Category Archives: Rating: 3-3.75 stars

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

I was a little late to the party with the first Kingsman movie. When I finally watched it after hearing all the rave reviews, I inevitably a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very good movie, full of energy and fuelled with sharp humour and one-liners, plus some exquisitely filmed action sequences (the church one in particular) by director Matthew Vaughn (did you know he’s married to Claudia Schiffer?), who already one of my favourite directors because of Kick-Ass and X-men: First Class. So perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps the film didn’t quite hit all the right notes for me — sometimes it just went a little too far for my liking with the crassness. I am one of several people who thought the final gag ended the movie on a sour note.

Accordingly, my expectations for the sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle, were therefore significantly lower. It dropped even more after I glanced some pretty unflattering early reviews suggesting the second instalment had lost the magic of the first. For me, the first film wasn’t magical anyway. And so it surprises me to say that I actually enjoyed The Golden Circle. There was a lot I didn’t like about it, but as a popcorn experience, I still felt it had enough entertainment, humour and fresh ideas to make it a fun time at the cinema.

As with most sequels of this nature, The Golden Circle picks up a little while after the end of the first film, with Taron Egerton’s “Eggsy” well into his new career as a secret service agent for the Kingsman. He’s had a lot of growing up to do since the “death” of his mentor (played by Colin Firth) in the first film and continues to rely on the intel offered by agent Merlin (Mark Strong) and good friend Roxy (Sophie Cookson). But a blast from the past comes back to haunt him, along with a brand new, ruthless villain played by Julianne Moore. This eventually leads them to a trip to the United States, where they encounter their American counterparts, the Statesman, featuring the likes of Channing Tatum, Halle Berry, Pedro Pascal (Oberyn!) and Jeff Bridges.

It’s a solid storyline that expands on the mythology of the original while introducing fresh faces and ideas. The way the Statesman mirrors the Kingsman is pretty witty, though it’s a shame that we couldn’t have seen a little more of them in action throughout the movie (perhaps in the third film?). The smart gadgets are as innovative as they were in the first film, and the action sequences are generally well choreographed, albeit lacking an iconic scene like the church one from the first film (more on this later). I also admit there are plenty of great jokes — typically sharp one-liners — that made me laugh out loud multiple times.

On the flip side, The Golden Circle is also riddled with problems. The first one arrives very early on in the film: Over-reliance on CGI. I like the camera movements and the pace of the action sequences, but it is so obviously cartoonish that it strips away reality and a sense of genuine tension. The car chase and Julianne Moore’s pet dogs, in particular,  just came across as too fake. Speaking of Julianne Moore, I love her and think she’s fantastic in pretty much everything she’s in, except here. It felt like she was acting in a different movie to everyone else. Part of it is the writing, part of it is the way she portrays the character.

Secondly, there are also quite a few misses with the humour this time around, with another crass idea that went a little too far again and made me cringe (not in a good way). I don’t mind rude jokes, though I don’t think they suit a film like this. It cheapens the otherwise classy feel of the production. There’s also a very famous celebrity who plays himself throughout the movie. The schtick works well at first before he comes back again and again and you realise it’s not a cameo but an idea that has been stretched way too thin.

Thirdly — and I don’t consider this a spoiler because it’s in all the trailers and posters — the return of Colin Firth. I understand the desire to bring him back given that he was an integral part of the success of the first film, but the whole arc containing his character took the sequel backwards instead of forward. When someone can die so comprehensively and then come back with ease, it really takes away from the emotions of the storyline.

Having said all that, I liked The Golden Circle for what it was—a fun sequel that tries to amp up on everything the original provided. I think Matthew Vaughn had the right idea because that’s what sequels generally need to do in order to please the audience, but there were just too many missteps along the way to make it as good as we all wanted it to be. Nevertheless, I grinned, I laughed, and I was entertained. That’s good enough for me.

3.25 stars out of 5

Baby Driver (2017)

Edgar Wright is an awesome filmmaker, but none of his films that I’ve seen — Shaun of the DeadThe World’s End, Scott Pilgrim vs The World — have ever really been at the top of my lists. Very good, funny and wacky, and usually a little different, for sure, but nothing that has truly blown me away. His latest effort, Baby Driver, could be his best movie to date, though it still didn’t quite get there for me — at least not to the extent of the astounding 93% Rotten Tomato rating that it currently holds.

We’ve seen plenty of movies centred around getaway drivers before, with Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (starring Ryan Gosling) being one of my favourite movies of 2011. In a similar vein, Baby Driver revolves around the young eponymous hero of the film, played by Ansel Elgort, who seems to be just a natural at the wheel. He’s not much of a talker and he loves his music (for an interesting reason). Unfortunately, Baby owes a heist mastermind played by the wonderful Kevin Spacey, and is forced to carry out more robberies with a fascinating bunch of characters led by Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Jon Bernthal. Things get especially complicated when he gets involved with a pretty waitress at the local diner, played by Lily James.

It sounds like a typical premise and it is, but Wright is able to inject Baby Driver with a really fun, pop-corny vibe that really gets audiences into a groove. I was a little worried at the start when Elgort breaks into a bit of a dance while walking down the street, feeling as though it could be a movie that tries too hard to be “cool” and “hip”. Luckily, Wright prevented the film from straying into trite territory, keeping things light-hearted and slick without tipping over the edge — well, at least not for me.

Of course, there are plenty of car chase scenes and they are all executed marvellously along with a slamming soundtrack that seems to match each beat and shot to perfection (I wish I cared more about music in general though, that would have scored the movie a lot more points for me); however, that’s not what made Baby Driver more than just another typical heist comedy. Despite the cookie-cutter premise, the characters are wonderfully written and performed, with Elgort proving he has what it takes to be a leading man in Hollywood for years and both Hamm and Foxx standing out with a great blend of affability and menace. Lily James was fine, though her character could have offered more in my opinion, while Kevin Spacey always delivers as usual.

Another strong point of the film is the dialogue, which is sharp and snappy, and most of all it brings out the personalities of the characters. There are some great one-liners which made me laugh out loud — the film definitely passes the 6-laugh test for a comedy. There are cliches to put up with, though I felt there were enough surprises to keep the plot from getting stale. For a movie of this type, I also felt it could have been a tad shorter (perhaps 10-15 mins off the 113-minute running time).

In all, I found Baby Driver to be a fun and enjoyable ride fuelled by Wright’s crisp writing and direction and solid performances all around. Is it a little overrated? Probably, if you measure it by the critic metrics available. But that shouldn’t detract from what is undoubtedly an excellent effort that stands as one of the better action-comedies in recent years.

3.75 stars out of 5

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

After years of negotiations, Sony finally did the smart thing and shared its precious rights to Spider-Man with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Because of that, Spider-Man ended up being one of the highlights of the awesome Captain America: Civil War, which got everyone super excited for his first Sony-Marvel solo film, Spider-Man: Homecoming.

The verdict? Pretty damn good. Homecoming was just about everything I had hoped it would be, and many of my concerns about it turned out to be unfounded.

First of all, as promised, Homecoming is part of the MCU but also a standalone film. It helps if you have seen Civil War, where Tom Holland’s version of Spider-Man first appeared, but it’s not imperative. The film uses the famous airport scene as a segway so we don’t have to be reintroduced to the origins story all over again. In that sense, Homecoming feels like a sequel of sorts at times.

Second, Homecoming is, as they claimed, a different Marvel film. They weren’t lying when they said it was a high school movie, a teenage coming-of-age film with a John Hughes vibe. For those too young to know who John Hughes is, think Lindsay Lohan’s Mean Girls or Emma Stone’s Easy A, or Hailee Steinfeld’s The Edge of Seventeen. It’s got a lot of light humour and witty dialogue, not too much heavy drama, and plenty of high school-related themes. In other words, it actually features an environment and issues a high school Spider-Man would be dealing with, like girls, popularity, keeping secrets, etc.

Third, the trailers did not give too much away, as I had feared. After seeing the first couple of trailers, I had in my mind how the movie would pan out, and I’m glad to say it was quite different to what I had expected in terms of progression and characters. There are a few neat surprises and choices I thought worked well.

Fourth, and thank goodness, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) did not dominate the film as the marketing suggested. Iron Man was in all the posters and a good chunk of the trailers, but that was just to sell the movie. This is very much a Spider-Man movie in which Tony Stark plays a small but pivotal role. He has a significant presence, but  Downey Jr doesn’t take up much screen time — more than a cameo but less than a major supporting character. I think director John Watts gets it just right.

The performances are excellent. Tom Holland shined as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in limited screen time in Civil War, and he’s just as good carrying a 133-minute movie. Apart from actually looking like a real teenager, he’s extremely likeable and captures that teenage angst perfectly. He’s my favourite Spider-Man to date.

And thanks to Michael Keaton, who plays his third-winged superhero/villain (Batman, Birdman, and now Vulture), Homecoming has one of the best bad guys in the MCU. I was a bit meh about Vulture before because he felt like just a bad version of Falcon, but Keaton elevates his character, giving not just justifications for his actions but also multiple dimensions to his character. It’s not his abilities or gadgets but his character and demeanour that makes him great. He’s empathetic when he needs to be and menacing and terrifying when wants to be. Kudos to Keaton, because villains have always been the weakest link in the MCU, and now they have a new baddie who can rival Loki.

The minor characters are a bit of a mixed bag. I initially thought going for the diverse casting might end up being a problem, though eventually, it all worked out for the best. Jacob Batalon plays Ned, a new Asian character and Peter’s affable best friend. There were a few times he got somewhat irritating, but that’s what he’s supposed to do. Laura Harrier is Liz, the girl Peter has a crush on. At first I didn’t think she was a good fit for the love interest, but later on, I understood why they chose her. Two bigger names that made splashes when they were cast — Zendaya and Donald Glover — were relative disappointments in that they barely go to do anything. On the other hand, Tony Revolori gave us an interesting and funny version of bully Flash Thompson, while Marisa Tomei did her thing as “hot Aunt May”.

In terms of action, Homecoming is not revolutionary but holds its own in the MCU. I would say it’s on par with any of the action sequences we’ve seen in any of the previous Spider-Man films in terms of excitement and creativity, except with better special effects (the movements of the pure CGI Spider-Man are more realistic). That said, despite some excellent set pieces, I would have preferred a little more action and a better climatic battle. But that’s just me.

At the end of the day, I wouldn’t say Homecoming is one of the best MCU movies, but it’s a very good one targeted more at teenagers and young adults rather than small children and older audiences. It’s a very good Spider-Man movie, a very good coming-of-age movie, a very good high school movie, and a very good comedy, plus it’s got one of the best Marvel villains ever in Vulture (Michael Keaton).  I Throw all of that together and what you end up with is a light, fun and entertaining experience that doesn’t quite add up to “great”. It’s nothing that will absolutely blow you away, but hey, Marvel can’t give us Iron Man, The Avengers, or Civil War every time. I’d put it on the same level as say an Ant-Man, maybe even a shade higher.

3.75 stars out of 5

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

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.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Tale as old as 1991, close as it can be.

The live-action adaptation of the 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast is real, and it’s spectacular. I’ve never really been fond of feature-length animated films, so naturally I was keen to check out the live-action version of the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. My kids really wanted to see it too.

Basically, if you like the original, you’ll like this version. Beauty and the Beast follows the animated film very closely, from all the characters to the plot points to the songs, with only a handful of things added to give the story an extra dimension. Given that it’s a timeless, universal tale, the adaptation doesn’t lose anything in terms of the appeal of the story, and with CGI as good as it is  now, the look of the Beast and the enchanted household appliances are generally good enough to get by.

This review, therefore, really comes down to what brings the live-action to life, which are the performances of the actors and the special effects. Yes, director Bill Condon (Dream Girls, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Parts 1 &2) and writers Stephen Chbosky (Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) played big roles, but let’s face it—a lot of other talented people in Hollywood probably could have produced something very similar.

For me, the clear standout was the villain Gaston, played wonderfully by Luke Evans. I didn’t think Gaston was all that memorable in the animated version, though here Evans makes Gaston a charismatic and insufferable douche who hits all the right notes in both performance and song. Alongside Gaston was enamored sidekick LeFou, played by Josh Gad, who I haven’t been a huge fan of but admit was great for this role. More on him later. Oh, and it’s always good to see Kevin Kline on screen, this time as Maurice, Belle’s protective father.

No complaints either in terms of the household appliances, played by the biggest stars of the movie. You’ve got Sir Ian McKellen as clock Cogsworth, Ewan McGregor as candelabra Lumiere, Stanley Tucci as harpsichord Maestro Cadenza, Emma Thompson as Mrs Potts, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as feather duster Plumette. All of them deliver voice performances that bring gravitas to the film without overshadowing the leads.

Speaking of the leads, I must say Emma Watson would not be my first choice for Belle, and I stand by that statement having watched her performance, which is passable but not fantastic. For me, she still had too many shades of Hermione in her expressions and delivery, but to be fair to her I am not as critical of her singing voice, which sounded fine to me. She’s not a broadway legend like Paige O’Hara, so you can’t expect her to sing like one. Let’s just say Watson was good as Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were in La La Land.

By contrast, I give a big thumbs up to Dan Stevens as the Beast. He must have had some computer help with his voice, but for the most part he gets the sounds perfect. And I have no complaints about his motion capture work. The Beast, whose look and sound I had worried about prior to the film’s release, turned out to be all right.

That said, I found some of the CGI for the Beast a little bit off 100%. Sometimes it’s in the facial expressions, sometimes it’s the hair, and sometimes it was the way he walked and moved. I may be nitpicking but when films like Rise/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and The Jungle Book are so flawless you know they could have done better.

These few minor quibbles aside, Beauty and the Beast is a solid and faithful live-action adaptation of a beloved classic. It’s certainly better than Maleficent, though I felt like it lacked the freshness of Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 live-action version of Cinderella, which came across as a different experience. This was a safer, more direct, by-the-book adaptation, and there’s nothing wrong with that when the original is so good. Even though I knew everything that was going to happen I still had fun with it, though I think the film could have been elevated to another level with a slightly different take on the material.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: Don’t get and don’t care about the so-called “controversies”—LeFou being gay (big effing deal) and Belle being a victim of Stockholm syndrome (get a life, it’s based on a freaking fairy tale).