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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Bumblebee

Genre: Action

Director: Travis Knight

Screenplay: Christina Hodson

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

Running Time: 114 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Genre: Action

Director: Peyton Reed

Screenplay:Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, Gabriel Ferrari

Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Greer, Tip. “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Forston, Randall Park

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: From the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes Ant-Man and The Wasp, a new chapter featuring heroes with the astonishing ability to shrink. In the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) grapples with the consequences of his choices as both a super hero and a father. As he struggles to rebalance his life with his responsibilities as Ant-Man, he’s confronted by Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) with an urgent new mission. Scott must once again put on the suit and learn to fight alongside the Wasp as the team works together to uncover secrets from the past.

Review: After the seismic events in Avengers: Infinity War that shook the Marvel Cinematic Universe to its core – and left many Marvel fans hoping for 2019 to come round much sooner – we suddenly take an extremely leisurely, benign diversion in Ant-Man and the Wasp, where nothing much is seemingly at stake apart from family life. It’s not always a bad thing to be lightweight – after all there’s only that much world-ending seriousness one can take – but there are brief moments in the film where it feels like there’s actually no real reason for this sequel to be in existence.

I had enjoyed the original Ant-Man despite its similarly lightweight ambitions, but a second film revolving around familiar ground (size shifting shenanigans and unmemorable villains, to name two) does seem to be pushing it a little. Fortunately, Evangeline Lilly is given a much meatier role this time round as the Wasp, and she’s far more entertaining to observe as a second superhero with a size-altering suit than Paul Rudd himself, with the added bonus of there being excellent chemistry (romantic and otherwise) between the two. Paul Rudd continues to charm as the everyman superhero, but make no mistake, this movie’s true star is Wasp/Lilly.

Peyton Reed is an old hand at directing comedies, and it will probably come as no surprise that his second superhero action movie is much more assured in its pacing and comic timing. While there are still the requisite CG-heavy action sequences, Reed deftly inserts in more comedic moments that you can shake a stick at, and even though some of the gags feel a bit tired the second time round (I wasn’t really impressed by Michael Pena’s “lip sync” sequence in this film), it still makes for a breezy movie experience overall.

Perhaps it’s because Marvel has had such a good run of late that Ant-Man and the Wasp comes across as underwhelming despite good intentions. By no means is it a bad movie, but it just feels so inconsequential especially following the footsteps of Infinity War, and even more jarringly so when it’s clear that these characters exist on the same planet/plane as the rest of the Avengers. Both Guardians of the Galaxy and (to a lesser extent) Thor had the benefit of being siloed from the main MCU storyline, but given that everything has now converged, even a side-story like Ant-Man and the Wasp seems to stick out like a sore thumb when it doesn’t fall in line with the rest of the titles. Add to that some of the worst, most unconvincing (and confusing!) pseudo-science spouted in the MCU thus far, and it’s quite clear that Ant-Man and the Wasp is the textbook definition of “a mixed bag”.

P.S. The requisite end-credit codas are in place, but if you are pressed for time, the coda that sits at the very end of the credits is totally inconsequential (and feels like it’s there simply to “reward” every audience member that sat through the rather lengthy list of names).

Rating:* * * (out of four stars)

 

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