Venom

Genre: Action

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Screenplay: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel

Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Reid Scott, Michelle Lee

Running Length: 112 minutes

Synopsis: Investigative journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) attempts a comeback following a scandal, but accidentally becomes the host of an alien symbiote that gives him a violent super alter-ego: Venom. Soon, he must rely on his newfound powers to protect the world from a shadowy organisation looking for a symbiote of their own.

Review: The only question on my mind when the credits started rolling on Venom was “what happened?” Where was the dark, gritty movie that the trailers advertised? Why does it feel like director Ruben Fleischer made two totally different movies, but couldn’t decide which version of Venom to go with? Honestly, Venom in its current form is a mess, and its only saving grace is a somewhat decent performance by Tom Hardy, as well as some genuine laughs that could be had – as long as you go into the cinema cognizant that this film is a weird love-child between Deadpool and Spider-Man.

A large part of the problem with Venom is its screenplay – the group effort from Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg and Kelly Marcel is unfocused and takes too much time to get to the point, with an overlong first act that sets up the story but presents Eddie Brock as a bumbling buffoon more than a sharp, street-smart reporter he’s supposed to be. It’s only when Venom starts manifesting himself that the proceedings get more interesting, but then the film pivots too far in the other direction, presenting the combination of Eddie and Venom more like bros than antiheroes, ineffective buddy cops rather than a powerful alien symbiote and its unwilling human host. It’s entertaining, without a doubt, but having seen Tom Hardy in far more impressive performances, this does feel like a step down.

The other actors fare even worse than Hardy – Michelle Williams struggles to do something meaningful with her bland, rote love interest character, and the usually interesting Riz Ahmed is unable to break out of the clichéd confines of his megalomaniac role. Both actors are literally there as plot devices, and not even very essential ones at that.

It doesn’t help that Fleischer has made some pretty questionable directorial choices as well – he somehow decided that the best way to showcase the (anti)climactic final showdown between two near-black characters is at night with minimal lighting, and similarly the action sequences throughout the movie are not particularly well-choreographed nor visually interesting. The effects also come across as rather sub-par (especially when we are all so used to the top-tier effects in both Marvel and DC superhero movies), and it’s even more apparent in IMAX 3D (save your money and go for 2D).

In a recent interview, Tom Hardy groused that all his favourite parts of Venom was cut out of the movie, and there is a strong sense that what he said is true. Venom is a wasted opportunity to take the Sony part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe into a different direction. While obviously Sony will have a vested interest to milk more titles out of the Venom sub-universe (and clearly indicated in the film’s mid-credits), the way this first film ended up will likely put the franchise’s future in jeopardy.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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A Wrinkle in Time

Genre: Sci-Fi, Fantasy

Director: Ava DuVernay

Screenplay: Jennifer Lee, based on the novel by Madeleine L’Engle

Cast: Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Peña, Zach Galifianakis, Chris Pine, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, André Holland, Rowan Blanchard

Running Length: 109 minutes

Synopsis: After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg (Storm Reid), her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) to space in order to find him.

Review: A Wrinkle in Time is a mixed bag – while it’s a high budget (over US$100 million) remake of the beloved novel and checks off many boxes in the diversity checklist (black female director, racially diverse casting choices), a very unevenly developed storyline, wooden performances and sporadically subpar visual effects detract significantly from the film. It’s undoubtedly still entertaining and should appeal somewhat to the YA and younger demographic, but it’s hard to imagine audiences being enthused enough to recommend this film to friends and family, unlike, for example, Disney’s immensely successful (and still running) Black Panther.

It would always be a challenge to adapt Madeleine L’Engle’s novel for the big screen due to the massive number of ideas and plot threads L’Engle had placed in a relatively short novel, and even with the deep pockets of this film’s production budget, the end result is hit and miss. The Christian subtext has been gutted from the screenplay, and a rather pivotal character (Aunt Beast) has been excised entirely, and even the villain’s appearance and methods have been altered somewhat. What does remain is thus even more confusing, and character motivations come across as being very muddled. While Storm Reid does a decent job as a Meg Murry, the same cannot be said of the remainder of the cast – Deric McCabe in particular is landed with a thankless role of trying to be a precocious child prodigy (but ends up being more Children of the Corn than anything), and the many famous faces that are in the film end up being celebrity cameos that bring nothing to the plate.

Some of the worlds that the ensemble “tesser” to are indeed gorgeous works of art (as are some of the crazy outfits that the Mrs Ws wear), but then there are also sequences where it just feels like the production ran out of budget to complete the CG work, none more egregious than the protracted (and ultimately unnecessary) visit to the Happy Medium (unfortunately played by a rather miscast Zach Galiafianakis), which is so terribly rendered it looked like a stage production more than a location in a film that cost many millions to make.

Most frustratingly, however, is how all the storytelling and world-building ends up for naught. The denouement of A Wrinkle in Time lacks any form of true coherence and concludes the film on a whimper, leaving many questions unanswered and most audiences who haven’t read the novel prior feeling puzzled and underwhelmed. It really is a darn shame, because there are moments where it almost seems like the film is destined for greatness, but it just falls short on so many levels that all it can do is be a somewhat entertaining diversion for a couple of hours.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Justice League

Genre: Action

Director: Zack Snyder

Screenplay: Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Amy Adams, Ezra Miller, Jason Monoa, Ray Fisher, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds

Running Length:  120 minutes

Synopsis: Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s (Henry Cavill) selfless act, Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), to face an even greater enemy. Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to find and recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly awakened threat. But despite the formation of this unprecedented league of heroes – Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller) – it may already be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions.

Review: Where to start…? Justice League commits mistakes on so many levels that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it starts to unravel – is it the choice of a bland, generic supervillain? Or the whiplash-inducing changes of pace, probably due to the replacement of Zack Snyder (who quit the show due to a family tragedy) with Joss Whedon, who allegedly reshot 15% – 20% of the movie? Or that the narrative is confused and lacks any coherent focus? Or the decidedly subpar CG visuals (made worse by a very insipid 3D presentation – please stick to 2D for this one)? While it remains a serviceable action film and should make pretty good bank at the box office, the writing is on the wall: the DC Extended Universe is in deep trouble if this movie represents the real trend, and Wonder Woman but a mere anomalous bright spot in what looks like an increasingly untenable franchise.

One of the biggest problems faced by the DCEU is that of tardiness – there’s no denying that Warner Brothers is playing a desperate game of catch-up, being only five movies deep into the DC cinematic mythos, while their Marvel counterpart is far ahead with 17 films already done and dusted. The fact that Justice League is coming before most of the characters’ standalone films (if they even materialize) is a sign of this, and the Justice League film itself suffers narratively because of this. With the need to set up the backstories of multiple superheroes in this ensemble film, the first hour of Justice League moves at a snail’s pace, punctuated only by the occasional murkily choreographed fight sequence that does not feel like central to the plot (see: the battles at Themyscira and Atlantis). Overall, the storytelling in Justice League is a huge, ungainly mess, because it needed to do so many things that nothing really worked.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the buildup of getting the team in place ends up being inconsequential, as the unmemorable Steppenwolf (in a rare feat, Ciarán Hinds’ performance is expensively motion captured and yet looks like a cheap render from a B-movie) is portrayed as being so powerful that it requires a literal deus ex machina to overcome, rendering much of the team-building process moot. That the deus ex machina segment actually is one of the high points of the movie is one of the many little ironies that pervade Justice League. Fortunately, the cast all put in passable performances and exhibit sufficient chemistry with each other, barring Affleck whose turn as an aging Batman is rather insipid and generic.

While it was clear that the pitch-black treatment that Snyder applied to the DC Extended Universe was a wrong move, the reparative actions taken to steer Justice League in the other direction fails to fully convince. It’s clear that Whedon is the one that injected the comedic moments into the film, and while these are fun to watch in silo, it simply does not jibe with the rest of the film. The result is a tonally fragmented film that requires a lot of patience to wade through, and feels like an eternity despite being just two hours long.

Now that Justice League is finally a done deal and likely to be a critic-proof box office hit, Warner Brothers can hopefully finally take some time to let the DCEU develop and steer entirely clear of the shadow Snyder had unfortunately managed to cast on the entire franchise. If the Aquaman movie in 2018 is more akin to Wonder Woman, then at the very least we have some hope that the DCEU will eventually shape up to be a worthy contender to the MCU. That Justice League 2 is still in development without any announced cast, crew or release date is actually good news.

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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Suicide Squad

Genre: Action

Director: David Ayer

Screenplay: David Ayer, based on characters from DC Entertainment

Cast: Will Smith, Viola Davis, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Cara Delevingne, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Adam Beach, Karen Fukuhara, Aidan Devine, David Harbour, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: A secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency.

Review: Suicide Squad is set in Midway City, and that’s exactly where the entire film ends up – it’s midway between director David Ayer’s usual hard hitting action and Zach Snyder’s slick, hyperreal stylistic flourishes (used to great effect in 300 and with vastly diminishing returns after); it’s midway between trying to be a mirror of Marvel’s winningly irreverent Guardians of the Galaxy (a motley crew of relatively unknown comic universe characters being reluctant heroes) and a follow up of the ultra-dour Batman v Superman; and unfortunately, it’s midway between a good movie and a bad one. As this is a particularly weak Summer for film releases so far, the box office for Suicide Squad should still be decent, but despite a handful of bright spots in the film, it feels like a terribly wasted opportunity that fails to liven up the DC cinematic universe.

The biggest problems for Suicide Squad lie in its script and editing – simply put, this is one of most schizoid movie I have seen in a long time. The film starts with 20 minutes of endless exposition, cramming in one tonally discordant origin sequence after another in an attempt to introduce the Suicide Squad’s many characters, and yet the film is furthered peppered throughout with jarringly out of place flashback sequences. Despite that, there still isn’t enough room to include everyone, and one Squad member is literally given a one-sentence introduction and casually dispatched of minutes later, which raises the valid question of “why even bother?”

There are sudden lulls amidst the action that make no narrative sense, the most egregious being the Squad taking a protracted timeout just before the supposedly climactic finale. All the attention to the characters’ back stories also leads to there being not much of an actual story to work off on, and the central plot involving the Enchantress is unfortunately bland and uninteresting. It boggles the mind that someone named the Enchantress ends up doing nothing more than create some unexplained giant Macguffin doomsday device that feels more at home in the Ghostbusters movie than in this one. Pitting the Suicide Squad against the Enchantress is also problematic, since essentially all of them, apart from El Diablo and Killer Croc, are simply armed vigilantes with no discernible “metahuman” powers, and are technically all outclassed by a 6,000 year old witch.

The performances in Suicide Squad are actually quite decent, the standout being Margot Robbie who does an excellent job as Harley Quinn in spite of limited material to work with. She gets the deranged sexpot killer part of Quinn down pat (and gets all the best lines in the movie), but it’s the brief glimpses into the emotionally vulnerable, damaged side of her where Margot truly impresses. The much vaunted Jared Leto method-acting version of the Joker turns out to be quite a non-event, since he is left mostly in the periphery of the overloaded script, though what is on display here bodes well for the eventual DC movie where Mr J steps up to be the central villain.

The action in Suicide Squad is generally serviceable, but does get repetitive after a while, since it’s composed largely of groups of people firing guns at each other. Unlike the much more successful Deadpool, Suicide Squad’s violence is severely constrained by its PG rating, resulting in bloodless altercations that end up feeling disengaged. David Ayer is definitely capable of better, but Suicide Squad feels like it has simply been meddled with way too much both in pre and post. This is not the movie that would “rescue” the DC movie universe, and now the weight falls on Wonder Woman and Justice League in 2017 to attempt that.

Rating: * * (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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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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