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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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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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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Shazam!

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: David F. Sandberg

Screenplay: Henry Gayden

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

Running Length: 132 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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