Frozen 2

Genre: Animation

Directors: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Screenplay: Jennifer Lee

Voice Cast: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, Jonathan Groff, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, Jeremy Sisto, Ciaran Hinds, Alan Tudyk, Hadley Gannaway, Mattea Conforti

Running Length:  103 minutes

Synopsis: Together with her sister Anna, Kristoff, Olaf, and Sven, they embark on a new journey beyond their homeland of Arendelle in order to discover the origin of Elsa’s magical powers and save their kingdom.

Review: When Frozen was released in 2013, no one anticipated exactly how big a movie it was going to be, eventually clocking more than US$1.2 billion in box office revenue and reigning as the Queen of all animated titles. It’s reasonable to say that expectations are sky-high for the sequel, and this is probably the reason why for some audiences, Frozen 2 will never live up to the hype. But taken on its own, Frozen 2 is a more than serviceable sequel, featuring many of the same elements that made the first Frozen such a watchable movie. This really comes across as no surprise, because there is very little reason and incentive to meddle with something that did so well the first time round. That there is so much effort put into trying to create something that can still occasionally feel fresh is actually more surprising.

Frozen 2 has a little more of everything that Frozen had, from more sisterly interactions between Elsa and Anna, to more of the lovable Olaf, to more songs that are designed to be earworms (while “Into the Unknown” seems positioned to take the place of the still-ubiquitous “Let It Go”, there are a few more songs that have great replayability as well). Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee have left no stone unturned in an effort to maximize bankability of the sequel.

It may come across as a bit too much at times, and the pacing of the film does suffer a bit due to this, particularly with the heft of the plotlines that at times threaten to overwhelm the younger audience members. It is significantly more complex than Frozen, but that is probably due to the fact that the movie has “aged up”, in line with the same young’uns that were undoubtedly enraptured by the first film 6 years ago.

This is certainly not a bad strategy, as it opens up the potential audience of the film to a wider pool, and in fact the more emotional beats of the movie can only truly be appreciated by older viewers. And the consistently high production values of any Disney animation continue to hold true here as well – the art direction is consistently gorgeous, and the visuals are absolutely top-notch in both the more epic sequences and in the little details.

And then there’s Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), whom many Frozen fans had lamented that had not been given a chance to show off his vocals in the first film. This is more than compensated in Frozen 2, and without going into spoilers, the sequence where Kristoff bemoans that he is “Lost in the Woods” is surely going to be a highlight for anyone who has experienced the late 80s and early 90s, an Easter egg perhaps for the multitude of parents who will be resigned to have to watch and rewatch this movie for at least the next two years.

(Don’t forget to stay for the end credits coda, which has a good payoff to reward your patience for sitting through the relatively lengthy credits.)

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Joker

Genre: Drama

Director: Todd Phillips

Screenplay: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp

Running Length:  122 minutes

Synopsis: Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks – the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.

Review: It’s nearly impossible to really “enjoy” the viewing experience of Joker – Todd Philips’ origins story of the titular DC/Batman supervillain is unrelentingly grim and dark, and never eases up on the mood through its 2-hour running time. It’s a little too self-important for its own good (literally and ironically begging the iconic question from a previous iteration of the Joker: why so serious?), but remains an engrossing watch nonetheless, especially for Joaquin Phoenix’s very impressive performance as the Joker.

Heath Ledger’s menacing turn as the Joker stands as the defining portrayal of the murderous clown, but Joaquin Phoenix comes very close to supplanting that position. Given that there has never been a whole movie devoted to the Joker, Phoenix gets the upper hand in his ability to flesh out the character to a greater and deeper extent, though this is not always to his advantage.

It’s a very remarkable physical performance – Phoenix shed an enormous amount of weight for the role, and makes full use of his emaciated physicality, at times contorting himself into seemingly impossible positions. There’s a constant sense of his Arthur Fleck being slightly askew, both mentally and physically, and Phillips makes great use of this to present Fleck as an unreliable narrator going down an irreversible path. If one were to nitpick, however, it is too forceful a performance at times, when nuance and subtlety would have served the role better. Still, there is no doubt at this time that Phoenix will be one of the front runners come awards season early next year.

Joker also boasts excellent production design across the board. Set in 1981, the attention to “period” detail is immaculate, and the film is intentionally designed to have the look of early Scorsese films (particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which Phillips borrows liberally from). I can unreservedly recommend watching Joker in IMAX, as the film fills the IMAX screen throughout, and is really the only format where one can appreciate the amazing cinematography by Lawrence Sher in its full glory.

Unfortunately, on the script front, Joker is somewhat more problematic. Ignoring the controversies that have arose prior to the film’s opening, where it was accused of glorifying violence (it doesn’t) and potentially leading to copycat behavior (highly unlikely outcome, honestly), Joker still has a rather lopsided script. While one can understand that the film needs to justify Fleck’s descent into depravity, there are times where the proceedings get a little too lopsided. The film veers dangerously close to parody at times, which is clearly an unintended effect. The entire subplot of Murray Franklin and his talk show doesn’t work for me – though it’s obviously an homage to De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, much of how this particular subplot unravels is an anachronistic “cheat”, allowing a video to “go viral” in the days where there is no such thing as the World Wide Web. That it eventually becomes one of the most important plot threads simply exacerbates matters.

Despite its flaws, Joker still warrants a trip to the cinema – it’s a visceral, uncompromising film with a very powerful central performance that may not necessarily be something easy to watch, but assuredly will be a movie experience that will stay with you for quite some time to come.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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It: Chapter 2

Genre: Horror

Director: Andy Muschietti

Screenplay: Gary Dauberman, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Jay Ryan, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jaeden Martell, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Finn Wolfhard, Sophia Lillis, Chosen Jacobs, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Bill Skarsgård

Running Length:  169 minutes

Synopsis: Twenty-seven years after the Losers Club defeated Pennywise, he has returned to terrorize the town of Derry once more.  Now adults, the Losers have long since gone their separate ways. However, kids are disappearing again, so Mike, the only one of the group to remain in their hometown, calls the others home.  Damaged by the experiences of their past, they must each conquer their deepest fears to destroy Pennywise once and for all…putting them directly in the path of the clown that has become deadlier than ever.

Review: It would never have been an easy task to adapt Stephen King’s gargantuan novel for the screen, and while the runaway success that was the first IT remake in 2017 ensured a second movie, this sequel faces an even tougher challenge – finagling the plot development and the totally off-the-rails denouement that King included in the novel, and doubling the actor count due to the need to cover both the child and adult iterations of the Losers’ Club. And if you thought the first installment was already running a little too long (which was my sentiment), Chapter Two ups the ante and tacks on another 30 plus minutes to make it an almost 3-hour affair. While it remains an engrossing watch, this is a movie where you will really feel the length of its running time.

Much of this is due to the fact that the narrative structure follows the first film, where each character is given an extended, solo sojourn, and is then compounded with the need to switch between two versions of each character in the Losers’ Club. While this is kind of necessary to set the stage for the eventual showdown, the film still feels way too sprawling and indulgent even if all of it remains very watchable (there wasn’t a suitable moment throughout for a toilet break). It does somewhat boggle the mind that Muschietti’s first cut was 4 hours long, because there’s really no way the material can live up to such extended running times.

The child actors remain uniformly good across the board, especially since they have already worked together on a previous movie. The adult cast, while boasting a number of recognizable faces, are more uneven in terms of performance. Interestingly, the most well-known actors – Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy – have quite unremarkable turns here, and both Bill Hader and James Ransone are actually the ones that give the most memorable performances amongst them.

Although both chapters of IT are of course positioned as horror films, there’s definitely much less terror to be found in the second film. Pennywise is no longer a mystery, and being faithful to King’s source novel here proves to be increasingly problematic, since the origins of the entity is so “out there” that quite a number of iterations of Pennywise stretch believability to breaking point. The copious usage of CG, especially in the latter parts of the film, also take away the organic creepiness that made Pennywise in the first film such an iconic scary character.

While there are very effective sequences, particularly in two scenes (unfortunately one is almost fully showcased in the film’s teaser trailer), the film never really comes across as being terrifying. The law of diminishing returns applies also to the individual sojourns again, and while effort had been made to make each encounter different, it also causes the overarching plot to essentially march in place until all the boxes are checked. With the total running time already clocking in at 5 hours, it’s good that IT Chapter Two firmly closes the door on the potential of another sequel, as a third film would surely be a detriment to the franchise. As it stands, while it’s definitely more bloated than needed, the two IT films represent one of the better Stephen King adaptations, though they are unlikely to stand the test of time as well as some of his best.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Genre: Drama

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning, Damon Herriman, Austin Butler, Emile Hirsch, Scoot McNairy, Luke Perry, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Spencer Garrett, Mike Moh, Lena Dunham, Damian Lewis, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Zoë Bell, James Marsden, Michael Madsen, James Remar, Brenda Vaccaro          

Running Length: 159 minutes

Synopsis: A faded TV actor and his stunt double embark on an odyssey to make a name for themselves in the film industry during the Helter Skelter reign of terror in 1969 Los Angeles.

Review: It’s been ten years (in my opinion at least) since the last truly great Quentin Tarantino movie (Inglorious Basterds), but with Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, QT is once again back on top with an excellent piece of filmmaking, particularly so for anyone who considers themselves movie lovers. Given Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge and passion of film, it’s little wonder why Once Upon a Time feels so passionate and intimate – this is Tarantino’s love letter to old Hollywood, a sprawling, highly enjoyable cinematic experience that ranks amongst the best in 2019.

It’s hard to actually define Once Upon A Time, because it’s so many things all at the same time. Much of the film is structured like a road movie, following fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double cum driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) over a weekend in February 1969. There are however quite a number of diversions, the most important ones being two subplots that focuses on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Cliff’s crossing of paths with the Manson family. For those who are unacquainted with the Manson family Tate murders, it will definitely serve you well to do a bit of reading up beforehand.

Both DiCaprio and Pitt are great in their roles as (essentially) losers, which is about as against type as possible for these two golden boys of Hollywood, but they are so eminently watchable that the at-times long and rambling nature of the film almost ceases to matter. I would say “almost”, because the film will wear thin the patience of any audience member that doesn’t appreciate the general lack of a narrative focus. However, there is usually enough going on at any one point in the movie, with a good number of comedic and surprising moments that it doesn’t ever feel like a slog. In fact, the film is easily one of the funniest this year, and while it defies easy categorization, it won’t be wrong to consider much of the two-plus hour movie to be a comedy. It also helps that the entire cast, from big star cameos to smaller bit roles, are consistently excellent and leave deep impressions regardless of the length of their presence in the film.

However, the true star of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino and his production crew. In an era where everything is digital, QT decided to shoot in film instead (sadly, Singapore will not be playing host to either the 35mm or 70mm film prints), and working with master cinematographer Robert Richardson and an excellent production design team, what unfolds onscreen is probably one of the most hyper-realistic depictions of 60’s Hollywood (apart from, of course, actual 60’s Hollywood). Attention has been lavished on every period detail, and the love that QT has for the era is clear and present in every frame.

We must end this review by touching on the final reel of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, even though it is something that’s best experienced without any prior spoilers. Suffice to say that it takes a lot to surprise a jaded cinemagoer like myself, but I was well and truly very (pleasantly) surprised by how the final act of the film unspooled. Kudos to Tarantino for having the audacity to execute such a bold denouement – I genuinely cannot think of any other director with both the vision and the ability to successfully pull it off, which pretty much explains why he obtained a six-minute standing ovation after the film’s premiere at Cannes earlier this year.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

 

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Spider-Man: Far From Home

Genre: Action

Director: Jon Watts

Screenplay: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers

Cast: Tom Holland, Angourie Rice, Jacob Batalon, Cobie Smulders, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Jake Gyllenhaal, Martin Starr                   

Running Length: 130 minutes

Synopsis: After the events of Avengers: Endgame, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and his friends go on summer vacation to Europe.

Review: Really, the only thing working against Spider-Man: Far From Home is the immediate preceding Spider-Man movie. No, not Homecoming, but Into the Spider-verse, which by every measure still ranks as the best Spider-Man movie made. Far From Home has also been positioned as the true concluding film of the MCU’s Phase 3, and after the very heavy-going Endgame, it feels like a (very welcome) palate cleanser, a light and breezy film that more accurately mirrors the comic universe which first birthed these movies.

It’s undeniable that in general, the stars of the MCU are not spring chickens anymore, and so from a financial standpoint, it makes perfect sense to start pivoting the heavy lifting to younger actors waiting in the wings. Far From Home is the first movie to officially do so, and Tom Holland (who’s actually already been in four MCU movies before this, despite being just 23 years old) proves once again that he’s the best actor to have physically donned Spidey’s suit. Unafraid to present himself as an awkward goofball onscreen, Holland has great comic timing and a genuine chemistry with Zendaya, and yet has enough thespian talent in him to carry the emotionally heavier scenes with great aplomb.

The key difference between the typical MCU movies and Far From Home is that, unlike most of the recent titles, Far From Home isn’t building towards a greater overarching narrative, but instead just focused on world-building in the Spider-Man universe. This frees the film from the “shackles” of being a cog in the wheel, while fleshing out the franchise’s key characters in a meaningful manner. That the screen time of Far From Home is almost even split down the middle between battling world-threatening villainy and a coming-of-age rom com is exactly why it works so well – it never loses sight of the “smaller” aspects of the Peter Parker/Spider-Man universe, which makes it much easier for audiences to identify with the central character and his friends.

Visual excellence is par for the course these days for superhero movies, but apart from the usual top-notch CG imagery, there are some very creative sequences in Far From Home that are worthy of special mention, in particular an extended scene where Spider-Man needs to battle his foe in the midst of some really mind-bending image trickery. Rarely would I recommend viewing a title in IMAX 3D, but this is certainly a film that makes a more compelling case to do so.

Also, the mid and end-credits codas (yes there are two this time, making up perhaps for the lack of one in Endgame) are actually important game-changing scenes that will likely see far-reaching impact in the Spider-Man films moving forward (and very possibly the Phase 4 movies in the MCU), and well worth sitting through the rather lengthy end credits crawl.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

 

 

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Men in Black: International

Genre: Sci-Fi, Comedy

Director: F. Gary Gray

Screenplay: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois

Running Length: 115 minutes

Synopsis: The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

Review: While the original Men in Black was a great movie, the franchise itself hasn’t managed to do as well, with both Men in Black 2 and 3 treading familiar ground but bringing nothing much new to the table. However, there was always the faultless pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to lean back on. 22 years later, we now have a fourth installment in the franchise that no longer involves the duo, replaced instead by Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. While there’s an easy camaraderie between Hemsworth and Thompson (undoubtedly aided by the fact that they have worked together previously in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame), it may really be asking too much for them to replicate the franchise-defining chemistry between Jones and Smith. That does leave the door open for Kumail Nanjiani, voicing Pawny, a miniature alien sidekick to Tessa’s Agent M, to steal every single scene that he appears in, and his presence is easily the best thing in the entire show.

Men in Black: International demands very little from its viewers, and in more ways than one the film seems to reflect this mentality – CGI is surprisingly dodgy at times, and very often the settings ring false, from a totally deserted Paris to a really generic desert landscape that suggests a lot of soundstage and greenscreen work. This is not new, but is particularly apparent in MIB: International especially because of the inconsistent CGI. The plot is also paper-thin and the so-called twists are so painfully obvious that they really shouldn’t even have bothered. While the film runs a relatively short 115 minutes, the screenplay is inexplicably plodding at times (take for example the entire subplot featuring Rebecca Ferguson as an alien arms trader), and while all the essential summer blockbuster movie beats are present and accounted for, there’s really nothing that comes across as being new or different.

While Hemsworth and Thompson don’t replicate the onscreen chemistry they shared in Thor: Ragnarok, the audience goodwill that their previous MCU pairing had fostered cannot be denied, and there is an affability between the two that still works quite well here. It also helps, of course, that both Hemsworth and Thompson are charismatic actors that are very easy on the eye, and look great in the Paul Smith suits created for the roles. Yet, it’s quite telling that the movie actually left so much of the heavy lifting to Nanjiani, as though not trusting that the Hemsworth and Thompson alone are able to carry the movie. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Pawny ends up with some of the best lines and sequences in the film, which in a way undermines what the two lead actors could have brought to the table.

As a summer film, Men in Black: International is a largely harmless offering – if you enter the cinema with the aim of leaving your brain at the door and getting entertained, it really isn’t all that bad. Like the previous MIB sequels, MIB: International will not stand the test of time, and is unlikely something that anyone would hanker to watch again after one outing, but that doesn’t make them bad movies, just not good ones either.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

 

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Avengers: Endgame

Genre: Action

Director: Anthony and Joe Russo

Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Brolin, Don Cheadle, Karen Gillan, Scarlett Johansson, Brie Larson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd (and many more)

Running Length: 181 minutes

Synopsis: Adrift in space with no food or water, Tony Stark sends a message to Pepper Potts as his oxygen supply starts to dwindle. Meanwhile, the remaining Avengers – Thor, Black Widow, Captain America and Bruce Banner – must figure out a way to bring back their vanquished allies for an epic showdown with Thanos – the evil demigod who decimated the planet and the universe.

While efforts have been made to keep the review as spoiler-free as possible, it’s impossible to calibrate what constitutes a spoiler to everyone. If you’re truly sensitive to any spoilers please do not proceed till you have watched the movie.

Review: And so it ends – an epic journey across 22 films, 11 years and a truly labyrinthine mass of superheroes, characters and plots culminates in what is undoubtedly THE event movie of the year (sorry, Star Wars). Of course this won’t be the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or possibly even The Avengers), but the Russo Brothers have crafted a film that truly feels like an end of an era, and what a sendoff it is.

While last year’s Infinity War felt incomplete, halting at a pivotal point where half the living things in universe turns to dust after Thanos uses the six Infinity Gems, Endgame does not have the same issue. And now, when the two films are viewed together, they finally give a complete picture of the showdown with Thanos, one that bears very real costs to the ones left fighting the good fight. As an added bonus, the fact that Thanos’ Decimation (aka the finger snap) had removed half the superhero roster is actually a good thing, simply because there are less characters to split the narrative over, which was one of the issues that plagued Infinity War.

One would also have expected that there would be even more action set pieces in Endgame, but the Russo Brothers actually buck that expectation, slowing things down and really taking time with the narrative to tie up some of the loose plot threads that have developed over the span of Marvel films. It’s a Herculean effort, but scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are largely successful. Did the show really need to run over three hours long? I would hazard to say not really, but given the nature of the film, every single character’s resolution needed to be included, with generous amounts of fan service thrown in, which in turn necessitates the extended running time. Fortunately, there are some very major plot developments that take place, especially in the final hour, that help to make the film feel shorter than it is.

While this is not the first franchise that set out to create a universe of its own, it can now be definitively said that there’s been no world-building that has come close to what Marvel has achieved in this franchise. The truly impressive thing about Endgame is how it manages to thread everything together, particularly in referencing events that takes place outside of the four “official” Avengers movies. Literally the entire MCU shows up in one form or another in Endgame, and even a casual viewer of the Marvel canon would likely find themselves feeling nostalgia over some characters or scenes referenced in the film. For dedicated fans of the Marvel universe, Endgame would probably trigger a desire to rewatch many of the films that came before it.

What truly makes Endgame stand out amongst the Marvel films is that it has a much stronger emotional core and heart than a typical superhero movie, and while there are some potentially tear-jerking moments, it’s also filled with levity and humor, something that’s necessary for a three-hour movie to not buckle under its own narrative weight. Surprisingly, Endgame is one of the funniest Marvel films to have been released in the past few years, and some scenes had me actually laughing out loud, no mean feat given the grave nature of much of the proceedings.

It’s no secret that the OG Marvel crew cannot feasibly carry the franchise to an indefinite end, given the nature of Hollywood contracts and options (and age), and Endgame likely spells the sidelining or end of the road for many of these characters moving forward. It has been clear for years that the mantle is being passed on to newer (and younger) players in the franchise, but it remains to be seen whether they would be able to keep the light of the MCU shining as brightly as before. And while I will not be revealing the fates of any of the superheroes in this review, suffice to say that there is a genuine sense of loss in bidding a proper farewell to these characters we have spent a decade with, something that I had not anticipated going into the movie, and well worth the price of entry on its own.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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