Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse review

Directors: Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, Justin K. Thompson
Cast : Shameik Moore, Hailee Steinfeld, Brian Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Vélez, Jake Johnson, Jason Schwartzman, Issa Rae, Karan Soni, Daniel Kaluuya, Oscar Isaac, Greta Lee, Rachel Dratch, Jorma Taccone, Shea Whigham, Andy Samberg, Amandla Stenberg
Genre: Action/Adventure/Animation
Run Time : 140 min
Opens : 1 June 2023
Rating : PG

From Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness to Everything Everywhere All at Once to The Flash (on big and small screens), it seems everyone wants a multiverse. In 2018, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse introduced moviegoers to the vibrant, dynamic multiverse populated by Spider-People of all stripes. In this sequel, the Spider-verse expands, and the characters we know and love from the first film are put through their paces.

Miles Morales/Spider-Man (Shameik Moore) struggles to balance his crime-fighting career with his academic responsibilities, putting a strain on his relationship with his parents Jeff (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio (Luna Lauren Vélez). His friend Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), who comes from another dimension, stops by to say hi. She is now part of the Spider-Society, a team of heroes headed by Miguel O’Hara/Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac). Miguel regards Miles with disdain, considering him an anomaly among the Spider-People, since the spider that bit Miles and gave him his powers was from a different dimension. In the meantime, Miles faces off against Dr Jonathan Onn/Spot (Jason Schwartzman), who seems like a low-level villain at first, but whose presence eventually endangers the multiverse. Miles and Miguel face off: one Spider-Man wants to embrace his own destiny, while the other strives to preserve the status quo, lest everything falls apart.

Across the Spider-Verse is an improvement over its already-impressive forebear in every way. The directing trio of Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K. Thompson, leading an army of over 1000 animators, have delivered a triumphant sequel. The visual dynamism and creative chaos in the animation of the first movie is ramped up here, with audiences already acclimated to the eye-catching, erratic, yet carefully crafted blend of styles. This also does what a good sequel should: it builds upon the first movie, progressing the arcs of the characters, while introducing enough new elements without feeling like a re-tread of the first movie. There are stretches of the movie without action, but the time we spend with the characters feels worth it.

We’ve seen a lot of criticism of big movies that seem to coast by on nostalgia and recognition of the intellectual property; The Super Mario Bros. Movie being a recent example. Yes, there’s a lot here that will inspire excited pointing at the screen, but beyond that, there’s a grandeur and ambition to what this movie is trying to tackle. A big part of the iconography of Spider-Man and a reason why the character is so popular and resonant is that each iteration weathers roughly the same beats. This movie calls them “canon events”, invoking the language of storytelling. This is a movie that takes a step back and examines the structure of the hero’s journey. It’s also a coming-of-age story, and the feeling of being a young person trapped in a narrative that someone else has written for you is one that is very relatable. And yet, for all its ambition, Across the Spider-Verse never loses sight of Miles’ and Gwen’s respective journeys, and how their stories are intertwined.

As with the first movie, there’s a lot going on here. There are probably going to be four-year-olds going to see “the cartoon Spider-Man movie” who will get very lost, given the density of the plot and the sheer number of characters, not to mention the heaviness of the themes. You don’t have to be familiar with the comics, but a passing knowledge of them does help immensely. This is a movie that requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate, because there’s just so much going on. It also ends on a cliffhanger because this was originally named “Across the Spider-Verse: Part One”. The follow-up due next year is now named Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse.

The animation and voice acting of the returning characters continue to be excellent. Shameik Moore’s Miles has had his origin story and is now figuring out his place in the grand scheme of things. Being told he doesn’t even belong in said scheme is like a slap in the face, and the way Miles navigates this as a character who’s good-hearted but impulsive makes him very easy to root for.

Gwen is given a lot to do here, with her relationship with her father George (Shea Whigham) serving as one of the movie’s emotional linchpins. We spend a lot of time in her world and in her head, and the movie benefits from focusing on her. In the centre of the chaos, there Miles and Gwen are, taking the audience along with them. Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) also returns, now accompanied by an adorable baby daughter named Mayday.

