Onward review

For F*** Magazine

ONWARD

Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast : Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez
Genre: Animation/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 42 mins
Opens : 5 March 2020
Rating : PG

Marvel Cinematic Universe stars Tom Holland and Chris Pratt take a detour into another fantastical realm in this animated adventure comedy from Pixar.

Holland and Pratt voice elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot respectively. They live with their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), their father having passed away when Barley was very young and before Ian had any memory of him. On the day of Ian’s 16th birthday, he is gifted a magical staff and an accompanying scroll – inscribed upon it is a spell that could bring their father back to life for just one day. Unfortunately, there’s a hitch and only their father’s legs materialise. Ian and Barley must go on a quest in search of the Phoenix gem to bring all of their father back before the 24-hour window expires.

Onward uses its lead voice actors to great effect, with Holland and Pratt both playing to type – Holland’s Ian is the awkward reserved young man who’s coming of age, while Pratt’s Barley is enthusiastic and boisterous if irresponsible. The movie hinges upon Ian and Barley’s relationship as siblings and does a good job of showing how even though they fight and disagree, they ultimately love each other and must be there for each other especially since they have lost their father.

This being Pixar, the animation is superb, even if the film is not quite as remarkable design-wise as some of the studio’s other efforts. There isn’t much in the way of elaborate set-pieces, save for a big climactic battle sequence. There’s still a great attention to detail and there is amusement to be derived from the film’s milieu of a modern world populated by magical creatures. There are several inspired gags that are set up and paid off nicely, as well as a good amount of physical comedy – the film gets a lot of mileage out of the floppy “dummy” that stands in for the missing upper body of Ian and Barley’s father.

Octavia Spencer voices Corey, a Manticore who runs a tavern and whose glory days are somewhat behind her. The film includes a subplot in which Laurel seeks Corey’s help to find her missing sons and ensure their safety. Corey makes for a fun side character.

While Onward has the novelty of being Pixar’s first real foray into the high fantasy genre, its plot is extremely generic – it’s a chosen one hero’s journey, right down to the rite of passage that takes place on a significant birthday. It feels like the movie has bursts of inspiration, with serviceable story beats in between. Almost all of Pixar’s movies can be classified as road trip stories in some form or another, and Onward is no exception. We know our heroes will meet colourful characters and get into scrapes along the way, but it feels like Onward falls just a bit short of its full imaginative potential. It lacks the poignancy and the considered observations of other Pixar films – it is effectively emotional and moving, but also often in danger of coming off as emotionally manipulative.

The filmmakers demonstrate a palpable affection for Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering and tabletop/card games of their ilk. The film even includes two actual D&D monsters, which appear courtesy of Wizards of the Coast. Once the target of the 80s “Satanic panic”, Onward is yet another sign of how D&D has entered the mainstream pop culture consciousness.

A big part of what makes the movie work is that there is a personal component for director and co-writer Dan Scanlon, who also helmed Monster’s University for Pixar. Scanlon’s father passed away when he was one and his brother was three, leaving behind a tape recording of him simply saying “hi” and “bye”. The film’s palpable emotional resonance is a result of Scanlon bringing this personal history to the table.

Summary: Onward’s plot may be an old-fashioned hero’s journey and its fantasy elements might be familiar even though they’re blended with modern day trappings, but there’s sincerity and joy in this tale of brotherhood and bereavement. This is not quite Pixar’s best, but it’s still going to find a devoted audience.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The LEGO® Movie 2 review

THE LEGO MOVIE 2

Director : Mike Mitchell
Cast : Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, Richard Ayoade, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, Jadon Sand, Brooklyn Prince, Noel Fielding
Genre : Animation/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 47 mins
Opens : 7 February 2019
Rating : PG

It’s been five years since The LEGO® Movie was released, defying expectations by being a movie made to sell toys that was about so much more than just selling toys. In the meantime, the spin-offs The LEGO Batman Movie and The LEGO Ninjago Movie have graced the big screens, but The LEGO Movie 2 has plenty to live up to.

The LEGO Movie ended with Bricksburg being invaded by aliens from the Systar System. Five years later, Bricksburg has become ravaged by repeated alien invasions, and is now the wasteland Apocalypseburg. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is still his cheery self, while the other denizens of Apocalypseburg, including Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie) and Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) have become hardened road warriors.

The latest invasion is led by General Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), who captures Lucy, Batman, Unikitty, Metalbeard and Benny the 1980-something Space Guy (Charlie Day). Mayhem takes them back to the shape-shifting alien queen of the Systar System, Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Emmet travels to outer space to save his friends, and along the way meets Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), a super-cool spacefaring explorer and crime-fighter who is everything Emmet has ever wanted to be. Lucy suspects that Watevra harbours malice, thinking she has brainwashed the others, but there’s more to this conflict than first appears.

The LEGO Movie was a beautifully-made animated film that explored surprisingly sophisticated ideas, benefitting from the gleeful but good-hearted anarchy that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller bring to their projects. The duo remains onboard as screenwriters for the sequel but pass the director’s chair on to Mike Mitchell. The LEGO Movie 2 is an excellent continuation of the first movie’s plot, delivering a different message from the first film but one that’s also clever and slyly subversive.

The first film ended with the revelation that there was a human world beyond the LEGO world and that the film’s story sprung from the imagination of a young boy named Finn (Jadon Sand). Finn’s sister Bianca (Brooklyn Prince) wants to play with him, with her contribution to Finn’s story represented as an alien invasion. This metatextual knowledge informs the audiences’ interpretation of the story, which comments on gendered toys. Toys are generally marketed to boys one way and to girls another way, and there’s a perception that boys and girls play with toys in different ways.

The LEGO Movie 2 also deals with growing up, taking advantage of the five-year gap between films. The desire to be perceived as tough, cool and well, grown-up is reflected in Emmet’s awe at his newfound ally Rex. Emmet’s cheerful optimism is often taken as naivete; he wishes that he could be tougher and cooler because he thinks that’s what Lucy wants of him. The movie comments on masculinity in an astute way – there are some parallels between Emmet and Hiccup, the protagonist of the How to Train Your Dragon Movies, in that both are not traditionally badass heroes. The LEGO Movie 2 addresses why it’s important that Emmet retains the essence of who he is.

Just like in the first film, there’s the sense of imagination running amok without the movie feeling like a mess. There’s a straightforward narrative trajectory and a twist or two towards the end, but there’s a joke every other minute and the film constantly feels alive. The innumerable pop culture references feel organic rather than mechanically slotted in. The animation by Animal Logic is just as dynamic and eye-catching as in the previous LEGO movies. The photo-realistic CGI animation creates the illusion of stop-motion animation and makes each LEGO brick and element feel tactile.

The returning cast is a joy to hear. From Alison Brie’s mix of innocence and rage as Unikitty to Charlie Day’s unbridled, single-minded enthusiasm as Benny, these are eminently loveable characters. Pratt shines in a dual role, with Rex Dangervest riffing on other Pratt roles including Star-Lord from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Owen Grady from the Jurassic World movies and Joshua Faraday from the Magnificent Seven remake (with a possible nod towards Cowboy Ninja Viking, still in development).

Lucy’s character is shaded in a little more, with the indication that her cool, rebellious exterior is an affectation. Will Arnett’s portrayal of Batman as a self-obsessed loner continues to be amusing, with Batman’s own complex figuring heavily into the plot of this film.

Tiffany Haddish is a hot commodity in the movie business after the success of Girls Trip, lending plenty of personality to Watevra, a mercurial force of nature. Stephanie Beatriz voicing a LEGO character is especially rich because she got her signature eyebrow scar from tripping on a LEGO brick at age 10.

The LEGO Movie 2 hits the sweet spot of being a family film that isn’t condescending to kids and isn’t pandering to adults. There’s something for everybody, and it doesn’t feel forced. There’s surprising poignancy to the message at its heart, but it’s also consistently funny and lively. Because it’s a sequel, it doesn’t have the explosive freshness of the first film, but it’s a satisfying and intelligent follow-up that has plenty to offer.

RATING: 4.5 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

Avengers: Infinity War review

For inSing

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Directors : Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast : Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action/Comics
Run Time : 2h 29m
Opens : 25 April 2018
Rating : PG13

We’re going to do things a little differently.

Going into Avengers: Infinity War, you’ve been told to avoid spoilers like the plague, and yet, we want you to read this review, which will be spoiler-free.

This will be a review, and yet not a review. We’re hoping that you’ll read this, but if you don’t wanna, that’s fine.

We’ll say it up front: this is a particularly tricky movie to write a spoiler-free review of, but we’ll give it the best shot we’ve given anything.

Marvel has hyped Avengers: Infinity War as the most ambitious crossover event staged in entertainment media. They’re not wrong. No matter which way you look at this movie, it’s tricky to put together. It’s a puzzle with the pieces constantly moving.

Even with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War under the Russo brothers’ belts, there are still many times during Infinity War when one is wont to wonder aloud “how did the guys from Arrested Development and Community get here?” This is a film with a sprawling scope, even for a genre which is all about scope. The Russo brothers, with the in-built support at Marvel Studios, do a commendable job of wrangling it all.

This reviewer would love to have been a fly on the wall while the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were hammering this out. Imagine all the iterations, all the bits and pieces that maybe didn’t quite work, before we got here.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A studio hasn’t quite been able to announce to the audience “right, you should’ve seen all 18 of these movies, or at least most of them, before you watch this. Off you go, then.” Not even long-running franchises like the Bond movies, Star Wars, or Harry Potter can really demand that, and know that most audiences would have fulfilled that demand. There’s a swaggering confidence about Infinity War, and yet it’s not off-putting or self-congratulatory. If anything, Marvel Studios is deliberately making things really difficult for themselves going forward.

