Star Trek Beyond

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Justin Lin

Screenplay: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Anton Yelchin, John Cho, Idris Elba, Sofia Boutella

Running Length: 122 minutes

Synopsis: In Star Trek Beyond, the Enterprise crew explores the furthest reaches of uncharted space, where they encounter a mysterious new enemy who puts them and everything the Federation stands for to the test.

Review: The first post-reboot Star Trek movie not helmed by J. J. Abrams himself (directorial reins have been passed to Fast & Furious’ Justin Lin, while Abrams is preoccupied with Star Wars), Star Trek Beyond continues the winning streak that the new Star Trek franchise has been enjoying. It brings back everything that made the previous two films a success – a space adventure, comedy, excellent action set pieces and a great ensemble cast. However, the 13th movie in the Star Trek universe does seem to be spinning its wheels a bit, and instead of boldly taking audiences where they’ve never gone before, Star Trek Beyond ends up feeling more like an extended, big-budget episode of the various Star Trek TV series.

While Star Trek Beyond is ostensibly about the captain and the crew of the USS Enterprise, the bulk of the film actually takes place outside the starship. While it’s commendable that screenwriter-actors Pegg and Jung (who shows up as Sulu’s husband, another first for the franchise) for making this creative decision, it does detract somewhat from the “Star Trek experience” where you see all the core crew members of the USS Enterprise interact with each other. That is mitigated somewhat by deeper interactions within small pairings of the crew – Kirk with Chekhov (one of Anton Yelchin’s last roles before his untimely demise), Bones with Spock, Sulu with Uhura, Scotty and newcomer Jaylah (a very effective Sofia Boutella) and so on.

It is this aspect of Star Trek Beyond that truly seems to harken to the series’ TV roots, and despite the big budget and big effects, the film feels small in terms of plot and payoff, and the denouement doesn’t really move the needle either in terms of character or franchise development. The various Star Trek TV series had the luxury of time to build characters and storylines week by week, which is not the case in a summer blockbuster film with a running time of just over two hours, and Star Trek Beyond’s narrative suffers a little due to this.

Justin Lin is an old hand at action sequences, and while it does take some time to get started, the action set pieces are indeed quite well done. Be it an extended unarmed combat sequence, or massive dogfights in space, the action is consistently engaging and thrilling, though it can come across as being slightly confusing at times. 3D looks like it’s another post-production conversion and there was very little in terms of dimensionality that would make shelling out extra for a 3D screening. The soundtrack by Michael Giacchino does its job a little too well at times, and can come across as being just slightly overbearing in key moments of the film. The song choices for the film are quite inspired, however, and feature an excellent, highly memorable use of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”.

Star Trek Beyond is certainly an entertaining Summer blockbuster, and should be able to appeal to general audiences and Trekkies alike. It may not mark a high point in the post-reboot canon, but it has at least maintained the momentum the franchise has gained since 2009. With the new TV series coming in 2017, and the likelihood of at least a fourth film with the current cast, it certainly looks like Star Trek has quite a bright future ahead.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Ghostbusters

Genre: Comedy

Director: Paul Feig

Screenplay: Paul Feig, Katie Dippold, based on the 1984 film written by Day Aykroyd, Harold Ramis

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Cecily Strong, Matt Walsh, Ed Begley Jr., Andy Garcia, Bill Murray, Day Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Sigourney Weaver

Running Length: 117 minutes

Synopsis: Thirty years after the original film took the world by storm, Ghostbusters is back and fully rebooted for a new generation.  Director Paul Feig combines all the paranormal fighting elements that made the original franchise so beloved with a cast of new characters, played by the funniest actors working today.

Review: Paul Feig has had a pretty good track record so far of crossing genres with comedy with female-centric films (The Heat, Spy), and while Ghostbusters follows in the same vein, it isn’t quite as successful a venture as his previous outings. The fault doesn’t lie on the female leads however, but to the script trying too hard to reference the original film at every turn. It’s still a relatively entertaining Summer film, but ends up feeling somewhat like a missed opportunity.

While this is a reboot of the 32-year old Ghostbusters, the clear difference is that instead of a team of male comedy actors, Feig has decided to go with a team of female comedy actors. It has created a rather vicious backlash but in my opinion (and this is coming from someone who literally grew up watching Ghostbusters multiple times) it doesn’t hurt the movie at all. McCarthy and Wiig both seem a little muted in their performances here, however, and though their friendship is positioned as being central to the plot, it actually ends up being a non-starter. Leslie Jones is unfortunately playing a rather stereotyped black character, but she does the best she could within the confines of the role. The true gem in the cast, however, is Kate McKinnon, and her portrayal as the eccentric Holtzmann brings some of the best lines and big laughs in the film. The four women also share an affable chumminess onscreen, and in spots where the script starts to sputter, the movie survives purely on the goodwill generated by the quartet’s presence.

One of the biggest challenges that Feig and co-writer Dippold probably dealt with for the remake is the amount of baggage that comes with rebooting a much beloved franchise, and in this aspect they are only moderately successful. There seems to be an over-insistence on making unnecessary references to the original Ghostbusters (including walk-on roles for almost every surviving cast member of the 1984 film), and it really does needlessly encumber the film in many aspects, right down to the soundtrack. Of course, audiences that have not seen the film’s predecessors would probably not have the same response.

Visual effects have of course vastly improved over the past three decades, but Feig seems to have also relied a little too much on CGI, and the finale especially is lost amidst a literal swirling mass of CG imagery, failing to resonate on most levels. It is quite a pity, since what made the original great weren’t the visual effects but the collective comedic strength of a bunch of very talented comedians. While it would have been an extremely tall order to surpass the original, this 2016 iteration of Ghostbusters could certainly have done better than it did. While the relatively entertaining end credits sequence and coda seems to leave the door open for a sequel, one wonders if the film would do well enough to justify one.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Finding Dory

Genre: Animation

Directors: Andrew Stanton, Angus McLane

Screenplay: Andrew Stanton, Victoria Strouse

Voice Cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Hayden Rolence, Ty Burrell, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Sigourney Weaver

Running Length: 103 minutes

Synopsis: Finding Dory welcomes back to the big screen everyone’s favorite forgetful blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), who’s living happily in the reef with Nemo (Hayden Rolence) and Marlin (Albert Brooks). When Dory suddenly remembers that she has a family out there who may be looking for her, the trio takes off on a life-changing adventure across the ocean to California’s prestigious Marine Life Institute, a rehabilitation center and aquarium. Deftly navigating the complex inner workings of the MLI, Dory and her friends discover the magic within their flaws, friendships and family.

Review: Dory is the most memorable character in Finding Nemo, and it is only natural that the sequel would revolve around her. While the movie title is “Finding Dory”, it doesn’t really refer to the physical act of locating a lost Dory (though she is, repeatedly), but more to Dory’s journey of self-discovery. It is an engaging tale, though somewhat less compelling than that of Finding Nemo (finding your lost child feels like more urgent an issue than looking for one’s parents, no matter how you cut it), and there are several sequences that are come too close to the original that they almost feel like a rehash.

However, director/writer Andrew Stanton and his capable crew manages to inject a lot of new together with the old, most notably an entirely new roster of animals that Dory et al manage to befriend along the way, including a gruff but lovable octopus, Hank; a near-sighted whale shark Destiny; a beluga whale named Bailey who is convinced his echolocation is not working; and a pair of sea lions named Fluke and Rudder, who are oddly and obsessively possessive of the rock they are resting on.

These characters help to deliver the big laughs in the film, but there’s also a more serious undercurrent in Finding Dory – that of overcoming one’s disabilities and imperfections, since almost all these animals are “damaged” in one way or another. This expands upon the theme that was already found in Finding Nemo, with Nemo’s bum fin and Dory’s short term memory loss. That an animated film has managed to deal with the subject matter in a much more nuanced and profound manner than most live-action films have, speaks volumes about the strength of writing that can be found in Finding Dory. While the film can’t really claim to be a tearjerker, there are moments in Finding Dory which will are almost certain to resonate emotionally with older audiences, especially parents.

Pixar has always delivered the goods on the visual front, and Finding Dory is no exception. The underwater world is even more alluring than before, and the visual richness in the film is truly a sight to behold. The character designs are top notch, with none more excellent than that of Hank, who is truly spectacularly animated. Not only are Hank’s movements entirely believable, the production crew clearly had a great time exploring an octopus’ camouflage abilities, using it to terrific effect at various points in the movie. I did not watch the film in 3D (and honestly I don’t think it will be much of an enhancement) but the visuals really popped – similar to Finding Nemo, this is a movie that would take multiple viewings to take in everything it has to offer.

While Finding Dory doesn’t manage to meet the lofty heights of Pixar’s best, particularly in the final reel where honestly, the wheels of the plot do come off a bit (albeit in an entertaining manner), it still remains an extremely easy recommendation for both young and old audiences alike.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Warcraft: The Beginning

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Duncan Jones

Screenplay: Charles Leavitt, Duncan Jones

Cast: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Rob Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Negga, Anna Galvin, Callum Keith Rennie, Burkely Duffield, Ryan Robbins, Dean Redman, Glenn Close

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: The peaceful realm of Azeroth stands on the brink of war as its civilization faces a fearsome race of invaders: Orc warriors fleeing their dying home to colonize another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, one army faces destruction and the other faces extinction. From opposing sides, two heroes are set on a collision course that will decide the fate of their family, their people and their home.

Review: Where to begin…? While Warcraft will hold some appeal for fans of the various games set in the Warcraft universe, it will almost assuredly be a complete miss for anyone who isn’t deeply acquainted with Azeroth and its denizens.

Not only is the film overstuffed with arcane references to the Warcraft universe, there’s little to no effort made in explaining any of it to the audience. Strip away the somewhat decent CG and the strength of the brand name, and what’s left is an overlong film featuring way too many characters that is nothing more than a mediocre entry into the fantasy movie genre. It’s truly hard to imagine how Duncan Jones moved from projects like Moon and Source Code (both rather good, low budget films) to something that feels like a B-movie through and through, despite the big budget spent to produce it.

Very few fantasy movies are able to juggle multiple characters and plotlines well, and it is clear in Warcraft’s case that it is no Lord of the Rings in this aspect. There are so many lead characters and so many different subplots that everything is given short shrift. Nothing and no one is given more than a superficial treatment, and it’s difficult for viewers to feel vested in any single character, when one may not be even able to remember their names until the movie is halfway through. At times it felt like I needed a cheat sheet to make sense of the film’s comings and goings. The film also cuts from scene to scene without much of any segue, serving to muddle things to an even greater extent. That the live-action acting is universally poor (ironically the CG actors do a far better job) doesn’t help matters either.

Apart from the inability to present a coherent or engaging storyline, Warcraft’s steadfast refusal to explain anything in its two-hour plus running time makes for a frustrating viewing experience. What exactly is “fel”? Why is that black chunk of rock that is spinning in the air? Who are those elders with glowing eyes and what exactly do they do? What makes the Guardian a Guardian? Why are there dwarves and elves and other tribes doing absolutely nothing while showing up in the movie? This is coming from someone who has a passing knowledge of Warcraft and World of Warcraft, so I cannot imagine how the viewing experience would be like for someone who is new to the franchise or the genre. Maybe the ambition was to make this a first installment in a newly-minted film franchise, and hence everyone and everything showing up in this movie is merely a precursor to future films; but given how clunky and uninteresting this film has ended up, I somehow doubt that Hollywood would be forgiving enough to give the orcs and humans a second outing.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Conjuring 2

Genre: Horror

Director: James Wan

Screenplay: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, James Wan, David Leslie Johnson

Cast: Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Simon McBurney, Franka Potente, Lauren Esposito, David Thewlis, Bonnie Aarons

Running Length: 133 minutes

Synopsis: Reprising their roles, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson star as Lorraine and Ed Warren, who, in one of their most terrifying paranormal investigations, travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.

Review: The Conjuring was a breath of fresh air back when it was released in 2013 – an old-school horror film that managed to deliver genuine scares and a very engrossing storyline. While The Conjuring 2 was a sequel born out of financial necessity (The Conjuring made close to $400 million on a $20 million budget), it is still a very, very well-made horror film, even if it doesn’t feel as fresh the second time round.

James Wan is a true master at horror films, and his wizardry is clearly on show in The Conjuring 2. Virtually every scene in the film boasts excellent camerawork, and even the most mundane sequences pulses with menace and dread. Coupled with a terrific (and at times terrifying) soundtrack, even the most jaded moviegoer will be guaranteed a couple of scares. This is despite the truly old-school subject matter in The Conjuring 2 – haunted house, poltergeist activity, an old man apparition, demonic possession – nothing even a casual horror movie fan would be unfamiliar with. I can confidently say that Wan is currently at the top of the horror game with his multiple movie franchises, with no competitor coming even close.

Both Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga are back in The Conjuring 2, and a good part of why the film works is due to the strong performances by both actors. Not only are they able to keep the audience vested in their investigations, the couple dynamics are also quite convincing and really help to sell the Warrens’ cause as benevolent paranormal investigators.

While the film does run a little too long, with too much wheel spinning (almost an hour) before truly delving into the actual plot, the film does remain rather engrossing, resembling almost like a whodunit more than a horror film. This could dismay horror film purists, but for general audiences this may actually be seen as a plus point, since there’s more meat on the bones versus the “typical” horror film. While there seems to be a potential for a third film in the franchise, I doubt there is enough material left in the haunted house/demonology barrel for even Wan to not scrape the bottom.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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The Angry Birds Movie

Genre: Animation

Directors: Fergal Reilly, Clay Kaytis

Screenplay: Jon Vitti, from a story by Mikko Polla, Mikael Hed, John Cohen

Voice Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Peter Dinklage, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Sean Penn, Titus Burgess, Kate McKinnon, Ike Barinholtz, Hannibal Buress, Billy Eichner, Danielle Brooks, Tony Hale, Blake Shelton

Running Length: 97 minutes

Synopsis:  In The Angry Birds Movie, we finally find out why the birds are so angry. The movie takes us to an island populated entirely by happy, flightless birds – or almost entirely. In this paradise, Red (Jason Sudeikis), a bird with a temper problem, speedy Chuck (Josh Gad), and the volatile Bomb (Danny McBride) have always been outsiders. But when the island is visited by mysterious green piggies, it’s up to these unlikely outcasts to figure out what the pigs are up to.

Review: I could never have envisioned that a game like Angry Birds would be able to evolve into a somewhat engaging movie, but here we are with that exact result. While it’s not pushing any envelope or boundary in any meaningful way, The Angry Birds Movie is a pleasant enough distraction, certainly more suited for the younger audiences but not entirely without value for older audience members. It is obvious that the Angry Birds game and brand is past its prime, but the bright, colorful animation and a “leave no pun behind” script filled to the brim with terrible groaners (wordplay is something I personally always appreciate in any film) translates to quite an enjoyable if mindless cinematic experience.

The Angry Birds Movie features quite a number of A-listers in its voice cast, and everyone does a decent job at it, including an… interesting performance by Sean Penn consisting mostly of menacing grunts and odd noises. Narratively, the movie starts out pretty strong with its introduction of the various inhabitants on Bird Island, but loses steam rather quickly and has virtually flatlined by the time the pigs show up on the island. Fortunately, there’s a relatively interesting diversion where a number of birds go in search for the Mighty Eagle, which gives the proceedings a much needed boost in the film’s second half.

The movie also does a decent job in translating the gameplay mechanics into elements in the film, and the final reel’s mayhem and destruction truly mirror what goes on in the game. This is more than can be said of many videogame adaptations. Coupled with the manic script by The Simpsons alum Jon Vitti, and it’s certainly not difficult to find the movie an amusing one regardless of whether one is familiar with the Angry Birds franchise. It probably wouldn’t be enough to spawn a sequel (and in all honesty it shouldn’t), and offers no deep viewer experience akin to Inside Out and its Pixar alums, but it’s actually one of the more decent videogame adaptations I have seen in years.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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X-Men: Apocalypse

Genre: Action

Director: Bryan Singer

Screenplay: Simon Kinberg, story by Bryan Singer, Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Evan Peters, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Luca Till, Josh Helman, Ben Hardy, Lana Condor, Zelko Ivanek, Anthony Koneehny

Running Length: 143 minutes

Synopsis:  Since the dawn of civilization, he was worshipped as a god. Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), the first and most powerful mutant from Marvel’s X-Men universe, amassed the powers of many other mutants, becoming immortal and invincible. Upon awakening after thousands of years, he is disillusioned with the world as he finds it and recruits a team of powerful mutants, including a disheartened Magneto (Michael Fassbender), to cleanse mankind and create a new world order, over which he will reign. As the fate of the Earth hangs in the balance, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) with the help of Professor X (James McAvoy) must lead a team of young X-Men to stop their greatest nemesis and save mankind from complete destruction.

Review: The good news is that X-Men: Apocalypse is not the worst superhero movie released this year (Batman v Superman is a very tough act to upstage, after all). The bad news is that after the superlative First Class and Days of Future Past, the entire X-Men franchise seems to have taken a huge step backwards with Apocalypse. Even the collective thespian prowess of Fassbender, McAvoy, Lawrence and franchise newcomer Sophie Turner cannot combat a movie that is overstuffed with inconsequential characters and subplots, as well as one of the least menacing arch-villains in recent memory.

It does start off well enough, and the opening sequence set in the Nile Valley in 3600BC introducing Apocalypse holds good promise. However, once the film segues into 1983, the script starts to make questionable advances – Apocalypse is supposed to be immensely powerful, but ends up spending almost all of his screen time behaving like a blue Nick Fury (there are a LOT of blue characters in this movie, by the way) and convincing mutants to join his cause as his horsemen. While three of the mutants he recruits are of highly questionable use (sorry, fans of Angel, Psylocke and Storm), Apocalypse does manage to get Magneto on his side as well, but the recruitment sequence involving Auschwitz borders on the tacky. Apocalypse is such a generic villain that he poses no menace whatsoever, and even his scheme for total global annihilation feels underwhelming.

X-Men: Apocalypse runs a (nowadays) relatively standard 2-plus hours, but due to the bevy of characters being introduced and the number of subplots, the film feels very scattershot, often jumping from one plot to another before they have time to sink in. This also deprives a bunch of very good actors from doing much, though not for lack of trying (congratulations to James McAvoy for emoting well in an almost incessant chain of extreme closeups). Of the newcomers, the only actor of note is Sophie “Sansa Stark” Turner, who does a decent job of giving depth to Jean Grey in her limited screen time, and would be the one to look out for in the inevitable sequel.

What truly does X-Men: Apocalypse in is the lack of any newness to its proceedings. Everything feels been there, done that, and even one of the best sequences in Days of Future Past – the Quicksilver slow-mo musical number – is given a rehash here, and proves that lightning does not strike twice. The second time round, this Quicksilver musical number feels uninspired and perfunctory, mirroring much of the remainder of the movie. In one sequence, a bunch of X-Men exit a Return of the Jedi screening, throwing a barely veiled dig at both the “old” X-Men trilogy as well as the Star Wars franchise of how the third film is always the worst, but what Singer and team does not realise is that X-Men: Apocalypse falls to the same curse, and is a shocking low point for the franchise despite everyone’s best intentions.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

 

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Captain America: Civil War

Genre: Action

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Bruhl

Running Length: 146 minutes

Synopsis:  Captain America: Civil War finds Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) leading the newly formed team of Avengers in their continued efforts to safeguard humanity. But after another incident involving the Avengers results in collateral damage, political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability, headed by a governing body to oversee and direct the team. The new status quo fractures the Avengers, resulting in two camps – one led by Steve Rogers and his desire for the Avengers to remain free to defend humanity without government interference, and the other following Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) surprising decision to support government oversight and accountability.

Review:  It’s not surprising, given their track record, that Marvel has managed to hit yet another Marvel Cinematic Universe movie out of the park. This may sound repetitive, but Captain America: Civil War is possibly the best movie from the MCU so far – not only does it present an absorbing, complex and intellectual storyline, it is chock-full of impressive action set-pieces and even finds time to flesh out both old and new Marvel characters. This is the superhero movie that Batman v Superman wanted to be but failed terribly trying.

Although this is presented as the third Captain America movie, the number of superheroes involved in the story is as plentiful as a “proper” Avengers film. Apart from the rather obvious omissions of Thor and the Hulk, Civil War features almost all the Avengers, and introduces audiences to Black Panther and Spider-man (who makes a pretty triumphant, scene-stealing return to Disney after his stint in Sony Pictures). Impressively, scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who also wrote first two Captain America movies) managed to flesh many of these superheroes out to be more than the sum of their superpowers, despite an already narratively dense film.

Refreshingly, Civil War is not all grim and dour like in Batman v Superman, and yet the film grapples with heavy subject matter with far greater aplomb than the clunky incoherence that populated BvS. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have applied their experience in TV comedies to the Marvel films they have directed, and the same is evident here – there are many moments of levity to be found amidst the seriousness, though never distractingly so. There is also some really great action sequences to be found here, including an excellent scene at the airport where the two opposing factions of the Avengers finally clash, and their superpowers being pitted against each other in very interesting and unexpected ways.

Civil War is the first salvo in Phase 3 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and one of the very few criticisms that can be leveled at the movie is that it feels slightly incomplete as a standalone movie, and ends in a really abrupt manner. This is to be expected given the way the MCU is being structured now, with each movie being a cog in the wheel of a larger movement, but it is particularly apparent in Civil War that many plot lines are being laid in the film and aren’t fully realized by the time the credits roll, since the audience isn’t expected to watch this movie in isolation. While the uneven nature of Batman v Superman has called to question the viability of DC’s cinematic universe and roster of upcoming films, Civil War has merely reaffirmed that Marvel is at the top of the cinematic game, and even if the proceedings feel a little predictable at times, the film is a highly enjoyable opener to the next five years’ worth of the MCU.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

P.S. Like all Marvel movies, don’t miss the two post-credit sequences, although they aren’t particularly essential viewing.

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The Huntsman: Winter’s War

Genre: Fantasy

Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

Screenplay: Craig Mazin, Evan Spiliotopolous

Cast: Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt, Chris Hemsworth, Jessica Chastain, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis:  Freya the Ice Queen (Emily Blunt) brings her sister Ravenna (Charlize Theron) back to life, and the powerful evil siblings plan to conquer the Enchanted Forest. Only the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) and his secret lover Sara (Jessica Chastain) can stop them in this sequel continuing the twist on the Snow White fable.

Review: While Snow White and the Huntsman was a somewhat interesting twist on the classic tale of Snow White, it didn’t really need a sequel or a prequel – but with near $400 million in global box office takings, it was perhaps inevitable that The Huntsman: Winter’s War was green-lit. Unfortunately, it seems almost all the life had been sucked out of the franchise with this second film, and even though the door remains open for yet another sequel, it would certainly take a huge leap of faith for most audience members to revisit this world for a third time.

Strangely, the decision was made to excise Snow White’s presence out from Winter’s War, leading to some rather convoluted storytelling where the film starts several decades prior to the time frame of Snow White and the Huntsman, then awkwardly lurches forward to “seven years later” after what had transpired in the first film. The writers seem to assume that everyone has seen (and remembers) the first film’s plot, however unlikely that might be, and there will be moments in Winter’s War that will not make a lot of sense if one is unacquainted with the previous film.

That Chris Hemsworth is a pretty face (and body) without too much thespian talent has been quite established in his body of work, but in Winter’s War he is particularly unspectacular, taking a back seat in dramatic duties to all the leading women (even the annoying dwarves seem to do better), and absolutely lacking in any romantic chemistry with Jessica Chastain. Chastain herself fares a little better, given a Tauriel-esque character with slightly more depth than Hemsworth’s. Charlize Theron hams it up and thus steals the spotlight from anyone sharing scenes with her, but the film’s true saving grace is Emily Blunt, who chooses not to overact but instead turns Freya into a believably vulnerable and emotionally fragile character, even as she inches ever closer to Ravenna’s darkness. If not for Blunt’s participation, Winter’s War would probably have been much less watchable.

Nicolas Cedric-Troyan is helming his first feature film here, stepping up from visual effects director in Snow White and the Huntsman, and his mastery in visual effects is indeed very clear. The entire film is saturated in visual effects, and some of them are indeed extremely impressive, none more so than the final showdown between the Huntsmen and the two Queens. The costume design by Colleen Atwood is also top notch, especially the various gowns worn by Blunt and Theron. However, the visual beauty of Winter’s War isn’t quite enough to overcome its flaws in character development and storytelling, and there’s certainly nothing on show here that will legitimize a third film in this already stretched-thin franchise.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Genre: Action

Director: Zach Snyder

Screenplay:  Chris Terrio, David S. Goyer

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, Michael Shannon

Running Length:  152 minutes

Synopsis: Fearing the actions of a god-like Super Hero left unchecked, Gotham City’s own formidable, forceful vigilante takes on Metropolis’s most revered, modern-day saviour, while the world wrestles with what sort of hero it really needs. And with Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) at war with one another, a new threat quickly arises, putting mankind in greater danger than it’s ever known before.

Review:  It was inevitable, after the incredible box office successes of the Marvel Comic Universe, that competing comics giant DC would want a piece of the pie too. And thus the DC Extended Universe was born, with the first salvo fired being Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (shorthanded to BvS for the rest of the review), and a slew of movies announced all the way to 2020. However, based on BvS alone, one wonders if the DCEU is already off on a wrong foot from the get-go. While the film does have its merits and some high points, BvS is also mired with issues, ranging from terrible writing, an overlong (way, WAY overlong) running time, and a complete lack of joy in the proceedings.

Given that the film title states that it’s Batman v Superman, one would not expect that it takes almost 90 minutes for the premise to be setup, and that the setup is such a weak and unconvincing one. The conflict between the two superheroes is just not believable, and even though it presents an interesting angle (essentially, who watches the watchmen, a theme also explored by Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation in 2009), the twists and turns needed to get there just does not work on any level. This is not aided by the lack of anything for the audience to get emotionally invested in – while the film tries to be serious and weighty, there’s very little narrative and backstory for the audience to latch on to, which gives BvS very little dramatic heft. And do not get me started on how the “animosity” is resolved eventually, which is so contrived it truly beggars belief.

While the same self-seriousness worked well in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, it already proved to be a bit of a miss in Man of Steel as it was quite a departure from Superman’s established canon, both in film and in print. This is further exacerbated in BvS – while no one is expecting a comedy, Snyder and his scribes do not seem to understand that being serious doesn’t mean sapping the joy out of a superhero movie, especially one that contains both Superman and Wonder Woman. BvS doubles down on the dourness of Man of Steel, and is indeed one of the most (if not the most) downer of a superhero movie I’ve watched in years.

Despite the initial outcry, Ben Affleck is actually a reasonable replacement for Batman, both in his physicality and in his performance. However, Henry Cavill remains a very wooden Superman, only looking the part when he shows up in the iconic spandex suit and cape. Jesse Eisenberg is terribly miscast, and his supposed psychotic Lex Luthor comes across more like an annoying teenager with a ridiculously long list of nervous tics and twitches. It is truly hard to believe that two intelligent beings like Batman and Superman falling for his rather simplistic schemes of manipulation. The women all fare better, but are all relegated to nothing more than window dressing in the film. Gal Gadot in particular shows great promise as Wonder Woman, and there is hope that her standalone movie next year would fare better than BvS.

Zach Snyder is a director that excels in crafting visuals, and it is not surprising that some portions of BvS are indeed very good looking. However, there is definitely an over-reliance on CG, especially in the (anti)climactic showdown between the heroic trio and Doomsday. Speaking of Doomsday, he is a complete bust as there’s absolutely no background to the villain, existing solely as a prop to advance the plot, and one that looks very unevenly animated, despite what must be a massive CGI budget. Coupled with way too many quick cuts in the last action-packed hour, and a relentlessly booming and overbearing score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL, and it’s just quite an exhausting ordeal of a movie to sit through. BvS functions more like a (very long) teaser trailer to the upcoming DCEU movies, but in their eagerness to launch the franchise, it does seem that Snyder and team have forgotten to make BvS itself a movie that would stand on its own strengths.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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