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

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

Spider-Man: Far From Home review

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

Director: Jon Watts
Cast : Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Jake Gyllenhaal, Cobie Smulders, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Martin Starr, JB Smoove, Marisa Tomei, Remy Hii, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice
Genre : Action/Superhero
Run Time : 2 h 10 mins
Opens : 2 July 2019
Rating : PG

            With audiences still reeling from Avengers: Endgame, everyone wants to know where the MCU is going next. Phase 3 officially closes out with Spider-Man: Far From Home, which sees our favourite webhead make his way in a brave new uncertain world.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is about to go on a school trip to Europe, where he plans to confess his feelings to MJ (Zendaya). His plans are interrupted when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) comes calling with official superhero business. Monstrous beings known as the Elementals are attacking all over the world, and Peter and his classmates are caught in the path of Hydro-Man in Venice.

Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives to battle the Elementals. He introduces himself as a soldier from a parallel reality in the multiverse, one that was destroyed by the Elementals. Mysterio and Spider-Man team up to fight the oncoming threats, as Spider-Man is entrusted with the responsibility of being the successor to Tony Stark/Iron Man. Peter must grapple with other-worldly threats and fend off Brad Davis (Remy Hii), his rival for MJ’s affections, in an adventure that further expands the jurisdiction of the “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man”.

Spider-Man: Homecoming adeptly managed to be both a superhero movie and a high school coming-of-age movie, director Jon Watts pulling off a delicate balance. This continues to be the case in Far From Home, which combines the “let’s go to Europe!” sequel template of many films from the 80s with blockbuster superhero spectacle. This is the first Spider-Man movie to take place primarily outside New York, and that city is a big part of what makes Spider-Man who he is. As such, it is admirable that Far From Home consistently feels like a Spider-Man movie, because of its focus on Peter’s internal struggles, how he confronts his responsibilities, and the weight of his past failures.

In 2018, Ant-Man and the Wasp was released shortly after Infinity War, as sort of a sorbet course. Far From Home is a lighter movie than Endgame, but it’s also far from inconsequential. It is a high school romantic comedy, but it also addresses the realities of a post-Thanos world. Nick Fury proclaims that he used to know everything, and now he doesn’t and that scares him. Far From Home shows us where Spider-Man fits into this world, and how he accepts (or doesn’t) the mantle of Tony Stark’s protégé.

The action sequences in this movie are larger in scale and more ambitious than in Homecoming, involving disaster movie-style destruction of European landmarks. The visual effects work, especially on the Elementals, is convincing. Sequences in which a swarm of machine gun-equipped drones bear down on our heroes are effectively frightening. There’s a lot of spectacle to go around, but Watts ensures the movie never drowns in its own superhero excess. In its own way, the movie comments on the nature of spectacle and of how audiences go to movies like this to get their fill of large-scale destruction that is ultimately empty and hollow. The film also contains some genuinely inventive, trippy sequences of visual trickery and sleight of hand to make audience’s heads spin.

Tom Holland continues to be outstanding in the role, providing both the likeable awkwardness that’s integral to the character and the remarkable physicality he has honed since playing Billy Elliot on the West End. We see how Peter has evolved after the events of Infinity War and Endgame, but how his core remains the same, and how he remains a good person who’s just in a bit over his head. Even after going to space and fighting Thanos, Peter continues to search for normalcy in a world that’s anything but.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Mysterio, who is presented as a heroic figure in all the marketing materials and whom comic book readers immediately suspected of maybe not being super upfront about everything. Without going into any details, this is a role that Gyllenhaal soaks up. There are several times when he looks completely stupid, but it is always refreshing to see someone who has made a career as a ‘serious actor’ be game for some blockbuster silliness – and hey, this is many steps up from Prince of Persia.

Zendaya’s MJ wasn’t really fleshed out in Homecoming and gets a lot more to do in this film. MJ’s aloofness and dark sense of humour are defence mechanisms. She’s afraid to let anyone get too close, but Peter is determined to win her affection. The chemistry between Holland and Zendaya has a high school crush authenticity to it, and she is a watchable presence throughout the movie.

The movie still is a comedy, with Martin Starr and JB Smoove’s harried chaperone characters providing some of the humour. Jacob Batalon’s Ned, Peter’s best friend, becomes amusingly preoccupied with something other than his friendship with Peter in this movie.

Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan gets a subplot in which he develops feelings for Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), but also gets to step into the mentor role previously filled by Tony. Jackson gets second billing but doesn’t have a tremendous amount to do here.

While it gets a lot right, Far From Home does have its flaws. Certain characters are altogether too credulous, and even for a movie in the MCU, the suspension of disbelief demanded here is high. Attempts are made to explain said credulousness away; these are not entirely convincing. The film throws multiple twists at the audience, but it can feel like it’s trying too hard to keep viewers off balance.

          Spider-Man: Far From Home is mostly up to the task of defining where the MCU is headed post-Endgame, while also being a film that’s squarely focused on Spider-Man and on Peter Parker’s personal struggles. The mid-credits scene probably has the highest stakes of any mid-credits scene yet, and the movie isn’t done with the twists until the final post-credits stinger. The MCU has big plans for Spider-Man and we’re looking forward to seeing where further adventures take him.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Avengers: Endgame review

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast : Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action/Superhero
Run Time : 3 hours 1 minute
Opens : 24 April 2019
Rating : PG13

The following review is spoiler-free.

