Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: Cathy Yan

Screenplay: Christina Hodson

Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor

Running Length:  109 minutes

Synopsis: After splitting up with The Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and three other female superheroes – Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez)- come together to save the life of a little girl, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco) from an evil crime lord.

Review: It was not difficult to tell that Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was the lone bright spot in the frankly rather disastrous Suicide Squad in 2016, and it was only natural for her to get a movie of her own, especially after the success that Warner Bros and DC saw with Wonder Woman. Best described as something along the lines of Deadpool meets John Wick meets Kill Bill, at its best Birds of Prey is a kinetic action film with great action choreography, topped by the excellent, mesmerizing performance of Margot Robbie (and to a lesser extent, Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary). At its worst, the movie is a glorified mess, with a narrative structure that tries to be a little too smart for its own good; visuals, sound and music cranked all the way up to a migraine-inducing 11, and having a bunch of characters be nothing more than glorified plot devices while being onscreen.

Credit has to be given where it’s due, and Harley Quinn in her second outing has managed to cement her position as one of the most interesting characters in the (admittedly smallish) cast of characters thus far in the DCEU. Margot Robbie puts 110% into the role and absolutely nails all facets of Harley Quinn’s character, from the sadistic, psychotic, ass-kicking killer babe to the “girl next door” who’s looking for some kinship and bonding amongst birds of a similar feather. It’s a great, memorable character, and the expanded screen time that Robbie has been given for headlining this film pays off in spades.

Unfortunately, none of the other female characters manage to fare as well, and while the film is named Birds of Prey, nothing here suggests that the actual members of the Birds of Prey would be interesting enough to hold their own in a movie. It’s also rather disappointing that after the extended amount of time that was devoted in the film to putting the five female characters together in one room, the resultant denouement is such an underwhelming one, ending the film with an action sequence that is easily the least impressive of all the action scenes that preceded it. Also, the less that is said of the men in this film the better – Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina stick out like sore thumbs with their scenery chewing, and the whole campy angry white male shtick they adopt simply fails to take off entirely.

Christina Hodson makes some strange decisions with the screenplay, regularly breaking up the narrative timeline for no reason whatsoever, and while it sometimes works (Harley Quinn is mentally disturbed after all), there are other times where the movie feels very choppy and unfocused. There are some great scenes – Harley’s ode to the perfect egg sandwich almost rivals the iconic grilled cheese sandwich sequence in Chef, and an early fight scene where Harley beats out a bunch of mercenaries to rescue Cassandra Cain is hard-hitting in the best way possible. Yet, these are few and far between, and while there is enough to keep most audiences entertained, Birds of Prey feels too much like a chore to sit through for a good chunk of its runtime that it can’t earn an unequivocal recommendation.

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Men in Black: International

Genre: Sci-Fi, Comedy

Director: F. Gary Gray

Screenplay: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois

Running Length: 115 minutes

Synopsis: The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

Review: While the original Men in Black was a great movie, the franchise itself hasn’t managed to do as well, with both Men in Black 2 and 3 treading familiar ground but bringing nothing much new to the table. However, there was always the faultless pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to lean back on. 22 years later, we now have a fourth installment in the franchise that no longer involves the duo, replaced instead by Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. While there’s an easy camaraderie between Hemsworth and Thompson (undoubtedly aided by the fact that they have worked together previously in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame), it may really be asking too much for them to replicate the franchise-defining chemistry between Jones and Smith. That does leave the door open for Kumail Nanjiani, voicing Pawny, a miniature alien sidekick to Tessa’s Agent M, to steal every single scene that he appears in, and his presence is easily the best thing in the entire show.

Men in Black: International demands very little from its viewers, and in more ways than one the film seems to reflect this mentality – CGI is surprisingly dodgy at times, and very often the settings ring false, from a totally deserted Paris to a really generic desert landscape that suggests a lot of soundstage and greenscreen work. This is not new, but is particularly apparent in MIB: International especially because of the inconsistent CGI. The plot is also paper-thin and the so-called twists are so painfully obvious that they really shouldn’t even have bothered. While the film runs a relatively short 115 minutes, the screenplay is inexplicably plodding at times (take for example the entire subplot featuring Rebecca Ferguson as an alien arms trader), and while all the essential summer blockbuster movie beats are present and accounted for, there’s really nothing that comes across as being new or different.

While Hemsworth and Thompson don’t replicate the onscreen chemistry they shared in Thor: Ragnarok, the audience goodwill that their previous MCU pairing had fostered cannot be denied, and there is an affability between the two that still works quite well here. It also helps, of course, that both Hemsworth and Thompson are charismatic actors that are very easy on the eye, and look great in the Paul Smith suits created for the roles. Yet, it’s quite telling that the movie actually left so much of the heavy lifting to Nanjiani, as though not trusting that the Hemsworth and Thompson alone are able to carry the movie. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Pawny ends up with some of the best lines and sequences in the film, which in a way undermines what the two lead actors could have brought to the table.

As a summer film, Men in Black: International is a largely harmless offering – if you enter the cinema with the aim of leaving your brain at the door and getting entertained, it really isn’t all that bad. Like the previous MIB sequels, MIB: International will not stand the test of time, and is unlikely something that anyone would hanker to watch again after one outing, but that doesn’t make them bad movies, just not good ones either.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

 

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Shazam!

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: David F. Sandberg

Screenplay: Henry Gayden

Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans

Running Length: 132 minutes

Synopsis: We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s (Asher Angel) case, by shouting out one word – SHAZAM! – this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult Super Hero Shazam (Zachary Levi), courtesy of an ancient wizard. Still a kid at heart – inside a ripped, godlike body – Shazam revels in this adult version of himself by doing what any teen would do with superpowers: have fun with them! Can he fly? Does he have X-ray vision? Can he shoot lightning out of his hands? Can he skip his social studies test? Shazam sets out to test the limits of his abilities with the joyful recklessness of a child. But he’ll need to master these powers quickly in order to fight the deadly forces of evil controlled by Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).

Review: It’s hard to feel any ill-will towards a movie like Shazam! – it is after all one of a very few superhero movies that truly embraces fun, uncynical humour, and wonderment, something that’s hard to find particularly in the DC Extended Universe. On a whole, superhero movies have become increasingly self-important and weighty (one need look no further than end April’s Avengers: Endgame and June’s Dark Phoenix for examples), but Shazam! makes no pretense of what it is – a lightweight and largely enjoyable romp – and it’s this awareness and the willingness to take the concept and really run with it, that makes Shazam stand out from the rest of the crop for 2019.

Much of the film’s charm comes directly from Zachary Levi’s high-energy performance, who is entirely believable as a wide-eyed teenager awkwardly trapped in a (super)man’s body, and recalls Tom Hanks in Big, which the film is obviously paying homage to (it even has a sequence that references an iconic scene in Big). On top of that, both teenage actors Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer (playing his disabled foster brother Freddy Freeman) share a great onscreen chemistry, and Grazer in particular also manages to steal the limelight in many scenes that he shares with Levi, no mean feat for sure. Together the trio turns the usually generic “superpower discovery phase” of an origins movie into a refreshing, laughter-filled segment. This is easily the most fun I’ve had in a superhero movie in quite some time, and unlike the higher-rated Deadpool 2, this is a film that the whole family can enjoy.

Where the film falters slightly is in its vanilla villain Dr Thaddeus Sivana, played mostly straight by Mark Strong, and the eventual showdown between Shazam and Sivana. These fall firmly into a been there, done that groove, and it is mildly disappointing that film ends up with a somewhat lackluster final reel, and in particular an 11thhour plot development is surprising but also doesn’t feel all that well thought-out.

It’s clear that Shazam! isn’t aiming to be on par with the “true” superhero films this year, and its release schedule (being bookended by two very big Marvel films) is indicative of Warner Bros’ strategy – comedy first, superhero film second. Shazam! is pretty much like its titular character, as while it doesn’t take itself all too seriously, can still pack a pretty decent punch.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Crazy Rich Asians

Genre: Romance, Comedy

Director: Jon M. Chu

Screenplay: Peter Chiarelli, Adele Lim, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan

Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Carmen Soo, Pierre Png, Fiona Xie

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: Crazy Rich Asians follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she accompanies her longtime boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Excited about visiting Asia for the first time but nervous about meeting Nick’s family, Rachel is unprepared to learn that Nick has neglected to mention a few key details about his life. It turns out that he is not only the scion of one of the country’s wealthiest families but also one of its most sought-after bachelors. Being on Nick’s arm puts a target on Rachel’s back, with jealous socialites and, worse, Nick’s own disapproving mother (Michelle Yeoh) taking aim. And it soon becomes clear that while money can’t buy love, it can definitely complicate things.

