Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: James Gunn

Writers: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, based on the Marvel comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro, Laura Haddock

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: An action-packed, epic space adventure, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe into the cosmos, where brash adventurer Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) finds himself the object of an unrelenting bounty hunt after stealing a mysterious orb coveted by Ronan (Lee Pace), a powerful villain with ambitions that threaten the entire universe. To evade the ever-persistent Ronan, Quill is forced into an uneasy truce with a quartet of disparate misfits-Rocket (Bradley Cooper), a gun-toting raccoon, Groot (Vin Diesel), a tree-like humanoid, the deadly and enigmatic Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and the revenge-driven Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista). But when Quill discovers the true power of the orb and the menace it poses to the cosmos, he must do his best to rally his ragtag rivals for a last, desperate stand-with the galaxy’s fate in the balance.

Review: This is going to sound like hyperbole, but Guardians of the Galaxy is probably one of the best comedies I’ve seen in years, the most entertaining Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet, and definitely the most fun movie I’ve managed to watch this Summer. Is it perfect? Nope, but it is almost impossible to harbour any ill will against an action blockbuster that’s this entertaining and so full of heart. That it comes with an amazing 1970s soundtrack is just the cherry on top – as we all already know from X-Men: Days of Future Past, 70s songs tend to make superhero films better.

Perhaps it’s because Guardians of the Galaxy is such an obscure part of the Marvel canon, that director James Gunn and co-writer Nicole Perlman have a freedom that not many other directors and scribes involved in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are allowed. That sense of irreverence is what makes Guardians of the Galaxy such a pleasure to watch – this is what the MCU is like after-hours, kicking back on the recliner with a Bud Light in hand. I am willing to bet that even the most seasoned moviegoers will find themselves surprised by some of the plot turns in the film, because the film is not afraid to confound expectations unlike the usual “serious” superhero movies.

Yet, what makes Guardians of the Galaxy extra special is that despite the humour and the zaniness, this is a movie with a lot of heart. Even in the confines of an action movie, the main characters are fully developed – yes, even Groot, who is about two levels above being monosyllabic – and very relatable to the audience. These are not inaccessible superheroes, billionaires or gods, but a bunch of adventurers who have less than noble motives, and are all damaged in their own ways. This organic emotional vulnerability (versus say, Superman’s weakness to kryptonite) is refreshing and adds a dimensionality to the movie that is rarely seen in other movies in the same genre.

I must admit I had doubts when Chris Pratt was cast in the lead role of Guardians of the Galaxy – he’s been a dependable costar both in films and on TV, but is he able to shoulder the lead role of a multimillion dollar action blockbuster? My doubts are totally unfounded, as Chris Pratt is a perfect fit for the role. Not only did he buff up for the role (Pratt can justifiably be called hot now), his perfect comic timing is actually critical for the movie’s success. In fact, his performance here reminds me of Harrison Ford’s two iconic roles as Han Solo and Indiana Jones. While Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista are both serviceable complements, what’s truly impressive is that the two animated characters of Rocket and Groot are not only voiced perfectly by Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel, they actually carry as much thespian weight as the other live action characters. All five lead characters share great onscreen chemistry, and any combination of the five works well, which is truly a rarity. It’s also a testament to the advance of CG imagery that they manage to integrate so well into the proceedings. The villains don’t fare as well, however, and everyone from Lee Pace to Karen Gillan to Josh Brolin are unmemorable and merely serve to advance the plot along.

The film is also very capable in its other technical aspects. Production design and art direction is excellent, with brand new worlds that are vibrant and meticulously built, with great attention to detail. For once, watching the movie in 3D also seems to be a worthy investment and not an unnecessary expense. It also lives up to its name as an action blockbuster, with a number of well-choreographed, well-animated space dog fights as well as close quarter battles that get the adrenalin flowing.

Personally, despite a Summer season with a good number of quality superhero movies, Guardians of the Galaxy ranks as number one for me. Although the MCU output so far has had relatively few clunkers, Guardians of the Galaxy still stands out as being such a unique and special entity that gets so many things right, that I’m inclined to also say that this is the best MCU movie to date. There does seem to be a surfeit of unresolved plotlines, but given that the sequel is already greenlit, it’s not too major a concern. It’s going to be a long, long wait to July 2017 when we will finally be able to rejoin the Guardians on their next, hopefully equally zany and entertaining, adventure.

P.S If you thought that nothing could be more inane than The Avengers’ shawarma end credits coda, well, stay around for the coda to this one. One only hopes that the character reference in the coda does not suggest a remake to what I feel was a TERRIBLE movie the first time round.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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The White Haired Witch of the Lunar Kingdom

Genre: Action, Romance, Drama

Director: Jacob Cheung

Writers: Kang Qiao, Wang Bing, Guo Jinle, Shi Heran, Zhu Yale

Cast: Fan Bingbing, Huang Xiaoming, Vincent Chao, Wang Xuebing

Running Length: 103 minutes

Synopsis: At the end of the Ming Dynasty, corruption is rife, a traitor is in power and the Jin army is threatening war. In the Northwest, famine is rife. Jade Raksha (Fan Bing Bing), a female pugilist thought of as evil throughout the empire, helps the victims of the famine by arresting and killing corrupt officials.

Meanwhile, the future successor of the Wudang Sect, Zhuo Yihang (Huang Xiaoming) is dispatched to Beijing to pay tribute to the emperor. He encounters Jade Raksha and sees that she is not the evil person she is rumored to be. Despite their differences, they begin to fall in love.

Review: Cinemagoers who are familiar with the source novel by Liang Yusheng will know that Ronny Yu’s iconic Bride with White Hair in 1993 did not do the novel any justice, and really the final product did not feel like a “proper” adaptation, more a wuxia film inspired by the novel. In this new 2014 incarnation, Jacob Cheung and his team of writers have managed to include a lot more of the novel and historical context into the film, but it is still a rather uneven effort.

The White Haired Witch of the Lunar Kingdom (what a mouthful!) runs a lean 103 minutes, but boy is it overstuffed, especially when it comes to the plot – incorporating political intrigue, a Romeo and Juliet-esque romance, a wuxia movie, and a half-baked “undercover cop” plot element in such a short amount of time is an unwise endeavour, since it just means everything is given short shrift.

The biggest problem to arise from this is that the central romance between Jade Raksha and Zhuo Yi Hang simply does not come across as being convincing, despite commendable thespian efforts from both Huang Xiaoming and Fan Bing Bing. Due to this lack of emotional heft, it is quite difficult to feel vested in either character, regardless of how hard the director tries. And tries he does, complete with an at-times overbearing score and a cheesy song segment that seems to have been transplanted intact from the early 90s wuxia films.

The film does have its merits, however, with impressive production design – the costumes (by the Oscar-winning Timmy Yip) in particular are quite well done, and the action choreography by Stephen Tung delivers, though annoyingly there are very few scenes in which the action is allowed to play out. While it may be a bit too emo and busy for its own good, The White Haired Witch of the Lunar Kingdom remains one of the better Chinese films I’ve seen this year to date, which says quite a bit about the state of the Chinese film industry these days.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Begin Again

Genre: Drama

Director: John Carney

Writer: John Carney

Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Catherine Keener, Ceelo Green

Running Length: 104 minutes

Synopsis: Gretta (Keira Knightley) and her long-time boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine) are college sweethearts and songwriting partners who decamp for New York when he lands a deal with a major label. But the trappings of his new-found fame soon tempt Dave to stray, and a reeling, lovelorn Gretta is left on her own. Her world takes a turn for the better when Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a disgraced record-label exec, stumbles upon her performing on an East Village stage and is immediately captivated by her raw talent. From this chance encounter emerges an enchanting portrait of a mutually transformative collaboration, set to the soundtrack of a summer in New York City.

Review: As the old saying goes, lightning doesn’t strike twice – John Carney’s breakout indie hit, Once, was an excellent motion picture that won the hearts of many audiences and critics back in 2007, and also spawned a multi-Tony Award winning musical – and true to this, Carney’s Begin Again doesn’t manage to reach the heights that Once did. It’s essentially a variation on the same theme that Once covered, except with bigger stars and higher production values, but when evaluated on its own merits, Begin Again is still a charming enough movie, featuring some really great songs and generally authentic performances from the main cast.

It can get a little too cheesy for its own good (an example would be the music-sharing sequence), but Begin Again comes across as being a bit more genuine than the typical Hollywood romantic comedy. Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley share a good onscreen chemistry, and the “will they or won’t they” romantic tension between the two doesn’t come across as feeling too forced. However, the film suffers when the focus shifts away from this pairing – Adam Levine and Catherine Keener’s characters simply aren’t as fleshed out, and these extraneous plot threads become distracting and make the film feel a little more unfocused. The biggest offender would be the inclusion of Ceelo Green playing Ceelo Green – not only is his flashback sequence edited rather confusingly, there seems to be no good reason for his presence except perhaps to increase the celebrity count of the film.

Much like Once, the songs in Begin Again play a very important role, perhaps more so than some of the actors. And in this aspect, the film has managed to deliver in spades. Gregg Alexander (of the New Radicals and the one hit wonder “You Get What You Give”) co-wrote the songs, and many of these songs are catchy, heartfelt and (surprise surprise) decently performed by Keira Knightley. Adam Levine of course does a bang up job as well, and his rendition of Lost Stars is exemplary. The music manages to imbue even some of the more mediocre moments of Begin Again with a magical touch, and in a season filled with mega-budget action blockbusters, one could not really ask for more from a small-ish film like this one.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Tammy

Genre: Comedy

Director: Ben Falcone

Writers: Ben Falcone, Melissa McCarthy

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Alison Janney, Gary Cole, Mark Duplass, Dan Akroyd, Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh, Toni Collette, Nat Faxon

Running Length: 96 minutes

Synopsis: Tammy (Melissa McCarthy) is having a bad day. She’s totaled her clunker car, gotten fired from her thankless job at a greasy burger joint, and instead of finding comfort at home, finds her husband getting comfortable with the neighbor in her own house. It’s time to take her boom box and book it. The bad news is she’s broke and without wheels. The worse news is her grandma, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), is her only option – with a car, cash, and an itch to see Niagara Falls. Not exactly the escape Tammy had in mind. But on the road, with grandma riding shotgun, it may be just what Tammy needs.

Review: Somewhere beneath the jumbled mess of Tammy is a good movie – there are scenes where the film feels warm and fuzzy, and there are a few funny, even laugh-out-loud moments. But so much of the film comes off as directionless and lackadaisical that for a short movie that clocks in under 100 minutes, Tammy feels like a protracted, joyless affair. What’s truly surprising is that the film is co-written by McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone, who also directed the movie, and yet this passion project (which took more than half a decade to come to fruition) seems so devoid of any real passion.

Tammy is essentially a road trip movie, and like all road trip movies the journey is usually more important than the destination. This is not the case, unfortunately, in Tammy – there’s very little actual travelling involved, and some of the stopovers make absolutely no sense. The most egregious example of this is the diversion to what seems like a lesbian compound, where a bunch of talented actresses (I’m looking at you, Kathy Bates and Sandra Oh) come together and basically collectively waste their talents doing nothing.

The biggest failing of Tammy, however, is that the McCarthy-Sarandon pairing does not work well – putting an insufficient age gap aside (Sarandon is just 67, 24 years apart from McCarthy’s 43), there is almost no chemistry between the two, and sparks just simply fail to fly even when the movie calls for it. That, and the lack of directorial skills from Falcone, who has absolutely no sense of timing or pacing – one wonders what the film could have been like in the hands of a more capable director.

It’s no surprise that Melissa McCarthy is not the problem here – she has excellent comic timing, and manages to flesh out a somewhat believable Tammy that’s not just a sad caricature of an overweight woman. However, even an excellent comedian like her has trouble with the material when it’s just not up to snuff, and in the end there are many more unsuccessful sequences in Tammy than successful ones. It’s not a stretch to say that the film is only watchable because of McCarthy’s considerable talents, and this is a film that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours, but whether these alone can justify a trip to the cinema would depend largely on one’s affections towards McCarthy’s style of comedy and acting.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Deliver us from Evil

Genre: Horror

Director: Scott Derrickson

Writers: Scott Derrickson, Paul Harris Boardman, based on the book Beware the Night by Ralph Sarchie and Lisa Collier Cool

Cast: Eric Bana, Edgar Ramirez, Olivia Munn, Chris Coy, Dorian Missick, Joel McHale

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: New York police officer Ralph Sarchie (Eric Bana), struggling with his own personal issues, begins investigating a series of disturbing and inexplicable crimes. He joins forces with an unconventional priest (Edgar Ramrez), schooled in the rituals of exorcism, to combat the frightening and demonic possessions that are terrorizing their city.

Review: The problem with movies about exorcism is that audience expectations are pretty much fixed, and there’s very little leeway for innovation or for a movie in the genre to feel fresh. However, one does not need to reinvent the wheel in order to deliver the goods, as exemplified by the excellent, old-school The Conjuring in 2013. While Deliver Us from Evil is a couple of rungs below The Conjuring, it does manage to deliver most of the goods. However, possibly in its efforts to not seem overly run of the mill, Deliver Us from Evil also incorporates a familial drama and a buddy cop setup, both of which do not fare as well as the horror and police procedural elements.

Eric Bana is a dependable actor and even though the material here isn’t the most challenging, his performance as Sarchie is perfectly acceptable. Edgar Ramirez is rather wasted in his role as the unconventional priest, which provides too little characterization to make him a believable character, and he ends up being essentially a generic caricature of a “maverick exorcist movie priest”. Joel McHale is an odd choice as Sarchie’s buddy cop, and once again because his character is so thinly written, the wiseass police officer ends up feeling like Joel McHale being himself, in between episodes of The Soup and Community. It could have been an inspired casting choice but the pairing just doesn’t work very well. The same can be said of Olivia Munn, who is given the thankless, dimensionless role of being the troubled sergeant’s wife.

I would have expected better from Scott Derrickson, who directed the far more disturbing Sinister and also The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but the scares for the first part of the film falls squarely into the “unexpected loud noises” and “animals jumping out from hidden places” categories. The second half fares better, but the exorcism sequence is about as run of the mill as it gets, almost as though Derrickson had a list in hand and checked off every clichéd sequence of every exorcism movie in cinematic history. I also have some issues with the cinematography, which is consistently dark and murky – understandable since Sarchie is a cop on the midnight beat, but surely some scenes could have had some additional sources of light apart from torch lights.

For a movie that’s purportedly based on a true story, much of Deliver Us from Evil feels too fantastical (yes, even for a movie about exorcism) to be grounded in reality. It also leaves several subplots unresolved and unexplained at the end, which can be frustrating since there’s obviously not going to be a sequel. However, it’s a decent horror film with reasonable production values, and the police procedural aspect is actually quite watchable, which is more than can be said of many horror films in recent years.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Transformers: Age of Extinction

Genre: Action

Director: Michael Bay

Writer: Ehren Kruger, based on Hasbro’s Transformers action figures

Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Sophia Myles, Li Bingbing, Titus Welliver, T.J. Miller

Running Length: 165 minutes

Synopsis: A mechanic and his daughter make a discovery that brings down Autobots and Decepticons – and a paranoid government official – on them.

Review: By the end of a very trying 165 minutes, the only thoughts of extinction I had in my mind were the (futile) ones about the franchise itself. Despite a reboot with a brand new cast of humans, Age of Extinction is essentially a showcase of all the worst possible traits of a Michael Bay action blockbuster – it’s hopelessly self-indulgent, totally devoid of any depth or character development, and features explosion upon explosion upon explosion (Michael Bay is not joking when he says he loves to blow shit up) way past the point of tedium. Add to that a complete disregard of subtlety with its scores of product placements (just imagine Jack Neo given the reins of a Hollywood blockbuster) and the fact that this is the first installment for another planned trilogy, it’s difficult for me to muster up anything positive to say about the movie at all. The irony is that the film is a criticism-proof one, sure to net massive box office no matter what anyone says about it, especially since every other summer blockbuster giving the film a very wide berth.

Ehren Kruger once again returns as the scribe for Age of Extinction, but the screenplay practically writes itself, given that it’s really no different from all the Transformers movies before it. Despite this, somehow Age of Extinction is the longest-running Transformers movie yet (oh how I tremble at using the word “yet” – as if there’s a potential that the next two movies could run even longer than the current marathon length), though “only” by an extra ten minutes. Much like the previous Transformers, there’s still no reason for Age of Extinction to run this long – it’s a bloated behemoth of a movie that would really have worked far, far better if it was shaved down to about 90 minutes, but it wouldn’t be a Michael Bay movie if not for excess, would it?

Although the action is much clearer this time round, further improving upon Dark of the Moon, it is also mind-numbing to sit through a seemingly infinite number of action sequences, and because the audience is never vested in the outcome due to the paucity of plot, none of it actually feels like it matters in any way. That being said, the editing of the film still leaves a lot to be desired, and Bay’s signature style of rapid-fire editing becomes increasingly annoying the longer the film unspools.

In an attempt (I presume) to stir things up visually, and also obviously because Chinese money is being invested in the franchise, the finale moves the action to China and Hong Kong, but with the final confrontation running almost an hour long, the catatonia sets in long before the end credits had rolled. The change in location does not make any part of the movie feel fresh in any way, and the same tired movie tropes are paraded in front of the audience. The much-vaunted appearance of the Dinobots is woefully short and inconsequential, with the new robots being nothing more than a ride for the existing Autobots. I honestly can’t imagine any fanboys of the Dinobots feeling sated by their existence in the movie.

The entire human cast of the first trilogy has been jettisoned, and the replacement cast is indeed better (Mark Wahlberg is a far more agreeable presence than Shia LaBeouf), but with such a bare-bones script (and frequently laughable dialogue), there’s simply not much the cast could do to rescue the movie. The only actor to make any impression is Stanley Tucci, and that’s really only because he’s playing a broad caricature of Steve Jobs and gets all the funny lines in the script. I did, however, appreciate the fact that Li Bingbing was given a whole lot more to do than Fan Bingbing in X-Men: Days of Future Past. There’s no doubt that financially, Age of Extinction will make a ton of money, ensuring that the next movie will not be far away, but given the terrible state of affairs for this current film, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than action junkies and Transformers fans feeling enthused about another future episode of this mechanical, soulless franchise.

Rating: * (out of four stars)

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22 Jump Street

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Genre: Action, Comedy

Directors: Phil Lord, Christopher Miller

Writers: Michael Bacall, Oren Uziel, Rodney Rothman, based on the television series “21 Jump Street” created by Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell.

Cast: Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Peter Stormare, Wyatt Russell, Amber Stevens, Jillian Bell, Ice Cube, Keith Lucas, Kenny Lucas

Running Length: 111 minutes

Synopsis: After making their way through high school (twice), big changes are in store for officers Schmidt (Jonah Hill) and Jenko (Channing Tatum) when they go deep undercover at a local college. But when Jenko meets a kindred spirit on the football team, and Schmidt infiltrates the bohemian art major scene, they begin to question their partnership. Now they don’t have to just crack the case – they have to figure out if they can have a mature relationship. If these two overgrown adolescents can grow from freshmen into real men, college might be the best thing that ever happened to them.

Review: The box office success of 21 Jump Street all but ensured a sequel would happen, and just two years down the road Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (who seem to be able to do no wrong in their directing career thus far) are back with 22 Jump Street. This is a sequel that nudges and winks constantly at all the stale conventions of sequels, and it relentless lampoons all these conventions, making it one of the most self-aware sequels I have ever seen.

Nothing is spared – it understands that almost all sequels are inferior retreads to the originals, turns the “meet cute” scenario on its head, pokes fun at the increasingly ridiculous action setpieces in movies these days, and brings bromance to its most extreme, Brokeback Mountain-esque incarnation. Not everything works, but there definitely are enough moments in 22 Jump Street to justify its existence.

Nothing has changed from 21 Jump Street in this sequel, and the premise is identical – the two cops have to infiltrate a learning institution to find the source of a new designer drug. It’s moved from high school to college, and there’s a tacked on spring break segment (easily the weakest link in the movie), but despite the change in address the same positives and negatives that the first movie had is also intact here. The movie is still hit-and-miss when it comes to the comedy (but when it’s funny it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious), the running time is still a bit too long, and the central story really isn’t all that interesting.

Yet somehow the movie works, sometimes even better than the first. The chemistry between Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill has become more assured, which is even more important this time round because of the focus on their bromance. Ice Cube continues playing the best “angry black Captain” in recent memory, and manages to steal the limelight every time he appears on screen. It’s probably a good thing that he has limited screentime, or he would have probably stolen the entire show from the main leads. Ice Cube is also key to what’s probably the best scene in the movie – his reaction to a revelation – and it is an absolutely priceless sequence, almost worth the price of entry on its own. While 22 Jump Street is unlikely to forge new fans of the franchise, moviegoers who appreciated the first movie would definitely find things to like about this sequel, uneven as it may be.

P.S. The distributor has requested not to discuss an element of the movie, so I can only cryptically mention that there is a rather well executed sequence, but one must be patient in order to see it in its entirety.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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