Spider-Man: No Way Home review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jon Watts
Cast : Tom Holland, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zendaya, Jacob Batalon, Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Alfred Molina, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Foxx, Thomas Haden Church, Rhys Ifans, J.K. Simmons, Benedict Wong
Genre: Action/Adventure/Comics
Run Time : 148 min
Opens : 16 December 2021 (Sneaks 15 December 2021)
Rating : PG

The following review is spoiler-free.

For months, anticipation for Spider-Man: No Way Home has been building to a fever pitch. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has begun toying with the multiverse, a concept familiar to comic book readers. The Disney+ shows Loki and What If…? have been planting the seeds, with the upcoming Doctor Strange: In the Multiverse of Madness set to further establish the concept. Before that, No Way Home flings open the gates.

At the end of Spider-Man: Far from Home, online journalist J. Jonah Jameson (J.K.Simmons) broadcast a video revealing Spider-Man’s secret identity: Peter Parker (Tom Holland). The public believes that the villainous Quentin Beck/Mysterio was really a heroic inter-dimensional warrior, turning on Spider-Man for apparently murdering Mysterio. Now the subject of intense scrutiny, which affects his girlfriend MJ (Zendaya), his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and his Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), Peter grows desperate. He turns to Stephen Strange/Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) for help. Doctor Strange devises a spell to make everyone forget Spider-Man’s secret identity, but the spell goes awry, causing fractures in the multiverse to form. Soon, villains from alternate realities arrive, including Otto Octavius/Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Norman Osborn/Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Max Dillon/Electro (Jamie Foxx), Flint Marko/Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and Curt Connors/the Lizard (Rhys Ifans). Spider-Man must contend with forces far beyond his understanding, as the displaced villains formulate an agenda of their own.

Watching Spider-Man: No Way Home feels like reading a comic book in the best way. Comic books aren’t confined by the same logistical constraints that live-action movies are. If a character needs to make a surprise appearance in an issue of a comic, there aren’t scheduling conflicts to contend with. Drawing an elaborate set is a different matter from constructing one. Like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse before it, No Way Home indulges the “oh, wouldn’t it be fun if…” daydreaming, something all comic book movie fans are given to. We’ve all had conversations where we voice our hope for something to happen or some character to show up, only for the reality of franchise rights and actor availability to dash those dreams. No Way Home takes viewers to the other side where all that is possible.

At the centre of it all, however, is the emotional arc of Peter Parker’s fear that his secret identity is putting those he loves and cares about in danger. Tom Holland’s performance remains endearing and relatable, with the supporting cast of Peter’s loved ones supplying both humour and emotion. Amidst the wild multiversal goings-on and the assault of multiple villains, this through-line holds the movie together. This is a movie that’s constantly in danger of being too convoluted and of having too much plot, but director Jon Watts keeps all the plates spinning. The general plot beats are easy to follow and the 148-minute runtime passes by at a pleasant clip.

Just like comics often do, No Way Home requires viewers to have at least some prior knowledge of the preceding material in the series – and not just of this current Spider-Man trilogy, but the iterations that came before it. There is an attempt to establish each villain with a two-line summary of what their whole deal is, but the nature of this story requires a level of engagement with the material which not all audiences will have. If you’re not already sold on the conceit, then everything will be faintly to extremely ridiculous. One of the features of present-day geek-centric entertainment is the prevalence of fanservice, of presenting something and then going “here’s that thing you like!” Like any device, this can be deployed artfully or clumsily. While No Way Home tends towards the former, it can sometimes feel like a wobbly Jenga tower of references to other stuff.

Unfortunately, a lot of the visual effects work comes off as especially synthetic. Wholly digital characters like Sandman and the Lizard feel phony, and several of the set-pieces are very reliant on digital backgrounds, such that it’s hard to place the characters in a physical space. Compare Doc Ock’s tentacles in this movie, which are completely computer-generated, with those in Spider-Man 2, which featured both digital and elaborate animatronic tentacles.

No Way Home promises to be a nostalgia trip, and it makes good on that promise. Few thought we’d see Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina reprise their roles as the Green Goblin and Doc Ock respectively. Both actors are given more than mere cameos, and do get to give wonderful performances which remind us how good they were in their original appearances. Jamie Foxx’s Electro is slightly more menacing and credible and less cartoonish than in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The screening this reviewer attended was sometimes reminiscent of when a guest star enters the room in a sitcom and the live audience goes wild. There was a lot of cheering and whooping, which is gratifying and enjoyable.

