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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Men in Black: International

Genre: Sci-Fi, Comedy

Director: F. Gary Gray

Screenplay: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway

Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rebecca Ferguson, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Laurent Bourgeois, Larry Bourgeois

Running Length: 115 minutes

Synopsis: The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

Review: While the original Men in Black was a great movie, the franchise itself hasn’t managed to do as well, with both Men in Black 2 and 3 treading familiar ground but bringing nothing much new to the table. However, there was always the faultless pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones to lean back on. 22 years later, we now have a fourth installment in the franchise that no longer involves the duo, replaced instead by Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson. While there’s an easy camaraderie between Hemsworth and Thompson (undoubtedly aided by the fact that they have worked together previously in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Endgame), it may really be asking too much for them to replicate the franchise-defining chemistry between Jones and Smith. That does leave the door open for Kumail Nanjiani, voicing Pawny, a miniature alien sidekick to Tessa’s Agent M, to steal every single scene that he appears in, and his presence is easily the best thing in the entire show.

Men in Black: International demands very little from its viewers, and in more ways than one the film seems to reflect this mentality – CGI is surprisingly dodgy at times, and very often the settings ring false, from a totally deserted Paris to a really generic desert landscape that suggests a lot of soundstage and greenscreen work. This is not new, but is particularly apparent in MIB: International especially because of the inconsistent CGI. The plot is also paper-thin and the so-called twists are so painfully obvious that they really shouldn’t even have bothered. While the film runs a relatively short 115 minutes, the screenplay is inexplicably plodding at times (take for example the entire subplot featuring Rebecca Ferguson as an alien arms trader), and while all the essential summer blockbuster movie beats are present and accounted for, there’s really nothing that comes across as being new or different.

While Hemsworth and Thompson don’t replicate the onscreen chemistry they shared in Thor: Ragnarok, the audience goodwill that their previous MCU pairing had fostered cannot be denied, and there is an affability between the two that still works quite well here. It also helps, of course, that both Hemsworth and Thompson are charismatic actors that are very easy on the eye, and look great in the Paul Smith suits created for the roles. Yet, it’s quite telling that the movie actually left so much of the heavy lifting to Nanjiani, as though not trusting that the Hemsworth and Thompson alone are able to carry the movie. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Pawny ends up with some of the best lines and sequences in the film, which in a way undermines what the two lead actors could have brought to the table.

As a summer film, Men in Black: International is a largely harmless offering – if you enter the cinema with the aim of leaving your brain at the door and getting entertained, it really isn’t all that bad. Like the previous MIB sequels, MIB: International will not stand the test of time, and is unlikely something that anyone would hanker to watch again after one outing, but that doesn’t make them bad movies, just not good ones either.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

 

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Avengers: Endgame

Genre: Action

Director: Anthony and Joe Russo

Screenplay: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Brolin, Don Cheadle, Karen Gillan, Scarlett Johansson, Brie Larson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd (and many more)

Running Length: 181 minutes

Synopsis: Adrift in space with no food or water, Tony Stark sends a message to Pepper Potts as his oxygen supply starts to dwindle. Meanwhile, the remaining Avengers – Thor, Black Widow, Captain America and Bruce Banner – must figure out a way to bring back their vanquished allies for an epic showdown with Thanos – the evil demigod who decimated the planet and the universe.

While efforts have been made to keep the review as spoiler-free as possible, it’s impossible to calibrate what constitutes a spoiler to everyone. If you’re truly sensitive to any spoilers please do not proceed till you have watched the movie.

Review: And so it ends – an epic journey across 22 films, 11 years and a truly labyrinthine mass of superheroes, characters and plots culminates in what is undoubtedly THE event movie of the year (sorry, Star Wars). Of course this won’t be the end of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (or possibly even The Avengers), but the Russo Brothers have crafted a film that truly feels like an end of an era, and what a sendoff it is.

While last year’s Infinity War felt incomplete, halting at a pivotal point where half the living things in universe turns to dust after Thanos uses the six Infinity Gems, Endgame does not have the same issue. And now, when the two films are viewed together, they finally give a complete picture of the showdown with Thanos, one that bears very real costs to the ones left fighting the good fight. As an added bonus, the fact that Thanos’ Decimation (aka the finger snap) had removed half the superhero roster is actually a good thing, simply because there are less characters to split the narrative over, which was one of the issues that plagued Infinity War.

