The Dark Tower

For F*** Magazine

THE DARK TOWER 

Director : Nikolaj Arcel
Cast : Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Franz Kranz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick, Dennis Haysbert
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 35m
Opens : 3 August 2017
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

After ten years in various stages of development, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series finally arrives on the big screen. At the centre of the universe stands the titular structure, protecting various realms from entities that seek to tear the universe apart. On Mid-World, the evil sorcerer Walter Padick/The Man in Black (McConaughey), has been conducting experiments on gifted children, attempting to use their minds to bring down the tower. The Man in Black’s nemesis is Roland Deschain/The Gunslinger (Elba), the last living descendant of his world’s version of King Arthur. On earth, teenager Jake Chambers (Taylor) has been plagued with nightmares in which he sees Walter and Roland. Locating an abandoned house he sees in his dream, Jake steps through a portal and into Mid-World, accompanying Roland on his quest to defeat Walter and prevent the collapse of the universe.

King’s series of eight books, with allusions to it scattered throughout his other works, has many devoted fans. This reviewer, being completely unfamiliar with the series, is not one of them. It must have been a challenge to adapt the series, which spans the genres of science-fantasy, western and horror, hence the succession of filmmakers who came and went. The approach with this is that it isn’t a straight adaptation, folding in elements from several books while also acting as kind of a sequel to them – we don’t fully understand the mechanics of that.

The resulting film is a serviceable fantasy adventure, but can’t help but feel underwhelming given the breadth of the source material. Director Nikolaj Arcel goes about the set-up with workmanlike efficiency, and the story isn’t difficult to follow at all. There’s just the nagging feeling that everything’s been condensed into its simplest form, and that the richness of the world that King has woven together is being sacrificed for something easier to digest. Visually, The Dark Tower isn’t too exciting, but the action sequences, especially Roland’s various reload tricks, are quite fun.

Actors including Viggo Mortensen, Javier Bardem and Russell Crowe have all been connected to the Roland Deschain role at some point. Elba is a fine choice for the part, cutting a heroic figure and possessing the stoic poise necessary to sell the character. There’s a strength and a grace to the way Elba moves, and he does have a larger-than-life quality to him. He just doesn’t have very much to do here, and even though Roland’s storied past is hinted at, the character feels a little flat.

The relationship between Roland and Jake is apparently key to the books, but it doesn’t get too much development here. It makes sense that Jake, as the audience identification character, is given more emphasis, but it detracts from the inherently interesting Gunslinger and Man in Black characters. Taylor, a relative newcomer, does his best as the troubled character and is generally sympathetic throughout the film. Jake winds up being an extreme example of the ‘chosen one’ trope, and the handling of the character nudges The Dark Tower into Young Adult fiction territory. He must overcome tragedy, has fantastical abilities he must hone, and stumbles into an adventure in a magical world. While this approach is too generic, it gets the job done.

McConaughey has as much fun as he can with the role of the mercurial, wicked Man in Black. There’s a seductiveness to his brand of menace, and McConaughey practices enough restraint so that he does not chew the mostly drab scenery to pieces. When McConaughey and Elba are pitted against each other, the sparks don’t fly as fiercely and as wildly as one hopes they would. Just as with this iteration of Roland Deschain however, the Man in Black doesn’t feel as substantial a character as he should.

There will be a TV series planned to bridge this film and its sequel, which Arcel has promised will be more faithful to the books than this film is. The Dark Tower is meant to launch a ‘Connected KINGdom’ cinematic universe uniting all of Stephen King’s works, with Easter Eggs from It, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Cujo, Christine and others hidden in the film. Given all this, The Dark Tower feels sufficiently self-contained, and doesn’t come off as merely a long trailer for what’s to follow.

The Dark Tower is intermittently thrilling, sometimes entertaining, and runs a lean 95 minutes. It doesn’t have the feel of a sprawling epic, but that isn’t entirely a bad thing, since the audience isn’t overwhelmed with exposition-dumps and massive amounts of lore to process. However, it makes more of a dent than an impact, and isn’t especially memorable given the potential in its premise and the extent to which King has developed his universe. We’re far from the most qualified to judge how this stacks up against the source material, but we have a feeling that those who’ve been waiting a decade for a Dark Tower movie to materialise might feel indifferent if not disappointed.

Summary: The Dark Tower has charismatic leads and doesn’t twaddle in setting up its plot, but it comes off as generic and slight when it should be an absorbing epic.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Wonder Woman

For F*** Magazine

WONDER WOMAN 

Director : Patty Jenkins
Cast : Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya, Lucy Davis, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock
Genre : Action/Comics
Run Time : 2h 21min
Opens : 31 May 2017
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

All the world’s been waiting for her, and at long last, here she is in a movie of her own. Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gadot) is a demigoddess raised by the mythical Amazons on the island of Themyscira. Diana’s mother Queen Hippolyta (Nielsen) wants to shield her from the outside world, while Diana’s aunt General Antiope (Wright) wants to train Diana into a warrior. When American pilot Captain Steve Trevor (Pine) crash-lands on Themyscira, Diana volunteers to escort him back to the outside world, against her mother’s wishes. It is the final days of World War I, and German General Erich Ludendorff (Huston) is working alongside treacherous chemist Dr. Maru/Dr. Poison (Anaya), devising deadly weapons to use in the war. Diana befriends Steve’s secretary Etta Candy (Davis), and goes to the front to end the war. Diana is accompanied by Steve’s ragtag band of operatives, including Sameer (Taghmaoui), Charlie (Bremner) and Chief (Brave Rock). However, the forces they face are beyond mere armies of men.

Wonder Woman made her first appearance in Sensation Comics in 1941, and a big screen solo outing for the superheroine is long overdue. After varied failed attempts to bring the character to the screen, DC has finally found success – and what a success this is. The DC Extended Universe has generally been greeted with scorn. Moviegoers heading into this movie can be roughly grouped into two categories: those who are eager to see this fail because it’s a DC film, and those who are cautiously optimistic. With Wonder Woman, director Patty Jenkins has crafted a movie that might stun detractors into silence. Working from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg (known in the comics sphere for Young Avengers and his Wonder Woman run), who rewrote earlier drafts by Jason Fuchs and Zack Snyder, Jenkins has delivered a worthy epic that does the iconic character great justice. The filmmakers demonstrate an innate understanding of what makes Wonder Woman tick, and eloquently articulate her motivations, laying out the events that shape her into the heroine she becomes.

Jenkins must have faced the dilemma of depicting an action heroine who’s all about peace, love and understanding: as the lyrics of the theme song go, “make a hawk a dove, stop a war with love”. On one hand, Diana stands for all that is good and pure, and on the other, she’s a bona fide badass who is formidable in battle. Wonder Woman navigates the quandary admirably, and gets surprisingly moving in the process. While the film doesn’t try to give a simple answer to why it’s in mankind’s nature to fight, it attempts to make sense of why conflict comes so naturally to us, and how someone from outside man’s world would process this. It’s also tonally assured: the scenes of war get the appropriate gravitas, but there is a healthy amount of fish-out-of-water comedy, though not so much as to take one out of it. Some took issue with Batman v Superman’s handling of philosophical issues, and Wonder Woman doesn’t get too bogged down with big questions as it serves up plenty of spectacle.

There’s a grandeur to the film, which takes us from the idyllic fantasy paradise of Themyscira to the gritty corpse-strewn battlefield of the Western Front. Aline Bonetto’s production design and Lindy Hemming’s costume design makes Themyscira a thoroughly-realised world, supplemented by location filming on the Italian coast. The statuesque Amazons are fantastical figures, yes, but their domain is immersive and believable. There is enough authenticity to the settings of London, Belgium and the Ottoman Empire, such that this works as a war movie. The action sequences are exciting and staged with finesse, the fight choreography incorporating Diana’s sword, shield, lasso and bracelets. They are just the right degree of showy, a dazzling blend of elegance and strength. When Wonder Woman climbs out of the trenches and charges brazenly through No Man’s Land, it’s wont to give viewers quite the buzz.

Gadot’s casting was met with considerable backlash, and if her turn in Batman v Superman made doubters eat their words, she’s back with a heaping second serving here. Gadot more than proves herself as the ideal embodiment of the superheroine. Diana starts out as an idealist, and Gadot parses the character’s status as an invincible naïf. Audiences at large are not as familiar with Wonder Woman’s back-story as they are the origin tales of Superman, Batman or Spider-Man, and it is told coherently and engagingly. Not only does Gadot truly come into her own as a leading lady in this film, but she looks absolutely fantastic doing it – in both the action sequences and the quiet dramatic moments.

In many comic book films, the romance tends to feel tacked on. This isn’t the case here. The strapping, roguish Steve Trevor is Diana’s primary link to man’s world, and the relationship between the two is crucial to the plot. Through Steve’s eyes, Diana sees both the good and the evil that man is capable of. Pine is charming as always, with a twinkle in his eye and never a hair out of place. It seems like a bit of a waste to cast him as Steve Trevor instead of Hal Jordan/Green Lantern, since Hal is pretty much Captain Kirk. Still, it’s great that Steve is drawn with some depth, instead of being the standard dashing but boring hero. Owing to the respect he shows Diana, he’s as good a role model as she is.

Davis’ bubbly Etta Candy is true to how the character is portrayed in the comics, and as the designated comic relief, she stays a safe distance from being annoying. While Steve’s band of merry men all exhibit stereotypical traits, they get enough development. Taghmaoui is suave and amusing, Bremner has fun playing the wild-eyed Scotsman but also brings out the trauma that mars the character, and Brave Rock is steadfast and a comforting presence as Chief. While Huston and Anaya play largely generic villains, they serve the plot well and chew just enough scenery.

There was a lot riding on this film, with the fear that if it failed, it would spell doom for any female-led comic book movies going forward, just as Catwoman and Elektra sounded the death knell all those years ago. Those fears should be allayed, as this is a grand, heartfelt and rousing film. Despite its 141-minute running time, Wonder Woman doesn’t feel bloated and is light on its feet. At once refreshing and reminiscent of classic wartime romance films, Wonder Woman is a giant leap forward for the DC Extended Universe.

Summary: A soaring, inspiring adventure centred by Gal Gadot’s assured star turn, Wonder Woman is the movie long-time fans of the iconic superheroine have been waiting for.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

For F*** Magazine

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD 

Director : Guy Ritchie
Cast : Charlie Hunnam, Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey, Djimon Hounsou Jude Law, Aidan Gillen, Eric Bana, Mikael Persbrandt, Lorraine Bruce, Hermione Corfield, Annabelle Wallis
Genre : Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 6min
Opens : 18 May 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Brief Coarse Language)

Mythical monarch King Arthur rears his head in not one, but two big-budget summer movies this year. Before Transformers: The Last Knight, we get this origin story. Orphan Arthur (Hunnam) has led a hardscrabble existence on the cobblestone streets of Londinium, unaware of his royal heritage. Arthur’s father, King Uther Pendragon (Bana), was deposed by Uther’s brother Vortigern (Law), who has become a power-mad sorcerer. Only Uther or his direct progeny can pull the sword Excalibur from the stone. When Arthur accomplishes this feat, he becomes the target of Vortigern’s fury. Arthur is assisted in his quest to defeat Vortigern by his friend Wetstick (Kingsley Ben-Adir), Uther’s loyal advisor Sir Bedivere (Hounsou), skilled archer Goosefat Bill (Gillen) and a mysterious woman who wields control over animals through magic, known only as the Mage (Bergès-Frisbey). Arthur must achieve mastery of Excalibur, as he and his allies fight to reclaim the throne that is rightfully his.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is the first in a planned series of six films. Legend of the Sword morphed continuously throughout its development: David Dobkin was originally set to direct a King Arthur film starring Kit Harington in the title role and Joel Kinnaman as Lancelot. Then, Colin Farrell was attached to the Arthur part, with Gary Oldman cast as Merlin. Under Guy Ritchie, it’s become Snatch meets Lord of the Rings. There have been countless big screen permutations of the Arthur legend, and this version smacks of a desperation to put a new spin – any new spin – on a public domain tale with name recognition. Legend of the Sword wants to be a superhero movie, a street level crime film, and a Game of Thrones-style epic of palace intrigue and high fantasy. Alas, it ends up being all those things and none at the same time; Ritchie struggling but failing to meld these disparate elements into a cohesive whole.

