Star Wars – The Last Jedi

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Rian Johnson

Screenplay: Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupit Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro          

Running Length: 152 minutes

Synopsis: Rey develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of Luke Skywalker, who is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares to do battle with the First Order.

Review: Now that we’re at the halfway mark of the six planned Star Wars movies, it’s time to put together a report card for the franchise, and take stock of both the new movie and the overarching Star Wars cinematic universe. It’s a mix of good and bad news – while it’s certain that The Last Jedi would be a winner at the box office, it also comes across as the most inconsequential film so far, surprisingly so especially considering that it follows last year’s Rogue One, a story that literally had a scorched earth denouement to ensure its characters would not “taint” the canonical Episodic installments. Although it aims high for its emotional impact, The Last Jedi ultimately comes across as being a bit hollow, despite the luxury of having the longest running time of any Star Wars movie so far.

While The Force Awakens understandably had to slavishly stick to the original trilogy’s canon, it was also the reason why the film felt like it didn’t manage to meet its full potential. Unfortunately, The Last Jedi continues this trend and feels like a reboot of The Empire Strikes Back, and while it will continue to please fans of the franchise, I am not sure that three movies in, audiences would be as forgiving of the flaws found in The Last Jedi. The three key plot threads are haphazardly woven together, and there’s so much padding in the middle of the film that I for one wished the film was cut down to a more manageable length, where digressions need not seem to go on interminably (particularly egregious is the entire sojourn onto the casino planet Canto Bight) before focus resumes on what truly matters.

All is almost forgiven in the final third of the film, where the plot thread involving Kylo Ren, Rey and Luke Skywalker comes to a head, and everything that makes Star Wars great is present and accounted for – rousing space battles, an amazing lightsaber confrontation, startling character revelations and plot twists – and enhanced further by truly breathtaking visuals and an excellent performance from Adam Driver (Daisy Ridley seems to be coasting on her far stronger turn in The Force Awakens). If only it didn’t take so long to get there.

Star Wars is so firmly ingrained in our culture that it is impossible to not feel the thrill when the opening title card crawls into the horizon, accompanied by John Williams’ iconic cinematic score. It is very hard to squander away the goodwill accumulated over 40 years (as evidenced by Episodes I to III), and The Last Jedi is still largely a triumph, ranking in the upper echelons of the Star Wars cinematic universe. Rian Johnson has crafted a technically excellent film in the franchise, but again it seems the collective financial expectations put on such an important film has made it impossible for him to stray too far from the tried and tested. While there is a chance that Episode IX would be able to take the story down a path less travelled, it does seem increasingly unlikely. The sequels now feel more like reboots of the original trilogy, and though that’s really not a bad thing, one wonders now if what George Lucas said is true – the reason why he didn’t move forward with Episodes VII to IX himself was because there were no stories left to tell.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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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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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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The Age of Shadows

Genre: Drama

Director: Kim Jee Woon

Screenplay: Lee Ji-min, Park Jong-dae

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Park Hee-soon, Um Tae-goo, Shin Sung-rok, Shingo Tsurumi, Park Hee-soon, Seo Young-joo, Han Soo-yeon, Yoo Jae-sang, Lee Soo-kwang, Kim Dong-young, Lee Byung-hun

Running Length:  141 minutes

Synopsis: Set in the late 1920s, The Age of Shadows follows the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds between a group of resistance fighters trying to bring in explosives from Shanghai to destroy key Japanese facilities in Seoul, and Japanese agents trying to stop them. A talented Korean-born Japanese police officer, who was previously in the independence movement himself, is thrown into a dilemma between the demands of his reality and the instinct to support a greater cause.

Review: After a three-year hiatus, director Kim Jee Woon makes a big budget return to the big screen with The Age of Shadows, a slick, stylish and somewhat overblown spy thriller set in the 1920s. While there are some top-notch set pieces, the story is almost impossible to make head or tail of, involving more twists and turns than one can shake two fists at, and additionally hampered if one needs to read the subtitles. However, it remains an engaging film throughout its 2-plus hour running time, and for fans of his recent work in Train to Busan, Gong Yoo turns in another decent performance, though Song Kang-ho is the true star here.

While the entire film is handsomely lensed, Kim Jee Woon manages to outdo himself in the setup of a number of set pieces, none more evident than the extended sequence on the train (zombie-free), in which Kang-ho’s Jung-chool traverses multiple times through the train, his loyalties seemingly being tested and changing constantly, the tension ratcheting up multiple times till an almost unbearable degree, finally culminating in an expected but still shockingly violent conclusion. The opening sequence comes a close second, in which an expertly choreographed chase resembles almost like a ballet more so than a squad of policemen chasing down their quarry. It’s all extremely impressive camera and editing work, further enhanced by an excellent soundtrack.

However, the dense plot threatens to derail (ahem) The Age of Shadows at times, and this is a movie that heavily punishes any lapse in attention – even without any distractions, one might find difficulty in following the labyrinthine plot. This does the film no favours, especially when one of the weakest characterizations is that of Japanese police chief Hashimoto, a one-dimensional villain that fails to convince, posing zero moral ambiguity and hence a certainty to Jung-chool’s character arc and his decisions along the way despite being the film’s main focus. While these do prevent the film from reaching greater heights, there’s no denying that The Age of Shadows is easily one of the best Korean films I’ve seen in a while, and certainly explains why South Korea chose this to be their entry for the Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards this year.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Genre: Fantasy

Director: David Yates

Screenplay: J.K. Rowling

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

Running Length:  133 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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