Thor: Love and Thunder

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: Taika Waititi

Screenplay: Taika Waititi

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Chris Pratt, Taika Waititi, Russell Crowe

Running Length:  119 minutes

Synopsis: Thor: Love and Thunder finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth) on a journey unlike anything he’s ever faced – a quest for inner peace. But his retirement is interrupted by a galactic killer known as Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), who seeks the extinction of the gods. To combat the threat, Thor enlists the help of King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Korg (Taika Waititi) and ex-girlfriend Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who – to Thor’s surprise – inexplicably wields his magical hammer, Mjolnir, as the Mighty Thor. Together, they embark upon a harrowing cosmic adventure to uncover the mystery of the God Butcher’s vengeance and stop him before it’s too late.

Review: The adage of “you can’t please them all” is a very apt one to use for Thor: Love and Thunder. While Thor: Ragnarok well and truly rebooted Thor as a character in the MCU and introduced elements of comedy into Marvel’s film canon like never before (excepting Deadpool, which is really in a subset of its own), Love and Thunder veers a little too far into oddball Taika Waititi territory and comes off as a little more forced than what Ragnarok had offered up.

This may please fans of the director and those looking for something that differs from the (superhero/MCU) norm, but Love and Thunder also feels a little too low-stakes for a superhero movie, and the comedic elements sometimes works against the more dramatic sequences in the film, lessening their impact. The film ends up feeling a little like a Jack-of-all-trades but master of none, with the humor a little less universally funny than it should be, a little less stirring emotionally than it aims to be, and the romance being a little less convincing than it needs to be. However, the film does have enough heart and verve – love and thunder, if you will – to remain a Summer crowd-pleaser and given its moderate running time (an economical 119 minutes), does not outlive its welcome.

While the visuals are somewhat uneven, there are some standout sequences including an excellent desaturated battle between Thor’s group and Gorr the God Butcher, as well as some opulent set design and art direction when the crew visits Zeus (a rather out-of-leftfield comedic turn from Russell Crowe, to mixed results) and other gods in Omnipotent City. The film also boasts an excellent soundtrack, peppered with various 80s rock anthems which are used to great effect, and reinforced by Michael Giacchino’s fun, rock-infused musical score.

Chris Hemsworth has shown that he’s an actor with great comedic timing, and it’s once again on display here in Love and Thunder. Whether you appreciate what Taika has done with Thor’s characterization over these two Thor films or not, there’s no denying that Hemsworth manages to land most of it and is willing to go to great lengths to do so (including literally going butt naked for a scene). He also enjoys great chemistry with returning Marvel alum Natalie Portman, who sheds part of her “serious scientist” persona from Thor: The Dark World and takes up the mantle of The Mighty Thor, wielding Thor’s original hammer Mjolnir.

New-to-MCU Christian Bale is as expected a standout Marvel villain, with one of the more complex character motivations we’ve seen in a (long) while. Bale has been a consistently good/great actor and here he manages to convey both menace and despair convincingly despite appearing in a limited number of scenes. However, in the grander scheme of the MCU, Gorr does come across as being a more minor villain than some of the foes Thor (moreso the Avengers) has faced up against. This has been emblematic of the Phase 4 MCU theatrical titles so far, which while being more experimental than before, all feel more self-contained and doesn’t seem to have shed much light on what “big bad” the MCU is building toward next, post-Thanos. Given the next few theatrical titles would be revisiting key MCU characters, hopefully the answer will come sooner than later.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Top Gun: Maverick

Genre: Action

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Screenplay: Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie

Cast: Tom Cruise, Jean Louisa Kelly, Glen Powell, Danny Ramirez, Jay Ellis, Lewis Pullman, Monica Barbaro, Charles Parnell, Jon Hamm, Bashir Salahuddin, Jennifer Connelly, Miles Teller, Val Kilmer, Ed Harris

Running Length:  131 minutes

Synopsis: Facing an uncertain future and confronting the ghosts of his past, Maverick is drawn into a confrontation with his own deepest fears. Culminating in a mission that demands the ultimate sacrifice from those who will be chosen to fly it.

Review: Top Gun: Maverick belongs to a rare breed of movies – the ones where the sequel is better than the original. While we can look back at the original Top Gun fondly through the rosy lens of nostalgia, it isn’t that great of a movie in all honesty. Tom Cruise was at the cusp of superstardom at the time, and the film banked very much on his charisma and good looks to carry the movie. The film had very little going for it apart from Tom and the very authentic aerial action sequences, and anyone who had rewatched the film in preparation for Top Gun: Maverick might be surprised to (re)discover how banal the first film was. That said, the film remains a pivotal one for my childhood, having seen it many times on terrestrial TV as reruns, and boasting a soundtrack with songs that have truly withstood the test of time.

Flash forward some 36 years later, and after several delays due to the pandemic, we finally get to see Top Gun: Maverick on the big screen. First things first – this is a movie that needs to be experienced on the big screen, and viewing it anywhere else (for the first time at least) is doing yourself a disservice. Secondly, while anyone who’s watched the first Top Gun (and remember it) will certainly get more out of the movie, with its numerous callbacks and “easter eggs”, it is certainly not a prerequisite. Top Gun: Maverick successfully strikes a balance between selling nostalgia and attempting to appeal to younger audiences who may not even be born when the original film was released.

Top Gun: Maverick is about as classic an action blockbuster as you can get, and there are absolutely no surprises to be had in how the plot unfolds. This is not a bad thing, since a classic blockbuster done well is still a great cinematic experience, and this is definitely the case for Top Gun: Maverick. The aerial dogfights are still grounded in practical effects, and the action sequences in the film are breathtaking and realistic in a way that is very rare in current-day cinema, where CGI reigns supreme. The entire third act of the film is edge-of-your-seat thrilling, and even though it does almost go off the rails Fast & Furious style near the end, it’s still immensely satisfying as a cinematic experience.

With Tom Cruise putting in a much more nuanced and well-rounded performance than in the previous film and still looking fantastic for his age, he is an easy protagonist to root for, and this is easily his best work in years, if not decades (I think it would take a lot for Mission: Impossible to trump what has been achieved here). However, the same dimensionality can’t really be said of anyone else in the cast, since they exist only as plot devices (yes, even Miles Teller’s Rooster and Jennifer Connelly as Penny, the token love interest). There is a great, tender sequence between Val Kilmer and Tom Cruise that is very well-handled, and it’s also refreshing to see that the film’s sole sex scene (if you can even call it that) is one that is grounded in reality and not excessively romanticized like most films do.

While the span of time that has passed between the two Top Gun films will certainly not be in the franchise’s favour, anyone willing to give this film a chance will likely find themselves entirely enjoying the viewing experience. The film has an unfortunately short runway before other summer blockbusters will take over the cineplexes, but this is genuinely one of the best non-superhero blockbusters that have been released in recent years.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Oscars Predictions 2022

Following the ratings freefall last year (in what was a spectacular flameout of an awards show), 2022’s Oscars feels like the watershed year – the one that truly decides the future of the Academy Awards and the Oscarcast. Unfortunately, this year’s Academy Awards have not been smooth sailing, and right up to the telecast tomorrow, is still seeing controversies play out, the most prominent of which is the odd decision to pre-tape the awarding of 8 “craft” awards and to edit them into the live Oscarcast. We’ll see – given how bad the ratings were last year, one can optimistically hope that the only way is up.

Now, on to the predictions:

Best Motion Picture of the Year

Should win: The Power of the Dog

Prediction: CODA

It almost seemed like The Power of the Dog had this in the bag, but the little movie from Apple TV+ has seen a very tremendous last minute surge in support, and with CODA bagging SAG, PGA and WGA awards, the odds are now suddenly in its favour. I feel there are far better films deserving of the award in this category, but it probably is wrong to bet against CODA at this point.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Should win: Will Smith, King Richard

Prediction: Will Smith, King Richard

One of the strongest-contended categories of the night, but Will Smith is much loved in the industry and has basically won every award so far leading up to the Oscars. It’s hard to see him losing out in the final leg.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Should win: Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers

Prediction: Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers

All signs point to Jessica Chastain being the favourite to win, but Cruz’s performance in Parallel Mothers is a superlative one and one of the best I have seen in a long while. Though Cruz has not seen much award action, I am hoping she will be the dark horse here and clinch a deserving win over Chastain.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Should win: Troy Kotsur, CODA

Prediction: Troy Kotsur, CODA

It again seemed like Kodi Smit-McPhee’s nuanced performance in The Power of the Dog was a clear winner, until suddenly he wasn’t, and Troy Kotsur seemed to have supplanted his place in all the awards shows post Golden Globes. A strange turn of tides to be sure, but Troy winning here checks off a lot of boxes.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Should win: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story

Prediction: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story

There are a few unexpected nominations in this category, and coupled with DeBose’s suite of wins this awards season, her winning the Oscar as well feels like a shoo-in.

Best Achievement in Directing

Should win: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog

Prediction: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog

Probably the most locked category of the night, and with CODA not even being nominated here, it would be truly surprising if Campion isn’t the winner here. Spielberg has a very small chance of pulling off an upset, but this is pretty much a done deal.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Should win: Licorice Pizza

Prediction: Belfast

A very hard category to predict – given Belfast is unlikely to win major awards despite the number of nominations it garnered, this is likely to be Kenneth Branagh’s consolation prize. Licorice Pizza is one of my favourite movies of the year, however, and it would be a pleasant surprise if it could win here.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Should win: Drive My Car

Prediction: CODA

I would love for Drive My Car to score a win here, but the likely “consolation” prize for that film would be Best International Feature, to be honest. CODA’s last minute surge included the screenplay category (it won the BAFTA as well as the WGA) and it will also be the first female winner in a long while, plus Sian Heder didn’t even get a nomination in the Best Director category, so this is yet another win that checks off a lot of boxes.

Best Achievement in Cinematography


Should Win: Dune

Prediction: Dune

Dune is definitely one of the most technically well-made movies of the year, and should win a slew of awards in the technical categories. Greg Frasier’s cinematography is excellent and given Denis Villeneueve’s similar penchant for in-camera effects (akin to Christopher Nolan), makes the achievement even more impressive. Every nominated DP this year deserves to win though, to be very honest.

Best Achievement in Editing

Should Win: King Richard

Prediction: Dune

King Richard’s editing work is more subtle but as important as Dune’s, though I am still favoring Dune in the technical awards. This is one of the categories that I feel quite unsure of, but perhaps the Academy voters would feel the same as me and go for the “big” movie instead.

Best Achievement in Production Design

Prediction: Dune

The Academy voters are either going to favor the production design that went into crafting Dune’s massive worlds and environments, or Nightmare Alley’s much more intimate film noir elements. I am again favoring Dune’s largesse to outclass Nightmare Alley and the other contenders here.

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Prediction: Cruella

One of the highest points in Cruella are the fantastic costume designs by Jenny Beavan (it is a movie revolving around fashion, after all), and given it has already won at the Costume Designers Guild Awards, seems likely to repeat the feat here.

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

Prediction: The Eyes of Tammy Faye

It’s the typical “transformed star” story for The Eyes of Tammy Faye, and given Chastain is already a best actress nominee, gives the film a good head start in the awards race here.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

Prediction: Dune

It’s hard to believe despite Hans Zimmer being behind so many memorable scores, that he has only won the Oscar once. I believe Zimmer’s excellent score for Dune would help deliver him his second Oscar.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Prediction: No Time to Die

If “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” was the nominated song from Encanto, this category would be the firmest lock of the night. That’s not the case, however, which means there’s a good chance it will go to Billie Eilish and bro’s “No Time to Die”, though we should never underestimate Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose win here will make him an EGOT alumni.

Best Achievement in Sound

Prediction: Dune

Dune’s sound design and sound editing were both top notch and really helped in creating an immersive world for the massive film. West Side Story similarly boasts great work in both aspects, but I am still leaning towards Dune in the technical categories.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Prediction: Dune

Unless the Academy wants to give a populist award to the box office behemoth that was Spider-Man: No Way Home, this award is really Dune’s to lose.

Best Animated Feature Film

Prediction: Encanto

While I am also a huge fan of The Mitchells vs the Machines, it’s hard to bet against both Disney AND Lin-Manuel Miranda, especially given the social resonance Encanto has enjoyed since its release (no, no, no).

Best International Feature Film

Prediction: Drive My Car (Japan)

Given its nominations outside of Best International Feature Film, it does seem most likely for Drive My Car to earn the nod here. I don’t foresee it being able to pull off a massive coup like Parasite to take most of its other nominations, however.

Best Documentary Feature

Prediction: Summer of Soul

Best Documentary Short Subject

Prediction: The Queen of Basketball

Best Animated Short Film

Prediction: Robin, Robin

Best Live Action Short Film

Prediction: The Long Goodbye

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The Batman

Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Matt Reeves

Screenplay: Matt Reeves, Peter Craig

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Zoe Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell

Running Length:  176 minutes

Synopsis: Batman ventures into Gotham City’s underworld when a sadistic killer leaves behind a trail of cryptic clues. As the evidence begins to lead closer to home and the scale of the perpetrator’s plans become clear, he must forge new relationships, unmask the culprit and bring justice to the abuse of power and corruption that has long plagued the metropolis.

Review: It almost feels like a misnomer to call The Batman, the umpteenth reboot for the caped crusader, a superhero movie. Much as it does feature Batman and other characters from the DC universe, it really would be more accurate to call The Batman a serial killer/detective procedural movie that features a superhero (which we can call Detective Dark Knight). Whatever sub-genre you may want to file The Batman under, one thing is for sure – it is one of the best comic book movies ever made, in that it feels like you’re literally watching a comic book unfold on the big screen. It also happens to be a really good Batman movie, coming close to the heights reached by The Dark Knight.

Ben Affleck exiting the production of The Batman as both director and actor meant that this new Batman film, like Joker, ends up in its own Batman universe, instead of being connected to the broader DC Extended Universe. Unfettered by the need to stick to the DCEU canon, Matt Reeves and co-writer Peter Craig managed to craft an excellent film that truly delves into the detective aspect of Batman as a character (he was birthed in the pages of Detective Comics after all), something that has never really been done to this extent before despite the multitudes of Batman films made over the years. Anyone that has been hankering for a movie in the vein of David Fincher’s Se7en and Zodiac would find that itch satisfyingly scratched in The Batman.

Robert Pattinson has had to carry around the weight of the Twilight franchise for much of his career, and despite proving time and again that he’s a much better thespian than the Twilight films would suggest, he’s forever swimming against the current to demonstrate how he’s not just a sparkly brooding vampire. He once again makes this point known in The Batman, and really shines (ahem) in the titular role – given even fewer speaking lines than Christian Bale, Pattinson makes excellent use of non-verbal acting to flesh out his versions of Batman and Bruce Wayne, from the gait he employs while in the suit, to communicating nuanced emotions with his eyes alone. It is a very strong performance and stands toe to toe with Christian Bale’s iconic turns as the Batman.

The rest of the cast are equally strong, with Zoe Kravitz doing an excellent job as Catwoman (possibly my favourite onscreen portrayal of Catwoman thus far) and sharing great onscreen chemistry with Pattinson, and Paul Dano’s Riddler being another highlight, whose performance is genuinely creepy and yet grounded in reality that one can totally imagine a version of his Riddler existing in real life. Colin Farrell is unrecognizable as the Penguin but does more than just be a vessel for make-up and costuming, and Jeffrey Wright is completely on point in his portrayal of Jim Gordon. However, the most memorable supporting character of all has to be Gotham City itself – while we have always seen the city in various aspects, this is the first film where it really feels like an actual living, breathing city, albeit one that is wracked with the disease of crime and decay. I can’t wait to see more of Reeves’ Gotham feature in upcoming projects.

On the technical side of things, The Batman is near flawless. The cinematography by Greig Fraser is stunning, on par with the amazing work he did on Dune last year – the brilliant use of colour, lighting and shadows makes this an incredibly handsome film to watch on the big screen. Michael Giacchino’s massive, percussion-heavy score really adds power to the film especially in pivotal scenes, and this is indeed one of the best Batman scores, very high praise given the illustrious alumni that have worked on prior Batman films that includes Danny Elfman, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer. The action choreography is also excellent, and while there are just a handful of action sequences, they are all well-executed, including a nighttime car chase sequence involving a very organic Batmobile that is sheer exhilaration to watch unfold on both a visceral and technical level.

Although The Batman is ostensibly a reboot of the franchise, the film skips over the origin story of Batman and places us in the second year of his crime-fighting career, and it can almost be said that the film is more of a coming-of-age story than an origin story, where Batman attempts to figure out his true purpose in Gotham City. It’s an ambitious attempt, and while it is arguably a little too long and could have done with some more judicious editing, Reeves pretty much nails the landing. I went into the film being rather skeptical about how anyone could still bring something new to the table for Batman, but Reeves has proven me wrong. The film’s success is very much dependent on what audiences are expecting to take away from the viewing experience, but it would be difficult to imagine anyone coming out of the theatres being disappointed by what they’ve just watched, even if they went in expecting a more traditional superhero movie.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Spider-Man: No Way Home

Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Jon Watts

Screenplay: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers

Cast: Tom Holland, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, J.K. Simmons, Benedict Wong, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Rhys Ifans, Thomas Haden Church, Alfred Molina, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe

Running Length:  148 minutes

Synopsis: For the first time in the cinematic history of Spider-Man (Tom Holland), our friendly neighborhood hero’s identity is revealed, bringing his superhero responsibilities into conflict with his normal life and putting those he cares about most at risk. When he enlists Doctor Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) help to restore his secret, the spell tears a hole in their world, releasing the most powerful villains who’ve ever fought a Spider-Man in any universe. Now, Peter will have to overcome his greatest challenge yet, which will not only forever alter his own future but the future of the Multiverse.

Review: Note that this review does not contain spoilers beyond what was readily available in the trailers and promotional material, but proceed with caution in any case if you’re totally averse to spoilers.

If you thought one comic cinematic universe was plenty, Sony Pictures’ (and Disney, technically) third installment of Spider-Man in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would like to ask you to hold its beer – bringing back villains and familiar elements from across all prior Spider-Man films (7 live-action ones spanning three different Spider-Men, plus the spectacular Into the Spider-Verse, an animated film that remains the best Spider-Man movie released), and giving multiple characters proper send-offs that they were never accorded previously.

It’s enough to send long-time fans of the masked webslinger into a tizzy, but the true masterstroke in No Way Home is how it never alienates the more casual moviegoer, and the film is a solidly entertaining one regardless of whether your foray into the Spider-Verse commenced during the Tom Holland era, or earlier in the Andrew Garfield or Tobey Maguire eras.

Spider-Man has always been one of the most beloved comic superheroes, and personally I believe that’s because he’s so stubbornly mortal and human despite his superhuman powers. Peter Parker’s mistakes have almost cost him dearly, and yet he infallibly bounces back from them, a little worse for wear but still an eternal optimist. To err is human, and that human aspect makes Spider-Man a very easy protagonist to root for versus many other superheroes.

In No Way Home, this is brought into sharp relief, both because Peter Parker proposes a unique, out-of-left-field solution for the villains from the multiverse that pay him a visit, but also because this is the first film where we see his character grow up and dealing with the very human aspect of grief and loss. It’s rare to say that a superhero movie manages to deal an emotional gut punch, but No Way Home manages to do this multiple times and is a better film for it. Holland has also grown into the role, and this is undoubtedly his best performance yet as Spider-Man (or more accurately, Peter Parker), delivering both the physicality of a superhero and the emotional vulnerability of a teenaged boy progressing into adulthood.

No Way Home also satisfies on all the typical fronts of a Marvel film, with some great action setpieces that while not breaking any new ground, surely scratches the action itch, but also not leaving out the more “friendly neighbourhood” aspects of Parker, including his personal relationships with friends and family, sprinkled with a healthy dose of humour. It is a lot for a single film to handle, and at times No Way Home teeters on the edge of feeling overstuffed despite being almost two and a half hours long (yes, you also need to sit through the entire end credits roll to catch two post-credit scenes). But when a film is as hugely entertaining as No Way Home, it’s easy to ignore the little niggles that one might have.

It’s no secret that Sony and Disney had to wrangle a lot of technicalities to get this third film made, but with No Way Home, Amy Pascal and Kevin Feige have very successfully managed to open up possibilities for Spider-Man to be co-developed with Disney in the future within the MCU, or for Sony to develop films in the standalone Spider-Verse that they own. And if they can be as good as No Way Home, I am all for it.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Eternals

Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Chloé Zhao

Screenplay: Chloé Zhao & Patrick Burleigh and Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo, based on the comic book by Jack Kirby

Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, with Kit Harington, Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie

Running Length: 156 minutes

Synopsis: Spanning thousands of years, Marvel Studios’ Eternals is an epic story featuring a group of immortal heroes forced out of the shadows to reunite against mankind’s oldest enemy, The Deviants.

Review: Coming off the high that was Avengers: Endgame, the question that many people had was – what’s next for Marvel? That question has been somewhat reframed by the pandemic, but it seems that we have finally arrived at an inflection point in the MCU, 13 years and 26 movies later. While Eternals isn’t the full answer to the question either, it is at least an interesting (albeit $200 million dollar) gamble, to shift focus – at least for one movie – away from the usual formula that has worked so well for Marvel thus far and throwing the spotlight on the galactic aspect of the MCU. It’s a tougher sell, especially coming off the unbridled success that was Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, a far more conventional Marvel film by most measures.

The director picked for this task is Chloé Zhao, fresh off her Oscar win for Nomadland last year. Known for her intimate storytelling and stunning, expansive cinematography, both are present and accounted for in Eternals, but Zhao’s directorial style sputters a little when it’s writ large. This is especially when there are more than ten new characters with backstories and story arcs spanning thousands of years, and not everyone will have equal weightage due to the realities of running times. As it is, Eternals runs a long 156 minutes, and yet it still feels like there wasn’t enough time to unpack all the millennia-spanning plot threads crammed into the film. That the film liberally jumps between historically and still needs to build to a present-day cosmic-level conflict further complicates the narrative structure of the film, and it very visibly struggles to come together as a coherent whole.

It also feels like somewhat of a missed opportunity that the main protagonists’ storyline – Gemma Chan’s Sersi and Richard Madden’s Ikaris – comes off as being basically a rather generic romantic dalliance, when more attention could have been paid to various other pairings (Don Lee’s Gilgamesh and Angelina Jolie’s Thena in particular feel like it deserved a lot more screen time than it got) or even to the larger philosophical and theological questions posed by the film. And this ironically compounds the issue of the film’s running time, that many audience members would quite likely not be vested enough in the plot threads to feel that it was quite worth the investment of time.

However, this is not to say that there isn’t enough in Eternals to warrant the price of entry. The stunning visuals deserve to be seen on the biggest screens and is worth shelling out the additional money to be experienced in IMAX where possible. While Chloe Zhao is more grounded in her approach to CGI, the CGI in the film is top notch when it is used, especially when it’s to showcase the powers of the Eternals (my personal favourite would be Phastos and his innovative machinations). There are several sequences that will scratch the itch for Marvel’s action fans, as well as a fair bit of fan service thrown in (both post-credit codas are relevant to the larger worldbuilding of the MCU, for example), and some of the trademark Marvel humor can be found in the film as well.

Given that this is such a stark departure from previous Marvel ventures, it’s quite understandable from a financial viewpoint at least that everything needs to take place in a single movie – there’s simply no possibility that the Avengers treatment is given to an untested property, allowing the story to percolate over multiple movies and years when the chance of failure is far higher. While it is very clearly not “half a movie” like the recent Dune was, Eternals can still feel frustratingly shallow and almost incomplete at times, and with the MCU back to its “regular” programming in the next couple of years (at least all the way up to the announced Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3 in 2023), it is currently unclear how the Eternals would next return to the MCU and if there would be another opportunity to further flesh out these characters. However, given its quite stellar track record so far, I am willing to believe that this will all play out well in the new phases of the MCU.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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No Time to Die

Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Screenplay: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga, Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Cast: Daniel Craig, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Rami Malek, Lashana Lynch, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Billy Magnussen, Christoph Waltz, Ana de Armas

Running Length:  163 minutes

Synopsis: In No Time To Die, Bond has left active service and is enjoying a tranquil life in Jamaica. His peace is short-lived when his old friend Felix Leiter from the CIA turns up asking for help. The mission to rescue a kidnapped scientist turns out to be far more treacherous than expected, leading Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain armed with dangerous new technology.

Review: And so, after a lengthy 18-month delay from its original release date thanks to the pandemic, we have finally come to the end of an era. In No Time to Die, Daniel Craig makes his final appearance as 007, a role that he has played five times over the last 15 years, in what many people (myself included) felt was a much-needed refresh of the long running film franchise. While none of the subsequent films ever hit the high watermark of Casino Royale (Skyfall came very close at least), to say that Daniel Craig is the best Bond in at least the past three decades is not hyperbole. And yet, so much of No Time to Die feels exactly like a send-off for Daniel Craig and his Bond that it feels too weighted down, a little too dour and too grey.

While I appreciated the continuous through-line of plots that was carried through from Casino Royale all the way to No Time to Die, which upended the traditional episodic nature of the Bond films, 15 years is a long time for anyone to keep track, especially with 2015’s Spectre being almost one of the more lacklustre, forgettable installments. Anyone going into No Time to Die without a good knowledge of the four films prior will struggle to keep up with the plot. This may not be an issue for other action films, because the plot generally isn’t that key to enjoyment of these films, but this is not the case here, especially in the second half.

Yet at the same time, the resolution feels almost like there’s too little at stake, and that the distillation of Bond’s usual world-saving antics (not that this isn’t present in the film) into a personal existential reckoning feels a bit (just a tiny bit) trite and inconsequential, especially for a character that is generally known for his grander gestures. There’s almost a sense of disbelief when the credits rolled – that’s it? After more than a decade, it came down to that? It’s just that the Craig era started on such a high that for it to end off with what’s essentially a whimper is quite disappointing.

It is not aided by one of the most colorless Bond villains in the modern era – Rami Malek’s Lyutsifer Safin is underwhelming to a fault, barely making a dent in the film until more than midway through, and then never really feeling like the typical Bond villain that’s writ larger than life. While a world-conquering megalomaniac shouldn’t be the only mould of a Bond villain, Safin goes too far the other way, and Malek’s understated performance does make it very hard to root against him, further lowering the stakes of the denouement.

A movie that’s nearly three hours long clearly has room for a lot of things, and fortunately there are parts of No Time to Die that are still worthy of its price of entry. The opening sequence is everything a Bond opening sequence should be, and it’s an impressively gripping 20+ minutes of action and thrills before Billie Eilish’s titular haunting theme song kicks off the always visually stunning opening credits. There’s a glimpse of the old “fun” Bond in a scene set in Cuba, where he joins the delightful Bond girl Paloma (Ana de Armas) in a ridiculously over-the-top shootout while engaging in cheeky repartee – the sequence has the fingerprints of co-writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge all over it, who was brought in to polish up the script late in production. There’s also a brilliant one-take action sequence that takes place in a tower, which really shows off Cary Joji Fukunaga’s prowess in directing action.

And it’s in these sequences where the film really shines, because much as we understand the need to chart Bond’s transition from cold-blooded superspy to family man questioning his mortality in this five-movie oeuvre, Bond is (somewhat paradoxically) more fun to watch when he’s operating to baser instincts, and not being a morass of complex neuroses and insecurities.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Screenplay: David Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham

Cast: Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Chen Fala, Zhang Meng’er, Florian Munteanu, Ronny Chieng, Michelle Yeoh

Running Length:  132 minutes

Synopsis: Marvel Studios’ “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” stars Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, who must confront the past he thought he left behind when he is drawn into the web of the mysterious Ten Rings organization.

Review: One would think that after a decade and twenty-plus movies, that nothing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would feel fresh, but here we are with Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, which is probably about as fresh as one can get with the MCU. Not only is it a step in the right direction for Asian representation in Hollywood, but also manages to successfully bring into the MCU fold a wuxia/martial arts element that really hasn’t been properly explored prior (of course no one wants to bring up Iron Fist, which essentially imploded on Netflix). Impressively, Shang-Chi ticks off several boxes, delivering not just an action spectacle, but also a film that has both humour and heart. The film also boasts a great ensemble cast, in particular one of the best villains so far in the entire lineup of Marvel films so far, played to near-perfection by the inimitable Tony Leung.

Simu Liu has a great story to tell regarding how he landed the plum role of Shang-Chi, but veracity of the story aside, he’s pretty perfect for the role. While Shang-Chi obviously requires a physicality (that Liu definitely possesses), what’s equally important is a keen sense of comic timing as well as a need for the hero to be likable, and Liu manages to deliver on all fronts. Watching his performance in Shang-Chi is similar to observing Chris Pratt in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, where you literally see an actor previously known more for his comedic roles transform into a bona fide action star. He’s also capably partnered by Awkwafina, who also makes her debut Marvel appearance here, and the two not only share a great onscreen chemistry, but the screenplay also gives her a relatively meaty role that has more heft to her actions than many of the other female co-stars found in the MCU.

However, this movie is as much about its veteran actors as it is of the (relative) newcomers. Michelle Yeoh puts in a dignified, memorable performance as Shang-Chi’s aunt Jiang Nan while still having the ability to show off her action chops, but the pièce de resistance is undoubtedly Tony Leung’s turn as Wenwu, and it’s a pleasure as always to watch the masterful performance of an actor with immense thespian talent. While Marvel villains are generally unremarkable, existing mostly as a literal “necessary evil”, Tony Leung creates one of the most nuanced character studies in the whole of the Marvel universe, and in his hands, Wenwu isn’t just a two-dimensional villain, but a man who’s so consumed by grief over the loss of his love that he is willing to go to any lengths and sacrifice anyone to try to regain what he has lost.

Of course, Shang-Chi is a Marvel movie after all, and in this aspect the film also manages to deliver. There are several excellently choreographed action sequences in impressively varied locations, from close quarters combat in a confined space of a public bus (think Speed on steroids), to a breathtakingly choreographed showdown on a scaffolding in Macau, to balletic fights that pay homage to the wuxia genre that this film clearly draws from. That Destin Daniel Cretton does not allow rapid editing and quick cuts (almost the de-facto these days) to overshadow the action choreography makes it even easier to enjoy the spectacle.

And yes, Shang-Chi is very much a big budget spectacle like most Marvel films, and visual effects across the board are top-notch, from the various CGI creatures to the climactic showdown. Shang-Chi is a film that should be seen on the biggest screen possible (the IMAX presentation is a visual treat), and since it’s the first Marvel film since the pandemic hit to have a theatrical-only release, it will only be available to enjoy on the big screen for now. While Black Widow officially kicked off Phase 4 of the MCU, Shang-Chi feels like the true starter film, setting a decidedly different tone for the MCU after the conclusion of Phase 3 in Avengers: Endgame (and looking to continue with the mystical/outer space themes found in the next few Marvel films – Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness). And if this is how Phase 4 starts, I can’t wait for what’s coming up next.

Oh, and as Marvel tradition dictates, stay for the end credits for two post-credit sequences.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Suicide Squad

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: James Gunn

Screenplay: James Gunn

Cast: Margot Robbie, Juan Diego Botto, Peter Capaldi, Alice Braga, Sylvester Stallone, David Dastmalchian, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Daniela Melchior, John Cena, Idris Elba, Joaquin Cosio

Running Length: 132 minutes

Synopsis: Welcome to hell–a.k.a. Belle Reve, the prison with the highest mortality rate in the US of A. Where the worst Super-Villains are kept and where they will do anything to get out–even join the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X. Today’s do-or-die assignment? Assemble a collection of cons, including Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Captain Boomerang, Ratcatcher 2, Savant, King Shark, Blackguard, Javelin and everyone’s favorite psycho, Harley Quinn. Then arm them heavily and drop them (literally) on the remote, enemy-infused island of Corto Maltese. Trekking through a jungle teeming with militant adversaries and guerrilla forces at every turn, the Squad is on a search-and-destroy mission with only Colonel Rick Flag on the ground to make them behave…and Amanda Waller’s government techies in their ears, tracking their every movement. And as always, one wrong move and they’re dead (whether at the hands of their opponents, a teammate, or Waller herself). If anyone’s laying down bets, the smart money is against them – all of them.

Review: When David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was released in 2016, it was such a mediocre film that it was almost impossible imagining a sequel. However, when James Gunn was temporarily fired from Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy 3 and a window of availability opened up, Warner Bros swooped in and managed to give Gunn an opportunity to write and direct The Suicide Squad, which is ostensibly a sequel to that 2016 film (with a few recurring characters) but really can be taken on its own merits. And merit it has in spades – this is the most fun I’ve had in any DCEU movie, and even taken across the two major comic book universes, it is probably one of the most entertaining films in recent years.

Unburdened by the rest of the DCEU as it has no real need to be interconnected with any other title (Harley Quinn remains the only “famous” DCEU character to appear here), plus an unapologetic R-rating means Gunn was able to make The Suicide Squad exactly how he wanted to – ultra-violent action peppered with the signature Gunn humor that made both Guardians of the Galaxy movies (particularly the first) such great films. That the film is filled with “bottom of the barrel” super-villains from the DC universe also meant that Gunn could continually upend audience expectations by killing off virtually any of the characters, which is a pleasant departure from what audiences would generally expect from films of this genre.

While the film runs a pretty long 2 hours and 12 minutes, The Suicide Squad doesn’t really make one feel the length, as there is quite a bit going on at any one time. Not all of it is essential to the film, and one could argue that the frequent flashbacks to the characters’ pasts could have been pared down somewhat, as do some of the subplots in the film (the entire Harley Quinn romance *cough* feels a little extraneous to the proceedings, for example), but it’s all sufficiently entertaining that one can look past how the film could definitely have been under the two-hour mark. I for one also appreciated the no holds barred violence that the R rating allowed, and the pitch black humor found in some of these violent (and occasionally gory) action sequences are some of the most macabrely funny scenes I’ve seen in years.

While there is a huge cast list in The Suicide Squad, it’s clear to see who the main characters are about 20 minutes into the proceedings, and the core ensemble works well together. Margot Robbie is once again perfectly cast as Harley Quinn, and it’s clear why she was able to commandeer what was essentially her own film (though Birds of Prey ended up with middling results at the box office). She also solos one of my favourite action setpieces in the film, where she goes on a one-woman rampage armed with a multitude of weapons (including a javelin, of all things). In fact, it’s clear that the Harley Quinn found here in Suicide Squad actually does more with her character than Birds of Prey managed to achieve, despite this being more of an ensemble movie.

Idris Elba also impresses in his first DC outing as Bloodsport, with a much meatier role than what his Marvel appearances have been, and being able to showcase both his action hero chops as well as a little of his thespian skills. John Cena (who seems to be in every movie these days) is also memorable as the clueless-but-menacing Peacemaker, although a rather flat characterization apart from his physicality and a handful of one-liners does make one wonder how the HBO Max spinoff series would work.

The Suicide Squad succeeds because it’s coloring outside the lines of the typical Marvel or DC movie – not only because of its higher rating and violence quotient, but also because of its subversive, take-no-prisoners nature. James Gunn is undoubtedly the right choice this film, and without the shadow of Zack Snyder’s cynical take on the DC universe looming over him, Gunn manages to prove that DC films can do better when firing on all cylinders. The doubt over The Suicide Squad being a viable franchise is dispelled with this outing, and I’ll gladly catch the Squad in action again for as long as Gunn continues his stewardship of it.  

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Jungle Cruise

Genre: Action

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Screenplay: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Veronica Falcon, Edgar Ramirez

Running Length: 127 minutes

Synopsis: Inspired by the famous Disneyland theme park ride, Disney’s Jungle Cruise is an adventure-filled, Amazon-jungle expedition starring Dwayne Johnson as the charismatic riverboat captain and Emily Blunt as a determined explorer on a research mission.

Review: While the theme park/ride inspired movies have been a mixed bag for Disney (on the one hand there’s the immensely successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, on the other hand there are films like Tomorrowland, The Haunted Mansion and Mission to Mars), I’m happy to say that Jungle Cruise leans more to the positive side of things, even if it does run a little too long for its own good (gone are the days where a 90-minute movie is deemed acceptable, somehow). This is largely due to the excellent on-screen chemistry between Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt, as well as a just being an all-round wholesome and entertaining film for both young and old, which has been a rare occurrence since the pandemic began.

Apart from Dwayne Johnson spouting a few of the lines that is part of the actual ride’s script, there’s very little else that is really based on the real-life Jungle Cruise – it is after all just a six-minute ride with the skimpiest of plots to justify its existence. That’s actually a good thing, because then the film isn’t bogged down by any baggage like many other films based on Disney-owned IPs. So, the film really is just an old-school adventure/treasure hunting movie, much in the veins of the Indiana Jones films, and in this aspect Jungle Cruise is quite successful. There are a couple of fun action set pieces (though the CGI in some sequences come across as being a little spotty), as well as a puzzle-solving element that I always appreciate in this genre of films, and while the leads never feel like they are truly in peril, it’s still a fun ride. This is especially so when the script really leans in on its cheesiness, giving Dwayne Johnson a literal boatload of dad jokes to work with throughout the film and skewing into humour at just the right moments.

What truly makes Jungle Cruise watchable however, are the two leads, and to a lesser degree the comedic foil of Jack Whitehall’s character. It doesn’t sound like a pairing that would work, but it turns out that Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson are an excellent onscreen duo, and while the romance component feels a bit iffy, there’s no denying that (platonic) sparks fly whenever the two share the screen. I, for one, would gladly watch another two hours of the Emily and Dwayne Show outside of the Jungle Cruise setting. All in all, Jungle Cruise is an affable, enjoyable romp, and while it doesn’t push any boundaries (even the LGBTQ representation is a pretty safe, implied one), it will scratch the itch for anyone hankering for some good old adventuring.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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