Summary: Spider-Man: No Way Home is reliant on nostalgia by design. However, it also deftly juggles multiple elements without things seeming too cluttered. While being very ambitious, the movie never loses sight of the emotional arc in which Peter Parker just wants to protect those he loves and cares about. If you’re a Spider-Man fan of any description, this is a treat. Not every comic book movie should try to be like No Way Home, because it is something special, but also something that other movies could trip up in attempting to imitate. Stick around for one mid-credits and one post-credits scene.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Frozen 2 review

For F*** Magazine

FROZEN 2

Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Cast : Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, Ciarán Hinds
Genre : Animation, Musical
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 21 November 2019
Rating : PG

In 2013, Disney’s Frozen, based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, became a worldwide phenomenon. The film was a critical and commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing animated film (until this year’s remake of The Lion King, if one defines that as ‘animated’). “Let It Go” became all but inescapable, winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. It seems like making a sequel would be a no-brainer, but the filmmakers took some time before committing to making Frozen 2, beginning work in earnest in early 2015.

Elsa (Idina Menzel) is settling into her role as the queen of Arendelle, but a mysterious voice that only she can hear beckons her to journey beyond the castle. Elsa initially resists, but when she realises that this voice reminds her of a lullaby her mother Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood) used to sing, she is compelled to venture forth. Elsa’s sister Anna (Kristen Bell), Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), the snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) and Kristoff’s reindeer Sven join Elsa on her journey. They travel to the enchanted forest of Northuldra, which has for years been shut off from the outside world by a thick veil of mist. Revelations come to light as Elsa reckons with the secret origin of her cryokinetic powers, and the sisters learn truths both beautiful and hard to face about their family history.

One can see why directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee were initially hesitant to make a sequel to Frozen, because it has become difficult to separate the phenomenon from the movie itself. Frozen’s immense popularity brought about backlash and cries that it was overrated, and it’s easy to forget how good the movie was. Frozen 2 does not merely do everything the same, and is about something.

It is a spoiler to say what exactly some of Frozen 2’s themes are, but it does address the ideas of growth, change and maturity. After everything the characters have been through in the previous film, there is a sense that they’ve arrived, but the events of Frozen 2 push them further along in their character arcs. The sisterly bond between Elsa and Anna remains the beating heart of the film and there are genuinely emotional moments between them, especially when Anna feels that Elsa is still not trusting her fully.

The animation is superb, and the movie features multiple set-pieces in which the animators get to flex their prowess. Water and hair, elements that are notoriously difficult to realise with computer-generated imagery, are rendered beautifully in the film. The forces of nature feature heavily in the narrative, with wind, water, earth and flame all imbued with a dynamism and a consciousness. Also, the costumes in this movie are gorgeous – Elsa is given several show-stopping outfits that look like the world’s classiest figure skating dresses.

There is also a very cute salamander named Bruni, who is like a smaller, happier distant cousin of Tangled’s Pascal. He is very Pokémon-esque and we want one.

While it is commendable that Frozen 2 tackles heavy themes, the movie sometimes strains under the weight of this and is not fully able to support the exploration of those ideas, which requires nuance and time. There is a conversation about the movie’s themes of how history is framed to be had between parents and kids, and not every parent will be up to the task of explaining what Frozen 2 is really about in a kid-friendly way.

While Frozen 2 tries new things and is not a straight re-tread of the first film, there are times when it seems like it’s obligated to deliver what audiences love about the first. We’ll talk more about the songs next, but there are a few that feel like analogues of songs from the first movie and can as such come off as derivative.

Frozen 2 puts great emphasis on the characters from the first film and gives Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf more to do. However, this is sometimes at the expense of the newer characters, such as the likes of Northuldrans Yelana (Martha Plimpton), Ryder (Jason Ritter) and Honeymaren (Rachel Matthews) and Arendellian Lieutenant Mattias (Sterling K. Brown) feel somewhat perfunctory.

If you weren’t a fan of Olaf in the first one, Josh Gad is ever so slightly more annoying here, but there are several moments involving the character that work.

Music is arguably an even bigger part of Frozen 2 than the first one. Songwriting team Kristen and Robert Anderson-Lopez return from the first film, alongside composer Christophe Beck. The songs are a mixed bag: some are good and others feel somewhat derivative. The big number “Into the Unknown”, which is pitched as this movie’s “Let It Go”, can’t help but feel like inherently less than “Let It Go”. Thematically, it is the ‘refusal of the call’ stage of the archetypical Hero’s Journey in song form. It does feature a good use of countermelody, with Norwegian singer Aurora giving voice to the mysterious entity that calls out to Elsa.

The filmmakers seem to have realised how woefully underused Broadway star Jonathan Groff’s singing voice was in the first film, and as such have given Kristoff more songs. He gets what is arguably the film’s best number, “Lost in the Woods”, a playful riff on 80s-90s boyband ballads that is reminiscent of Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love” and “You’re the Inspiration”.

The haunting lullaby “All is Found”, performed by Evan Rachel Wood, is analogous to “Frozen Heart” from the first film. It conveys a sense of foreboding but is also an emotional anchor to the piece.

The end credits feature pop versions of the film’s big songs: Panic! At the Disco sings “Into the Unknown”, Kacey Musgraves sings “All is Found” and Weezer sings “Lost in the Woods”. Brendon Urie’s famous four-octave rage gets showcased nicely in “Into the Unknown”.

There’s an authenticity to Frozen 2, which is respectful of the Nordic culture that is its inspiration. The filmmakers were unable to take the customary research trips for the first film, but made it a point to visit Iceland, Finland and Norway during pre-production on Frozen 2. One of the most interesting elements of Frozen 2 is itself an elemental, an entity called the Nokk that takes the form of a horse and with which Elsa has a dramatic encounter. The contrast between the fairytale-like Norway and the ancient, mythic Iceland is meant to represent the difference between Anna and Elsa.

Part of what’s interesting about Frozen 2 is the battle between being its own thing and being the sequel to Frozen, and the filmmakers have mostly struck a good balance here. Stick around for a post-credits scene.

Frozen 2 has a lot to live up to and delivers both breath-taking animation and a substantial story. While the strain of the weighty themes can sometimes be felt and some of the songs feel like also-rans versions of songs from the first film, Frozen 2 is mostly a lively and engaging experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ralph Breaks the Internet movie review

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET

Director : Rich Moore, Phil Johnston
Cast : John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Taraji P. Henson, Alfred Molina, Alan Tudyk, Flula Borg
Genre : Animation/Comedy/Family
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 22 November 2018
Rating : PG

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-posterWreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) may come from different arcade games, but after the events of the first Wreck-It Ralph film, they’ve become inseparable. In this sequel, the good-hearted oaf and the hyperactive princess get a lot more than they bargained for as they venture into the wild wild web.

It has been six years since Ralph and Vanellope became friends, and while Ralph finds comfort in the predictability of his daily routine as the designated villain  in the Fix-It Felix game, Vanellope has grown restless, the tracks of Sugar Rush no longer providing any excitement. When the steering wheel component of the Sugar Rush console breaks, Ralph and Vanellope use the arcade’s newly-installed connection to the internet to seek a replacement.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Vanellope-and-Ralph-overlooking-internet

In the cyber realm, our heroes meet all manner of colourful characters, including the badass driver Shank (Gal Gadot) from Slaughter Race, Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), head algorithm of video sharing site BuzzTube, search engine KnowsMore (Alan Tudyk) and all the Disney princesses. While the internet contains endless wonderment and awe, there is also a dark side that Ralph and Vanellope are exposed to. When a calamity that could possibly break the internet is accidentally unleashed, Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship (and the computing power of servers around the world) will be put to the ultimate test.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Ralph-and-Vanellope-travelling-1

2012’s Wreck-It Ralph is one of this reviewer’s favourite Disney animated films in recent memory. It’s an energetic, effervescent film that cannily plays with video game tropes while delivering a heartfelt story populated by loveable characters. The sequel turbo-charges this, taking place on a larger scale and crammed with pop culture references, wordplay jokes and visual gags. Amidst everything swirling about in the teeming metropolis that is the internet, Ralph Breaks the Internet holds together because of its focus on the friendship between Ralph and Vanellope.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Oh-My-Disney

It’s easy to be cynical about a movie like Ralph Breaks the Internet, given that much of the story and humour is fuelled by online culture. Co-director Rich Moore cut his teeth on such series as The Critic, The Simpsons and Futurama, bringing much of that self-aware reference-heavy comedy to bear. A Grand Theft Auto-like game is crucial to the plot, Vanellope hangs out with Disney princesses, and Ralph attempts makeup tutorial, hot pepper eating challenge and unboxing videos, among others, in the hopes of becoming a viral sensation. The jokes could’ve very easily been too obvious or cringe-worthy, but in the hands of directors Moore and Phil Johnston, this film never feels like it’s made by clueless adults pandering to kids they don’t understand.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Vanellope-and-Princesses-1

As is expected from Disney Animation, the visuals brim with detail and the character animation is just the right amount of cartoony, the degree to which their features and expressions are heightened varying from character to character. There is a high-octane car chase straight out of the Fast and Furious films, and the visual interpretations of sites like eBay, Instagram and Pinterest are well thought-out and amusing.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Vanellope-and-Princesses-slumber-party

The film’s signature sequence is the meeting between Vanellope and every official Disney Princess, including Snow White (Pamela Ribon), Cinderella (Jennifer Hale), Aurora (Kate Higgins), Ariel (Jodie Benson), Belle (Paige O’Hara), Jasmine (Linda Larkin), Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), Merida (Kelly McDonald), Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Moana (Auli’i Cravalho). Ribon, a screenwriter who also worked on Moana, conceptualised the scene. The House of Mouse gamely and entertainingly takes the Mickey out of its own core sub-brand, commenting on common tropes seen in the Princess movies while providing the fantasy imagery of all one’s favourite characters just hanging out together. Vanellope also runs into Marvel and Star Wars characters, and there is a cameo that is wont to tug on the heartstrings given recent events.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Ralph-and-Vanellope-eBay

Both Reilly and Silverman continue to provide great humanity and heart to their characters. Ralph has never had a real friend before Vanellope, and is understandably distraught at the prospect that he might be replaced as her best friend. Meanwhile, Vanellope struggles with issues of identity and belonging, feeling like she is meant for something greater and perhaps a little less safe than Sugar Rush. While the misunderstandings that occur between Ralph and Vanellope feel a little like a re-tread of the conflicts in the first film, both characters continue to develop and continue to be endearing.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Shank

Gal Gadot plays a character who is pretty much exactly Gisele from the Fast and Furious series, which is a neat little nod. Taraji P. Henson voices the Yesss with effortless cool, with real-life YouTube personality Flula Borg as Yesss’ right-hand man Maybe. Alan Tudyk, Disney’s current lucky charm, voices KnowsMore; he voiced King Candy in the first film.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Ralph-Yesss-and-Vanellope

While Ralph Breaks the Internet’s pop culture reference jokes might lose some of the younger kids, its eye-catching design and heart-warming character interactions will hold their interest. The film doesn’t reach the surprising emotional heights of the first film, nor is it as creative and fresh, but it’s still plenty of fun and utterly hilarious. Stick around for a scene after the main-on-end titles and another at the very end of the credits.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Strange Magic

For F*** Magazine

STRANGE MAGIC

Director : Gary Rydstrom
Cast : Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Meredith Anne Bull, Sam Palladio, Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph, Alfred Molina
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 99 mins
Opens : 29 January 2015
Rating : G
Lucasfilm invites viewers into a world of whimsy, wonder and enchantment (and cheesy pop song covers, a moth-eaten story and some unbearable attempts at comedy) with the animated feature Strange Magic. Marianne (Wood) is a fairy about to marry the conceited prince Roland (Palladio). Marianne’s sister Dawn (Bull) is kidnapped by the tyrannical Bog King (Cumming), with both Marianne and the elf Sunny (Kelley) travelling to the Dark Forest to rescue Dawn. Spurned, Roland devises a cunning plan to make Marianne take him back, a plan that requires the love potion brewed by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth) to pull off. Over the course of these events, the Bog King realises that maybe all he needed after all was a little bit of true love.
            Strange Magic begins with a map unfurling and we find out that the two magical domains in which the film takes place are actually called “Fairy Kingdom” and “Dark Forest”. Within the first minute, it’s clear nobody really was interested in doing anything new with the story, which is a shame given the technically-accomplished animation work from Lucasfilm Animation Singapore. Even then, the detailed, lush backgrounds are offset by sometimes-creepy facial animation, sitting on the edge of the uncanny valley. Strange Magic is directed by Gary Rydstrom and, as the poster proclaims, is “from the mind of George Lucas”. Sure, Lucas has defined the storytelling of a generation with a certain space opera saga, but let’s not forget that “the mind of George Lucas” also spawned Jar Jar Binks. True to that, the comic relief characters here are all deeply annoying.

            It’s a shame that after incubating for 15 years, functioning as a sort of proving ground for Lucasfilm’s Singaporean animators, Strange Magic ends up being so mediocre and forgettable. This is a movie that seems hokey and insincere at every turn. It does have a “message”, as films of this sort must – everyone deserves to be loved, don’t judge a book by its cover, you know the drill. The problem is, there is no conviction behind this and it just feels so perfunctory, especially when compared to the surprisingly mature meditations seen in recent animated films like The LEGO Movie and Big Hero 6. On top of that, the film is presented in a “jukebox musical” format, meaning it is crammed with cringe-inducing, over-produced covers of songs like “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, “Love Is Strange” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”. The soundtrack is produced by Marius de Vries, who was the music director on Moulin Rouge!, also a jukebox musical. The repurposing of the opening chords of “Bad Romance” as a military march is pretty clever, though.

            The voice acting is fine and the one thing the filmmakers do get right is the casting of competent actors and singers in the booth over marketable marquee names. Evan Rachel Wood, who also did her own singing in Across the Universe, is serviceable as the stock “tough girl who can stand up for herself (but who still needs her Mr. Right at the end of the day)”. The Marianne character comes across as a cheap Disney Princess knock-off and the characterisation here reminds us that while it might seem overrated now, Frozen did get a lot right. Elijah Kelley does bring upbeat enthusiasm to the part of Sunny but the character’s “loveable underdog” shtick does come off as very forced. Alfred Molina barely registers as Marianne and Dawn’s father but it might be amusing to some that the character is designed to look as much like George Lucas himself as possible.


            Alan Cumming is the movie’s saving grace as the Bog King. He brings his signature theatricality and flair but tempers it with a lot of growling and snarling. It makes sense once one discovers Strange Magic was originally pitched as “Beauty and the Beast, but the Beast doesn’t transform”. As unoriginal as it all is, at least Strange Magic doesn’t settle for a “good vs. evil” plot and while the Bog King’s change of heart isn’t all that convincing, Cumming makes it relatively easy to go along with. The character animation on the insectoid Bog King himself is also outstanding. Cumming’s fellow Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth has been described with the adjective “annoying” and as the Sugar Plum fairy, she does get on the nerves but all things being relative, is far from the most grating character. That ignominious honour probably falls to Maya Rudolph’s Griselda, the mother of the Bog King. All she does is nag at him to find someone and settle down, and that’s apparently supposed to be funny.


            Animated films have the power to be cynic-proof, to deliver enough invention, charm and humour that hardened critics embrace their inner child for 90 minutes and allow themselves to be swept up in it all. Strange Magicdoes not possess this power. Everything that parents generally find aggravating about bad animated movies is here: painful attempts at comedy, shoehorned-in musical numbers and unsatisfying characterisation. Above all, it’s clear that Strange Magic doesn’t owe its existence to a fresh, intelligent story or dazzling visual invention, but because Lucasfilm Animation wants to prove it can stand with the big boys – which, for now, it can’t. Many of the animators who worked on Strange Magic also worked on 2011’s Rango, which was far wittier, dynamic and entertainingly offbeat. While we probably should be way past the “cartoons have every right to be bad, they’re meant for kids after all” stage, the reality is we’ll have to put up with films like Strange Magic, though hopefully less and less often.

Summary:Unoriginal and uninvolving, Strange Magicdoes have some good animation in it but it cannot compete with the many recent animated films that are well-animated and have excellent stories as well. The cheesy musical numbers and unfunny comic relief do not help.
RATING: 2out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong