Bumblebee

Genre: Action

Director: Travis Knight

Screenplay: Christina Hodson

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider. Voices: Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Peter Cullen, Dylan O’Brien

Running Time: 114 minutes

Synopsis: On the run in the year 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. When Charlie revives him, she quickly learns this is no ordinary, yellow VW bug.

Review: To be dreadfully honest, I had longgiven up on the Transformers franchise, with each succeeding movie getting more bloated and more unwatchable. When Bumblebee was announced, I had expected more of the same, except what the film turned out to be was a total surprise – not only is it a solidly entertaining action film, it is a very decent coming of age movie as well, actually managing to tug at my heartstrings every now and then. Though it took more than a decade, the Transformers franchise has finally birthed a genuinely good movie, and I believe something more along the lines of what Transformers (cartoon) fans had wanted all along. 

Much of Bumblebee’s success probably lies in the fact that Michael Bay had finally vacated the director’s chair for this pseudo prequel, and on top of that picking Travis Knight (of the excellent Kubo and the Two Strings) was a great choice. Perhaps due to his background in animation, and also not being as enamoured with big, meaningless explosions like Bay was, Knight slows down the pace and makes a film a quieter, more sedate affair, never allowing the robots, CG or mindless action take over the movie. Yes, there are still a number of big explosions and action sequences, but this is a film with heart first and foremost, rather than the other way round. 

In fact, Bumblebee plays out pretty much like a traditional boy-and-the-dog movie, except that the lead character is a girl and the dog is a little more advanced and badass than the usual puppy. The emotional beats are on point, and the 1987 setting also recalls the kindler, gentler movies of that era. The film boasts an excellent soundtrack and also has great attention to period detail, and anyone who’s lived through the 80s would definitely experience a fair bit of nostalgia as the film progresses. 

Bumblebee stands alone in the Transformers franchise because it has one thing that none of the previous films have – charm. Hailee Steinfeld is a strong actress and even when given a character like Charlie who really doesn’t have all that much dimensionality, she takes the material and runs well with it. Bumblebee is similarly likeable, and the fact that he has a personality (unlike 99% of the Transformers found in the franchise – yes the Decepticons in Bumblebee included) and a unique “voice” means that the audiences will be rooting for the two to succeed. 

Of course, the business end of Hasbro isn’t neglected, and for action fans, there’s more than enough (discernible!) rock ‘em sock ‘em sequences in the film, and the slightly bittersweet ending does set up the potential for other “prequel sequels” to follow this one. If they are in the same vein as Bumblebee, however, that really won’t be a bad thing at all.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Aquaman

Genre: Action

Director: James Wan

Screenplay: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall

Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Ludi Lin, Michael Beach, Randall Park, Graham McTavish

Running Length: 143 minutes

Synopsis: Aquaman reveals the origin story of half-human, half-Atlantean Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and takes him on the journey of his lifetime—one that will not only force him to face who he really is, but to discover if he is worthy of who he was born to be…a king.

Review: After having appeared in two previous DC Extended Universe movies, it’s finally time for Aquaman to get his own origins movie (take that, Entourage!). Given the spotty track record of the DCEU thus far, one could rightly say that expectations for the film was tempered, even though the trailers seem to point to a rather decent effort. And indeed Aquaman is just that – a decent effort from James Wan, a somewhat overlong but entertaining film in spite of its many flaws. At least it’s a fun movie and never takes itself too seriously, which cannot be said of almost all previous DCEU outings. 

It won’t come as a rude shock that the movie version of Aquaman is a towering, hirsute brute of a man, since moviegoers have already seen him on multiple occasions. Jason Momoa continues to own the role, and the mix of his physicality and a tongue-in-cheek sensibility makes him an eminently watchable superhero. Unfortunately, the rest of the main cast don’t fare as well, from the one-note performance of Amber Heard to the distracted “I’m here for the paycheque” delivery of Willem Dafoe, and particularly Patrick Wilson, who delivers his somewhat ludicrous lines with such serious thespian effort that it becomes comical to observe. It doesn’t help that he has the most distractingly bad wig amongst a sea (ahem) of bad hairpieces (the film’s apparently limitless budget didn’t seem to have catered resources to making hair move realistically under “water”). 