Over the years, the MCU has garnered its fair share of detractors. There are purists, there are ardent fanboys who have fixated on one niggling aspect or another that dissatisfied them, there are those who loyally back the other team (this reviewer has been accused of being both paid off by Disney and being biased towards DC movies), there are those who say it’s all too funny and nothing is taken seriously enough. Depending on the context, some aspects of these criticisms are valid, but it’s important to take a step back and consider all the myriad hurdles that the people making these films have cleared to get here.

At the core of Infinity War is a MacGuffin hunt that has spanned multiple movies, with so much being set up in previous instalments, leading up to this. The film takes inspiration from the Infinity Gauntlet comic book arc in 1991, written by Jim Starlin, and the 2013 Infinity crossover event, written by Jonathan Hickman. Infinity War is the culmination of intergalactic warlord and ‘mad titan’ Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) search for the Infinity Stones. We’ve seen five of the six stones in previous movies, and he’s looking to collect them all.

This is a quest that has attendant consequences and sacrifice, and from the beautifully staged, dramatic and grave opening scene onwards, viewers have a good idea of what to expect. There are plenty of jokes, but unlike in previous MCU movies, this reviewer felt less of a sense that said jokes were stepping on the dramatic beats.

This reviewer wasn’t the biggest fan of Civil War, because there was noticeable bloat and the central conflict didn’t really get enough room to breathe. Weirdly enough, that seems like less of a problem here. Clocking in at 149 minutes and costing an estimated $300-400 million, it seems a foregone conclusion that Infinity War would be more bloated than a beached whale, but it moves with great finesse.

Infinity War could easily have come off as a string of unrelated set-pieces. It’s evident that this was not constructed by devising the set-pieces first, with the plot being filled in around those. Our massive ensemble is handily organised into groups, with said groups meeting and then diverging as the story progresses. The groups all make sense, and there is considerable time dedicated to reinforcing and evolving existing relationships.

The romance between Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) elicited the most emotion out of this reviewer. The Guardians of the Galaxy team up with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and we delve a little deeper into the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her estranged adoptive father Thanos.

It seems like Markus and McFeely really enjoyed writing the Guardians, nailing the voices of each character. There’s a consistency which feels organic and yet must’ve been challenging to achieve. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Doctor Strange/Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) butt heads and egos, while Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) faces more struggles in getting control of his alter ego, the Hulk. A good portion of the film is set in Wakanda, which in Black Panther, has just opened itself to the outside world, its people getting more than they bargained for here.

It wasn’t really that long ago when we thought we’d never see Peter Parker in the MCU, so it’s a genuine thrill to see Holland’s Spider-Man interact with so many characters and feel like he was always meant to be in this line-up.

Thanos feels like an actual character rather than just an obstacle our heroes must overcome. We get just enough back-story and there is respectable gravity to the proceedings. There’s a lot of fantastic acting on display from everyone involved. This is not a movie in which the spectacle does all the legwork.

Avengers: Infinity War is a staggering work of virtuosic audacity. Its filmmakers play the audience like a fiddle. The ending is either a howl-inducing gut punch or sheer genius – maybe both at once. You’re probably going to be frustrated at some point or another, but there will be gasps, there will be cheers, there will be laughter, and depending on how fragile the audience at your screening is, there might be open sobbing.

Given the nigh-insane parameters the filmmakers were working within, Avengers: Infinity War is the best movie it could’ve been.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

For F*** Magazine

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

Director : James Gunn
Cast : Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2h 16min
Opens : 27 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Pop the tape in the deck and pump up the volume, ‘cos Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Pratt) and company have returned. Our loveable gang of a-holes crosses the cosmos in an adventure that brings Quill face-to-face with his biological father, Ego (Russell) the Living Planet. That’s not the only family reunion taking place: assassin Gamora (Saldana) and Nebula (Gillan), the daughters of Thanos who have long been at each other’s throats, cross swords again. Jolly big guy Drax (Bautista), cantankerous cybernetically-enhanced raccoon Rocket (Cooper) and wee sapling Baby Groot (Diesel) are along for the ride. The team makes a new ally in the form of Mantis (Klementieff), an alien empath raised by Ego. They also make a new enemy: the haughty High Priestess Ayesha (Debicki) of the Sovereigns, who has put a bounty on the Guardians’ heads. In the meantime, Yondu (Rooker) is in danger of being displaced, as Taserface (Sullivan) leads a coup against him within their gang of Ravagers. The fate of the galaxy once against rests on the wildly different-sized shoulders of our ragtag heroes.

Before Guardians of the Galaxy’s release in 2014, several industry watchers were predicting it could be the first high-profile misfire for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Following its rollicking critical and commercial success, director James Gunn was feted as having accomplished the nigh-impossible. Now that the first Guardians film has become a juggernaut and Chris Pratt is an established movie star, that dark horse sheen has worn off. We can imagine Gunn having a mini “now what?” crisis as he was prepping the sequel. He certainly had his work cut out for him, and Vol. 2 retains much of the wacky charm that made the first film as distinctive and enjoyable as it did, while further exploring what makes this colourful cast of characters tick.

Gunn stated in a Facebook post that he dislikes sequels bringing characters back to square one. In Vol. 2, we see arcs progress, and everybody gets their moment in the sun. It’s a precarious balancing act, and at times the push/pull between far-out spectacle and exploring motivations and backstories is palpable. As with several MCU outings before it, there’s the danger of the humour undercutting the drama. However, that’s not as big a problem here, because this is the funniest MCU movie yet. Since there are so many jokes, some don’t land, and the more juvenile innuendos might make parents nervously hope their kids won’t ask for explanations about them later.

In hyping up the film, Pratt promised Vol. 2 would be the “biggest spectacle movie of all time”. As much as Gunn continues to do his own thing, Vol. 2 is noticeably working overtime to top the first one, and this can sometimes be exhausting. The set-pieces are varied and thrilling and the visuals are dazzling, but sometimes there’s a little too much going on – this is most noticeable during the finale. The visual effects work is splendid (apart from one iffy de-aging job), and the environments are consistently mesmerizing. Production designer Scott Chambliss, whose credits include Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland, has outdone himself with the cosmic-Rococo palace which Ego calls home. Vol. 2 of Quill’s Awesome Mixtape is the right degree of eclectic: the opening credits unfold to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky, while the lyrics of Looking Glass’ Brandy become a key plot point.

Gunn’s dialogue preserves the voices of each returning character, and the principals reprise their roles with entertaining aplomb. Pratt has the ‘fun action hero’ thing down pat and yes, gets another gratuitous shirtless scene.

Saldana struts about with utmost confidence, and pulls off a potentially ridiculous scene in which Gamora wields a ludicrously oversized cannon. Bautista continues to prove that he is a gifted comedian, showcasing timing sharper than the daggers Drax brandishes.

Cooper gets some of the film’s best lines, delivering them in the vocal approximation of mange. If you thought Diesel was overpaid for saying the same line repeatedly in the first one, he doesn’t even sound like himself here. Anyone could have voiced Baby Groot. Still, that doesn’t detract from how adorable the character is, those limpid eyes and that plaintive expression sure to elicit “aww”s aplenty from the audience.

Russell is a big get, and if there’s anyone who should play the father of a daring spacefaring scoundrel, it should be Snake Plissken/Jack Burton himself. He’s enjoying himself, and to Gunn’s credit, this doesn’t become an endless string of references to the iconic entries in Russell’s filmography. Like Star Wars before it, Guardians trades in mythical archetypes. This is the tale of a god, the mortal he fell in love with, and the progeny they bore: think Zeus, Danaë and Perseus. The ‘team-up with long-lost dad’ device has been employed in everything from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Therefore, even given its fantastical trappings, Vol. 2’s take on things is fairly predictable.

Debicki, looking like she’s escaped the clutches of Goldfinger, is yet another underwhelming MCU villain – but it seems like this was intentional this time around. Rooker gets some surprisingly emotional notes to play amidst a pirate drama in which Yondu gets displaced by mutinying Ravagers. We gain more insight into the rivalry between Gamora and Gillan’s steely, formidable Nebula, and the soap opera-ness is a safe distance from being too cheesy.

Klementieff’s Mantis is a naïf to the nth degree, and jokes are had at her expense while we’re meant to empathize with her. The character’s convoluted backstory in the comics has been handily distilled, and she makes for an interesting addition to the team. Sean Gunn, brother of James, gets an increased part that, if one is being cynical, can be chalked up to nepotism. It’s hard to stay cynical while watching something like Vol. 2, though.

Keep your eyes peeled for several cameos beyond the standard Stan Lee moment, and take a quick glance around the hall to see the cognoscenti nodding in approval when an obscure Marvel character pops onscreen. Five (count ‘em) stinger scenes are spread throughout the end credits. Vol. 2 might not have the same bold, devil-may-care freshness that its predecessor had, but there’s no shortage of vim and verve. The cutest little tree creature you’ve ever seen doesn’t hurt, either.

Summary: While there’s a bit of a struggle in balancing the spectacle with the character beats, Vol. 2 possesses most of the offbeat charm, visual splendour and knee-slapping humour as its forebear.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Passengers

For F*** Magazine

PASSENGERS 

Director : Morten Tyldum
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Genre : Adventure/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 1h 56min
Opens : 22 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Scenes of Intimacy)

passengers-posterMany of us have pleaded for “five more minutes” when struggling to get out of bed in the morning. Compared to Jim Preston’s (Pratt) predicament in this sci-fi romance, that’s nothing – Jim is awoken 90 years too early. He is among the 5000 passengers on the starship Avalon, bound for the colony planet Homestead II. A malfunction in his hibernation pod results in Jim’s 120-year-long slumber being cut short. Doomed to live out his days in solitude aboard the Avalon and with no way of returning to hibernation, Jim only has the android bartender Arthur (Sheen) for company. That is, until another passenger awakes: Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a writer from New York. Jim and Aurora fall in love – it’s not like they have too much else to do. However, the hibernation pod malfunction is only the first warning sign as it soon becomes apparent that the state-of-the-art ship is in jeopardy, putting the lives of Jim, Aurora and their fellow voyagers at risk.

passengers-chris-pratt-and-jennifer-lawrence-1

Jon Spaiht’s screenplay for Passengers landed on the 2007 Black List of most-liked unproduced scripts in Hollywood, with Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon once attached to the project. It’s safe to say that Lawrence and Pratt have significantly more star wattage. They were the top-earning female and male movie stars of 2014 respectively, and while making the promotional rounds, the pair has given some entertaining interviews. While there’s a novelty in the premise of a sci-fi film carried mostly by two actors, Passengers ends up feeling too familiar. With Oscar-nominated director Morten Tyldum at the helm, it is solidly assembled, but the romance central to the film borders on the simplistic. There is conflict and a rom-com-style big misunderstanding writ large, but the film relies more on its stars’ charm than its wit.

passengers-the-avalon

Passengers’ gleaming, futuristic aesthetic is pleasing, if not terribly ground-breaking. The corkscrew-like exterior of the Avalon is a departure from the traditional bulky star cruisers from most sci-fi media, but the interiors conform to expectations of Apple-esque sleekness. The Avalon is meant to be a space-borne luxury cruise liner, with the passengers spending the last four months before arrival to Homestead II enjoying its plush surrounds. This is one of several ways in which Passengers resembles WALL-E. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, known for his work on Inception and Interstellar, does some beautiful work here and is successful in making the Avalon seem like an awesome place to take a vacation. Infinity pools have got nothing on infinity-and-beyond-pools.

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Both Lawrence and Pratt are interesting case studies in stardom. It’s affected the former more than the latter so far, but there are large swathes of moviegoers who find themselves put off by a perceived sense of ‘trying too hard’ projected by both actors. Lawrence has spoken up about pay inequality after being paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle, and secured a $20 million salary for Passengers – $8 million more than Pratt, despite Pratt having more screen time. Behind the scenes politics aside, they do make for perfectly-matched romantic leads, and their immense chemistry helps the film overcome some contrived moments of character development. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography also makes them both look as glamorous as ever.

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Michael Sheen’s Arthur the android bartender deliberately invokes Lloyd, the ghostly bartender in The Shining. The character is a clever creation, Arthur’s polite friendliness belying an unsettling uncanny valley vibe. Despite its fantastical setting, the film’s depiction of loneliness and despair resulting from isolation and the desire for meaningful companionship is relatable, if not exactly profound.

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Thomas Newman’s score is frequently guilty of being too obvious and intrusive, loudly dictating what the audience should feel rather than hinting at it. It’s a bit of a shame, given how many of Newman’s scores have been lyrical and moving.

The posters for Passengers feature the ominous tagline “there’s a reason they woke up”. This reviewer was hoping for a mind-bending conclusion and an audacious reveal of a massive conspiracy that Jim and Aurora get caught up in. There are flashes of wit in Spaiht’s screenplay – why yes, Sleeping Beauty’s real name is Aurora – but when it is explained why Jim’s hibernation pod opened early, this reviewer was disappointed. Passengers promised a marriage of fiendishly clever sci-fi with a tearjerker romance, but only takes audiences partway to that destination.

Summary: There was never any doubt that Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt would work wonderfully off each other, but past its sci-fi context, it’s a bit of a let-down that Passengers is as straightforward as it is.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

For F*** Magazine

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

Director : Antoine Fuqua
Cast : Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer
Genre : Action/Western
Run Time : 2 hrs 13 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

the-magnificent-seven-posterDirector Antoine Fuqua is heeding the Village People’s sage advice: “go west”. In this western, the townspeople of Rose Creek are threatened by the avaricious land robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), who plans on intimidating them into giving up their settlement. Emma Cullen (Bennett), whose husband Matthew (Bomer) was killed by Bogue, desperately engages the services of bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) to take on Bogue. Chisolm assembles a team of men to take on Bogue and his army. They include gambler Joshua Faraday (Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke), tracker Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), knife-throwing assassin Billy Rocks (Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Chisolm and his team have to get the Rose Creek residents into fighting shape so they can defend their home from Bogue’s forces.

A remake of 1960’s John Sturges-directed The Magnificent Seven has been in the works for a while, with Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Costner attached at one point. The Magnificent Seven is itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai. Working from a screenplay by True Detective creator Nick Pizzolatto and The Equalizer scribe Richard Wenk, Fuqua strives to create a film that’s true to the spirit of its revered forebears, while also having enough vim and verve to attract todays audiences. The ethnically-diverse cast might seem like a politically correct update, but Fuqua maintains that the reality of the old west was “more modern than the movies have been”, with black cowboys, Asian railroad workers and Native Americans all around. With ethnic minorities still not getting the representation in Hollywood productions that they desire, this is a nice step forward.

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While it is significantly faster in pace than the 1960 film, there are times when this Magnificent Seven drags its hoofs. At 133 minutes, it’s longer than it strictly needs to be. There is the feeling that the film never quite hits its stride, even by the time the protracted climactic battle takes place. That said, it’s still sufficiently entertaining, thanks to the dynamics of the appropriately stellar cast. Mauro Fiore’s cinematography has an old-fashioned sweep to it, the Rose Creek set is reasonably authentic and the action scenes are thankfully light on the shaky-cam. The fight choreography can get pretty elaborate, with lots of trick shots and fancy knife-flinging on show.

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For a film that celebrates old-school machismo, there isn’t too much obnoxious posturing to be found. Washington’s subdued authority makes him the ideal team leader, and he does have a similar quality to Yul Brynner in the 1960 version. He cuts a striking figure astride a horse, and projects manliness without resorting to chest-thumping bravado.

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One can tell that Pratt is having the greatest time here, stepping into the Steve McQueen role. He turns the roguish charm up to 11 and is absolutely irresistible as the wily card sharp, in no small part because he’s enjoying himself that much. There are snarky quips aplenty, and Pratt makes them work without coming off as annoyingly glib. Hawke’s Goodnight probably has the most depth out of all the characters. He’s the tormented veteran stricken with PTSD, and Hawke ably conveys that Goodnight is attempting to conceal his trauma beneath a cool veneer. There is some emotional resonance to the buddy pairing of Goodnight and Billy, who are established as being inseparable. While Lee, being the cool cat he is, fits right in with the others, the character still feels like the designated Asian martial arts guy on the team.

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Both Garcia-Rulfo and Sensmeier don’t have a lot to do, but if this were a boyband, Sensmeier definitely would be ‘the cute one’. D’Onofrio is delightful as Horne, who’s pretty much Chewbacca if he were a human being. He may be able to kill with his bare hands, but he’s still reasonably endearing. Bennett’s character is given a satisfying amount of agency, and is neither extreme of wailing damsel in distress or gun-slinging, rooting-tooting Annie Oakley type.

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The biggest difference between this and the 1960 Magnificent Seven is the primary antagonist. While the predecessor had a Mexican bandit played by Eli Wallach, Sarsgaard’s Bartholomew Bogue seems like a deliberate invoking of present-day Wall Street wolves. It’s not a subtle turn by any means and the character’s intimidation factor comes from the fact that he has an army at his disposal, not because he’s actually all that scary. Sarsgaard is an apt choice to play a snivelling, weaselly one-percenter, though we would’ve appreciated it if he could also throw down with the heroes.

This film features the final work of composer James Horner, who died in a plane crash two years ago. He had composed the score as a surprise for Fuqua; Simon Franglen wrote the additional music. It’s not a patch on the iconic Elmer Bernstein music from the 1960 version, but it gets the job done. While most film music connoisseurs have grown tired of Horner’s repeated use of the four note ‘danger motif’, which is very present in this score, we have to say we’ll miss hearing it.

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The Magnificent Seven is not the breathlessly entertaining romp we hoped it would be, but it isn’t a shameless desecration of the classics on which it is based either. Its political allegories and inclusive casting justify its existence somewhat, and it manages to be nigh-riotously funny and pretty darn intense at the right moments.

Summary: It’s ungainly at times, but an extremely fun cast make The Magnificent Seven ’16 a decently entertaining diversion, even if it won’t be viewed as a classic.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jurassic World

For F*** Magazine

JURASSIC WORLD

Director : Colin Trevorrow
Cast : Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D’onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Omar Sy, B.D. Wong, Irrfan Khan, Jake Johnson
Genre : Adventure/Thriller
Run Time : 125 mins
Opens : 11 June 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)
“The park is open.” With those four little words, the 14-year-long wait for a new Jurassic Park film has finally come to an end. 22 years after the events of the first film, Isla Nublar is now home to a fully functioning dinosaur theme park called “Jurassic World”, welcoming thousands of visitors each day. Billionaire Simon Masrani (Khan) has been entrusted with overseeing the park after the passing of founder John Hammond. As visitors hunger for more excitement, the park’s geneticists, led by Dr. Henry Wu (Wong), have spliced together a new hybrid dinosaur, the vicious Indominus rex. In the meantime, the park’s overworked Operations Manager Claire Dearing (Howard) is expecting her nephews Zach (Robinson) and Gray (Simpkins) who are spending the weekend at the Jurassic World resort. When the I. rexescapes and threatens the safety of the visitors, it is up to Velociraptor trainer Owen Grady (Pratt) and the Jurassic World security team to contain the savage behemoth.

            A fourth Jurassic Park film spent over a decade clawing its way out of development hell following 2001’s Jurassic Park 3. Director Colin Trevorrow, known for the indie comedy-drama Safety Not Guaranteed, was given the responsibility of breathing new life into the franchise, not unlike how InGen’s scientists bring dinosaurs back from extinction. The expectations were massive and Trevorrow’s lack of experience with big blockbusters seemed to be against him, but he has come through, not unlike the Russo brothers with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The screenplay by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Derek Connolly and Trevorrow, contains a healthy amount of self-awareness. There are jibes at corporate sponsorship and an explanation as to the focus group origins of the name of the Indominus rex. Visitors to Jurassic World have grown difficult to impress, demanding bigger, more exciting genetically-engineered attractions, not unlike moviegoers and their ever-increasing appetite for effects-laden tentpole extravaganzas. The main difference is it’s unlikely for Avengers 8 to break out of the screen and eat the audience alive.

            A fully-functioning dinosaur theme park seems like the natural place for a new story to unfold and, for a series ostensibly about a theme park, is long overdue. A tourist attraction at full capacity means more potential for things to go horribly, entertainingly awry. There is a lot of effort put into designing the park and the filmmakers have achieved a sense of verisimilitude with the chain restaurants, open-air arenas, monorail systems and bored employees seen in real-life theme parks. While pushing the franchise forward, there is no shortage of very respectful nods to the past and aficionados of the first Jurassic Parkmovie will find many rewarding Easter Eggs. A sequence set in the derelict visitor’s centre from the first film borders on the indulgent but this reviewer was too busy squealing with fan glee to really be bothered.

            A crucial element of what made the first film so enjoyable was the suspense. The classic T. rex paddock escape and the “Raptorsin the kitchen” scene were masterfully staged and dripping with tension. There are several great scenes in this movie that go for the scares and that do have that adrenaline-pumping thrill ride quality to them. One does get a kick out of seeing the Indominus rex make quick work of heavily-armed, highly trained security contractors and a scene in which a swarm of Pterosaurs escapes their aviary to pluck hapless visitors from the park’s grounds is a wonderful “all hell breaks loose” scene of full-on panic.

The Indominus rex is an appropriately formidable creature, but sometimes lacks the tactility of the T. rex in the original. There’s also that classic movie monster pitfall, where the big bad beast is so impervious to anything that it can get a little tedious trying to defeat it. Many were worried that the element of trained Velociraptors would detract from the ferocity of these iconic dinosaurs, but rest assured that they’re still unpredictable and still scary. After all, people train Rottweilers, lions and bears, with sometimes-deadly consequences. The film does slightly disappoint with some of the visual effects work – for the most part, the dinosaurs are adequately convincing, but the scene in which a sight-seeing “gyrosphere” travels amongst herds of herbivorous dinosaurs feels particularly artificial. Animatronic effects are still employed, but this one does lean far heavier on CGI than the earlier movies.
    
        The characters in this film are archetypes and are all relatively simple, but then again, so were the characters in the first movie and in this case, it’s done pretty well. Chris Pratt further cements his A-list action star status as the rugged ex-Navy man Owen Grady, ably carrying the film as a traditional hero. In the scenes in which Owen is interacting with the four Velociraptorsunder his charge, Pratt displays a knack for acting against nothing, perhaps a skill he honed working with Rocket and Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. Bryce Dallas Howard plays more of a caricature, the tightly wound career woman just seconds from snapping under pressure, but it’s great that there’s a woman in charge of running things at the park this time around and we are profoundly impressed by how well she can run in heels.

            Vincent D’onofrio’s hard-nosed Vic Hoskins, the head of security operations for InGen, is also one-dimensional, dead set on using Velociraptors in military applications. This may be an in-joke referring to an early draft of the film, which had gun-toting human-dinosaur hybrid mercenaries. Yes, we’re glad that didn’t happen too. Irrfan Khan chews some of the lush jungle scenery as eccentric Richard Branson-wannabe Simon Masrani. Ty Simpkins is the stock “kid in peril” and Nick Robinson is his aloof older brother – a film with as high an “embracing one’s inner child” quotient as this one has got to have kid characters in it, and they do far less shrieking than Lex and Tim did in the original. Jake Johnson’s comic relief techie Lowery gets some excellent lines and is, thankfully, not annoying. It’s also really nice to see B.D. Wong again – his Dr. Henry Wu is the only returning character from the first film.

            Jurassic World hits all the notes expected of a Jurassic Park film without merely feeling like it’s going through the motions. It’s clear that there’s earnestness and passion behind this and that Trevorrow is a fan who wants to do right by other fans. There’s definitely a tip of the hat to Steven Spielberg and the contemporary sci-fi masterpiece that was 1993’s Jurassic Park – at the same time, there isn’t a slavishness to what has come before. If there’s anything today that could come close to inspiring the wonderment and terror that Jurassic Park did in the kids who first watched it in 1993, Jurassic Worldwould be it.

Summary:Well worth the 14 year wait. A new world beckons; come on in!
RATING: 4out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Guardians of the Galaxy

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
2014
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C. Reilly, Glenn Close, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action, Adventure, Sci-fi
Opens : 31 July 2014
Rating : PG13 
Run time: 121 mins

            Phase 2 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is drawing to a close, the release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron imminent. With Guardians of the Galaxy, the MCU heads, to quote Dragonheart’s Draco, “to the stars”. Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Pratt), taken from earth as a child, is in search of a prized orb. His treasure hunt sets him on a collision course with some rather colourful characters. These include Gamora (Saldana), an assassin and the adopted daughter of the intergalactic tyrant Thanos (Brolin), Drax (Bautista), hungry for vengeance after his wife and child are slain, Rocket (Cooper), a smart-mouthed, cybernetically-enhanced raccoon and Groot (Diesel), a humanoid tree creature. This unlikely band calls themselves “the Guardians of the Galaxy”, confronting bounty hunter Korath (Hounsou), treacherous zealot Ronan (Pace) and Gamora’s jealous adopted sister Nebula (Gillan) in order to prevent Ronan from getting his hands on a cataclysmic weapon.

            Following the departure of director Edgar Wright and actor Patrick Wilson from the upcoming Ant-Man, murmurs have begun to swirl that the executives at Marvel Studios are exercising too much creative control over their films. That Guardians of the Galaxy even got made assuages those fears at least a little. Producer Kevin Feige says this is the “riskiest movie [he’s] done since Iron Man” and that is not hyperbole. In the hands of maverick director James Gunn, he of Slither, James Gunn’s PG Pornand Troma Pictures fame, GotG is wild, woolly and drastically different from everything else that has come before in the MCU. If Thor, drawing on Norse mythology, was outré, this is certainly even more so. The screenplay which Gunn co-wrote with Nicole Perlman is sharp and consistently funny, irreverent yet far from cynical and alienating (hee) as it well could’ve been.  

            In an age where it feels Hollywood has gotten more and more homogenised, it is refreshing to see a big-budget, mass-market blockbuster that is, well, this refreshing. Spectacle is not in short supply, the world-building on display truly dazzling and electric. For at least a few kids out there, this is going to be their Star Wars: Xandar, Knowhere, the Kyln, the Dark Aster their Tatoonie, Bespin, Hoth or Death Star. These are colourful worlds but they still retain grit and believability. The visual effects work, the character animation on Rocket and Groot in particular, is very commendable. The tree-creature and the talking raccoon both convincingly inhabit the same space as the flesh-and-blood actors, their expressions and movements nuanced and even genuinely moving.

            Chris Pratt is proving himself to be an unlikely but most deserving leading man, shedding the pounds and putting on the muscle to play Star-Lord. His comedic timing and roguish charm combine to make him an ideal protagonist, reminiscent of Han Solo in the best way possible. Saldana continues to hold her own as the capable, commanding action girl of the moment and Bautista brings heart and warmth to the literal-minded, muscle-bound Drax. Taking Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper, arguably two of the bigger names of the cast, and having them provide voices for animated characters can be seen as yet another intentionally unorthodox move on the part of the filmmakers. Saying “I am Groot” repeated ad nauseam may sound like an easy paycheck but Diesel, who broke our hearts as the Iron Giant back in 1999, brings that same basso profundo kindness to Groot – and sounds great angry, too. Hollywood superstars with little real voice-acting experience often “die in the booth” –Cooper does not. As the irascible raccoon, he is amusing but also makes the character far more than the requisite funny talking animal and is certainly a better choice than Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey, rumoured to be attached to the part.

            Unfortunately, the film suffers slightly in the villains’ department. Lee Pace delights in being showy and menacing, Karen Gillan is still a knockout playing against type, even painted blue and with a bald head and Josh Brolin’s appearance as Thanos is but a teaser for his later involvement in the MCU. All quite serviceable, it’s just that their confrontations with our heroes are not as dramatic and explosive as they could’ve been. Still, this is at the expense of character development for the titular team and this is more than forgivable. The eclectic supporting cast including names as disparate as Glenn Close, Benicio del Toro and Michael Rooker add a distinct flavour to the proceedings as well.

            Guardians of the Galaxy is everything this reviewer loves about movies, particularly movies that defined his tastes during childhood. There’s action, adventure, humour, visual fireworks and just enough heartstring-tugging sentiment. The soundtrack is excellent as well, Star-Lord viewing his mix-tapes as precious family heirlooms and the only physical reminder of his late mother he has left. And ultimately, this is a movie about a ragtag bunch that may be far-out but are still relatable and are totally the kinds of people (and raccoons and tree-creatures) you’d want to sit in a cantina with and just hang out. Oh, and the post-credit scene for this one is the biggest treat any hard-core fan of the weirder corners of the Marvel Universe could ever want.


Summary: Out of this world.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong