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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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Screenplay: David Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham

Cast: Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Chen Fala, Zhang Meng’er, Florian Munteanu, Ronny Chieng, Michelle Yeoh

Running Length:  132 minutes

Synopsis: Marvel Studios’ “Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings” stars Simu Liu as Shang-Chi, who must confront the past he thought he left behind when he is drawn into the web of the mysterious Ten Rings organization.

Review: One would think that after a decade and twenty-plus movies, that nothing in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would feel fresh, but here we are with Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings, which is probably about as fresh as one can get with the MCU. Not only is it a step in the right direction for Asian representation in Hollywood, but also manages to successfully bring into the MCU fold a wuxia/martial arts element that really hasn’t been properly explored prior (of course no one wants to bring up Iron Fist, which essentially imploded on Netflix). Impressively, Shang-Chi ticks off several boxes, delivering not just an action spectacle, but also a film that has both humour and heart. The film also boasts a great ensemble cast, in particular one of the best villains so far in the entire lineup of Marvel films so far, played to near-perfection by the inimitable Tony Leung.

Simu Liu has a great story to tell regarding how he landed the plum role of Shang-Chi, but veracity of the story aside, he’s pretty perfect for the role. While Shang-Chi obviously requires a physicality (that Liu definitely possesses), what’s equally important is a keen sense of comic timing as well as a need for the hero to be likable, and Liu manages to deliver on all fronts. Watching his performance in Shang-Chi is similar to observing Chris Pratt in the first Guardians of the Galaxy, where you literally see an actor previously known more for his comedic roles transform into a bona fide action star. He’s also capably partnered by Awkwafina, who also makes her debut Marvel appearance here, and the two not only share a great onscreen chemistry, but the screenplay also gives her a relatively meaty role that has more heft to her actions than many of the other female co-stars found in the MCU.

However, this movie is as much about its veteran actors as it is of the (relative) newcomers. Michelle Yeoh puts in a dignified, memorable performance as Shang-Chi’s aunt Jiang Nan while still having the ability to show off her action chops, but the pièce de resistance is undoubtedly Tony Leung’s turn as Wenwu, and it’s a pleasure as always to watch the masterful performance of an actor with immense thespian talent. While Marvel villains are generally unremarkable, existing mostly as a literal “necessary evil”, Tony Leung creates one of the most nuanced character studies in the whole of the Marvel universe, and in his hands, Wenwu isn’t just a two-dimensional villain, but a man who’s so consumed by grief over the loss of his love that he is willing to go to any lengths and sacrifice anyone to try to regain what he has lost.

Of course, Shang-Chi is a Marvel movie after all, and in this aspect the film also manages to deliver. There are several excellently choreographed action sequences in impressively varied locations, from close quarters combat in a confined space of a public bus (think Speed on steroids), to a breathtakingly choreographed showdown on a scaffolding in Macau, to balletic fights that pay homage to the wuxia genre that this film clearly draws from. That Destin Daniel Cretton does not allow rapid editing and quick cuts (almost the de-facto these days) to overshadow the action choreography makes it even easier to enjoy the spectacle.

And yes, Shang-Chi is very much a big budget spectacle like most Marvel films, and visual effects across the board are top-notch, from the various CGI creatures to the climactic showdown. Shang-Chi is a film that should be seen on the biggest screen possible (the IMAX presentation is a visual treat), and since it’s the first Marvel film since the pandemic hit to have a theatrical-only release, it will only be available to enjoy on the big screen for now. While Black Widow officially kicked off Phase 4 of the MCU, Shang-Chi feels like the true starter film, setting a decidedly different tone for the MCU after the conclusion of Phase 3 in Avengers: Endgame (and looking to continue with the mystical/outer space themes found in the next few Marvel films – Eternals, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Dr Strange in the Multiverse of Madness). And if this is how Phase 4 starts, I can’t wait for what’s coming up next.

Oh, and as Marvel tradition dictates, stay for the end credits for two post-credit sequences.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Suicide Squad

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: James Gunn

Screenplay: James Gunn

Cast: Margot Robbie, Juan Diego Botto, Peter Capaldi, Alice Braga, Sylvester Stallone, David Dastmalchian, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Daniela Melchior, John Cena, Idris Elba, Joaquin Cosio

Running Length: 132 minutes

Synopsis: Welcome to hell–a.k.a. Belle Reve, the prison with the highest mortality rate in the US of A. Where the worst Super-Villains are kept and where they will do anything to get out–even join the super-secret, super-shady Task Force X. Today’s do-or-die assignment? Assemble a collection of cons, including Bloodsport, Peacemaker, Captain Boomerang, Ratcatcher 2, Savant, King Shark, Blackguard, Javelin and everyone’s favorite psycho, Harley Quinn. Then arm them heavily and drop them (literally) on the remote, enemy-infused island of Corto Maltese. Trekking through a jungle teeming with militant adversaries and guerrilla forces at every turn, the Squad is on a search-and-destroy mission with only Colonel Rick Flag on the ground to make them behave…and Amanda Waller’s government techies in their ears, tracking their every movement. And as always, one wrong move and they’re dead (whether at the hands of their opponents, a teammate, or Waller herself). If anyone’s laying down bets, the smart money is against them – all of them.

Review: When David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was released in 2016, it was such a mediocre film that it was almost impossible imagining a sequel. However, when James Gunn was temporarily fired from Marvel Studios’ Guardians of the Galaxy 3 and a window of availability opened up, Warner Bros swooped in and managed to give Gunn an opportunity to write and direct The Suicide Squad, which is ostensibly a sequel to that 2016 film (with a few recurring characters) but really can be taken on its own merits. And merit it has in spades – this is the most fun I’ve had in any DCEU movie, and even taken across the two major comic book universes, it is probably one of the most entertaining films in recent years.

Unburdened by the rest of the DCEU as it has no real need to be interconnected with any other title (Harley Quinn remains the only “famous” DCEU character to appear here), plus an unapologetic R-rating means Gunn was able to make The Suicide Squad exactly how he wanted to – ultra-violent action peppered with the signature Gunn humor that made both Guardians of the Galaxy movies (particularly the first) such great films. That the film is filled with “bottom of the barrel” super-villains from the DC universe also meant that Gunn could continually upend audience expectations by killing off virtually any of the characters, which is a pleasant departure from what audiences would generally expect from films of this genre.

While the film runs a pretty long 2 hours and 12 minutes, The Suicide Squad doesn’t really make one feel the length, as there is quite a bit going on at any one time. Not all of it is essential to the film, and one could argue that the frequent flashbacks to the characters’ pasts could have been pared down somewhat, as do some of the subplots in the film (the entire Harley Quinn romance *cough* feels a little extraneous to the proceedings, for example), but it’s all sufficiently entertaining that one can look past how the film could definitely have been under the two-hour mark. I for one also appreciated the no holds barred violence that the R rating allowed, and the pitch black humor found in some of these violent (and occasionally gory) action sequences are some of the most macabrely funny scenes I’ve seen in years.

While there is a huge cast list in The Suicide Squad, it’s clear to see who the main characters are about 20 minutes into the proceedings, and the core ensemble works well together. Margot Robbie is once again perfectly cast as Harley Quinn, and it’s clear why she was able to commandeer what was essentially her own film (though Birds of Prey ended up with middling results at the box office). She also solos one of my favourite action setpieces in the film, where she goes on a one-woman rampage armed with a multitude of weapons (including a javelin, of all things). In fact, it’s clear that the Harley Quinn found here in Suicide Squad actually does more with her character than Birds of Prey managed to achieve, despite this being more of an ensemble movie.

Idris Elba also impresses in his first DC outing as Bloodsport, with a much meatier role than what his Marvel appearances have been, and being able to showcase both his action hero chops as well as a little of his thespian skills. John Cena (who seems to be in every movie these days) is also memorable as the clueless-but-menacing Peacemaker, although a rather flat characterization apart from his physicality and a handful of one-liners does make one wonder how the HBO Max spinoff series would work.

The Suicide Squad succeeds because it’s coloring outside the lines of the typical Marvel or DC movie – not only because of its higher rating and violence quotient, but also because of its subversive, take-no-prisoners nature. James Gunn is undoubtedly the right choice this film, and without the shadow of Zack Snyder’s cynical take on the DC universe looming over him, Gunn manages to prove that DC films can do better when firing on all cylinders. The doubt over The Suicide Squad being a viable franchise is dispelled with this outing, and I’ll gladly catch the Squad in action again for as long as Gunn continues his stewardship of it.  

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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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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Fast & Furious 9

Genre: Action

Director: Justin Lin

Screenplay: Daniel Casey & Justin Lin

Cast: Vin Diesel, Sung Kang, John Cena, Charlize Theron, Nathalie Emmanuel, Chris “Ludcaris” Bridges, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster, Michelle Rodriguez, Thue Ersted Rasmussen

Running Length: 144 minutes

Synopsis: Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto is leading a quiet life off the grid with Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) and his son, little Brian, but they know that danger always lurks just over their peaceful horizon. This time, that threat will force Dom to confront the sins of his past if he’s going to save those he loves most. His crew joins together to stop a world-shattering plot led by the most skilled assassin and high-performance driver they’ve ever encountered: a man who also happens to be Dom’s forsaken brother, Jakob (John Cena).

Review: Given that there are 10 movies already in the Fast & Furious universe, it’s not rocket science (we’ll be getting back to this topic in a bit…) to figure out what you’re getting yourself into when you choose to watch something with Fast & Furious in its title. While Fast & Furious started as an undercover cop movie, it has long since departed its roots in reality, and has become what essentially is a superhero franchise. It’s now par for the course for the Fast films to feature extremely over-the-top action sequences, lead characters that can shrug off almost any fall from any distance, and for all laws of physics to be defied. It’s pure escapist, absurdist fun, but with F9 it seems like the franchise has finally outstayed its welcome.

Some of the biggest issues with F9 has to do with its length and pacing. It’s a bloated mess of a film, and for something that’s clearly popcorn entertainment, takes forever to get started, mired in unnecessary flashback after unnecessary flashback. While the films have always harped on the concept of family, in F9 the numerous throwaway, meaningless mentions of “family” almost turn the film into a parody, especially when logical fallacies abound – would someone who truly cares about family deign to leave their child alone, while both parents dive into danger with reckless abandon? If you suspect that your sibling had something to do with a loved one’s death, would it not make more sense to hash it out by talking about it, instead of assuming the worst of your sibling from the get-go?

One could argue that there’s just too much soap in this opera, and the seeming desire to make the film More Meaningful actually detracts from the viewing experience. It really doesn’t help that much of the cast aren’t here to display their acting chops (and rightly so), yet are forced into awkward scenes which would have been better left to actors with more thespian talent. And don’t even get me started on a scene where a key character is thrust into a life-or-death situation, and actually experiences a vision that somehow proffers up an alternative point of view of an event long past which is then accepted as truth. It’s almost as though we should expect F10 to feature some sort of Biblical-level revelation a la a burning bush or similar.

The action sequences have always been part of the draw of the Fast franchise, and while “peak Fast” was probably around Paul Walker’s last film (Fast & Furious 7 in 2015), there was generally enough action in every movie to satisfy fans of the genre. While being true-to-life has never been something that these scenes needed to adhere to, it feels like F9 has finally jumped the shark for the franchise, with some truly bizarre action setpieces that not only bends reality but breaks it entirely.

I’ve always subscribed to the notion that all a movie needs to do is to maintain an internal logic that works within the confines of the film’s universe, but unless Fast & Furious is now set in an alternate universe, it should at least try to respect the basic laws of physics – or acknowledge that they exist. The way the electromagnets work in the car chases are just so farfetched that it just feels stupid – it is almost like the producers decided that the audience is not going to care about logic at all as long as the action delivers the goods, but that is an excessively dim view of your target audience which I hope isn’t close to the truth. While Justin Lin is a veteran director of the franchise, here he does seem to succumb to the rapid-fire edits that are so prevalent these days, making some of the sequences rather confusing to follow.

And then there’s the space sequence – not really a spoiler if you’ve seen the trailer, but yes, the meme about Fast and Furious going to space actually happens in this movie. It’s so ridiculous and so far outside the bounds of reality that it once again feels like self-parody, and again begs the question of what ridiculous things they would need to do in the next installment to up the ante. If this is the trajectory that the films are taking, however, then I don’t feel like I really want or need to find out the answer.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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Wonder Woman 1984

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Patty Jenkins

Screenplay: Patty Jenkins, Geoff Johns, Dave Callaham

Cast: Gal Gadot, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen

Running Length:  151 minutes

Synopsis: Fast forward to the 1980s as Wonder Woman’s next big screen adventure finds her facing two all-new foes: Max Lord and The Cheetah.

Review: The year that Wonder Woman 1984 (WW84) was initially slated to be released in would have made it a solid performer at the box office, but perhaps not quite reaching the heights of other superhero films that would have populated the release slate in the same year, like every year. Then COVID-19 happened, and essentially everything was thrown out the window (including theatrical release windows). Surprising as it may seem, WW84 is now poised to be the top dog of 2020 at the box office, and while the film’s release strategy is somewhat controversial, it’s undeniable that cinema audiences have been clamoring for a “real” blockbuster for what seems like forever, and WW84 scratches that itch. Sure, it’s a flawed movie that doesn’t quite live up to its predecessor, but in a year where the only other competing “superhero” is Harley Quinn, cinema audiences don’t exactly have the luxury of choice.

WW84 begins promisingly enough, with a beautifully choreographed and shot “Amazon Olympics” on Themyscira (reminiscent somewhat of the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter films) where we observe the adolescent Diana Prince participate in. This sequence is magnificent on the big screen, and truly makes the case for why the cinematic experience should coexist with, and not be replaced by, streaming on smaller screens. The film then segues into the 80s, which starts off with a rather cute homage to the decade, cramming virtually every imaginable sight gag into ten minutes, then the film seems to move on, virtually never making any reference to the era thereafter. This plot whiplash occurs on several occasions throughout this rather (needlessly) long film, and if one wants to be critical, WW84 would really have done better with more judicious edits along the way.

It doesn’t help that for a film that no longer needs to spend too much time on the titular character’s backstory (amply covered in the preceding 2017 film, after all), WW84 seems to want to give even more weight to the Woman part of the equation, rather than the Wonder part. After a brief appearance at the start, Wonder Woman disappears into the fold for almost an hour while Diana Prince takes over. It’s not that the proceedings aren’t interesting – in fact, Gal Gadot probably does a better job in scenes where she’s not in her Wonder Woman getup – but this is a superhero action movie after all and audiences have somewhat different expectations. Perhaps it’s unavoidable, given that this is a female director handling one of the few notable female superheroes in both the DC and Marvel cinematic universes, but the weight of all this representation makes the film feel far heavier than it should, since the first Wonder Woman film stood out in the DCEU particularly because of the stark tonal contrast from the rest of the cinematic universe at the time.

It also doesn’t help that when there is already a perfectly adequate villain in the form of Kristen Wiig’s excellent turn as Barbara Minerva/Cheetah, that the decision was made to also have a second villain in the overly on-the-nose Donald Trump caricature of Max Lord (Pedro Pascal in a thankless role). This turns out to be the most problematic aspect of WW84, since the film has to contort itself into a logic-defying knot trying to escape the corner Max Lord’s machinations paints the plot into. It’s virtually impossible to discuss this further without going into spoiler territory, but suffice to say the entire last reel of WW84 just did not work for me, even more so than the denouement of the first film. It’s truly puzzling that a film so focused on empowering women seems fearful of empowering one of the women as the main villain, rather than a lame-duck oil tycoon with megalomaniacal inclinations.

Despite the lack of competition, WW84 occupies the unenviable position of being neither a great nor terrible movie. It still largely checks off the boxes that a superhero movie is expected to accomplish, but it’s simply not as assured as it should be. A thousand little niggles (and a few big ones) – occasionally dodgy CGI, poorly developed characters, a too readily bombastic score, and more – tarnishes the sheen of this Amazonian demi-goddess’s armor, and while WW84 could probably be the most critic-proof movie of the year, it will not stand the test of time and repeat viewings.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

P.S. Stay for the mid-credits sequence for a cheesy but fun cameo appearance.

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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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Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)

Genre: Action, Comedy

Director: Cathy Yan

Screenplay: Christina Hodson

Cast: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong, Ewan McGregor

Running Length:  109 minutes

Synopsis: After splitting up with The Joker, Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) and three other female superheroes – Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez)- come together to save the life of a little girl, Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco) from an evil crime lord.

Review: It was not difficult to tell that Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn was the lone bright spot in the frankly rather disastrous Suicide Squad in 2016, and it was only natural for her to get a movie of her own, especially after the success that Warner Bros and DC saw with Wonder Woman. Best described as something along the lines of Deadpool meets John Wick meets Kill Bill, at its best Birds of Prey is a kinetic action film with great action choreography, topped by the excellent, mesmerizing performance of Margot Robbie (and to a lesser extent, Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary). At its worst, the movie is a glorified mess, with a narrative structure that tries to be a little too smart for its own good; visuals, sound and music cranked all the way up to a migraine-inducing 11, and having a bunch of characters be nothing more than glorified plot devices while being onscreen.

Credit has to be given where it’s due, and Harley Quinn in her second outing has managed to cement her position as one of the most interesting characters in the (admittedly smallish) cast of characters thus far in the DCEU. Margot Robbie puts 110% into the role and absolutely nails all facets of Harley Quinn’s character, from the sadistic, psychotic, ass-kicking killer babe to the “girl next door” who’s looking for some kinship and bonding amongst birds of a similar feather. It’s a great, memorable character, and the expanded screen time that Robbie has been given for headlining this film pays off in spades.

Unfortunately, none of the other female characters manage to fare as well, and while the film is named Birds of Prey, nothing here suggests that the actual members of the Birds of Prey would be interesting enough to hold their own in a movie. It’s also rather disappointing that after the extended amount of time that was devoted in the film to putting the five female characters together in one room, the resultant denouement is such an underwhelming one, ending the film with an action sequence that is easily the least impressive of all the action scenes that preceded it. Also, the less that is said of the men in this film the better – Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina stick out like sore thumbs with their scenery chewing, and the whole campy angry white male shtick they adopt simply fails to take off entirely.

Christina Hodson makes some strange decisions with the screenplay, regularly breaking up the narrative timeline for no reason whatsoever, and while it sometimes works (Harley Quinn is mentally disturbed after all), there are other times where the movie feels very choppy and unfocused. There are some great scenes – Harley’s ode to the perfect egg sandwich almost rivals the iconic grilled cheese sandwich sequence in Chef, and an early fight scene where Harley beats out a bunch of mercenaries to rescue Cassandra Cain is hard-hitting in the best way possible. Yet, these are few and far between, and while there is enough to keep most audiences entertained, Birds of Prey feels too much like a chore to sit through for a good chunk of its runtime that it can’t earn an unequivocal recommendation.

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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