Miguel O’Hara popped up in the post-credits scene of Into the Spider-Verse, and is the main new Spider-Person here. Oscar Isaac brings great intensity to bear as the one Spider-Man who doesn’t crack any jokes, and while he is an antagonist to Miles, he’s not a villain, and his motivations are efficiently communicated.

There are a bunch of fun Spider-People, including the badass, pregnant, motorcycle-riding Jessica Drew/Spider-Woman (Issa Rae), and Pavitr Prabhakar/Spider-Man India (Karan Soni), who hails from Mumbattan. But the show is truly stolen by Daniel Kaluuya as Hobart “Hobie” Brown/Spider-Punk, a guitar-playing anarchist who looks like a magazine cut-out and gets some of the movie’s funniest lines. Miles is simultaneously threatened by him (it’s implied that Hobie and Gwen have a thing going on) and in awe of him.

The movie’s use of Spot brings to mind Polka Dot Man in The Suicide Squad: both are silly second-or-lower-string comic book villains who are fleshed out and made more sympathetic and more powerful. The choreography of the fights involving Spot is exciting and inventive.

Summary: Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is everything a sequel should be. The movie has its cameos and references, but those aren’t its greatest joys. The way it builds upon the first film, advancing character arcs and expanding on themes and world-building, while never losing sight of its emotional centre, is. Both Miles Morales and Gwen Stacy remain the focal points of the story, even as new and exciting Spider-People (Spider-Punk being the most fun) get tossed into the mix. Be warned that this is kind of the Empire Strikes Back of a planned trilogy, so it ends on a cliffhanger, but is wholly satisfying all the same.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars                   

Jedd Jong

The Little Mermaid (2023) review

Director: Rob Marshall
Cast : Halle Bailey, Jonah Hauer-King, Melissa McCarthy, Javier Bardem, Daveed Diggs, Awkwafina, Jacob Tremblay, Noma Dumezweni, Art Malik
Genre: Fantasy/Musical
Run Time : 135 min
Opens : 25 May
Rating : PG

The Disney Renaissance was a key moment in the company’s history. After almost two decades of being lost in the wilderness, Walt Disney Studios was once again the cultural and financial force it had been in its heyday. The Disney Renaissance began in 1989 with The Little Mermaid, adapted from the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, and it was only a matter of time before the company would return to fathoms below with a live-action remake.

The mermaid Ariel (Halle Bailey) is the youngest daughter of King Triton (Javier Bardem), the ruler of the undersea kingdom of Atlantica. Ariel has a fascination with the surface world and human civilisation, but is forbidden from going to the surface, in part because her mother was killed by humans. Ariel rescues a human prince named Eric (Jonah Hauer-King) from drowning, falling for him. Eric becomes preoccupied with finding the woman who saved his life, recalling only her voice. Ariel makes a deal with her exiled aunt Ursula (Melissa McCarthy), who transforms Ariel into a human in exchange for her voice. Ariel and Eric must share true love’s kiss before the sunset on the third day if she wants to remain a human. Triton’s major-domo Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) the crab and Ariel’s friends Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) the tropical fish and Scuttle (Awkwafina) the gannet must help her complete her objective, but Ursula has her own plans in place.

The movie tries to capture what audiences loved about the 1989 film and sometimes, it succeeds. The compelling story about a young person’s pursuit of their own identity and the unforgettable songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are still here (sans “Daughters of Triton” and “Les Poissons”), even if the movie is destined to be an echo of the animated film. Director Rob Marshall employs elaborate visual effects work and location shooting on Sardinia, Italy to give the movie a sweeping sense of scale, and cinematographer Dion Beebe lends some scenes a painterly feel. There are some fun design flourishes, including the choice to set Ursula’s lair within the skeleton of a Mosasaurus. The screenplay by David Magee mostly hews close to the story beats of the animated film, but crucially, Eric’s character is fleshed out. His adoptive mother Queen Selina (Noma Dumezweni) is a new character, and the film succeeds in giving Eric much more of a personality and draws parallels between his dreams for his future and Ariel’s, adding a bit more dimension to the romance.

Unfortunately, the movie has the same problems as most of Disney’s live-action remakes. In my review of Beauty and the Beast (2017), I described it as a movie looking down at the floor, trying to hit its marks, and this is often true of The Little Mermaid as well. The live-action remakes, especially of beloved animated films, have the Catch-22 of retaining enough of what audiences loved about the originals while also changing enough such that it doesn’t just feel like the animated movie again. They are made primarily to capitalise on nostalgia, and whatever creativity and craftsmanship is present in these films exists within those bounds. The Little Mermaid often struggles to match the liveliness and soulfulness of the 1989 films, which is especially evident in visual effects-heavy sequences like “Under the Sea”, in which it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re just watching a lot of CGI, even if it is often very well-realised CGI. Then there’s the matter of how jarring a photorealistic Flounder and Sebastian look, but it wasn’t too much of a problem for me after a while, and I think they work better in motion than in stills.

Halle Bailey’s casting was met with a lot of controversy. I understand the desire for an actor in a live-action remake to physically resemble the animated version as far as possible (after all, some of the other actors in this movie seem cast on that basis), but honestly, if my suspension of disbelief accommodates the existence of mermaids, then it accommodates an Ariel who looks like Halle Bailey too. Bailey is primarily a singer and seems to have been cast mostly for her voice, which is incredible. Her rendition of “Part of Your World,” a truly iconic song that is difficult to do justice to, is one of the film’s best moments. She puts in a valiant effort and is often genuinely endearing, but sometimes, her inexperience at screen acting shows through, especially when she’s in visual effects-heavy scenes and is acting off nothing.

As mentioned above, Eric benefits the most from the remake. Jonah Hauer-King is a charming and heroic presence, with dimples matching that of his animated counterpart. The movie gives him a song entitled “Wild Uncharted Waters,” which is a musical theatre ballad through and through. A moment during that song deliberately recalls Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, to make Eric more of a Byronic hero.

Melissa McCarthy has proven herself as a fantastic physical comedian and a magnetic screen presence given the right material. Alas, her performance here feels very bland. There isn’t much of a take on her version of Ursula, in which she tries very hard to match the iconic animated iteration without really bringing anything to the table. McCarthy also feels overpowered by the CGI tentacles, such that Ursula often comes off as more of a special effect than a performance, which is a shame given how fantastic a villain the character is. Nevertheless, Her singing on “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is excellent.  

Javier Bardem lends great dignity and gravitas to the role of Triton, and might be the film’s secret weapon. Bardem’s Triton feels powerful, but we also understand why he is so overprotective of Ariel.

Daveed Diggs sounds like he’s having a good deal of fun as Sebastian, but again, there’s the challenge of living up to Samuel E. Wright’s performance, especially because so many of us have heard that version of “Under the Sea” countless times. Jacob Tremblay’s endearing vocal performance doesn’t match the hyper-realistic tropical fish that Flounder has become. Many audiences might find Awkwafina’s turn as Scuttle inspiring, but I think her casting is especially inspired. Awkwafina and Diggs get to rap in a new song called “The Scuttlebutt”, which is pure Lin-Manuel Miranda (Miranda wrote the lyrics for the new songs in this film, and is such a Little Mermaid fan that he named his son Sebastian).

Summary: The Little Mermaid has its moments – star Halle Bailey is an inexperienced actor but an incredible singer, and there’s more backstory and personality for Jonah Hauer-King’s Eric – but it suffers from the issues that have plagued many live-action remakes of Disney animated films. Despite its occasional grandeur and sweep, the movie struggles to match the liveliness and soulfulness of its 1989 forebear. Still, the music by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman is undeniably compelling, and it’s a good story.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars                   

Jedd Jong

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 review

Director: James Gunn
Cast : Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldaña, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Will Poulter, Sean Gunn, Chukwudi Iwuji, Maria Bakalova, Sylvester Stallone, Elizabeth Debicki, Nico Santos
Genre: Sci-fi/action/adventure
Run Time : 150 min
Opens : 4 May
Rating : PG13

It seems like a long time ago that anything associated with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) could have an underdog quality – nine years ago, to be exact. That was when the first Guardians of the Galaxy (GotG) movie was about to be released and some predicted it might be a failure. Two very successful movies and a holiday special later, writer-director James Gunn and company close out the trilogy with one last ride.

Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) is on a downswing after the death of Gamora (Zoe Saldaña) and the appearance of a version of Gamora from before she had met him, having lost the romantic relationship the pair had shared. Quill is the leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy, comprising Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (Vin Diesel), Rocket, Kraglin (Sean Gunn) and Cosmo (Maria Bakalova). Adam Warlock (Will Poulter), a powerful being created by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) the Sovereign following the events of the previous GotG film, attacks the Guardians’ home base of Knowhere. He has been sent by the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji), who created the Sovereign, in pursuit of Rocket. Rocket has refused to reveal his past, including his painful connection to the High Evolutionary, which finally surfaces. The Guardians must protect Rocket from the High Evolutionary, whose ruthlessness and power threaten the galaxy.

The Guardians of the Galaxy movies have generally demonstrated a good balance of rebelliousness, silliness, imagination, and heart. That’s mostly intact in Vol. 3. Gunn smartly focuses the story on Rocket, and him being the dramatic linchpin works. There are performances from Rocket and other computer-generated animals that are lovingly crafted and genuinely moving. If you’re particularly sensitive to animal cruelty, this will be a tough watch. Parts of the movie are dark, and parts of it are kind of gross, but it’s all in keeping with Gunn’s sensibilities. The sci-fi world-building continues to be wild and woolly, with the Orgoscope, a flesh-covered high-tech laboratory facility and Counter-Earth, a facsimile of earth populated by sentient humanoid animal creatures, being the two main settings. While computer-generated visual effects are obviously very present, there is more of the sense of the action taking place on elaborate sets as the compared to the ‘infinity green screen’ feeling of some other MCU movies.

While the throughline of Rocket’s backstory and the connection between Rocket and the film’s main villain serves as a strong narrative backbone, there is a lot in this movie that kind of feels piled onto the plate. There’s a lot going on in the movie, such that additional characters feel like they’re competing for screentime.

Adam Warlock, whose appearance was teased in the mid-credits scene of GotG Vol. 2, winds up being little more than a plot device in this movie, despite the best efforts of actor Will Poulter. The GotG movies have generally been good at giving everyone a chance to shine, but with the team now including Cosmo (Maria Bakalova) and Kraglin, there’s the sense that some characters have been given stuff to do just for the sake of it. Also, so much of the dialogue consists of the characters yelling at each other, which is funny in controlled doses, but seems excessive here, especially since this is the third movie and everyone being so aggro feels like a regression.

While there might be just a bit too much of everyone calling everyone else a “dumbass”, the characters remain largely likeable and the canny casting of the first movie continues to pay off. The interplay between Mantis and Drax is especially endearing, carrying over from their unlikely team-up in the holiday special made for Disney+.

The best performance might be Linda Cardellini’s warm, tender voice acting turn as Lylla the otter, one of Rocket’s compatriots.

Chukwudi Iwuji portrays a villain who thinks of himself as a rational intellectual but is prone to throwing tantrums. The High Evolutionary is not among the topmost tier of MCU villains, but the cruelty he practices in the guise of progress adds a chilling edge to what is mostly a standard mad scientist supervillain character.

Summary: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 is an emotional send-off to the MCU’s team of space-faring misfits – or to this incarnation of the team, at least. The movie’s emotional throughline is Rocket Raccoon’s heart-rending backstory, and you might find yourself tearing up over CGI animals. Unfortunately, the movie is laden with lots of characters and while the performers are mostly likeable, everyone yelling and being at each other’s throats all the time gets old fast. It’s not the strongest note to end the trilogy on, but enough of it is satisfying, James Gunn’s stamp is undeniable, and its weird mix of heart and surprisingly dark elements winds up working more than it doesn’t.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Renfield review

Director: Chris McKay
Cast : Nicholas Hoult, Nicolas Cage, Awkwafina, Ben Schwartz, Adrian Martinez, Shohreh Aghdashloo
Genre: Horror/Comedy/Action
Run Time : 93 min
Opens : 13 April
Rating : M18

Cinema is littered with horrible bosses, including the horrible bosses featured in the eponymous movie and its sequel. It stands to reason that Dracula would be a pretty bad boss, and Renfield tackles that idea head-on.

Robert Montague Renfield (Nicholas Hoult) is the familiar of Dracula (Nicolas Cage). Over almost a hundred years, Renfield has been forced to do Dracula’s bidding, including acquiring innocent victims to feed upon. Renfield derives superhuman powers from consuming bugs. In the present day, Renfield attends a support group for people caught in dependent relationships. Renfield unwittingly finds himself amid a conflict between the New Orleans police and a local drug gang headed by Teddy Lobo (Ben Schwartz) and his mother Ella (Shohreh Aghdashloo). Renfield befriends Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina), a traffic cop whose father was killed by Lobo’s gang. Teddy discovers that Dracula is real and becomes intent on gaining Dracula’s power for himself, while Renfield musters up the strength to finally break free from his abusive boss.

Renfield is frequently funny and entertaining and at 93 minutes, doesn’t overstay its welcome. The movie is being sold primarily as a comedy but is legitimately gory and is as much an action-horror movie as it is a comedy. Director Chris McKay, who helmed The LEGO Batman Movie and the sci-fi actioner The Tomorrow War, demonstrates a healthy affection for the classic Universal horror movies. McKay intends for Renfield to be a direct sequel to the 1931 Dracula movie starring Bela Lugosi and directed by Tod Browning. We get a sense of what we’re in for with a concise prologue, featuring Hoult and Cage re-enacting scenes from that movie, in black-and-white and in the appropriate aspect ratio.

Hoult is a sympathetic presence, playing “out of his depth” well. He also acquits himself well during the action sequences and plays off both Cage (who was his onscreen father in The Weather Man) and Awkwafina with considerable charm.

The movie more than earns its M18 rating with bloody dismemberments and assorted carnage. Renfield might be goofy, but it has the creature feature bona fides where it counts, with a crew including genre veterans like makeup artists Christian Tinsley and Brian Sipe and concept artists Crash McCreery and Aaron Sims. Renfield’s action sequences are kinetic and more elaborate than one might find in the average horror comedy. Stunt coordinator Chris Brewster worked on the Daredevil series and was Charlie Cox’s stunt double, so some of the action here is quite impressive.

Renfield is very much stuck in the shadow of, um, What We Do in the Shadows. The feature film and subsequent TV series have become the definitive comedic depictions of vampires and are obvious influences. In the series, the relationship between a vampire and his long-suffering familiar played out in entertaining fashion via the characters Nandor and Guillermo. Renfield delivers a lot of stuff that’s like that, just not quite as good. Some of the humour feels dated, including an extended bit about ska music. The movie wants to have high stakes, but those don’t necessarily gel with the overall silly tone, so it becomes difficult to care about the mob boss subplot that winds up feeling out of place, despite charismatic turns from Ben Schwartz and Shohreh Agdashloo as the secondary antagonists.

The movie’s big selling point is Nicolas Cage as Dracula. Vampire’s Kiss was just the warm-up. Whatever you’re picturing when you hear the words “Nicolas Cage as Dracula”, Renfield delivers pretty much that. Cage is clearly having a lot of fun with the role, delivering the hell out of lines like “I’m the reeeal victim heeeere!” and getting to be as over-the-top as he wants. Cage has a well-documented love of German expressionism, which was a key influence on the 1931 Dracula movie. Unfortunately, we were hoping for a bit more of a surprise, and there isn’t that. It’s still quality Cage but given the various directions Cage could have gone in, this seems like the most predictable one.

Summary: Renfield is funny, fast-paced and entertaining, featuring Nicholas Hoult and Nicolas Cage playing off each other and having a great time doing so. While it’s primarily being sold as a goofy comedy, it is also a thoroughly gory action horror movie featuring some well-crafted set pieces. Unfortunately, its central premise was executed better in the What We Do in the Shadows series, which also featured a comically-rendered relationship between a despotic vampire and a long-suffering familiar. As much fun as it is watching Nicolas Cage play Dracula, he does nothing surprising with the role. Still, director Chris McKay keeps the energy up and this is a blood-drenched good time.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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 (Hayden Panettiere) 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