Aquaman is split into two (unequal) halves, the first half being reminiscent of treasure hunt movies like Romancing the Stone, where Aquaman and Mera venture into unlikely locales to hunt down a powerful trident (never mind that the first clue is seemingly millions of years old, but points to a second clue that is merely a few thousand years old). This does go on for a bit too long, and interest in the search starts to flag, especially when punctuated by a long sequence with Black Manta, the secondary villain. In fact, the entire Black Manta storyline could probably have been excised without much impact to the overall film, except to maybe make it feel a tad less bloated and waterlogged. 

The second half is where Aquaman truly goes balls to the wall and eventually builds to an insane finale where every possible form of seafood (I apologize for my Asian culinary sensibilities) comes together in an eye-popping underwater battle royale. It even has an octopus playing drums underwater! It is impossible to take in all the detail found in this denouement, but it certainly does look impressive enough, especially in IMAX. Aquaman is a step in the right direction for the DCEU, and for once it’s a film that recognizes and celebrates the inherent silliness of some of the worlds these superheroes exist in. Yet despite all the visual pizzazz, exotic locales, and its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, there’s really no denying that there is just too little substance in the film to really justify an almost 2.5 hour running time.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Mortal Engines

Genre: Action, Sci-Fi

Director: Christian Rivers

Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, based on the book by Philip Reeve

Cast: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang

Running Length:129 minutes

Synopsis:Hundreds of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, a mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), emerges as the only one who can stop London — now a giant, predator city on wheels — from devouring everything in its path. Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang (Jihae), a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

Review: Having not read the source novels, I can only wonder why the Mortal Engines quadrilogy by Philip Reeve appealed so much to Peter Jackson as to justify spending triple-digit millions on the production of this first movie. Judging from the result, it’s really hard to imagine the film engaging the general masses, and seems highly unlikely that this spawning off an actual quadrilogy of films. Although Mortal Engines is a serviceable action film, it is almost entirely (and transparently) derivative, and despite having Peter Jackson in the mix, not very imaginative either. The fact that for many, the only truly recognizable face is that of Hugo Weaving will also mean it will be a challenge to get seats filled in theatres, especially in a crowded year-end release slate like this year.

Although Mortal Engines kicks things off with a relatively interesting “car chase” featuring two Traction Cities, it doesn’t ever pick up from there, even if the film remains consistently good to look at (WETA did an amazing job with the visual effects). It also cops elements from past films, from Howl’s Moving Castle to Terminator to Mad Max and especially Star Wars (pro tip: don’t play a Star Wars reference drinking game unless you’re ready to get stone-cold drunk) in the final reels. The unfortunate thing about Mortal Engines is that so much of it feels like such a slog – the interminable middle with the side story on Shrike and the entire sojourn to some city in the air comes across as being particularly extraneous and unnecessary.

Special dishonorable mention must go to Junkie XL’s score for the film, which could possibly be the most overblown and in-your-face scoring I’ve had to sit through the entire 2018. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more ridiculously overbearing, the choir joins the fray and punches you in the aural gut. It’s hugely distracting and never hits the right emotional beats, even in the quieter moments.

While the acting is all passable, no one actually impresses and therein is the final nail in Mortal Engines’ coffin. There’s really nothing to get excited about – no standout performances from the both the familiar and unfamiliar faces in the cast at all – it’s either just adequate or barely passable. While it’s never easy to act against a green screen, the actors here simply don’t make a dent at all. And this is reflective of the entire movie – it could have potentially made more bank if not released this month, but when there are so many higher-profile or simply better movies to choose from, it simply isn’t compelling enough to recommend the film to anyone, save perhaps for fans of the source novels.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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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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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Genre: Action

Director: Peyton Reed

Screenplay:Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari

Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Greer, Tip. “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Forston, Randall Park

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: From the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes Ant-Man and The Wasp, a new chapter featuring heroes with the astonishing ability to shrink. In the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) grapples with the consequences of his choices as both a super hero and a father. As he struggles to rebalance his life with his responsibilities as Ant-Man, he’s confronted by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) with an urgent new mission. Scott must once again put on the suit and learn to fight alongside the Wasp as the team works together to uncover secrets from the past.

Review: After the seismic events in Avengers: Infinity War that shook the Marvel Cinematic Universe to its core – and left many Marvel fans hoping for 2019 to come round much sooner – we suddenly take an extremely leisurely, benign diversion in Ant-Man and the Wasp, where nothing much is seemingly at stake apart from family life. It’s not always a bad thing to be lightweight – after all there’s only that much world-ending seriousness one can take – but there are brief moments in the film where it feels like there’s actually no real reason for this sequel to be in existence.

I had enjoyed the original Ant-Man despite its similarly lightweight ambitions, but a second film revolving around familiar ground (size shifting shenanigans and unmemorable villains, to name two) does seem to be pushing it a little. Fortunately, Evangeline Lilly is given a much meatier role this time round as the Wasp, and she’s far more entertaining to observe as a second superhero with a size-altering suit than Paul Rudd himself, with the added bonus of there being excellent chemistry (romantic and otherwise) between the two. Paul Rudd continues to charm as the everyman superhero, but make no mistake, this movie’s true star is Wasp/Lilly.

Peyton Reed is an old hand at directing comedies, and it will probably come as no surprise that his second superhero action movie is much more assured in its pacing and comic timing. While there are still the requisite CG-heavy action sequences, Reed deftly inserts in more comedic moments that you can shake a stick at, and even though some of the gags feel a bit tired the second time round (I wasn’t really impressed by Michael Pena’s “lip sync” sequence in this film), it still makes for a breezy movie experience overall.

Perhaps it’s because Marvel has had such a good run of late that Ant-Man and the Wasp comes across as underwhelming despite good intentions. By no means is it a bad movie, but it just feels so inconsequential especially following the footsteps of Infinity War, and even more jarringly so when it’s clear that these characters exist on the same planet/plane as the rest of the Avengers. Both Guardians of the Galaxy and (to a lesser extent) Thor had the benefit of being siloed from the main MCU storyline, but given that everything has now converged, even a side-story like Ant-Man and the Wasp seems to stick out like a sore thumb when it doesn’t fall in line with the rest of the titles. Add to that some of the worst, most unconvincing (and confusing!) pseudo-science spouted in the MCU thus far, and it’s quite clear that Ant-Man and the Wasp is the textbook definition of “a mixed bag”.

P.S. The requisite end-credit codas are in place, but if you are pressed for time, the coda that sits at the very end of the credits is totally inconsequential (and feels like it’s there simply to “reward” every audience member that sat through the rather lengthy list of names).

Rating:* * * (out of four stars)

 

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Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Genre: Action

Director: J.A. Bayona

Screenplay: Colin Trevorrow, Derek Conolly

Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Jeff Goldblum, Ted Levine, James Cromwell, Toby Jones, BD Wong, Rafe Spall, Daniella Pineda, Geraldine Chaplin, Kamil Lemieszewski, Justice Smith, Peter Jason

Running Length: 128 minutes

Synopsis: Three years after the destruction of Jurassic World, Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) return to the island of Isla Nublar to save the remaining dinosaurs from a volcano that’s about to erupt. They soon encounter terrifying new breeds of gigantic dinosaurs while uncovering a conspiracy that threatens the entire planet.

Review: Back in my review of Jurassic World in 2015, I had commented that there didn’t seem to be much narrative space left in the Jurassic Park/World universe to warrant a fifth film. Given the massive box office success that Jurassic World was (a staggering US$1.6 billion), however, it was only natural that a sequel would be planned. Fast forward three years later, and the resulting film is Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which wisely moves the action out of the theme park setting but doesn’t take the franchise anywhere it hasn’t already been. While visuals are top notch and director J.A. Bayona has managed to create a number of effective “close quarters” set-pieces, there’s this nagging sense that the movie is an extraneous one, except that it has a very big budget to play with.

The focus of the Jurassic franchise has never been the human actors, and once again the leads are passable but not memorable. While Chris Pratt’s Owen Grady was still quite refreshing the first time round, the fact that we’ve seen the same Dude persona in three Marvel movies plus the previous Jurassic World means that the charm is wearing off. Bryce Dallas Howard reprises her role but has even less to do this time round. The newcomers barely leave a dent despite a pretty persistent presence in the film, likewise for some of the more recognizable faces like Jeff Goldblum, James Cromwell and B.D. Wong.

What does impress in Fallen Kingdom remains the dinosaurs – it seems quite clear that J.A. Bayona was aiming for more believability than the previous film, and there’s a lot of animatronic work on top of excellently rendered dinosaurs. This is a definite improvement over Jurassic World, and there are moments where the use of puppets over CG helps make interactions between humans and dinosaurs feel more authentic. And while the action is largely predictable, the major set-pieces are actually genuinely thrilling, particularly the opening reel as well as the latter scenes involving the Indoraptor.

