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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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)

Standard

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

Standard

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.

Standard

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)

Standard