All posts by pacejmiller

Wonder Woman (2017)

Expectations are a funny thing. At first, everyone got excited when it was announced that Gal Gadot, who turned out to be the best thing in the otherwise lacklustre Batman v Superman, was getting her own standalone Wonder Woman movie. Anticipation grew even higher when acclaimed filmmaker Patty Jenkins (Monster) was signed on to direct. But then there were rumours that the film wasn’t as good as executives wanted it to be, and concerns were exacerbated when reports surfaced that the film had to undergo late reshoots. Coupled with relatively low tracking numbers for its opening weekend (US$65m domestic) and a late lifting of the embargo on critic reviews, everybody wondered whether Wonder Woman would continue DC’s streak of disappointing flicks.

Well, I’m glad to report back that concerns regarding Wonder Woman were largely unfounded. This origin story about the Amazonian princess is arguably the best DC film thus far, easily besting the incoherent Batman v Superman and the messy Suicide Squad. In my view, it is also more entertaining than Man of Steel, which has become more revered in retrospect, though some will argue that the Superman movie is better crafted overall. Either way, Wonder Woman should be regarded as a success that will give DC a much-needed huge sigh of relief.

On the other hand, I must say I am quite stunned by Wonder Woman’s astounding 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the highest rated superhero movie on the critic aggregate website with the exception of The Incredibles, which is technically in the same category despite being animated. Yes, Wonder Woman has pleased a larger percentage of critics than all the Marvel superhero movies including Iron Man, The Avengers, and Captain America: Civil War, and has topped even all of the entries in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy.  The rating will probably come down a little eventually, though it’s hard to imagine a precipitous drop with more than 65 reviews already logged thus far. The favourable reviews have the film set to record an opening weekend north of US$90m domestic and US$175m worldwide.

I say I am stunned because I honestly don’t think Wonder Woman is that good. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like about Wonder Woman, and it’s not just because it’s one of the first times we’ve seen a female superhero get her own movie (besides, Elektra and Catwoman were so widely panned) or because Gal Gadot looks absolutely beautiful and badass in the titular role. Patty Jenkins does an excellent job of creating the mythology of Wonder Woman aka Diana Prince, starting with her youth on the mythical island of Themyscira. It’s not an easy thing to do because of it’s all about Greek gods and the creation of mankind, but Jenkins manages to explain everything in a way that’s easy to follow and allows audiences to suspend their disbelief enough to stay in the story. In some ways, the first part of Wonder Woman is similar to the first Thor film in terms of setting up another world that somehow co-exists with the more grounded reality of the overall franchise.

When Wonder Woman leaves her home to enter the world of man for the first time, the film picks up that fish-out-of-water vibe we’ve seen before in the first Captain America movie. The similarities extend beyond that because Wonder Woman is set in World War I, with the majority of the action sequences coming on the battlefield.

Speaking of action, Wonder Woman absolutely gets the job done, especially in the earlier parts of the movie when we first see the Amazonians galloping on horses and jumping, flipping and gliding effortlessly through the air while shooting arrows at enemies. I particularly liked the use of mixing in slow motion (300 style, without the blood) to accentuate Diana’s super quick movements and skilled manoeuvres. However, I didn’t love all of the action sequences. The CG of some of Diana’s “superpower” movements come across as a little clunky, especially as she looks normal all the way until a sudden burst of speed or strength that doesn’t mesh quite as smoothly as it should. A late battle sequence also disappointingly goes down the Man of Steel route.

Gal Gadot is not the greatest actress out there, but she does have her strengths—bountiful charisma, a steely gaze and a knack for striking perfect poses. She was so great in Batman v Superman because her role was limited; here, as she carries the film, you get to see more of the flaws in her acting, which doesn’t always channel the necessary emotion the character deserves. That said, it’s good enough, and she makes up for it by being fantastic in the extremely physical action scenes.

The supporting cast has plenty of big names who all deliver strong performances to prop up Gadot. You’ve got the likes of Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright as Amazonians, Chris Pine as Steve Trevor, Lucy Davis (from the British version of The Office) as Steve’s secretary, Danny Huston as German general Ludendorff, Spanish actress Elena Anaya as Doctor Poison, and David Thewlis as a British cabinet speaker.

I’ve always liked Chris Pine but never thought of him as anything special, though I must give him props here as he is a clear standout. Let’s just say he’s more than a damsel in distress but doesn’t take anything away from Wonder Woman. To the contrary, he plays a big part in defining who she becomes. Less impressive are the three other ragtag members of Steve’s team, Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner) and Chief (Eugene Brave Rock). Their performances are fine—it’s just that they are not given enough to do and never end up being fully fleshed out. They feel like they’re just there for the sake of making up the numbers.

At 141 minutes, Wonder Woman is also slightly on the long side. I was never bored, but some pacing issues in middle part of the film did render things slower than I would have liked. One final complaint is the humour—ie, there is humour in the film, but pretty much all of it has already been seen in the trailers.

So on the whole, Wonder Woman does have its fair share of problems. I’m not trying to be negative about the film because I really enjoyed it and thought it was better than what I had initially thought it would be. As a superhero origins movie, it ticks a lot of boxes — great cast, fun, action-packed, character-driven, visually spectacular, and has a nice message at heart. Having said that, I would caution against putting too much stock in the 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating because you might be setting yourself up for disappointment. If anything, the score actually highlights the misleading nature of the RT metric in that the percentage of critics who give a film a favourable review isn’t reflective of how much they liked it. I personally would not put it in my top 10 superhero movies of all time. By DC standards, it’s fantastic, but in terms of storytelling, humour and the “wow” factor, Wonder Woman remains a notch below the best Marvel offerings.

3.75 stars out of 5

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Guardians of the Galaxy was a huge surprise hit in 2014, one that I enjoyed a lot but didn’t love as much as most. It was fun, quirky, referential and vibrant, with a fantastic cast that catapulted Chris Pratt to superstardom. Naturally, this made me concerned about the inevitable sequel, Vol, 2,  because I knew it would be facing unreasonable expectations and must find ways to rekindle the magic of the original while also coming up with something fresh.

For the most part, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 lives up to the bare minimum of expectations without doing much more. It builds upon the mythology of the first film, giving us a new adventure with a more personal slant, further opportunities for character development and building team chemistry, and still plenty of nostalgia and irreverent humour to put a smile on our faces. Like its predecessor, Vol. 2 was a fun couple of hours, but it also did not wow me in the way the best Marvel films tend to do.

Set no long after the events of the original, the Guardians of the Galaxy — Peter Quill (Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Badley Cooper) and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — are now working together to fight an inter-dimensional monster at the behest of the Sovereign race, basically a bunch of uptight people in gold paint led by the statuesque Ayesha (Aussie Elizabeth Debicki). When the Guardians fall out of favour with the Sovereigns, Quill’s adoptive father Yondu (Michael Rooker) is hired to capture them. This leads to an encounter with Ego the living planet (Kurt Russell), a celestial being who reveals himself as having a connection to Quill. By Ego’s side is Mantis (Pom Kleentieff), a socially awkward girl with emphatic powers and antennae on her head.

Guardians has a different vibe to the other Marvel films because of its unabashed wackiness and irreverent tone. Groot and Rocket aren’t supposed to work as characters, but they do because of the superb writing and direction of James Gunn, whose talents are again on full display here. With bright colours, well-choreographed comic book space action, likable characters, fast and furious jokes, classic 80s music, and the cuteness of Baby Groot, Vol. 2 is a light and fun popcorn experience.

The cast is of course fabulous. Pratt looks very comfortable as Quill and spews out a bunch of witty wisecracks, though the majority of the comic relief this time goes to Drax, especially in his interactions with Mantis. And while cute doesn’t usually do much for me, Baby Groot does have a few nice moments. Yondu gets a bigger role this time and Rooker really shines by giving the character a lot of heart. Bradley and Saldana provide more of the emotional punch this time around with their character arcs, in particular Gamora’s relationship with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).  That’s already a great cast, and I haven’t even mentioned legends Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone (who has a cameo), in their first reunion since Tango and Cash 28 years ago!

That said, I do have quite a few issues with Vol. 2. For starters, while I did laugh quite a few times at the gags, I found the humour a lot more hit and miss this time around, with some of the jokes coming across as too obvious. The biggest issue I had, however, was the actual plot, because it feels like not much actually happens. There’s a long lull after the Guardians encounter Ego, and I actually found myself a little bored by some of the slower sequences during this phase. It just didn’t feel like there was enough substance to justify a 136-minute running time.

So yeah, though I wasn’t disappointed in Vol. 2, I was hoping for a bit more. In terms of quality and entertainment value, the drop-off from its predecessor is not huge, but at the same time it felt like a somewhat safe sequel that does not go beyond to deliver what could have been a special experience. Instead, it’s just a solid albeit unspectacular continuation of the story.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

Like a sizeable portion of its fans, I didn’t really “get” The Fast and the Furious franchise until about the fourth entry or so, when the films started to embrace the cheese and its own ludicrousness. The crazy action kept ramping up unapologetically as the cast became a likable “family” fans could root for. The fun culminated in a Puthy climax in Furious 7, where we bid a tearful farewell to Paul Walker (“It’s been a long day without you my friend…”)

I thought it was a good place to end the franchise, but of course that was never going to be the case when the Furious 7 made over 1.5 billion dollars at the box office. And thus when Mini-Me on steroids (Vin Diesel) announced that Fate of the Furious would kickstart the “final trilogy” of the franchise (who the hell does that?), no one was surprised. The question was, would they be able to continue upping the action and stakes when things were already cranked up to 11?

The Fate of the Furious is a lame name, but I was still optimistic because they were bringing back Jason Statham and adding Charlize Theron as the villain. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ll know Dom (Diesel) turns to the dark side this time around for some reason and takes on his old “family” alongside Charlize. You also knew that the reason would be incredibly contrived.

The film starts off in Havana and appears to be paying homage to the franchise’s roots with an exciting drag race featuring Dom, but very soon the film returns to the heist formula that has worked so well for it in recent years. Kurt Russell is back as Mr. Nobody, and Clint Eastwood’s offspring, Scott, is introduced as a new comic relief character to add a bit of freshness to the cast. Familiar faces such as Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese and Ludacris are also back, as is The Rock and the aforementioned Statham.

There are a lot of things to like about The Fate of the Furious, directed by F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) which does pare things back a little but manages to add some very creative ideas to make up for the relatively less intensive action of its predecessors. There is one lengthy sequence featuring unmanned vehicles that should end up as one of the best action scenes of the year, albeit with some shaky CGI at times. To satisfy its core audience, there are still sexy girls in skimpy clothes and plenty of cheesy humour, neither of which really worked for me most of the time because it comes across as trying too hard.

My favourite dynamic of the film remains the feud between The Rock’s Luke Hobbs and Statham’s Deckard Shaw, who somehow goes from irredeemable villain (for killing Han) to just another lovable member of the family. The prison sequence in the trailer is as good as advertised, and Statham has a well-choreographed solo sequence later on that stands as probably the most fun part of the film.

My biggest problem with the movie is still the character of Dom and Vin Diesel, whose head just keeps growing bigger and bigger with each installment of the franchise. Diesel can’t seem to stop playing these characters who have no flaws and are supposed to be so righteous, suave, cool and sexy all the time and loved by everyone. When The Rock does it, I can almost let it go because he has the charm to pull it off. When Diesel does it, I just find it cringeworthy. It’s almost embarrassing because we all know he only gets to play such characters because he’s a producer. I had just watched Diesel take his insufferableness to another level in the latest XxX movie, so perhaps that heightened my aversion to Dom even more than usual.

In the end, The Fate of the Furious turned out better than I had expected, largely due to Statham and Theron, but it’s still a step down from both a pure action level as well as an emotional level compared to the last couple of entries in the franchise. I enjoyed it overall, though I’d say it was probably one of the weaker installment in the franchise since Tokyo Drift (which I liked more than most because I’m a fan of drifting and I love Tokyo and Lucas Black).

3.5 stars out of 5

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Did we need another King Arthur movie? Of course not. But I certainly didn’t mind one, especially if it’s directed by Guy Ritchie. I thought applying Ritchie’s frenetic pace and direction to this re-envisioning of the class tale might deliver a fun, action-packed experience in the vein of his Sherlock Holmes franchise. Unfortunately, Ritchie missed the mark.

Legend of the Sword does have some good things going for it. Ritchie infuses his unique style, visuals and colour palette to the King Arthur world, and you end up with a lot of wild sequences of characters running around and chirping slick dialogue in thick accents. The action is pretty fantastic too, especially all the fights and battle scenes with Excalibur. Reminded me a lot of the stylized scenes from 300, with lots of speed manipulation but less blood. The film actually looks and feels like a video game a lot of times, in a good way. And David Beckham even has a cameo!

But sadly, Legend of the Sword just doesn’t feel right. It just doesn’t come together the way it should have. For starters, as much as I like him, Charlie Hunnam feels all wrong as Arthur. He’s just…too old? He starts off as a little kid, and not that many years later, he morphs into Hunnam, who is 37 in real life (and looks it) but is supposed to be in his early 20s in the movie. As a result, he doesn’t have that youthful vibe Arthur ought to have.

Secondly, the story picks and chooses from the Arthur legend but does it in a weird way. There’s the sword of course and mention of Mordred, but Merlin is nowhere to be seen and Arthur is raised in a brothel but somehow is also taught to be a badass by a bunch of warriors. The main baddie is Jude Law’s Vortigern, Arthur’s uncle, who makes a deal with some weird demonic creature that looks creepy and fantastic but is never explained. There are also these giant elephants that are clearly ripped off from Lord of the Rings.

Thirdly, the story itself is just not very interesting. After an explosive start, the majority of the middle of the film sags as Arthur and his mates run around trying to escape enemies and forge a plan. Arthur has some character development moments, but he’s never particularly relatable. There’s some humour throughout, though I wouldn’t call it particularly funny.

On the whole, Legend of the Sword is probably better than its 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes suggests and more deserving of its $97m box office against a $175m budget. It has nice visuals and action, and Guy Ritchie fans will appreciate his sensitivities in the direction, but the film is too strangely mediocre in terms of plot and engagement for me to recommend it.

2.5 stars out of 5

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

I never thought much of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, to be honest. The first one was OK, I suppose, but I’ve actually dozed off in all of them (including the first one) — until now. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales probably should not have been made, but I’m surprisingly glad they did. Somehow, some way, Norwegian directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg gave this fifth installment of a stale franchise a shot of unexpected vitality.

Set years after the previous installment, On Stranger Tides, the story of Dead Men Tell No Tales follows Henry Turner, the son of Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner and Kiera Knightley’s Elizabeth Swan, as he tries to track down Captain Jack Sparrow. Of course, this sparks a new adventure that feels like a bit of a reboot of sorts, though at the same time there are a lot of old faces and names that keep popping up. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know who some of them are. Personally, I thought they should have been kept out of the trailers because they could have been pleasant surprises.

Anyway, it’s another swashbuckling adventure with plenty of action on the high seas, supernatural powers and magical objects, and of course, Jack Sparrow being Jack Sparrow. Like everyone else, I thought Sparrow was hilarious in Curse of the Black Pearl, the first film, but with each subsequent entry I found him more and more annoying and unfunny. Upon Sparrow’s first scene in this film I was already growing wary as it seemed like the same old schtick was being trotted out again, but fortunately, as the film progressed, the directors didn’t overplay his quirks and utilised the other pirates in Sparrow’s crew to share the comedic burden. Depp, for his part, also seemed to have reined in his performance a little, which made him feel less overbearing. Either that or perhaps I had just not seen the character for such a long time that he felt fresher.

Aussie Brenton Thwaites continues to get one notable role after another. This time he is Henry Turner, effectively the “new Will Turner character”, while Kaya Scodelario (from Maze Runner fame) plays new heroine Carina Smyth, effectively the “new Elizabeth Swann character”. They’re both pretty good, without taking away the spotlight from Depp.

As with the other installments in the franchise, Dead Men Tell No Tales has a fabulous villain, this time a ghostly Spanish Captain played by the frightening Javier Bardem. I loved the way Bardem looked and moved, with his hair floating as though he were in water and parts of his face cracking and missing. It might be a little scary for children though.

Visually, the film is absolutely stunning, with amazing CGI effects of the ships and seas that look as seamless as ever. Special mention goes to the anti-ageing effects they plastered on Depp’s face for a flashback sequence. It made me nostalgic and a little sad to remember what a fine looking human being Mr. Depp was back in his heyday.

I know the film has been panned by most critics (27% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I actually thought it wasn’t a bad reboot effort and a fun flick overall if looked upon independently from the rest of the franchise. It has a lively vibe, innovative action and even some decent humour littered throughout, although the I suspect the main reason I enjoyed it more than most people is because I practically have no recollection of the first four films with the exception of a couple of scenes and plot points (that’s how unmemorable I found them). As a result, the viewing experience felt rather fresh, and coupled with low expectations, Dead Men Tell No Tales turned out to be quite a fun ride. At least I didn’t doze off this time.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Belko Experiment (2017)

I had heard a lot about this mysterious, low-cost movie (US$5 million budget) called The Belko Experiment last year, primarily because of the big name attached: James Gunn, director of the smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy movies. It wasn’t until I saw the movie that I realised it actually wasn’t directed by Gunn (who wrote the script), but by Aussie Greg McLean, best known for Wolf Creek. Nevermind.

I didn’t really know what to expect from it, given that its premise is not exactly one we haven’t seen before — a group of people forced into a game of kill or be killed. After Battle Royale and more recently The Hunger Games, another film with the same idea feels somewhat risky, though to Gunn and McLean’s credit, The Belko Experiment manages to distinguish itself through the confined office setting and a distinct horror slant.

The characters in the film all work for a branch of a massive but vague nonprofit company called Belko Industries on Colombia. On this day, after all the local hire are sent home, the company building is suddenly locked down, after which a voice through the loudspeaker begins to dictate the rules of a deadly game. At first, of course, most don’t take it seriously, but soon they realise — through a method requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief — that they better start killing or they will die gruesome deaths.

The Belko Experiment is not as memorable as Battle Royale or as epic as The Hunger Games. That said, it’s a nice little movie that’s both scary and fun. Credit goes to James Gunn for keeping the script swift and tight. At just 88 minutes, the film has a great pace and effectively introduces a whole bunch of characters on the run without excessive exposition. It doesn’t take too long before the ball gets rolling and by then you already have a good sense of the key characters and their relationships and dynamics. At no time was I confused about who was who and what their agenda was.

The cast is another strong point. Led by protagonist John Gallagher Jr (I know him best from The NewsroomHush, and 10 Cloverfield Lane), the ensemble features plenty of recognisable faces delivering powerful performances, in particular Tony Goldwyn (Scandal) as the boss in charge, John C McGinley (Scrubs) as a creep, Adria Arjona (Person of Interest), Owain Yeoman (The Mentalist) as a torn family man, Michael Rooker (Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy) as a repairman, and James Gunn’s younger brother Sean Gunn (Kraglin in Guardians of the Galaxy) as a stoned cafeteria worker. There are a lot of characters in the movie, and quality performances help the important ones stand out and rough up the edges of what would have otherwise been stereotypes. For me, Goldwyn — with his mix of charm and intimidation — was the clear highlight.

McLean’s directorial style meshes well with Gunn’s script. For those who have seen Wolf Creek, you’ll know McLean has a knack for the visceral, the violent, and the primal. You get all of that in The Belko Experiment, along with well-crafted tension and dashes of timely black humour. The tonal shifts are not perfect, but the film mostly does a good job of balancing the horror and the humour.

Unfortunately, The Belko Experiment is still somewhat a missed opportunity. For all the intrigue, tension and crafty violence it pulls off in the first two-thirds, the final act resorts to cliches we’ve seen all too often. I don’t know how else it could have played out, though I know I would have welcomed a bolder route that offered more surprises, not just shocks from the extent of the violence. I also felt they could have set up more enticing showdowns between characters by creating additional sources of conflict earlier on.

On the whole, however, The Belko Experiment still turned out to be better than expected. It’s not a memorable entry in the genre or a concept that makes us think deeper, but it’s certainly a sharp, well-made horror-thriller that scares and entertains without taking itself too seriously.

3.25 stars out of 5

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Unlike the majority of the movie-going audience, I was one of those people who really enjoyed 2012’s Prometheus. While I acknowledged its flaws and all the nonsensical, I found myself captivated by the horror and action elements as well as the creature designs and mythology of the universe it had created.

Fast forward now to Alien: Covenant, which is carrying high expectations given Ridley Scott’s return to form following The Martian. Whereas Prometheus tried to shy away from a direct connection to the Alien franchise, the title of this sequel indicates that they are fully embracing it this time. The trailers also showed that the movie appeared to be returning to the horror roots of the original. To be honest, even though I thought the trailers looked good, I wasn’t all that sold on Alien: Covenant because it felt like it was trying too hard to recapture the magic of the original, putting it at risk of resorting to cliches and thinly veiled homages.

Turned out I was wrong. Alien: Covenant is without a doubt a true sequel to Prometheus, but it also fails to duplicate the sense of genuine terror that made Alien so great and the awesome action that made Aliens an instant classic.

The story picks up about a decade after the Prometheus went missing, with the Covenant carrying a new crew and a whole bunch of colonists and embryos in cryosleep. The only waking member when the film starts is Walter (Michael Fassbender), an android with the same likeness as David from Prometheus. Naturally, stuff happens, and the crew finds themselves on a detour where deadly alien life may or may not be lurking.

The cast is led by the brilliant Assbender (he bends so much ass in this film) and Katherine Waterston as Daniels, with a surprisingly effective dramatic performance by usual stoner Danny McBride and the typically reliable Billy Crudup. There are about half a dozen other supporting characters, but none of them are particularly memorable, which is one of the key problems I had with the film. In fact, apart from Assbender, no one really stands out, not even Waterston, who falls way short of channeling her inner Ellen Ripley. Despite the similar height and the hair, it’s not even close.

You don’t need to have seen Prometheus to understand what happens in this film, though it certainly helps. That said, I can still imagine a lot of people being confused as to what’s going on with the plot, especially regarding what happened on the planet on which the characters find themselves on. Even I had to go back and read up on Prometheus again on Wikipedia to give myself a bit of a refresher on all the stuff about the mysterious Engineers and so forth.

However, the most important reason people will watch Alien: Covenant is for the horror/action, and the film does enough to satisfy, for the most part. Notwithstanding a couple of scenarios I found somewhat tacky, most of the horror sequences in the film deliver, with one in particular standing out from the first half of the movie. I liked that the film did not shy away from the gore and some very disgusting visuals, though I felt not enough time was spent on building up the suspense. I also enjoyed the evolution of the creatures throughout the film until we see the classic facehuggers and of course the first xenomorph. Kudos for using mostly animatronics for the creature effects as they simply look a lot more realistic than CGI.

So I found myself frightened, disgusted and excited at various parts throughout the 123-minute movie, but never truly terrified like I was for Alien or on the edge of my seat like I was for Aliens.  Considering it also had a plot that was probably more convoluted than necessary, a fairly predictable ending, and a lack of memorable characters, Alien: Covenant was clearly not as good as I wanted it to be. Despite enjoying it for what it was and being engaged all the way through, I actually think I prefer Prometheus more.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I just heard they are filming the sequel to Alien: Covenant starting next year.

Fifty Shades Darker (2017)

Fifty Shades Darker — or as I like to call it, Fifty Shades Boring-er — is the Fifty Shades of Grey sequel no one was waiting for. I won’t repeat my epic rant about the first film, but essentially, it was a piece of crap, and so I had zero expectations this time around. This was particularly so as I had read the second book and knew just how abysmal the source material is.

Fifty Shades Darker picks up shortly after the end of Fifty Shades of Grey. Protagonist Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) has split from her impossibly good looking, wealthy, controlling, and perverted boyfriend, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). I think it had something to do with all the S&M shit he was into and some contract she had to sign so they could engage in kinky stuff. Whatever. She’s now working at some publishing company where her boss Jack (Eric Johnson) fancies her.

It’s not the most horrible premise, though it does not take long for the story to nosedive. You would think the film would take a bit of time before reuniting the lovers, to build up a bit of excitement and yearning. But of course they don’t. Every reason they broke up in the first place is quickly and conveniently thrown out the door despite there being no change in circumstances. The power of incredibly bland and boring sex can overcome all challenges.

Sadly, the script follows the novel written by EL James quite closely and sabotages itself at every possible turn. It creates potential scenarios for tension and then quickly resolves them in the lamest ways you can think of. Each plot point comes and gets immediately resolved one after the one in a linear fashion until the excruciatingly bad and suspenseless “cliffhanger” ending. I can’t say much more than that without spoilers, but you get the gist.

The biggest sin Fifty Shades Darker commits is that it is insanely boring. It is one of the flattest films I’ve seen in a long time, with no ups or downs or changes in direction or tone. It just plods along in a straight line with very low stakes and somehow manages to sustain that for a ridiculous 131-minute running time. There is just no tension between the leads and no character development. It even throws in a few poorly executed and lame thriller movie cliches in an attempt to “spice things up”, but the results are laughable. The kinky stuff also falls into the category of boring. For all the hoopla about the books, the sexy time in the movies is anything but sexy. You could find more titillating action on just about any cable TV show these days. It really is astonishing that the film is directed by James Foley, the same dude who gave us the explosive Glengarry Glen Ross!

The acting—well, it’s not atrocious, I suppose. Dakota Johnson does her best, though Jamie Dornan clearly looks like he’s not having a good time. It’s as though he knows he made a big mistake in signing up for the role. He can’t hide it. The other supporting actors (Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Marcia Gay Harden, Max Martini) return to fruitless role, while Kim Basinger goes through the entire film with a look which suggests that she feels torn between the paycheck she received for her performance and knowing what a shit film she’s in.

So yeah—shitty story, boring as hell, lame sexy time, and barely acceptable performances. Fifty Shades Darker is the gaaaaarbage everyone expected it to be. That said, I actually think the movie is an improvement on the book. At least the script not as diabolical as the source text, which is absolutely all over the place, waffles on, and has downright embarrassing dialogue all the way through. The film appears to have tried to pare these things back to the best of its ability. The scary thing is that the third book, Fifty Shades Freed, from memory at least, is the worst book of the trilogy. Can’t wait to see the adaptation next year.

1.25 stars out of 5

Power Rangers (2017)

At last, it is here. Power Rangers has been a roller coaster ride of emotions for me. When it was first announced they were making a new one I decided it would surely suck like all the others. But when I saw the first trailer and it looked like a mix between The Breakfast Club and Chronicle, I started to get a little excited for it. And when the reviews began rolling in and the buzz was “it was pretty good”, I got really pumped for it. And finally, I saw it, and now I’m like: Meh. It was OK.

I actually watched the Japanese Super Sentai version more when I was a kid and never really watched Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on TV growing up, so I didn’t know the film version followed the series so closely in terms of characters. The movie is also set in a small town called Angel Grove and features characters of the same name — Jason Lee Scott (not to be confused with Jason Scott Lee; played by Aussie Dacre Montgomery), Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott), Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler), Trini Kwan (Becky G), and Zach Taylor (Ludi Lin). They are all unusually attractive teenagers who happen upon these coloured rocks in a gold mine that turn them into superheroes!

Anyone who has seen the trailers will have a fairly good idea of exactly what happens throughout the movie. The kids are misfits for whatever reason and they suddenly have great powers they need to learn to control and harness, but they can’t truly become Power Rangers until they complete their training and learn how to work as a team. A pervy alien robot voiced by Bill Hader and the legendary leader Zordon, voiced by Bryan Cranston (no relation to Billy), offer them guidance along the way. Meanwhile, an alien villain named Rita Repulsa (played by Elizabeth Banks) awakens from her slumber and is set to take over/destroy the world. Guess who are the only people who can stop her?

It’s morphin time!

I really enjoyed how the film started and the first half or so. I’m a sucker for The Breakfast Club and thought the characters were given nice introductions. They’re likable kids, and it was good to see the filmmakers add an extra dimension to them by making one on the autistic spectrum and another LGBTQ. The way they discovered the rocks and how they were introduced to their powers is also indeed reminiscent of Chronicle, probably one of the only found footage films I can stand.

I also really loved Elizabeth Banks as Rita Repulsa, which came as a total surprise. She was genuinely creepy and scary, but also funny when she wanted to be. She knew exactly what kind of role she was playing and she executed it to perfection. Bryan Cranston is always a welcome addition to any movie, even when it’s mostly just his face, though Bill Hader doesn’t leave much of an impression as the pervy robot — I have a feeling a lot of his scenes were probably left on the cutting room floor.

The action is, for the most part, pretty well-choreographed and exciting, but it suffered from two major problems. The first is that it took just too damn long for them to finally become Power Rangers! I know this is supposed to be the first film of a new franchise of many, though for a 2-hour movie, I think we only got about 15 minutes of genuine Ranger action. Every time I thought they were finally about to get there — nope. Just more moping and complaining about how they weren’t good enough yet. Secondly, so much of the action was already played out in the trailers. There just wasn’t anything fresh or unexpected, which was a huge shame.

I understand director Dan Israelite (Project Almanac) was likely going for more character development and all, and while the characters are generally affable, the balance was tipped too heavily away from the action sequences. And it’s not like we’re talking Oscar-quality drama anyway, as a lot of dialogue was clunky and frankly a little cringeworthy, especially when it was trying to be dramatic and heartfelt. The jokes weren’t bad, but they weren’t particularly funny either. I thought the film was kind of stuck in a weird place, as it had genuinely scary scenes that might frighten younger kids and some crude jokes that parents would not approve of, and yet a lot of the other elements were clearly directed at a super young audience.

Lastly, the editing was somewhat choppy in places too, and if you really think about it, many parts of the movie made no sense whatsoever and didn’t even try to give explanations. This is why I think the film actually suffers from a lot of the same problems that plagued the widely panned Fantastic Four reboot from 2015, which I didn’t think was quite as terrible as people made it out to be. To me, Power Rangers is on roughly the same level — not as bad as it could have been, but nowhere near as good as I thought it could be.

2.75 stars out of 5

Life (2017)

Wow. I really had no idea what to expect from Life, which I knew virtually nothing about other than that it was a horror sci-fi starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal (I didn’t even watch a single trailer). Such movies are usually a disappointment, so I am glad to report that I was thrilled with Life, a strong contender for biggest pleasant surprise of the year.

I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone, so I will simply say that the film takes place in the International Space Station following the return of a soil-collecting mission to Mars. I guess the title of the film explains the rest.

There are no big surprises in terms of the basic plot and its progression—you can more or less guess what happens on a general overall level. However, its the way director Daniel Espinosa deals with the story, characters and tension that makes Life one of the better if not best “man should not mess with nature” sci-fi horrors. It’s way better than the most recent one in the genre I watched, Morgan (from last year), and a notch above other ones I remember such as Splice (2009) and The Last Days on Mars (2013).

After an initial set-up introducing us to the premise and the characters, Life buckles down and becomes a terrifying and gripping horror movie that makes great use of man’s fear of the unknown and the claustrophobia provided by the interior of the space station. Some sci-fi movies are good at delivering an interesting idea but not at horror, while some horror movies are good at deliver the horror but not interesting ideas. Life is a rare film that manages to do both really well, and more than once I found myself either gripping the seat rest or reaching for my wife’s hand.

The film would not have been as effective but for the strong performances of the star cast, which apart from Gyllenhaal and Reynolds also includes Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation‘s Rebecca Ferguson, The Last Samurai‘s Hiroyuki Sanada, British actor Ariyon Bakare (most recently seen in Rogue One), and Belarusian actress Olga Dihovichnaya. One of the weaknesses of the film is that there’s not a whole lot of character development (they’re too busy being terrified), and the dialogue designed to promote character development was often clunky, but the performances are good enough that you still end up thinking of them as real people and caring about their fate.

Additionally, the special effects are excellent, not just with the creature designs but also the space station itself as well as the outer space sequences. It’s great that CGI is so good these days that you don’t even think about it and simply accept it as real. You can also tell proper research was undertaken to make the science in the film feel legitimate.

I don’t want to create unrealistic expectations because there are limits to what a film like Life can achieve. Within those limits, however, it mostly ticks all the right boxes and hits the right notes to give us a genuinely terrifying, thoughtful, well-scripted and well-acted horror sci-fi. It may fall short of becoming a classic, but it’s certainly worth watching if you are a fan of the genre.

4 stars out of 5