One would also have expected that there would be even more action set pieces in Endgame, but the Russo Brothers actually buck that expectation, slowing things down and really taking time with the narrative to tie up some of the loose plot threads that have developed over the span of Marvel films. It’s a Herculean effort, but scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are largely successful. Did the show really need to run over three hours long? I would hazard to say not really, but given the nature of the film, every single character’s resolution needed to be included, with generous amounts of fan service thrown in, which in turn necessitates the extended running time. Fortunately, there are some very major plot developments that take place, especially in the final hour, that help to make the film feel shorter than it is.

While this is not the first franchise that set out to create a universe of its own, it can now be definitively said that there’s been no world-building that has come close to what Marvel has achieved in this franchise. The truly impressive thing about Endgame is how it manages to thread everything together, particularly in referencing events that takes place outside of the four “official” Avengers movies. Literally the entire MCU shows up in one form or another in Endgame, and even a casual viewer of the Marvel canon would likely find themselves feeling nostalgia over some characters or scenes referenced in the film. For dedicated fans of the Marvel universe, Endgame would probably trigger a desire to rewatch many of the films that came before it.

What truly makes Endgame stand out amongst the Marvel films is that it has a much stronger emotional core and heart than a typical superhero movie, and while there are some potentially tear-jerking moments, it’s also filled with levity and humor, something that’s necessary for a three-hour movie to not buckle under its own narrative weight. Surprisingly, Endgame is one of the funniest Marvel films to have been released in the past few years, and some scenes had me actually laughing out loud, no mean feat given the grave nature of much of the proceedings.

It’s no secret that the OG Marvel crew cannot feasibly carry the franchise to an indefinite end, given the nature of Hollywood contracts and options (and age), and Endgame likely spells the sidelining or end of the road for many of these characters moving forward. It has been clear for years that the mantle is being passed on to newer (and younger) players in the franchise, but it remains to be seen whether they would be able to keep the light of the MCU shining as brightly as before. And while I will not be revealing the fates of any of the superheroes in this review, suffice to say that there is a genuine sense of loss in bidding a proper farewell to these characters we have spent a decade with, something that I had not anticipated going into the movie, and well worth the price of entry on its own.

Rating: * * * ½ (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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Captain Marvel

Genre: Action

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Screenplay: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Cast: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Clark Gregg, Jude Law, Annette Bening

Running Length: 124 minutes

Synopsis: Set in the 1990s, Marvel Studios’ Captain Marvel is an all-new adventure from a previously unseen period in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that follows the journey of Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) as she becomes one of the universes most powerful heroes. While a galactic war between two alien races reaches Earth, Danvers finds herself and a small cadre of allies at the center of the maelstrom.

Review: It’s “only” taken 10 years and 20 films for the Marvel Cinematic Universe to finally produce a female-led superhero movie, but if you were hoping for Captain Marvel to do for female empowerment what Black Panther did for black representation, I would suggest you look elsewhere. There’s no denying that Captain Marvel does what a Marvel superhero movie typically sets out to do – it is an entertaining (if less than consequential) romp through the MCU via an origins story – but the marketing around the movie is positioning it as a positive beacon of female empowerment, which really quite overstates the case. 

When the directors of Captain Marvel were announced, it seemed like a pretty interesting decision – Boden and Fleck are more known for their indie films, and helming a big budget action movie may not make them the most intuitive choice. And honestly, this could be part of the reason why Captain Marvel comes across as a rather uneven movie. While the comedic beats are quite good (the regular jibes at 90s tech will be particularly amusing to anyone who’s actually lived through the era) and there’s an easygoing camaraderie amongst the cast (channeling a little bit of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies), the action sequences in the film are some of the most inadequately choreographed, muddied scenes in recent memory. In fact, even the money shots of spaceships engaging in battle feel like they belong more to a TV episode of Star Trek than a mega-budget movie like this one. 

It’s also unfortunate that while Brie Larson is a perfectly capable actress, the fact that she needs to spend almost half a movie in an amnesiac haze does her no favours. Carol Danvers is simply far less interesting as a character than she should be, and while there are occasional glimpses back to a time where she’s a livelier person, the supporting cast members like Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Lashana Lynch and even Annette Bening are actually far more engaging throughout the film. Special mention must be made of Goose, the super adorable orange tabby (played by four different cats!), who plays a pretty important role in the movie and manages to steal whatever scene he shows up in. (P.S. stay through the entire credits sequence for a cute but none-too-consequential second coda.)

The key drive of many female-led movies seem to be centred around the idea of “if men can do it, women can do it too”, and this is an old, tired trope we should already have moved away from years ago. Female empowerment in Captain Marvel literally refers to imbuing a woman with superhuman abilities that allow her to stand toe to toe with male counterparts, but how is that identifiable or teachable in any meaningful way? The solitary scene that bucks this typecasting is a collage where we see Carol Danvers literally standing up to adversity near the end of the film, but it’s too little, too late.

While this could potentially be asking too much of a superhero movie, coming off a high watermark year of 2018 (Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, and even Ant Man & the Wasp had more convincing female empowerment on display), Captain Marvel feels more like a throwaway sidestep before April’s Avengers: Endgame (where Captain Marvel purported plays a pivotal role) comes around. The film is a perfunctory, middle of the pack Marvel film that does just enough to justify its existence, but is a retread of a path already frequently trod on by its MCU predecessors, rather than taking the mega-franchise in any new direction. 

Rating: * * ½ (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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Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Genre: Animation 

Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

Screenplay: Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Cast: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Liev Schreiber

Running Time: 117 minutes

Synopsis: Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the creative minds behind The Lego Movie and 21 Jump Street, bring their unique talents to a fresh vision of a different Spider-Man Universe, with a groundbreaking visual style that’s the first of its kind. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduces Brooklyn teen Miles Morales, and the limitless possibilities of the Spider-Verse, where more than one can wear the mask.

Review: Spider-Man is possibly the comic book hero that has seen the most reboots in his cinematic career. Since 2002 and Spidey’s proper big screen debut, there have been no less than three actors donning the Spider-Man costume over 6 dedicated films (with a seventh arriving in 2019), and this makes what Into the Spider-Verse has achieved even more impressive – not only is this the best animated film I have seen in 2018, it is also the best Spider-Man movie yet. 

A large part of what makes Into the Spider-Verse so special is because of long time creative partners-in-crime Phil Lord & Christopher Miller. Despite not actually being billed as directors on Into the Spider-Verse due to them working on (and then later leaving) Solo: A Star Wars Story, it’s clear that they have left their mark all over the project, and the genre-bending creativity and willingness to take risks that was found in The Lego Movie is found quite intact here.

Rarely can it be said nowadays that a superhero movie is innovative and ground-breaking, but Into the Spider-Verse is exactly that – not only is the movie an origin story for the Miles Morales version of Spider-Man, it also functions as origins stories for a multitude of Spider-People from parallel universes, setting up exciting potential directions for future films set in the Spider-Verse. That the film actually manages to adequately introduce SIX iterations of Spideys in its under-two-hour running time is a feat on its own. That the story manages to make viewers care about every single one of them (yes, including Spider-Ham) is near unprecedented in the world of superhero movies. 

The innovation extends to the visual style of the film as well. This is the first animated film I have seen that so closely resembles an actual comic book, and having a different stylistic flourish for each of the Spider-People is a move that pays off well. Although it can get a bit too busy at times, the film is truly a dazzling breath of fresh air, as animated films of recent years have generally all converged towards a similar “look” that Into the Spider-Verse completely veers away from.

Unlike many of its brethren, Into the Spider-Verse is actually effervescent and fun, coming closer to the spirit of comic books than many live-action adaptations. It seems weird to describe the film this way, but Into the Spider-Verse comes across as being actually delighted in its own existence, and has such a joyous, carefree feel to it, releasing the film in the December holiday season suddenly starts to make a lot of sense. A note-perfect mix of verve, wit (stay through the entire credits for a coda with a somewhat interesting payoff) and authenticity, this has surprisingly become the movie to beat this holiday season (even if its box office is unlikely to outclass fellow December release.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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