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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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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Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Genre: Horror, Comedy

Director: Christopher B. Landon

Screenplay: Carrie Evans, Emi Mochizuki, Christopher B. Landon

Cast: Tye Sheridan, David Koechner, Cloris Leachman, Halston Sage, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan, Sarah Dumont, Patrick Schwarzenegger

Running Length: 93 minutes

Synopsis: Three scouts and lifelong friends join forces with one badass cocktail waitress to become the world’s most unlikely team of heroes. When their peaceful town is ravaged by a zombie invasion, they’ll fight for the badge of a lifetime and put their scouting skills to the test to save mankind from the undead.

Review: It’s exceedingly clear that anyone shelling out money to watch Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse will have known in advance what they are getting themselves into – as long as one has watched any trailer of the film, they would know that this is more Scary Movie than a scary movie, and that age and enjoyment of the movie has an inverse relationship. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse is unyieldingly sexist and puerile, proudly wearing its T&A badge on its sleeve, yet it still comes up somewhat short even when viewed forgivingly through the eyes of a teenaged boy who managed to sneak into the M18-rated movie.

The problem is mainly that the film doesn’t go far enough, especially since it is supposed to target a slightly older demographic. Other than a few moments of bawdy humour (yes, the strip club is really called “Lawrence of Alabia”, and you’ll be in for treat if you’ve ever wondered about zombie cunnilingus or zombie penises), there is barely anything else that seems to justify its M18 rating. In fact, Tye Sheridan and gang are such sweet leads that they seem more suited to be in a teen romance flick than a zombie film.

While there are certainly great moments of gore, a small number of laugh-out-loud sequences and an excellent opening sequence, a lot of Scouts Guide is painfully predictable, and the film heads steadily downhill as it progresses. Fortunately, it’s a fast-paced and relatively short film, and the end credits starts to roll just as it begins to get tiresome. And despite its title (and its leads staying in uniform the entire time), the Scouting aspect plays a minimal role, which feels somewhat like a missed opportunity.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Hitman: Agent 47

Genre: Action

Director: Aleksander Bach

Screenplay: Skip Woods, Michael Finch

Cast: Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, Angelababy

Running Length: 96 minutes

Synopsis: Hitman: Agent 47 centers on an elite assassin who was genetically engineered from conception to be the perfect killing machine, and is known only by the last two digits on the barcode tattooed on the back of his neck. He is the culmination of decades of research – and forty-six earlier Agent clones – endowing him with unprecedented strength, speed, stamina and intelligence. His latest target is a mega-corporation that plans to unlock the secret of Agent 47’s past to create an army of killers whose powers surpass even his own. Teaming up with a young woman who may hold the secret to overcoming their powerful and clandestine enemies, 47 confronts stunning revelations about his own origins and squares off in an epic battle with his deadliest foe.

Review: Video game to movie adaptations have generally not gone well, and for the Hitman videogame, there was even a poorly-received precedent set in 2007. Flash forward almost a decade later, and it’s time for yet another movie franchise to be rebooted. Agent 47 is likely to elicit a higher interest level locally, simply because parts of the movie were shot on location in Singapore, and let’s face it – there is always a little bit of a cheap thrill when you see familiar landmarks on the big screen, especially in an international blockbuster.

This is not a film that will please fans of the Hitman videogames, simply because it chooses to forgo the stealth element that was an essential component to the videogames. More often than not Agent 47 feels more like a younger, supercharged John McClane, coming out with guns blazing and blowing brains out along the way, and earning the film its NC-16 rating. As an action film, it is a rather generic one, though with a number of pretty decent action set-pieces that serve to move the film along nicely. The CG, unfortunately, is quite unimpressive, though Bach seems to try to mitigate this by employing a copious amount of quick cuts during most of the action scenes.

Apart from the lack of a coherent plot, one of the most glaring faults of Hitman: Agent 47 is how blatant the product placements are. It is clear that Audi must have spent a pretty penny for all the exposure in the film, but even the Singapore portions of the film resemble a promotional video rather than being vital to the film. Was there a need to show Hannah Ware swimming in the (an admittedly gorgeous) infinity pool of a five-star hotel, or to arrange a meeting at (again, admittedly gorgeous) Gardens by the Bay if it was intended to be a clandestine one? More disappointingly, for a film that must have been substantially bankrolled by Singapore, there seems to be only one discernable local actress involved in the film, and even then only as an extra in a very short sequence.

While Rupert Friend makes for a rather effective Agent 47 (this was a role that apparently was intended for Paul Walker before his death), the rest of the cast is bland and forgettable, and Zachary Quinto and Ciaran Hinds in particular feel criminally underused. Although the end credits sequence sets the stage for a potential sequel, it’s hard to imagine this film garnering enough interest or box office for the studios to consider a follow-up.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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