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

Śakra Singapore press conference: Donnie Yen talks his adaptation of Jin Yong’s wuxia classic Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils

By Jedd Jong

Donnie Yen is an action star whose career has spanned four decades. Yen’s body of work includes the Ip Man movies, contemporary action films like Flashpoint, SPL and Raging Fire, and Hollywood movies like Blade II, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and XXX: The Return of Xander Cage. Yen’s work as an actor and action director has been influential in Hong Kong cinema and far beyond, and at the age of 59, Yen is far from slowing down.

Yen was in Singapore on 12 January 2022 to promote his new film Śakra, in which he pulls triple duty as star, director and producer. Based on the novel Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils by legendary wuxia (martial heroes) author Jin Yong/Louis Cha set in the Northern Song Dynasty, this version focuses on Qiao Feng, one of three protagonists in the book.

Singapore was the first stop on Yen’s publicity tour. He held a press conference, a public meet-and-greet session and a closed-door dialogue session about action films on the same day.

“Jin Yong is very difficult to do,” Yen admitted during the press conference at Marina Bay Sands moderated by deejay Kenneth Kong. “To me, it’s almost impossible to tell a Jin Yong story in a movie format, which is only two hours or maybe two and a half hours. The duration of a movie is unlike a TV series; [with] a TV series you have 20 episodes where you can illustrate each character because in the Jin Yong world, you have so many colourful characters, especially Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, it’s one of the most popular,” Yen explained.

The project was brought to him by veteran director and producer Wong Jing, who was also present at the press conference. Yen recently collaborated with Wong on the comedy Enter the Fat Dragon. Yen revealed that he and Wong were gearing up to make a film with Andy Lau, but scheduling conflicts put that on the back burner, so Wong presented Śakra to Yen as an alternative.

“I told Wong Jing, ‘I need some time to tackle this project,’” Yen said. “Then I found an angle, and that was the very beginning.”

Yen reasoned that a literal adaptation of the novel would not be feasible given the limitations of a movie’s runtime. He decided to focus on Qiao Feng, a tragic hero who is one of Jin Yong’s most popular creations. “I said, ‘what is so special about Qiao Feng? Why is everybody mesmerised by this character? What are his characteristics? What are some of the classic lines?’” Yen recalled.

As a director in addition to an actor, Yen sought to make a film that would retain and capture everything fans love about the Qiao Feng character, while also appealing to audiences who might be unfamiliar with Jin Yong’s work. “I want to make an wuxia film that appeals to even those who’ve never [seen] any Jin Yong stories,” Yen said.

Tackling the sprawling story meant some restructuring. Yen said he split Qiao Feng’s arc in two, leaving the door open for a continuation. “By all means if the market enjoys this movie, then we think about maybe a sequel to it, right? But when you watch this movie, it doesn’t feel like part one of two, it’s still a complete, whole movie, so that was the most difficult part,” he said.

Yen has always pushed Hong Kong action cinema onto the world stage, with some comparing his contributions to those of Jackie Chan or Jet Li. Yen allowed himself to take some credit, saying “I believe as…a veteran action filmmaker, I’m very fortunate that a lot of my films have already influenced many action movies, not just in our Chinese action movies industry, but as well as in Hollywood.” Yen will soon be seen in the fourth installment of the Keanu Reeves-starring John Wick series. “I finished John Wick and when I came back, I realised that you know what? All along, Hollywood films have been not only influenced by our movies, but [have] also [been copying them] shot by shot,” Yen said candidly. “We should take pride in what we create, and I think I give myself credit, for the little part that is created by me,” he added.

Jin Yong’s novels are a goldmine of compelling plots and characters that have been explored in numerous film and TV adaptations across decades. Yen sees the potential for movies based on Jin Yong’s stories to be international successes on the scale of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “Everybody loves Hollywood pop culture. I do too, my kids do too. We watch the Marvel movies; we watch the great Disney [movies]. I was in Star Wars. That’s great. But have we ever [stepped] back and look at our own culture and what we have to offer for this industry?” Yen mused.

“If you look at all the Marvel movies, all the big Hollywood productions, all the action and artistic direction and creativity, a lot of them are influenced by our movies, right?” Yen asked rhetorically. “Marvel is Hollywood’s wuxia, but our wuxia movies are richer, more colourful,” he asserted. “There’s so, so [many] possibilities in our own literature and in our own materials. And as a filmmaker and as someone who still has a little bit of influence in the action industry, I’d like to continue to contribute and to have that type of recognition in the world,” Yen proclaimed.

Śakra opens in Singapore theatres on 16 January 2022, with sneaks on 14 and 15 January.

M3gan review

Director: Gerard Johnstone
Cast : Allison Williams, Violet McGraw, Amie Donald, Jenna Davis, Ronnie Chieng, Brian Jordan Alvarez, Jen Van Epps, Stephane Garneau-Monten
Genre: Horror/Sci-fi
Run Time : 102 min
Opens : 4 January 2022
Rating : PG13

What are three things with immense potential for creepiness? Dolls, kids and technology. M3gan might not be the first film to fuse the three, but it might be the first to fuse the three and go viral for a dance its titular character does while in the middle of a killing spree, and that’s worth something.

Gemma (Allison Williams), a brilliant roboticist, works for the toy company Funki. Funki manufactures the Furby-like Purpetual Pets, but Gemma and her team are developing a secret project: a hyper-realistic robotic doll named the Model 3 Generative Android (Amie Donald, Jenna Davis), or M3gan for short. When Gemma’s sister Ava (Kira Josephson) and her brother-in-law Ryan (Arlo Green) die in a car accident, Gemma becomes the guardian of her niece Cady (Violet McGraw). Gemma introduces M3gan, still in the prototype stage, to Cady, and they soon bond. However, M3gan becomes unpredictable, displaying sinister tendencies. With Gemma’s boss David (Ronnie Chieng) about to unveil M3gan to the world, Gemma realises she might have created a monster.

M3gan is supremely entertaining. From its first moments, the movie demonstrates that it knows what it is. Director Gerard Johnstone, working from a screenplay by Akela Cooper, has a handle on the tone at all times. M3gan sees producers Jason Blum and James Wan, both veterans of the horror genre, putting together a crowd-pleaser and a half. Wan also gets a “story by” credit. M3gan’s trailer prompted some to fear it might be unintentionally funny in the way some horror movies are, but when M3gan is funny, it’s intentional. When M3gan is unsettling, it’s intentional too. And M3gan even succeeds at being genuinely emotional at times. The audience at this reviewer’s screening lapped it all up, laughing and screaming unreservedly. The movie’s PG13 rating means it isn’t aiming for outright gory terror, but it does manage to be effectively unnerving at times. The rest of the time, it’s a roller coaster in the best way. The movie has such an anarchic sense of fun to it and it never lets up, even in its quieter moments.

Crucially, both Allison Williams and Violet McGraw are playing it completely straight, and they give genuinely affecting performances. Williams is convincing as a career-driven woman who is not necessarily cut out to be a guardian, and as such hands the parenting off to a third party. Meanwhile, McGraw feels like an actual kid and not a precocious movie kid, and the moments of conflict between Gemma and Cady, some engineered by M3gan, are uncomfortable to watch. Ronnie Chieng is also a hoot as Gemma’s boss, an arrogant tech bro. The movie’s observations about the dangers of becoming overly reliant on technology, and the false promises and hype of the tech industry, are not especially new, but they work in the context of the story.

M3gan is very formulaic and owes a lot to everything from Child’s Play to Annabelle to the Terminator series. It wears all its influences on its sleeve. There may not be enough here that’s truly original, and horror aficionados looking for something genuinely scary will likely not find it here, but it’s very good at being the thing it’s trying to be: an entertaining time.

Key to M3gan working is its titular character, who became an internet sensation from the moment the first trailer dropped. The character is realised by way of a physical performance by dancer/stunt performer Amie Donald (who was just 11 at the time of filming), the voice of Jenna Davis, and animatronic effects by Wētā Workshop. This comes together to create a character who’s funny, scary and always watchable. Donald’s physicality is impressive, selling M3gan’s uncanny, inhuman quality. Davis’ overly chipper, children’s TV presenter-esque vocal performances effortlessly slides into something more menacing. Meanwhile, the costume design by Daniel Cruden, which Empire Magazine calls “yassified Victorian chambermaid”, adds to the characters distinctiveness. Her old-fashioned dress sense is deliberately at odds with the cutting-edge tech that comprises her.

