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.

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

Thor: Love and Thunder review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Taika Waititi
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Taika Waititi, Jaimie Alexander, Russell Crowe
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 119 min
Opens : 7 July 2022
Rating : TBA

Over the past several years, Taika Waititi has become one of the most dominant creative forces in Hollywood. Between winning a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, his involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars franchises, and the cult TV series What We Do in the Shadows and Our Flag Means Death, Waititi has a lot going on. Following the success of Thor: Ragnarok, which arguably launched him into the Hollywood big leagues, Waititi is back for the fourth solo Thor movie.

Following the events of Avengers: Endgame, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) travels across the cosmos with the Guardians of the Galaxy but is feeling empty and unfulfilled. He and Korg (Taika Waititi) return to earth, where New Asgard, under the rule of King Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), is in danger. Gorr the God Butcher (Christian Bale), a vengeful alien who has sworn to slay every god, has his sights set on Thor. To Thor’s surprise, he finds his beloved hammer Mjolnir, destroyed by Hela in Thor: Ragnarok, now re-formed. Its wielder: his ex-girlfriend Dr Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who has taken on the mantle of Mighty Thor. As Thor adjusts to this development, our heroes must defeat Gorr before the gods stand no more. Their journey takes them to Omnipotence City, home of various gods including Zeus (Russell Crowe) himself.

The discourse surrounding the MCU has gotten rather tiresome, and it usually loops back around to the movies being formulaic and feeling anonymous and prefabricated. That isn’t much of a problem here. Just as with Ragnarok, Waititi’s stamp is all over Love and Thunder. There’s plenty of personality and dynamism to the proceedings, and nary a sense of going through the motions. The movie has an ambitious scale but is focused on Thor’s character development, and links back to earlier movies in the series without leaving audiences feeling too lost. The story adapts the Jason Aaron run of the Thor comics, which introduces many memorable ideas and character arcs, including Jane becoming Thor and the villain Gorr the God Butcher. Waititi is working with strong source material, a game cast and endlessly inventive, eye-catching design. The movie plays with colour in fun ways, including having the Shadow Realm where Gorr calls home be rendered in black and white.

A major issue that this reviewer had with Thor: Ragnarok was that while it was ostensibly a buddy comedy, it was also a story about the destruction of Asgard and Thor experienced great loss over the course of the film. The overtly comedic tone undermined the more dramatic moments of the story. That problem is slightly less pronounced here, but still present. The Jane and Gorr arcs are both dark and do seem at odds with the overall light tone of the movie. There is also a lot of ground to cover, especially with Jane’s transformation into Mighty Thor, such that what played out over a significant amount of time in the comics feels compressed into this movie. Thor: Love and Thunder has many moving parts, and while the character arcs do work and many emotional beats do land, it still often feels somewhat flippant. The screenplay, written by Waititi and Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, attempts to navigate a somewhat dense mythology and isn’t always successful.

It can be argued that Thor: Ragnarok was the first time Chris Hemsworth seemed truly comfortable in the role of Thor, despite appearing in four prior MCU films as the character. Love and Thunder sees him continue taking the approach of equal parts goofy and heroic, and while Thor is a big loveable lunkhead on the outside, Hemsworth also sells the feeling of loss and a yearning for fulfilment that is key to the character’s arc.

It seemed like Natalie Portman was out of the MCU for good, but Waititi convinced her to return as Jane Foster. This is the most she has gotten to do in one of these movies by far, and like the other actors involved, Portman actually seems to be having a good time. It’s just a bit of a shame that, as mentioned above, the circumstances leading to Jane becoming Mighty Thor feel rushed.

Christian Bale isn’t an actor one typically imagines enjoying himself on the set and having fun with the roles he plays, but he does seem to relish the villainous part. There are moments when the character is sympathetic, and others when he’s cackling and deliciously evil. Unfortunately, a bit like with Cate Blanchett’s Hela in Ragnarok, Gorr never feels truly, legitimately terrifying. This could be because the comedy elsewhere in the film undercuts the grave stakes.

Russell Crowe steals the show as Zeus. At first, it seems like just a lark, but the character has more to do beyond being a comic relief figure, and there is an unexpected degree of drama to the scene in which he appears.

Summary: Taika Waititi carries over the exuberant goofiness and visual dynamism of Thor: Ragnarok into Love and Thunder. Its 80s rock sensibility and largely amiable tone is hard to resist. However, the comedic components do often undermine the more dramatic and emotional moments, especially in a film that, as bright and silly as it is, does also deal with some fairly dark thematic material. Those who loved Waititi’s approach in Ragnarok are likely to also enjoy this movie, but for anyone who perceived that film to be tonally imbalanced, Love and Thunder has many of the same issues. And of course, stick around for a mid-credits scene and a post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Morbius review

Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast : Jared Leto, Matt Smith, Adria Arjona, Jared Harris, Al Madrigal, Tyrese Gibson
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 105 min
Opens : 31 March 2022
Rating : PG13

The Low-Down: 1998 saw the release of Blade, a movie some credit with beginning the modern era of comic book movies. In a deleted scene from that film, the villain Michael Morbius made a cameo appearance, hinting at the possibility of a significant role in the sequel. This never materialised. 24 years later, Morbius makes his actual big screen debut.

Dr Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) is a brilliant haematologist who suffers from a rare genetic blood disorder. He has spent his entire life in search of a cure and has invented artificial blood along the way. Milo (Matt Smith), Morbius’ surrogate brother, also suffers from the same affliction. They were raised by Nicholas (Jared Harris), who runs a facility for patients suffering from rare diseases. Morbius’ latest attempt at a cure involves splicing bat DNA into his own genes, resulting in a form of vampirism. Alongside his colleague Dr Martine Bancroft (Adria Arjona), Morbius must find a solution before he ends up killing even more people than he already has.

Morbius is a straightforward origin story that is easy to follow and isn’t as bloated as many other comic book movies. There are a few glimmers of style, and some sequences are moderately exciting. Jared Leto is also not nearly annoying as he could have been and has been in other roles. At least one actor seems to be having fun, and others provide dependable support. That’s about it, as far as positives go.

The movie might not be an unwatchable train wreck, but it is dull. For all the talk in the promotional materials about how Morbius is “one of the most compelling and conflicted characters in Sony Pictures Universe of Marvel Characters,” there’s just not very much to him and the other characters in the film. It’s a bog-standard Jekyll and Hyde-style scenario, with very few links to the wider Marvel universe. The most significant piece connecting this to the other movies was already spoiled in the trailer. Screenwriters Matt Sazama and Buck Sharpless have written ho-hum fantasy action movies Dracula Untold and The Last Witch Hunter, as well as the disastrous Gods of Egypt, so it’s not exactly a surprise that Morbius doesn’t have the strongest screenplay.

Furthermore, there’s not a lot about this that is visually distinct, and the action sequences involving slow-motion and streaks of vapour representing Morbius’ echolocation powers often look laughably artificial. None of the set pieces are especially memorable. Not unlike Venom and to a greater extent its sequel Let There Be Carnage, Morbius is also hamstrung by a PG13 rating, meaning this is a vampire movie that can only show very limited amounts of blood. The film’s ultimate villain is also patently underwhelming.

Morbius is ostensibly the third film in Sony’s Spider-Man Universe. This is a universe that is not directly linked to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but after the Multiverse-fracturing events of Spider-Man: No Way Home, characters could cross over. Apparently, there is a Spider-Man swinging about somewhere out there in this universe, though it remains to be seen if it is a Spider-Man we’ve already met in a previous movie. Venom was an unlikely box office success despite being a movie about a Spider-Man villain that completely omitted Spider-Man himself. It is unlikely that Morbius will achieve similar success, and it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in Kraven the Hunter and the two other films in this universe set to be released in 2023.

Summary: Morbius is a mediocre comic book movie that is formulaic and dull. Jared Leto gives a perfectly serviceable performance, but the titular character is intended to be mysterious and conflicted when what we get instead feels like a sanitised Jekyll and Hyde story. Most of the supporting characters are created for the film instead of being drawn from the Marvel comics source material, making it feel like there isn’t a substantial link between this and the other movies in the franchise. Especially after the triumph of Spider-Man: No Way Home, Morbius feels like Sony’s Spider-Man Universe has one hand tied behind its back. Stay for two mid-credits scenes that very awkwardly attempt to tie this movie in with the larger franchise.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Uncharted review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Cast : Tom Holland, Mark Wahlberg, Sophia Taylor Ali, Tati Gabrielle, Antonio Banderas
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 116 min
Opens : 17 February 2022
Rating : PG

Since the release of Naughty Dog’s videogame Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune in 2007, there has been talk of a movie adaptation. A movie was officially announced in 2008, and 14 years and three further games (plus one spin-off game) later, adventurer Nathan Drake finally makes his big screen debut.

Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) is a bartender living in New York. Victor “Sully” Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg), a treasure hunter, recruits Nathan for an ambitious job. Sully had worked with Nathan’s long-lost brother Sam, and Nathan agrees to join Sully in hopes of tracking Sam down. They are after the treasure hidden by the crew of the Magellan expedition 500 years ago, said to be worth $5 billion. Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas), descended from the wealthy family who bankrolled the Magellan expedition, believes the treasure is rightfully his. With the help of fellow treasure hunter Chloe Frazer (Sophia Taylor Ali), Nathan and Sully must beat Moncada and his dangerous henchwoman Jo Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) to the prize.

This reviewer loves a good adventure movie, and while Uncharted might not offer anything genre aficionados haven’t seen before, it’s still an entertaining time. Holland might not be who fans pictured as playing Nathan Drake, but is always likeable, earnest and displays ever-impressive physicality. Director Ruben Fleischer, whose credits include Zombieland and Venom, keeps things moving at a good clip. There are enough twists and turns along the way as our heroes solve puzzles and avoid getting double-crossed. It’s very much “get the thing that leads to the thing, take a detour, then find another thing that will lead you to the final thing”. There are action set-pieces that are mostly serviceable, up until the delightfully ludicrous final sequence featuring ships doing…what ships don’t normally do. An adventure movie would be nothing without some globe-trotting, which Uncharted features a reasonable amount of. The movie was shot mostly in Germany and in various locations in Spain, including Barcelona and Costa Brava, the latter doubling for a resort in the Philippines.

As alluded to above, Uncharted mostly echoes other iconic adventure movies. The Uncharted games were reminiscent of the Tomb Raider games, that were reminiscent of the Indiana Jones films, that were in turn reminiscent of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and King’s Solomon’s Mines. With the caveat that “originally” is often a meaningless metric, Uncharted can sometimes feel like a facsimile of a facsimile. The digital visual effects work is sometimes unconvincing, especially during the more outlandish set-pieces.

Mark Wahlberg can often have an annoying screen presence, as is the case here. He feels very little like the Sully character did in the games, coming off as more twitchy than gruff but warm. Antonio Banderas’ Moncada is set up to be a formidable villain, but the movie wastes the character’s potential. The movie also sometimes feels a little disjointed, like small chunks have been edited out. Several scenes featured in the trailers don’t appear in the finished film, but this is par for the course for many blockbusters.

There were many iterations of an Uncharted movie before arriving at this point, with filmmakers including David O. Russell, Neil Burger, Shawn Levy and Dan Trachtenberg all attached at different points. The movie is an origin story for Nathan Drake, and takes elements from several of the games, notably the backstory involving the long-lost brother, introduced in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. The central set-piece in which Nathan hangs out the back of a cargo plane is taken from Uncharted 3.

While Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg might not look much like Nathan and Sully as fans of the games know them, they are passable physical matches for the younger versions of the characters shown in flashbacks in Uncharted 3. The intention is for this to kick-start a franchise, and for Holland and Wahlberg to eventually catch up to the ages of the characters as shown in most of the games. Interestingly, Sophia Taylor Ali as Chloe is probably the closest match to the character from the source material.

Summary: After over a decade in development, Uncharted is somewhat underwhelming given the build-up, but also far from the disaster that many video game movies before it have been. While long-time fans of the game might be disappointed at the movie’s deviations from the source material, this works as an entry point for wider audiences unfamiliar with the games. Mark Wahlberg is annoying, but Tom Holland is a likeable Nathan, and he could conceivably grow into the more roguish version of the character we see in the games. It’s not a game-changer, but it’s fast-paced and fun. It’s just a bit of a shame that a video game series known for being cinematic is finally adapted into a film that doesn’t make much of an impact.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong