Eternals

Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Chloé Zhao

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

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

Running Length: 156 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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No Time to Die

Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

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

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

Running Length:  163 minutes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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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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Maleficent

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Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Robert Stromberg

Writer: Linda Woolverton, based on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” and Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au bois dormant”

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Sam Riley

Running Length: 97 minutes

Synopsis: Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic “Sleeping Beauty” and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king’s newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora (Elle Fanning) is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever.

Review: You may not know it from the official trailers, but Maleficent is both a kid- and family-friendly film. To say more would be slightly spoilerly, but this mismatch presents the biggest stumbling block for the film – that many viewers are going to watch the movie with the wrong expectations in tow. Given that the film is trying to flesh out the backstory of one of Disney’s most famous villains, and integrating that into one of the most famous “old-school” Disney animations, first-time director Robert Stromberg has a lot to achieve in a very short amount of time. It’s not entirely successful, and in a way it almost feels as though the original Sleeping Beauty had put some shackles around the way the movie unfolds, but almost all is forgiven solely by the extremely astute casting choice of Angelina Jolie as Maleficent.

Producer Joe Roth seems enamoured with films that retell a familiar story, including Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Oz the Great and Powerful, and Maleficent is a film cast in a similar mould. For Maleficent, unfortunately, it really has been done before (and arguably better) in Wicked, which means that there are very few surprises to be had here. In fact, the attempt to run a parallel story to the original Sleeping Beauty doesn’t nearly work as well as it should, because the film is simply too short to allow for more depth in the storytelling. The final third of the movie feels extremely rushed, as though the fact that this is a family movie means the running length can’t exceed 90 or so minutes (two words for Disney to consider: “Harry” and “Potter”). It’s almost hilarious how little time Aurora spends caught in her magical slumber, that it feels more like a quick nap than anything else. It’s things like these that make the links to Sleeping Beauty feels perfunctory, especially because there appeared to be a need to recreate certain key scenes from the alternate perspective.

However, there’s no denying that Richard Stromberg had realized a wonderful world in Maleficent – the art direction and set design (despite there being only two main sets in the film) is flawless, and the visual effects are extremely well done. This isn’t surprising, given Stromberg’s CV before taking the helm, which includes two Oscar wins for Art Direction for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. However, once again this is a film that doesn’t require viewing in 3D – there were scenes that should have looked better without 3D glasses on, and the already dark scenes look even murkier in the third dimension.

There is no doubt that Angelina Jolie totally owns the Maleficent character. She’s terrific in the role, all regal and menacing, her already distinct features made even more angular by Rick Baker’s incredible makeup. Her screen presence overshadows everyone else in the film, to the point that she is really the only character that matters or has any semblance of depth. This could be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective, but let’s get real – everyone is here for Angelina Jolie/Maleficent, and her performance does not disappoint.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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Genre: Sci-Fi / Adventure

Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Liam Hemsworth, Jena Malone, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks

Running Length: 146 minutes

Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) become targets of the Capitol after their victory in the 74th Hunger Games sparks a rebellion in the Districts of Panem.

Review: Being the middle installment of any book or movie franchise poses a unique problem – there’s no start and end to the story, and many audience members will leave the cinema feeling dissatisfied at the lack of a denouement. This is the case for Catching Fire, the follow up to last year’s box office blockbuster The Hunger Games (although now that they are splitting up Mockingjay into two films, Catching Fire doesn’t exactly sit right in the middle any more), but it’s very interesting to see where the film has brought the franchise to. It’s a much darker, broodier movie, and sets the tone for the even bleaker events unfolding in Mockingjay.

Armed with a much larger budget ($130 million versus the first film’s $78 million) and a new director who cut his teeth on music videos before moving to film, it’s almost a given that Catching Fire will be the handsomer movie. Coupled with impressive performances all round, particularly that of Jennifer Lawrence’s, and the compelling screenplay, it’s readily apparent that as the title suggests, the box office for the film would be quite fiery indeed. Catching Fire belongs to a rare breed of page-to-screen movies which would please both fans and non-fans alike.

A caveat – it is essential to have prior knowledge of The Hunger Games (whether in novel form or from the first movie) because Catching Fire jumps right into the narrative without any preamble. Anyone not initiated in any way before watching the movie would certainly find it hard to navigate around the multi-layered plot (masterfully put together by lauded scribes Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt) and figure out exactly what is going on. This is not a film that will be coherent on its own.

However, anyone who is already familiar with the Hunger Games backstory would find that Catching Fire has managed to elevate the franchise to way beyond a mere film catered for young adults (yes, Twilight, I’m looking at you). Yes, there’s a pseudo love triangle, and yes there are the occasional moments that lapse into pouty teen movie territory, but thankfully these are few and far between. Catching Fire is a somber movie dealing with rather adult themes, and even the Hunger Games itself is a more joyless event this time round – it’s clear that no matter who survives the Games, the victory will be a pyrrhic one. The film also concludes on a grim note, almost identical to how the Catching Fire novel ended.

Jennifer Lawrence reprises her role as Katniss Everdeen, and once again proves that she is definitely one of the best young actresses of our time. Katniss has been emotionally damaged after the conclusion of the first Hunger Games, and Jennifer Lawrence manages to flesh the character out further along this line. She manages to craft a tangible, strongly identifiable character out of Katniss, and commands the full attention of the audience whenever she appears.

The rest of the ensemble cast are very capable as well, particularly Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland, who both shine in the small number of scenes they have. The male heartthrobs Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are the weakest links in the movie, but that may have been a construct of the script rather than due to a lack of thespian skills.

Costume design and art direction is superlative in Catching Fire – the costumes in particular are stunning, well worthy of many nominations (and potentially, wins) in the upcoming awards season. The increased budget also shows in the set design and effects, especially during the Quarter Quell itself.

Catching Fire is a complete package, even though the storyline isn’t – it boasts everything that the original Hunger Games has, and ups the ante in almost every way possible. The film has set the tone for the franchise, and it is now with great anticipation that I await the next two films in 2014 and 2015 to conclude the franchise.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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