Unfortunately, Fallen Kingdom seems to lose momentum in its final half hour, and the denouement feels underwhelming given the rather extensive buildup. The fact that most of the dinosaurs are seen confined in very small spaces doing nothing for much of the movie is also quite disappointing, especially since the film prides itself on featuring the most species of dinosaurs in the franchise’s history. Taken as a summer action blockbuster, Fallen Kingdom still manages to deliver, but it will not hold up to closer scrutiny nor stand the test of time like the original Jurassic Park. The open-ended conclusion leaves the door open for another sequel, but if the franchise doesn’t do more to evolve, it will likely end up going extinct.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

 

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Deadpool 2

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: David Leitch

Screenplay: Ryan Reynolds, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Zazie Beetz, Morena Baccarin, Brianna Hildebrand, Julian Dennison, Stefan Kapicic, T.J. Miller, Terry Crews, Bill Skarsgard, Rob Delaney, Shioli Kutsuna, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: Marvel’s motormouth mercenary is back! Bigger, better and occasionally more pantless than ever before. When a super soldier arrives on a murderous mission, Deadpool is forced to think about friendship, family and what it really means to be a hero – all while kicking 50 shades of ass. Because, sometimes, to do the right thing you need to fight dirty.

Review: The biggest difference between the original Deadpool film and Deadpool 2 is that, unshackled from the uncertainty of box office success, Ryan Reynolds and the team around his long-gestating anti-superhero project is able to truly pull out all the stops the second time around, resulting in a film that is bigger than its predecessor in every conceivable way. There’s more gore, more fourth wall-breaking, more action, more gags, more cameos and more heart, but more isn’t necessarily better. While Deadpool 2 remains a generally very entertaining film, it almost wears out its welcome in its final reel (this is however, somewhat mitigated by the film having one of the best end credit codas ever, almost worth the price of admission on its own). Suffice to say that only fans of the first Deadpool need apply, and even then, some viewers may find themselves feeling occasionally underwhelmed by the proceedings.

Deadpool was a complete surprise and a breath of fresh air when it debuted in 2016, but two years down the road, Deadpool 2 has to navigate a rather different set of expectations. Now that his snarky comments and meta awareness is anticipated, how more can things be shaken up for the formula to remain interesting? One of the ways this is addressed in Deadpool 2 is simply with the injection of a much larger roster of characters, and as the trailer has revealed, Deadpool actually gets to put together a rogue crew of superheroes he terms the X-Force.

However, not many of them leave an impression apart from Zazie Beetz’s Domino (who lays claim to the coolest action sequence in the film) and of course Cable, Josh Brolin’s second superhero movie outing in as many months. Brolin has an intensity and presence here that’s befitting of his more serious work, and his Cable would be a character that I hope makes a return in future MCU movies. Ryan Reynolds continues to command the screen with his presence even though he is always in a mask or under a mountain of makeup, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else ever playing the character of Deadpool – Reynolds IS Deadpool through and through, and apart from Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine, no one else in both comic cinematic universes come close.

Although the film’s positioning cannot be further from Disney’s Marvel offering just a few weeks back (that’s Avengers: Infinity War for the three of you that were living in a bunker for the last year), it adopts a similar strategy in throwing as much as possible at the audience and hoping at least some of it sticks. This has resulted in a movie that runs two hours long, but the catch here is that the film feels longer than that at times, especially when it revisits gags from the previous film, and would have definitely benefited from a more judicious edit.

Worthy of special mention is Deadpool 2’s soundtrack. Not only are songs used in unexpected ways – an example would be a gory fight sequence accompanied by Dolly Parton’s chirpy “9 to 5” – there’s even a new power ballad by Celine Dion employed in an opening credits sequence that would make James Bond proud. The score is also the first ever to earn a parental advisory warning, something that would make complete sense if you stay through to the very end of the credits.

In press interviews, Reynolds has said that Deadpool 2 is a family movie masquerading as a superhero movie, and in some aspects this is very true. Apart from the comedy and the action, what truly makes the film tick is that the audiences will feel vested in not just Deadpool’s fate, but those around him as well, in particular the young but talented Julian Dennison who plays the conflicted mutant Firefist. While it is hard to see how a third Deadpool movie would fare, Deadpool 2 improves on some aspects of the first film and looks like it would have a good chance to better the records set by Deadpool, even with its imperfections.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

 

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