Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Gareth Edwards

Screenplay: Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Ben Mendelsohn, Forest Whitaker, Riz Ahmed, Mads Mikkelsen, Jimmy Smits, Alistair Petrie, Genevieve O’Reilly, Beau Gadson, Dolly Gadson

Running Length:  133 minutes

Synopsis: From Lucasfilm comes the first of the Star Wars standalone films, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” an all-new epic adventure. In a time of conflict, a group of unlikely heroes band together on a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ultimate weapon of destruction. This key event in the Star Wars timeline brings together ordinary people who choose to do extraordinary things, and in doing so, become part of something greater than themselves.

Review: As the first “non-Episodic” movie in the Star Wars cinematic universe, Rogue One is a triumph – although it caters mostly to the (rabid) Star Wars fanbase, there is enough on display here that would please anyone who is a fan of space operas (and to an extent, war movies). Harkening back to the original trilogy, and yet a couple of shades darker, Rogue One can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any of the canonic Episodes on almost every level. This is great news especially for fans, since it means that the Star Wars cinematic universe is set to expand far beyond what George Lucas had achieved with his six films.

Rogue One is far from being a perfect movie – it starts off slowly, and the amount of exposition in the first hour threatens to bog the film down multiple times. Thankfully, once the heavy exposition gets out of the way, and the audience is reintroduced to the menace of Darth Vader, Rogue One does kick into high gear and delivers the payload. No spoilers here, but suffice to say the most iconic Darth Vader sequence in Star Wars now resides in Rogue One (yes, even more so than “I am your father”, though that scene is far more ingrained in pop culture).

Rogue One once again has a strong female protagonist in Jyn Ersa, and Felicity Jones puts in an excellent performance, being able to emote and kick ass with aplomb. However, Diego Luna doesn’t manage to match Jones’ performance, and there’s a distinct lack of chemistry between the two – just as well that the film does not really try to force a romance. Donnie Yen does good work as the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe, though it does seem at times that he’s merely reprising his most iconic role of Ip Man in a different setting. His presence, together with Jiang Wen as Baze Malbus, will almost certainly ensure very healthy box office takings in China.

Mirroring The Force Awakens, however, the most memorable character in Rogue One is a non-human – K-2SO, voiced flawlessly by Alan Tudyk. K-2 not only has some of the best lines in the show, but is one of the few sources of levity in a film that is almost relentlessly grim, though not annoyingly so like C-3PO.

Special effects are employed sparingly in the action sequences, resulting in an organic, old-school feel to many of the scenes (the aerial dogfights in particular), but the CGI is top-notch when used. Much of the ground assault sequences feel equally at home in a war movie, and the stakes of the fight between the rebels and the Imperial Army have never been as personal and high as presented in Rogue One.

An interesting point of note is that the most impressive special effect isn’t in the “big” scenes, but the digital sleight of hand that was employed to bring Peter Cushing back to “life” as Grand Moff Tarkin, despite him being dead for 22 years. One can only imagine the amount of work that was required to recreate Cushing’s likeness (using a stand-in actor, a voice actor and CG) in such a convincing manner.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Rogue One is one of the most anticipated movies of 2016. Fortunately, it has managed to deliver, and has even stirred a desire in me to rewatch the original trilogy once again. While it bears the moniker of a “Star Wars Story”, Rogue One should more accurately be called Episode 3.5, because it dovetails so perfectly into the opening of A New Hope. Ranked amongst the two films since J. J. Abrams’ reboot last year, Rogue One actually ends up a notch above The Force Awakens, especially in terms of rewatchability.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Underworld: Blood Wars

Genre: Action

Director: Anna Foerster

Screenplay: Cory Goodman

Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Lara Pulver, Bradley James, Tobias Menzies

Running Length:  92 minutes

Synopsis: The next installment in the Underworld franchise follows vampire death dealer, Selene (Kate Beckinsale) as she fends off brutal attacks from both the lycan clan and the vampire faction that betrayed her. With her only allies, David (Theo James) and his father Thomas (Charles Dance), she must stop the eternal war between lycans and vampires, even if it means she has to make the ultimate sacrifice.

Review: The seemingly ageless Kate Beckinsale reprises her role as vampire assassin Selene for a fifth time in Underworld: Blood Wars, and while she looks none the worse for wear, the same cannot be said of the Underworld franchise. Most audiences would have ceased to care about what happens between the vampires and the lycans, and Blood Wars would not make anyone sit up and take notice either.

Although the film is clearly targeted at existing fans of the franchise, new director to the series Anna Foerster (also the series’ first female director) puts in a fair number of flashback sequences to help the uninitiated along. However, these flashbacks actually drag the film out much more than they should, and the film sags under the weight of unnecessary exposition – after all, everyone is here for Selene and the action sequences, and the plot is really more of an afterthought. Even so, some of the writing in Blood Wars is laughably bad, especially anything that involves the hokey albino vampire coven that looks literally ripped out of Game of Thrones.

Unfortunately, even the action sequences do not do the franchise much justice. It’s very clear that Blood Wars was made with a smaller (much smaller) budget, but even basic wirework looks and feels clumsily executed. CGI looks clunky and unpolished as well, often so poorly executed that the film would have done better with less.

That the film ends abruptly without any real resolution and clearly signals a sixth film (which Beckinsale has already signed up for) is just adding salt to the wound. The mystery around Selene’s (now missing) daughter remains almost entirely unresolved, and Selene’s only character development is unbelievably limited to frosted hair tips and a new fur coat. Even for fans, Blood Wars is a tough sell.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Genre: Fantasy

Director: David Yates

Screenplay: J.K. Rowling

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell

Running Length:  133 minutes

Synopsis: Based on a textbook Harry Potter reads while at Hogwarts, this first film in a new prequel franchise of the Harry Potter universe is set in New York during the 1920s, and follows the adventures of Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) as he makes his way through a secret wizarding community in search of magical creatures.

Review: 5 years has passed since the eighth and “final” movie in the Harry Potter universe made it to the big screens, but there really was no doubt that the Potterverse was too lucrative to be left alone. Not long after, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was announced, set 70 years prior to the events that unfolded in the original Harry Potter franchise. It has since been revealed that this would be the first of five movies, and while this is a good thing for fans, I had reservations – the Harry Potter films to me were a highly functional (read: $$$) but a decidedly average franchise. Would Fantastic Beasts fare any better? The answer is – yes and no.

The Harry Potter films got gradually darker as they progressed, but Fantastic Beasts takes it even further. This is easily the darkest film in the Harry Potter universe, and deals not just with multiple character deaths, but also touches on child abuse and bigotry (amongst others), difficult subjects for any film to handle, and even more so for a film that is at least partially targeted at younger viewers. This is probably a conscious decision on J.K. Rowling’s end, since she takes on the screenwriting duties for the first time, and one can somewhat appreciate the fact that she chose not to talk down to the audience. This does mean that Fantastic Beasts will not work well as a family film if there are younger children in the mix.

Fantastic Beasts is heavily steeped in Potter-speak, and a newcomer to the universe would likely feel a bit alienated by the lack of an introduction into the world of wizardry. It is, however, still quite a wonderful universe to be lost in, and David Yates, with his plentiful experience in Harry Potter movies, has managed to bring some conceptually difficult sequences to life. The highlight of the show is definitely the myriad fantastic beasts featured, and really shows off Rowling’s imagination as a writer. The actors largely do a reasonable job, with Eddie Redmayne seemingly becoming typecast as the awkward, slightly bumbling protagonist (which he plays to the hilt here), but the bigger names in the cast list do nothing more than what amounts to cameo appearances. The only problem is that the beasts boast more personality than the actors, which isn’t something that could be said of the original Harry Potter franchise.

Fantastic Beasts also exposes one of the weaknesses that Rowling has as an author. Every installment of the Harry Potter franchise unfolds in largely similar manners (surprise villain, characters with secrets – good or bad – to hide, and so on), and the same predictability dogs Fantastic Beasts. There is no surprise to be had, and even though the universe is an enchanting one, at times Fantastic Beasts feels like the pilot episode of a drama series, building towards something potentially greater a couple of movies down the line. It remains to be seen whether this new franchise would take off, but given the amount of fan service that Yates and Rowling have offered here, the likelihood of commercial failure seems remote.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Doctor Strange

Genre: Action

Director: Scott Derrickson

Screenplay: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Zara Phythian, Alaa Safi, Katrina Burden

Running Length: 115 minutes

Synopsis: After his career is destroyed, a brilliant but arrogant surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch) gets a new lease on life when a sorcerer takes him under his wing and trains him to defend the world against evil.

Review: It has become increasingly difficult to innovate in the genre of superhero movies, since there is now an expectation that comes with the territory (just look at the number of moviegoers that patiently wait for the end credits to finish rolling nowadays). Marvel has proven significantly better at carving out new spaces within the crowded genre, however, and Doctor Strange is yet another Marvel film that has managed to defy expectations. Delving into the mystical facet of the Marvel Comic Universe was surely a gamble, but it is one that has paid off handsomely. Doctor Strange is easily the best superhero movie to be released in 2016, and a breath of fresh air for the MCU.

Scott Derrickson is not the most obvious choice of director for Doctor Strange, having cut his teeth on horror films like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, but perhaps he was exactly what the doctor (ahem) ordered – a fresh pair of eyes that would be able to dispense with convention. Doctor Strange doesn’t deviate that far from other MCU movies, but is different enough to warrant a second look, even for audiences who have grown tired of the neverending barrage of films in the same mould. Derrickson and co-writers Spaihts and Cargill are also not afraid of adding humor into the mix, and there are almost as many comedic sequences as there are action set pieces.

Derrickson also seems to have a knack for creating eye-popping visuals, particularly the Inception-esque scenes of the cityscape folding and twisting onto itself that are alone worth the price of admission. In particular, the chase sequence that takes place in one of these settings is possibly one of the most imaginative scenes in recent memory, and would make M.C. Escher proud. This is also a film that I highly recommend watching in 3D (this is probably the first movie since Avatar that I’ve made this statement), and together with some truly trippy imagery, Doctor Strange undoubtedly serves as a feast for the eyes.

British thespians Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton and Chiwetel Ejiofor seem like odd choices for a superhero movie, but casting them is an inspired decision. The level of acting is so consistently high that it manages to elevate the film to the next level, allowing the audience to look past some of the more ludicrous pieces of dialogue or plot holes. While the film does end on a slightly weak (and rather psychedelic) denouement, this first Doctor Strange installment has successfully created a new Marvel franchise, and it would certainly be interesting to see how his mystical powers are put to use in subsequent Avengers or MCU films.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

P.S. Remember to stay for both post-credit sequences, one situated at the very end of the rather substantial end credits.

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Max Steel

Genre: Action

Director: Stewart Hendler

Screenplay: Christopher Yost

Cast: Ben Winchell, Josh Brenner, Ana Villafañe, Andy Garcia, Maria Bello, Mike Doyle

Running Length:  91 minutes

Synopsis: 16-year old Max McGrath (Ben Winchell) has just moved to a new town – and is desperately trying to fit in – when he discovers his body can generate the universe’s most powerful energy. Unbeknown to Max, a techno-organic extraterrestrial named Steel (Josh Brenner) has been keeping an eye on him, hungry for his super-human energy. When they finally meet, they discover that together they form Max Steel, a superhero possessing powerful strength beyond anything in our world. These two unlikely friends soon find themselves hunted by sinister forces who want to control Max’s powers, as well as an unstoppable enemy from another galaxy.

Review: There is a reason why Max Steel was not screened for the media prior to its unheralded opening this week – because the assuredly unenthusiastic reviews of this mediocre superhero movie would have killed any chance it had at the box office. Max Steel is based on the Mattel toy and TV cartoon title, but the result is so underwhelming and unimpressive that Mattel would probably have done better spending that money on a Barbie direct-to-video movie. Bowing against the colossal Doctor Strange in Singapore is also a strange (ahem) decision – what chance of success would Max Steel stand against a marquee MCU superhero title?

Max Steel was clearly positioned as an origins movie and a start of a franchise, but this also means that an inordinate amount of time in this film is devoted to setting up the backstory of Max and robot/alien sidekick Steel. Yet, so little is explained clearly that it is never really certain exactly how Max and Steel came about, much less the Ultralinks that are after them. Almost an hour goes by before Max even discovers his true legacy, and to be honest most audiences would have ceased to care by then.

The acting in Max Steel leaves much to be desired. While Ben Winchell is fresh-faced and relatively good looking, he doesn’t seem to possess much thespian talent and as such struggles to deliver in scenes that call on even a tad bit of emoting. Both Mario Bello and Andy Garcia phone in unengaging performances, with Andy Garcia given the thankless role of being the stereotypical tech millionaire villain. The special effects are passable, but on the whole Max Steel feels more like a film developed for the small screen, and if you choose to watch one superhero movie this week, this should not be the one to pick.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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The Magnificent Seven

Genre: Western

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Screenplay: Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk

Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier

Running Length:  132 minutes

Synopsis: With the town of Rose Creek under the deadly control of industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), the desperate townspeople employ protection from seven outlaws, bounty hunters, gamblers and hired guns – Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), Josh Farraday (Chris Pratt), Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Billy Rocks (Lee Byung-Hun), Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). As they prepare the town for the violent showdown that they know is coming, these seven mercenaries find themselves fighting for more than money.

Review: The Magnificent Seven is a remake of the 1960 film of the same name, but this is one of “those movies” in which it would actually do the viewer more good if they have never watched the original (which itself is actually also a remake of Akira Kurasawa’s Seven Samurai). While it doesn’t measure up to either original, this remake of The Magnificent Seven is a serviceable, entertaining film that should appeal to most audiences.

While the concept of a motley crew could have been new and fresh in the 60s, in the new millennium it is the norm – ensemble casts can be found across the board in multiple genres of film, most notably the superhero genre that is now the mainstay of blockbuster movies. Apart from the “been there, done that” vibe, the common weakness of many similar films is also found here in The Magnificent Seven – there simply isn’t enough flesh on the bone for many of the ensemble characters, so much so that the audience won’t really feel vested in their outcomes at all.

In a cast that is filled with well-known faces, Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt are the only two that manage to make a mark. Denzel Washington is positioned as the emotional centre of the film, and the seasoned thespian assumes this role with aplomb. Chris Pratt is once again cast as a roguish charmer with all the best lines in the script, and his sharpshooting, sass-talking Josh Faraday is easily the most memorable (and likeable) character in the entire film. Unfortunately, Peter Sarsgaard comes across as a one-dimensional villain and his Bogue fails to convince (on a positive note, at least they didn’t cast Christoph Waltz yet again in this role).

The first hour of The Magnificent Seven is focused on the backstories of the seven-plus characters that populate the show, and is the more interesting half of the movie even if some of the backstories feel a little generic. In the second hour, Fuqua goes back to his action film roots, and it’s essentially one giant, protracted shootout where the vastly outnumbered good guys are able to mow down a ridiculous number of bad guys. While it does go on for a little too long, the action remains engaging enough to not feel tiresome. These seven may not necessarily be magnificent, but are at least a hair above “good enough”.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Lights Out

Genre: Horror

Director: David F. Sandberg

Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the short film by Sandberg

Cast: Teresa Palmer, Gabriel Bateman, Alexander DiPersia, Maria Bello, Billy Burke, Alicia Vela-Bailey, Lotta Losten

Running Length: 81 minutes

Synopsis: When Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) left home, she thought she left her childhood fears behind.  Growing up, she was never really sure of what was and wasn’t real when the lights went out…and now her little brother, Martin (Gabriel Bateman), is experiencing the same unexplained and terrifying events that had once tested her sanity and threatened her safety. A frightening entity with a mysterious attachment to their mother, Sophie (Maria Bello), has reemerged.

But this time, as Rebecca gets closer to unlocking the truth, there is no denying that all their lives are in danger…once the lights go out.

Review: David F. Sandberg’s 3-minute short film in 2013 was an exercise in horror simplicity – a creature that only manifests itself when the lights are out. It was a relatively fun and clever film, and it wasn’t surprising that Lights Out went viral, and more importantly, it got popular enough to get the attention of horror master James Wan. Sandberg’s first full-length feature is based on the same premise, and although it is a little rough around the edges, works very effectively as a commercial horror film, and should please fans of the genre.

The entire 80 minutes of Lights Out is essentially designed as setting up one jump scare after another, and there’s really nothing much else to say except that almost all the scares work as planned. Sure, the mythology behind the female entity is a little muddled and requires a very healthy amount of suspension of disbelief, and like all horror movies the protagonists behave in inexplicably silly (and hence life-threatening) ways, but the film delivers enough thrills for audiences to look past these flaws.

Palmer is effective as the lead, bringing a gravitas to the role while not being cheesy or over the top, like how some scream queens could be. Bello is a little underused as the anguished mother, but the small number of cast members and their general likeability goes a long way in making the audience root for all of them. The most memorable performance, however, belongs to Alexander DiPersia as the slightly clueless love interest of Palmer, and his one big escape sequence from the entity delivers all the goods – it’s scary, it’s thrilling, and it’s actually very funny. Lights Out is the quintessential effective low budget horror film, and I for one will be looking forward to seeing what Sandberg can do in his sophomore effort.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

 

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