Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars                   

Jedd Jong

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Renfield review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

John Wick: Chapter 4 review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Shazam! Fury of the Gods review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

65 review

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

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

Adam Driver killed the dinosaurs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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