Shazam!

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: David F. Sandberg

Screenplay: Henry Gayden

Cast: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans

Running Length: 132 minutes

Synopsis: We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s (Asher Angel) case, by shouting out one word – SHAZAM! – this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult Super Hero Shazam (Zachary Levi), courtesy of an ancient wizard. Still a kid at heart – inside a ripped, godlike body – Shazam revels in this adult version of himself by doing what any teen would do with superpowers: have fun with them! Can he fly? Does he have X-ray vision? Can he shoot lightning out of his hands? Can he skip his social studies test? Shazam sets out to test the limits of his abilities with the joyful recklessness of a child. But he’ll need to master these powers quickly in order to fight the deadly forces of evil controlled by Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).

Review: It’s hard to feel any ill-will towards a movie like Shazam! – it is after all one of a very few superhero movies that truly embraces fun, uncynical humour, and wonderment, something that’s hard to find particularly in the DC Extended Universe. On a whole, superhero movies have become increasingly self-important and weighty (one need look no further than end April’s Avengers: Endgame and June’s Dark Phoenix for examples), but Shazam! makes no pretense of what it is – a lightweight and largely enjoyable romp – and it’s this awareness and the willingness to take the concept and really run with it, that makes Shazam stand out from the rest of the crop for 2019.

Much of the film’s charm comes directly from Zachary Levi’s high-energy performance, who is entirely believable as a wide-eyed teenager awkwardly trapped in a (super)man’s body, and recalls Tom Hanks in Big, which the film is obviously paying homage to (it even has a sequence that references an iconic scene in Big). On top of that, both teenage actors Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer (playing his disabled foster brother Freddy Freeman) share a great onscreen chemistry, and Grazer in particular also manages to steal the limelight in many scenes that he shares with Levi, no mean feat for sure. Together the trio turns the usually generic “superpower discovery phase” of an origins movie into a refreshing, laughter-filled segment. This is easily the most fun I’ve had in a superhero movie in quite some time, and unlike the higher-rated Deadpool 2, this is a film that the whole family can enjoy.

Where the film falters slightly is in its vanilla villain Dr Thaddeus Sivana, played mostly straight by Mark Strong, and the eventual showdown between Shazam and Sivana. These fall firmly into a been there, done that groove, and it is mildly disappointing that film ends up with a somewhat lackluster final reel, and in particular an 11thhour plot development is surprising but also doesn’t feel all that well thought-out.

It’s clear that Shazam! isn’t aiming to be on par with the “true” superhero films this year, and its release schedule (being bookended by two very big Marvel films) is indicative of Warner Bros’ strategy – comedy first, superhero film second. Shazam! is pretty much like its titular character, as while it doesn’t take itself all too seriously, can still pack a pretty decent punch.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

Standard

Captain Marvel

Genre: Action

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Screenplay: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg, Jude Law, Annette Bening

Running Length: 124 minutes

Synopsis: Set in the 1990s, Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel is an all-new adventure from a previously unseen period in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that follows the journey of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) as she becomes one of the universes most powerful heroes. While a galactic war between two alien races reaches Earth, Danvers finds herself and a small cadre of allies at the center of the maelstrom.

Review: It’s “only” taken 10 years and 20 films for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to finally produce a female-led superhero movie, but if you were hoping for Captain Marvel to do for female empowerment what Black Panther did for black representation, I would suggest you look elsewhere. There’s no denying that Captain Marvel does what a Marvel superhero movie typically sets out to do – it is an entertaining (if less than consequential) romp through the MCU via an origins story – but the marketing around the movie is positioning it as a positive beacon of female empowerment, which really quite overstates the case. 

When the directors of Captain Marvel were announced, it seemed like a pretty interesting decision – Boden and Fleck are more known for their indie films, and helming a big budget action movie may not make them the most intuitive choice. And honestly, this could be part of the reason why Captain Marvel comes across as a rather uneven movie. While the comedic beats are quite good (the regular jibes at 90s tech will be particularly amusing to anyone who’s actually lived through the era) and there’s an easygoing camaraderie amongst the cast (channeling a little bit of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies), the action sequences in the film are some of the most inadequately choreographed, muddied scenes in recent memory. In fact, even the money shots of spaceships engaging in battle feel like they belong more to a TV episode of Star Trek than a mega-budget movie like this one. 

It’s also unfortunate that while Brie Larson is a perfectly capable actress, the fact that she needs to spend almost half a movie in an amnesiac haze does her no favours. Carol Danvers is simply far less interesting as a character than she should be, and while there are occasional glimpses back to a time where she’s a livelier person, the supporting cast members like Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Lashana Lynch and even Annette Bening are actually far more engaging throughout the film. Special mention must be made of Goose, the super adorable orange tabby (played by four different cats!), who plays a pretty important role in the movie and manages to steal whatever scene he shows up in. (P.S. stay through the entire credits sequence for a cute but none-too-consequential second coda.)

The key drive of many female-led movies seem to be centred around the idea of “if men can do it, women can do it too”, and this is an old, tired trope we should already have moved away from years ago. Female empowerment in Captain Marvel literally refers to imbuing a woman with superhuman abilities that allow her to stand toe to toe with male counterparts, but how is that identifiable or teachable in any meaningful way? The solitary scene that bucks this typecasting is a collage where we see Carol Danvers literally standing up to adversity near the end of the film, but it’s too little, too late.

While this could potentially be asking too much of a superhero movie, coming off a high watermark year of 2018 (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and even Ant Man & the Wasp had more convincing female empowerment on display), Captain Marvel feels more like a throwaway sidestep before April’s Avengers: Endgame (where Captain Marvel purported plays a pivotal role) comes around. The film is a perfunctory, middle of the pack Marvel film that does just enough to justify its existence, but is a retread of a path already frequently trod on by its MCU predecessors, rather than taking the mega-franchise in any new direction. 

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

Standard

Oscar Predictions 2019

It’s been a busier than usual start of the year at work in 2019, and this is actually the first time I’ve put “pen” to “paper” since the year commenced. Of course I’ve tried to cover as much Oscars ground as possible, and finally, just hours to the ceremony itself, I have managed to complete viewing of all the major contenders for the year. Phew. Given the difficulty it had taken me to get to access a live telecast of the ceremony this year, it’s probably going to be one of the last times where I can actually get to watch the show live – so hopefully my tally this year would be a decent one! 

Since I am not involved in any Oscar pool or viewing party (the norm these days), I will be abstaining from the documentary and short film categories. Now, on to the predictions: 

Best Motion Picture of the Year

Should win: Blackkklansman

Prediction: Roma

The only possible thing in Roma’s way of winning Best Picture this year is that it’s still a foreign language film. Of the 8 there are some really iffy contenders this year, and personally while Roma is a beautiful film, Blackkklansman is the one that truly stirred something in me. It’s quite a wide open category this year and even Roma isn’t a sure thing, but it should still stand the best chance of coming ahead the rest of the pack (and honestly, some of the films here don’t seem to be truly deserving of the accolade). 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Should win: Christian Bale, Vice

Prediction: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody

This award is almost surely going to Rami Malek given his hot run so far, even though I felt Bale’s performance as Dick Cheney in Vice is the far more masterful one. 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Should win: Olivia Colman, The Favourite

Prediction: Glenn Close, The Wife

Olivia Colman’s performance in The Favourite is one of my (ahem) favourite performances of the year, but Glenn Close seems poised to finally walk away with the award after a seventh nomination. I personally didn’t think that highly of Lady Gaga’s performance, and I don’t think she will be able to beat the odds on this one. 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Should win: Mahershala Ali, Green Book 

Prediction: Mahershala Ali, Green Book

This is the most locked-in category of the night. 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Should win: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Prediction: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk

Emily Blunt seems to have been robbed of a nomination here for the unforgettable performance in The Quiet Place, but Regina King’s short but powerful scenes in If Beale Street Could Talk and the relatively higher number of wins in the awards season should swing this her way. Rachel Weisz was also very memorable in The Favourite and could be a dark horse here as well. 

Best Achievement in Directing

Should win: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

Prediction: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma

I honestly think no one else stands a chance in this category, although all the directors nominated here put in amazing work this year. 

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Should win: The Favourite 

Prediction: The Favourite 

As Yanxi Palace has proven, everyone loves women behaving badly in period dramas. Green Book is a close second though I think The Favourite would have left a far deeper impression on the voters in the Academy. 

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Should win: Blackkklansman

Prediction: Blackkklansman

Although the WGA gave the award to Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the movie has made minimal impact in the Oscar nominations, which leads me to believe Blackkklansman would be the screenplay to walk home with the statuette instead. 

Best Achievement in Cinematography


Should Win: Roma

Prediction: Roma

Even though I wasn’t entirely taken by the film, there’s no denying Roma is gorgeously lit and shot. 

Best Achievement in Editing

Should Win: Bohemian Rhapsody

Prediction: Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody (to me) is a film riddled with problems and I genuinely do not understand the awards love for the film, but if there’s one other award that it probably deserves, it would be for the editing, especially the Live Aid sequence. 

Best Achievement in Production Design

Prediction: The Favourite

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Prediction: The Favourite

While I think Roma has a chance of pipping The Favourite in Production Design, the Costume Design nod is almost certainly going to be a shoo-in. While Mary Poppins had some truly inspired costume designs as well, the film just didn’t make much of an impact overall. 

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

Prediction: Vice

Honestly I thought it was quite a strange omission to leave out The Favourite (especially when Mary Queen of Scots isn’t), I hope the excellent work on Vice would be given due recognition and also the win. 

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

Prediction: If Beale Street Could Talk 

The two major lead-up winners (First Man and A Star is Born) aren’t nominated for the Oscar, so amongst the five here, Nicholas Britell’s lush, beautiful score for If Beale Street Could Talk seems to stand a good chance to win. 

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Prediction: Shallow, A Star is Born

This is almost a dead lock – the song has definitely had the most airplay leading up and into awards season.

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing

Prediction: Roma

Sound mixing played an important role in setting the mood for many scenes in Roma, but there’s no clear winner here, with each nominee all having different but equally compelling cases to win the award. 

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

Prediction: A Quiet Place

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

Prediction: Avengers: Infinity War

This is pure guesswork, though I am sure Christopher Robin is not going to win this one. 

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Prediction: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse

Yes, it’s a non-Disney, non-Pixar film that I’ve bet on this year, despite there being both a Pixar AND a Disney film nominated this year. Into the Spider-verse is honestly the freshest animated film I have seen in years and it would be such a miss if it didn’t win here. 

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Prediction: Roma

Wondering if the same film can win both Best Foreign Film AND Best Picture, but this would probably be the most likely year such an occurrence would take place. 

Standard

Bumblebee

Genre: Action

Director: Travis Knight

Screenplay: Christina Hodson

Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider. Voices: Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Peter Cullen, Dylan O’Brien

Running Time: 114 minutes

Synopsis: On the run in the year 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. When Charlie revives him, she quickly learns this is no ordinary, yellow VW bug.

Review: To be dreadfully honest, I had longgiven up on the Transformers franchise, with each succeeding movie getting more bloated and more unwatchable. When Bumblebee was announced, I had expected more of the same, except what the film turned out to be was a total surprise – not only is it a solidly entertaining action film, it is a very decent coming of age movie as well, actually managing to tug at my heartstrings every now and then. Though it took more than a decade, the Transformers franchise has finally birthed a genuinely good movie, and I believe something more along the lines of what Transformers (cartoon) fans had wanted all along. 

Much of Bumblebee’s success probably lies in the fact that Michael Bay had finally vacated the director’s chair for this pseudo prequel, and on top of that picking Travis Knight (of the excellent Kubo and the Two Strings) was a great choice. Perhaps due to his background in animation, and also not being as enamoured with big, meaningless explosions like Bay was, Knight slows down the pace and makes a film a quieter, more sedate affair, never allowing the robots, CG or mindless action take over the movie. Yes, there are still a number of big explosions and action sequences, but this is a film with heart first and foremost, rather than the other way round. 

In fact, Bumblebee plays out pretty much like a traditional boy-and-the-dog movie, except that the lead character is a girl and the dog is a little more advanced and badass than the usual puppy. The emotional beats are on point, and the 1987 setting also recalls the kindler, gentler movies of that era. The film boasts an excellent soundtrack and also has great attention to period detail, and anyone who’s lived through the 80s would definitely experience a fair bit of nostalgia as the film progresses. 

Bumblebee stands alone in the Transformers franchise because it has one thing that none of the previous films have – charm. Hailee Steinfeld is a strong actress and even when given a character like Charlie who really doesn’t have all that much dimensionality, she takes the material and runs well with it. Bumblebee is similarly likeable, and the fact that he has a personality (unlike 99% of the Transformers found in the franchise – yes the Decepticons in Bumblebee included) and a unique “voice” means that the audiences will be rooting for the two to succeed. 

Of course, the business end of Hasbro isn’t neglected, and for action fans, there’s more than enough (discernible!) rock ‘em sock ‘em sequences in the film, and the slightly bittersweet ending does set up the potential for other “prequel sequels” to follow this one. If they are in the same vein as Bumblebee, however, that really won’t be a bad thing at all.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

Standard

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Genre: Animation 

Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Screenplay: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber

Running Time: 117 minutes

Synopsis: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative minds behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, bring their unique talents to a fresh vision of a different Spider-Man Universe, with a groundbreaking visual style that’s the first of its kind. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduces Brooklyn teen Miles Morales, and the limitless possibilities of the Spider-Verse, where more than one can wear the mask.

Review: Spider-Man is possibly the comic book hero that has seen the most reboots in his cinematic career. Since 2002 and Spidey’s proper big screen debut, there have been no less than three actors donning the Spider-Man costume over 6 dedicated films (with a seventh arriving in 2019), and this makes what Into the Spider-Verse has achieved even more impressive – not only is this the best animated film I have seen in 2018, it is also the best Spider-Man movie yet. 

A large part of what makes Into the Spider-Verse so special is because of long time creative partners-in-crime Phil Lord & Christopher Miller. Despite not actually being billed as directors on Into the Spider-Verse due to them working on (and then later leaving) Solo: A Star Wars Story, it’s clear that they have left their mark all over the project, and the genre-bending creativity and willingness to take risks that was found in The Lego Movie is found quite intact here.

Rarely can it be said nowadays that a superhero movie is innovative and ground-breaking, but Into the Spider-Verse is exactly that – not only is the movie an origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man, it also functions as origins stories for a multitude of Spider-People from parallel universes, setting up exciting potential directions for future films set in the Spider-Verse. That the film actually manages to adequately introduce SIX iterations of Spideys in its under-two-hour running time is a feat on its own. That the story manages to make viewers care about every single one of them (yes, including Spider-Ham) is near unprecedented in the world of superhero movies. 

The innovation extends to the visual style of the film as well. This is the first animated film I have seen that so closely resembles an actual comic book, and having a different stylistic flourish for each of the Spider-People is a move that pays off well. Although it can get a bit too busy at times, the film is truly a dazzling breath of fresh air, as animated films of recent years have generally all converged towards a similar “look” that Into the Spider-Verse completely veers away from.

Unlike many of its brethren, Into the Spider-Verse is actually effervescent and fun, coming closer to the spirit of comic books than many live-action adaptations. It seems weird to describe the film this way, but Into the Spider-Verse comes across as being actually delighted in its own existence, and has such a joyous, carefree feel to it, releasing the film in the December holiday season suddenly starts to make a lot of sense. A note-perfect mix of verve, wit (stay through the entire credits for a coda with a somewhat interesting payoff) and authenticity, this has surprisingly become the movie to beat this holiday season (even if its box office is unlikely to outclass fellow December release.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

Standard

Aquaman

Genre: Action

Director: James Wan

Screenplay: David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick, Will Beall

Cast: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Nicole Kidman, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Temuera Morrison, Ludi Lin, Michael Beach, Randall Park, Graham McTavish

Running Length: 143 minutes

Synopsis: Aquaman reveals the origin story of half-human, half-Atlantean Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and takes him on the journey of his lifetime—one that will not only force him to face who he really is, but to discover if he is worthy of who he was born to be…a king.

Review: After having appeared in two previous DC Extended Universe movies, it’s finally time for Aquaman to get his own origins movie (take that, Entourage!). Given the spotty track record of the DCEU thus far, one could rightly say that expectations for the film was tempered, even though the trailers seem to point to a rather decent effort. And indeed Aquaman is just that – a decent effort from James Wan, a somewhat overlong but entertaining film in spite of its many flaws. At least it’s a fun movie and never takes itself too seriously, which cannot be said of almost all previous DCEU outings. 

It won’t come as a rude shock that the movie version of Aquaman is a towering, hirsute brute of a man, since moviegoers have already seen him on multiple occasions. Jason Momoa continues to own the role, and the mix of his physicality and a tongue-in-cheek sensibility makes him an eminently watchable superhero. Unfortunately, the rest of the main cast don’t fare as well, from the one-note performance of Amber Heard to the distracted “I’m here for the paycheque” delivery of Willem Dafoe, and particularly Patrick Wilson, who delivers his somewhat ludicrous lines with such serious thespian effort that it becomes comical to observe. It doesn’t help that he has the most distractingly bad wig amongst a sea (ahem) of bad hairpieces (the film’s apparently limitless budget didn’t seem to have catered resources to making hair move realistically under “water”). 

Aquaman is split into two (unequal) halves, the first half being reminiscent of treasure hunt movies like Romancing the Stone, where Aquaman and Mera venture into unlikely locales to hunt down a powerful trident (never mind that the first clue is seemingly millions of years old, but points to a second clue that is merely a few thousand years old). This does go on for a bit too long, and interest in the search starts to flag, especially when punctuated by a long sequence with Black Manta, the secondary villain. In fact, the entire Black Manta storyline could probably have been excised without much impact to the overall film, except to maybe make it feel a tad less bloated and waterlogged. 

The second half is where Aquaman truly goes balls to the wall and eventually builds to an insane finale where every possible form of seafood (I apologize for my Asian culinary sensibilities) comes together in an eye-popping underwater battle royale. It even has an octopus playing drums underwater! It is impossible to take in all the detail found in this denouement, but it certainly does look impressive enough, especially in IMAX. Aquaman is a step in the right direction for the DCEU, and for once it’s a film that recognizes and celebrates the inherent silliness of some of the worlds these superheroes exist in. Yet despite all the visual pizzazz, exotic locales, and its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, there’s really no denying that there is just too little substance in the film to really justify an almost 2.5 hour running time.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

Standard

Mortal Engines

Genre: Action, Sci-Fi

Director: Christian Rivers

Screenplay: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, based on the book by Philip Reeve

Cast: Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Hugo Weaving, Jihae, Ronan Raftery, Leila George, Patrick Malahide, Stephen Lang

Running Length:129 minutes

Synopsis:Hundreds of years after civilization was destroyed by a cataclysmic event, a mysterious young woman, Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar), emerges as the only one who can stop London — now a giant, predator city on wheels — from devouring everything in its path. Feral, and fiercely driven by the memory of her mother, Hester joins forces with Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan), an outcast from London, along with Anna Fang (Jihae), a dangerous outlaw with a bounty on her head.

Review: Having not read the source novels, I can only wonder why the Mortal Engines quadrilogy by Philip Reeve appealed so much to Peter Jackson as to justify spending triple-digit millions on the production of this first movie. Judging from the result, it’s really hard to imagine the film engaging the general masses, and seems highly unlikely that this spawning off an actual quadrilogy of films. Although Mortal Engines is a serviceable action film, it is almost entirely (and transparently) derivative, and despite having Peter Jackson in the mix, not very imaginative either. The fact that for many, the only truly recognizable face is that of Hugo Weaving will also mean it will be a challenge to get seats filled in theatres, especially in a crowded year-end release slate like this year.

Although Mortal Engines kicks things off with a relatively interesting “car chase” featuring two Traction Cities, it doesn’t ever pick up from there, even if the film remains consistently good to look at (WETA did an amazing job with the visual effects). It also cops elements from past films, from Howl’s Moving Castle to Terminator to Mad Max and especially Star Wars (pro tip: don’t play a Star Wars reference drinking game unless you’re ready to get stone-cold drunk) in the final reels. The unfortunate thing about Mortal Engines is that so much of it feels like such a slog – the interminable middle with the side story on Shrike and the entire sojourn to some city in the air comes across as being particularly extraneous and unnecessary.

Special dishonorable mention must go to Junkie XL’s score for the film, which could possibly be the most overblown and in-your-face scoring I’ve had to sit through the entire 2018. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more ridiculously overbearing, the choir joins the fray and punches you in the aural gut. It’s hugely distracting and never hits the right emotional beats, even in the quieter moments.

While the acting is all passable, no one actually impresses and therein is the final nail in Mortal Engines’ coffin. There’s really nothing to get excited about – no standout performances from the both the familiar and unfamiliar faces in the cast at all – it’s either just adequate or barely passable. While it’s never easy to act against a green screen, the actors here simply don’t make a dent at all. And this is reflective of the entire movie – it could have potentially made more bank if not released this month, but when there are so many higher-profile or simply better movies to choose from, it simply isn’t compelling enough to recommend the film to anyone, save perhaps for fans of the source novels.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

 

Standard