Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves review

Directors: Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley
Cast : Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez, Regé-Jean Page, Justice Smith, Sophia Lillis, Hugh Grant, Chloe Coleman, Daisy Head
Genre: Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 134 min
Opens : 30 March, sneaks 24-26 March
Rating : PG13

The fantasy tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons has permeated popular culture – it and its influences are inescapable even for those who don’t play the game. Related media including novels, comics, animated series and movies and video games abound. A live-action movie trilogy consisting of one theatrical film and two direct-to-DVD follow-ups is largely regarded with derision, meaning that before long, Hasbro would pursue a reboot. After a years-long process with a rotation of creative teams and tussles over rights issues, the result is Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves.

Edgin (Chris Pine) is a thief and a bard and Holga (Michelle Rodriguez) is a barbarian who live in the Forgotten Realms. The two are unlikely friends and Holga has helped Edgin to raise his daughter Kira (Chloe Coleman). Alongside struggling sorcerer Simon (Justice Smith), tiefling druid Doric (Sophia Lillis) and paladin Xenk (Regé-Jean Page), Edgin and Holga embark on a quest to retrieve an ancient relic. The charming but none-too-trustworthy Forge Fitzwilliam (Hugh Grant) has formed an alliance with Sofina (Daisy Head), a dangerous Red Wizard of Thay, and our band of unlikely heroes must prevent untold destruction from befalling the land.

There are some fans of high fantasy who feel like the genre should be a deadly serious affair, but most people who have attempted a D&D campaign at some point in their lives will tell you that things inevitably descend into silliness, even if that wasn’t the intention. Honor Among Thieves generally accomplishes the balancing act of mixing big-budget epic fantasy spectacle with the humour that arises from characters with half-formed plans dealing with things going awry. Directors Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley display an earnestness and sincerity and an affection for the source material, as well as enough self-awareness of all the attendant tropes and the expectations associated with something like this. It’s not trying to be Lord of the Rings, but it doesn’t feel cheap, and it’s just irreverent enough without being flippant in an off-putting way. There are a few impressive set-pieces, including one when the shape-shifting Doric transforms into various animals while being pursued by guards through the palace. Location filming in Northern Ireland also ensures that it doesn’t feel like the whole thing was shot on a green screen, and there is just enough grandeur given the generally light tone.

Honor Among Thieves is meant to appeal to both seasoned D&D players and newcomers who know nothing about the game, and that’s always a tricky thing to pull off. If you’ve memorised the manual, there are probably lots of things to nit-pick, and you can argue about whether a tiefling can Wild Shape into an Owlbear all the live-long day. The fantasy trappings in the movie can feel derivative, and a lot of the dialogue serves to tell the audience “oh, there’s more to this character but that’s not important right now”. The 134-minute runtime is also a touch too long, so this isn’t the breezy adventure it could’ve been.  

A major strength of the movie is its casting. Pretty much everyone here is cast exactly to type, and it works. Chris Pine can do the charming, roguish thing in his sleep, and he makes the ideal bard, playing the role with just enough of a wink and a nod.

Michelle Rodriguez’ Barbarian character is very much the strong, silent type, but we get some clues to her back-story that do flesh the character out. Rodriguez and Pine make a surprisingly effective double act.

Justice Smith plays “in over his head” very well, and that’s exactly what Simon is. It is very satisfying to see the character go on an arc and eventually improve – somewhat.

Sophia Lillis is this reviewer’s favourite actor in the movie – she brings a level of mystique and etherealness to Doric that fits the fantasy setting perfectly.

Regé-Jean Page is not in a lot of the movie, but he gets the full knight in shining armour treatment, and looks great doing it.

Hugh Grant is just the right choice to get the “and starring” credit here, as a smarmy, conceited, smooth-talking con artist. It’s pretty much the same character he’s been playing recently in things like The Gentlemen and Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre. It’s not quite on the level of his Paddington 2 performance, but it gets the job done.

Summary: Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves promises a comedic, big-budget fantasy adventure, and mostly delivers. A little bit Guardians of the Galaxy, a little bit The Princess Bride and a little bit Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it’s satisfying and entertaining and is clearly made by people with an affection for the game. Some of the world-building is a little unwieldy, as can happen with lore-heavy properties, and the 134-minute runtime is a touch too long. However, the movie more than gets by on pitch-perfect casting, with Chris Pine, Michelle Rodriguez and Hugh Grant all playing exactly to type and excelling at it. Stick around for one mid-credits scene.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

John Wick: Chapter 4 review

Director: Chad Stahelski
Cast : Keanu Reeves, Donnie Yen, Bill Skarsgård, Laurence Fishburne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Shamier Anderson, Lance Reddick, Rina Sawayama, Scott Adkins, Ian McShane
Genre: Action/Thriller
Run Time : 169 min
Opens : 23 March 2023
Rating : M18

In 2014, John Wick was released. It has had an undeniable impact on action movies, spawning a wave of imitators, some of which were made by the same production company, 87Eleven – everything from Atomic Blonde and Nobody to Jolt and Gunpowder Milkshake. Some of them were good fun, but now John Wick himself is back to remind everyone how it’s really done.

Following the events of the previous film, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) plans to take the fight to the High Table, the shadowy council that governs an international criminal network. The Marquis Vincent de Gramont (Bill Skarsgård), a senior member of the High Table, hires Caine (Donnie Yen), a blind assassin and old friend of Wick’s, to kill Wick. Wick’s few remaining allies, including Winston (Ian McShane) and Koji (Hiroyuki Sanada), the managers of the Continental Hotel’s New York and Osaka locations respectively, are in danger. Wick’s only way out is to challenge the Marquis to a duel, and to do so, he needs to be accepted back into the Ruska Roma family that exiled him. The stage is set for a bloody confrontation at the Sacré-Cœur in Paris, if Wick can survive a night of endless attacks from every assassin in the city.

John Wick: Chapter 4 is virtuosic filmmaking. Director Chad Stahelski seems very serious about crafting a beautiful movie, with cinematography by Dan Laustsen helping him achieve that. The movie is endlessly stylish and gorgeously shot. Stunt choreographers and coordinators Scott Rogers, Jeremy Marinas, Koji Kawamoto, Laurent Demianoff and an army of stunt performers put together captivating, painful-looking fight sequences. From a fight between Wick and Caine in the Osaka Continental’s trophy room to a brawl in a German nightclub to a fight in the middle of traffic at the Arc de Triomphe roundabout, John Wick: Chapter 4 has no shortage of spectacular action. There’s a sequence shot top-down, dungeon crawl style, in which Wick goes from one room to the next neutralising his opponents. This is a movie that has the audacity to directly reference the famous matchstick-to-sunrise match cut from Lawrence of Arabia, and you can’t even get mad at it for that because of all the craftsmanship on show. Many moments get close to classic John Woo.

The movie’s structure is very repetitive: it’s a video game-style fetch quest, in which Wick meets with someone, has a tense conversation with them, then fights them, then meets someone else, talks to them, and then fights them, and so on. The upside to this is that the story is straightforward, and this movie achieves the right calibration of lore and action when the previous instalment was perhaps a bit too bogged down with the mythology. By this point in the series, audiences expect that Wick can take superhuman amounts of punishment and keep ticking, but this does somewhat diminish the stakes, knowing he can dust himself off after falling off a building and getting shot and stabbed.

Besides the action sequences, the thing John Wick: Chapter 4 does best is stack the cast with cool people. Every last person in the movie is cool. The returning cast members, including Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Ian McShane and the late Lance Reddick, are all comforting presences and help maintain continuity in a series where characters drop in and out.

Every new addition to the cast fits well within the world, starting with Donnie Yen. The character is an antagonist, but he also has a palpable respect and affection for Wick, and would rather not be facing off against him. There’s also just a touch of mischief to him, and a moment when he swears in Cantonese had the theatre howling.

Bill Skarsgård chews the right amount of scenery as a petulant villain, but is never so whiny that he’s not also threatening.

Hiroyuki Sanada is as dependable a presence as ever, and singer Rina Sawayama, making her acting debut, complements him well as his character’s daughter.

Mr Nobody (Shamier Anderson), a bounty hunter hot on Wick’s trail, is in some ways the film’s weakest link. Anderson does the best he can with the material and is also teamed up with a ferocious yet adorable canine sidekick, but the character feels more disposable than the others.

Scott Adkins hams it up as German High Table member Killa, rendered unrecognisable thanks to prosthetic makeup. Clancy Brown doesn’t have any action, but as the Harbinger, a representative of the High Table, he is gravitas personified.

Keanu Reeves as John Wick in John Wick 4. Photo Credit: Murray Close

Summary: John Wick: Chapter 4 is virtuosic filmmaking. The action sequences are brilliant, as one expects from the series, but the overall style is captivating and the movie is always beautiful to look at, even in its most brutal moments. Keanu Reeves leads a cast that is stacked top to bottom with cool people, from Donnie Yen and Hiroyuki Sanada to Ian McShane and Clancy Brown. The movie’s structure can be repetitive, and the 169-minute runtime is a commitment, but John Wick: Chapter 4 delivers bang for your buck and more. Stick around for a post-credits scene.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Shazam! Fury of the Gods review

Directors: David F. Sandberg
Cast : Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Adam Brody, Rachel Zegler, Ross Butler, Ian Chen, Meagan Good, Faithe Herman, Grace Caroline Curry, D.J. Cotrona, Jovan Armand, Lucy Liu, Djimon Hounsou, Helen Mirren
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 131 min
Opens : 16 March 2023
Rating : PG13

2019’s Shazam! was generally considered to be a successful entry in the DC Extended Universe, and in 2023, its sequel arrives as the DC Universe is in a state of flux. The Shazam family is back, hoping to bring more of the adventure and heart that served the first film well.

Billy Batson/Shazam (Asher Angel/Zachary Levi) and his foster siblings Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer/Adam Brody), Eugene (Ian Chen/Ross Butler), Darla (Faithe Herman/Meagan Good), Mary (Grace Caroline Curry) and Pedro (Jovan Armand/D.J. Cotrona) are a superhero team operating in Philadelphia. Billy is struggling to keep the team together, and despite their best efforts, the group is pejoratively named “the Philly Fiascos”.

Kalypso (Lucy Liu) and Hespera (Helen Mirren), daughters of the titan Atlas, arrive on earth to reclaim the Wizard’s (Djimon Hounsou) magic staff. Having been locked away for millennia, they attempt to reclaim the power they once wielded. Freddy develops a crush on Ann (Rachel Zegler), a new classmate to whom there is more than it first appears. With the Shazam family in something of a transitional phase, Billy and his foster siblings must defeat the Daughters of Atlas as they unleash chaos in our realm.

The first Shazam! movie felt very much like an 80s live-action kids’ adventure movie but with an underlying dark streak, and this movie mostly maintains that. It is often exuberant and funny, but there are also moments that might be genuinely frightening for younger children, including the opening sequence introducing Kalypso and Hespera. Director David F. Sandberg mostly keeps a handle on the proceedings, which are much bigger in scale than in the first film, as sequels are wont to be. There are lot of visual effects-heavy sequences, but the computer-generated creatures and elements do not feel as synthetic as in many similar films. The climactic battle, involving Lucy Liu astride a dragon and creatures from Greek mythology running amok in Philadelphia, does have a bit of a Ray Harryhausen feel to it. This is generally a charming movie that benefits from not bending over backwards trying to be cool, a problem many DC movies in the past have faced.

There are times when Fury of the Gods feels a little bloated, as it struggles to give each character their moment to shine while also introducing new ones. At 131 minutes, the movie feels just a little too long, with a protracted multi-part ending battle that takes up about a quarter of the running time. The real-life passage of time becomes a problem as the conceit of children transforming into adults starts the wear thin as the gulf in age between the kid and grown-up versions of several of the Shazam family characters starts to narrow. One result of this is that Grace Caroline Curry portrays both her civilian and superhero form (replacing Michelle Borth from the first movie).

Most of the movie’s attempts at connecting to the larger DC Universe seem distracting, especially since the DCEU in its current form is not long for this world. Thankfully, this is mostly relegated to the mid-credits and post-credits scenes, which seem at least half-aware that they’re setting up things that may or may not happen, pending how the rebooted DC Universe goes.

Lucy Liu and Helen Mirren hamming it up as supervillains is a big reason to see this movie. Both actresses are having fun and their different screen presences complement each other. Mirren is both imposing, as she can do effortlessly, and also unexpectedly funny, yet in a way that doesn’t undercut the threat her character poses.

There’s a sorta-kinda twist of Rachel Zegler’s Ann turning out to be Anthea, a third daughter of Atlas. It’s treated as a twist in the movie, but the reveal happens early and Zegler is in full Anthea regalia on the poster and in the trailers. The breakout star of 2021’s West Side Story, Zegler is a highlight of this movie and has an innate, undeniable charisma.

Summary: Shazam! Fury of the Gods is one of the final entries in this current iteration of the DC Extended Universe. There are some connections to the other movies, but this mostly serves as a direct sequel to the earlier Shazam movie, carrying over that film’s earnestness, sense of adventure and sprinkling of dark moments. The spectacle now comes with a serving of high fantasy inspired by Greek mythology, and it feels like an 80s adventure movie. There’s too much going on, but it’s not afraid to be silly but is also refreshingly devoid of cynicism. Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu chew the right amount of scenery as the villains, while Rachel Zegler continues to establish herself as an up-and-coming star to watch.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Scream VI review

Directors: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, Tyler Gillett
Cast : Melissa Barrera, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Jack Champion, Henry Czerny, Mason Gooding, Liana Liberato, Dermot Mulroney, Devyn Nekoda, Jenna Ortega, Hayden Panettiere, Courteney Cox, Josh Segarra
Genre: Horror
Run Time : 122 min
Opens : 9 March 2023
Rating : M18

Scream 2 took our heroes out of the Woodsboro suburb and to college, with the Ghostface killer (voiced by Roger L. Jackson) following them, and in Scream 3, Ghostface went Hollywood. This time, it’s over to the east coast as the main characters introduced in 2022’s Scream make their way to New York for college.

The survivors of the most recent Ghostface killings, Sam (Melissa Barrera) and Tara (Jenna Ortega) Carpenter and Mindy (Jasmin Savoy Brown) and Chad (Mason Gooding) Meeks-Martin, are in college together. In the year since the killings, conspiracy theories suggesting that Sam was the real Ghostface killer have popped up online. Sam and Tara’s relationship is contentious, with Tara feeling that Sam is being overprotective of her. When Ghostface strikes again, the survivors find themselves targets again. Mindy’s girlfriend Annika (Devyn Nekoda) and roommates Ethan (Jack Champion) and Quinn (Liberato), are all caught in the fray too. Kirby Reed, a survivor of the Ghostface killings of 2011, is now an FBI agent and is on the case alongside NYPD detective Bailey (Dermot Mulroney), who happens to be Quinn’s father. Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), journalist and author and survivor of the original Ghostface killings, investigates the new killings while facing hostility from Sam and Tara, after writing a book about their ordeal despite promising that she wouldn’t. The past comes back to haunt our heroes in a big way as they must survive and get to the bottom of the mystery.

2022’s Scream, directed by Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett and written by James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick, was largely hailed as a successful revival of the franchise. That creative team returns, wasting no time to build on the momentum with a sequel that is very much a direct follow-up to the previous film. Its observations about the state of horror filmmaking and of franchise filmmaking as a whole are not quite as sharp as the previous movie’s commentary on the “re-quel” trend, but it still makes sense in the grand scheme of things. The elaborate shrine to Ghostfaces past in an abandoned theatre is a striking image. There are several good set-pieces here, including a tense escape from one apartment into an adjacent one, across a rickety ladder. The movie’s opening sequence, featuring an alum from a previous movie by this pair of directors, is a fantastic way to kick things off, immediately turning formula on its head in a wickedly playful way.

Unfortunately, things after that feel a little repetitive, especially since this movie is coming out so soon after the last one (mirroring the one-year gap between 1996’s Scream and 1997’s Scream 2). There’s only so much one can subvert and retool, and the big reveal closely echoes that of one of the earlier movies. There is a lot of emphasis on the movie’s New York setting. It was shot in Montreal, and movies set in New York but shot elsewhere are nothing new, but sometimes that crucial inimitable New York-ness struggles to come through.

We see the continued effect of the incidents on the main characters, and the movie does a great job of making us care for them, especially Sam and Tara. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Jenna Ortega’s stardom has significantly increased after her starring role in the series Wednesday between the last Scream and this one. The movie makes great use of her innate charisma and is further evidence of why she fully deserves scream queen status.

Melissa Barrera has some interesting notes to play. In the previous movie, she was haunted by visions of her father Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich), one of the two killers from the original Scream. Here, she finds herself facing the question of if she really is destined to be a killer, with the online conspiracy theories getting under her skin. It is a logical place to take the character.

The new characters are not especially memorable, and it’s clear that the movie has chosen to focus on the returning characters from the previous film. Both Jasmin Savoy-Brown and Mason Gooding continue to be likable presences onscreen, with Mindy getting another expository monologue explaining the meta themes. Jack Champion, recently seen in Avatar: The Way of Water, doesn’t get a lot to do.

Fans will cheer the return of Kirby Reed, the heroine of Scream 4. Hayden Panettiere comes out of semi-retirement from acting to put in a confident turn, but isn’t fully convincing as an FBI agent, probably in part because audiences will still be thinking of her as a college-aged character. It is well-publicised that Neve Campbell turned down a role in this movie, citing too low an offer. Campbell’s Sidney is missed, but Gale popping up does compensate for her absence. Unfortunately, both Gale and Kirby’s appearances feel somewhat perfunctory.

Summary: Scream VI serves as a direct sequel to the previous film, continuing the arcs of its main characters. The focus is on the characters who were introduced in and survived the events of Scream (2022), and the movie does make us care for them. Jenna Ortega, who has become a huge star in between the release of the previous film and this one thanks to Wednesday, is in full scream queen mode here. While the movie is often engaging, it can’t help but feel like a bit of a re-tread of last year’s Scream, which benefitted from being the first Scream movie in over ten years. Still, there’s plenty here for long-time fans of the series to appreciate.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars                   

Jedd Jong

65 review

Directors: Scott Beck, Bryan Woods
Cast : Adam Driver, Ariana Greenblatt, Chloe Coleman, Nika King
Genre: Action/Sci-fi
Run Time : 93 min
Opens : 9 March 2023
Rating : PG13

In Batman and Robin, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Mr Freeze proclaimed, “What killed the dinosaurs? The Ice Age!” This is, of course, wrong.

Adam Driver killed the dinosaurs.

It is 65 million years ago. Driver plays Mills, a pilot hailing from a distant, advanced human-like alien civilisation. His ship, carrying passengers in cryostasis, is struck by asteroids and crashes onto planet earth, currently populated by dinosaurs. Mills finds one survivor, a young girl named Koa (Ariana Greenblatt), who doesn’t speak his language. Mills and Koa attempt to make their way to the escape shuttle atop a mountain, while fending off ferocious creatures of various kinds, as disaster looms.

65 is a mid-budget sci-fi B-movie. Not a lot of those get made, and even fewer get released into theatres. This reviewer is always happy to see one exist. This reviewer also likes dinosaurs, and strongly believes more movies should contain dinosaurs. There are a few exciting set-pieces, and directors Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, best known for writing A Quiet Place, are going for a sense of groundedness despite the sci-fi premise, emphasising physical locations and sets over a green screen-heavy approach. Location filming in the forests of Oregon and Louisiana, with additional material filmed in Ireland, does give the movie a sense of atmosphere.

65 is 93 minutes long but feels much longer than that. There’s just not enough here to fill the runtime. It’s a very spare story and the movie is trying to make us feel invested in its two main characters, with both actors doing their best with the material, but it’s repetitive and lacks urgency despite there being a ticking clock. Whenever a dinosaur or other prehistoric creature shows up in 65, it’s not that they look particularly bad, but they’re just never really convincing. It’s a cliché at this point to complain about how practical effects would have improved things, but that is something that can be felt very strongly in 65. The overall tone is a serious one and the movie’s reluctance to really go for it when there is the potential for something truly fun often hurts it.

Also, the trailer seemed to indicate that the characters were from the far future and had gotten stranded on earth via time travel shenanigans, but instead, the characters are aliens who just happen to be very human-like and have a lot of futuristic-looking gear. It’s not a new thing in sci-fi to depict advanced ancient alien civilisations, but one that seems so much like a futuristic human society is more than a little distracting.

Driver is a big part of why the movie works. He’s taking it seriously, but also brings a degree of charm to the proceedings. He is convincing as a competent survivor, and while we’ve seen the “hero must protect child” dynamic a lot lately (the hero usually being played by Pedro Pascal), the interplay between Driver and Ariana Greenblatt is moderately affecting.

Summary: 65 has Adam Driver in great leading man form, and it is a B-movie with dinosaurs at a time when those are practically non-existent, especially on the big screen. Unfortunately, the story is spare and even at a relatively short 93 minutes, there’s not quite enough to fill the time. The overall serious and reserved tone prevents it from being the movie one imagines upon hearing the phrase “Adam Driver shooting dinosaurs”. The visual effects generally look good, but the dinosaurs still stop some distance short of being truly convincing. It would be great to see more movies in the vein of 65 get made, but this just doesn’t quite deliver all the B-movie thrills it promises.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Cocaine Bear review

Director: Elizabeth Banks
Cast : Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Christian Convery, Brooklynn Prince, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Aaron Holliday, Margo Martindale, Matthew Rhys, Kristofer Hivju, Hannah Hoekstra
Genre: Comedy/Thriller
Run Time : 96 min
Opens : 23 February 2023
Rating : M18

“Seeing a bear in the wild is a special treat for any visitor to a national park,” so begins the article “Staying Safe Around Bears” on the US National Parks website. “While it is an exciting moment, it is important to remember that bears in national parks are wild and can be dangerous. Their behaviour is sometimes unpredictable. Although rare, attacks on humans have occurred, inflicting serious injuries and death.”

And this is assuming they aren’t on cocaine.

The bear in Cocaine Bear, based very loosely on a true story, was.

It is 1985. Drug smuggler Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys) dumps duffel bags full of cocaine out of an overloaded plane over Chattahoochee County, Georgia. A female black bear ingests cocaine from one of the duffel bags and chaos ensues. Sari (Keri Russell), a nurse and single mother, discovers her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) has skipped school together with her friend Henry (Christian Convery) to find a hidden waterfall in the forest. The kids chance across a brick of cocaine, unaware that the bear has also discovered the drugs. Thornton’s associate Syd (Ray Liotta) sends his son Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and his employee Daveed (O’Seha Jackson Jr.) to attempt to recover the cocaine, lest he draw the ire of Colombian drug kingpins. Other characters including police officers Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) and Reba (Ayoola Smart), Norwegian hikers Olaf (Kristofer Hivju) and Elsa (Hannah Hoekstra) and park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) get drawn into the fray.

Cocaine Bear was made to go viral online, for people to breathlessly share the trailer exclaiming “can you believe they made this?!” On that level, it works. The movie is often outrageous and entertaining, a gory, silly black comedy designed to elicit shrieks and laughter from the audience, which it probably will. The movie’s ensemble cast is game and likeable, with cannily chosen pairings including child actors Brooklynn Prince and Christian Convery, and the duo of O’Shea Jackson Jr. and Alden Ehrenreich, playing off each other well. The late Ray Liotta, who died weeks after making this film, is a hoot as always as a cruel drug lord. Director Elizabeth Banks keeps things energetic and wacky, and the result is a cross between the Coen Brothers and the Farrelly Brothers. Other filmmakers might have played up the edginess, but Banks manages to find the 80s family adventure component amidst the dismemberments and copious drug use.

The movie runs a lean 96 minutes, which is the right length for something like this. Unfortunately, it is loaded with too many characters and parallel interweaving threads, such that we don’t quite spend enough time with each of the characters. While some might gravitate to the tone, others might be put off by it. The over-the-top humour can sometimes undercut the stakes, and while the movie’s tongue is very clearly in its cheek, it is still sometimes uncomfortable to see children put in the perilous situations depicted here. One can argue that the movie’s marketing, emphasising its basis in truth, is misleading. There was a black bear that ingested cocaine, but it did not go on a murderous rampage, and all the characters in the movie apart from Andrew C. Thornton II are fictional. That said, the filmmakers are well within their rights to use that morsel of fact as a jumping-off point for a wild, bloody story.

Key to the film working is the believability of the bear. The bear, nicknamed “Cokey” by the crew, was created by New Zealand-based visual effects studio Wētā FX and portrayed on-set by stunt performer Allan Henry, who trained under Andy Serkis. There are moments when the bear is frighteningly realistic, but many others – including an early moment when it’s scratching its back against a tree – when it looks kind of cartoony. The effects work more often than they don’t, and the moments when the bear is less than convincing can be excused by the overall ridiculous tone of the piece.

Summary: Cocaine Bear lives up to its promise of depicting a giant black bear on a coke-fuelled rampage. Often darkly funny and boasting an impressive ensemble cast, this is a movie that is constantly entertaining. Its combination of gross-out shock humour might not work for everyone, and the CGI bear that is its star is sometimes a little cartoony, but director Elizabeth Banks keeps things chugging right along. The “based on a true story” element of the story is more than a little oversold – a bear did ingest cocaine that was dumped out of a plane by a drug smuggler, but nothing after that really happened – but it serves as a great jumping-off point for a zany, gory adventure.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania review

Director: Peyton Reed
Cast : Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Jonathan Majors, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kathryn Newton, Bill Murray
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 125 min
Opens : 16 February 2023
Rating : PG

2015’s Ant-Man and 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp are often considered palate cleansers, coming after Avengers: Age of Ultron and Avengers: Infinity War in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) release order. “For this third one, I said, ‘I don’t want to be the palate cleanser anymore,’” director Peyton Reed told Entertainment Weekly. “‘I want to be the big Avengers movie.'” And with those fighting words, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania goes big or goes home.

After being a part of the Avengers team that saved the world and defeated Thanos, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) is enjoying a bit of a victory lap, writing an autobiography and taking things easy. He has trouble connecting with his daughter Cassie (Kathryn Newton), who has been researching the Quantum Realm. This unexplored sub-atomic corner of reality is where Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) was trapped for years. Cassie’s experiment accidentally transports herself, her father, Janet, Janet’s husband Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and Hank and Janet’s daughter Hope/the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) into the Quantum Realm. Janet has been secretive about her time here, because she crossed paths with a powerful force she had hoped to never face again: the despotic Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors). Ant-Man and family must overcome obstacles unlike any they’ve met before in their biggest adventure yet.

Quantumania is nothing if not ambitious. It is almost completely unlike the first two Ant-Man movies, which were still grounded in an earthbound reality, and instead wholly embraces the sci-fi fantasy aspect. The Quantum Realm is a dazzling, eye-popping milieu with a lot going on at once visually, and many of the design ideas on display are impressive and amusing. At its best, Quantumania does approach the world-building of a Star Wars movie, and Reed says he was inspired by working on The Mandalorian. The cantina scene from the original Star Wars film being a noticeable influence and Bill Murray pops up as a Lando-esque character.

The cast has great chemistry together, with Rudd leading the way in typical winning fashion. There are moments when the character must get more serious than he ever has, and Rudd handles those too. One of the movie’s best scenes is between Pfeiffer and Majors (we’ll get to him later), and it is a tense dialogue scene with minimal visual effects in which the acting does most of the work.

Unfortunately, the movie’s reach sometimes exceeds its grasp. Its ambition means Quantumania wants to get a lot done in its 125-minute runtime. While it’s mercifully shorter than other MCU entries, it feels long, especially because of its drawn-out climactic battle. The stakes are high and the movie works when its characters have clear objectives, but towards the end, things get a little messy. Screenwriter Jeff Loveness is a Rick and Morty alum, and the movie’s sense of humour belies that – sometimes it works, but other times, it doesn’t.

The movie’s biggest misstep is arguably its handling of the character M.O.D.O.K. (Corey Stoll), whose back-story is changed from the comics. The character has always been goofy-looking, but the way M.O.D.O.K. is realised here is jarring and deep in the uncanny valley. One could argue that this is intentional, but it does take one out of the proceedings.

One of the film’s biggest selling points is that it introduces major villain Kang the Conqueror, who is set to be the main villain of the next Avengers movie, due out in 2025. We first met He Who Remains in the Loki TV series; that was one of many variants of Kang. Here, Jonathan Majors does a wonderful job, equal parts quietly commanding and volatile. He’s taking this very seriously, and the movie does a good job of building up to when we meet Kang proper. General audiences might not know Kang’s significance as a villain in the Marvel canon, but hopefully, Majors gets to play the breadth of the character and his many variants.

Summary: Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania is an ambitious adventure that wants to be much bigger than the first two Ant-Man films. In this aspect, it succeeds, containing impressive world-building and a sense of adventure. However, the movie feels clumsy and muddled by its third act, and despite some imaginative design work, the synthetic nature of the digital settings creeps up on audiences after a while. Jonathan Majors’ portrayal of Kang, poised as the next major MCU villain, is a highlight. Stick around for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Knock at the Cabin review

Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast : Dave Bautista, Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Kristen Cui, Abby Quinn Rupert Grint
Genre: Thriller
Run Time : 100 min
Opens : 16 February 2023
Rating : R21

M. Night Shyamalan is a divisive filmmaker, but through the ups and downs of his career, his name on a poster is still a selling point. Shyamalan’s adaptation of Paul Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World sees him back in the horror thriller genre he’s done most of his work in, and again making audiences ask, “could this work?”

In a Pennsylvanian forest, seven-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui) is catching grasshoppers. She is on vacation with her adoptive parents Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge). She comes across a stranger known as Leonard (Dave Bautista), who later reveals he is accompanied by three others: nurse Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), diner cook Adriane (Abby Quinn) and ex-convict Redmond (Rupert Grint). Each wielding a makeshift weapon, the intruders hold Eric, Andrew and Wen hostage, claiming that a series of divine visions foretelling the end of the world has led them to the family. The ultimatum: either Eric, Andrew or Wen will have to die to save humanity. Eric and Andrew initially believe they are the target of a twisted hate crime, but as disastrous events unfold, it becomes possible that the four strangers might be telling the truth.

Knock at the Cabin has a few things working for it: it features an ensemble of interesting actors and is largely contained within one setting and takes place across one day, making it feel like the scope of the story is always manageable even when the stakes get higher. There are moments when it feels almost achingly earnest, and it is about a very sweet, loving family facing an unimaginable crisis. Jonathan Groff, Ben Aldridge and Kristen Cui do make for a sympathetic family unit. There are moments in Knock at the Cabin that effectively generate the sense of “what would you do if you were in this scenario?” that make a movie compelling. Shyamalan is good at generating tension and playing around with the atmosphere, without resorting to too many cheap horror movie tricks. The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer is warm and tactile, and the silent moments of tension are when Knock at the Cabin is its strongest.

Griffin Newman, co-host of the podcast Blank Check with Griffin and David, described Shyamalan as a “cilantro filmmaker”, which seems apt. His work is wont to elicit strong reactions and he can be divisive. Most of the dialogue and some of the acting in Knock at the Cabin feel highly unnatural, mannered and stilted. It can be hard to determine if this was intentional and if it all adds up to the overall unsettling effect, or if Shyamalan is just bad at certain aspects of filmmaking. One could argue that for a movie to be relatable, the characters whom the audience is meant to identify with should come off as much like real people as possible, and nobody in Knock at the Cabin really does.

Shyamalan’s previous movie Old was mocked for dialogue including one character saying “I am a doctor,” with another replying “I am a nurse. My name is Jarin.” A lot of the dialogue in Knock at the Cabin is like this. Shyamalan shares screenwriting credit with Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman – it sounds like they wrote the initial draft, that Shyamalan then rewrote, so it is reasonable to attribute at least some of the dialogue to Shyamalan. The movie also requires more than one giant leap of faith from the audience and a lot of how much one enjoys it depends on one’s willingness to just go along with things.

The movie’s secret weapon is Dave Bautista. Eric and Andrew are arguably the main characters, but Bautista is top-billed. The Leonard character is something of a gentle giant, a teacher committing unimaginable acts of violence because of an unwavering belief in divine provenance. It’s not an easy thing to sell, especially when working with Shyamalan’s dialogue, but Bautista does a fantastic job. He has made no secret of wanting to be taken seriously as an actor, and more than proves he continues to deserve that.

The other three intruders are not given as much to do, and can sometimes seem like plot devices, but it is fun to see Rupert Grint as a truly scuzzy, unlikeable character. Nikki Amuka-Bird, whom Shyamalan previously cast in Old, plays the contradictions of her character (a nurse about to commit murder) well. Unfortunately, Abby Quinn feels somewhat stranded, over-playing her character’s neuroses, something which is thrown into sharper relief by the movie’s reliance on extreme close-ups.

Summary: Knock at the Cabin is built on a fascinating premise and manages to be intermittently unsettling and chilling. A chamber piece, its small scale means it isn’t overly ambitious, despite concerning no less than the impending end of the world. The ensemble is generally good, with Dave Bautista continuing to prove himself as a legitimately compelling dramatic actor. Unfortunately, as with many M. Night Shyamalan movies past, the often stilted and unnatural dialogue seems to trap the actors, creating a barrier between the audience and the story. Not all of it works, but the parts that do are worthwhile.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Babylon review

Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast : Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Diego Calva, Jean Smart, Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li, Tobey Maguire, Max Minghella, Lukas Haas, Samara Weaving, Spike Jonze, Katherine Waterston, Eric Roberts, Olivia Hamilton, P.J. Byrne
Genre: Comedy/Drama/History
Run Time : 189 min
Opens : 19 January 2022
Rating : R21

In 2017, Damien Chazelle became the youngest person to win the Best Director Oscar at 32, for La La Land. If that film was a love letter to Hollywood, then Babylon is an epic drunk text to an ex, delving into Tinseltown’s past, partially set during the transition between silent movies and talkies.

It is 1927. Nellie LaRoy (Margot Robbie) is an aspiring actress from New Jersey with an outsized personality and undeniable charisma. Manuel “Manny” Torres (Diego Calva) is a Mexican-American assistant who dreams of actually working in the movies. Both characters cross paths at a lavish party. Also present are dashing silent film star Jack Conrad (Brad Pitt), jazz trumpeter Sidney Palmer (Jovan Adepo) and Chinese-American cabaret singer Lady Fay Zhu (Li Jun Li). The movie tracks their various paths over the following years as Hollywood is plunged into a turbulent, exciting period of change. The advent of synced sound causes silent movies to be phased out, with some silent movie stars struggling to make the transition. Meanwhile, the Hays Code is introduced, leading to strict censorship. Nellie becomes an overnight sensation and Manny eventually works his way through the studio ranks, and the film tracks them over the next several years as these former outsiders with a dream find themselves in the eye of the storm.

Babylon is an ambitious, sprawling effort, with a staggering 189-minute runtime to show for it. Chazelle has clearly thrown himself into making this movie, which is a plainly massive undertaking. There are times when Babylon handily sweeps the audience up along for the ride, and key to its hypnotic thrall is the way the movie works with the music. Oft-collaborator Justin Hurwitz creates a rousing, kinetic, jazz-laced score, which works hand-in-hand with the heady imagery. Babylon is long, but there is no shortage of outrageous events unfolding onscreen to keep audiences’ interest, with just enough to the main characters’ arcs to inspire a certain investment. 

In the opening scene, Manny and other characters attempt to haul an elephant up a hill, with disastrous results. This seems to be an omen for the following three hours. While there is much about Babylon that is engaging, it is also bloated, and Chazelle’s Herculean effort (mainly the fifth labour of Hercules)  in dragging this beast forward is often noticeable. Much has been made of Babylon’s depiction of Hollywood debauchery. The big party scene includes copious amounts of sex, drugs and jazz, with the aforementioned elephant tossed in for good measure. After a while, it feels like the gross-out shock humour, including all manner of bodily functions, is just there for the sake of it and it grows tiresome.

Babylon wants to be subversive and to shatter the idea of a time before the movie industry was wanton and depraved, but it winds up being a lot less insightful about its historical setting than it could have been. There’s a lot of movie here, but one can’t help but feel like not a lot is being said. The first two hours are more or less a knockabout farce, then the third hour careens hard into high drama and tragedy. It’s not like things aren’t set up, but it still is a jarring shift for a movie that is being billed as a comedy. Babylon owes a great deal to Singin’ in the Rain, but at least it isn’t trying to hide that. Comparisons have also been made to the porn industry drama Boogie Nights. By the time Babylon ends, it’s as if Chazelle is tearfully proclaiming “I just love movies!” but its ostensible awe at the magic of cinema is at odds with how gleeful it is about animal excrement and human vomit. 

Babylon has an excellent cast, with both Pitt and Robbie playing to their strengths as performers and leaning into their public personas as movie stars. Pitt’s character is an amalgamation of silent screen leading men like Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert and Clark Gable. He is a charming hard-partier and serial marrier who struggles with watching his star fade. A scene that Pitt shares with a withering entertainment journalist played by Jean Smart is especially affecting and well-acted. There is a goofiness that Pitt brings to the proceedings, but we also empathise with Jack as we glimpse the darkness beneath the glitzy surface.

Robbie’s performance as the ingenue, inspired by such actresses as Mary Pickford, Clara Bow and Joan Crawford, is fearless and mesmerising. Nellie is as talented and magnetic as she is self-destructive, and while neither Nellie’s nor Jack’s arcs are original ones, not least in movies about Hollywood, both Pitt and Robbie are excellent.

Mexican actor Diego Calva, who had a role in Narcos: Mexico, is arguably the movie’s breakout performer. While Manny is not the most interesting of all the characters in Babylon, Calva does imbue him with an earnestness and we get invested in the characters’ journey, especially when he rises to the position to make some consequential, possibly devastating decisions.

Jovan Adepo’s Sidney Palmer doesn’t get a whole lot of attention but is quietly one of the more compelling characters in Babylon. Unfortunately, the movie seems ill-equipped to comment on the role of Black entertainers in early Hollywood. It makes an attempt at it, but seems too preoccupied with extravagant displays of bad behaviour to delve into the issue.

Li Jun Li’s Lady Fay Zhu, a thinly-veiled allusion to Anna May Wong, is a badass but ultimately still plays into fetishistic, Orientalist portrayals of Asian women in Hollywood. The inclusion of minority characters could have served as an opportunity to take a close look at what it was like for non-white people in early Hollywood, but Babylon misses that opportunity.

There are plenty of moments for the supporting cast to shine, with Eric Roberts getting a few memorable scenes as Nellie’s father/manager. Tobey Maguire pops up late in the movie as an impish, devilish crime boss.

Summary: Babylon is a sprawling and ambitious ode to Old Hollywood, pulling back the curtain on its anything goes chaos. Unfortunately, the movie seems altogether too preoccupied with being “extreme” and pushing boundaries in its depiction of sordid depravity. The gross-out shock value moments threaten to drown out some legitimately arresting performances, with the casting of Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie being especially canny. There are impactful, resonant moments here, but they’re buried in the cacophony. Writer-director Damien Chazelle is in full ‘cheeky film student’ mode, telling a historical tale laced with all the shenanigans and outlandish behaviour to earn it an R21 rating. Babylon is an overstuffed, 189-minute-long behemoth, but it is also never boring. With its mixed-to-positive critical reception, it remains to be seen if Babylon will live on as a bit of a curio, or eventually become something of a cult classic.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Śakra (天龙八部之乔峰传) review

Director: Donnie Yen
Cast : Donnie Yen, Chen Yuqi, Cya Liu, Kara Wai, Wu Yue, Eddie Cheung, Grace Wong, Du Yuming, Ray Lui, Michelle Hu, Tsui Siu-ming
Genre: Action/Drama
Run Time : 130 min
Opens : 16 January 2022 (sneaks on 14 and 15 January)
Rating : NC16

Louis Cha, better known by his pen name Jin Yong, was one of the most influential authors in the wuxia (“martial heroes”) genre. His works have inspired numerous adaptations, and Donnie Yen adds to that list with Śakra, based on the 1963 novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils.

It is the Northern Song dynasty in the 1000s. Qiao Feng (Donnie Yen) is the leader of the Beggars’ Sect, a local hero who has won the respect of his peers. He is suddenly framed for murder and accused of being descended from the Khitan people. Forced to abandon his position as the leader of the Beggars’ Sect, Qiao Feng vows to discover the truth of his own heritage and he is shunned by his former allies. Qiao Feng meets A Zhu (Chen Yuqi), a maid who serves the Murong family. After he rescues her during an attack, she becomes the only person to still believe him. Qiao Feng and A Zhu travel across the land, with Qiao Feng seeking to make a new, peaceful life far from the Beggars’ Sect. Murong Fu (Wu Yue), A Zhu’s employer, schemes behind the scenes to revive the former Yan Kingdom. Qiao Feng must regain the honour that was stripped of him as he attempts to get to the root of this treachery.

Śakra is an ambitious epic that unfolds on a grand scale. The movie’s big selling point is its action sequences, choreographed by Yen and oft-collaborator Kenji Tanigaki. These sequences combine the elegant wire-fu that is often associated with the wuxia genre with the punchiness and brutality of more contemporary action cinema. Multiple sequences involve hordes of combatants and plenty of destruction of surrounding property. While there is some noticeable use of computer-generated effects, especially when the characters use superpowers including summoning fire or creating clouds of dust, it is nowhere near as egregious as in many Chinese action movies. There still is a tactility to the proceedings and the camera proudly shows off that it is Yen and the other actors doing their own stunts.

Yen is as charismatic and dashing as ever, striking a youthful figure at 59 – though it is perhaps a stretch to believe that Qiao Feng is in his 30s, as repeatedly stated. Qiao Feng is one of Jin Yong’s most beloved creations, and it might take a while for viewers who already have a favourite existing portrayal of the character to warm to Yen’s, but he commands the screen whenever he’s on it.

Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils is a lengthy novel with three main characters: Duan Yu, Qiao Feng and Xuzhu. In a similar way to how the 1977 movie The Battle Wizard focused on Duan Yu, Śakra focuses on Qiao Feng, attempting to streamline the story while keeping open the possibility of a sequel that might introduce the other two main characters. Unfortunately, Śakra struggles to coherently lay out the complicated web of characters. As impressive as the action sequences are, the dramatic scenes are often unwieldy and awkward. Tonally, the movie wants to fit in with the grandiose, over-the-top theatrics and melodrama associated with the wuxia genre, but also wants to be a little more grounded and relatable for audiences who aren’t already dyed-in-the-wool Jin Yong fans, and it does not quite pull this balance off. The movie’s pace is sometimes halting, as if it suddenly realises that it has a whole bunch of plot to get to after a protracted action scene.

Jin Yong has been called “China’s Tolkien” and in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Yen refers to Jin Yong’s work as being akin to Shakespeare, and says “wuxia is Chinese Marvel, except it has a lot [richer] history and culture behind it.” There is an intent to set up a franchise, with the ending leaving things open for the continuation of the story. All of Jin Yong’s works, apart from Ode to Gallantry, are connected to varying degrees, but they also span centuries, so it remains to be seen how far Yen’s ambitions stretch.

Summary: Śakra boasts explosive, elaborate action sequences that are as elegant as they are brutal. The movie also features Donnie Yen in fine form, directing and producing in addition to starring. It’s clear that Yen wants to do justice to the source material, Jin Yong’s novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, which has inspired numerous earlier film and TV adaptations. However, this movie’s world-building falters, and there seems to be a struggle to stay faithful to the source material while making something that will appeal to modern audiences accustomed to blockbuster franchises. While the production values of Śakra are considerably higher than that of the average TVB series, this story seems more suited to a TV format.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong