Genre: Action/DramaDirector: J.J. Abrams Writer: J.J. Abrams Cast: Elle Fanning, Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Noah Emmerich, Gabriel Basso, Joel Courtney, Ryan Lee, Zach Mills, Amanda Michalka Running Length: 112 minutes Synopsis: In the summer of 1979, a group of friends in a small Ohio town witness a catastrophic train crash while making a super 8mm movie and soon suspect that it was not an accident. Shortly after, unusual disappearances and inexplicable events begin to take place in town, and the local Deputy (Kyle Chandler) tries to uncover the truth – which is more terrifying than any of them could have possibly imagined… Review: Super 8 is a movie that defies easy classification – it’s an old school creature feature, a coming of age movie, a teen romance and a nostalgic homage to the era that many of us are familiar with – and perhaps only the talented J. J. Abrams could have pulled it off with such panache. Make no mistake: Super 8 has become the movie to beat this summer season, a film that perfectly balances action, sci-fi, romance, comedy and drama, and augmented by some fine performances and great dialogue to boot. It may come as little surprise that the executive producer of the film is Steven Spielberg, because this is practically a loving tribute to Spielberg’s earlier canon of work. Part of the fun of Super 8 is finding out what exactly happens in the little town of Lillian and the film’s protagonists, so to delve any further into the plot would be rather spoilerly. Suffice to say, however, that not only is the central mystery a fun one to figure out (and really wouldn’t take too much brain power), even the film’s subplots are interesting and involving, and everything is paced so well that it’s hard to imagine that the person responsible for such movie magic only has three films under his belt (to be fair Abrams has had a long and rather successful TV career before this). The only criticism that can be levelled at the film would be for the denouement – it ends a little too abruptly, and the conclusion is so soft, cuddly and Spielbergian that it almost descends into the realm of parody. Despite the old-school sensibilities of Super 8, the film boasts some cutting edge visual effects and fantastic action set pieces, none more impressive than the heart-stopping train crash that occurs early on in the film. It’s hands down one of the most intense action sequences I’ve seen played out, and the level of realism is incredible. The monster animation isn’t quite as successful, but perhaps this is due more to the film being somewhat of a facsimile of old creature films, and the animation is intended to be cheesier. Special mention must be made of the child actors in Super 8, who give stellar performances and are very much a big part of the reason why the film is so engaging. Elle Fanning is very impressive (and there’s even a memorable “performance of a performance” early on), but even the less famous child actors manage to deliver. The fact that audiences will almost certainly become vested in these children is core to the film’s emotional resonance, and only with such unexpectedly great acting does the entire film come into its own as first-rate. Super 8 is a great film that holds wide appeal to both young and old viewers, but one wonders if the typical attention-deficit cinemagoer will eschew this film for the more famous faces and stories that other summer blockbusters would boast of. Those that do take the plunge, however, will find themselves (and their inner child) richly rewarded with one of the best cinematic experiences of the year so far. One last thing – remember to stay for the first part of the end credits for a very, very enjoyable short film that is guaranteed to make you leave the cinema with a smile on your face. Rating: * * * *(out of four stars)
Genre: ComedyDirector: Todd Philips Writers: Craig Mazin, Scott Armstrong and Todd Philips Cast: Bradley Cooper, Zach Galiafinakis, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong Running Length: 102 minutes Synopsis: The Hangover Part II is director Todd Phillips’ follow-up to 2009’s smash hit The Hangover, which became the highest-grossing R-rated comedy of all-time and also won the Golden Globe for Best Film – Comedy or Musical. Reprising their roles from The Hangover, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, and Justin Bartha star in the film. In the sequel, Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms), Alan (Zach Galifianakis) and Doug (Justin Bartha) travel to exotic Thailand for Stu’s wedding. After the unforgettable bachelor party in Las Vegas, Stu is taking no chances and has opted for a safe, subdued pre-wedding brunch. However, things don’t always go as planned. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens in Bangkok can’t even be imagined… Review: Nobody expected The Hangover to do as well as it did when it was released in 2009, and it eventually became the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time. This is obviously the biggest reason why The Hangover Part II is seeing light of day this year, but can lightning strike twice? The answer, unsurprisingly, is both yes and no. While The Hangover Part II is very entertaining, it’s almost an identical rehash of The Hangover despite the change in locale, and lacking the element of surprise the sequel just feels less inspired than its predecessor. Todd Philips and his creative team obviously decided to justify the existence of this sequel by upping the ante, but this is a ploy that works unevenly. Everything is bigger – the setup of the gags, the stakes, and even the (somewhat pointless) action – but the whole is less than the sum of its parts. And that really is the biggest weakness of the film, likely to overlooked by most audiences since the cinematic experience remains pretty much on par with that of its predecessor. There are still plenty of things to like about The Hangover Part II despite this. The politically incorrect and crude humour can still be very funny, even if it gets a little forced at times. It may not be a laugh a minute, but it does come pretty close. The central mystery is still intriguing despite being extremely far-fetched, and the denouement is pretty satisfactory, even if it seems a bit rushed. And like the first film, the end credit photo montage packs some of the best visual gags in the movie. It is undeniable that the leads are very flawed and yet very likeable characters, and the chemistry between the actors have only grown stronger in the sequel. Much as they are in a totally improbable situation, the audience is always rooting for the group to solve the mystery and ride off into the sunset. And this is essentially why The Hangover Part II will be a box office success – even though the proceedings are a bit old-hat, there will be enough empathy/sympathy with these characters that most audiences will be very forgiving. One wonders, however, if audiences would be as forgiving the third inevitable time around. Rating: * * * (out of four stars)
Genre: ActionDirector: Matthew Vaughn Writers: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn Cast: Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Jennifer Lawrence, Rose Byrne Running Length: 132 minutes Synopsis: Charting the epic beginning of the X-Men saga, X-Men: First Class is set in the 60s, before Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) took on the names Professor X and Magneto and became archenemies. The two were young men discovering their powers for the first time, and were close friends working together to discover other mutants who have so far lived in hiding. However, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), aided by other mutants, is trying to ignite World War III by manipulating both the Russians and the Americans into the Cuban Missile Crisis. Charles and Erik must put aside their differences to defeat Shaw, but their alliance grows weaker by the day as the rifts begin to form. Review: I will be the first to admit that I hadn’t expected much from X-Men: First Class. After all, the X-Men movie franchise had been in a steady decline, apparent especially in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and it would not have been surprising if this fifth film (though chronologically the first) simply continued the trend. Surprise, surprise – X-Men: First Class is a summer blockbuster with brains, and apart from the usual assault on the senses, this is a film that actually remembers what makes a movie truly great: telling a compelling story. The narrative weight of X-Men: First Class could have done the movie in – the 132-minute movie probably contains one of the densest superhero movie plots ever, packed with multiple plot threads, a whole slew of characters and origin stories, and integrating real-life events (the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) into the fictional X-Men universe to boot. However, the screenplay by Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn manages to pull it off, and the end result is a film that strikes a great balance between emotional character moments and exhilarating action set pieces, while moving things along at a very good pace throughout. Even the slightly weaker middle portion doesn’t feel like a drag, which in such a long film is no mean feat. This is further augmented by an almost uniformly excellent cast, with major props going to both James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, whose nuanced portrayals of the tragic heroes form the emotional centre of the movie. There’s also great chemistry between the two, allowing audiences to become vested in their friendship and their eventual split. Kudos must also go to Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult, who are key characters in an important subplot and stand out from the supporting cast. X-Men: First Class also boasts excellent art direction and production design with a keen eye for the period it is set in, allowing the film to exude a James Bond-esque vibe that adds to the allure of the movie. Special effects are top rate, as is expected these days, and the action sequences are well-choreographed and thrilling, with an almost operatic grandeur that is not often seen in movies of this genre. Additional brownie points go the filmmakers for not resorting to gimmicky 3D, presenting the film in glorious, old-school 2D. Truly a first class movie, and not just in the superhero genre, one can only hope that this reinvigoration of the X-Men franchise will lead to other similarly excellent films down the line. Although there are a number of superhero films due to be released later this year, it’s going to take a lot to knock X-Men: First Class off the top spot. Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)
Genre: AnimationDirector: Jennifer Yuh Nelson Writers: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger Voice Cast: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Gary Oldman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Michelle Yeoh, Jean Claude Van-Damme Running Length: 90 minutes Synopsis: In Kung Fu Panda 2, Po (Jack Black) is now living his dream as The Dragon Warrior, protecting the Valley of Peace alongside his friends and fellow kung fu masters, The Furious Five (Angelina Jolie, Jackie Cham, David Cross, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu) . But Po’s new life of awesomeness is threatened by the emergence of a formidable villain Shen (Gary Oldman), who plans to use a secret, unstoppable weapon to conquer China and destroy kung fu. Po must look to his past and uncover the secrets of his mysterious origins; only then will he be able to unlock the strength he needs to succeed. Review: Two words encompass what Kung Fu Panda 2 would mean for most cinemagoers – crowd-pleaser. Although it doesn’t even try to deviate slightly from the formula set in the first film, and perhaps exactly because of this, Kung Fu Panda 2 has a lot of ticks in the right checkboxes. It’s a beautifully animated, consistently funny film with a good number of well-choreographed action set pieces that will be able to entertain both children and adults (more the former), despite being very light on plot and completely wasting the numerous A-list stars found in its voice cast. Somewhat surprisingly, I found myself enjoying Kung Fu Panda 2 even more than the original film, which, believe it or not, means this franchise shares a common trait with the Godfather movies. Jack Black, despite his manic intensity and crazed performances, is not always an asset to a movie (case in point: Gulliver’s Travels), but as the voice behind Po, it is a partnership that works very well. Perhaps it’s because we never really see Jack Black in the flesh, and the panda persona is actually far more cuddly and crowd-friendly than his real self. Gary Oldman is a new addition to the voice cast, but is perfectly in his element as the central villain in the film, and his nuanced vocal delivery helps to give Shen some much needed dimensionality. The same cannot be said of any of the very well-known actors who have lent their voices to the film, especially when a few of them have literally nothing more than a handful of lines to deliver.
The world of Kung Fu Panda 2 is lushly detailed and richly coloured, which really needs to be seen without 3D glasses and their dimming effect to be fully appreciated. Coupled with the facts that pretty much nothing significant happens in the third dimension, and that some of the action sequences can be quite hard to follow in 3D, there’s very little reason to shell out more to watch this film in 3D. Although Kung Fu Panda 2 does try to introduce a little pathos with the somewhat clichéd origins story behind both the villain and the protagonist, the plot is not the film’s strong suit. There also seems to be a rather ill-advised attempt to create some romantic tension between Po and Tigress, which seems rather out of place and never gets resolved fully – perhaps it’s waiting for a second sequel. However, the film is so entertaining with its witty banter and action sequences that the little flaws pretty much cease to matter. This isn’t a revolutionary animated film by any measure, but it’s entertaining and accessible, and is the most family friendly film to be released this summer season so far. Rating: * * * (out of four stars)
Director: Justin Lin
Director: Francis Lawrence Writer: Richard LaGravenese, based on the novel of the same name by Sara Gruen Cast: Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, Christoph Waltz Running Length: 120 minutes Synopsis: During the Great Depression, Jacob (Robert Pattinson), a penniless 23-year-old veterinary school student, parlays his expertise with animals into a job with a second-rate traveling circus. He falls in love with Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), one of the show's star performers, but their romance is complicated by Marlena's husband August (Christoph Waltz), the charismatic but unbalanced ringmaster and owner of the circus. Review: There’s no doubt that one of the biggest draws of Water for Elephants would be Robert Pattinson, especially for Twilight fans who are craving for the next Edward fix, but unfortunately he happens to be the weakest link in the movie. Although Francis Lawrence manages to showcase quite well the nuts and bolts of running a circus during the Depression era, there is precious little chemistry between Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon, and the romantic angle never really works due to this. It’s not that Pattinson is acting badly, but the role of Jacob requires him to just stand around looking handsome and broody most of the time. Reese Witherspoon tries her darndest to up the energy level with a rather spirited performance but the two simply are unable to generate any sparks. It’s not surprising, then, that Christoph Waltz steals every scene with his nuanced, mesmerising turn as the psychologically disturbed ringmaster. It’s a great performance, but is slightly undone near the end when he transforms into a scenery-chewing, comic book villain. Fortunately, Water for Elephants does have its fair share of high points, such that the fizzled romance doesn’t kill the movie entirely. The production design and art direction are very impressive, and really manages to recreate some of the old school Hollywood charm that is lacking in movies these days. There’s a great sequence which shows the Big Top being set up and other glimpses that seem authentic to how a circus would be run in the 30s. Water for Elephants is also beautiful to look at – not only are the leads pleasing on the eyes, the cinematography is sumptuous with some really impressive set pieces. However, as all these components play second fiddle to the central romance, the end result is a movie that falls short of expectations. One may leave the cinema wondering if the film would actually be improved if the focus is shifted instead to August and the nuts and bolts of running a Depression-era circus. Rating: * * 1/2 (out of four stars)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Screenplay by Ashely Edward Miller, Zack Stentz and Don Payne, story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich, based on the comic book series by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard
Running Length: 114 minutes
Synopsis: Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a powerful but arrogant warrior from Asgard, is banished to Earth by his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) as punishment for reigniting a reckless war. But after a dangerous villain from his world sends the darkest forces of Asgard to invade Earth in order to finish him off, the hammer-wielding Thor will learn what it takes to be a true hero in order to save mankind.
Review: I had my reservations when Thor was announced – how well will his godlike powers be translated to the big screen? Will it be another Clash of the Titans debacle? Stuck in development hell for a number of years, the project finally took off with Kenneth Branagh at the helm. Branagh isn’t exactly the first director one would think of for a superhero movie, since he cut his directorial teeth on a number of Shakespearean adaptations. Amazingly, something that could have gone terribly wrong managed to do everything right, and the superhero summer season kicks off with a bang and with the bar set very high.
Although this is an origins story, Branagh manages to balances exposition very nicely with action, and despite running at almost two hours, almost nothing feels drawn out or superfluous. The CGI is top notch, in both the landscapes as well as the action sequences, but there’s no real need to watch this in 3D as the film rarely makes use of the third dimension. There’s also a fair bit of humour deftly sprinkled amidst the more serious and action-packed moments, and no other superhero film in recent years have managed this many laugh-out-loud moments. It’s almost as though the fact that Thor isn’t as sacrosanct a superhero character (unlike Spiderman or Superman, for example), that the production feels more at ease with poking occasional fun at the franchise.
What’s also interesting is that unlike most superhero movies, there’s actually some rather good acting to be found in Thor. Actors like Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston put in performances that are far more involving that what is par for this genre, and almost everyone feels like they are vested in their characters – even the more minor ones. Chris Hemsworth must also be given credit for turning what is potentially a flat character into a star-making turn. Apart from his sheer physicality (and mad props for Hemsworth for being able to carry off the Thor costume without looking ridiculous), Hemsworth succeeds in the dramatic, comedic and romantic departments as well, an almost unheard of occurrence in thie genre. The only one who seems to be performing below her usual standard is Natalie Portman, who is reduced to little more than a pretty face, and does nothing much except giggle at Thor’s enormous pectorals.
It’s rare to find a film, much less a superhero movie, which manages to work on multiple levels. Thor has something for everyone, from fans of the comic series to general audiences who are just there for the spectacle. Easily one of the most enjoyable superhero movies since the original Iron Man.
P.S. Remember to stay through the end credits for a longer than usual teaser sequence that reveals yet another major plot device in the Marvel universe.
Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of four stars)
Genre: DramaDirector: Don Roos Writer: Don Roos, based on the novel of the same name by Ayelet Waldman Cast: Natalie Portman, Scott Cohen, Charlie Tahan, Lisa Kudrow Running Length: 102 minutes Synopsis: Emilia (Natalie Portman) is a Harvard law school graduate and a newlywed, having just married Jack (Scott Cohen), a high-powered New York lawyer, who was her boss – and married – when she began working at his law firm. Unfortunately, her life takes an unexpected turn when Jack and Emilia lose their newborn daughter. Emilia struggles through her grief to connect with her new stepson William (Charlie Tahan), but is finding it hard to connect with this precocious child. Emilia is also trying to overcome a long-standing rift in her relationship with her father caused by his infidelity. But perhaps the most difficult obstacle of all for Emilia is trying to cope with the constant interferences of her husband’s angry, jealous ex-wife, Carolyn (Lisa Kudrow). Review: Although filmed before Natalie Portman’s Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan, Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (thankfully the film isn’t released under the pedestrian American release title of The Other Woman) seemed to have languished for some time since its inception in 2009, and its release now seems timed to cash in on Portman’s increased bankability since her Academy Award success. It’s a pretty certain bet that most audiences would be watching this film based solely on the fact that it features Natalie Portman, her performance here is good but not spectacular, which pretty much describes the rest of the film as well. One of the greater weaknesses of Love and Other Impossible Pursuits is its structure – although there are many dramatic incidents that occur, the timeline feels unrealistic and many of the plot threads are eventually given short shrift. Too much reliance is placed on Portman delivering one tearful, emotionally charged scene after another, and because these incidents aren’t given enough breathing room, the entire film gets bogged down with overt melodrama. It also doesn’t help that apart from Portman’s more faceted performance, the rest of the characters are nothing more than caricatures. Carolyn is portrayed as a controlling, paranoid ex-wife who always seems on the verge of hysterics, and this is done to such an extent that when she finally displays a more humane side (in which Lisa Kudrow shines in what’s probably the best scene in the entire film), it does not feel believable at all. This is true even of Charlie Tahan, whose character is pivotal to the film, and yet is obviously delivering lines that no real 8 year old kid would be uttering – no matter how smart or precocious. That said, the scenes where Portman and Tahan interact manage to work quite well, although Portman may have just been a little too good at being cold and distant for audiences to ever truly empathize with her situation. The film also manages to give a slightly more measured look at the changed dynamics of a family from the home wrecker’s point of view, which isn’t something that is seen in most other movies dealing with similar subject matter. Rating: * * 1/2 (out of four stars)
Genre: ComedyDirectors: Peter and Bobby Farrelly Writers: Pete Jones, Peter Farrelly, Kevin Barnett and Bobby Farrelly Cast: Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Christina Applegate, Nicky Whelan, Richard Jenkins Running Length: 104 minutes Synopsis: Rick (Owen Wilson) and Fred (Jason Sudeikis) are best friends who have a lot in common, including the fact that they have each been married for many years. But when the two men begin to show signs of restlessness at home, their wives (Jenna Fischer and Christina Applegate) take a bold approach to revitalizing their marriages: granting them a “hall pass”, one week of freedom to do whatever they want with no questions asked. At first, it sounds like a dream come true for Rick and Fred. But it isn’t long before they discover that their expectations of the single life – and themselves – are completely, and hilariously, out of sync with reality. Review: A lot has changed since the Farrelly Brothers’ breakout hit, There’s Something About Mary, was released thirteen years ago. What were groundbreaking back then – crude sexual jokes, gross out sight gags and the like – have now become the norm in most R-rated comedies. Hall Pass may not exactly have pushed the boundaries of such comedies, but like many Farrelly Brothers’ movies, it does have something that many of such comedies lack – a heart. Although Hall Pass boasts a fair number of shocking moments (none more disgustingly memorable than the scene where Fred has to deal with a drunk woman) and is actually laugh-out-loud funny at times, what really sets it apart is that the film actually manages to offer some pretty good insights into relationships and monogamy. It actually gets pretty sentimental at times, toeing the line of schmaltziness, but as a whole both the comedic and “serious” moments work well together. Hall Pass is far from being perfect – the decision to feature both the husbands’ and the wives’ storylines means that something has to give, and in this instance it’s the wives’ stories, which feel woefully underdeveloped. There is enough fodder for a whole other movie, so the inclusion of these subplots merely detracts from the main story. Also, despite Rick and Fred having a number of friends, none of them seem to have any real personality other than Richard Jenkin’s late appearance, who then manages to steal the limelight from the two leads in every scene they share. The film is also fairly predictable throughout, and most of the plot developments are easily figured out, including the shock moments. Hall Pass won’t be as enduring as There’s Something About Mary, and despite the scatological humour and male nudity, comes across as a relatively tame film. Whilst it’s a tough sell to anyone who doesn’t like lowbrow, slapstick humour, most audiences will likely find themselves pretty entertained. P.S. One more thing – don’t forget to stay through the entire end credits to catch a seriously funny outtake that involves a minor cast member. It truly is comedy gold. Rating: * * * (out of four stars)
Director: Nigel Cole
Writer: William Ivory
Cast: Sally Hawkins, Bob Hoskins, Geraldine James, Miranda Richardson, Rosamund Pike
Running Length: 113 minutes
Synopsis: Set against the backdrop of the 1960s, Made in Dagenham is based on a true story about a group of spirited women who joined forces to protest for equal wages. Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), along with her friends and co-workers at the city’s Ford Motor Factory go on strike to protest the unfair wages. Rita is coerced into attending a meeting with shop steward Connie (Geraldine James), sympathetic union representative Albert (Bob Hoskins) and Peter Hopkins (Rupert Graves), Ford’s Head of Industrial Relations. What she expects to be simply a day out of work, complete with a free lunch, turns into much more when she and her colleagues become outraged by the lack of respect shown in the meeting to the women employees. Rita becomes the main driving force of the equal wages movement, and soon it spreads nationwide, and even attracts the attention of the government, especially newly appointed Secretary of State Barbara Castle (Miranda Richardson).
Review: To be honest, I wasn’t expecting Made in Dagenham to be anything but a run of the mill female empowerment movie. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how entertaining and engrossing the film turned out to be. Much of this can be attributed to the excellent ensemble cast, in particular Sally Hawkin’s spirited, delightful turn as the accidental heroine. Although the film is based on a true story, Made in Dagenham does feel a little too pat and tidy for real life, but nonetheless it manages to be a compelling piece of filmmaking.
Sally Hawkins was suitably impressive in her Oscar-nominated role in Happy-Go-Lucky, and while her portrayal of the plucky Rita O’Grady is not as accomplished, she brings an optimism and a twinkle in the eye to the proceedings, making the film more light-hearted than the traditional feminist movie. Miranda Richardson also deserves kudos, turning the bit part of a government bigwig into a full-on role, and Rosamund Pike is extremely memorable as the underappreciated wife of a Ford official, despite appearing in a limited number of scenes.
The women’s strike is fodder enough for one movie, and one of the few missteps in Made in Dagenham is its addition of unnecessary subplots – for example, there’s Rita’s co-worker who has to deal with her shell-shocked husband. Although these are compelling side stories, they are not well-connected with the central story and as such feel like they are padding out the running time of the film. It’s also a rather predictable film that ends up exactly where everyone would expect it to be, but the final product is so enjoyable and satisfying that few audience members would be complaining once the end credits roll.
Rating: * * * (out of four stars)