Summary: M3gan is much more than that one clip of the character dancing in the middle of killing people in an office hallway. The movie is a finely calibrated entertainment machine. It’s funny at times and unsettling at others, and the tonal balance on display is masterful. Allison Williams and Violet McGraw give genuinely affecting performances, playing things completely straight. Meanwhile, a combination of physical performer Amie Donald, voice actress Jenna Davis and animatronic effects bring the title character to vivid life. M3gan is far from particularly original, but it is, if one will pardon the cliché, more than the sum of its parts.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody review

Director: Kasi Lemmons
Cast : Naomi Ackie, Stanley Tucci, Ashton Sanders, Tamara Tunie, Clarke Peters, Nafessa Williams, Bria Danielle Singleton
Genre: Biography/Music
Run Time : 145 min
Opens : 29 December 2022
Rating : M18

Music superstar Whitney Houston was one of the greatest vocalists of her generation, and ten years after her tragic and untimely passing, she remains a beloved figure. Whitney has been the subject of multiple documentaries and has her life dramatised in a TV movie. She now receives the big screen biopic treatment.

Whitney Houston (Naomi Ackie) grew up singing in church, the daughter of gospel singer Cissy Houston (Tamara Tunie) and army veteran-turned manager John Houston (Clarke Peters). Whitney is a backup singer for her mother, and quickly catches the attention of record producer Clive Davis (Stanley Tucci), the founder of Arista Records. Whitney signs on to Arista Records, experiencing astronomical success. Whitney hires her best friend and lover Robyn Crawford (Nafessa Williams) as her Creative Director, something her father opposes. Whitney soon falls in love with singer Bobby Brown (Ashton Sanders), and they have a tumultuous relationship. Whitney struggles with severe substance abuse issues as she attempts to continue her career while facing various struggles. A best-selling artist, actress and mother to Bobbi Kristina (Bria Danielle Singleton), Whitney’s life is tragically cut short, but she leaves behind a legacy of astounding music.

Naomi Ackie is excellent in the demanding title role. While she doesn’t sing the vocals herself and lip-syncs to actual Whitney Houston tracks, one forgets that after a while. Ackie gives a lively, compelling performance, at no point succumbing to the immense pressure of portraying such a well-known and widely-loved figure. The rest of the cast is strong too, with Tucci serving as a warm, reassuring presence as Davis. The music of Whitney Houston is showcased prominently in the film, as it should be, with Houston’s oft-musical director Rickey Minor serving as a consultant. The re-enactments of key moments in Whitney’s career, including her triumphant, iconic performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the in 1991, are suitably rousing. This is a movie that is very respectful of Whitney even as it depicts the low points of her life and career, and it refrains from exploitative sensationalism. There are moments when director Kasi Lemmons does arrive at the euphoric chills-inducing moments every musical biopic should have, even if they do seem a little manufactured.

Unfortunately, I Wanna Dance with Somebody suffers from pretty much every musical biopic pitfall. In trying to offer a macro lens overview of Whitney’s life and career, the movie can feel unfocused, and it is very much functioning as a greatest hits album. We get the feeling that the movie has to hit all the points in Whitney’s life that everyone remembers, and as such it feels dutiful. The screenplay by Anthony McCarten, who also penned Bohemian Rhapsody, does sometimes lapse into a soap opera feel as we hop from confrontation to big performance to confrontation. Bohemian Rhapsody ended with a faithful re-enactment of Queen’s 1985 Live Aid performance, and I Wanna Dance with Somebody does a similar move. Letting multiple musical numbers play out in their entirety does honour Whitney’s craft, but it also increases the running time, and as good as Ackie’s performance is, we still are watching someone lip-sync to someone else’s singing, at the end of the day.

Clive Davis is portrayed as especially saintly in the film, which can be attributed to the real Davis being one of the movie’s producers. The movie also awkwardly avoids featuring certain figures: the production of The Bodyguard is covered but Kevin Costner only appears in archival footage cutaways, and in a later scene in which Whitney performs on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show, Oprah is only glimpsed on a monitor.

The film’s overall respectful approach can make it feel like it’s pulling its punches, but it serves primarily to celebrate Whitney, and not to dissect her, and it succeeds on that front.

Summary: Naomi Ackie delivers a radiant lead performance in the biopic Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody, but the movie is trapped by the standard rise-and-fall musical biopic structure. Made with a great respect for its subject while also attempting to cover the less glamorous parts of Whitney Houston’s life, the movie doesn’t offer great insight, but functions as a greatest hits album chronicling a truly remarkable career filled with unforgettable music. The multiple documentaries that already exist go into more detail and are more interesting overall, but at its best, I Wanna Dance with Somebody still possesses enough power to make Whitney Houston fans emotional.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Avatar: The Way of Water review

Director: James Cameron
Cast : Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldaña, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Edie Falco, Brendan Cowell, Jemaine Clement, Jamie Flatters, Britain Dalton, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jack Champion, Bailey Bass, Joel David Moore, Dileep Rao
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 192 min
Opens : 15 December 2022
Rating : PG13

In 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar was released, later becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time. It is an oft-repeated snarky comment that the movie seems to have made no impact on popular culture at large despite its success. All the same, its sequel has been a long time coming and there is palpable anticipation for and curiousity about it. 13 years later, the landscape of cinema has changed, but Cameron is hoping there still is a place for his epic space opera.

It is 15 years after the events of the first film. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), now permanently in alien Na’vi form, has five children with Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). These children include eldest son Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), adopted Na’vi daughter Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), adopted human son Miles “Spider” Socorro (Jack Champion) and youngest daughter Tuktirey (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss). The Resources Development Administration (RDA), the militaristic organisation which attempted to strip-mine Pandora, returns and is after a new natural resource, continuing to disrupt the Na’vi’s existence. Fearing that his presence endangers Neytiri’s Omaticaya clan, Jake uproots his family and they seek refuge in the oceans populated by the Metkayina clan. Leaders Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) and Ronal (Kate Winslet) are initially wary of the Sullys, fearing their presence will make the Metakayinas a target of the RDA. Jake must convince the Metakayinas to work together with him as an old foe rears his head and the battle for Pandora rages on.

Avatar: The Way of Water is a lavish spectacle, and all the money is up there on the screen. The visual effects work is polished and after a while, one might even forget that all the Na’vi characters are computer-generated. New Zealand-based visual effects studio Wētā FX made staggering advancements in water simulation physics for this film. In a lot of present-day blockbusters, the use of CGI can feel like a stopgap and can come off as haphazard, but the visual effects in The Way of Water are all employed deliberately. There is an inherent amount of silliness in the premise, as was the case in the first film, but eventually, the characters do earn our emotional investment, including an especially sympathetic whale-like creature named Payakan the Tulkun. The action sequences are exciting and easy to follow, and the use of 3D is well-considered and unobtrusive. The aquatic combat set-pieces, like Thunderball on steroids, are some of the best put on film. No one can say that the filmmakers didn’t care, because there is a meticulousness to The Way of Water not seen in most production line blockbusters, and in this sense, it does benefit from its long development time.

Much has been made of the movie’s 192-minute runtime. Cameron has infamously stated that audiences can take a toilet break “any time they want,” saying with his trademark cockiness that “they can see the scene they missed when they come see it again.” It’s safe to say The Way of Water is too long. Much of the first hour feels like drawn-out set-up, before the Sullys relocate to their new reef home. Then the movie becomes a bit of a nature documentary set in an alien ocean, before the last act is an all-out waterborne action extravaganza. Seeing how Jake and Neytiri have five kids, there are too many characters altogether, including new and returning human characters and the Metkayina clan. For its epic ambitions, there are times when The Way of Water feels like it should be a TV series, with different episodes focusing on different kids. Also, while Stephen Lang returns as the antagonist, his presence feels somewhat diminished, and reusing Quaritch as the main antagonist, albeit in an altered capacity, seems like a bit of a retread.

The 15-year gap between the events of the first film and this one allows Jake and Neytiri to have a whole bunch of kids. The two sons Neteyam and Lo’ak have a rivalry, and are sometimes a bit difficult to tell apart. Baby daughter Tuktirey is there to be cute and succeeds at that.

The most out-there sci-fi idea in this film is Sigourney Weaver returning after her character Grace Augustine died in the first film, playing the Na’vi daughter of Grace’s Avatar, who is then adopted by Jake and Neytiri. It is a fun performance, with a lot of eye-rolling involved – which, to be fair, is an accurate portrayal of many teenagers.

The addition of a human child makes narrative sense, especially given his connection to another human character, but as written and performed, Spider feels straight out of the 90s, like he’s escaped from an unproduced Disney TV series about a teenage Tarzan. There is also perhaps a whiff of John Connor from Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgement Day about the character.

The sci-fi world-building in the first Avatar was not terribly original, but it did result in several eye-catching creature designs and cool-looking human tech. The Way of Water ups the ante with an array of sea creatures, including the afore-mentioned Tulkun and the flying fish-esque Skimwing. The underwater photography benefits from Cameron’s well-known affinity for the oceans and for underwater exploration. On the human front, the crabsuit, a mechanical submersible, is an especially dynamic piece of tech. This time, the environmental commentary is arguably less on-the-nose than in the first movie and aims a harpoon at the whaling industry.

Summary: Avatar: The Way of Water has been a long time coming. It mostly lives up to the hype. While it is overlong and generally predictable, it is also an impressive technical achievement, and its story is eventually an affecting one. Whatever narrative shortcomings the film might have are more than compensated for by the craftsmanship on display, reminding us that there is a reason that James Cameron has made some of the highest-grossing movies of all time. The visual effects are a cut or more above those audiences have gotten used to seeing from blockbuster programmers. More cynical audiences might remain unseduced by the world of Pandora, but for everyone, pop those 3D glasses back on and dive in.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Violent Night review

Director: Tommy Wirkola
Cast : David Harbour, John Leguizamo, Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder, Leah Brady, Cam Gigandet, Edie Patterson, Beverly D’Angelo
Genre: Action/Comedy
Run Time : 112 min
Opens : 1 December 2022
Rating : M18

He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, and if you’ve been especially bad, he might bash your knees in with a sledgehammer, or maybe stab you in the eye with the star atop the Christmas tree (before plugging the Christmas lights into the mains). This is the take-no-prisoners version of Santa Claus featured in this action comedy.

It is Christmas Eve, and Santa Claus (David Harbour) is busy delivering presents to children around the world. He happens to be visiting the Lightstone estate as terrorists led by Scrooge (John Leguizamo) break into the compound and hold the family hostage. The hostages include Lightstone matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo), Gertrude’s adult son Skyler (Alex Hassell), Skyler’s estranged wife Margie (Alexis Louder), Skyler and Margie’s young daughter Trudy (Leah Brady), Skyler’s sister Alva (Edie Patterson), Alva’s boyfriend Morgan (Cam Gigandet) and Alva’s son Bert (Alexander Elliot). Gertrude has stashed away $300 million in a vault on the property, and Scrooge and his team are after the loot. The one thing they didn’t count on was Santa Claus saving the day in, as the title suggests, particularly brutal fashion.

Violent Night has an absolutely delightful premise: given all the arguments over several decades about whether or not Die Hard classifies as a Christmas movie, why not make a Die Hard-esque movie that is definitely a Christmas movie – by placing Santa himself at its centre? Pat Casey and Josh Miller’s screenplay is frequently funny and director Tommy Wirkola is perfectly at home with the dark humour and bloody action, having helmed the Nazi zombie horror comedy Dead Snow and its sequel Dead Snow 2: Red vs. Dead. Violent Night is produced by 87North, the studio behind Nobody, Kate and Bullet Train. Second unit director and stunt coordinator Jonathan Eusebio’s credits include the John Wick movies, The Fate of the Furious and Black Panther. True to its promise, Violent Night delivers lots of satisfyingly bone-crunching action.

It’s a given that Violent Night would be cynical, but sometimes, perhaps it’s a little too cynical and glib for its own good. It can be difficult to take the stakes seriously because everyone is very quippy, and the movie’s emotional moments struggle to land because they’re at odds with the bleakly tongue-in-cheek tone of the rest of the movie. There is some good action in the beginning and there’s an explosive finale, but the midsection sags a bit, not unlike Santa’s belly that shakes when he laughs (like a bowlful of jelly).

The big draw is David Harbour as Santa Claus, a role which he, if you’ll forgive us, sleighs. Harbour makes great use of his persona as a larger-than-life figure, honed via roles like Sheriff Hopper in Stranger Things, Red Guardian in Black Widow and the title character in the much-maligned Hellboy reboot. Harbour executes all the action beats convincingly, but also conveys the weariness of a man who has been alive for millennia, and whose spark is all but extinguished. The movie also sprinkles in just enough hints of a backstory for Santa. And unlike the wholly unlikeable dark Santa played by Mel Gibson in Fatman, Harbour’s version still has a loveable side.

Summary: Violent Night delivers what it says on the tin: Die Hard starring Santa Claus. It’s a darkly funny movie that features action devised by the stunt team that worked on the John Wick movies. David Harbour’s central performance as Santa is funny and even unexpectedly emotional. There’s plenty of blood and gore and the filmmakers have a lot of fun with the incongruity of bloody violence set against a holiday backdrop, even if this is far from the first movie to attempt it. With a strong premise anchored by a committed star, Violent Night is destined to be added to the Christmas action movie rotation alongside Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and Batman Returns.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Strange World review

Director: Don Hall, Qui Nguyen
Cast : Jake Gyllenhaal, Dennis Quaid, Jaboukie Young-White, Gabrielle Union, Lucy Liu
Genre: Action/Adventure/Family
Run Time : 101 min
Opens : 24 November 2022
Rating : NC16

The family that explores together, stays together – but as with every family, this one doesn’t quite get along all the time. Disney’s 61st animated feature film takes audiences to the centre of the earth alongside the Clades, in an homage to the pulp adventure comics of yore.

Searcher Clade (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a farmer in the land of Avalonia. Nobody has been able to cross the mountains that border Avalonia, and years ago, Searcher’s famed explorer father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) vanished while attempting to do just that. As a boy, Searcher discovered a power-generating plant called Pando, which he now cultivates. When Pando plants across Avalonia start dying, threatening the land’s power source, Avalonia’s president and former member of Jaeger’s expedition team Callisto Mal (Lucy Liu) calls upon Searcher to help solve the problem. Searcher’s son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White), who seems more apt to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps than in his father’s, stows away on the ship, and Searcher’s pilot wife Meridian (Gabrielle Union) joins the expedition too. The crew journeys deep below the surface of Avalonia, discovering a bizarre realm populated with unearthly creatures as they attempt to solve the Pando crisis.

Strange World is an earnest, sweet movie made by people who clearly have a great affection for classic adventure stories, with Journey to the Centre of the Earth and King Kong as two of the main reference points. There is an inventiveness to the Jules Verne-esque world-building and the characters are generally loveable. There are times when the movie is reminiscent of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, also a Disney animated movie inspired by pulp adventure tales. There’s also a big three-legged dog named Legend and putting a big dog in anything is wont to skew this reviewer’s opinion towards it.

Strange World wears its good-heartedness on its sleeve, and in addition to being an adventure story, it is very interested in a topic which Disney has covered in a few of their recent animated films: generational trauma. There is a worthwhile if not especially novel message about the expectations we place on our children and the importance of letting them find their own path. Much has been made of the character Ethan’s sexuality, but that is something that feels organic in the movie and doesn’t feel shoehorned in, and whenever it’s mentioned, it is done so very sweetly. The movie also touches on the relationship between man and nature, and the value of living harmoniously with nature. It might be too late for us here on earth, but it isn’t for the residents of Avalonia.

Unfortunately, there’s a palpable struggle between the adventure and family drama elements of Strange World. It seems to almost get there, but it never becomes wholly satisfying and thrilling in the way the stories it’s trying to evoke do. There are action scenes and moments of peril, but weirdly enough, the stakes never feel especially high, even though a big reveal towards the end does establish them as being astronomical. While Strange World is more adventure-driven than most Disney animated films, it still feels overly familiar. For example, the gelatinous comic relief character Splat is essentially a blue Flubber, with shades of Morph from Treasure Planet. When the characters bicker and argue, it is reminiscent of a real family, but it also feels like a distraction from the fantastical action. The movie is by no means boring, but it does feel longer than its 101 minutes.

Strange World has a solid voice cast. Jake Gyllenhaal is the sensitive, somewhat anxious Searcher, lending the character sincerity and a degree of insecurity. Dennis Quaid does a big, boisterous cartoon voice as the stereotypically masculine Jaeger, while Jaboukie Young-White is laid-back and endearing as Ethan. Gabrielle Union and Lucy Liu round out a voice cast that is not the starriest one in recent memory, but each of the actors makes sense in their roles.

Summary: Strange World is a loving ode to classic adventure stories, while also tackling a subject that Disney has become quite fond of lately: generational trauma. There are times when Strange World struggles to balance its pulp adventure side and its family drama side, but the overall good-naturedness of the production smooths that over. While sci-fi adventure is territory that Disney animation doesn’t often venture into, Strange World does have a comforting familiarity to it. It might not be an immediate hit, but perhaps like Atlantis: The Lost Empire, it is destined for cult status.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever review

Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast : Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, Tenoch Huerta, Winston Duke, Dominique Thorne, Florence Kasumba, Michaela Coel, Martin Freeman
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 161 min
Opens : 10 November 2022
Rating : PG13

2018’s Black Panther is one of the highlights of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It garnered commercial and critical success, including winning three Oscars, the first MCU movie to do so. All eyes were on director Ryan Coogler to see where Black Panther 2 would take the hero. After a tragic turn of events in real life, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever takes unexpected turns of its own, further exploring the world of Wakanda and beyond.

King T’challa has died of an illness, leaving his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) distraught. Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett) continues to guide her daughter as she leads the people of Wakanda. Having opened itself up to the world, the nation is vulnerable to those who wish to exploit its precious natural resource, the metal Vibranium. An expedition in search of Vibranium in the Atlantic Ocean provokes K’uk’ulkan/Namor (Tenoch Huerta), the ruler of the underwater kingdom of Talokan. Former Wakandan spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) must return to work alongside General Okoye (Danai Gurira) as Namor threatens to attack Wakanda. Caught in the middle of it all is a brilliant young scientist named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne), whose role in developing a Vibranium detection device has made her a target of Namor. Still shaken by her brother’s death, Shuri is faced with taking on the mantle of the Black Panther in a time of great instability.

Some have decried various MCU movies for being a little too silly, and for having humorous moments undermine dramatic stakes. That is not a problem here. Wakanda Forever is a sombre, sincere and respectful affair; the real-life passing of Chadwick Boseman infusing the film with a dignified sadness. This is a movie about grief, and responsibility in the face of said grief. It’s a movie about the decisions we make when we are affected by tragedy, and the consequences of making decisions in that state. Coogler continues to be a force to be reckoned with behind the camera, and there is the sense that this is the story he wanted to tell, and not something producers meddled extensively with. Wakanda Forever’s greatest strength is the movie’s balance of character interiority and expansive world-building, without sacrificing one for the other.

Wakanda Forever’s heaviness means it is not exactly the most exuberant, entertaining comic book movie, but it isn’t trying to be that either. Perhaps it could do with a few more cheer-worthy moments, something the first movie did not lack for, but it generally wears its seriousness well. The movie is long, and suffers the most when we are focusing on CIA agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), who shares many scenes with a character introduced in one of the Disney+ TV series. While perhaps necessary to emphasise the wider impact of the goings-on in Wakanda, this feels like distracting set-up for future, non-Black Panther related MCU projects.

The absence of Chadwick Boseman is something the movie leans into instead of avoiding. Letitia Wright is truly magnificent in a role that asks a lot of her. Shuri is pushed to the forefront as she struggles with a disdain for ancient traditions and a lack of faith in spiritual beliefs, spurred by her brother’s untimely passing. We are used to seeing Shuri being playful and intelligent, but here she is broken and understandably prone to rage. Wright plays all this without losing sight of what made the character so endearing to begin with. Bassett is also undeniable here, and her scenes with Wright are some of the movie’s most emotional.

The movie introduces Namor into the MCU. Much like his DC Comics counterpart Aquaman, there are aspects of the character that are unavoidably silly: he has pointy ears, winged ankles, and wears green trunks. The movie reimagines Namor and the civilisation he hails from, taking inspiration from Mesoamerican mythology. Some design aspects remain a little goofy, but the movie’s world-building is impressive, and Tenoch Huerta is a commanding screen presence as a complicated character, someone who is antagonistic towards our heroes but is always sympathetic. Namor’s entry into the MCU is something that fans have long been waiting for, and while this incarnation might not fit what everyone was imagining, the movie makes a good case for the changes to the source material and integrates Namor into the wider Black Panther story well.

Summary: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a movie with true gravity, more so than many recent MCU films. The movies in the franchise are sometimes in danger of feeling inconsequential, but Wakanda Forever feels like a movie that matters. The real-life death of Chadwick Boseman is handled in a respectful and dignified way, leading to a movie that has a certain heaviness and seriousness to it. The fantastical elements and world-building are balanced with an emotional honesty. Shuri gets a fantastic character arc and Letitia Wright plays her with strength and nuance. This is not the exuberant fun some audiences might be expecting from the MCU, but Wakanda Forever wears its seriousness well and is still an expansive and spectacular adventure. There is one mid-credits scene.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Black Adam review

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Aldis Hodge, Noah Centineo, Sarah Shahi, Marwan Kenzari, Quintessa Swindell, Bodhi Sabongui, Pierce Brosnan, Mohammed Amer, Viola Davis
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 125 min
Opens : 20 October 2022
Rating : PG13

Dwayne Johnson became officially linked to the role of Black Adam in 2007. 15 years later, he finally dons the black suit emblazoned with the yellow lightning bolt. But is the Rock the saviour that DC Films are desperately looking for?

Teth-Adam (Dwayne Johnson) was a warrior slave from the fictional kingdom of Kahndaq, a civillisation that arose alongside ancient Egypt. Adam was granted the powers of the gods but misused these powers for vengeance. As punishment, Adam was imprisoned. Almost 5000 years later, Teth-Adam, now Black Adam, is released when university professor and resistance fighter Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi) finds his tomb. Adrianna sees Black Adam as a figure who could rally the citizens of Kahndaq to fight against Intergang, the militaristic corporation currently occupying Kahndaq. Black Adam continues what he feels is his justified crusade, leaving destruction in his wake. Rising to oppose Adam is the Justice Society, a team of superheroes comprising Carter Hall/Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Al Rothstein/Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), Maxine Hunkel/Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Kent Nelson/Doctor Fate (Pierce Brosnan). Adam must form an uneasy alliance with the Justice Society to defeat an even bigger, more diabolical threat.

Black Adam isn’t afraid to feel like a comic book, and it also has a good amount of Saturday morning cartoon energy – albeit with quite a bit more brutality to it. Dwayne Johnson does a fine job balancing both his own finely-honed celebrity persona with the Black Adam character from the pages of Fawcett, then DC, comics. The movie is rated PG13, but Black Adam’s violent streak is largely preserved.

Long-time DC Comics fans will enjoy seeing mildly-to-relatively obscure comic book characters on the big screen, though iterations of said characters have appeared on TV in Smallville and in the Arrowverse. For the most part, the film is tonally assured, neither too crushingly serious nor too flippant. Sometimes comic book movies seem preoccupied with trying not to come off as too silly, something which has plagued earlier entries in the DC Extended Universe. In Black Adam, superheroes pile into a high-tech jet and set off to save the day, as they do in the comics, and nobody really bats an eyelid.  

Black Adam is being promoted as a tentpole event movie when it doesn’t really feel like one. It’s not a small movie by any stretch, but it does feel restricted. For all the movie’s world-building, it aspires to a scope and scale that it ultimately doesn’t possess. Its plot beats are straightforward to a fault, while it also struggles with feeling slightly bloated because of all its characters, none of whom the general moviegoer would already be familiar with. There is a reliance on exposition, and it feels like certain things were glued together in reshoots. There is unfortunately a dullness to the visuals, because everything takes place in dusty environs. While there is an effort made to make Kahndaq look like a real place, there are instances when it feels like we are on a studio backlot. The action sequences start blending into each other after a while. The movie’s villain is also far from compelling, and it ends as all these movies must end, with our heroes fighting a thing made of CGI.

This is as much a Justice Society movie as it is a Black Adam film. Aldis Hodge is a charismatic and appropriately stubborn presence as Carter Hall/Hawkman, the leader of the team. Both Noah Centineo and Quintessa Swindell are endearing as the younger members. Pierce Brosnan is the movie’s MVP as Doctor Fate, and this reviewer would love to see him headline a Doctor Fate spinoff film. He has gravitas to spare and is taking it all quite seriously. Besides, he looks very dashing in full silver fox mode. Unfortunately, it is difficult to connect to the characters given the very limited time we get to know them. The movie completely sidesteps Hawkman’s complicated backstory, which involves him being an archaeologist who is the reincarnation of an ancient Egyptian prince.

It seems like Warner Bros executives are hoping that Dwayne Johnson’s star power will help rescue DC Films. Things have never been particularly smooth going for this franchise, and anyone who follows movie news will be aware of baffling developments like the decision to never release an almost-completed film. You will find many helpful infographics online explaining how each DC Extended Universe movie connects to the other. Black Adam is not an A-lister and it’s clear that Johnson does have affection for the character, elevating the character with his own celebrity status. However, the Black Adam movie feels like it should occupy a corner of the DC universe and not be at the centre of it, and it feels like it is being pushed into that spot because other plans have fallen through.

Summary: Black Adam won’t blow anyone away, but it is a largely enjoyable comic book adventure movie. It’s not ashamed of its somewhat sillier elements, but also the brutality and angst befitting its protagonist. For something that has been in development for a long time, it feels half-baked – maybe three-quarters-baked, if you’re being charitable. Dwayne Johnson is a suitably imposing, brutal Black Adam, but the movie’s secret weapon is a dashing and quietly haunted Pierce Brosnan as Doctor Fate. Black Adam sometimes feels a little overstuffed and too formulaic, but it never loses sight of that crucial comic book sensibility, thus remaining entertaining all the way through. Stick around for a mid-credits screen that would have a very nice surprise if it weren’t spoiled to the point of being a part of the marketing.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong