Category Archives: Genre: Sci-Fi / Fantasy

Blade Runner 2049 (IMAX 3D)

Director Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario, Prisoners) said he decided to take on Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to the classic 1982 sci-fi hit, because he didn’t anyone else to “f#$% it up.” In the end, not only did he not f#$% it up, he might have made one of the best sci-fi sequels of all time.

It’s visually breathtaking, deeply atmospheric, thought-provoking and narratively satisfying. The scale is epic and yet the story is deeply personal. An instant classic that has shot right to the top of my 2017 list. For me, the most frustrating thing about Blade Runner 2049 is that I have to wait another week before I can see it again (and that’s because of a family vacation)!

I actually didn’t really know what to expect going into this one. I saw the original Blade Runner by Ridley Scott when I was in my late teens and didn’t find it particularly memorable apart from the visuals. What made me watch the movie in the first place was the Blade Runner PC game (released in 1997), which was a pretty shitty game in terms of gameplay but captivated me because of the bleak, rainy, neon-filled futuristic world it depicted. That awe-inspiring vision and atmosphere from the original film and the game (set in 2019) has been transferred to perfection and updated in the sequel (now set in 2049). The world is bleak

That awe-inspiring vision and atmosphere from the original film and the game (set in 2019) has been transferred to perfection and updated in the sequel (now set in 2049). The world still has those same elements but is now as bleak as ever, filled with desolate landscapes of metal and sand. The cities provide a stark contrast with their constant rain, seediness, neon lights and glowing hologram advertisements.

Ryan Gosling plays the central protagonist, a “blade runner” who tracks down old replicants (human clones) and “retires” them, just as Harrison Ford’s character Deckard did in the 1982 film. I don’t want to get into the plot much more than that, but suffice it to say that you don’t need to have seen the original to watch this movie.

There are some fantastic action sequences throughout Blade Runner 2049, but don’t expect an action movie — this is not the Star Trek reboot or Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It’s a true sci-fi film that explores big questions about the human condition, about who we are and what we are, about cloning and nature, about raw feelings and emotions and memories and how all of these things shape us and our reality.

Visually, Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most captivating and jaw-dropping films of the last decade along with Inception and Mad Max: Fury Road. If nothing else, this is the type of movie where you can just sit back and enjoy the visual feast. It’s not just the seamless special effects but also the fabulous set designs, costumes, and cinematography of the amazing Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption and Fargo, two of my favourite movies all time, as well as Sicario, Unbroke, No Country for Old Men, Skyfall, Prisoners, etc.) I saw it IMAX 3D — I like IMAX but hate 3D (it’s a shame they lump the two together to jack up ticket prices) — and will watch it in 2D next time. You really don’t notice the 3D beyond the first 15 minutes or so anyway, but having the massive IMAX screen was definitely a plus.

The film is a confident 2 hours and 43 minutes but doesn’t feel overlong or exhausting. It unfolds at its own pace — with a near-perfect rhythm that gives audiences time to breathe and think. While the storyline itself is unexceptional, the film is a joy to watch largely because of Villeneuve’s sublime vision and direction, well-crafted and thought-provoking ambiguities, gorgeous visuals and world-building, wonderful performances, and its simple yet blaring soundtrack.

There are layers of mysteries, some built upon the first film and some newly created. The script by Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original film) and Michael Green (Logan and the upcoming Murder on the Orient Express) keeps many things intentionally vague and open to interpretation. Amazingly, it manages to expand on the same world and deliver a fresh story while preserving some of the most intriguing elements from the first film.  It trusts that viewers are intelligent enough to follow the film and make up their own minds. It’s the kind of movie that can be seen multiple times to spot more clues and be discussed and debated between friends and movie-lovers alike.

As for the performances, Ryan Gosling is absolutely superb, as good as anything he has been in. Harrison Ford is integral to the story but his top billing on the promotional material is a little misleading. The same can be said for Jared Leto, whose role is surprisingly small. The standouts for me are Dutch actress Silvia Hoeks as Luv and Cuban actress Ana de Armas as Joi, who both deliver a lot of power to the film but in different ways. Robin Wright and Dave Bautista also have relatively minor roles. Everyone is really good.

In all, Blade Runner 2049 is a masterclass in filmmaking from Villeneuve. We’ve seen plenty of sequels that come decades after the original in recent years, and pretty much all of them have failed. This is not just a rare exception — it’s arguably better than the original (not sure if it will be revered as much but time will tell) and certainly one of the best sequels and sci-fi movies I’ve ever seen. I’m going to check out the Final Cut version of the orginal and check out the three short films made for the release of the sequel (see below) — and then see it again.

5 stars out of 5

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

If you follow this blog or know me personally, you’ll know War for the Planet of the Apes has been my most anticipated movie for three years, ever since the 2014 release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my most anticipated movie since 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the awesomeness that came out of nowhere to become my No. 1 film of that year. What can I say? I’m just obsessed with apes.

With expectations through the roof, I knew I was probably in for a disappointing experience, especially after the spectacular early critic reviews started rolling in a couple of weeks prior to the release (it’s currently 93% on Rotten Tomatoes). But I somehow managed to compose myself as I stepped into the cinema today, not too high and not too low, with as clean of a slate as I could bring.

And I was blown away.

Let’s just say War for the Planet of the Apes was as good as I expected, but—like its two predecessors—it also wasn’t what I was expecting. You know how you get an idea in your mind of how a movie is going to play out after you see a trailer or two? Well, War did not play out like how I thought it would. There are plot points I knew the film had to hit, and it does that, but the story was a little different, the progression was a little different, and there were some nice surprises thrown in for good measure. Kudos to the people who cut the trailer too because they didn’t show too much as I had feared.

Set two years after DawnWar pits ape leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) against a ruthless colonel played by Woody Harrelson in a war that will determine the fate of apes and humans. Despite being a film centred around apes, it’s a story full of humanity. It’s the reason why every entry in the trilogy works so well. Yes, there are the revolutionary special effects and the heart-thumping action, but the core of the films have always been about the humanity of the apes and the relationships between humans and apes and apes and apes.

The stakes are high and the feel of the film is epic, almost biblical. Indeed, there are various religious references as Caesar has shades of both Moses and Jesus. Matt Reeves, who helmed Dawn, returns again as director as well as co-writer of an excellent script along with Matt Bomback (who also wrote Dawn). As such, the look and feel of the film is closer to Dawn than Rise, with a sombre tone that has only a few lighter moments sprinkled throughout thanks to Steve Zahn’s new character, Bad Ape.

What really impressed me about Bomback and Reeves’ script is the way it pieces everything together, linking up not just the other films in the series but also the original 1968 adaptation with Charlton Heston. I also liked the allusions to other classics which I won’t spoil. There are a few small holes and plot points I would have liked to have seen simmer for a little longer before being resolved, but it’s otherwise virtually seamless.

Needless to say, the action sequences are fantastic. War is indeed a war movie, and even though a lot of the blood and violence is toned down or skillfully avoided for rating reasons, you do get a lot of carnage and a feel for the horrors of war. However, it is because the characters are so well-developed that the action actually means something and provides that emotional punch rather than just loud noises and explosions, something another movie I saw recently (ah hem, Transformers 5), failed at miserably.

And of course, the special effects. Weta Digital once again proves it is the best in the business and absolutely deserves an Academy Award for making Caesar and all the apes come to life once again. The amount of detail on the apes’ faces, especially the close-ups, is jaw-dropping and conveys as much emotion as any human performance. No other film CGI I’ve seen has been able to capture the soul in the eyes quite like this franchise has, not even Rogue One or The Jungle Book. The special effects are so good that you don’t really even think about them during the movie—you simply take it for granted.

Speaking of Oscars, it’s about damn time Andy Serkis gets at least a nomination for his portrayal of Caesar. This whole film, this entire franchise, has hinged on his performance capture, and Serkis once again hits it out of the park. The emotional depth he conveys with every facial expression, every look, every movement of his body, is just amazing. The other apes are also very good, but Serkis is what makes War the film that it is.

On the human side, Woody Harrelson is a splendid and perfectly cast villain who delivers both a terrifying madness but also enough humanity to make us understand his actions. A lesser actor would not have been able to pull it off, especially a couple of longer monologues of exposition that could have been dry without Harrelson’s intensity and charisma.

War for the Planet of the Apes is the finale I had been dreaming of, a finale that completes one of the best movie franchises of all time. Yes, I’m putting it in the same category as The Godfather trilogythe original Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and of course, the Harold and Kumar trilogy (just kidding). It really is that good, both in isolation and as part of the wider series. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call it a masterpiece.

5 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

The Mummy (2017)

The Dark Universe franchise is off to a rough start.

Universal went all out for its new “monsters” shared universe film series by forking out the big bucks for megastars Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe in the first entry, The Mummy. The hope was that the film would kick off a lucrative Avengers-style franchise that would later feature the likes of Johnny Depp’s The Invisible Man, Javier Bardem as Frankenstein’s Monster, and possibly Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the Wolfman.

Unfortunately, and to be honest, not to my complete surprise, The Mummy turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment. Not even Tom Cruise’s usual energy and Russell Crowe’s deep voice could save this ambitious but ultimately dull and inconsistent affair that compares unfavourably to Brendan Fraser’s adventure-packed 1999 version of The Mummy .

In this film, directed by Alex Kurtzman, Tom Cruise plays a soldier who stumbles across the tomb of an ancient Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella) and unleashes a powerful curse that proceeds to wreak havoc on the world. Annabelle Wallis (from Annabelle) plays a frighteningly attractive archaeologist and Jake Johnson is the sidekick, while Russell Crowe makes a pivotal appearance as Dr. Henry Jekyll (you know, Jekyll and Hyde).

It’s clear, with Mission: Impossible‘s Christopher McQuarrie as a co-writer, The Mummy was aiming to be a similar action spectacular with a Tom Cruise doing crazy stunts plus a mix of genuine horror elements and a dash of humour.  And to be fair, the film does have each of those things, but they never fit together comfortably or transition from one tone to the other with the smoothness it required. The action is pretty good but nothing I would call awesome. The centerpiece is the zero gravity stunt Tom Cruise has been selling, but the majority of it is sadly spoiled by the trailers, along with most of the other decent action sequences. If you’ve seen a trailer or two for this movie like I had then chances are there won’t be anything that comes close to wowing you.

On the other hand, there were some solid horror moments featuring grotesque creatures, but you wouldn’t really classify them as legitimately scary. It’s certainly not at the same level as a “proper” horror film in terms of generating scares. And the humour littered throughout is sporadic and mostly cheesy. Together, the three elements failed to mesh, and it was hard to get a good feel of exactly what the film was trying to be.

The film’s biggest problem is the pains it goes to in order to set up this new extended universe. The plot is steered towards creating this world of evil and monsters, and it’s not done with much of subtlety. The result is a lot of forced dialogue and exposition, which sagged the pace and the sense of adventure I hoped the film could have had. I actually guessed the ending before I even stepped into the cinema, and it’s really not that hard to do if you think about where they are going with this franchise. I will say though that it didn’t make much sense either.

I don’t put any of the blame on Tom Cruise, who clearly did everything he could for the film. Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson and Russell Crowe were all actually very solid too. Ultimately, I fault the script, which was heavily hampered by the need to lay the foundations for the future of the franchise. The story started off quite well and was exciting up to a point, but there was a lengthy middle section after Dr. Jekyll appeared that stagnated the plot to do a lot of unnecessary explaining. It’s cool they got a female mummy and all, though Sofia Boutella’s character isn’t particularly memorable and even comes across as similar to Patricia Velasquez’s Anck-su-Namun from the 1999 version.

In the end, I wouldn’t say The Mummy was horrible — it just wasn’t very good or as good as it needed to be. I wish Universal could have worked on The Mummy as a standalone first and ensured that it was a success before planning out all the later installments. They should have learned their lesson from the DCEU, which produced the similarly disappointing Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad. It seems unlikely that Universal will pull the plug on the Dark Universe franchise because Tom Cruise movies typically do gangbusters in overseas markets (I saw it in a packed house on a Wednesday afternoon during work hours) — and as we’ve seen with Wonder Woman, the ship can be straightened — but it’s going to be an uphill battle after this disappointing first entry.

2.75 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

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

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.

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