As with any legend so old and so widespread, there is no one true version of the King Arthur story. As evidenced by the floating fireballs and myriad outsized CGI animals, this isn’t intended to be “historical” in any sense. The screenplay by Ritchie and Lionel Wigram, rewritten from a draft by Joby Harold, attempts to distil several elements from various versions of the myth, but they wind up convoluting things in the process. Narrative gymnastics make the Sword in the Stone the same sword as Excalibur, when in earlier tellings, they were separate swords. As expected from Ritchie, there is a combination of flash and grit. James Herbert’s editing often makes this difficult to follow. Not only is it jittery and arrhythmic, but there are multiple sequences that cut between Arthur and co. discussing a plan, then enacting said plan – or maybe it’s a hypothetical scenario of how the plan will unfold. It’s supposed to make things interesting, but renders them confusing instead.

Hunnam is a fine leading man, and got into spectacular shape for the film, packing on the muscle. Hunnam wanted the role so much that he declared to Ritchie that he would physically fight Henry Cavill and Jai Courtney, who were also being considered, for the part. For all Hunnam’s effort, Arthur is borderline boring. It’s a standard hero’s journey, rejecting the quest, accepting the quest story. He’s Oliver Twist 13-14 centuries early (there’s a pickpocketing montage) who grows up to shoulder the burden of destiny. Despite Ritchie’s stylistic trappings, Arthur emerges as a standard, serviceable hero – nothing more than that.

Before Law dons Dumbledore’s robes, he plays a far less benevolent wizard. Vortigern is characterised as a mafioso, usurping power and stabbing those close to him in the back – often literally. He slouches in his throne, disrespectful of the seat of power. There’s little nuance to the part, and while Vortigern is appropriately treacherous, he’s never truly scary.

Arthur’s associates in this film are proto-Knights of the Roundtable – Bedivere served King Uther, while Wetstick grew up on the streets of Londinium alongside Arthur. There’s an attempt to make this an eclectic bunch – we don’t know of another Arthurian movie featuring a Chinese martial artist named George (Tom Wu), who trains young Arthur in combat. While there’s the veneer of personality, the supporting characters are insufficiently defined. Gillen is fun to watch, owing more to his own flair as a performer than to the writing.

Bergès-Frisbey’s character is apparently Guinevere, though she’s only called ‘the Mage’ in the film. As the female lead, one would expect Bergès-Frisbey to get more to do, beyond issuing ominous warnings and standing offscreen as digital critters do her bidding. Speaking of the digital critters, the menagerie of elephants, snakes, eagles, wolves, bats and other beasts aren’t nearly as awesome (or as believable) as the Rabbit of Caerbannog from a certain other Arthurian movie.

Bana is in precious little of the film, and his appearance made us wonder what a King Arthur movie starring him would be like (probably better). Thankfully, the David Beckham cameo isn’t nearly as goofy as we feared.

While the Welsh and Scottish shooting locations are breath-taking, Legend of the Sword feels like a spectacle movie that is markedly unspectacular. For better and worse, but mostly worse, it is unmistakably a Guy Ritchie film. Ritchie’s sensibilities fail to coalesce with the mystique and grandeur he wants this film to possess. Perhaps with the origin story out of the way, the sequel will be more entertaining – but hoping for six of these is just giddy optimism.

Summary: Legend of the Sword is a flashy but somewhat incoherent remix of Arthurian myth that is caught in limbo between street-level grit and full-on fantasy.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Lost City of Z

For F*** Magazine

THE LOST CITY OF Z 

Director : James Gray
Cast : Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfayden, Edward Ashley, Iain McDiarmid, Franco Nero
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2h 20min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Nudity and Violence)

The Lost City of Z might be executive produced by Brad Pitt through his Plan B production house, but it has nothing to do with zombies. Instead, this historical drama tells the story of Col. Percy Fawcett (Hunnam), a British soldier-turned explorer. In 1906, Fawcett sets out on his first expedition at the behest of the Royal Geographical Society. Leaving his wife Nina (Miller) and his young son Jack (Tom Mulheron, Bobby Smalldridge and Holland at different ages), Fawcett departs to map an area of uncharted jungle on the border between Bolivia and Brazil. His expedition includes Cpl. Henry Costin (Pattinson) and biologist James Murray (Macfayden). Over the course of several expeditions and through befriending indigenous populations, Fawcett learns of a fabled lost city, said to be the remains of El Dorado. Fawcett dubs the city ‘Z’, and develops a single-minded preoccupation with finding this place, enduring the mockery of his peers.

The film is based The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, a 2009 non-fiction book by journalist David Grann. Pitt and his Plan B partners optioned the film rights in 2010, and was attached to play Fawcett. Then, he was replaced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who later dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, with Hunnam stepping in.

The story of Percy Fawcett, with its elements of history, adventure and obsession, has all the makings of a spellbinding motion picture. James Gray, who directs in addition to adapting the book for the screen, steadfastly crafts an old-fashioned film. Taking inspiration from directors like David Lean, Gray allows the grandeur to unfold. Gray presents us with detailed re-creations of Edwardian streets and costumes, location shooting in Santa Marta, Colombia, and even a sequence depicting the Battle of the Somme during the First World War. Because of Gray’s desire to make The Lost City of Z a serious historical drama, the film is sometimes stuffy, coming across like it’s putting on airs. For all its production values, the movie sometimes feels like a particularly expensive re-enactment from a National Geographic documentary.

For a film about an all-consuming obsession, The Lost City of Z doesn’t burrow very deep beneath the viewer’s skin. Gray is intent on faithfully depicting historical events, but we don’t get to spend enough time in Percy Fawcett’s headspace. While some have hailed Fawcett as a great explorer and a war hero, several historians have decried him as delusional and incompetent. It appears that Fawcett is a figure who remains controversial among the cognoscenti today, and taking this into account, The Lost City of Z is a rather staid affair. It is largely reverential of Fawcett, even though he’s portrayed with some flaws. The film’s standout scene depicts Fawcett consulting with a psychic, and things get a tiny bit trippy. Gray stated that he was aiming for a “slightly more hallucinogenic feel” than the David Lean-directed works he referenced, and perhaps The Lost City of Z could have benefitted from a few more injections of style.

