Fast & Furious 9

Genre: Action

Director: Justin Lin

Screenplay: Daniel Casey & Justin Lin

Cast: Vin Diesel, Sung Kang, John Cena, Charlize Theron, Nathalie Emmanuel, Chris “Ludcaris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Thue Ersted Rasmussen

Running Length: 144 minutes

Synopsis: Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto is leading a quiet life off the grid with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his son, little Brian, but they know that danger always lurks just over their peaceful horizon. This time, that threat will force Dom to confront the sins of his past if he’s going to save those he loves most. His crew joins together to stop a world-shattering plot led by the most skilled assassin and high-performance driver they’ve ever encountered: a man who also happens to be Dom’s forsaken brother, Jakob (John Cena).

Review: Given that there are 10 movies already in the Fast & Furious universe, it’s not rocket science (we’ll be getting back to this topic in a bit…) to figure out what you’re getting yourself into when you choose to watch something with Fast & Furious in its title. While Fast & Furious started as an undercover cop movie, it has long since departed its roots in reality, and has become what essentially is a superhero franchise. It’s now par for the course for the Fast films to feature extremely over-the-top action sequences, lead characters that can shrug off almost any fall from any distance, and for all laws of physics to be defied. It’s pure escapist, absurdist fun, but with F9 it seems like the franchise has finally outstayed its welcome.

Some of the biggest issues with F9 has to do with its length and pacing. It’s a bloated mess of a film, and for something that’s clearly popcorn entertainment, takes forever to get started, mired in unnecessary flashback after unnecessary flashback. While the films have always harped on the concept of family, in F9 the numerous throwaway, meaningless mentions of “family” almost turn the film into a parody, especially when logical fallacies abound – would someone who truly cares about family deign to leave their child alone, while both parents dive into danger with reckless abandon? If you suspect that your sibling had something to do with a loved one’s death, would it not make more sense to hash it out by talking about it, instead of assuming the worst of your sibling from the get-go?

One could argue that there’s just too much soap in this opera, and the seeming desire to make the film More Meaningful actually detracts from the viewing experience. It really doesn’t help that much of the cast aren’t here to display their acting chops (and rightly so), yet are forced into awkward scenes which would have been better left to actors with more thespian talent. And don’t even get me started on a scene where a key character is thrust into a life-or-death situation, and actually experiences a vision that somehow proffers up an alternative point of view of an event long past which is then accepted as truth. It’s almost as though we should expect F10 to feature some sort of Biblical-level revelation a la a burning bush or similar.

The action sequences have always been part of the draw of the Fast franchise, and while “peak Fast” was probably around Paul Walker’s last film (Fast & Furious 7 in 2015), there was generally enough action in every movie to satisfy fans of the genre. While being true-to-life has never been something that these scenes needed to adhere to, it feels like F9 has finally jumped the shark for the franchise, with some truly bizarre action setpieces that not only bends reality but breaks it entirely.

I’ve always subscribed to the notion that all a movie needs to do is to maintain an internal logic that works within the confines of the film’s universe, but unless Fast & Furious is now set in an alternate universe, it should at least try to respect the basic laws of physics – or acknowledge that they exist. The way the electromagnets work in the car chases are just so farfetched that it just feels stupid – it is almost like the producers decided that the audience is not going to care about logic at all as long as the action delivers the goods, but that is an excessively dim view of your target audience which I hope isn’t close to the truth. While Justin Lin is a veteran director of the franchise, here he does seem to succumb to the rapid-fire edits that are so prevalent these days, making some of the sequences rather confusing to follow.

And then there’s the space sequence – not really a spoiler if you’ve seen the trailer, but yes, the meme about Fast and Furious going to space actually happens in this movie. It’s so ridiculous and so far outside the bounds of reality that it once again feels like self-parody, and again begs the question of what ridiculous things they would need to do in the next installment to up the ante. If this is the trajectory that the films are taking, however, then I don’t feel like I really want or need to find out the answer.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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A Quiet Place Part II

Genre: Horror, Thriller

Director: John Krasinski

Screenplay: John Krasinski

Cast: Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cillian Murphy, Djimon Hounsou, Scoot McNairy, John Krasinski, Dean Woodward

Running Length: 97 minutes

Synopsis: Following the deadly events at home, the Abbott family must now face the terrors of the outside world as they continue their fight for survival in silence. Forced to venture into the unknown, they quickly realize that the creatures that hunt by sound are not the only threats that lurk beyond the sand path.

Review: When A Quiet Place was released in 2018, it was one of the freshest takes on the horror genre I had seen in a very long time. While the premise wasn’t groundbreaking, it was a masterclass in horror done right, without having to resort to jump scares and other cheap tactics. Add to that an excellent performance by the ensemble cast, and it was easy to see why A Quiet Place did so well at the box office. It didn’t really necessitate a sequel (and John Krasinski had admitted as much in his interviews for QP2), but at least this next installment manages to retain most of what made A Quiet Place such a great movie, even if it doesn’t feel as original as the first. It’s also one of the best arguments one can make about making their way back to the cinemas – this is a film which really shines when viewed on the largest possible screens with the best sound systems (something that home theatres can only be a weak facsimile of, unless you’re a millionaire). There’s also something special about being in a dark hall and hearing the screams of fellow cinemagoers that again cannot be replicated elsewhere.

There’s great economy in storytelling in A Quiet Place Part II – audiences are dropped right into the thick of things on “Day One”, when the alien invasion happened. This segment is an excellent reminder of what made the first film so good – Krasinski manages to re-establish emotional connections with the Abbott family with minimal exposition, and still creates an excellent, white-knuckle action setpiece that truly delivers. A caveat, however, that A Quiet Place is required viewing beforehand, or little of what ensues will make much sense.

The narrative then cuts to “The Present”, which is almost right where the first movie ended. And here is where the film falters a bit – while the surviving members of the Abbott family all manage to put in relatively strong performances (although Emily Blunt feels a little sidelined with the increased focus on Millicent Simmonds), the new additions to the cast feel less developed and fleshed out, and pretty much exist more as plot devices. Cillian Murphy does a decent enough job as “new” father figure Emmett given the razor thin character development, but Djimon Honsou is really nothing but a glorified cameo appearance. There’s also a couple of plot diversions that I felt didn’t really add much to the mix at all apart from being changes of settings, though overall the film still builds enough momentum, with great thrilling sequences,  for me to overlook all these niggles.

Despite its flaws, A Quiet Place Part II is still compelling viewing, and if there needed to be a sequel to the original film, this is really the best possible iteration one could have come up with. However, it’s clear that it will be increasingly challenging for the films to be built into a franchise, and I cannot imagine that the third film (dated for March 2023) and beyond would be able to outdo or even come on par with its predecessors.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Oscars Predictions 2021

What a strange year (actually 14 months for the Academy Awards, since the broadcast was delayed by 2 months) it has been for the movies. The pandemic that doesn’t seem to end had put a stop to most movie releases, so the majority of nominees this year have been titles that either launched on streaming services or saw very limited exposure at the cinemas. It begs the question of whether anyone would actually care much about the Oscars this year, given that far fewer people have actually seen anything that’s been nominated. Still, the show must go on, and from what I have read, Steven Soderbergh has pulled out all the stops to make this not a “Zoom with friends” awards ceremony like every awards ceremony since the pandemic, so here’s hoping.

Now, on to the predictions:

Best Motion Picture of the Year

Should win: Nomadland

Prediction: Nomadland

Nomadland is a beautifully shot movie that resonated during the pandemic because it focuses on the need for human connection. The timeliness of its release and the fact that it has won basically every major award so far means it will stand the best chance for this category, even though there are several potential dark horses like Promising Young Woman and Minari.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Should win: Anthony Hopkins, The Father

Prediction: Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Anthony Hopkins turns in an astonishing performance in The Father and in other years would have probably clinched the award with ease. However, it’s hard to imagine the Academy voters not awarding it posthumously to Chadwick Boseman, especially since Hopkins has already won before.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Should win: Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Prediction: Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

This could be the most hotly contested category of the night, and could really go any of a few ways. I suspect the Academy is not going to give McDormand her third statuette so soon, so it would likely go to a very promising young woman with a very memorable role, or more likely, Viola Davis because of the physical transformation that took place in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – the Academy seems to love these roles more than anything else.  

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Should win: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah

Prediction: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah

It’s unlikely the award would go to anyone else but Kaluuya, and his SAG, BAFTA and Globes wins practically seals the deal. It’s unlikely that the presence of Lakeith Stanfield in the same category would split the votes too much.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Should win: Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari

Prediction: Yun-Jung Youn, Minari

It was quite an open category but the deal was sealed with her SAG win and the memorable acceptance speech during her BAFTA win.

Best Achievement in Directing

Should win: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland

Prediction: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland

One of the most locked categories of the night in my point of view, and deservedly so.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Should win: Promising Young Woman

Prediction: Promising Young Woman

A very captivating screenplay that somewhat fizzled out near the end, but still it will be the consolation prize for Promising Young Woman as it has much lower chances of winning anywhere else.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Should win: The Father

Prediction: The Father

While Nomadland would be a safe bet here, I believe The Father’s late resurgence will lead to it at least getting the consolation screenplay prize here.

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Should Win: Nomadland

Prediction: Nomadland

By far the most beautiful film I’ve seen this awards year, and I would be surprised if anyone else manages to win, despite this being Joshua James Richards’ first nomination.

Best Achievement in Editing

Should Win: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Prediction: The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Trial of the Chicago 7 has the most visible editing touches amongst those nominated. While Sound of Metal won at the BAFTA I don’t think the feat would repeat itself at the Oscars.

Best Achievement in Production Design

Prediction: Mank

While I wasn’t a fan of the movie, it’s easy to see Mank eke out a win in this category given it’s essentially a love letter to a golden age in Hollywood.

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Prediction: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Given that the film has won multiple awards in this category, plus a chance to make history by having Ann Roth be the oldest woman to win an Oscar, the choice seems quite clear to me. It’s not period in the strictest sense (that would be fellow nominee Emma), which usually wins this award, but the odds are still in Ma Rainey’s favour.

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

Prediction: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Viola Davis’ transformation would not have been possible without the magicians in hair and makeup, and I don’t think any other film would be able to steal the win.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

Prediction: Soul

That Soul has built up an incredible amount of word of mouth and goodwill, plus it being a story about musicians, gives it a clear edge over the other nominees in the category.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Prediction: Speak Now, One Night in Miami

I would love for Husavik to win this category but it seems safer to stick with best supporting actor nominee Leslie Odom Jr’s performance in One Night in Miami (since it’s clear he will not be able to win in the acting category).

Best Achievement in Sound

Prediction: Sound of Metal

The Academy had collapsed two categories back into one (it was the norm for the same movie to win both awards anyway), and a film dealing with a musician’s loss of hearing and relationship with sound seems like a shoo-in for the category.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Prediction: Tenet

It’s the nominee with the flashiest visuals, and given that it’s really one of very few blockbusters to actually make it to the cinemas this awards year, feels like the clear frontrunner in the race.  

Best Animated Feature Film

Prediction: Soul

Given the strong word of mouth and resonance it had, this award is Soul’s to lose.

Best International Feature Film

Prediction: Another Round (Denmark)

It was a well-liked film featuring a known actor (Mads Mikkelsen), making it front runner for the award.

Best Documentary Feature

Prediction: My Octopus Teacher

Best Documentary Short Subject

Prediction: Colette

Best Animated Short Film

Prediction: If Anything Happens I Love You

Best Live Action Short Film

Prediction: Two Distant Strangers

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Wonder Woman 1984

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Patty Jenkins

Screenplay: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham

Cast: Gal Gadot, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen

Running Length:  151 minutes

Synopsis: Fast forward to the 1980s as Wonder Woman’s next big screen adventure finds her facing two all-new foes: Max Lord and The Cheetah.

Review: The year that Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) was initially slated to be released in would have made it a solid performer at the box office, but perhaps not quite reaching the heights of other superhero films that would have populated the release slate in the same year, like every year. Then COVID-19 happened, and essentially everything was thrown out the window (including theatrical release windows). Surprising as it may seem, WW84 is now poised to be the top dog of 2020 at the box office, and while the film’s release strategy is somewhat controversial, it’s undeniable that cinema audiences have been clamoring for a “real” blockbuster for what seems like forever, and WW84 scratches that itch. Sure, it’s a flawed movie that doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, but in a year where the only other competing “superhero” is Harley Quinn, cinema audiences don’t exactly have the luxury of choice.

WW84 begins promisingly enough, with a beautifully choreographed and shot “Amazon Olympics” on Themyscira (reminiscent somewhat of the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter films) where we observe the adolescent Diana Prince participate in. This sequence is magnificent on the big screen, and truly makes the case for why the cinematic experience should coexist with, and not be replaced by, streaming on smaller screens. The film then segues into the 80s, which starts off with a rather cute homage to the decade, cramming virtually every imaginable sight gag into ten minutes, then the film seems to move on, virtually never making any reference to the era thereafter. This plot whiplash occurs on several occasions throughout this rather (needlessly) long film, and if one wants to be critical, WW84 would really have done better with more judicious edits along the way.

It doesn’t help that for a film that no longer needs to spend too much time on the titular character’s backstory (amply covered in the preceding 2017 film, after all), WW84 seems to want to give even more weight to the Woman part of the equation, rather than the Wonder part. After a brief appearance at the start, Wonder Woman disappears into the fold for almost an hour while Diana Prince takes over. It’s not that the proceedings aren’t interesting – in fact, Gal Gadot probably does a better job in scenes where she’s not in her Wonder Woman getup – but this is a superhero action movie after all and audiences have somewhat different expectations. Perhaps it’s unavoidable, given that this is a female director handling one of the few notable female superheroes in both the DC and Marvel cinematic universes, but the weight of all this representation makes the film feel far heavier than it should, since the first Wonder Woman film stood out in the DCEU particularly because of the stark tonal contrast from the rest of the cinematic universe at the time.

It also doesn’t help that when there is already a perfectly adequate villain in the form of Kristen Wiig’s excellent turn as Barbara Minerva/Cheetah, that the decision was made to also have a second villain in the overly on-the-nose Donald Trump caricature of Max Lord (Pedro Pascal in a thankless role). This turns out to be the most problematic aspect of WW84, since the film has to contort itself into a logic-defying knot trying to escape the corner Max Lord’s machinations paints the plot into. It’s virtually impossible to discuss this further without going into spoiler territory, but suffice to say the entire last reel of WW84 just did not work for me, even more so than the denouement of the first film. It’s truly puzzling that a film so focused on empowering women seems fearful of empowering one of the women as the main villain, rather than a lame-duck oil tycoon with megalomaniacal inclinations.

Despite the lack of competition, WW84 occupies the unenviable position of being neither a great nor terrible movie. It still largely checks off the boxes that a superhero movie is expected to accomplish, but it’s simply not as assured as it should be. A thousand little niggles (and a few big ones) – occasionally dodgy CGI, poorly developed characters, a too readily bombastic score, and more – tarnishes the sheen of this Amazonian demi-goddess’s armor, and while WW84 could probably be the most critic-proof movie of the year, it will not stand the test of time and repeat viewings.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

P.S. Stay for the mid-credits sequence for a cheesy but fun cameo appearance.

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Tenet

Genre: Action, Sci-Fi

Director: Christopher Nolan

Screenplay: Christopher Nolan

Cast: John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Himesh Patel, Clémence Poésy, Michael Caine, Martin Donovan

Running Length:  150 minutes

Synopsis: A secret agent embarks on a dangerous, time-bending mission to prevent the start of World War III.

Review: Tenet’s release into the time of the coronavirus makes it near impossible to judge the film purely on its own merits. After all, Christopher Nolan had lobbied hard for the film to be released in the hopes of bringing audiences back to brick and mortar cinemas, offering the first salvo in what is hopefully many more pieces of blockbuster content that they need. It’s a risky strategy, especially if Tenet turns out to not be the movie equivalent of an “unputdownable” book, where the cinematic experience is so transcendent that it simply needs to be seen (repeatedly) to be believed, and thus fulfilling the noble goal of offering a much-needed lifeline to the cinemas.

Fans of Nolan’s body of work will undoubtedly be familiar with this feeling, simply because he has managed to make the magic happen many times before, from Memento to Inception to Interstellar and the Dark Knight trilogy. Yet, as a fan myself, I will have to reluctantly say that Tenet just does not do the same for me and is unlikely to incite much desire for repeated viewings in the near future.

While the film is, as all Nolan films are wont to be, astounding in almost all technical aspects, it fails on one of the most important tenets (ahem) of cinema – to tell a story that audiences would actually understand and thus care about (at least, without requiring a Masters in Physics). His films are generally narratively dense and requires a significant amount of unpacking post-viewing, like Ariadne (the one in Greek mythology, not the one in Inception) they usually also offer a unifying thread that audiences can pick up on and follow out of the labyrinthine plot.

Tenet, however, is just a morass of confusing plot threads that are unsatisfactorily resolved (if at all), and a central conceit that is too difficult to visualize despite multiple characters engaging in lengthy exposition throughout the film’s 150-minute running time. There is no illuminating thread to find and grasp onto, even for those well-schooled in the Nolan-verse. It also doesn’t help that, inexplicably, the sound mixing in Tenet frequently drowns out character conversations with ambient sound effects and the booming soundtrack, which makes the dialogue extremely difficult to make out in multiple scenes without the help of subtitles.

While the film has the beats of a traditional espionage thriller or Bond film, essentially chasing a villain/MacGuffin all over the globe, Tenet also occupies a far more rarefied, cerebral space that really does it more harm than good. Because the concept of inversion is so difficult to grasp, all the visual (and true to Nolan’s modus operandi, more in-camera than post-produced) flourishes become difficult to parse and figure out, jarring audiences out of the moment just to attempt to make head or tail of what is transpiring. And yet I can assuredly say not many people would be fully cognizant of what is going on at any time, given how obtusely the entire film plays out.

Perhaps we should all heed an early piece of advice in the film, where the scientist played by Clémence Poésy tells John David Washington’s The Protagonist “don’t try to understand it, just feel it”. There are indeed several sequences which are thrilling to watch unfold, especially the action set-pieces – in particular an extended close-quarters combat scene which brings to mind the incredible corridor fight with Joseph Gordon Levitt in Inception – and there are moments where finally the charisma and thespian talents of Washington, Pattinson and Debicki take centrestage (together with their impeccable suits and outfits). It is also a beautifully shot film from start to end, lensed flawlessly by Hoyte van Hoytema and best experienced on the largest screens possible.  

It’s when one stops trying to make sense of the plot and simply view Tenet on a visceral level does it manage to entertain. Given the baggage of Nolan’s body of work and the serious tone adopted by the film (and its marketing), it almost seems like blasphemy to suggest such a superficial reading, but at least it delivers a true cinematic experience that would be hard to replicate anywhere else. And that is something that is sorely needed at this point, if only to remind audiences of the greatness of the medium, of what they could feel, of the sense of wonder, discovery and adventure while sitting in the darkness for a couple of hours.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

Genre: Horror, Action

Director: Yeon Sang-Ho

Screenplay: Yeon Sang-Ho, Joo-Suk Park, Yong-Jae Ryu

Cast: Gang Dong-Won, Lee Jung-Hyun, Kim Min-Jae, Koo Gyo-Hwan

Running Length:  115 minutes

Synopsis: Four years after South Korea’s total decimation in Train to Busan, the zombie thriller that captivated audiences worldwide, acclaimed director Yeon Sang-ho brings us Peninsula, the next nail-biting chapter in his post-apocalyptic world. Jung-seok (Gang Dong-Won), a soldier who previously escaped the diseased wasteland, relives the horror when assigned to a covert operation with two simple objectives: retrieve and survive. When his team unexpectedly stumbles upon survivors, their lives will depend on whether the best-or worst-of human nature prevails in the direst of circumstances.

Review: Well, 2020 has just been a pretty cancelled year so far, hasn’t it? Who would have known that cinemas in Singapore would be shut down for more than 3 months, and that the entire release slate of 2020 will be in shambles since. But!!! We are back (for now)!!! And aptly, the very first blockbuster to be released into the wild in Singapore is from the Train to Busan universe, about a killer zombie virus that has decimated South Korea. Talk about art imitating life. With the release schedule in the coming months looking increasingly desolate, it’s no surprise that cinema operators are all looking to Peninsula as a lifeline, and fortunately, I believe the movie will generate sufficient positive word of mouth to make it a good first salvo to bring audiences back to the cinemas. That is, if you’re willing to overlook the dismal final 20 minutes of the movie.

Eschewing the confined space of a train that made the first movie such a special, visceral thrill to watch, Peninsula instead is a much more standard offering in the zombie genre of films, situated in a post-apocalyptic landscape that is immediately familiar to anyone who has dipped their toes into the pool before. The film does offer up a number of excellent action set-pieces, and at its best is reminiscent of Mad Max: Fury Road, though with much of the action set at night instead of in the day. The CGI is a little spotty at times, and is particularly apparent in some big zombie scenes, where the zombies don’t actually have enough “heft”, and the physics of interaction with other real-world constructs (like cars and trucks) thus does not manage to convince. Peninsula ends up looking more like a video game at times because of this, which does pull one out of the thick of action.

While the subject matter of Peninsula may not be as escapist as usual (boo), these action sequences are a very good diversion and are suitably entertaining (more so for audiences that have been starved of big-screen content for months). Production design is also top notch, particularly an extended sequence set in a remodelled shopping mall, which contains a wealth of small details that shows off the amount of thought put into its look and design.

Where Peninsula really disappoints, however, is in its plotting. While no one is expecting a deep, labyrinthine plot for a survival horror film, Yeon Sang-Ho and his fellow screenwriters opt for the path of melodrama, shoehorning in character interactions and plot “twists” that mostly ring false, due to the excessive amount of emotional shorthand employed, particularly with a score that is a little too on-the-nose for its own good. While this is merely a mild annoyance for most of the film, Peninsula nearly becomes undone by its final reel in which believability is stretched past breaking point, just to accommodate a pretty ridiculous emotional beat that left me rolling my eyes in disdain. Not that this is new – the first Train to Busan movie suffered similarly near the end, but even then the film managed to hold up pretty well. Peninsula doesn’t fare as well, but the absence of any other major blockbusters on the horizon means it should enjoy a good long run at the cinema, warts and all.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Onward

Genre: Animation

Director: Dan Scanlon

Screenplay: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Buin

Voice Cast: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus,, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, John Ratzenberger, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez

Running Length:  103 minutes

Synopsis: Two teenage elf brothers, Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley (Chris Pratt) Lightfoot, go on an journey to discover if there is still a little magic left out there in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.

Review: It’s hard to imagine, but it has been 25 years since Pixar released Toy Story into the wild, forever changing the face of animation and storytelling. Over the quarter century, Pixar has managed to hammer out unforgettable films and solid family entertainment, and so far (in my opinion at least) the studio has not had a single dud, a fairly impressive achievement given that there has been 22 feature films since we first got introduced to Woody and Buzz Lightyear all those years ago.

Onward, the first of two Pixar titles to be released this year and its 22nd feature, doesn’t manage to hit the high watermark of being an instant classic, but nevertheless the film is a sweet, touching ode to life and loss, to brotherly love, and to an era of purer, wide-eyed storytelling that is very often lacking even in animated films these days. Nothing that happens in Onward can be considered groundbreaking, but at least it is a retread done right.

After the initial setup that gets siblings Ian and Barley onto a quest cum road trip, in order to locate a Phoenix Gem to summon the top half of their deceased father for a day, the film falls into a familiar hum of the buddy road movie, even though the proceedings are infused with some old school magic and wizardry. While this doesn’t sound particularly interesting, the production values of the movie certainly are as what we have come to expect of Pixar – not only is every scene stunningly animated, there are also many small quirky Pixar-esque details – a biker gang that consists of tough-talking pink colored pixies riding full-sized Harleys, for example – that help make Onward more visually arresting than what the premise suggests. It helps that there is a sense of genuine chemistry between Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, aided undoubtedly by their crossing paths previously in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

While much of this reads like faint praise for the film, where Onward truly excels is in its relatability – while it’s set in a fantasy universe that’s filled with magical creatures like elves, centaurs and unicorns, the core emotions that Onward taps into are universal. It’s no surprise to find out that the basis of the film’s story is a deeply personal one – Dan Scanlon’s father was killed in an auto accident when he was just a year old, and his older brother was just three. Parental loss is a classic Disney trope (see films from Bambi to Frozen), but Onward still manages to handle the theme very well – there will assuredly not be many dry eyes left in the cinema when the credits to the film rolls. While Onward’s emotional machinations are unabashed, it’s well-done enough that I didn’t mind going along for the ride.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Oscars Predictions 2020

What a difference a year makes – not only does 2020 herald the return of an Oscarcast to local free-to-air TV after ten years, it’s also the first time I am doing this on the inside looking out (so to speak). With the new job comes an actual Oscar pool this year, which means I will be predicting all award categories for once. It is a relatively “easy” year for predictions given the clear paths many of the potential winners have enjoyed on the road to the Oscars, but the big question is if Parasite will buck tradition by clinching any awards outside of Best Foreign Film. It’s literally the only dark horse amongst the major categories, and I am keeping it safe by betting on the surer horses in the predictions below – hope this doesn’t come back and bite me in the proverbial ass.

Best Motion Picture of the Year

Should win: Parasite

Prediction: 1917

1917 has been winning every possible award thrown its way and it’s hard to see the Academy voting otherwise. However, Parasite has seen what seems like a pretty major uptick in noise level over the past month plus, and could potential be the big upset of the night. Parasite is my favourite movie of 2019 and I would not be sad if it stole the award from 1917.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Should win: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

Prediction: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker

This is a shoo-in for Joaquin, and like or dislike the film, it cannot be denied that he put in a powerful, memorable performance.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Should win: Renee Zellweger, Judy

Prediction: Renee Zellweger, Judy

While her portrayal of the late Judy Garland is occasionally too on-the-nose and too forced an impression, there’s again no denying that it’s definitely the most memorable performance amongst those nominated. The Academy loves these roles, and Renee has been winning every award along the way as well.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Should win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Prediction: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

It’s a hugely enjoyable performance, and his various acceptance speeches along the way have been nothing short of inspired. This one is about as hard a lock as the other main categories.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Should win: Florence Pugh, Little Women

Prediction: Laura Dern, Marriage Story

Florence Pugh’s performance in Little Women outshone Saoirse Ronan’s despite being a supporting role, and was easily the best thing in the film. Unfortunately, Laura Dern has again had a clear runway from the start of awards season and there’s no reason the Academy would vote otherwise.

Best Achievement in Directing

Should win: Bong Joon Ho, Parasite

Prediction: Sam Mendes, 1917

While 1917 is a great concept piece, Bong Joon Ho’s sublime direction of Parasite really should take top honours. However, even if Parasite wins best picture, it’s hard to see Sam Mendes not getting the “consolation” prize of Best Director. I feel that this is quite the lock but will again be happy to be proven wrong.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Should win: Parasite

Prediction: Parasite

It’s hard not to root for Parasite in this category, even though I also dearly loved what Tarantino did in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. QT seems to have lost some steam in this category but it will be a close fight for sure.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Should win: Jojo Rabbit

Prediction: Jojo Rabbit

I enjoyed all 5 screenplays very much but I think Taika’s star status will improve his odds immensely here.

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Should Win: 1917

Prediction: 1917

Roger Deakins has to win this for the amazing work in 1917. If not for the immaculately planned camerawork throughout the film, the incredibly lit night scene in the middle of the movie would clinch this award on its own.

Best Achievement in Editing

Should Win: Ford v Ferrari

Prediction: Ford v Ferrari

Editing is everything in a racing film, and since 1917 didn’t get a nomination here, FvF would most assuredly take home the trophy instead.

Best Achievement in Production Design

Prediction: Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

There’s a lot of thought put into the production design of Once Upon A Time, and the period details in every scene are spot-on. While Parasite has equally impressive production values, I am doubtful of the number of statues Hollywood would cede to essentially a foreign film.

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Prediction: Little Women

When in doubt, vote for the period drama with the most period gowns and frocks.

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

Prediction: Bombshell

It would be a bombshell (hur hur) if Bombshell did not clinch the award for disappearing Charlize Theron into Megyn Kelly.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

Prediction: Joker

The score for 1917 is too spare to really be in consideration for the award, even if it’s by Thomas Newman (his cousin Randy is also nominated this year for Marriage Story). So Joker it is.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Prediction: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again”, Rocketman

Given the lukewarm awards season Frozen 2 has seen this year, it’s highly unlikely the statuette would end up with the Lopez duo this time. It seems that all signs point to Elton and Bermie bringing this one home, capping a successful awards run.

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

Prediction: 1917

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

Prediction: 1917

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Prediction: 1917

The camera and the sound are the main actors in 1917, and I believe the Academy will not think otherwise.

Best Animated Feature of the Year

Prediction: Toy Story 4

It’s a surprisingly wide category this year and Toy Story 4 could easily be upset by Klaus or even Missing Link. I would like to think that the Academy still gives a Pixar film more leeway than usual so Toy Story 4 seems like a safe(r) choice.

Best Animated Short of the Year

Prediction: Hair Love

It just seems like the type of short film that would win the award, even though I really liked Kitbull as well.

Best Documentary Feature of the Year

Prediction: American Factory

For Sama is a very powerful documentary and stands a good chance to be the black horse winner, but given that the Obamas have a hand in American Factory, plus it’s a pretty universal theme, it’s hard to place my prediction elsewhere.

Best Documentary Short Subject of the Year

Prediction: Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

It’s a pretty good documentary with an excellent title, which means it should stand a pretty high chance here.

Best Live Action Short Film of the Year

Prediction: The Neighbors’ Window

While there are some very strong contenders here (Brotherhood and A Sister are both masterful short films), The Neighbors’ Window is the most accessible and also a great short.

Best International Feature Film of the Year

Prediction: Parasite

This really cannot possibly go to another film in contention and is probably one of the most locked categories of the night. Unless (and possibly even if) the film goes on to win Best Picture, I would be extremely surprised if the Academy voted any other way.

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

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: Cathy Yan

Screenplay: Christina Hodson

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

Running Length:  109 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: J.J. Abrams

Screenplay: Chris Terrio, J.J. Abrams

Cast: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams, Ian McDiarmid, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Anthony Daniels, Jimmy Vee, David Chapman, Brian Herring, Joonas Suotamo, Domhnall Gleason, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Naomi Ackie, Kelly Marie Tran, Keri Russell

Running Length:  142 minutes

Synopsis: Lucasfilm and director J.J. Abrams join forces once again to take viewers on an epic journey to a galaxy far, far away with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the riveting conclusion of the seminal Skywalker saga, where new legends will be born and the final battle for freedom is yet to come.

Review: Few people would want to be in J.J. Abrams’ shoes. Not only does he return to the Star Wars franchise after the last Episode (Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi in 2017) polarized fans and audiences, but when it was announced that The Rise of Skywalker would be the conclusion of 42 years of movies, comics, novels, TV series and more (now collectively known as the Skywalker Saga), it became clear that he had an insurmountable task ahead of him. Given how committed the fanbase is, there would have been no feasible way he could have pleased everyone, nor been able to resolve every single plot point that has arisen along the four-decade build up.

So instead Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio seemed to have set out to please as many viewers as possible, dishing out so much fan service that it really should have been two movies (or at the very least, a film that rivals the length of Avengers: Endgame). This has resulted in The Rise of Skywalker feeling rather overstuffed, and a plot that does some rather acrobatic maneuvering in order to accommodate its own contrivances. Also, if you thought The Force Awakens was marching to the drumbeats of an invisible checklist, you will feel this even more in The Rise of Skywalker (this really isn’t necessarily a bad thing). There is a greater unevenness in plot development – one particularly egregious example is when a character is believed to be dead, and yet this revelation is immediately walked back in less than ten minutes when the character reappears in the next scene.

Honestly, all the nitpicking in the world isn’t going to negate the fact that this is THE last Star Wars film (for now), and regardless of what anyone says, this alone is going to get audiences into the cinemas. Yes, it’s far from perfect, but it has enough of the elements that make it a Star Wars experience. From an amazingly choreographed lightsaber battle between Kylo Ren and Rey, to adrenalin-inducing dogfights in space, to cute droids, to the camaraderie between the central characters of Rey, Finn and Poe, to the highly recognizable musical cues John Williams had incorporated into the score, to the final onscreen appearance of the late Carrie Fisher as Leia… The list goes on. Star Wars is such an ingrained piece of our collective pop culture that it’s almost unthinkable that anyone who has seen the previous Star Wars films will want to skip out this installment, warts and all.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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