action-packed journey leads him on an explosive chase through the streets of Japan and Europe, trailed by his friends and watched by the whole world. Adding to the fast-paced fun is a colorful new all-car cast that includes secret agents, menacing villains and international racing competitors.

Review: It had to happen eventually – Pixar has finally released a film that doesn’t meet up to the usual expectations that a Pixar film sets. It’s still a very decent animated film, but is very apparently the studio’s weakest offering to date. Perhaps it’s because Cars was already a tough sell (anthropomorphic cars are not easy to identify with), but Cars 2 comes up short especially in the areas which are usually Pixar’s strengths.

Cars 2 is the first Pixar film where I felt held very little interest for the adult viewers, and whilst young viewers will undoubtedly have a ball of a time, the storyline is never really emotionally engaging on any level. This comes as a surprise because the relationship stuff is usually the core of a Pixar film, but this seems to have been eschewed for obligatory, tacked-on mentions about not giving up on friends. There is also very little about Cars 2 that feels fresh, and unlike Toy Story, Cars 2 brings nothing new to the table at all, despite the spy movie angle and opening up the Cars universe to beyond Radiator Springs.

Whatever criticisms that can be leveled at the other aspects of the film, one thing that hasn’t changed is the visual quality of a Pixar film. This is a seriously good looking movie, and apart from the well-rendered cars themselves, there’s great attention to detail in the surroundings they are in. The 3D, however, is so minimal that one wonders why 3D was even touted to begin with. It’s definitely not gimmicky, but doesn’t add much to the viewing experience overall.

Perhaps it’s telling that even the animated short film that precedes Cars 2 feels perfunctory, unlike the usual gems that the studio produces. It features almost the full Toy Story cast, but other than a couple of laughs, feels more like an outtake reel of Toy Story 3. Hopefully this is merely an aberration in Pixar’s illustrious history, and not a sign of things to come.  

Rating: ** ½ (out of four stars)

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Final Destination 5 * * 1/2

Genre: Horror
 

Director: Steven Quayle

Writers: Eric Heisserer, Jeffrey Reddick

Cast: Nicholas D'Agosto, Emma Bell, Arlen Escarpeta, Tony Todd

Running Length: 92 minutes

Synopsis: In Final Destination 5, Death is just as omnipresent as ever, and is unleashed after one man’s premonition saves a group of coworkers from a terrifying suspension bridge collapse. But this group of unsuspecting souls was never supposed to survive, and, in a terrifying race against time, the ill-fated group frantically tries to discover a way to escape Death’s sinister agenda.

Review: By this fifth installment, the intentions of the Final Destination franchise are clear – find interesting and macabre ways to kill off all the primary actors one by one, which leaves the door open for another sequel with a brand new cast of fresh faces. Clearly this is a formula that works, because the franchise as a whole has already earned over US$600 million, making it one of the most profitable horror franchises of our time.

It truly is moot to discuss strength of the plot and the thespian skills of the actors in Final Destination 5 (although to be fair, they actually do a semi-decent job), because the film will almost be entirely judged on the death scenes. In this aspect, Final Destination 5 does not disappoint at all. Blatantly misdirecting the audience and pulling out unexpected twists as always, for the target audience these “money shots” will be what they had ponied up good money for. Personally, these sequences largely find the “sweet spot” between being shocking and being macabrely funny, but the intense situations and unabashed gore may prove too unsettling for some (which beggars the question of why they would be watching this movie to begin with).

There’s also the added bonus of some truly funny scenes, one of the most memorable starring a no-nonsense massage therapist cum acupuncturist. This is a welcome return to form as the Final Destination installments that play it straight are the ones which in my opinion fare more poorly. After all, one simply cannot take such a film too seriously, otherwise it defeats the purpose entirely.

Although there is a much vaunted new mechanic to the modus operandi of Death in this sequel, the film essentially fails to capitalize on this, and if not for the denouement, would probably have been forgotten by the second reel. However, there is quite a neat reveal near the end of the film that provides an interesting connection to its predecessors, but probably won’t be apparent to audiences who have not sat through the previous films.

The second film in the franchise to be shot in 3D, the third dimension is used in the most obvious manner possible, but really doesn’t add that much to the equation. It’s more like a theme park attraction, and this description can be expanded to include the spirit of the whole film. Final Destination 5 is designed to be a quick, entertaining ride through a veritable House of Horrors, to be forgotten almost immediately upon exit – which isn’t exactly a bad thing as long as one is mentally prepared.

Rating: ** ½ (out of four stars) 

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes * * * *

Genre: Action Thriller

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Writers: Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, suggested by the novel La Planete des Singes by Pierre Boulle

Cast: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow

Running Length: 106 minutes

Synopsis: Set in present day San Francisco, Rise of the Planet of the Apes deals with the aftermath of experiments in genetic engineering that leads to the creation of apes with super intelligence, beginning with Caesar (Andy Serkis), who is adopted by Will Rodman (James Franco), one of the lead scientists in the project. Will has a vested interest in the success of the project because his father (John Lithgow) is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, but Will doesn’t realize how he will eventually play a crucial role in the war between the humans and the apes.

Review: Perhaps this is a new formula for success in Hollywood – instead of tackling the remake of an old movie, creating a prequel to a familiar franchise seems to work extremely well. Cases in point: Batman Begins, Casino Royale and Star Trek. 20th Century Fox has managed to strike gold twice in the same movie season with this formula, first with the seminal X-Men: First Class, and now with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. To be honest, after the disappointing Tim Burton remake a decade back, my expectations of Rise of the Planet of the Apes were not high. Confounding my expectations, this film has turned out to be a late summer season surprise, and is now for me as one of the best films released this year so far.

Much of why Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes such a deep impression is because of the depth of emotion it plumbs. The modern day setting means this is the closest to reality the Apes franchise has been (not factoring in the Burton remake), and hence it’s far easier to identify with the events that unfold on screen. This is also the first time that the apes are not human actors in cheesy costumes and prosthetics, and the CGI is so lifelike there really are only a small number of scenes where the primates look artificial. No surprise that the visual effects are handled by Weta Digital, the company who were behind the effects of the Lord of the Rings franchise and more tellingly, the King Kong remake in 2005.

Most importantly, Andy Serkis seems to have gotten performance capture acting down to an art, and his portrayal of Caesar is so expressive and so believable that he becomes the most sympathetic and fully fleshed out character in the whole film, overshadowing the human actors (who all put in decent performances). Coupled with the fact that a good portion of the film is centred around Caesar and his growth and change, and this strong emotional connection with the central protagonist (and surprisingly, some of the other primate performers) is what pushes the film from being simply good to great. I don’t recall many other movies in recent years that have moved me to such an extent, much less one that is populated at times entirely only by CG characters.

Although there are few classic action set pieces in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, every minute of the film is compellingly building towards the denouement, and nothing feels superfluous. The final showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge is breathtakingly executed, guaranteed to leave audiences on the edge of their seats yet while still being emotionally powerful. Viewers familiar with the original films will find references here and there, but the film is self-contained and accessible to newcomers and veterans alike. Rise of the Planet of the Apes concludes with a setup that leaves the door open for future films, but if they can be as outstanding as this one, it will definitely be a series to look out for.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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Captain America: The First Avenger * * 1/2

Genre: Action

Director: Joe Johnston

Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFreely, based on the comic series by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Cast: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Hugo Weaving, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Samuel L. Jackson

Running Length: 125 minutes

Synopsis: Captain America: The First Avenger focuses on the early days of the Marvel Universe where the scrawny but courageous Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) volunteers to participate in an experimental science program that  eventually turns him into a super soldier known to the world as “Captain America”. He joins forces with best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and a bunch of gung ho soldiers in a war against the evil HYDRA organization, led by the villainous Red Skull (Hugo Weaving). He also finds some time in between to romance the beautiful Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), though not always to good effect.

Review: After what seems like an endless slew of prequels for The Avengers, we’re finally at the last one before the main event next year, and this time it’s featuring one of the oldest Marvel superheroes – Captain America. Although the film is a serviceable origins movie and fairly entertaining, the fact that most cinemagoers have seen more than a handful of similarly-themed films means that the bar has been set quite high, and the flaws of this film seem particularly pronounced.

Let’s start with the positives. Captain America makes very good use of CGI, and not just in the big action sequences. It’s truly magical to see Chris Evans shrunken down to a much scrawnier size, and this is done so seamlessly that one can’t help but marvel at the advances in technology that have allowed this to happen. It’s also refreshing to see a superhero movie set in the 1940s, and the period details make even mundane actions like operating machinery seem that much more interesting. It’s no surprise that director Joe Johnston has The Rocketeer in his canon of work, because the two films bear many visual similarities.

Captain America is also packed with a good number of comedic moments, and this is largely the reason why the film is rather entertaining. The bigger action set pieces are pretty well choreographed, but for a superhero film the sequences take up far less screen time than expected. Although Chris Evans doesn’t really impress with his acting skills (and the scrawny Evans definitely is a bigger scene stealer than after his transformation), most of the supporting characters manage to acquit themselves, excepting Hugo Weaving who is unfortunately a wasted opportunity in the film, playing a one-note, cookie-cutter villain that really doesn’t deserve as much screen time as he was given.

One of the biggest flaws of Captain America is its pacing. The film spends too much time in exposition and setup, and as a result the final showdown between Cap and Red Skull feels really rushed and very unsatisfying – Red Skull’s fate has got to be one of the hastiest and sloppiest I’ve seen, and the denouement has very little emotional impact. The two modern day scenes that bookend Captain America are also clearly shoehorned into the script purely as an explanation of the Cap’s presence in The Avengers next year, and there’s never a satisfactory or explanatory segue into present time.  

Taken on its own, Captain America: The First Avenger feels somewhat hollow and incomplete, but seen as part of the lead-up to The Avengers, the film’s purpose seems clearer. Much as how Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II managed to round out the deficiencies of the first film, here’s hoping that The Avengers next year will be able to give audiences the big, satisfying payoff, as has been suggested along the franchise’s various films in the last few years. 

P.S. As with all the Avenger prequels, there is a coda at the end of the credits, but this time it’s a full-on sneak preview trailer for next year’s The Avengers, which seem to be promising enough.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of four stars) 

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II * * * 1/2

Genre: Fantasy

Director: David Yates

Writer: Steve Kloves, based on the novel of the same name by J. K. Rowling

Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman, Bonnie Wright, Jason Isaacs, Tom Felton

Running Length: 130 minutes

Synopsis: Continuing right where Part I left off, Part II begins with Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes)locating the Elder Wand, one of the three items that constitute the Deathly Hallows. Having already destroyed three Horcruxes, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) continue the search to make Voldemort mortal again, including a return to and a last stand at Hogwarts. It is soon apparent that Harry Potter may have to make the ultimate sacrifice if he wants to prevent the Dark Lord from reigning supreme over the wizarding world.

Review: Part II of The Deathly Hallows is everything the first part wasn’t – concise, precise and engaging throughout, the shortest film in the entire Harry Potter canon happens to be one of its best as well. Because much of the exposition and meandering was done in Part I, Part II begins in the thick of the action and doesn’t let up till the very end, and because this truly is THE end, the sense of urgency is palpable and much appreciated – no dragging of heels in this film unlike every single Potter film before it.

Given the leeway of two movies, it’s little wonder that resident scribe Steve Kloves’ screenplay is nothing short of being slavishly faithful to the source material. It’s a little more understandable and tolerable in the final film since any omissions would have legions of fans up in arms, and at least all the important action unfolds in this installment so audiences aren’t left hanging. The film’s pacing is also vastly improved especially when the focus shifts back to Hogwarts.  

However, this is a caveat for viewers who are not familiar with the Harry Potter universe – prior knowledge is a necessity as almost nothing is explained in this film, and even audience members who are familiar with the films are advised to at least watch Part I again before venturing into the cinemas for Part II.

Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint have been immersed in their roles for a decade, but to be honest their performances have never been outstanding, especially because the movies have always roped in a large number of British acting greats to act beside them. In this final installment, the list of British actors is by far the longest (unfortunately, many esteemed actors like Emma Thompson and Jim Broadbent don’t speak more than a couple of lines each), which means the young actors have an even greater obstacle to overcome. However, having been through this for such a long time means that despite their deficiencies, the trio share excellent chemistry and many audience members are too vested in the characters to care about acting quality.

It’s also interesting to note how far the visual effects have come since the first film, and the visuals in Deathly Hallows Part II are about as good as it can get. Aiming for a much more monochromatic look and gritty feel than in the previous films, Deathly Hallows Part II shines most in battle sequences, especially in the finale sequence where no expense was obviously spared. Having only seen this in digital 2D, I am not able to judge if the 3D elements are retrofitted successfully onto the film – but somehow I think watching the film without a third dimension might actually serve it better.

This is likely to be the definitive last film of the Harry Potter franchise, and it’s amazing to look back at the past decade and see how far the franchise has come. It’s an excellent send off and ends the franchise on the best possible note, to be sure, but there will be plenty of fans wishing that more could follow, especially since Deathly Hallows Part II has managed to deliver everything it promised. Already the most successful film franchise of all time, there’s no doubt that Harry Potter is here to stay, and despite this curtain closer would definitely continue to thrive in other iterations and formats.

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of four stars)

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Transformers: Dark of the Moon * *

Genre: Action

Director: Michael Bay

Writer: Ehren Krueger

Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Josh Duhamel, John Tuturro, Patrick Dempsey, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich

Voice Cast: Peter Cullen, Leonard Nimoy, Hugo Weaving

Running Length: 157 minutes

Synopsis: Picking up from where the last Transformers movie left off, the Autobots are now working with humans to fend off the Decepticons and also help to battle (believe it or not) terrorists in the name of world peace. However, when Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) discovers a secret that the US Government has been hiding from them on the moon, this sets off a chain of events that begins with the revival of the powerful Autobot Sentinel Prime (Leonard Nimoy) and eventually to a secret from Cybertron’s past that causes the future of Earth to hang in the balance.

In the mean time, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is finding difficulty adjusting to a normal lifestyle after graduating from college, and is not even able to find a proper job, despite being in a relationship with yet another hot girlfriend, Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). He uncovers a Decepticon plot but has difficulty getting anyone to listen to him, much less believe in what he says. In desperation, Sam tries to put his motley crew back together, including the now-wealthy conspiracy theorist Simmons (John Turturro), but they have to get past the no-nonsense FBI Security Director Mearing (Frances McDormand) first.

Review: It’s perhaps redundant to review Transformers: Dark of the Moon as essentially nothing has changed since the movie franchise started, and the exact same flaws that plagued the previous two films are back in the third. However, since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was such a terrible film, there was really no way to go but up. So yes, Dark of the Moon is a better film than Revenge of the Fallen, but is that saying much?

Michael Bay himself had expressed disappointment in the screenplay of Revenge of the Fallen, but in all honesty Dark of the Moon doesn’t fare much better. Running at a very bloated 157 minutes, Bay and screenwriter Krueger spend almost an hour on largely pointless exposition, punctuated only briefly by much-needed action sequences. Is there really a need to see Sam getting relationship advice from his parents? Or stilted, emotionless scenes in which Shia LaBeouf and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley try to convince the audience (unsuccessfully) of their deep love for each other? The entire film shudders to a halt repeatedly due to these superfluous sequences, and any hope of Dark of the Moon being able to tell a compelling story dissipates in this first hour.

The human actors are all deeply unimpressive, and this includes (much as it pains me to say) Frances McDormand and John Malkovich, who are obviously slumming it for the money. In fact, the human performances are so weak that all of them could have been wiped out without me feeling much for their plight. This is particularly true of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, whose complete lack of acting skills makes Megan Fox’s vapid performances in the first two Transformers seem like thespian masterpieces in comparison. It’s quite telltale that the most emotionally affecting scenes in the film are those that deal with the Transformers. In fact, the bro-mance between Sam and Bumblebee comes across as being more believable that the romance between Sam and Carly, and it’s due to Bumblebee’s emoting, not LaBeouf’s.

Michael Bay isn’t known, of course, for his storytelling ability, but one thing he manages to do well is in action sequences. The action in Dark of the Moon is thankfully less confusing than before, with Bay actually managing to slow down most action sequences that they become discernible, something that was sorely lacking in Revenge of the Fallen. And the special effects and CGI are really top notch, with the most memorable being the scene where the main characters are trapped in a crumbling building –almost reminiscent of 9/11, and is easily the most visceral of the many, many action set-pieces in the movie.

Bay had recanted on his initial decision to eschew 3D midway through production, and it shows in the finished product. This is possibly the least 3D film I have ever seen, and it’s easy to forget that one is watching a 3D film in long stretches, not because the environment is immersive, but because there’s no sense of the third dimension at all. My advice is to save the money and the eye fatigue and go with normal 2D instead.

In the end, Dark of the Moon would probably have worked better if Michael Bay had elected to keep it short and sweet instead of trying to aim for an “epic”. Though the action sequences work well, viewer fatigue quickly sets in when so much of it is crammed into the movie. Add to that the unnecessarily lengthy exposition, and Dark of the Moon becomes a numbing cinematic experience that goes on far longer than it should have been. If there’s a fourth movie in the franchise, let’s hope that Bay would finally be able to exercise some self-restraint and not turn it into another overburdened behemoth.

Rating:
* * (out of four stars)

Standard