All the actors are locked in to the type of film Gray is trying to make, and deliver performances befitting a stately period drama adventure. Hunnam might not yet have Pitt’s star power, nor does he have Cumberbatch’s peculiar charm, but he’s believable as a strapping heroic type, slashing through the jungle growth with a machete. It would’ve been interesting to see Hunnam tackle Percy’s burgeoning obsession in a slightly showier, albeit not cartoonishly exaggerated, manner.

As Fawcett’s right-hand man, Pattinson is hard at work distancing himself from his sparkly vampire days, sporting glasses and a bushy beard. While it’s a fine turn, it could have done with a dash more wit. Miller’s performance is similarly respectable, but as is often an exigency of the genre, Nina is little more than ‘the wife back home’. Towards the latter half of the film, the drama hinges on Fawcett’s relationship with his eldest son Jack. Jack resents his father for neglecting the family, but eventually yearns to follow in his footsteps as an explorer. While there isn’t a lot of room for the character to develop fully, Holland does his best with the material at hand.

The Lost City of Z’s 140-minute runtime will try the patience of viewers who aren’t particularly longing for the “good old days” of classic cinema. For a film that’s promoted as an epic adventure, it doesn’t exactly quicken the pulse. However, there’s a sincerity that permeates Gray’s approach, and with the assistance of veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji, he captures the look and feel of an old-timey period piece.

Summary: The Lost City of Z is lush, majestic and finely acted, but it lacks a rousing, viscerally exciting sense of propulsive adventure.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Guardians

For F*** Magazine

GUARDIANS 

Director : Sarik Andreasyan
Cast : Sebastian Sisak, Anton Pampushnyy, Sanzhar Madiyev, Alina Lanina, Valeriya Shkirando, Stanislav Shirin
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 30min
Opens : 9 March 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Ah, Russia. The rest of the world can’t quite decide whether to fear them or laugh at them, just as it was in the 80s when Soviet villains in Hollywood flicks were alternately sinister and goofy. Americans don’t have a monopoly on the superhero film genre, as Bollywood blockbusters like Ra.One and Hong Kong’s Black Mask have proven. With Guardians, Russian filmmakers attempt to set up a superhero franchise that can go toe-to-toe with the big boys from the decadent west. Suffice it to say that Captain America can rest easy.

As a result of military genetic engineering experiments during the Cold War, a Soviet government agency named ‘Patriot’ has created superhuman warriors. These include Ler (Sisak), whose geokinesis and terrakinesis gives him power over earth and rocks; Arsus (Pampushnyy), a were-bear; Khan (Madiyey), an enigmatic teleporting swordsman; and Ksenia (Lanina), who can turn invisible and transform her body into water. Over two decades later, these superheroes are called out of retirement to defend the world from August Kuratov (Shirin), a mad scientist who worked for Patriot and was turned into an unstoppable monster after a terrible accident. Kuratov possesses the Modul-1, a device which grants him control of any electronic equipment, allowing him to turn the military’s resources against them. With Maj. Elena Larina (Shkirando) at the helm, the Guardians must rediscover what it means to be heroes, as not just Russia but the whole world is threatened by Kuratov’s dastardly scheme.

Guardians is directed by Sarik Andreasyan and written by Andrei Gavrilov, the same team behind Mafia: The Game of Survival. Gavrilov is a concert pianist, and it’s evident that he should stick to his day job. Andreasyan doesn’t appear to have a job other than directing, which is a pity. Guardians never becomes more than an inferior knockoff of an American product, and is inept on the most basic of levels. It must be one of the few Russian movies to get anything resembling a wide release here in Singapore, just because “people like superheroes, right?”

Even with the benefit of the doubt that the dialogue is terrible only because the subtitles are poorly translated, there’s just so much straight exposition that we’re bombarded with. Characters reel off their backstories in the most perfunctory way and our heroes are solely defined by their abilities. We come to appreciate elements we take for granted in most Hollywood movies, like functioning sound mixing. In Guardians, the soundtrack is way too loud in the mix. Transitions from scene to scene are often jarring. And for some reason, we get the same title card twice. This movie is broken and we can’t trade it in for a new one.

Where the action sequences are concerned, at least Andreasyan is aiming for some level of ambition. He’s obviously gunning for a degree of spectacle possessed by films of a much larger budget, and it’s a slightest bit admirable that the effort is evident. The computer-generated visual effects are of a higher standard than those in contemporaneous Chinese films, but that doesn’t make them convincing. The helicopters, spider-like drones and crumbling buildings all look passable, but Arsus himself is hilarious. We had to resist humming The Bare Necessities when he takes on his final form, realising that would be a grave insult to the infinitely superior visual effects work in the recent remake of The Jungle Book. That’s to say nothing of how there is a Marvel character named Ursa Major, who is a Soviet superhero and a were-bear.

The performances are uniformly stiff, and everyone looks a mite too pretty – surely the feral bear-man should appear mangy and unkempt, instead of resembling Chris Pratt with a larger build. We’d call Kuratov one-dimensional but that would be an affront to straight lines everywhere. He made us almost promise to never disparage a Marvel Cinematic Universe villain ever again – almost. The characters in Guardians feel like they’ve been devised by struggling writers and artists desperate to break into the industry via an indie comic they’ve cobbled together with funds raised on Kickstarter, except those generally have much better characterisation than what’s on show here.

Guardians might be ‘so bad it’s good’, but that doesn’t make it any good. It might become a cult favourite, with hipsters ironically proclaiming how much better it is than your average Hollywood product because it’s “so sincere”. And brace yourselves for the sequel, co-financed by China and featuring Chinese superheroes, because of course it will. Even if we didn’t watch this within a week of Logan, Guardians would still be a laughable train wreck.

Summary: A chintzy knockoff inept in nearly every way, Guardians demonstrates that just because good superhero movies are a relatively common occurrence now, that doesn’t mean making one is easy.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Kong: Skull Island

For F*** Magazine

KONG: SKULL ISLAND 

Director : Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast : Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell, Corey Hawkins, Jing Tian, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Wigham, Terry Notary
Genre : Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1h 58min
Opens : 9 March 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

12 years after Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the classic movie monster lumbers back onto the big screen. It is 1973, and Bill Randa (Goodman), a senior official of the secret government organisation Monarch, is in search of monsters. He plans an expedition to an uncharted land mass nicknamed as ‘Skull Island’. Randa hires James Conrad (Hiddleston), a former SAS Captain who served in the Vietnam War, as a hunter-tracker. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Jackson) is a helicopter squadron leader, and is brought on to escort the expedition. The team also comprises war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), geologist Houston Brooks (Hawkins), biologist San Lin (Jing), Landsat official Victor Nieves (Ortiz) and Maj. Jack Chapman (Kebbell), Packard’s right-hand man. When explosives are detonated as part of the survey, an enormous ape called Kong (Notary/Kebbell) is provoked. The survivors of Kong’s initial attack come across Hank Marlow (Reilly), a pilot who has been stranded on Skull Island since World War II. The expedition soon learns that Kong is far from the only beast to call the island home, embarking on a survival odyssey.

Kong: Skull Island exists in the ‘MonsterVerse’, a planned cinematic universe which includes 2014’s Godzilla. This is a B-movie with A-list stars and a big budget, mostly living up to the potential to be a thrilling adventure yarn and a throwback to the creature features of yore. This is the first large-scale tentpole blockbuster for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who directed Kings of Summer and Nick Offerman: American Ham. He acquits himself well, delivering top grade escapism. Taking place in the waning days of the Vietnam War, the film makes great use of its period setting, taking inspiration from works like Apocalypse Now. There’s a healthy amount of humour and while Kong: Skull Island doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s a nail-biter when it needs to be. This is the kind of film that would be enhanced by the audience reacting, with jump scares and unexpected deaths sure to elicit gasps and shrieks.

Kong: Skull Island is not a strikingly original work – fantasy artist Joe DeVito, who co-wrote and illustrated the book King Kong of Skull Island, sued Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures for allegedly stealing his ideas, having had a pitch meeting with the studios. While there are familiar elements to Kong: Skull Island, there’s still plenty of imagination at work. The native Iwi people have distinctive tattoos and markings, and the creature designs are effective and awe-inspiring. In designing the Skullcrawlers, Kong’s Reptilian nemeses, Vogt-Roberts drew on the pit lizard from the 1933 King Kong film, Sachiel from Evangelion, No-Face from Spirited Away and Cubone from Pokémon.

The titular creature is performed via motion capture by Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell from the Planet of the Apes reboot films, and great effort is taken to establish the sheer enormousness of this reimagined Kong, scaled larger so he can one day take on Godzilla. Larry Fong’s cinematography captures the blend of natural beauty and extraordinary danger contained within Skull Island, with location filming in northern Vietnam, Hawaii and Australia’s Gold Coast selling the island as an actual, tangible place.

For all his charms, Hiddleston doesn’t exactly fit the archetype of a rugged, square-jawed action hero. Looking for all the world like he’s cosplaying Nathan Drake from the Uncharted video games, he does seem a little out of his element but is trying his best to sell it. The character’s name, “Conrad”, is a reference to Joseph Conrad, the novelist best known for Heart of Darkness. By the time he dons a gas mask to slash at flying Pterodactylus creatures with a katana amidst a swirl of noxious fumes, we were sold.

Jackson is playing the badass as usual, but there are layers to the Preston Packard character that make him stand out from the typical Samuel L. Jackson role. He’s disillusioned as the Vietnam War ends, and hunting down Kong to avenge his men gives him new purpose. It’s the ‘great white hunter’ archetype, and Jackson has compared his character to Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick.

Goodman is an ever-dependable presence, with Reilly providing comic relief and surprising pathos as a castaway who has spent nearly three decades stuck on Skull Island. Larson’s anti-war photographer helps to mitigate all that testosterone to a degree. While Kong doesn’t get a doomed romance like in almost every earlier incarnation, it’s referenced by having him share a moment or two with Mason.

Most of the supporting characters exist purely to be picked off one by one by the island’s denizens. Jing Tian sticks out, her casting an obvious bid to pander to Mainland Chinese audiences – which is something we’re only going to be seeing more of. After all, Legendary Pictures is now owned by China’s Dalian Wanda group.

Kong: Skull Island kicks off with an intriguing prologue, hits a bit of a lull when all the characters are being established and the mission is being set up, then hits its stride once the expedition arrives on the island. With beautiful scenery, solid visual effects spectacle and thrilling set-pieces in which various characters meet their untimely and inventive ends, Kong: Skull Island makes us wish big-budget monster movies were a little more common. Stick around for a post-credit scene which teases the future of the MonsterVerse.

Summary: Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie that doesn’t skimp on the monsters, a rousing adventure bolstered by its period setting and stellar cast.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Assassin’s Creed

For F*** Magazine

ASSASSIN’S CREED 

Director : Justin Kurzel
Cast : Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Ariane Labed, Denis Ménochet, Michael K. Williams, Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1h 56min
Opens : 22 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Violence and Brief Coarse Language)

assassins-creed-posterNobody expects the Spanish Inquisition – least of all Callum Lynch (Fassbender), a death row inmate who is spirited away to the late 15th Century. It’s not time travel per se, but regression via ‘genetic memories’. Callum is the descendant of Aguilar de Nerha, a warrior who belonged to the secret society known as the Assassins. The Assassins have long been at war with the Templars. Alan Rikkin (Irons), the CEO of Abstergo Industries, is a Templar. Callum lives out the experiences of Aguilar using a machine called the Animus, developed by Alan and his daughter Sophia (Cotillard). Alan endeavours to discover the whereabouts of an artefact known as the Apple of Eden, which is said to contain the origins of free will. Callum must come to grips with his destiny as he finds himself caught in the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars, a conflict that is about to reach its tipping point.

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It’s no secret that films based on video games have long had a bad rap, and many had hoped that Assassin’s Creed would mark a watershed moment, proving that good movies based on video games could actually exist. After all, promising director Justin Kurzel was picked to direct, with Michael Fassbender starring and co-producing. Alas, a video game movie that can be universally considered ‘good’ remains elusive. Assassin’s Creed has the task of appealing to fans of the game franchise, while remaining easy enough for neophytes to get into. The decision to create an original story that would not be a direct adaptation of any of the games in the series seemed like a wise one. While this should have freed Kurzel and the film’s creative team from the burden of condensing a sprawling plot into one film, the end result is infuriatingly muddled.

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The suspension of one’s disbelief is key to buying into the premise of Assassin’s Creed. A sinister corporation seeking out the descendants of a sect of assassins and tapping into their genetic memories for their own ends sounds silly on paper, but could be worked into something compelling. The screenplay is credited to Michael Lesslie, who adapted Shakespeare’s Macbeth for Kurzel; and the team of Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, who wrote The Transporter: Refueled and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Assassin’s Creed is an inchoate work, a mish-mash of history, sci-fi and philosophy that refuses to gel into a workable whole.

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The Apple of Eden is as ludicrous a MacGuffin as they come. In the games, the mystical orbs are the creations of the godlike Isu, and have granted incredible power to figures from Moses to George Washington. In the film, the Apple contains, uh the cure to violence? Or something. It’s one of many ways in which Assassin’s Creed is stubbornly hokey.

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The scenes set during the Spanish Inquisition are the best bits of the film. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw treats us to sweeping establishing shots, the environments are rich with period detail and the action choreography is slick. It is difficult to get into the ‘flashbacks’ because we’re constantly jerked back to the present day and reminded that it’s all a simulation (even though ‘simulation’ is not an entirely accurate description). The big parkour chase set piece is executed well, making us wish there was more of that and less wading through an exposition swamp. The Spanish Inquisition has been codified as an example of oppression through religion. As expected, it’s not depicted with much nuance; the Catholics portrayed here as moustache-twirling villains. The violence is as brutal as a PG-13 rating will allow, and it’s clear that a movie about assassins shouldn’t have to pull this many punches.

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Fassbender has leading man charisma to spare and is a believable action hero, which is why it’s so frustrating that Callum Lynch is kind of a nothing protagonist. He has a tragic past, has been dealt a bad hand in life and becomes a pawn in a far-reaching conspiracy. Those are fine ingredients for a hero, but something’s missing here. Perhaps it’s in how the film gets bogged down in the mechanics of the plot, instead of letting the characters carry the story forward.

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Cotillard delivers her poorly-written dialogue with admirable conviction, while Irons stands around and looks solemn. Aguilar’s fellow Assassin Maria (Labed) could’ve been the character to steal the show, but she’s just required to look cool. It’s difficult to get invested in the relationship between Aguilar and Maria, or in the relationships between any of the characters, for that matter. Moussa (Williams) a descendant of the Haitian Assassin Baptiste, emerges as the character with the most personality.

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Kurzel’s brother Jed composed the film’s score, as he’s done for most of the director’s films. It’s tinged with world music flair, and like the rest of the atmospherics, is fine. While there’s something of a silver lining to be found in a filmmaker treating a video game-based film as seriously as Kurzel has here, Assassin’s Creed is po-faced to a detrimental extent. Dull and convoluted rather than spirited and entertaining, this is a let-down for anyone who was hoping it would herald the success for video game movies that comic book movies have been enjoying lately.

SUMMARY: Assassins are deft and swift; this movie is clumsy and plodding. The sequences set in the thick of the Spanish Inquisition are the closest Assassin’s Creed gets to actually being entertaining.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Warrior’s Gate (勇士之门)

For F*** Magazine

THE WARRIOR’S GATE (勇士之门)

Director : Matthias Hoene
Cast : Uriah Shelton, Mark Chao, Ni Ni, Dave Bautista, Henry Mah, Francis Ng, Sienna Guillory, Kara Wai
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 8 December 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

the-warriors-gate-posterAn ancient Chinese kingdom is under threat, and only one person can save the land: an American teen gamer from the year 2015. Jack Bronson (Shelton) spends most of his time engrossed in an online game, taking on the persona of a fearsome warrior called the Black Knight. His single mother Annie (Guillory) is struggling to make ends meet, and their house will soon be foreclosed on. Jack works part-time for antiques dealer Mr. Chang (Mah), who entrusts Jack with a priceless chest. One night, the warrior Zhao (Chao) and Princess Sulin (Ni) emerge from the chest through a portal called ‘the Warrior’s Gate’ into Jack’s bedroom. Zhao gives Jack the mission of protecting the princess. When Sulin is abducted by barbarians, Jack leaps into the chest after her, and is transported to ancient China. Standing alongside Zhao and with the help of the wizard Wu (Ng), Jack must rescue Sulin from the clutches of the ruthless Barbarian king Arun the Cruel (Bautista).

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The Warrior’s Gate is a co-production between France’s EuropaCorp and China’s Fundamental Films. EuropaCorp’s head honcho Luc Besson produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay with long-time collaborator Robert Mark Kamen. The Warrior’s Gate comes off as an extremely tired enterprise. It’s a bog-standard coming-of-age hero’s journey story, combined with fish out of water hijinks. It also feels horribly dated, as if the filmmakers are scrambling about wondering “this is what kids these days like, isn’t it?” The production notes refer to The Warrior’s Gate as “an action-packed adventure film with martial arts derring-do, seen through the eyes of a Gen Z video gamer and set to a hip-hop breakdance beat.” Excuse us while we roll our eyes. There’s a BMX bike chase scene straight out of the 90s and our hero has a rotund, bespectacled best friend who says “bro” a lot.

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Thankfully, The Warrior’s Gate doesn’t take itself too seriously at all, and several jokes land. It does, however, play the Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) trope painfully straight. A meek teenager who is habitually bullied is suddenly thrust into the middle of a grand adventure where he must beat the bad guys and save the girl despite lacking skills and being unfamiliar with the world. The similarities between The Warrior’s Gate and 2009’s The Forbidden Kingdom are inescapable. In that film, it was a martial arts movie geek rather than a gamer who was pulled through a portal into ancient China, but most of the story beats are the same. The Forbidden Kingdom boasted Jackie Chan and Jet Li going toe-to-toe on the big screen for the first time, in fights that were choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping. The Warrior’s Gate has nothing close to that.

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Shelton, whom teen audiences might recognise from the Disney Channel sitcom Girl Meets World, play the designated white saviour. Somehow, an entire contingent of royal guards who have been trained since birth aren’t good enough to defend the kingdom: we need a modern-day millennial for that. Jack is meant to be a shut-in who gets lost in his video games, but his BMX skills are on par with a professional stunt rider and when we see Jack with his shirt off, dude’s got abs. It’s the kind of role Shia LaBeouf would’ve gotten 15 years ago, and Shelton is frequently just about as annoying.

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Taiwanese-Canadian actor Chao, who starred in the TV series Black and White and its big-screen spin-off, does the stoic action hero thing well enough. You know the drill: Zhao thinks little of Jack, but the two eventually bond and learn from each other. Zhao teaches Jack martial arts and discipline; Jack teaches Zhao to loosen up a little. Ni Ni’s Sulin is the spoiled, feisty princess who spends the bulk of the film in captivity. Mah’s Mr. Chang is yet another ersatz Mr. Miyagi – the presence of that hoary archetype is to be expected, given that Kamen wrote the Karate Kid screenplay. As Mr. Chang’s magical ancient Chinese counterpart, Ng is the playful sorcerer with a twinkle in his eye. He sounds like James Hong as Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda films to a distracting degree.

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Bautista is a bright spot here. He’s having great fun playing the villainous Arun, who appears to be a riff on Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones. He even gets a dim-witted henchman named Brutus. Thanks to his sheer physical presence and comic timing, Bautista comes off as both funny and imposing. Fans of Hong Kong cinema will enjoy the cameo from Kara Wai, who makes a brief appearance as a mountain witch.

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While the sub-par visual effects work is most evident during a fight against a trio of tree monsters, the production values benefit from location filming in China. It’s obvious that Besson is attempting to jump on the Chinese film industry bandwagon, because that’s where all the money is now. The Warrior’s Gate is formulaic and limp, a clear demonstrate of how out-of-touch its filmmakers are.

Summary: American teenager is transported to ancient China, saves the day, story goes just how you’d expect. Keep this gate closed.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

For F*** Magazine

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM 

Director : David Yates
Cast : Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 13min
Opens : 17 November 2016
Rating : PG (Some Disturbing Scenes)

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-posterHow exciting can a film based on a textbook be? If the textbook’s about all manner of magical creatures, pretty exciting. It is 1926 and magizoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne), future author of the textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, arrives in New York. When several animals escape from his briefcase, Newt runs afoul of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), headed by President Seraphina Picquery (Ejogo). MACUSA’s director of security Percival Graves (Farrell) is tasked with capturing Newt. Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Waterston), a former MACUSA agent, aids Newt in tracking the creatures down. Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), a non-magic user or No-Maj, is inadvertently drawn into the fray, and falls for Tina’s telepathic sister Queenie (Sudol).

In the meantime, anti-wizard sentiment in the U.S. is mounting, with the New Salem Preservation Society (NSPS) gaining ground. The hate group is led by Mary Lou Barebone (Morton), whose adopted son Credence (Miller) bears the brunt of her abuse. Mary Lou petitions newspaper magnate Henry Shaw Sr. (Voight) for his support of the NSPS. Henry’s son Henry Shaw Jr. (Josh Cowdery), a U.S. senator, is attacked at a rally by an Obscurus, a sinister parasitic entity. As the wizarding is under threat from all sides, Newt and his newfound allies must restore order to a city flung into mayhem.

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This spin-off of the Harry Potter franchise is intended to expand the film series into a cinematic universe known as the Wizarding World. While we’ve all grown wary of cash-grab franchise extensions, there’s no rule that says they must be devoid of artistic merit. Director David Yates and screenwriter J.K. Rowling are no strangers to the Potterverse – he directed the last four instalments in the series and, well, she created the whole thing. It is a savvy move to make Fantastic Beasts a period piece, giving it a markedly different setting from the Potter films with which we’re familiar. Instead of being a direct prequel, it’s mostly removed from the narrative of the boy wizard and his family history, meaning this serves as an ideal jumping-on point for neophytes and younger viewers who didn’t grow up with the Potter books or films.

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The world-building on display in Fantastic Beasts is meticulous, benefitting from Rowling’s detail-oriented tendencies. Newt experiences some culture shock, and there are little touches which demonstrate how the Brits and Americans do things different. For example, non-magic users are called ‘Muggles’ in the U.K., but are referred to as “No-Majs” across the pond. The 20s New York setting, just before the onset of the Great Depression, is well-realised and immersive. There’s a scene set in a wizard speakeasy and an action set-piece set in the Central Park zoo. We watched the film in IMAX 3D, and the stereoscopic effects are satisfyingly plentiful. James Newton Howard’s score envelops the viewer, and there’s some playful jazz weaved in.

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The titular beasts are plenty of fun, and spectacle isn’t in short supply here. The Niffler, part-badger, part-pangolin and all kleptomaniac, is an adorable mischief-maker. The rhinoceros-esque Erumpent sets the stage for an inspired moment of physical comedy, and Newt has his own Baby Groot in the form of a shy plant-like creature called the Bowtruckle. Newt’s struggles in wrangling the creatures are entertaining, and many of his interactions with the animals are endearing. The visual effects, supervised by Tim Burke and Christian Manz, are extensive and generally impressive. However, this reviewer would like to have seen more practical animatronic creatures mixed in with the computer-generated ones. While Yates does a fine job, we couldn’t help imagining what a director like Guillermo del Toro would’ve created.

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Rowling alludes to the classic film Citizen Kane with Voight’s newspaper owner character and his senator son. Unfortunately, this subplot is under-developed and doesn’t sit cohesively enough with the main plot of Newt’s adventures. The NSPS, with its cult-like nature and cruel matron, is clearly Rowling’s reaction to the religious groups who called for boycotts of the Potter books and films because of their supposedly Satanic content. Newt mentions how he finds the MACUSA’s laws against marrying or even befriending No-Majs to be retrograde. While we appreciate the social commentary and the attempts to give this whimsical fantasy some real-world grounding, it’s not particularly subtle.

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Redmayne is a wonderful fit for this franchise. He seems most at home in period films, and it’s easy to buy him as a tweedy, earnest academic. Redmayne also proves adept at acting against things that aren’t there. As a markedly different type of female lead than Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger, Waterston turns in an appealing, low-key performance. Sudol gets to ham it up a little as the coquettish flapper. Fogler has been a low-rent Jack Black or Seth Rogen for much of his career, but this reviewer enjoyed him as the comic relief sidekick/audience-identification character.

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While the Harry Potter franchise boasts an abundance of colourful supporting characters, those in Fantastic Beasts don’t quite measure up. Farrell’s Graves is the Inspector Javert-type, not unlike his character in Minority Report. There’s a bit of a spin put on things, but perhaps it should’ve been played with more panache. Miller’s Credence is meant to be at once sympathetic and creepy, which he does fine. Ejogo’s Picquery is the equivalent of a police chief on a procedural show, and Voight is woefully underused.

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Fantastic Beasts has enough to offer fans who span the spectrum from “this is kinda interesting” to “legally changed my name to ‘Severus Snape’”. While its story isn’t spectacularly riveting and its social commentary is on the nose, it features likeable lead characters and entertaining spectacle. At 133 minutes though, it is about 15 minutes too long and lapses into multiple endings. It has been announced that there will be five films in the series, but thankfully, this Fantastic Beasts doesn’t do an obnoxious amount of sequel-baiting. Keep an eye out for a certain A-lister as a certain key player in Potter lore.

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Summary: This new chapter in the Wizarding World caters to devotees and newcomers alike, even if the setting is more interesting than the story itself.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Pete’s Dragon

For F*** Magazine

PETE’S DRAGON 

Director : David Lowery
Cast : Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isaiah Whitlock Jr., Oona Laurence, John Kassir
Genre : Adventure
Run Time : 1 hr 43 mins
Opens : 1 September 2016
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)

Pete's Dragon posterCall it “Re-Pete’s Dragon”: Disney has remade one of the lesser-known films in their canon, changing the setting from a seaside Maine town in the 1900s to the forests of the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. Pete (Fegley), has spent six of his 11 years alive living in the forest after being stranded there following an accident. He has since befriended a green, furry dragon named Elliott (Kassir), who has the ability to turn invisible. Elderly wood-carver Meacham (Redford) claims to have encountered a dragon in the woods in his youth, but everyone writes it off as a tall tale. Meacham’s daughter Grace (Howard), a forest ranger, takes Pete in after Natalie (Laurence), the daughter of Grace’s boyfriend Jack (Bentley), spots Pete in the forest. In the meantime, Jack’s brother Gavin (Urban) becomes obsessed with capturing Elliott, thinking it will bring him fame. Pete must learn to live as a regular boy, but yearns to be reunited with his friend Elliott.

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Pete’s Dragon is quite the wonder in that in contains nary a shred of cynicism. Director David Lowery strives to recapture the charm of old-school ‘A Boy and his X’ tales, and largely succeeds. Little of the original 1977 musical film remains: there’s a boy named Pete and a dragon named Elliott who can turn invisible, and the characters of Nora and her father Lampie are reworked into Grace and Meacham. Pete’s Dragon is what a remake should be: key components of the source are repurposed to fit a new vision and it isn’t a beat-for-beat re-tread of what came before. It’s warm-hearted but does take a while to get into gear, with a few moments bordering on cheesy. Pete’s Dragon stands on the shoulders of kids’ adventure films like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and The Iron Giant, its old-fashioned sensibilities contrasted with the advanced visual effects technology used to bring Elliott to life.

Pete's Dragon Oona Laurence, Elliott and Oakes Fegley

Elliott is a supremely loveable creation, with some design cues taken from The Never-Ending Story’s Falkor the Luck Dragon. Lowery justified giving Elliott a furry coat by saying he wanted Elliott to be “the kind of dragon you really want to give a hug to”, and this reviewer did indeed very much want to hug Elliott. The visual effects work, supervised by Tony Baldridge and Eric Saindon, makes Elliott feel like a living, breathing creature. The moments in which Elliott interacts with his environment, knocking over trees, splashing about in the river or sliding into the grass after a rough landing, are uniformly convincing. Elliott possesses multiple doglike attributes, with his vaguely Chewbacca-like vocalisations provided by voice actor John Kassir. Every whimper and growl makes Elliott seem more like an actual animal, and the in-universe explanation of the dragon being regarded as a folk legend cryptid gives this flight of fancy some grounding.

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The live-action actors expectedly play second fiddle to Elliott, but they all take this quite seriously. Fegley’s Pete is the second feral boy in a live-action Disney movie this year, after Neel Sethi’s Mowgli in The Jungle Book. Fegley brings a wildness and physicality to Pete, whose years in the forest have made him adept at climbing pretty much anything. His interactions with Elliott are the very stuff that warm fuzzy feelings are made of.

Pete's Dragon Oona Laurence, Bryce Dallas Howard and Wes Bentley

Between this and Jurassic World, it seems giant CGI creatures just won’t leave Howard alone. She doesn’t get much to do, but her performance does feel straight out of an 80s Amblin movie. Redford’s gravitas, warmth and that perpetual twinkle in his eye give the film plenty of heart. Meacham is an old-timer who never lost that sense of imagination. Laurence was one of the child actresses who originated the role of Matilda in the eponymous musical on Broadway, and glimmers of the precociousness integral to Matilda are present here. She gets to boss Redford around a little, and it’s a lot of fun to watch the living legend getting barked at by a kid. Bentley is passable if not terribly interesting as a blue-collar dad, while Urban sinks his teeth into the antagonist role even though it’s a little thinly written. He sneers the line “the dragon is mine!” with admirable conviction.

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While it bears more than a few similarities to that recent Boy and His X favourite How to Train Your Dragon, Pete’s Dragon is charming is different ways too, thanks to its wholesome Americana vibe. Live-action kids’ adventure movies are a bit of a dying breed, but Disney’s recent live-action successes might mean a resurgence for the subgenre. As an avid indoorsman, this reviewer enjoys experiencing the wonders of nature from the comfort of a cinema hall. New Zealand doubles for the Pacific Northwest, and the actual scenery is as pleasing as the computer-generated visuals. Daniel Hart provides a rousing score, and ‘hip-hop violinist’ Lindsey Stirling makes her feature film debut performing Something Wild with Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. It all makes for a simple, wistfully-told story that harks back to simpler times and yet doesn’t drown in schmaltz.

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Summary: Despite starting out slow, Pete’s Dragon becomes an absorbing adventure boasting marvellous visual effects work. Toothless has got heady competition in the ‘cutest dragon’ stakes.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong