Behind the Candelabra

Genre: Drama

Director: Steven Soderberg

Writer: Richard LaGravenese, based on Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson

Cast: Michael Douglas, Matt Damon, Dan Aykroyd, Rob Lowe, Scott Bakula

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: Before Elvis, before Elton John, Madonna and Lady Gaga, there was Liberace: virtuoso pianist, outrageous entertainer and flamboyant star of stage and television. A name synonymous with showmanship, extravagance and candelabras, he was a world-renowned performer with a flair that endeared him to his audiences and created a loyal fan base spanning his 40-year career. Liberace (Michael Douglas) lived lavishly and embraced a lifestyle of excess both on and off stage. In summer 1977, handsome young stranger Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) walked into his dressing room and, despite their age difference and seemingly different worlds, the two embarked on a secretive five-year love affair. Behind the Candelabra takes a behind-the-scenes look at their tempestuous relationship – from their first meeting backstage at the Las Vegas Hilton to their bitter and public break-up.

Review: It is interesting to see Soderberg take on Liberace as his final movie project (at least for now), albeit a TV movie made for HBO (here in Singapore we will get to experience the movie on the big screen), since he isn’t necessarily the first director one would think of when it comes to someone as showy as Liberace. However, Behind the Candelabra is very much a success on many counts – it is a briskly paced biopic with two very strong lead performances, and though poignant at times, remains entertaining from start to end.

It’s easy to turn any movie about Liberace into a parody, since it would not take much effort (if at all) to focus on the camp factor of his life and loves. Yet, despite the amount of sequins, rhinestones and other manner of bling and kitsch in the movie, the one thing that it isn’t is campy. It’s a triumph that despite the larger-than-life character that was Liberace, Soderberg’s rendition of Liberace’s life with Scott Thorson is measured and even-handed. Soderberg treats the material with a great amount of respect (and to a certain extent, sympathy) and never plays any scene for laughs, much as there are mirthful moments in the film.

Michael Douglas may seem to be an odd choice to be Liberace on paper, but his performance is certainly the strongest in the movie. He nails the character completely from the word go, and essentially disappears into the role. For two hours, the firmly heterosexual Michael Douglas IS the showy, flashy and very homosexual Liberace. Matt Damon is almost able to stand toe to toe with Michael Douglas in his turn as Scott, and it’s commendable that for someone who’s almost double the actual age of Scott can bring out the naïveté and guile that underscores the character. Damon isn’t as convincing, however, in the later parts of the movie when he has to portray Scott as an increasingly desperate drug addict. One other surprise is Rob Lowe, who is truly memorable as a plastic surgeon who has obviously gone too far in the remaking of his own face, although it can be argued that his makeup plays an equally important part as his thespian skills.

Being made for TV, the experience of watching it on the big screen does make the smaller, more intimate moments in the film feel a little out of place. However, there are also moments that transcend the TV movie confines, almost all of them involving Michael Douglas. Though this is a movie made from viewpoint of Scott Thorson, this is very much a showcase of Michael Douglas at his most impressive. He is also augmented by fine directing from Soderberg, and strong production values all around, from the music to the art direction and set designs.

The movie ends off with Liberace uttering the phrase “Too much of a good thing… is wonderful!” and that essentially is what we have here: a wonderful movie that isn’t too much, despite it being about Liberace, and that really is a very good thing.   

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)


That Girl in Pinafore

Genre: Drama

Director: Chai Yeewei

Writers: Chai Yeewei & Violet Lai

Cast: Daren Tan, Julie Tan, Seah Jiaqing, Kenny Khoo, Jayley Woo, Hayley Woo, Kelvin Mun, Sherly Devonne Ng

Running Length: 116 minutes

Synopsis: Set in Singapore in the early 90s, That Girl in Pinafore recounts the lives and love of a group of friends whose love of xinyao brings them together.

Review: At first glance, That Girl in Pinafore is immediately reminiscent of the 2011 Taiwan box office smash You Are the Apple of My Eye, and there definitely are similarities between the two films. Both tap into the power of nostalgia, and the story structure and character mix is almost identical. That Girl in Pinafore has one very big upside going for it (in Singapore at least), however – it’s a local movie, and it would be remiss to ignore the compounding effect of resonance on top of nostalgia. There would be no doubt that the movie will generate strong word of mouth, and barring the cinema operators’ whims and fancies, should see a relatively good run at the box office.

It’s also interesting to observe the small touches that director Yee Wei had put into the film – to enhance the veracity of the period setting, he managed to obtain relics from the bygone era, including pagers, old-school telephones, cassette tapes, and even a cheesy abdominal exercise machine.

However, strip away the nostalgia factor and the film does lose some of its sheen. The overt melodrama, especially in the final reel, wasn’t entirely necessary, and the young actors weren’t able to portray the weightier moments of the film well. The song performances were akin to Glee – although some of the new arrangements were interesting, the vocal quality (except perhaps Daren Tan, who is after all an ex-Project Superstar winner) of the cast was extremely uneven.

It was great to see part of my growing up days being re-enacted on the big screen, and that alone is worth the price of entry, but for audience members who are not acquainted with the xinyao movement or the early 90s would likely find the experience a more subdued one. There is no denying, however, that this is a heartfelt labour of love, and should receive kudos for bucking the norms of what defines a local movie. It’s also pleasant to note that despite having a slew of sponsors backing the movie, there were no overt product placements or awkward commercial messages.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


The Wolverine

Genre: Action

Director: James Mangold

Writers: Christopher McQuarrie, Mark Bomback, Scott Frank, based on Wolverine by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Famke Janssen, Rila Fukushima, Tao Okamoto, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Will Yun Lee, Hiroyuki Sanada, Hal Yamanouchi

Running Length: 126 minutes

Synopsis: Based on the celebrated comic book arc, this epic action-adventure takes Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), the most iconic character of the X-Men universe, to modern day Japan. Out of his depth in an unknown world, he will face a host of unexpected and deadly opponents in a life-or-death battle that will leave him forever changed. Vulnerable for the first time and pushed to his physical and emotional limits, he confronts not only lethal samurai steel but also his inner struggle against his own immortality.

Review: The Wolverine is somewhat of an anomaly in the roster of summer blockbusters – although this is the sixth time Wolverine has featured in a movie, the film’s only name actors are Hugh Jackman and Famke Janssen, with the rest of the cast being relative unknowns. And despite what the trailers might have suggested, this is actually a rather intimately shot film, with only a handful of action set pieces in  itstwo-hour plus running time. While the storyline is undoubtedly engaging, and the film as a whole is definitely superior to the dreary X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it remains to be seen if the film’s box office would be impacted by mismatched expectations of the audience.

The Wolverine comes off to a pretty slow start – the initial exposition takes up more than half an hour before any true action is witnessed on screen, by which time it’s abundantly clear to audiences that this movie is trying to be more than just the typical summer action blockbuster. Credit must be given to Mangold for trying to delve deeper into the psyche of Wolverine and what makes him tick, but it isn’t always very successful. All the Jean Grey visions in particular are cheesy and cringe-worthy, but there are moments of introspection that feel as though he has succeeded somewhat.

Apart from this, The Wolverine is a pretty formulaic superhero movie offering up few surprises. There’s the obligatory (in this case, extremely obligatory) romantic interest, the typical action sequences, and the final showdown. The finale is particularly disappointing, because the villains seem to pose very little threat to the heroes and are quite quickly dispatched. Wolverine’s loss of his super healing powers (much vaunted in the slew of trailers and pre-publicity) also don’t manage to make too much of a difference. Thankfully there is at least a refreshing take on the typical “brawl atop a speeding train” sequence, since it happens on a bullet train travelling at 300km/h, which changes the rules of combat and physics somewhat.

Placing Wolverine in a foreign locale does also help to shake things up a bit. Apart from Wolverine, Jean Grey and Viper, every other character of note are Japanese, often speaking in their native tongue. This is an interesting gambit for a summer film, since subtitles are popular amongst the typical movie-going crowd, but suffice to say it being of the X-Men universe will ease the discomfort somewhat. Mangold and the writers do play quite hard and fast with the canon of the story arc the movie is based on, which may annoy the hardcore Marvel and X-Men fans, but otherwise there’s really nothing glaringly out of place with the plot. X-Men fans would be particularly pleased with the coda just after the first segment of the end credits, which alludes to the already-announced X-Men: Days of Future Past, coming our way summer of 2014.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Before Midnight

Genre: Drama

Director: Richard Linklater

Writers: Richard Linklater & Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Running Length: 109 minutes

Synopsis: In Before Midnight, we meet Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) 9 years on. Almost 2 decades have passed since that first meeting on a train bound for Vienna, and we now find them in their early 40’s in Greece. Before the clock strikes midnight, we will again become part of their story.

Review: It’s rare for a movie these days to be entirely about dialogue, but Richard Linklater’s sequel to the well-loved Before Sunrise and Before Sunset movies is exactly that. Yes, this is about as much of a “talkie” as one can get, but when the dialogue is of such high quality it’s impossible to fault. Before Midnight bucks the increasingly popular trend of dumbing down movies for the largest possible mass audience, and yet remains such a pleasure to watch that audiences who are mentally prepared for the movie would find themselves richly rewarded.

A caveat: although Before Midnight can be viewed as a standalone movie, much of the context would be lost if one has not watched Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, so much so that it should almost be a prerequisite. Having gotten that out of the way, for viewers who are familiar with Jesse and Celine, this movie answers the “what if?” definitively – the two have become an item, and in the time the audience have spent apart from them, they have also become parents to a pair of twins. While it was all magical romance in the previous instalments, Before Midnight takes the duo in a slightly different direction. Interactions between the couple are now tinged with more real world weariness and bitterness, although it’s still clear that love remains between the two.

The truly impressive feat about Before Midnight is how real it all feels. There are moments in Before Midnight where it almost doesn’t feel like a scripted movie at all, and there’s a distinct sense of deja vu because all of it feels so familiar and so true to real life. The centrepiece in the latter part of the film is an argument between Jesse and Celine, and I dare say anyone who’s attached or married would find that scene eerily close to at least one occasion that they would have experienced themselves.  The first half of the film also features a dinner table conversation amongst friends that would possibly rank as the most memorable and impressive dramatic set piece this year. It may all seem prosaic at first, but the way that scene builds and builds (and its eventual conclusion) is simply remarkable writing and filmmaking.

Linklater never allows anything to overtake the interaction between the couple, with camerawork (and even the soundtrack) kept to a very simplistic level. Together with the fact that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are both intimately acquainted with their respective characters (they are also credited as co-writers in this instalment, as they were in Before Sunset), it is little wonder that the level of verisimilitude is so high. It’s tempting to suggest that these characters are at least in part a reflection of the actors’ true selves, because it almost doesn’t feel like they are inhabiting a character at times.

While the previous films have been left relatively open-ended, the denouement of Before Midnight feels more definite. There seems to be little wiggle room and does seem to close off the possibility of another sequel, but when the level of enjoyment one can obtain from the trifecta, it would be a pleasure either way. It’s hard to imagine any other movie being able to reach such dramatic perfection this year.

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


Pacific Rim * * * 1/2

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Writers: Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Max Martini, Ron Perlman

Running Length: 131 minutes

Synopsis: When legions of monstrous creatures, known as Kaiju, started rising from the sea, a war began that would take millions of lives and consume humanity’s resources for years on end. To combat the giant Kaiju, a special type of weapon was devised: massive robots, called Jaegers, which are controlled simultaneously by two pilots whose minds are locked in a neural bridge. But even the Jaegers are proving nearly defenseless in the face of the relentless Kaiju.

On the verge of defeat, the forces defending mankind have no choice but to turn to two unlikely heroes – a washed up former pilot (Charlie Hunnam) and an untested trainee (Rinko Kikuchi) – who are teamed to drive a legendary but seemingly obsolete Jaeger from the past. Together, they stand as mankind’s last hope against the mounting apocalypse.

Review: Pacific Rim is what the Transformers film should have been – it’s a behemoth of an effects movie, loud and brash and all guns blazing from the word go, but doesn’t eschew a proper storyline in exchange for CG effects and action sequences. Guillermo Del Toro has crafted a very impressive film here – minus some bad science and logic, this is about as entertaining as the monsters versus giant robots sub genre gets.

It’s clear that the film is targeted mainly at teenaged boys (just like Transformers), and so the proceedings remain very chaste throughout – there’s very little true violence and bloodshed (barring kaiju blood, but it’s about as gruesome as an ad for diapers, blue liquid and all), and virtually zero sexual chemistry between the two leads. The focus is really on the mecha and the monsters, which fortunately are rendered very well. Action sequences are cleanly shot, with none of the confusion that plagued all the Transformers movies, and the film is pretty evenly paced with little downtime.

Pacific Rim is also a rare action film which successfully balances the OTT action sequences with exposition, which allows audiences to feel more vested in the proceedings. There’s also immense attention paid to the finer details of the universe that Pacific Rim is set in – for example, Jaegers each have their own unique look and feel, and it’s readily apparent that a lot of painstaking work was put into making the Shatterdome and other environments look just right. Unlike Transformers and the ilk, there’s no lazy filmmaking to be found in Pacific Rim. This is also a film in which paying for a third dimension doesn’t feel like a pure money grab – the action sequences felt enhanced and even more visceral when viewed in (IMAX) 3D.

That’s not to say that the film is without issues – apart from the junky science (apparent even to a layperson like me), one of the biggest problems the movie has is with the choice of its main lead. Although Charlie Hunnam bears the looks and build of an all-American hero, his thespian skills leave much to be desired, and some of his line delivery is so poor it’s almost comical. To be fair, the rest of the cast is perfectly serviceable (Rinko Kikuchi and Mana Ashida, the child actress playing the younger version of Mako, are the most memorable), and the one scene where Raleigh and Mako face off in physical combat is flirtatious fun.   

Guillermo del Toro has not attempted a project of this size prior, but he has now shown that tackling a big summer blockbuster is not out of the question for him. Pacific Rim borders on being a guilty pleasure – it is hugely enjoyable with the standard trappings of an action film, and yet delves just enough beyond the superficial that it doesn’t become featureless, mindless action tedium. The final title card in the end credits pay tribute to Ray Harryhausen (master of stop motion animation films like the original Clash of the Titans) and Ishiro Honda (the director of Godzilla – the original film, not the pale Hollywood remake), and the film indeed is a shining example of how Harryhausen and Honda’s films would look like if made with the trappings of 21st Century technology and modern sensibilities.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)


After Earth * 1/2

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Writers: Gary Whitta and M. Night Shyamalan, based on a story by Will Smith

Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith

Running Length: 100 minutes

Synopsis: A crash landing leaves teenager Kitai Raige (Jaden Smith) and his legendary father Cypher (Will Smith) stranded on Earth, 1,000 years after cataclysmic events forced humanity’s escape. With Cypher critically injured, Kitai must embark on a perilous journey to signal for help, facing uncharted terrain, evolved animal species that now rule the planet, and an unstoppable alien creature that escaped during the crash. Father and son must learn to work together and trust one another if they want any chance of returning home.

Review: It’s quite obvious that Will Smith had designed After Earth to be a star vehicle for his son Jaden – after all, he wrote the story the screenplay was based on, and produced this movie together with his wife Jada. Unfortunately, it would seem that the payoff he would be getting out of the movie is likely going to be inadequate – there are so many misfires in After Earth it’s actually hard to pinpoint which is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Suffice to say that if it’s true that Will Smith had intended the movie as the first of a trilogy, he’s going to have a really hard time making the next two films.

It’s not that After Earth is a bad movie, more that it is an ill-conceived one. Ostensibly a coming of age sci-fi flick that also features major father-son bonding, the fact that the two protagonists are separated for a large part of the film makes it nearly impossible for audiences to get a sense of any kinship between the two. This is not aided by the fact that Will Smith essentially spends the movie sitting in a chair, and Jaden’s perfunctory acting skills are not good enough for him to carry lengths of the movie on his own. In fact, there are times where the CGI and the set design (which are both genuinely well done) manage to make more of an impression than Jaden’s stilted performance.

This is exacerbated by the total lack of suspense – since Kitai is honestly the only actively moving actor in the movie, there’s never a true sense of danger even when Kitai gets into trouble. There’s never doubt that he would make it through the ordeal, so even if the character is placed in a situation that seems to lead to impending doom, his continued survival is the only outcome that would make any sense. This predictability greatly detracts from the viewing experience, resulting in a film that seems to drag even though it has a relatively short running time of under two hours.

M. Night Shyamalan has fallen so far from grace that the film has been marketed largely without his name on it, and After Earth would not be the movie that would pull him out from his downward spiral. There are no third-act twists in this film, but it may actually have fared better if there were one (and this is coming from someone who grew very tired of Shyamalan’s plot twists). It would at least have made the proceedings more interesting to sit through.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)


The Hangover Part III * * *

Genre: Comedy

Director: Todd Philips

Writers: Todd Philips and Craig Mazin

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Zach Galiafinakis, Ed Helms, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, John Goodnman

Running Length: 100 minutes

Synopsis: In the supposed finale of The Hangover trilogy, there are no weddings and no bachelor parties – but when the Wolf Pack hits the road, all bets are off.

Review: There is little that needs to be said of The Hangover Part III if you have watched the previous two instalments – it’s once again about the Wolf Pack (Bradley Cooper, Zach Galiafinakis, Ed Helms and Justin Bartha) on the road, this time at the bidding of a thug (John Goodman), and its ensuing hijinks. Ken Jeong’s Mr Chow also takes on a leading role this time, with the addition of a memorable cameo from a (increasingly) well-known comedienne. Though much of the shtick is tired and old-hat, The Hangover Part III feels more like a proper sequel to the first movie, as the second movie was merely a facsimile of The Hangover set in a more exotic locale. It’s also a somewhat befitting swan song to the series, if this is truly the end as advertised widely in the film’s marketing campaign.

The Hangover Part III drops the dramatic setup of a drugs- and/or alcohol-fuelled amnesia, and instead presents itself more as a caper movie in the likes of the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. The film is quite dark as a result, which is surprising because the film is marketed as a straight up comedy, and there are more deaths (both human and animal) in this film than in some actual caper movies. While this is largely fine, it does make for an uneasy marriage with the Hangover franchise, and it’s clear in some sequences that Todd Philips was also struggling with the mix. Essentially, it’s almost impossible to kill someone off in a movie and still expect audiences to laugh at the act.

Both Ken Jeong’s Mr Chow and Zach Galiafinakis’ Alan are characters that are entertaining in short bursts; increasing their onscreen presence in The Hangover Part III is thus a double-edged sword: while some of these sequences are funny, these two characters are generally unlikeable and start to grate after a while. Although a female cameo is introduced as Alan’s potential love interest to soften the impact, the film still suffers from this shift in spotlights. Yet, it cannot be denied that there are bright sparks in the film, and for audiences who just want to switch their brains off at the door and enjoy a silly comedy will find themselves capably entertained. I don’t quite believe that this is the end of the series, especially with the mid-credits sequence, but at the same time I cannot really imagine sitting through another Hangover movie. It’s high time to bid farewell to the Wolf Pack, and hopefully the producers will look past the greenbacks and recognize this fact.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


The Great Gatsby * * 1/2

Genre: Drama

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Writers: Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce, based on the novel of the same name by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher

Running Length: 143 minutes

Synopsis: The Great Gatsby follows Fitzgerald-like, would-be writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he moves to New York City and takes up residence next door to a mysterious, party-giving millionaire, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), and across the bay from his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), and her philandering, blue-blooded husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Nick is drawn into the captivating world of the super rich, their illusions, loves and deceits.

Review: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is widely regarded as one of the most important American novels of the 20th Century, and largely considered unfilmable, with previous attempts not really hitting the mark. Unfortunately, despite being a very beautiful movie, Baz Luhrmann’s attempt is also a misfire, falling into a rare category of film where its parts are greater than its sum total.

If you’re looking for a visual spectacle, The Great Gatsby delivers in spadefuls in its first reels. In true Baz Luhrmann tradition, the party sequence is visually dazzling, and the use of 3D makes the entire experience feel even more surreal. The beautiful costumes (designed by the houses of Prada and Brooks Brothers), gorgeous jewellery (by none other than Tiffany & Co) and excellent set design and art direction makes the viewing experience an opulent, decadent and highly enjoyable one, reminiscent of the visual excess of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge.

However, once the visual novelty wears out, there is very little to keep the viewer vested. Although the performances are mostly adequate (save Tobey Maguire’s terribly, terribly bland portrayal as Nick Carraway), none of the characters will be easy for audiences to identify with as they are essentially all flawed beings. Leonardo DiCaprio performs admirably as Gatsby, despite being forced (mystifyingly) to punctuate almost every sentence with “old sport”, and Carey Mulligan impresses in her small number of scenes, but many of the peripheral characters are nothing more than window dressing.

The pacing of the film is also very uneven, with parts of the movie being glacially deliberate and extremely out of step with the more exuberant sequences. The Great Gatsby would have benefited immeasurably with a more judicious edit and tighter running time. Luhrmann is respectful of the source novel, even quoting passages verbatim, but at times this just makes the film feel like an inferior knockoff of Luhrmann’s own Romeo + Juliet.

And, perhaps most surprisingly for a Baz Luhrmann film, even the visuals outlive their welcome. The 3D which was used to great effect in the first hour seems to have been forgotten in the second hour, and other than some terribly amateurish floating narrative text peppering the flashback sequences, there’s really nothing that makes 3D viewing experience significantly improved from the 2D one.

Baz Luhrmann should be given credit for attempting a project as difficult as The Great Gatsby, and there certainly are glimpses of genius in the way he approached the source material. However, this is a film that’s mired by a large number of small imperfections, frustratingly close to greatness yet falling short. It functions well as counter-programming to the summer blockbuster season, but isn’t exactly the breath of fresh air I was hoping to get from the film.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Star Trek: Into Darkness * * * 1/2

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: J.J. Abrams

Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho

Running Length: 133 minutes

Synopsis: When the crew of the Enterprise is called back home, they find an unstoppable force of terror from within their own organization has detonated the fleet and everything it stands for, leaving their world in a state of crisis. With a personal score to settle, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) leads a manhunt to a war-zone world to capture a one man weapon of mass destruction.

Review: With the series reboot in 2009, Star Trek is no longer a movie franchise that solely appeals to a niche “Trekkie” audience. J. J. Abrams had made Star Trek cool and mainstream, and many people will walk into Star Trek: Into Darkness, four years later, with raised expectations (myself included). The good news is that Into Darkness manages to outdo its predecessor(s), raising the bar yet again for the Star Trek franchise. Into Darkness has something for fans of many genres – sci-fi, action, even drama, and although it has once again taken liberties with the “established” Star Trek canon, there’s very little to complain about otherwise.

A caveat: now that it’s the second movie post reboot, audiences will need to have watched the first movie in order to make sense of the interpersonal relationships aboard the starship Enterprise, as there is very little exposition in the film to cast more light on the Enterprise crew list. That does free up the narrative of Into Darkness, and instead of cast introductions, the film kicks off straight in the deep of a really fun, slightly implausible action sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The original cast are back for the sequel, and as a whole the performances are more than adequate, with even the usually subpar Chris Pine having a few memorable moments. However, all performances pale to Benedict Cumberbatch’s tour de force turn as the central villain of the movie, and a mid-movie reveal will leave Trekkies gasping for breath (either in horror or in appreciation of the way Abrams has paid homage to the Trek films of yore). The intensity of Cumberbatch’s performance is astounding, and manages to outdo Eric Bana’s banal villain (pun unintended) in the first film many times over.

Into Darkness is yet another post-processed 3D film, which means that there’s really very little reason to view it in 3D. Save for a couple of scenes which displays reasonable three dimensionality, there’s no significant value-add shelling out the extra money for a 3D screening.

The screenplay has almost everything in it save the kitchen sink, deftly switching from action to comedy to character drama, and managing to pull off most of it with aplomb. The only flaw is in the film’s final reel, which feels like an unnecessary addition after what was ostensibly a climactic finale. The film thus ends on a whisper instead of a bang, but even this irregularity doesn’t detract too much from the enjoyment of the movie as a whole. And that’s essentially the reason why Into Darkness is a successful film – it manages to consistently entertain, and yet boasts a depth that is not commonly seen in summer blockbusters.

Unfortunately, with directorial duties for Star Wars looming, it is unlikely that J. J. Abrams will be behind the camera for the next Star Trek installment. However, he has laid such excellent groundwork for the franchise to continue, that it would take a large amount of ineptitude for the next director to screw it up.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)


Iron Man 3 * * *

Genre: Action

Director: Shane Black

Writers: Shane Black, Drew Pearce

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Guy Pearce, Ben Kingsley, Rebecca Hall

Running Length: 131 minutes

Synopsis: Marvel Studios’ Iron Man 3 pits brash-but-brilliant industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) against an enemy whose reach knows no bounds. When Stark finds his personal world destroyed at his enemy’s hands, he embarks on a harrowing quest to find those responsible. This journey, at every turn, will test his mettle.

With his back against the wall, Stark is left to survive by his own devices, relying on his ingenuity and instincts to protect those closest to him. As he fights his way back, Stark discovers the answer to the question that has secretly haunted him: does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man?

Review: Now that Iron Man is a firmly established franchise together with the Avengers, it’s hard to feel any surprise about this third installment of Iron Man. Whilst no one can be accused of dialing in their performances (which are in fact quite good given the genre), there’s this overall sense of not really trying too hard with this film. The requisite action sequences are in place, as well as Robert Downey Jr’s by-now trademark wisecracking take on Tony Stark/Iron Man, but the change of directors to Shane Black brings nothing new to the table. Not that change is a necessity, but since this should be the swansong for the Iron Man franchise, I had truly expected the trilogy to end on a higher note.

This is essentially the darkest Iron Man film to date, focusing on the more intimate aspects of the Iron Man universe – Stark’s inability to cope with the events that unfolded in The Avengers, his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and his personal vendetta against the terrorist figure known only as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Robert Downey Jr. actually spends a fair amount of time outside the suit, and apart from a lengthy, overly cheesy and somewhat unnecessary “buddy movie” sequence with a young boy, his performance as a superhero is impressive and only a distant second from Christian Bale’s incomparable turn as the Dark Knight. Ben Kingsley is the most seasoned actor amongst the cast, and despite a limited number of scenes, easily steals the limelight from everyone else, Downey Jr. included.

Action set pieces are on the whole quite well done, especially the scene involving Air Force One, but my personal opinion is that the climactic showdown in the final reel is a letdown. Having a whole bunch of Iron Man suits fighting the villain’s henchmen makes it look like a scaled down version of Transformers, and honestly the entire denouement fails to make much sense on most levels. The finale also attempts to inject some emotionality to the proceedings but it’s not a very successful attempt (as compared to, for example, the final sequence in The Dark Knight Rises).

This is the first Iron Man film to be in 3D, but like many conversions to 3D, it is not necessary to watch the film in the third dimension. There’s very little depth to the picture, and 3D actually makes the image muddy and causes a lot of strain to the eyes. Having caught the film once each in 3D and 2D, I can safely say the viewing experience is far better in 2D.

Iron Man 3 is a perfectly fine start to the summer blockbuster season for 2013, and only the fussiest moviegoers will walk out of the cinema not feeling entertained. It is unlikely we will see Iron Man as a standalone feature moving forward, but Tony Stark’s appearance in related franchises (next up in Avengers 2) should leave fans satiated.

P.S There is a post credits sequence which is quite amusing but inconsequential – whether it’s worth sitting through the ten minute credits crawl is of course, a personal choice.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)