Maleficent: Mistress of Evil review

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Director: Joachim Rønning
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Robert Lindsay, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 17 October 2019
Rating : PG

In 2014, audiences learnt the back-story behind Maleficent, the villainess of Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Beyond being a cackling sorceress/sometimes-dragon, Maleficent painted its title character as someone who rose from tragedy and betrayal to form a complex bond with the young Princess Aurora. Directed by Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge), this sequel continues that story, pitting Maleficent against a conniving, ruthless new foe.

Aurora (Elle Fanning), Queen of the Moors, is about to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) of Alstead. Aurora’s godmother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is resistant to this union. Despite her heroic actions, she has been cast as a villain in stories spread by the humans. Philip’s father King John (Robert Lindsay) thinks the wedding could help to unite the two kingdoms, but his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) harbours hatred towards Maleficent and the magical creatures with whom she is aligned. Maleficent discovers a hidden society of faes, including the wise Connall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the fiery warrior Borra (Ed Skrein). Queen Ingrith foments a war between the humans and the faes, with the young couple caught in between.

Angelina Jolie continues to be all sharp-cheekboned perfection as Maleficent. We were afraid that she might phone in it given that this is a sequel, but she still appears to relish the role. Not only does she get numerous fabulous costume changes, Maleficent goes on a journey of discovery, getting acquainted with her people and learning about their customs and beliefs. There is a conflict between her allegiance to her fae kin and to Aurora, which gives the powerful character something to struggle with.


Much of the film works because of Michelle Pfeiffer. Casting her opposite Jolie was an inspired move. The early promotional materials tried to hide it, but there’s no point beating about the bush now – Queen Ingrith is the “Mistress of Evil” of the title. Pfeiffer plays the villain with sneer and swagger hidden beneath a regal façade, with shades of her witch character from Stardust sometimes visible. Coming off like a PG-rated Cersei Lannister, it’s an absolute hoot.

There’s a lot going on in the plot of the movie, so it is to writers Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue’s credit that the movie never loses sight of its emotional core: the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. They might not be on the same page for much of the film, but it cannot be questioned that Maleficent deeply loves and cares for Aurora, something Ingrith winds up exploiting.

Just as in the first film, the show is stolen by Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent’s shape-shifting sidekick. Riley manages to be both cool and endearing. Queen Ingrith’s sadistic henchwoman Gerda (Jenn Murray) is also a fun, arch character.

While the visuals are often mesmerising and transporting, the film does lean very heavily on computer-generated imagery. This is expected of a fantasy adventure film, but some of the characters do seem unnatural. The Fairy Godmothers Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville) return from the first film, and their almost-human facial features sometimes cross over into the dreaded uncanny valley.

Prince Philip is boring, but then again, this is something inherent in the source material. Brenton Thwaites, who was busy filming Season 2 of Titans, is replaced by Harris Dickinson, who constantly seems a little bit confused and flat. However, this is also a sign that the film understands that Philip is not the main character, and that he does not have to be the hero to save the day.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is almost completely wasted in a relatively small supporting role.

The action sequences in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are grand and expansive. Like most big-budget high fantasy projects these days, it seems more than a little derivative of Game of Thrones, but the big battle scenes are dynamic and lively. The movie gets surprisingly dark, with the villain’s plot involving genocide by way of biological warfare. However, the movie still has a bounce and a sense of humour to it and is never too self-serious the way something like Snow White and the Huntsman and its sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War sometimes were. The big climactic battle takes place in broad daylight, which is a relative rarity in films of this type.

This film has a completely different design team than the first but maintains a sense of visual continuity while also giving us something new. The costumes by Ellen Mirojnick are stunning, especially Maleficent’s battle outfit, which is a sexy, elegant body paint-style number. Production designer Patrick Tatopolous creates some gorgeous fantasy environments, chief of which is the hidden fae sanctuary comprising mini-environments which have different climates.

Summary: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil sometimes transcends its fantasy adventure genre trappings thanks to strong performances by Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer, putting more of a spin on its source material than many of the live-action remakes Disney has given us lately.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Ad Astra review

For F*** Magazine

AD ASTRA

Director: James Gray
Cast : Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Kennedy, Kimberly Elise
Genre : Sci-fi/Adventure
Run Time : 123 mins
Opens : 19 September 2019
Rating : PG13

Director James Gray, known mainly for his contemplative dramas, launches into big-budget adventure movie territory with Ad Astra, while still retaining a more sombre, introspective tone than the typical movie of this type. ‘Ad Astra’ is Latin for “to the stars”. Brad Pitt was originally attached to star in Gray’s previous film, the historical adventure drama The Lost City of Z, and while he was eventually replaced with Charlie Hunnam, Pitt stayed on as a producer. Pitt and Gray collaborate again on Ad Astra, which puts the established movie star front and centre.

In the near future, space exploration has advanced considerably, with humanity travelling to the outer reaches of our solar system. Extensive colonies and bases have been established on the moon and on Mars. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the son of decorated astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who vanished years ago on a mission to Neptune. Space Command has received indications that against all odds, Clifford might still be alive. The experiments that were begun on the mission that Clifford led now have a ripple effect in the form of crippling power surges, endangering life on earth. Roy resolves to track his father down and solve a mystery that has haunted him for decades.

We don’t get many big-budget sci-fi films that are very serious, in part because spectacle sells. There is a scale of sci-fi “soft” to “hard”, with Guardians of the Galaxy on the “soft” end and something like The Martian towards the “harder” end. Director Gray takes a very serious approach, and one can tell that a lot of research has gone into envisioning what the future of space travel might look like.

Some of the themes from The Lost City of Z, especially those of singular obsession, delusion and a desperation for a greater purpose, carry over into this film. This is a good showcase for Pitt too, who plays a heroic character burdened by sorrow and on the brink of collapse, trundling towards his goal, however futile it might be. There is little room for supporting characters, but Pitt ably carries this.

Unfortunately, Ad Astra is caught between trying to be extremely self-serious and providing the action and spectacle audiences expect. As such, the action sequences feel disjointed from the rest of the movie and do not serve the plot. We get lots of contemplative voiceover from Pitt’s character, much of it bordering on pretentious. The film’s emotional core, the father-son story, is also hard to engage with and be moved by.

As is typical for these films, the protagonist’s wife does a lot of waiting around back home and not much else. Liv Tyler plays an astronaut’s significant other again, 21 years after Armageddon, and has even less to do here than she did in the Michael Bay extravaganza. Also, while Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones are both in this film, they do not meet, denying us a Space Cowboys semi-reunion (but this is more for this reviewer’s amusement than an actual point against the movie).

Ad Astra conveys the solitude and beautiful desolation of drifting through the cosmos, wondering about one’s place in the universe. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who lensed Interstellar and Dunkirk for Christopher Nolan and Spectre for Sam Mendes, makes this look grand and expansive. It can a bit navel gaze-y, but we saw this in IMAX and the breath-taking outer space vistas do make watching this on a huge screen somewhat worthwhile.

Two sequences seem to stick out from this otherwise sombre affair: a chase on moon buggies that pit(t)s our heroes against a band of space pirates, and an unexpected attack by bloodthirsty baboons that have gone feral after being left alone in a space station. While these two sequences provide superficial excitement, they occur relatively early in the film, such that the bulk of the latter half of the movie consists of Pitt staring into the middle distance as we occasionally cut to the exterior of the spaceship floating past Saturn’s rings.

Ad Astra may not necessarily find a big audience in theatres, but there are moviegoers who hunger for science fiction that’s more “search for our place in the universe” and less “lasers and giant spiders”.

Summary: Ad Astra is a rare movie in that it’s a star vehicle in an age when star vehicles are less common than big franchise movies, and in that it’s a serious science fiction movie with a big budget. However, Pitt’s central performance and the film’s visual splendour cannot compensate for its coldness as it trips over itself trying to be as deep and contemplative as possible.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dora and the Lost City of Gold review

For inSing

DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD

Director: James Bobin
Cast : Isabela Moner, Eugenio Derbez, Michael Peña, Eva Longoria, Jeff Wahlberg, Nicholas Coombe, Madeleine Madden, Temuera Morrison, Q’orianka Kilcher, Benicio del
Genre : Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 42 mins
Opens : 29 August 2019
Rating : PG

           Dora, the beloved bilingual icon of preschool television, makes the leap to the big screen in her first live-action adventure.

Dora (Isabela Moner and Madelyn Miranda at different ages) has spent all her life in the jungle with her researcher parents Cole (Michael Peña) and Elena (Eva Longoria), and her monkey friend Boots. Dora’s cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg and Malachi Barton at different ages) left for the city when he was seven, while Dora continued to stay in the jungle.

Now 16, Dora makes the big move to L.A. to join Diego. Having never been exposed to the typical teenage existence, Dora sticks out at school and causes Diego much embarrassment. During a field trip, Dora, Diego and their classmates Sammy (Madeline Madden) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe) are kidnapped. A gang of mercenaries including Powell (Temuera Morrison) and the fox Swiper (Benicio del Toro) are after Dora’s parents, believing they have found the lost Incan city of Parapata. The four meet Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), a professor who knows Dora’s parents. Drawing on her childhood in the jungle, Dora must protect her friends and stop the villains from plundering the mythical city.

An adaptation of Dora the Explorer is a tricky thing to get right: naturally, many elements from the animated series aimed at two to five-year-olds do not translate well into live-action. Dora and the Lost City of Gold is smarter than it seems, and not just because there are self-reflexive jokes about Dora breaking the fourth wall. Working from a screenplay by Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson, director James Bobin plays with familiar aspects of the TV show and has made a film that is in part about growing up.

Sure, this is ostensibly an adventure movie and has many of the traditional trappings associated with the genre, but at its heart, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is about growing up and adjusting to different circumstances. Dora is a fish out of water, mocked by everyone and unable to fit in at high school. She struggles with being responsible for the survival of others, but through everything, is resolutely optimistic and knows the best thing she can be is herself.

Dora is earnest and positive to a fault, but the film celebrates the character for it. Isabela Moner plays the upbeat Dora with a vibrant can-do energy, but also shades the character in and gives her more dimensions than the deliberately simplistic characterisation of Dora in the TV show did. Moner is a Dora fan, having dressed up as her for Halloween. It’s clear that Moner is having great fun inhabiting this character, and while the film places Dora in a new context, it never loses the essence of who she is and why she’s been such a beloved character.

The dynamic between Dora and Diego is an interesting one with shades of sadness to it, because they used to be close as young children but have drifted apart since Diego moved away. Diego still loves his cousin, but Dora can’t understand why Diego is now embarrassed by her. Over the course of the adventure, they repair their relationship; this is done surprisingly well.

The adult supporting cast have lots of fun, especially Michael Peña as Dora’s father. Eugenio Derbez does his typical goofy schtick but puts a bit of a spin on it as the movie progresses.

Like many family films, Dora and the Lost City of Gold sometimes has trouble calibrating how much of it should be aimed at kids and how much should cater to the accompanying adults. There are a few metafictional jokes and the movie even manages to sneak in a trippy hallucinatory sequence. There is some very juvenile bodily function humour, but perhaps that’s balanced with the film’s comments on the colonisation of Central and South America.

The scenes in which Dora and company solve puzzles and escape lethal traps are reminiscent of Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones. Some of the set pieces feel a little theme park-ish or like something out of Legends of the Hidden Temple – Moner starred in a TV movie based on that gameshow. This movie sometimes trips up on how cartoony to make things, especially when it comes to Boots and Swiper, who are not especially convincing CGI characters.

The musical score by John Debney and Germaine Franco is reminiscent of John Williams while incorporating indigenous Peruvian musical instruments and vocals. Beyond the music, Quechua, the language of the Incas, features in the movie. There is a greater respectfulness of indigenous culture which isn’t often seen in adventure movies, where ancient treasures are just something the good guys and bad guys fight over.

          Dora and the Lost City of Gold is mostly funny and good-natured; it’s charming because it’s uncynical. There are certain aspects of the film that come off as clumsy because of the gulf between the source material and what the filmmakers are going for, but most of it works. With Moner’s unerringly cheery performance at its centre, the Dora movie is an enjoyably silly family film.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

47 Meters Down: Uncaged review

For inSing

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED

Director: Johannes Roberts
Cast : Sophie Nélisse, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sistine Stallone, John Corbett, Nia Long
Genre : Adventure/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 30 mins
Opens : 29 August 2019
Rating : PG13

            In 2017, 47 Meters Down chronicled the misadventures of two sisters who got into a shark cage while on vacation in Mexico. As the title suggests, this sequel dispenses with the cage, following four friends into caves where sharks are waiting.

Mia (Sophie Nélisse) is having a hard time at school where she is constantly bullied, and has trouble getting along with her stepsister Sasha (Corinne Foxx). Their dad Grant (John Corbett) is a commercial diver who is mapping a sunken Mayan city, preparing for visiting archaeologists.

Sasha’s friend Alexa (Brianne Tju), who has followed Grant’s employee Ben (Davi Santos) into the caves, convinces Mia, Sasha and Nicole (Sistine Stallone) to go exploring in the caves. The plan is to swim into the first chamber and then return, but naturally, things go wrong. Sharks which have adapted to the low-light conditions of the underwater caverns terrorise the girls, who are trapped with a fast-depleting oxygen supply. The four girls must help each other survive and escape.

Director Johannes Roberts returns for the sequel, which has no characters in common with its predecessor. In a way, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged seems like a typical direct-to-DVD sequel, with a different cast but a similar premise to the first. However, Uncaged has a noticeably bigger budget than the first movie. Roberts is more ambitious with this film, staging several exciting sequences that are more elaborate than what we saw in 47 Meters Down, which was by its nature quite spare.

Shooting any movie underwater is no small logistical undertaking, especially given the film’s limited budget. The film’s set design and explosive finale sequence contribute to a slightly bigger feel than its predecessor.

With its all-female main cast, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged is kind of like a less-gnarly version of The Descent. Roberts cowrote the screenplay with Ernest Riera; it appears neither knows how teenage girls talk to each other. The movie struggles to parcel out enough information about our protagonists before the action begins such that we care about them when they’re in peril. As such, the characters are all thinly drawn.

Sophie Nélisse, who put in an excellent performance in The Book Thief, is the awkward, level-headed protagonist. Succumbing to peer pressure, she is coaxed into doing something silly and dangerous by her stepsister and her friends. Giving off slight Saoirse Ronan vibes, Nélisse is the best actress of the four, in part because there is just that little bit more to her character than to the others

Corrine Foxx, daughter of Jamie, plays a character who’s a bit stuck up. Naturally, the two stepsisters will bond over the course of their harrowing ordeal. Sistine Stallone, daughter of Sylvester, is there to be the party animal friend who in horror movie terms is almost begging to be the first to die.

Brianne Tju’s Alexa is confident without being annoying, and next to Mia, is the one who knows what’s she doing.

John Corbett puts in some dependable character actor work, playing what amounts to a textbook supporting role.

The visual effects work, mainly created by Outpost VFX, is mostly good. The sharks have evolved to survive in the submerged caves, making them register more as movie monsters than regular sharks. The film ends with a disclaimer message stating that around 10 people die in shark attacks each year, vs 100 million sharks that get killed by humans. There is a valid fear that movies like 47 Meters Down: Uncaged perpetuate a disproportionate fear of sharks, so that might be why Roberts has played up the movie monster attributes of the animals in this film.

47 Meters Down: Uncaged is often trapped between being all-out campy fun and being a legitimately scary thriller. Despite weak writing and a somewhat dull middle stretch, the film is mostly entertaining, so much so that one could almost forgive it ripping off Deep Blue Sea’s most memorable scene.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Lion King (2019) review

THE LION KING

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast : Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph
Genre : Family/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 18 July 2019
Rating : PG

            Disney’s string of live-action remakes continues with a movie that is technically a photo-realistic computer-animated remake but is for all intents and purposes a live-action one. The Lion King is sure to rule the box office, but is the sojourn back to Pride Rock worth it?

The story is by now almost universally known: King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) have a baby, Simba (JD McCrary). Mufasa’s brother, the conniving Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), seethes at being further bumped down in line for the throne. He orchestrates a series of events that leads to Mufasa’s death. Simba, believing that he should be blamed for his father’s death, escapes into exile.

He is rescued by the meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and the warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), whom he befriends. The now-adult Simba (Donald Glover) has led a largely carefree existence since running away. He is visited by his childhood friend Nala (Beyoncé), now an adult lioness. She pleads with him to return to the Pridelands to dethrone Scar, who with his army of hyenas has turned the once-lush territory into a desolate wasteland. Simba must overcome the trauma of his past to become the one true king.

There hasn’t been a lot of nuance in the discussion of this film, which has, like several recent Disney live-action remakes, stirred up some strong feelings. There are those who welcome this with open arms because it gives them a chance to relive the original animated movie in a new way, and others who have described this as a soulless cash-grab. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but perhaps closer to the latter, because it’s true that live-action remakes need to justify their existence. Despite the obvious technical proficiency and the stellar voice cast behind this version of The Lion King, the film still struggles to prove that it isn’t a largely unnecessary venture.

What does pretty much the same movie as the 1994 version, only looking like a nature documentary with animals that somehow talk and sing, add to the original? Not very much. The direct comparison would be The Jungle Book, which was also directed by Jon Favreau. This reviewer enjoyed that film and liked how it changed the tone and mood of the original animated film from old-timey variety show to exciting adventure movie. The 2019 Lion King stays mostly faithful to the original film directed by Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers and even though it is 30 minutes longer, not very much is added to the story or the characters.

It’s difficult to grade this movie on its own merits because, being such a close adaptation of the 1994 version, it actively invites comparisons. This is probably the easiest paycheck screenwriter Jeff Nathanson has earned, because of how closely it hews to the screenplay of the original by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton.

One of the major things that is sacrificed in striving for photo-realism is the original film’s use of colour. Behind-the-scenes footage of the 1994 movie shows animators discussing the shade of pink that a sunrise should be – that movie demonstrates an understanding of how colours can be used to set the scene and influence the viewers’ emotions. Here, not only is the palette limited, but the characters’ range of motion is largely bound to what the real-life animals are capable of. Favreau has roped in many talented collaborators, including Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato, but because “realism” is the watchword, the film’s dynamism is severely limited.

Just how important is “realism” to the story of The Lion King anyway? Audiences must already buy that the animals talk and sing and behave in human-like ways, so how much does it help that their fur is immaculately rendered or that their ears twitch in a certain way? The Lion King was adapted into a stage musical, which has become the highest-grossing musical in history. Artistically, it is in many ways the opposite of this live-action film. Using puppetry, masks and costumes, the musical interprets the animated movie in an eye-catching, dynamic way and is anything but literal. Julie Taymor, who directed the stage version, executive-produced the new movie – it made this reviewer hope for something a little bit wilder and more experimental than what we got.

There still is a lot this movie gets right. The music was one of the animated film’s biggest assets, and that’s the case here too. The score by Hans Zimmer, which builds upon the original score he composed with Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin, contains some of the composer’s most evocative work. Traditional African music and choir elements arranged by Lebo M add texture and dimensions to the movie’s sound, while all the songs Elton John and Tim Rice wrote for the original animated film remain intact.

John and Rice wrote a new song, “Never Too Late”, which John performs over the closing credits. Beyoncé and Rice wrote “Spirit” – while it is a good showcase of her vocal prowess, the song doesn’t quite have the power of the songs originally written for the animated movie and the songs added for the stage musical that are absent here. Still, the influence of the music used in the stage show is felt here, with the songs sounding a bit less pop-like than they did in the original film.

The voice cast is excellent across the board, but because the characters are so limited in their expressions and mannerisms, it is sometimes hard to believe that the voices belong to these characters, the awareness that they’re just dubbed over the CGI footage frequently present.

Glover captures the playfulness of the adult Simba with the self-searching sorrow lurking underneath, while Beyoncé sounds suitably regal as Nala. JD McCrary is lively as young Simba, with “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” being one of the more enjoyable sequences in the film.

Getting James Earl Jones back was the right move, as it seems unthinkable that anyone could match the sonorous authority and underlying warmth of his Mufasa.

While Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a slinky performance that carries a good amount of Shakespearean menace with it, he ultimately falls short of the dripping deliciousness that made Jeremy Irons’ performance as Scar so memorable.

Timon and Pumbaa get the most new material, as well as the film’s biggest laughs. Billy Eichner brings self-conscious neuroses to Timon, while Seth Rogen’s guttural laugh fits Pumbaa nicely. One of the film’s darkly funny bits involves Pumbaa and an unfortunate butterfly.

This reviewer was most looking forward to John Oliver as Zazu – this is casting that’s both incredibly obvious and sublime in its perfection. He’s great as Zazu, but there are no surprises, it’s just John Oliver.

In a way, that applies to most of this film: there are several good choices being made, but there are no surprises in the way they turn out. A story like The Lion King doesn’t need to be reinvented, but this movie’s faithfulness to the animated original means that like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before it, it’s overly concerned with hitting all its marks and not trying anything new. The photorealistic CGI is the result of plenty of hard work from armies of artists and technicians and will push filmmaking technology forward, but here, it’s not in service of telling the story in an engaging way. It may sound dismissive, but it comes down to this: there’s enough to like in The Lion King simply because it reminds us of something we already like.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Men in Black: International review

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Emma Thompson, Rafe Spall, Les Twins
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 55 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : PG13

          They’ve been absent from the big screen for seven years, but the shadowy organisation that polices and conceals alien activity on earth has resurfaced in Men in Black: International, the spin-off of the Men in Black series.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) is a newly instated member of the agency, still on probation. After witnessing Men in Black operatives in action as a child, she has long harboured a fascination with the agency and finally gets her dream job. Agent O (Emma Thompson), head of the New York branch, dispatches Agent M to MIB’s London headquarters, overseen by High T (Liam Neeson). There, she meets Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a hotshot hailed for defeating an alien species called the Hive in Paris alongside High T.

When a shape-shifting alien duo (Les Twins) corners Agent M and Agent H, they learn that the Hive may have been resurfaced, with the predatory invaders after a powerful alien artefact. Their battle against the Twins sends Agent M and Agent H to Morocco, where they befriend Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a diminutive alien. Agent H must confront Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), a powerful, dangerous figure from his past, as he and Agent M discover there just might be a mole within the organisation. The MIB can always be counted on to save the world, but what happens when a threat arises from within?

The Men in Black films are loosely based on the Malibu comics series by Lowell Cunningham. The urban legend of shadowy government agents has existed among UFO-enthusiast circles for decades, but it was the Men in Black movies that cemented the idea in the public consciousness. Being released the year after Independence Day, the first Men in Black movie also further launched Will Smith up the A-list. He and co-star Tommy Lee Jones have become closely linked with the franchise, with the third movie featuring Josh Brolin as a younger version of Jones’ character.

After the third Men in Black movie in 2012, the first we heard of a new Men in Black movie was that it would be a crossover with the 21 Jump Street films called MIB 23, which sounds like such a crazy idea that it just might have worked. Instead, we got Men in Black: International, which is pleasant and harmless if often formulaic and bland, because it takes the format of the first movie and slots new stars into it. Director F. Gary Gray of Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious fame knows how to handle a big Hollywood production, but it feels like he is directing to the brief, with no personal touches discernible. The film trundles along efficiently enough, but nothing in the movie will stick in viewers’ minds afterwards. It’s almost as if the movie was constructed to be watched on an airplane.

          Men in Black: International does what the James Bond movies often do, throwing in a bunch of exotic locales to up the production value. There’s a chase through the streets of Marrakech on a hover bike and one character is based out of Aragonese Castle on the Italian island of Ischia. The movie might have the scale expected of a summer blockbuster, but it doesn’t quite have the quirky soul of the first movie, especially because a lot more of the aliens are created with computer-generated effects. Special effects makeup legend Rick Baker, who oversaw the aliens in the first three films, was not involved with this one.

The logic behind the casting of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the lead roles seems to have been to look at whatever actors from the most successful ongoing movie franchise were available. Hemsworth has a knack for comedy and shifts effortlessly between dashing and goofy, playing a sometimes-bumbling, always-charming action hero with ease.

Thompson’s Agent M is capable, headstrong and determined and is in some ways the audience surrogate character, with this movie acting as her origin story. However, some of the beats in her arc echo those of Agent J’s in the first movie a little too strongly. Thompson brings some personality to the part, but Agent M feels like a textbook “strong female character” with not much that is inherently compelling about her on paper.

Liam Neeson is there to lend gravitas to the proceedings and pace purposefully around High T’s office and not do too much else. Emma Thompson is dryly amusing as Agent O, reprising her role from the third film. Respectable British actors appearing in Hollywood blockbusters for a paycheck is a time-honoured tradition and one that Neeson and Thompson continue here.

Kumail Nanjiani voices Pawny, who as the funny alien sidekick, is designed as the successor to Frank the Pug (who makes a cameo). This reviewer was afraid that the character would come off as annoying, but Nanjiani’s delivery keeps Pawny generally more amusing than grating. The computer animation used to create Pawny and integrate him with the live-action footage is excellent.

French dancers Les Twins, who will next be seen in the Cats movie, enliven the proceedings with their new-style hip-hop moves. However, their characters’ schtick seems to be lifted wholesale from the Twins in The Matrix Reloaded.

The previous films have playfully ‘outed’ celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Bill Gates, George Lucas and Lady Gaga as being aliens. In this film, a social media influencer (presumably a different one for the different markets the film will be released in) gets a cameo. This is one of the most worrying elements about Men in Black: International, indicating that future blockbusters will pander to audiences by shoehorning in people who are famous from YouTube or Instagram.

Men in Black: International is not a poorly made film, but in extending the MIB franchise, it fails to add anything substantial to the world-building or the mythos. Big franchise movies can often feel like products and none this year feels more like a product than Men in Black: International, but its dependable cast and high production value keep things from feeling like too much of a drag.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Godzilla: King of the Monsters review

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS

Director: Michael Dougherty
Cast : Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Zhang Ziyi, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, O’Shea Jackson Jr., David Strathairn
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 2 h 12 mins
Opens : 30 May 2019
Rating : PG13

            The king of all monsters is back, and he’s brought friends and enemies with him in this sequel to 2014’s Godzilla.

It has been five years since Godzilla triumphed over the MUTOs in San Francisco. The organisation Monarch has discovered that there are several more ancient megafauna known collectively as ‘Titans’ lying dormant around the world. Dr Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), a paleobiologist working for Monarch, has developed a device called the Orca that can communicate with the Titans. She has separated from her animal behaviourist husband Mark (Kyle Chandler), formerly also a Monarch employee, and their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) lives with her.

Alan Jonah (Charles Dance), a defected British Army Colonel who is obsessed with restoring balance to the world, sets off a chain of events that awakens the Titans. These include the benevolent Mothra and the hostile King Ghidorah and Rodan. A team of Monarch scientists led by Dr Ishirō Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) must figure out the best way to put an end to the global rampage caused by the ancient monsters.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a movie that gives the people what they want: lots of monsters that fight each other a lot. The film has a rather tricky task of balancing the absurd spectacle and inherent silliness of the kaiju movie genre with a certain gravity to the colossal destruction. Director Michael Dougherty is mostly up to the task, delivering a movie that is reverent of the illustrious history of kaiju films but one that’s also unafraid to have ludicrous amounts of fun.

Part of the beauty of this movie is that it very much knows what it is, and all the actors are aware of this too. It is hard to care too much about the human characters, but the movie knows that the human characters are secondary to the Titans. As a result, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the dialogue is very cheesy, and that everyone talks exactly how you’d expect characters in a disaster movie to talk. Godzilla: King of the Monsters often stays on just the right side of stupid, and like Kong: Skull Island before it, is very much a B-movie with an A-movie budget.

The visual effects, supervised by Guillaume Rocheron, are plentiful and astounding, with a huge number of creatures and environments to be created in CGI. Many scenes are awe-inspiring, but this reviewer found a quiet sequence in which a submarine comes across an ancient sunken city to be the biggest ‘wow’ moment in the film. The dogfight sequence which pits the Pterodactyl-like Rodan against a squadron of fighter jets is thrilling, satisfying and is the kind of thing that could’ve only been assembled by someone with an abiding affection for this genre.

While the monsters are created digitally, Dougherty took the right approach in hiring special effects houses known for animatronic and prosthetic effects to design them. Amalgamated Dynamics provided the design for Rodan, while Legacy Effects designed Mothra and King Ghidorah. Both studios were founded by former collaborators of Stan Winston, and there are times when the Titans feel like they could be animatronic or performer-in-suit creatures like those seen in Jurassic Park and Aliens. This is also helped by the motion capture performers TJ Storm, who reprises the role of Godzilla from the 2014 film, and Jason Liles, Alan Maxson and Richard Dorton, who play King Ghidorah’s three heads.

Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga and Millie Bobby Brown, who play the film’s central family, are taking things seriously enough. While the characters’ back-story and their link to the events of the 2014 film is established effectively, there is not much that’s truly compelling about these characters. Like the rest of the human characters, they are mostly there to react to all the monster mayhem, but Brown especially continues to show what a natural and talented actor she is.

This film gives Ken Watanabe’s Dr Seriwaza more to do besides making grave proclamations, though he still does plenty of that. We get two characters who squarely serve as comic relief and little else, played by Thomas Middleditch and Bradley Whitford. Whitford’s character Rick Stanton is nakedly based on the brilliant but constantly drunk and chaos-prone Rick Sanchez from the Rick and Morty cartoon. This is where the movie is dangerously close to crossing into 90s disaster movie-levels of silliness, but Dougherty doesn’t let the humour get too self-indulgent.

Charles Dance can always be called upon to deliver gravitas with a sinister tinge, which is just what he does here. He’s there to ominously intone lines like “we’ve opened Pandora’s box, and there’s no closing it now,” with just the slightest whiff of irony.

The idea behind Zhang Ziyi’s character is more interesting than the character is in execution is: she’s a third-generation Monarch scientist whose speciality is mythology. The film’s constant references to the legends of old and how mythological beasts were depictions of the Titans is a rich vein that could be further explored in future MonsterVerse movies.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters can sometimes feel like overkill, but then again, a movie about a giant monster battle royale should feel like overkill. The film’s playfulness is exemplified in its choice of end credits song: a cover of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Godzilla” by Serj Tankian and Dethklok, as arranged by the film’s composer Bear McCreary. This is exactly the right approach for a Godzilla movie, and indicates that the film is intent on delivering B-movie delights on a grand scale. It achieves this.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Aladdin (2019) movie review

ALADDIN (2019)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast : Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Frank Welker, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure/Musical
Run Time : 2 h 8 mins
Opens : 23 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The Disney live-action remake train keeps chugging along with Aladdin, based on the beloved 1992 film of the same name. Next stop: Agrabah.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street urchin eking out a hardscrabble existence as a thief on the streets of Agrabah. He meets Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the Princess of Agrabah, in the market, and immediately falls for her. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Grand Vizier, tasks Aladdin with entering the mythical Cave of Wonders to retrieve a lamp for him – only a “diamond in the rough” will be allowed passage into the cave.

The lamp contains the Genie (Will Smith), a magical being who will grant whoever is in possession of the lamp three wishes. Aladdin transforms into Prince Ali in a bid to win Jasmine’s affection, as the law demands that she only marry a prince. Aladdin and the Genie are caught in Jafar’s scheme to usurp the throne from the Sultan (Navid Negahban), with the future of Agrabah in the hands of a humble ‘street rat’.

There seems to be a general backlash against Disney’s recent spate of live-action remakes of their animated movies, not because the movies are all that bad, but that they’re unnecessary. A change in context or setting can sometimes justify a remake – this reviewer feels the 2016 Pete’s Dragon movie is an underrated gem. A shift in genre sometimes makes the remake worthwhile – the 2016 Jungle Book movie played up the action and adventure elements and played down the ‘50s variety show’ feel of the 1967 film.

However, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was a remake that was driven purely by nostalgia – while generally competent in and of itself, it didn’t add anything significant to the animated film on which is was based, and was a movie that spent most of its time glancing at the floor, trying to hit its marks.

Aladdin has many of the problems that the Beauty and the Beast remake had, with some new ones too. First off, Guy Ritchie seems like a curious choice to helm a fantasy musical, since he is best known for his street-level crime comedies. It’s hard to know how much of the blame to assign to Ritchie, because Aladdin is a movie that feels made by committee. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it is obligated to hit its marks and deliver the imagery that audiences remember from the animated film.

As a result, Aladdin often feels weirdly stilted. There is beauty to the design elements in the film, with the Palace of Agrabah looking like a cross between the Hagia Sophia in Turkey and the Alcázar of Seville in Spain. Unfortunately, Agrabah never registers as a living breathing place. Instead of a movie that’s vibrant, energetic and spilling off the screen, Aladdin feels flat. Agrabah is reminiscent of Disney’s Epcot theme park – this is most obvious during the “Prince Ali” number, which despite containing a thousand extras, is markedly underwhelming. While Aladdin serves up several grand tableaus, nothing is truly awe-inspiring. “A Whole New World” lacks the “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling” that the lyrics promise.

There is still a fair amount to appreciate: the photo-realistic CGI incarnations of Abu, Rajah, and Iago (voiced by Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk) all work well, and Alan Menken’s songs continue to be magical. Plenty of the jokes land, and the film benefits from its humour being less self-referential and pop culture-centric than that of the animated film.

Integral to Aladdin’s appeal is the Genie, Robin Williams’ portrayal of the character being inextricably linked with the animated film. Williams’ genie was mercurial, manifesting in multiple forms and being a showcase for Williams’ skills as an impressionist.

The problem with getting a big name like Will Smith in a live-action movie is that Will Smith has to be recognisable as himself. In blue CGI form, the Genie looks like Will Smith, but just a little off such that it seems not quite right. The Genie’s penchant for changing forms is heavily downplayed, and while Smith is typically charming and charismatic as the Genie, the movie practically forces audiences to compare him to the animated incarnation. In the stage musical adaptation, the Genie is reimagined as a gadabout lounge singer-type, which fits the medium of a stage musical. There isn’t enough done conceptually to optimise Will Smith’s Genie for the medium of a live-action film, but the movie’s emphasis on the Genie’s desire not just to be free but to become mortal has the beginnings of an interesting idea.

Mena Massoud does fine work as Aladdin – he has a winsome smile and projects the innate decency that is key to the character. Aladdin is a good person who has been forced into difficult circumstances, and Massoud gives the character a good mix of sweetness and street smarts. Aladdin also does lots and lots of parkour; it’s clear that these scenes are much more in Ritchie’s wheelhouse than the musical numbers are.

Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is defiant but far from petulant, and the film places more emphasis on Jasmine’s desire to become Sultan herself and reshape Agrabah for its citizens. The changes to the Jasmine character to make her more of a leader are interesting, but not fully explored. Jasmine gets the film’s one new song “Speechless” – while Scott’s singing voice is impressive, the song doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the music and isn’t as good as “These Palace Walls” from the musical, which fulfils a similar purpose.

Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is markedly disappointing. The film plays up Jafar’s hawkish interventionist tendencies; he is pushing the Sultan to declare war on neighbouring kingdoms. Jafar is a one-dimensional villain in the animated film, but Kenzari seems a little too restrained, never visibly taking pleasure in playing a sneering, moustache-twirling villain. Jafar as a politicking manipulator is an idea that’s touched on but never actually developed – he still becomes a cackling sorcerer at the end of the film, but Kenzari never revels in the evil.

Navid Negahban’s Sultan is much more dignified than the bumbling, easily misled old man of the cartoon. Nasim Pedrad handily steals the show as Dalia, a new character created for this version. One of the film’s funniest moments is when Pedrad exclaims “spoons!” Her interactions with the Genie seem more compelling than the love story between Aladdin and Jasmine.

Billy Magnussen also plays a new character, Prince Anders from Skånland. He’s merely there as an example of what Aladdin is up against in vying for Jasmine’s hand in marriage and is a largely superfluous character, but his presence does establish Agrabah as being part of a much larger world.

Aladdin is stuck being a live-action remake that serves mostly to remind viewers of its animated forebear. Especially when the source material is as popular as the 1992 Aladdin film, a remake actively invites comparisons. The film doesn’t adapt the source material well-enough to fit the different medium. While some might involuntarily gravitate towards the film’s packaged nostalgia, Aladdin cannot rise above being a shadow of the animated film.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu review

POKÉMON: DETECTIVE PIKACHU

Director: Rob Letterman
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, Rita Ora
Genre : Adventure/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 45 mins
Opens : 9 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The hugely popular Pokémon multimedia franchise gets its first live-action movie in the form of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, based on the 2016 spin-off video game.

The story follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who has abandoned his childhood dreams of becoming a Pokémon trainer to work in an insurance firm. After the disappearance of his father, a police detective in Ryme City, Tim meets the Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who once belonged to his father. Together with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an intern at a news network, Tim and Detective Pikachu attempt to solve the mystery of Harry’s disappearance.

They uncover a conspiracy that seems to implicate the wealthy Clifford family – Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) is the benevolent visionary who built Ryme City, while his son Roger (Chris Geere) has wrested control of Clifford Enterprises from his father. Also figuring into the mystery is a serum that turns normally-friendly Pokémon into savage monsters. Tim, Detective Pikachu, Lucy and her Psyduck must prevent the enactment of a dastardly scheme that endangers the human and Pokémon residents of Ryme City alike.

There’s a fair amount of risk in making a movie like Pokémon: Detective Pikachu – video game movies haven’t exactly had the best track record, and Pokémon is such a sprawling, beloved franchise that a poorly-received live-action movie would be a significant misstep. The momentum behind this movie getting made owes mostly to the Pokémon Go augmented reality mobile game, which held the world in its thrall.

It’s a clever move to make a live-action movie based on one of the more obscure entries in the Pokémon oeuvre as opposed to making a movie about the characters featured in the Pokémon anime series. There’s a bit more room to experiment, and while Detective Pikachu does have an experimental feel to it, it also can’t help but feel like a corporate product. Director Rob Letterman, whose background is in animation, and who also directed Goosebumps, handles the integration of live-action and animated characters well.

The film’s plot is straightforward, its underlying mystery not exactly involving, and it often feels derivative of many movies that came before it. However, it’s also a movie that’s clearly made by people who care about and love the Pokémon franchise. The movie brims with texture and seems designed for audiences to point excitedly at the screen as they recognise various types of Pokémon. The film’s design is its strong suit: Ryme City feels like a hybrid of London and Tokyo, with a dash of Blade Runner neon-noir to its aesthetic. Some of the Pokémon redesigns work better than others. While plenty are still cute, Mewtwo suffers from what seems like a lack of texture, thus feeling more like a video game character than the other Pokémon who populate the film.

There’s a delightful incongruity in hearing Ryan Reynolds’ voice emanate from an exceedingly cuddly Pikachu. The character animation on the titular character is marvellous, incorporating some motion capture performed by Reynolds. While the Detective Pikachu of the video game had a gruff voice, Ryan Reynolds sounds like Ryan Reynolds, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a mix of optimism and mischief that the character animation in combination with Reynolds’ voice work captures. There’s also the great device of giving Detective Pikachu an extreme fondness for coffee, as kind of a replacement for the cigarettes which detectives in noir movies would chain-smoke.

There is not very much to the human characters, but Justice Smith gives this his best shot. The character has left behind the dreams of his youth and has accepted a dreary existence, with the sudden entry of Detective Pikachu into his life reigniting his imagination. The Tim character is a cipher for viewers who grew up with Pokémon but may have moved on from the games, toys and cartoons as they’ve entered adulthood.

Kathryn Newton’s Lucy character is every bit the intrepid reporter archetype, combined with the giddy energy of a girlish anime protagonist. Her character is more heightened than Tim, and Newton and Smith don’t have great chemistry, but thankfully the film does not focus on a romantic subplot.

Ken Watanabe turns in a respectable supporting turn as Ryme City Police Lieutenant Hideo Yoshida, Harry’s boss, but the show is stolen by Bill Nighy. Nighy is a distinguished actor who has been in a fair number of silly movies but hearing him utter words like “Pokémon” and “Mewtwo” with a straight face is a thing of sheer joy.

Grading on the curve of video game movies, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is an achievement. It does sometimes feel like a corporate, impersonal product, made to further expand an already-big brand, but there’s also an earnestness to it and a level of craftsmanship behind it that keep it a safe distance from being wholly soulless. There’s a cheery nostalgia that underpins this and a welcome familiarity to the elements that hark back to 80s movies. It’s not the most ground-breaking example of what it could’ve been, but there’s still plenty to like about Pokémon: Detective Pikachu.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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 name “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