Eternals

Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Chloé Zhao

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

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

Running Length: 156 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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No Time to Die

Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

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

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

Running Length:  163 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Jungle Cruise

Genre: Action

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Screenplay: Glenn Ficarra & John Requa

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

Running Length: 127 minutes

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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A Quiet Place Part II

Genre: Horror, Thriller

Director: John Krasinski

Screenplay: John Krasinski

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

Running Length: 97 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Tenet

Genre: Action, Sci-Fi

Director: Christopher Nolan

Screenplay: Christopher Nolan

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

Running Length:  150 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

Genre: Horror, Action

Director: Yeon Sang-Ho

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

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

Running Length:  115 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Onward

Genre: Animation

Director: Dan Scanlon

Screenplay: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Buin

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

Running Length:  103 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: J.J. Abrams

Screenplay: Chris Terrio, J.J. Abrams

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

Running Length:  142 minutes

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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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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