Review: Easily the most talked-about movie to hit local theatres in months, Crazy Rich Asians comes with a lot of additional baggage for its Singapore release. After all, Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel is set in Singapore, and this movie adaptation features not only many glamour shots of Singapore, but also a whole slew of Singaporean actors. One cannot deny the initial thrill of seeing this many familiar faces and places in a true-blue Hollywood production, but once the rush fades, is Crazy Rich Asians actually a good movie? The answer is… kind of.

At its heart, Crazy Rich Asians is simply a good old-fashioned fish-out-of-water romantic comedy, containing almost every trope that a film of the genre would (or should) have, which makes the film quite enjoyable at its most basic level. It helps that Golding and Wu share a good onscreen chemistry, and in particular Wu’s engaging performance would make audiences root for her from very early on in the proceedings. However, it’s Michelle Yeoh that truly impresses as Eleanor, and she’s transformed the stern matriarch from a rather one-dimensional villain into a complex, believable character who values family above all else.

Kevin Kwan’s novel was a sprawling book with many characters, and while Chiarelli and Lim’s screenplay tries its best to corral the narrative, the film is an uneven one, especially whenever the central couple spends time apart and the film gets caught up with one of the many underdeveloped subplots. Particularly under-baked is the troubled relationship of Astrid and Michael, which is a pity because both Gemma Chan and Pierre Png seem to have so much more to offer. And while there are many recognizable faces for most Singaporean audiences, none of the other supporting cast members leave much of an impression apart from Awkwafina (effortlessly stealing the limelight just like in Ocean’s 8) as Rachel’s college friend Peik Lin and Nico Santos as Nick’s gay cousin Oliver.

There has been some blowback amongst locals regarding the underrepresentation of minorities in Singapore in the film, but the fact of the matter is that this is after all a Hollywood production of a novel that didn’t make any minority representation in the first place. It’s a film that’s made with American sensibilities in mind, and any illusions that this is a “true” Asian film should have been cast aside from the beginning. There are plenty of Asian filmmakers making Asian films with Asian casts, so why would we even look to this Hollywood film to make this kind of representation for us? It’s an unnecessary criticism of a show that’s not designed to be anything more than a romantic comedy that appeals to the masses.

And mass appeal is what Crazy Rich Asians has in spades. It is a film that has something for almost everyone while not really excelling in any one aspect – it has some luxury and food porn, a somewhat engaging central romance, occasionally entertaining comedic sequences, and familial moments that would resonate with some Asian audiences. It’s great that the film has performed well in the US domestic market (and I foresee it doing well in Singapore as well), which importantly keeps the door open for future shows with stronger Asian American representation. This is no Black Panther or Get Out, to be sure, but it’s legitimately entertaining fluff as long as one goes in with the right expectations.

Rating: * * ½ (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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Ghostbusters

Genre: Comedy

Director: Paul Feig

Screenplay: Paul Feig, Katie Dippold, based on the 1984 film written by Day Aykroyd, Harold Ramis

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Cecily Strong, Matt Walsh, Ed Begley Jr., Andy Garcia, Bill Murray, Day Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Sigourney Weaver

Running Length: 117 minutes

Synopsis: Thirty years after the original film took the world by storm, Ghostbusters is back and fully rebooted for a new generation.  Director Paul Feig combines all the paranormal fighting elements that made the original franchise so beloved with a cast of new characters, played by the funniest actors working today.

Review: Paul Feig has had a pretty good track record so far of crossing genres with comedy with female-centric films (The Heat, Spy), and while Ghostbusters follows in the same vein, it isn’t quite as successful a venture as his previous outings. The fault doesn’t lie on the female leads however, but to the script trying too hard to reference the original film at every turn. It’s still a relatively entertaining Summer film, but ends up feeling somewhat like a missed opportunity.

While this is a reboot of the 32-year old Ghostbusters, the clear difference is that instead of a team of male comedy actors, Feig has decided to go with a team of female comedy actors. It has created a rather vicious backlash but in my opinion (and this is coming from someone who literally grew up watching Ghostbusters multiple times) it doesn’t hurt the movie at all. McCarthy and Wiig both seem a little muted in their performances here, however, and though their friendship is positioned as being central to the plot, it actually ends up being a non-starter. Leslie Jones is unfortunately playing a rather stereotyped black character, but she does the best she could within the confines of the role. The true gem in the cast, however, is Kate McKinnon, and her portrayal as the eccentric Holtzmann brings some of the best lines and big laughs in the film. The four women also share an affable chumminess onscreen, and in spots where the script starts to sputter, the movie survives purely on the goodwill generated by the quartet’s presence.

One of the biggest challenges that Feig and co-writer Dippold probably dealt with for the remake is the amount of baggage that comes with rebooting a much beloved franchise, and in this aspect they are only moderately successful. There seems to be an over-insistence on making unnecessary references to the original Ghostbusters (including walk-on roles for almost every surviving cast member of the 1984 film), and it really does needlessly encumber the film in many aspects, right down to the soundtrack. Of course, audiences that have not seen the film’s predecessors would probably not have the same response.

Visual effects have of course vastly improved over the past three decades, but Feig seems to have also relied a little too much on CGI, and the finale especially is lost amidst a literal swirling mass of CG imagery, failing to resonate on most levels. It is quite a pity, since what made the original great weren’t the visual effects but the collective comedic strength of a bunch of very talented comedians. While it would have been an extremely tall order to surpass the original, this 2016 iteration of Ghostbusters could certainly have done better than it did. While the relatively entertaining end credits sequence and coda seems to leave the door open for a sequel, one wonders if the film would do well enough to justify one.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Zoolander 2

Genre: Comedy

Director: Ben Stiller

Screenplay: Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller, John Hamburg, Nicholas Stoller, based on the characters created by Drake Sather, Ben Stiller

Cast: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Will Ferrell, Penelope Cruz, Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, Kyle Mooney, Milla Jovovich, Christine Taylor, Justin Theroux, Nathan Lee Graham, Cyrus Arnold, Billy Zane, Jon Daly

Running Length:  102 minutes

Synopsis: Derek (Ben Stiller) and Hansel (Owen Wilson) are lured into modeling again, in Rome, where they find themselves the target of a sinister conspiracy.

Review:  Full disclosure: I am a fan of the original Zoolander, and have watched the 2001 film multiple times outside of the cinema (the first Zoolander has the dubious honour of being banned in Singapore, due to its featuring the “Malaysian Prime Minister”). Over the years, the film had built up quite a cult following, and when Zoolander 2 was announced, I (and many other Zoolander fans) was rather stoked. Unfortunately, the sequel is a half-baked, overstuffed movie that proves pretty joyless to watch, despite the copious number of celebrity cameos and a handful of somewhat funny sequences.

One of the biggest issues of Zoolander 2 is the number of things going on at any one time. Not only does the espionage plot make a somewhat unwelcome return, there’s also the Zoolander father-and-son reunion, and then there’s the unresolved grudge between Derek and Hansel, the return of arch-nemesis Mugatu (Will Ferrell) and a whole bunch of other inconsequential plot threads, none of which feel satisfactorily resolved by the end of the movie.

It seems that Ben Stiller and his posse of screenwriters can’t bear to divorce the sequel from the original film, and almost constantly makes references to the 15 year-old movie, which is unnecessary and limits the appeal of the movie even further. Much as Zoolander has a cult following, this unabashed nudging and winking serve nothing more than make the proceedings feel ever more like drudgery, especially after the novelty of seeing these characters back on the big screen fades after the first reel.

It doesn’t help that Zoolander 2 is a little too self-aware for its own good. If everyone is in on the joke – and in this film that’s certainly the case, given the frankly ridiculous number of cameos of both celebrities and fashion industry mavens, even more so than the first film – then the joke ceases to be funny. While it may be a somewhat interesting diversion to spot the cameos (including Benedict Cumberbatch in an appearance that will haunt him for many, many years to come), much of it feels shoehorned into the scattershot scenes, and in the end it just feels like a chain of middling SNL skits stringed into a movie. Zoolander 2 is a sporadically funny film and thus not without merit, but it certainly is questionable if that is sufficient to justify paying the price of entry to watch it on the big screen.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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