Shazam! review

SHAZAM!

Director: David F. Sandberg
Cast : Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Mark Strong, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Jovan Armand, Ian Chen
Genre : Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 h 12 mins
Opens : 4 April 2019
Rating : PG

Created in 1939 by Artist C. C. Beck and writer Bill Parker, Captain Marvel, later known as Shazam, was the first superhero to make it to the big screen with 1941’s Republic Serial named Adventures of Captain Marvel. The character returns to cinemas 78 years later in Shazam!

            Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a 14-year-old orphan whom the ancient wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) endows with his powers. Billy now can transform into an adult superhero (Zachary Levi) when he shouts the magic word “Shazam!”. Billy’s foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) is a superhero aficionado who helps Billy gain mastery over his powers and develop his superhero identity.

In the meantime, physicist Dr Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) hunts down Shazam, wielding the power of the Seven Deadly Sins. Sivana believes he was the wizard’s rightful champion. Billy must adjust to both his existence as Shazam and life in the group home alongside Freddy and his other foster siblings, Mary (Grace Fulton), Eugene (Ian Chen), Pedro (Jovan Armand) and Darla (Faithe Herman).

Let’s get the naming thing out of the way: Captain Marvel was originally published by Fawcett Comics and was a top-selling superhero comic, even outselling Superman. DC Comics sued Fawcett for copyright infringement, alleging the character was a copy of Superman. Fawcett stopped publishing Captain Marvel comics in 1953, then in 1972, DC licensed Captain Marvel and related characters from Fawcett, fully integrating the characters into the DC universe by 1991. The named “Captain Marvel” had been copyrighted by Marvel Comics, who introduced their version of Captain Marvel in 1967. When DC relaunched with the New 52 in 2011, the character was renamed Shazam. Long story short, the rivalry between the Captain Marvel movie and the Shazam! movie is completely pointless and doesn’t need to exist.

A Shazam! movie has been in development since the early 2000s, with the production of other DC Comics movies throwing various spanners in the works. In this final form, directed by David F. Sandberg from a screenplay by Henry Gayden, Shazam! is a movie that remembers superheroes were originally created for children. This doesn’t mean that the film is an overly cuddly, toothless affair, and there still are scenes that might frighten younger viewers, but Shazam! takes the concept that its titular hero is a kid in an adult superhero’s body and runs with it.

It’s no secret that the DC Extended Universe had stumbled multiple times, and Shazam! marks the franchise’s firmest rejection of the tone it exhibited in its earlier entries. This reviewer still enjoys Man of Steel, Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad to varying degrees despite the overall criticism those films received, but it became clear that what general audiences perceived as an enforced grimness had become an albatross around the franchise’s neck. Justice League adopted the Avengers formula but came off as hastily reassembled and half-baked. Shazam! is light-hearted, affably goofy and zany without coming off as manic. It’s not exactly a superhero epic and is often more amiable than awe-inspiring, but the approach works well for the character.

Shazam is a character who’s been nicknamed “the Big Red Cheese”, and Zachary Levi embodies a kid’s sense of wonderment and being overwhelmed, having an enormous amount of fun in the role. Levi is a champion of geek culture, having created the Nerd Machine lifestyle brand and starred in the TV series Chuck. He also played Fandral in two Thor films, though it’s easy to forget that. As Shazam, Levi has eagerness to spare and lights up the screen whenever he’s on it.

Asher Angel and Jack Dylan Grazer share plenty of chemistry as bickering foster brothers. As Billy Batson, there’s a sadness that Angel carries around, a sadness Billy sheds when he transforms into Shazam. Grazer plays a fanboy, and in an age when fanboys can be annoying and often actively toxic, such that ‘fanboy’ is often a pejorative, it’s nice to see an endearing fanboy portrayed in a superhero movie.

Mark Strong’s Sinestro was one of the best parts of 2011’s Green Lantern movie, and he plays another DC villain here. He plays it completely straight – Sivana is ruthless and powerful and commands the terrifying and grotesque demons who personify the Seven Deadly Sins. The character is strictly one-dimensional even when given bits of back-story, but an archetypical superhero needs an archetypical supervillain and Strong is the best man for the job.

Shazam! is very much a movie about family, and there’s a warmth to the scenes of a foster family that carries on DC’s lineage of superheroes being adopted as children. This element of the story is taken straight from the New 52 Shazam! run. The movie’s feel-good moments might come off as a bit too pat, but there’s enough sincerity to paper over that. Grace Fulton and Faithe Herman are the standouts as the big sister of the bunch and the slightly hyper little sister respectively.

Shazam! is much more modest in scale than Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the two DCEU films generally considered good (the former more so than the latter), are. It is pretty much Big as a superhero movie – there’s even an homage to the classic floor piano scene. Shazam! fully embraces the outre elements of the comics, going all in on the magic and never straining to make things ‘grounded’ or ‘realistic’. It remains to be seen just how cohesive the DCEU will be or even needs to be going forward, but it’s good to know that while the darker stories have their place, there’s room for movies like Shazam! too.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Dumbo (2019) review

DUMBO

Director: Tim Burton
Cast : Colin Farrell, Michael Keaton, Danny DeVito, Eva Green, Alan Arkin, Nico Parker, Finley Hobbins, Roshan Seth, DeObia Oparei
Genre : Adventure/Family/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 52 mins
Opens : 28 March 2019
Rating : PG

           This year, we’ll be getting several live-action remakes of Disney animated features – or, to be pedantic, a photo-realistic CGI remake with The Lion King. The House of Mouse kicks off the 2019 slate of remakes with Dumbo.

It is 1919 and Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell) has returned from World War I, having lost his left arm in the battle. Holt and his late wife Annie were trick riders in the circus. Holt returns to the circus, run by Max Medici (Danny DeVito), to find they have run into hard times. An elephant acquired by Medici gives birth to a baby elephant with abnormally large ears. The baby, named Jumbo Jr. and nicknamed Dumbo, is forcefully separated from his mother. Holt’s young children Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) discover Dumbo can fly.

The story of the amazing flying elephant attracts the attention of entrepreneur V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who buys out Medici’s circus. The circus performers, including Dumbo, relocate to Vandevere’s sprawling theme park Dreamland. Vandevere has Dumbo perform alongside trapeze artist Colette Marchant (Eva Green). While Medici is initially swayed by Vandevere, he and the other circus performers eventually discover that Vandevere is exploiting them and is exploiting Dumbo in particular. Holt, Milly and Joe hatch a plan to free Dumbo and reunite him with his mother.

Disney’s live-action remakes have sometimes been criticised for being too literal – 2017’s Beauty and the Beast comes to mind. A remake should put enough of a spin on the original such that it doesn’t lose its spirit, but still feels transformative enough to be worthwhile. Dumbo largely achieves this with its story focusing on new human characters, while keeping the titular baby elephant as its emotional centre. Thankfully, elements from the original such as the racist crows are jettisoned, and this film’s message of inclusivity feels more genuine than that espoused by fellow circus movie The Greatest Showman.

Tim Burton’s sensibilities might not seem like the best fit for a family-friendly Disney film, and his attempts at family-aimed movies do tend to be inadvertently horrifying. However, Dumbo benefits from the distinct visual stylisation that Burton brings to it, and is also very much a story about outsiders, which is familiar territory for the director. Dumbo’s big ears, the thing for which he is mocked, are also the source of his special abilities. It’s not quite Edward Scissorhands, but one can see the connection there. There are times when it feels like this isn’t exactly a passion project for Burton and that he’s very much a hired gun, but then again, it’s easy to overdose on Burton-ness and for him to lapse into self-parody, which he stays a safe distance from here.

A lot rides on the shoulders of the titular pachyderm – if audiences believe the wholly computer-generated creation as a living, breathing character, then it’s easy to empathise with him and to feel sad when bad things befall him. The visual effects are supervised by Richard Stammers, and while Dumbo might look a bit unnatural in stills and posters, the result is successful. The human characters do a lot of interacting with Dumbo, which is mostly seamless. This is a movie in which the title character is only added into the film in post-production, and there isn’t an actor performing motion capture on set like with the Planet of the Apes reboot series or Alita: Battle Angel.

In addition to the synthetic main character, the human cast is a big part of what makes Dumbo work. There was a period in Colin Farrell’s career when Hollywood was pushing him as an action hero, and he’s much better as characters like Holt – quiet, tortured characters who are still noble, they’re just not spouting one-liners. Farrell brings a pensive sadness to Holt, who is handicapped after fighting in the war and is struggling to raise his two children after the death of his wife.

Michael Keaton is having heaps of fun as the slimy P.T. Barnum analogue. His villainous character is never truly terrifying and isn’t half as terrifying as Keaton’s portrayal of the Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming. There’s also the irony of a slick huckster who swallows up a smaller business being the villain in a Disney movie, given that Disney regularly swallows up slightly smaller businesses.

DeVito brings humour and heart to the role of Medici, someone who cares for his employees but who is struggling to make ends meet. The film hints that the circus performers have lives and personalities beyond their gimmick – Roshan Seth’s snake charmer character Pramesh Singh cares deeply for the elephants, while DeObia Oparei’s strong man character Rongo is also Medici’s accountant and general right-hand man.

Eva Green has become something of a muse of Burton’s, this being her third film with him. She brings elegance and mystique to the role of Colette, whom Vandevere keeps firmly under his thumb.

Nico Parker gives an assured performance as Milly, who has her heart set on becoming a scientist. She’s a girl ahead of her time, aspiring to something more than being a circus performer. Milly’s brother Joe is a bit less defined as a character, but Finley Hobbins is still quite endearing.

While Dumbo sometimes feels just a bit too conventional, it is a moving, often enchanting take on the classic animated film. The film benefits from just enough of Burton’s signature weirdness and darkness while still being something for the whole family.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Captain Marvel review

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Cast : Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Algenis Pérez Soto, Rune Temte, Akira Akbar
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 2 h 4 mins
Opens : 7 March 2019
Rating : PG13

            The Marvel Cinematic Universe is mostly set in the present day, but has taken detours to the past: Captain America: The First Avenger was set during World War II, Agent Carter was set just after World War II, flashbacks in the Ant-Man films were set in the 60s and the prologue of Guardians of the Galaxy was set in the 80s. Captain Marvel now takes us to the 90s to meet a hero who’ll be a key player in the MCU going forward.

Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is a former US Air Force fighter pilot who has been imbued with superpowers and is a part of Starforce, an elite Kree military unit. Serving under the leadership of Yonn-Rog (Jude Law), Carol, known by the Kree as “Vers”, fends off the threat of the shape-shifting Skrulls. When Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of the Skrulls, sets his sights on earth, Carol finds herself defending the planet she once called home, and confronts the former existence she has forgotten.

On earth, Carol meets Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), an agent of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.). Fury’s worldview is upended by the knowledge of an impending alien invasion. In attempting to trace her past, Carol reconnects with her Air Force colleague and best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), whose daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) was especially close to Carol. A series of events leads Carol to re-evaluate where her allegiances as she realises the full potential of her cosmic powers.

Captain Marvel is the last MCU film before Avengers: Endgame arrives in a month and a half. In the post-credits stinger of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, Nick Fury pages Captain Marvel just before he disintegrates, alongside half of all life on earth. This film builds hype for Endgame and adds to the speculation of what role Captain Marvel will play in the fight against Thanos but setting it in the 90s also gives it enough distance from the other MCU films, such that it can also be its own thing.

The directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who helmed Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind, is the latest example of how the MCU has shepherded filmmakers known for making smaller films, such that they acquit themselves well given the large canvas of the MCU. The Russo Brothers, James Gunn, Jon Watts and Taika Waititi achieved similar success with their MCU films.

             Captain Marvel is part space opera, part fish-out-of-water comedy, all hero’s journey. The MCU films can feel samey-samey and while this sticks to the formula in parts, there are still surprises to be had, and the film’s status as a prequel doesn’t mean that audiences are entirely ahead of the plot.

There’s a variety to the action sequences, with the space opera stuff contrasted with a car chase and a fight on an LA Metro Rail train. There are also mid-air chases and space dogfights. While the cosmic action in Captain Marvel isn’t quite as exciting or inventive as in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, it’s still executed with enough flair. The 90s nostalgia is not as pandering as some audiences might have feared, and manifests in some very sly ways. The Stan Lee cameo, one of the last ones the late Marvel Comics writer filmed, is particularly clever.

While the movie is a big piece of positive PR for the U.S. Air Force, it doesn’t come off as propagandistic. Captain Marvel handles the themes of militarism and war with admirable nuance: the Kree have been locked in a protracted conflict with the Skrulls, and it turns out things are not as black and white as they first appear. It’s not the most insightful message, but it fits the story that’s being told here.

The film is character-driven, and Carol is always at its centre. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, who served as a consultant on this film and makes a cameo appearance, said “Carol falls down all the time, but she always gets back up. We say that about Captain America as well, but Captain America gets back up because it’s the right thing to do. Carol gets back up because ‘F*** you.’” Brie Larson captures this defiance, but also lends the character a sense of humour and great vulnerability. Sure, Captain Marvel eventually ends up as one of the most powerful characters in the MCU, but this movie is about her journey to that point, and she falls and gets back up again plenty of times throughout said journey.

The film has been pre-emptively smeared as a screeching screed pushing a scary agenda. It’s much ado about nothing. The sexism that Carol faces in the film is common in the real world: she gets told she’s too emotional and that she needs to smile more. The character isn’t going around bashing men in the head because men are inherently evil. There’s a roundedness to the character and the film also emphasises her friendship with Lynch’s Monica.

Goose the cat, known as Chewie in the comics, is a scene-stealer who’s allocated just enough screen time such that its presence never feels gimmicky.

We meet Nick Fury when he’s less experienced and more naïve than how we know him. This reviewer thinks Samuel L. Jackson is always more interesting to watch when he isn’t playing into the myth of him being an untouchable badass. He gets to bring a good deal of humanity and heart to Fury.

The de-aging visual effects used on Jackson work seamlessly. They’re perhaps a little more noticeable on Clark Gregg as a younger Phil Coulson, but it is good to see that character back in an MCU movie regardless.

Ben Mendelsohn has great fun with the role of Talos, a character who seems at first like yet another generic MCU villain, but who winds up being a lot more than that. Mendelsohn brings a surprising depth to the character.

Jude Law is fine as the tough mentor character Yon-Rogg, but the movie seems aware that he’s not as compelling as some of the other characters. Gemma Chan gives Minn-Erva a dangerously sexy edge, making a bit part interesting. As the corporeal manifestation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, Annette Bening gets to play wise, funny and maybe even a bit menacing.

While Captain Marvel doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it has enough surprises up its sleeve and is built upon a solid, engaging character arc. Its combination of space opera and 90s action-comedy works. Larson says that Carol “doesn’t have anything to prove,” but Captain Marvel has proven that the titular character more than deserves a prime spot in the MCU pantheon. Stick around for two post-credits scene, one that sets up things to come, and another that’s purely comedic.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bumblebee review

BUMBLEBEE

Director : Travis Knight
Cast : Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Peter Cullen, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 20 December 2018
Rating : PG13

Bumblebee-poster          The last Transformers movie gave us King Arthur, Transformers fighting Nazis, a secret order entrusted with guarding the Transformers’ history on earth, and Sir Anthony Hopkins. In addition to the usual hyperactive clanging action sequences, there was so much plot it was wont to make one’s head spin. This prequel/spinoff dials things back a notch, leaning heavily on nostalgia and steering the franchise away from the cacophony which has characterised it.

Bumblebee is the story of a girl and her car. The girl: Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a sullen teenager coping with the death of her father. Charlie’s mother Sally (Pamela Adlon) has remarried, and while Charlie’s brother Otis (Jason Drucker) has taken to their stepfather Ron (Stephen Schneider) well, Charlie has not warmed to him. The car: a Volkswagen Beetle whom Charlie christens Bumblebee, who is secretly an Autobot from the planet Cybertron in disguise. The Autobots are locked in a vicious war with the Decepticons, and Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) has sent Bumblebee to earth, to scope out the planet as a possible refuge for the Autobots.

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The Decepticons Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) track Bumblebee down to earth, and trick government agents Jack Burns (John Cena) and Dr Powell (John Ortiz) into assisting them in hunting Bumblebee. Charlie and Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), the neighbour who has a crush on her, find themselves caught in a high-stakes clash between the secretive agency Sector 7 and the Transformers. The bond between Charlie and Bumblebee undergoes a trial by fire, with the Autobot facing serious jeopardy from the humans and Decepticons alike.

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The live-action Transformers movies, with a possible exception of the first one in 2007, have been varying degrees of bad. Most of the blame has been placed on Michael Bay, who has shown contempt for the source material and its fans. Bumblebee shows the potential of the franchise when it’s placed in the hands of someone who cares about the source material, with Travis Knight taking the reins. Knight is the president of stop-motion animation studio Laika, having directed Kubo and the Two Strings.

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Bumblebee is still very much a studio product, taking full advantage of its 1987 setting to bombard audiences with nostalgia. There’s a prominently-placed can of Tab, lots of 80s music including “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and “Never Gonna Give You Up”, Bumblebee watching The Breakfast Club on VHS, a reference to Heathers, and the designs of the Transformers are heavily inspired by their G1 incarnations. While these touches can come off as pandering, Bumblebee cuts through it with an emotional through-line, placing an emphasis on ‘heart-ware’ over hardware.

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Putting an animation director in charge means that there is more attention to movement and geometry, and the action sequences are much easier to follow than those in preceding Transformers movies. The scope of the film is more intimate, set mostly in a seaside Northern California town, a welcome respite from the often-meaningless globe-trotting that was a hallmark of the earlier live-action movies.

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Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie is a character we’ve many times before and seems to intentionally hark back to 80s coming-of-age movies. She’s withdrawn, yearning to make an emotional connection after suffering a personal loss, must fend off preening bullies, and possesses a special skill which you can bet will come in handy later in the movie. However, Steinfeld imbues Charlie with enough liveliness and personality to make her seem more than a bundle of familiar tropes. She sells the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee, even if a good portion of the movie is Charlie yelling as something horrible happens to Bumblebee.

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The character animation on Bumblebee is very endearing. As a VW Beetle, he comes off as rounder and softer than as a Camaro. Bay’s rejection of Bumblebee’s original form as a Beetle was indicative of his approach – to him, a Beetle just didn’t look cool or badass, but Bumblebee doesn’t need to look cool and badass – he needs to look friendly and approachable. This Bumblebee is also a competent warrior, but the best bits of the film are when he’s a fish out of water, learning to acclimate to life on earth and building his friendship with Charlie. It seems like elements of his back-story from the earlier films, including that he fought in World War II alongside the allies, have been jettisoned.

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John Cena plays the stock ‘Inspector Javert’ type – not necessarily a bad guy, but it’s his job to hunt down the good guys, so he performs the role of an antagonist. Cena shines in the few moments when the character can be funny; it’s clear that comedy is his true calling. John Ortiz’s excitable scientist character Powell is the closest this movie gets to the cringe-inducing comedy stylings of Michael Bay, but the character only makes a brief appearance.

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Charlie’s mum, stepdad and brother are very much an 80s sitcom family, and that works within the framework of the film. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. is the shy love interest, but the film takes its time in developing the relationship between Memo and Charlie.

Bumblebee-Dropkick-Shatter            It’s always a delight to hear Peter Cullen’s sonorous, commanding tones as Optimus Prime, and Angela Bassett makes for a suitably formidable villain as the voice of Shatter.

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Bumblebee doesn’t put an especially original spin on the time-tested “a kid and their X” formula, but this feels much, much closer to what a live-action Transformers movie should be. Viewed on its own, it’s good, but in comparison to the earlier Michael Bay-directed films, it’s great.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Aquaman review

AQUAMAN

Director : James Wan
Cast : Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Temuera Morrison, Randall Park, Djimon Hounsou, Michael Beach
Genre : Comics/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 143 mins
Opens : 13 December 2018
Rating : PG13

The DC Extended Universe goes full fathom five and beyond then some with Aquaman, telling the story of the man who would be king of Atlantis.

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) is a child of two worlds: his mother is Atlantean Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), and his father is human lighthouse keeper Tom Curry (Temuera Morrison). Taking on the superhero mantle of Aquaman, Arthur was instrumental in defeating Steppenwolf during the events of Justice League. Now, Princess Mera (Amber Heard) of the Xebel Kingdom has come calling, bringing news that Arthur’s Atlantean half-brother King Orm (Patrick Wilson) is threatening war against the surface world.

While Arthur is initially reluctant to travel to Atlantis, circumstances force him to follow Mera to the undersea kingdom. There, he confronts Orm, challenging him for the throne. Arthur is sent by Vulko (Willem Dafoe), the Atlantean vizier who has secretly trained Arthur to eventually take on Orm, on a quest to recover the Trident of King Atlan (Graham McTavish), the legendary first ruler of Atlantis. In addition to Orm, treacherous pirate David Kane/Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) stands in Arthur’s way, employing cutting-edge weaponry against Arthur. Arthur must prove himself the one true king of Atlantis, embarking on an extraordinary adventure.

Let’s talk about the concept of “silliness”. Movies based on comic books sometimes exhibit a fear of coming off as silly. After all, the worst comic book movies, films like Batman and Robin and Catwoman, are often decried as silly. As a result, some comic book movies overcompensate, becoming dour and self-serious in the process. Aquaman is silly, but through sheer willpower, the movie transcends silliness and achieves awesomeness. It’s a superhuman feat, but with director James Wan steering the ship, Aquaman accomplishes this.

This is a rip-roaring, old-fashioned adventure, filled with spectacular visual effects, fluidly-choreographed fight sequences and awe-inspiring locales. The movie draws heavily on myth, and is about a man named Arthur who, in reaching his destiny as king, overcomes insurmountable odds and faces a series of tests. By its nature, there are similarities to Thor and Black Panther, but Aquaman complements its familiar story beats with sheer visual imagination.

From the get-go, this was going to be a mind-boggling logistical challenge. How does one make a movie that takes place largely underwater, and have actors float about delivering dialogue without it looking – there’s that word again – silly? Aquaman works overtime to earn audience’s suspension of disbelief, and from the production design by Bill Brzeski to the visual effects furnished by pretty much every major VFX vendor, there’s a lot to take in. The movie acknowledges that there still might be some audiences who will be unconvinced and greet certain scenes with laughter, so it’s a good thing that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s a giant octopus that plays the drums. There’s just the right sprinkle of self-awareness that complements the grandiosity and scale of the adventure. While on the surface, the film doesn’t quite have the emotional gravity of some other comic movies, its world-building and characters inspire investment.

While some viewers might complain about the extent of CGI used, Aquaman somehow avoids the feeling that its set-pieces have been vomited onscreen by a render farm. The design of many of the creatures is very Ray Harryhausen-esque, and even in the most synthetic sequences, Wan retains a sense of tactility and is an expert at drawing the eye.

Jason Momoa delivers a stellar turn, expanding upon the glimpses into Arthur’s character we saw in Justice League. This is a hero who can be a bit of a boorish lout, but for all his life, he’s been fighting an identity crisis, feeling like he belongs neither to the sea or the land. It’s something that children of mixed heritage can readily relate to – everyone’s calling him “half-breed” or epithets of the like, but this perceived weakness is what sets Arthur apart. The character has moments when he’s child-like and joyous, moments when he’s a mighty hero, and moments when he’s a bit of an idiot, and it comes together to form a compelling lead character.

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While Amber Heard has the tendency to come off as stiff in some films, but as Mera, she is a lively presence. Not letting a patently obvious wig stand in her way, Heard’s defiant princess character is integral to the story. There a is a bit of a Romancing the Stone-esque vibe to the bickering romance set against an adventure movie backdrop, but the relationship develops satisfyingly. When the pair gets to stop and smell the roses in Sicily, it’s cheesy as all get-out, but also a delight.

This reviewer was afraid that two major villains would clutter the movie, but Aquaman allocates the villainy appropriately. Orm is by nature a generic tyrant king character, but Patrick Wilson has as much fun as he can with the role.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes for an intense Black Manta – the character was what this reviewer was most looking forward to in this movie, and Abdul-Mateen’s portrayal doesn’t disappoint.

The romance between Atlanna and Tom Curry is cheesy, but like everything else in this movie that’s cheesy, it works. The forbidden romance is given a mythic, poetic quality, with Kidman and Morrison being the ideal casting for the characters. Lundgren and Dafoe both put in satisfying supporting turns. Dolph Lundgren sporting a red beard astride a seahorse monster is not something that should work, but it does. There’s also a vocal cameo from a distinguished English actress, as a Lovecraftian mega-monster.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave this film a negative review. The comments section for that review are filled with commenters immensely pleased with themselves that they dislike comic book movies and are therefore so very grown up. A fear of appearing childish is, in its own way, a childish thing. Aquaman’s embrace of the inherent silliness in its source material and its irrepressible sense of wonderment and adventure propel it into becoming perhaps the best comic book movie of the year, and one of this reviewer’s favourite films he’s seen all year.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Robin Hood (2018) review

ROBIN HOOD

Director : Otto Bathurst
Cast : Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Eve Hewson, Ben Mendelsohn, Tim Minchin, Jamie Dornan, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Anderson
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 116 mins
Opens : 29 November 2018
Rating : PG13

Robin Hood may steal from the rich to give to the poor, but he’s given Hollywood quite a lot since movies first existed. From Douglas Fairbanks to Errol Flynn, from Kevin Costner to Russell Crowe and from Cary Elwes to an anthropomorphic fox, this new trip through Sherwood Forest has Taron Egerton of Kingsman fame wielding the bow and arrow.

Lord Robin of Loxley (Taraon Egerton) is in love with Marian (Eve Hewson), a woman of a much lower social status. Their romance is rudely interrupted when Robin is drafted to fight in Arabia in the Third Crusades. While at war, Robin meets the Moor Yahya/John (Jamie Foxx), who is on the opposing side but who admires Robin’s principles and sees potential in the young nobleman-turned-soldier.

Robin returns to England to find the people being taxed to the breaking point by the treacherous Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn). Under John’s guidance, Robin forges himself into a vigilante called the Hood, who steals from the Sheriff’s coffers and who eventually inspires a revolution. Alongside Marian, Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan) and Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), Robin leads the townspeople of Nottinghamshire in an uprising against the Sheriff and the Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham).

Because Robin Hood has been a mainstay of western popular culture for centuries, every time a new movie or TV version is announced, the first reaction is wont to be “do we really need this?” In a bid to prove its relevance, this new Robin Hood movie must set itself apart, aesthetically and otherwise, from its forbears. As a result, we get plenty of anachronistic costumes and an overtly political story – this version casts Robin as a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder who leads proletariat protesters in a clash on the streets against what are essentially medieval riot police. There is quite a lot here to inspire an eye roll or two, but surprisingly, this Robin Hood is not altogether charmless and is reasonably entertaining.

The film begins with a voiceover that might as well go “this isn’t your grandfather’s Robin Hood”. Visual cues appear to be taken from the Arrow TV show (which is a little funny since the DC Comics character Green Arrow was directly inspired by Robin Hood), Assassins Creed and Game of Thrones. The action sequences are sufficiently propulsive and engaging, and the brutality does push the PG-13 rating a little. Despite the historically inaccurate costumes, the film doesn’t look cheap thanks to location filming in Croatia, Hungary, France and Morocco.

Taron Egerton pushes his Robin just an inch away from the stock boring hero type. The back-story given to Robin is familiar but mildly affecting, and this version plays up Robin’s status as an elite himself. Robin breaks bread with the upper crust by day and fights for the little guy by night, a little like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro or Batman. Egerton brings the right amount of endearing boyishness and hunky physicality to the part.

Jamie Foxx’s Little John is one of the story’s big departures from traditional tellings of the Robin Hood myth. It’s a serious turn for the actor and the character suffers some real losses within minutes of his introduction. There’s something vaguely inspiring in seeing Robin and John put aside their obvious differences to fight the oppressors, even if the seeing the beginnings of the merry men isn’t as thrilling as the filmmakers imagine it to be.

Maid Marian is often side-lined in Robin Hood stories, and while there is an attempt to give the character some agency, she still doesn’t get a whole lot to do. As played by Eve Hewson, Marian is kind of a community organiser who feeds the poor and rallies the people, and she winds up being instrumental in the revolution. The love triangle between Robin, Marian and Jamie Dornan’s Will Scarlet adds minimal dramatic tension and is one of the cheesier parts of the film.

Ben Mendelsohn has carved out a niche in Hollywood as the go-to guy for middle management supervillain roles, and the Sheriff of Nottingham falls right into that niche. It’s nothing we haven’t seen him done before, but it’s still some of the best bits of the movie. Mendelsohn alternates between sneering and screaming in a way that’s reminiscent of Gary Oldman’s many memorable villain roles, and it is a joy to hear the Sheriff of Nottingham go “they’re taking my money! KILL THEM!”

Tim Minchin adds a dash of Python-esque comic relief as Friar Tuck. This is clearly not the best use of Minchin’s myriad talents (the man composed the Matilda musical), but his presence in the movie does help keep things from being too self-serious.

2018’s Robin Hood deserves some – maybe most –  but not all, of the cynicism it has been expectedly greeted with. We’ve seen studios try and fail at turning public domain characters into a comic book movie-esque franchise and Robin Hood’s sequel-begging is a little embarrassing, but in all its attempts to be ‘hip’ and relevant, this movie isn’t as entirely annoying as it could’ve been.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald review

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

Director : David Yates
Cast : Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Brontis Jodorowsky
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy/Drama
Run Time : 134 mins
Opens : 15 November 2018
Rating : PG

The Wizarding World gains a new wrinkle as writer J.K. Rowling takes us deeper into the happenings that far preceded young Harry Potter’s enrolment at Hogwarts. It is 1927 and leaving off the events of the first Fantastic Beasts film, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is still being reprimanded by the Ministry of Magic for his involvement in the chaos in New York the previous year. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), Newt’s former Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, entrusts him with a special mission: find and defeat the treacherous wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), with whom Dumbledore has a shared past.

Grindelwald’s agenda of Pureblood wizard supremacy and complete control over the non-magical population requires one special ingredient: Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is off in search of his identity. Newt, reuniting with MACUSA Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Queenie’s boyfriend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), must get to Credence before Grindelwald does, as Grindelwald amasses more support for his dangerous ideology.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald takes the flaws of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and amplifies them. While the first Fantastic Beasts movie was ostensibly a whimsical monster movie about a tweedy textbook author who is flung into a larger-than-life adventure, The Crimes of Grindelwald is on its way to almost entirely dropping that pretence, pushing this line of films further into the tangled back-story of the original Harry Potter series. Director David Yates and screenwriter JK Rowling return, and The Crimes of Grindelwald does feel like a part of the larger Wizarding World, but it also seems designed to frustrate and annoy the Potterhead faithful and casual viewers alike.

While Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was far enough removed from the main line of Potter lore for neophytes to hop on to, The Crimes of Grindelwald dives head-first into reams of back-story, such that characters are trying to catch their breath while delivering exposition. Many issues with the storytelling can be traced to how this is movie #2 in a planned series of five films, meaning the usual frustration that comes with watching the second movie in a trilogy is multiplied. There aren’t just a few loose ends left untied, this is a two-for-one loose end sale.

The film’s glaring faults aside, fans of the Wizarding World will find plenty that’s charming about this movie, and it will be hard to not be moved by the film’s brief sojourn back to the Hogwarts grounds, a stop by the Great Hall included. Production designer Stuart Craig’s sets are beautiful creations, the French Ministry of Magic a particularly elegant locale. Colleen Atwood’s costumes for the earlier films nabbed the designer her fourth Oscar win, and Tina gets to sport a particularly sleek leather coat this time around. James Newton Howard’s sumptuous score conjures up memories of John Williams’ work on the series, while stopping short of feeling like a copycat. Alas, much of the visual effects work, especially on the creatures, continues to feel synthetic, making us pine for that animatronic Basilisk from the end of Chamber of Secrets.

While the first film planted the seeds of Grindelwald’s looming presence in the magical world, the sequel places him front and centre. No longer a shadowy threat, Johnny Depp is all over this movie, his casting having led to much uproar. Even leaving aside the domestic abuse allegations that make Depp’s presence in this film cast a dark pall on the rest of it, his Grindelwald just isn’t magnetic or menacing enough. The character is meant to be a seductive populist who cleverly veils his hateful creed in shrewd warnings of Muggle arrogance and self-destructiveness. Depp may have residual star power, but he falls dramatically short when he’s supposed to carry this film.

It is comforting to see Newt, Tina, Jacob and Queenie again, but the returning characters must make a little room for new ones. Zoë Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange, a former flame of Newt’s and now involved with Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), is an enigmatic character who has lots of dramatic potential but gets short shrift. Similarly, Ezra Miller’s conflicted Credence, who proved one of the most interesting parts of the first film, shows glimmers of power, but his story is purposefully incomplete.

Jude Law’s appearance as a dashing young Dumbledore is one of the film’s big selling points, but his screen time is necessarily brief. The crucial relationship and later falling out between Dumbledore and Grindelwald is hinted at but not expounded upon. Callum Turner is bound to become Tumblr’s new boyfriend and the sibling rivalry between Newt and Theseus is fun, but borders on feeling extraneous.

One of the other controversial aspects of the film, casting South Korean actress Claudia Kim as the human form of the snake Nagini, proves to be more fuss than it’s worth. The problematic implications are there, but the inclusion of Nagini contributes practically nothing to the story.

There is another review with the headline “with The Crimes of Grindelwald, J.K. Rowling has hit peak George Lucas”. While that is a bit hyperbolic, the comparison isn’t without merit. There is obviously plenty of care taken in further crafting the look and feel of the Wizarding World, but as the film piles on the reveals and gets lost in doling out fan-service, the movie clearly buckles under its own weight. Now to wait for three more of these and it all might make sense then.

 

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Predator movie review

THE PREDATOR

Director : Shane Black
Cast : Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Keagan-Michael Key, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Yvonne Strahovski, Jake Busey
Genre : Action/Sci-fi
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 13 September 2018
Rating : M18

The-Predator-posterHunting season has come around again: in the fourth instalment in the mainline series of Predator films, the galaxy’s deadliest killers have returned to earth to stalk their prey.

Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) is a former Army Ranger-turned mercenary who had a run-in with the alien species nicknamed ‘the Predator’ while on assignment in Mexico. Quinn salvages the Predator’s helmet and wrist gauntlet, which wind up in the hands of his young son Rory (Jacob Tremblay), unbeknownst to his mother Emily (Yvonne Strahovski). Rory has high-functioning autism, and decodes the Predator’s language, unwittingly summoning more Predators to earth.

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The authorities refuse to believe Quinn’s account, sending him to jail. Quinn is put on a bus with several other misfit veterans, including former Marine Nebraska Williams (Trevante Rhodes), Coyle (Keagan-Michael Key), Baxley (Thomas Jane), former Marine Lynch (Alfie Allen) and former Blackhawk helicopter pilot Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). The oddball bunch is waylaid when a Predator gets loose. Quinn and his new dysfunctional unit team up with biologist Casey Brackett (Olivia Munn). They must not only evade the Predators and ensure Rory’s safety, but also outrun government agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), head of the shadowy Stargazer operation.

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The Predator franchise has often had difficulty getting up and running. The original 1987 film is regarded well, while Predator 2 and the spin-off Predators have more or less gained cult movie status. With Prometheus and Alien: Covenant, the Alien franchise has gotten somewhat high-falutin’ with its philosophical musings. The Predator films have tended to embrace their B-movie roots, something which director and co-writer Shane Black keeps alive in this one.

Black was there from the beginning, having played Hawkins in the first film. He previously worked with co-writer Fred Dekker on Monster Squad. As is typical of Black’s work, there is an undercurrent of smartass-ness running through The Predator, with everyone quipping back and forth. At the same time, there’s a welcome scrappiness to the movie, which seems the right scale and doesn’t become as bloated or as production-line as it could’ve been.

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The Predator possesses a nervous energy about it, apt for a film in which the protagonists are being hunted. It is sometimes difficult to discern what’s going on in the action sequences, but there are several inventive chases and fights. Special effects suit designers Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis of Amalgamated Dynamics Inc have worked on previous incarnations of the Predator, and there’s a welcome tactility to the creature that balances out the other parts of the film that rely more heavily on digital visual effects work.

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Dutch’s crew in the first film is one of the all-time great movie ensembles. Black puts an off-kilter spin on that by making the heroes of this film a collection of troubled, often-goofy outcasts. It’s as if the whole team has been Hawkins-ified, to varying degrees. They generate excellent chemistry, and the pairings of Holbrook and Rhodes, and Key and Jane yield results onscreen. There is the danger that the overall humorous tone might undercut the stakes, but there is enough grimness and gore to remind us of the mortal danger the characters are in.

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Boyd Holbrook has a laconic charm about him. While the Quinn character isn’t as charismatic as some of his cohorts, as the leader types in action movies are wont to be, Holbrook lends the part enough of a haunted quality and a devil-may-care vibe.

The-Predator-Jacob-Tremblay

The inclusion of a child with high-functioning autism is one of the film’s few concessions to schmaltziness. Jacob Tremblay of Room and Wonder fame does a fine job portraying a sensitive, gifted child, who is key to the fight against the Predators because of his ability to decipher their language. It’s a plot point that is handled with surprising finesse.

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Olivia Munn throws herself into the scientist role but can’t help but come off as the weak link. Maybe it’s just this reviewer, but she has a tendency to come off as unlikeable and isn’t quite convincing as either a biologist who has cracked the Predators’ genetic code or as a gun-toting badass.

Sterling K. Brown has a healthy amount of fun with his untrustworthy G-man character, while Keagan-Michael Key works overtime to steal the show, succeeding on many occasions. Jake Busey makes a cameo as Sean Keyes, the son of Peter Keyes, the character played by his father Gary in Predator 2.

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The Predator has been described by other critics as “messy”, and while this reviewer will corroborate that, its messiness is not necessarily a bad thing – at least until the third act, which was hastily reshot after poor test screening results. There are moments when it feels like the story’s foundation is a little too flimsy to support some of the ideas at play, and there are also times when the wink-and-nod fanboy appeal gets in the way of the action and violence working on a visceral level. Its ending blatantly, clumsily begs for a sequel, but there’s enough in this instalment for long-time Predator fans and newcomers to the franchise to appreciate, if they can get on Black’s wavelength.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Ant-Man and the Wasp movie review

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP

Director : Peyton Reed
Cast : Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Bobby Cannavale,, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas
Genre : Action/Adventure/Science Fiction/Superhero
Run Time : 118 mins
Opens : 4 July 2018
Rating : PG

Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have had a bit of time to recover from the earth-shattering events of Avengers: Infinity War. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) was noticeably missing from that film, and now we learn what he was up to while everyone else was tangling with Thanos.

After Scott made it back from the Quantum Realm at the end of the first Ant-Man film, Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) believes that there’s a chance his wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was lost in the Quantum Realm decades ago, might still be alive. Together with his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Pym tries to locate Janet and rescue her.

Meanwhile, Scott is under house arrest, after getting into big trouble during the events of Captain America: Civil War. Whilst evading FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and trying to be a good dad to Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), Scott returns to superheroics. He now fights alongside Hope, who’s inherited the mantle of the Wasp from her mother. They must fend off black market tech dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and the enigmatic Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can turn invisible and phase through solid objects. Scott can count on his ex-convict buddies Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian) for help, though how much they actually help is up for debate.

We’ve all seen “fun” used as a descriptor for innumerable MCU movies. There’s no denying that Ant-Man and the Wasp is fun. It’s an unabashedly silly film packed with jokes and some inspired visual gags, and its tone is consistent with that of the first Ant-Man film. While something less intense is welcome in the wake of Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp is often in danger of feeling a touch inconsequential – especially given what an impact Black Panther made earlier this year.

On paper, there’s nothing too wrong with Ant-Man and the Wasp, and it ticks all the boxes. The mission to rescue Janet from the Quantum Realm is a great premise for the sequel and has considerable emotional drive, yet there are times when the film feels no more than perfunctory. The pacing is good, and the movie feels shorter than its 118 minutes, but it seems like it’s scurrying from Point A to Point B. Plenty of jokes land, but some of the humour is a little forced, and Luis and co. feel like they’ve been shoehorned in.

Where Ant-Man and the Wasp excels is in its set-pieces. The film makes inventive use of the mass-shifting conceit, and director Peyton Reed seems to have gotten bolder in staging said set-pieces. The choreography of how the titular heroes work in tandem is dazzling. There’s a kitchen fight in which Wasp dodges a meat mallet, and a car chase down San Francisco’s Lombard Street involving a shrinking van – this could be an homage to The Dead Pool, in which Dirty Harry is pursued through the streets of San Francisco by a radio-controlled toy car. It’s a great example of a comic book film creatively exploiting its characters’ abilities.

This film leans a little more into retro sci-fi with its Fantastic Voyage-esque micro submersible and more appearances from giant ants. Christophe Beck’s score also employs a bit more of a brassy big band sound, evoking spy-fi of yore.

Rudd’s everyman who’s fallen on the wrong side of the tracks continues to be endearing, and the film tries to give Scott some character growth, though there’s not too much to be had. The scenes that Scott shares with his daughter are on the right side of twee. Scott is the regular dude among geniuses, and Rudd plays off Lilly and Douglas well.

Lilly relishes the chance to partake in the superhero action this time around, and the Wasp’s abilities are impressively realised. Hope clearly knows what she’s doing, and there’s a precision to her fighting style and movements that Scott never quite possessed. Hope has been waiting her whole life for this and is in her element, and it’s gratifying to see her fulfil her destiny as the Wasp.

Douglas gets to be a little more active in this one than in the first Ant-Man film, but he’s still mostly there to be crotchety. The relationship between Pym and Janet is sufficiently established. By necessity, Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t get to be in this one a lot, though it’s hard not to wish she had more screen time.

There’s half a good idea here with Ghost. The appearance and abilities of the character from the comics is used, but everything else about her is created for the film. Ghost is in a constant state of flux, confused and angry, and is a formidable opponent to our heroes. She’s no Thanos or Killmonger, but she’s an adequate villain for this film.

Walton Goggins plays a standard-issue Walton Goggins character, supremely untrustworthy and grinning as he goes after what he wants. Randall Park is funny as the dogged FBI agent who tries to keep Scott under his thumb, and hopefully he goes on to be a badass secret agent like the Jimmy Woo of the comics. Fishburne is reliable as Professor Bill Foster, who had a falling out with Pym when they were colleagues.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a trifle, but it’s an entertaining, well-made trifle. Not every MCU movie needs to upend the status quo, and Ant-Man and the Wasp is quite comfortable being the silly thing it is. While the movie has welcome tricks up its sleeve with the further integration of mass-shifting into the action sequences, it can sometimes feel like we’re just watching the first one again.

Stick around for a mid-credits scene and a post-credits stinger.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom review

For inSing

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM

Director : J.A. Bayona
Cast : Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Rafe Spall, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, James Cromwell, Isabella Sermon, Toby Jones, Ted Levine, B.D. Wong, Geraldine Chaplin, Jeff Goldblum
Genre : Action / Adventure / Sci-fi
Run Time : 128 mins
Opens : 7 June 2018
Rating : PG-13

Just as life finds a way, so has the Jurassic Park franchise. There was a 14-year break between Jurassic Park 3 and Jurassic World, but the response to the latter showed audiences were hungry for more dinosaur mayhem. Jurassic World grossed $1.6 billion worldwide and became the second-highest-grossing film of 2015, making a follow-up inevitable.

Three years have elapsed since the events of the last film. The Jurassic World theme park lies in ruins on Isla Nublar, off the coast of Costa Rica. An impending volcanic eruption threatens the remaining dinosaurs who roam free on the island. Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), former Jurassic World operations manager-turned dinosaur activist, has founded the Dinosaur Protection Group to save Isla Nublar’s Saurian inhabitants.

Claire is contacted by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall), the executor of Sir Benjamin Lockwood’s (James Cromwell) estate. Lockwood was the partner of the late John Hammond, creator of the original Jurassic Park. Mills needs Claire’s help to facilitate the evacuation of the island. Blue, the last Velociraptor, is still alive. Claire ropes in Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), the dinosaur handler who raised Blue, to help locate her. Claire’s employees at the Dinosaur Protection Group, paleo-veterinarian Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) and systems analyst Franklin Webb (Justice Smith), join the mission too. Owen and Claire soon find themselves entangled in a nefarious conspiracy that could throw the world as we know it into irreversible chaos.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom comes extremely close to blockbuster perfection. Hiring J.A. Bayona proves to be a canny move on the producers’ part. The filmmaker kickstarted his career with the Spanish horror movie The Orphanage and made the disaster drama The Impossible and the dark fantasy fable When a Monster Calls. This is by far the largest project he’s presided over, and he worked closely with the previous film’s director Colin Trevorrow and producer Steven Spielberg, who directed the first two Jurassic films. The result is distinctly atmospheric, with an emphasis placed on scenes of sustained tension, without sacrificing the grand spectacle audiences come to these movies for.

Trevorrow co-wrote the screenplay with Derek Connolly, and they’ve devised a great reason to return to Isla Nublar. At first, the story seems like a re-tread of The Lost World: Jurassic Park, complete with paramilitary personnel rounding up the surviving animals and Ted Levine as a grizzled big-game hunter. Then, the movie swerves in an interesting direction, one which the trailers have misdirected us away from.

The film is paced marvellously, packing in action – and more importantly, action with some variety to it. It’s a given that most of the characters will spend a lot of time running away from dinosaurs. There’s that, to be sure, but there are also creepy, well-staged moments steeped in shadows and incorporating a sense of claustrophobia that are exceedingly effective.

Several of the dinosaurs possess enough personality to be accepted as characters. Blue’s bond with Owen is further developed, and both she and the T. rex get their share of ‘hero’ moments. Animatronic effects are used more than they were in the preceding film. Neal Scanlan, the creature effects supervisor for the recent Star Wars films from The Force Awakens onwards, oversees the practical dinosaur effects. He and his team have done excellent work, and the computer-generated visual effects are a notch above those seen in the previous film too. There’s even physical comedy courtesy of a rambunctious Stygimoloch.

The film is at its best when it echoes and builds upon the themes inherent in the first film and the source novel by Michael Crichton. The manmade dinosaurs could be viewed as an affront towards nature, with nature now reclaiming itself by way of the volcanic eruption. Hammond and Lockwood opened Pandora’s Box, and there’s no coming back from that. Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm pops up in a cameo reiterating his initial fears of the implications resurrecting dinosaurs would have. These creatures were intended as theme park attractions, which seems innocent enough, but the applications for this technology were never going to stop there. The film tackles this in a slightly deeper, headier way than one might expect from summer popcorn entertainment.

Owen and Claire are good people who have unwittingly been used by bad people for their own ends. Both characters seem less like the broad caricatures they were presented as in the previous film, giving Pratt and Howard more to work with. Owen and Claire grapple with their involvement in Jurassic World, and how much of the chaos that unspools in this film is their fault. They also find themselves in the thick of the action and have so many near-misses that they come across as at least a little superhuman.

Some of the new characters are played a little too broadly, especially Justice Smith’s anxious tech expert. The human villains aren’t dimensional enough and have straightforward, avaricious motivations.

The new addition to the cast that stands out is Isabella Sermon, who plays Lockwood’s precocious granddaughter Maisie. Beyond being the requisite imperilled child each of these movies must have at least one of, she becomes integral to the plot and protecting her gives Owen and Claire a secondary objective.

The new dinosaur being highlighted is the Indoraptor, following in the clawed footsteps of the previous film’s Indominus rex. Just as the Velociraptors have generally been scarier than the T. rex in previous Jurassic films, the vicious Indoraptor is considerably more menacing than the Indominus rex, proving a formidable foe for our heroes, human and dinosaur alike.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is the best film in the series since the first. It packs in all the exhilarating theme park ride-thrills we expect from the series, while attempting to bring the moral and ethical quandaries at the heart of the premise back to the surface. The film is a satisfying experience, while naturally leaving the door open for a sequel. Stick around past the credits for a fun little stinger scene.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong