IT

Genre: Horror

Director: Andres Muschietti

Screenplay: Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgard, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott

Running Length:  135 minutes

Synopsis: Seven young outcasts in Derry, Maine, are about to face their worst nightmare — an ancient, shape-shifting evil that emerges from the sewer every 27 years to prey on the town’s children. Banding together over the course of one horrifying summer, the friends must overcome their own personal fears to battle the murderous, bloodthirsty clown known as Pennywise.

Review: While this is not the first screen adaptation of Stephen King’s much lauded novel IT (full disclosure: one of my favourite King novels), the original TV miniseries was frankly a poor showing, with nothing going for it except for Tim Curry’s unforgettable, iconic performance as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. In its first proper big screen outing, Muschietti’s IT manages to deliver a reasonably engrossing and somewhat scary experience, though it runs a little too long and is a bit too repetitive to rank amongst the best Stephen King screen adaptations.

While Bill Skarsgard has big shoes (hur hur) to fill as Pennywise and he does a decent job, what truly makes the film watchable is the eminently endearing young cast. This is no Stand By Me, but there are echoes of Stranger Things (including a cast overlap), and the total exclusion of the flashback, two-timeline narrative that drove the novel (this adaptation of IT is being split into two parts, with ostensibly the second movie featuring the grown up “28 years later” portion) means the teens get all the screen time. This is a good thing, and IT’s ensemble cast is probably one of the best assembled in recent years, even more so than Stranger Things. While they all do well playing scared teens, the cast really shines in the moments where Muschietti allows the kids to be kids, bringing a much-needed human touch and heart to the film.

Unfortunately, Muschietti and his screenwriters also decided that each teen needed to have their own run-in with It, and the law of diminishing returns kicks in after the third or fourth encounter. The film would certainly have done even better if it had focused more on the friendships forged by the Losers Club rather than the increasingly impotent attempts of Pennywise (at least Freddy Krueger had the chance to kill off some of the main cast members). While there are very well set-up scare sequences in the film, there’s also a sense of déjà vu by the time the running time crosses the halfway mark. Perhaps this is exacerbated by the ensuing decades between the original novel and TV series, and It being such an indelible part of pop culture that everything new feels old.

One major departure from the novel and TV series is a change in period – rather than being set in the 50s and the 80s, this first half of IT takes place in the 80s. It’s a change that makes sense since a good majority of adult viewers would have also grown up in the 80s, but the script does lean a little too far into the period to elicit laughs (seems like someone in the production is a big fan of NKOTB). Given a slightly tighter edit – a good half hour could probably have been lopped off without hurting the film – this version of IT would easily have been one of the best Stephen King movie adaptations, but even in its current form, it is an enjoyable, good-looking movie that stands on its own, even if the sequel doesn’t come to fruition.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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The Dark Tower

Genre: Sci-Fi

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen & Nikolaj Arcel, based on the novels by Stephen King

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba, Tom Taylor, Katheryn Winnick, Jackie Earle Haley, Abbey Lee, Claudia Kim

Running Length: 95 minutes

Synopsis: The last Gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), has been locked in an eternal battle with Walter O’Dim, also known as the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), determined to prevent him from toppling the Dark Tower, which holds the universe together. With the fate of the worlds at stake, good and evil will collide in the ultimate battle as only Roland can defend the Tower from the Man in Black.

Review: Full disclosure: although I am quite an avid reader of Stephen King’s novels, I was somehow never able to complete The Dark Tower series, his 8 volume, 4,000+ page magnum opus, never having progressed beyond the second novel. It was clear from the get-go, however, that The Dark Tower movie adaptation could not possibly be a faithful reproduction of the series, especially with a scant running time of 95 minutes. And indeed, The Dark Tower is more a movie based on the idea behind the novels, and ends up feeling quite a bit more generic than what the fully realized world of the Dark Tower novels could have delivered in a film.

It was clear that the movie would be at best a superficial peek into the Dark Tower universe given its surprisingly short running time, but the lack of exposition makes it hard for audiences to develop any sense of context, especially anyone who has no exposure to the novels prior to watching the movie. The film flits from scene to scene without a sense of gravity, so even key sequences with character demises feel strangely lightweight, and it is near impossible for the audience to be vested in even the story arcs of the main characters, much less anyone else in the periphery.

One of the most inexplicable creative decisions is to shift the main focus of the film from the Gunslinger (an excellent portrayal by Idris Elba to boot) to the young Tom Taylor’s Jake, whose performance does not impress. This causes the film to feel even more generic and like a mediocre YA novel adaptation, which does the film no favours. Matthew McConaughey obviously had a fine time hamming it up as the villain, but this is certainly not one of his more memorable roles in recent years.

The Dark Tower also looks decidedly low-rent, with barely passable special effects and muddled cinematography that suggests most of the film’s budget went towards paying the salaries of Elba and McConaughey. While being released in the tail end of the summer blockbuster season, the film feels anything but. It’s not a bad movie by most measures, but feels more at home on the small screen – in fact, one wonders how improved the adaptation could have been if it was greenlit as a TV series rather than a one-off feature presentation.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Wonder Woman

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Patty Jenkins

Screenplay: Allan Heinberg, from a story by Heinberg, Zack Snyder, Jason Fuchs, based on DC’s Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marsto

Cast: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Said Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya

Running Length:  141 minutes

Synopsis: Before she was Wonder Woman, she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained to be an unconquerable warrior. Raised on a sheltered island paradise, when an American pilot crashes on their shores and tells of a massive conflict raging in the outside world, Diana leaves her home, convinced she can stop the threat. Fighting alongside man in a war to end all wars, Diana will discover her full powers…and her true destiny.

Review: With Wonder Woman, audiences have finally received the DC Extended Universe movie that they deserved – a stark departure from the dank, monochrome, Debbie Downer movies helmed by Zach Snyder, that reached a new DCEU low with Batman v Superman last year. Patti Jenkins’ Wonder Woman is a far more optimistic and colourful movie, bolstered by 2 very good lead performances and a generally positive vibe that finally bodes well for the franchise. Gal Gardot may not be the most iconic Wonder Woman of my time (Lynda Carter’s incarnation will forever hold a special place in my heart), but she certainly does an excellent job here, and establishes a tone that hopefully the subsequent DCEU films will be able to adopt.

In the tradition of superhero movies, this first Wonder Woman film (discounting her extended appearance in BvS) is an origins story, but unlike the somewhat similarly set Captain America: The First Avenger, the entire film essentially transpires in the early 19th Century, during WWI. There’s great attention to period detail here, and this is a film that is not afraid to get its fingers dirty – while the tone is lighter, it also does not shy away from depicting the horrors of war, from a mustard gas attack on a village, to an attack on a fortified German position in the frontline of war. In fact, these scenes are impressively choreographed and shot, almost being able to stand toe-to-toe with dedicated war movies – this is something new for the superhero movie genre, and Jenkins and her crew ought to be commended for achieving what they have here.

Both Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are well-cast in their roles here – Gadot is a very beautiful, elegant woman that can convincingly emote and kick ass, which makes her iteration of Wonder Woman a near-perfect one (except perhaps, the few scenes in which she somehow seems to suffer from a bad hair day). Chris Pine brings the right amount of bravado and charm to his Steve Trevor despite playing the thankless (and for once, male) role of the love interest in distress, and the strong, playful chemistry between the two helps to lend more emotional impact to the film versus most superhero movies.

While the finale drops the ball a bit and ends up being too much of a CG-fest (which comes across as being a little shoddily done, strangely) and leans to the cheesy side of things, the entire movie remains entertaining, and the decision to lighten the mood with the occasional wisecrack or fish-out-of-water gag, as well as developing a romantic subplot, really helps to balance out the film despite its 2-plus hour running time. This is the most Marvel-like DCEU film yet, which may sound like an insult to fans of the DC Universe, but is actually quite high praise, given the high watermark that the MCU has set.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: James Gunn

Screenplay: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Glenn Close, Karen Gillan, Sylvester Stallone, Pom Klementieff, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Nathan Fillion, Tommy Flanagan

Running Length:  135 minutes

Synopsis: Set to the all-new sonic backdrop of Awesome Mixtape #2, Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” continues the team’s adventures as they traverse the outer reaches of the cosmos. The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mystery of Peter Quill’s true parentage. Old foes become new allies and fan-favorite characters from the classic comics will come to our heroes’ aid as the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand.

Review: The first Guardians of the Galaxy was such a breath of fresh air in the world of superhero movies that it was nearly impossible to begrudge despite some rough spots. In the three intervening years, however, there has been a number of entrants into the genre that sported similar characteristics – most notably Deadpool, which took the irreverence found in Guardians to an extreme and yet delivered admirably. It also helped that most moviegoers went into Guardians of the Galaxy with little or no expectations, and most would walk away feeling it was time and money well spent.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, however, will not get a similar free pass. Although everything that made the first movie good still remains – the great chemistry amongst the lead actors, the excellent soundtrack, the eye-popping visuals, the laidback humour, the heart – there’s also an unshakeable feeling of sequelitis, where everything old doesn’t really feel new again. That’s not to say it’s not a good movie; in fact Vol. 2 still manages to (barely) sit amongst the best in the MCU, but it simply can’t measure up to the original, and not from a lack of trying.

One of the most problematic aspects of Vol. 2 is that James Gunn decided to one-up the first movie in every imaginable way, and the result is a film that honestly feels a little bloated. Despite not having to delve into each character’s backstory, there’s almost no real plot development until almost halfway through the movie, and even then the central plot feels a little underwhelming (true to its predecessor, the villains continue to remain the movie’s weakest link). This results in the film feeling just a bit tiresome at times, and I found myself glancing at my watch more than once throughout the movie’s 135-minute running time.

There’s quite a bit of unresolved plotlines and unexplained cameos (Sylvester Stallone literally does nothing in his cameo appearances here), ostensibly to set the stage for the inevitable sequel, but they figure so peripherally into the actual film that editing them out of the film is actually a rather compelling argument. The same applies for the five (!!) post-credit codas, which manages to up the ante of the first movie in serving up pointlessness

Fortunately, there’s still much left to like about Vol. 2. Baby Groot is inexorably adorable if a bit overused, the slapstick moments are still delicious nuggets to savor, and Chris Pratt still impresses with both his physicality and impeccable comic timing. While visuals for modern day sci-fi movies are all nearly without reproach, Vol. 2 still boasts a rather unique, nearly psychedelic visual style that impresses (but is also rather tiring in 3D). And the joyous soundtrack gets one star of its own even for an eclectic, ear-friendly selection almost on par with the first movie’s. And much like the first movie, there’s even a scene that would touch even a jaded moviegoer like myself. There’s no doubt that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 would do terrifically well at the box office, but if Vol. 3 doesn’t address the franchise’s weaknesses, it will assuredly end the trilogy on a low note, which would be a waste.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Beauty and the Beast

Genre: Musical

Director: Bill Condon

Screenplay: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopolous

Cast: Emma Watson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor, Luke Evans, Dan Stevens, Stanley Tucci

Running Length:  130 minutes

Synopsis: Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” is a live-action re-telling of the studio’s animated classic which refashions the classic characters from the tale as old as time for a contemporary audience, staying true to the original music while updating the score with several new songs.

Review: Disney seems to have found a surefire formula in remaking its beloved animations into live-action films, and with Cinderella and The Jungle Book already done and dusted, this year’s release focuses on arguably one of the most enduring Disney cartoons of all time – 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, which holds the honour of being the first animated film ever to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. While 26 years (!) have passed, the magic of the cartoon has not faded with time, and therein lies the first issue with the 2017 Beauty and the Beast: while it is undoubtedly a well-produced, entertaining movie, this new film at many times feels like a poorer cousin of the original animation.

The best parts of the new film are all templated from the animation, and director Bill Condon has remained largely faithful in these recreations, down to the camera movement and choreography. Yet the most classic sequences all come up a little short in their recreation, none more evident than the iconic ballroom scene, which loses much of the multiplane magic that was presented in the then-groundbreaking usage of computer animation.

Fortunately, the cast is largely beyond reproach, with everyone possessing at least adequate vocals (though my personal preference is still Paige O’Hara’s Belle and Angela Lansbury’s Mrs Potts), and Emma Watson being essentially the perfect casting choice for a real-life Belle. While this is billed as a live-action film, many of the actors exist for a great part of the film as voice actors, and only showing up in human form at the very end. In fact, the “Be Our Guest” segment can hardly be called live action apart from Emma Watson being present in the scene, and executed almost entirely via CG.

The added segments – which includes new songs and additional backstory – are unfortunately a mixed bag. The Beast’s new standalone song “Evermore” showcases Dan Stevens’ strong vocals, but much of the other additions feel extraneous. The original film ran an economical 84 minutes, but this over-padded version clocks in at over two hours, resulting in the film’s energy flagging multiple times.

Beauty and the Beast shows how nostalgia can be a double-edged sword – while it’s certainly a lovely walk down memory lane for those who are old enough to have experienced the original animation, the constant referencing also kneecaps this version from attaining true greatness. I believe viewers who have not seen the first film will undoubtedly find this version hugely enjoyable, both young and old(er).

And of course, there’s the elephant in the room that I have not addressed up to this point in the review – the “gay controversy” that erupted right before the film’s release, due to the “revelation” that LeFou is indeed intended to be an openly gay character. It has even resulted in the film being pulled entirely from the Malaysian market, due to Disney’s outright refusal to excise minutes of the film to meet the country’s censorship requests. While I applaud Disney’s stance on this issue, this so called “gay controversy” is nothing more than a storm in a (chipped) teacup, and is such a non-event that it is laughable (and sad) that so much outrage and handwringing have ensued. No need to break out the pitchforks and sing The Mob Song, because there’s virtually nothing there that wasn’t there before.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Fifty Shades Darker

Genre: Drama

Director: James Foley

Screenplay: Niall Leonard, adapted from the novel by E. L. James

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Marcia Gay Harden, Kim Basinger, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Eloise Mumford, Max Martini, Victor Rasuk, Robinne Lee, Bruce Altman, Fay Masterson, Andrew Airlie

Running Length:  118 minutes

Synopsis: Daunted by the singular tastes and dark secrets of the handsome, tormented young entrepreneur Christian Grey, Anastasia Steele has broken off their relationship to start a new career with a Seattle Independent Publishing House (SIP); but desire for Christian still dominates her every waking thought, and when he proposes a new arrangement, Anastasia cannot resist. They rekindle their searing sexual affair, and Anastasia learns more about the harrowing past of her damaged, driven and demanding Fifty Shades.

Review: The biggest offense that Fifty Shades Darker commits isn’t that it’s a juvenile, teenage-girl fantasy of a film, or that the leads look great but seem to have virtually no thespian talent to speak of, or that the storyline is nothing short of ridiculous… It’s that the movie is terribly, terribly bland. It’s near impossible to feel vested in any of the characters because of how vanilla and uninteresting they are, and none of the plot’s few twists and turns are worth vesting more than a moment’s thought. It’s not like there was a depth to the source material that failed to make the translation to the silver screen, but it’s kind of surreal how completely lacking in edge a movie that’s supposed to be about S&M is.

Picking up right where Fifty Shades of Grey left off, we are reintroduced to the dewy-eyed Anastasia Steel (Dakota Johnson), who’s secretly still pining for, and eventually rejoined, with the dashing Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), despite his pervy predilections in the bedroom. And yet, the numerous sex scenes in Fifty Shades Darker barely quickens one’s pulse, much less come across as being an accurate portrayal of deviant sex. At least the actors seemed to enjoy the process, and Dakota Johnson can add “perfected O-face” to her resume.

The second film in a trilogy will almost always suffer from middle child syndrome, having no proper start and no proper ending, and this is of course the case in Fifty Shades Darker. There’s no resolution to the major plot points, and the limp attempt at creating a cliffhanger for Fifty Shades Freed does not impress either. Having not read the source novels in their entirety, it is hard to tell if the flaws in Fifty Shades Darker are merely literal translations from page to screen, or if it’s something that’s native to the film.

However, the film does boast a very ear-friendly soundtrack with a slew of famous performers attached to it, and even though the settings are wildly unrealistic (how Anastasia can afford such a huge apartment on an editorial assistant’s paycheck is a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes), it certainly is a rather aesthetically pleasing film to look at (lead actors included). Thankfully.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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Arrival

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma

Running Length:  116 minutes

Synopsis: Taking place after alien crafts land around the world, an expert linguist is recruited by the military to determine whether they come in peace or are a threat.

Review: Arrival is a revelation in more ways than one – not only is it another feather in Denis Villeneuve’s increasingly crowded cap, it’s also Amy Adams’ best performance of her career so far, almost certain to score her another Academy Award nomination (and likely her first win), and one of the smartest sci-fi movies to hit the theatres in quite some time.

What’s truly refreshing about Arrival is how it bravely defies almost every single cliché of alien movies, and nothing will play out like what most audiences think they would. The trailers may seem to have given the plot away, but rest assured that there are plenty of surprises still to be had. To discuss more about the plot would be spoilerly, but trust that your mind will be thoroughly screwed (and possibly blown) by the time the credits roll.

Amy Adams has turned in solid work throughout her career, but this is certainly a defining moment for her. She is understated but nuanced, and manages to convey a complexity of emotions with minimal theatrics. In Arrival the lead performance is critical to the success of the film, and while supporting characters like Renner and Whitaker are perfectly fine, Adams is what turns the film into a superlative experience.

Denis Villeneuve has impressed time and again with his films, but Arrival manages to achieve the perfect balance of a cerebral film that still has mainstream appeal. While the pace might come across as ponderous to some, his patience in letting the audience slowly take to the engaging story of Arrival is why the film packs such a punch eventually. Add to the fact that the film is beautifully lensed by Bradford Young and accompanied by a spare, haunting score by Johann Johansson, and the result is hardly surprising – a film that is immediately one of the best of this new year, an instant classic, and warrants a repeat viewing on the big screen to take all its minutiae in.

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

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