Following the catastrophic events of Avengers: Infinity War, earth’s mightiest heroes have been crushed. Thanos (Josh Brolin) achieved his goal, wiping out half of all living creatures in existence. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) are all reeling from this loss.

Our heroes must regroup to fight to restore what was so cruelly taken from them. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who was thought to have been among the decimated, was lost in the Quantum Realm. He returns, meeting the surviving Avengers to tell them he might have an idea. What follows is an epic mission to mend what has been broken, one that will take its toll on the Avengers, but a mission which they must complete.

Avengers: Endgame marks the end of the Infinity Saga, a 22-movie cycle comprising the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There is a lot on this movie’s shoulders, since it must address the events of Infinity War and function as a satisfying conclusion to the first 11 years of MCU movies. There will be MCU movies after this, of course: Spider-Man: Far From Home is being released in July. However, audiences know Avengers: Endgame must be far from just another MCU movie, and it is.

The ending of Avengers: Infinity War was an audacious mic-drop, a cliffhanger which audiences had to wait a year to see the resolution of. The villain won: it was like The Empire Strikes Back, but orders of magnitude more devastating for the heroes. The intervening year was filled with speculation and theories. Avengers: Endgame packs in the surprises and twists and turns from the very beginning of its three-hour runtime. It’s an extremely clever piece of writing from screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and a massive logistical ordeal overseen by directors Anthony and Joe Russo.

Without going into any details about the plot, it reminded me of how Eric Heisserer described writing The Thing (2011). That film was a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 film of the same name, and writing it involved reverse-engineering specific aspects of that film to show audiences how things got to that point. Heisserer called it “doing it by autopsy”. The writing of Avengers: Endgame must have been a similar process.

This is a movie which is constructed to reward fans who have stuck with the franchise since the beginning. It is mostly fan-service, but “fan-service” has taken on such derisive connotations that it hardly seems fair to call it that. This is a movie which will break box office records and it’s absolutely not a standalone movie – audiences are expected to have a strong familiarity with not just Infinity War, but practically every single MCU movie preceding that, because many of the character arcs trace their way back to the beginning. It’s no coincidence that after Thanos’ snap, the original six team members who formed the group seen in The Avengers remain.

The characters of the MCU and their journeys have earned considerable cachet with audiences, and Endgame is intent on leveraging that for maximum effect. By turns heart-rending and triumphant, there are moments in this film which will feel like moments that fans have been waiting for ages to see onscreen, and other moments that are so sad, fans will hope they never had to witness. The film does tend towards the melodramatic, but perhaps this is justified given the operatic scale of the MCU.

The MCU’s original trinity of Iron Man, Captain America and Thor all figure heavily into the plot. Endgame sees Tony taking the loss of Infinity War especially hard, while Steve finds his usual optimism flagging in the aftermath of the snap. Some of the film’s best, most honest moments are quiet dialogue scenes, including when Steve participates in a support group meeting for people coping with the loss of their loved ones in the decimation. The gigantic battle sequences, while cheer-worthy, can feel a little bloated and synthetic as they are in many lesser comic book movies.

While there is a necessary bleakness to Endgame, there are still moments of levity which, unlike in many earlier MCU movies, do not infringe on the emotional heft. The MCU started out with Iron Man, a movie which depicted fanciful technology, but was a safe distance from all-out sci-fi or fantasy. Things have changed since then, characters from the cosmic and mythic corners of the MCU openly interacting with the earth-bound ones. “I get emails from a raccoon, so nothing sounds crazy to me anymore,” Natasha remarks.

Avengers: Endgame is about a clash between good and evil on a cosmic scale, promising blockbuster spectacle and expensive entertainment. While it delivers all that, its greatest asset is its soul. It’s a movie about endings and beginnings, the past and the future and about parents and children. It’s a movie about what we take with us and what we leave behind. There is tremendous catharsis to Endgame and it’s a testament to how Marvel studios constructed something objectively impressive with the MCU, but above all it’s a “thank you” to viewers who have joined the characters on the journey.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Jungle Book

For F*** Magazine

THE JUNGLE BOOK

Director : Jon Favreau
Cast : Neel Sethi, Bill Murray, Ben Kingsley, Idris Elba, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong’o, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Walken
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 7 April 2016
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)
Disney recently took us to a vividly-imagined concrete jungle with Zootopia. Now, it’s time for a sojourn to a jungle of a more traditional sort. Mowgli (Sethi) is a human boy, or ‘man-cub’, raised by a pack of wolves led by Raksha (Nyong’o) and Akela (Esposito). The panther Bagheera (Kingsley) brought Mowgli to them when the man cub was but an infant. The powerful, menacing tiger Shere Khan (Elba) is disgusted by the presence of man in the jungle, threatening Raksha and Akela. Mowgli voluntarily leaves his adoptive family, Bagheera guiding him back to a human village. Along the way, he befriends Baloo (Murray) the bear, and encounters less friendly creatures in the form of Kaa (Johansson) the python and King Louie (Walken) the Gigantopithecus. Mowgli must come to terms with his identity as Shere Khan stops at nothing in his bloodthirsty hunt for the man-cub.

            The Jungle Bookis a remake of the classic 1967 animated film, which in turn was an adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s collected stories. For those worried that this is yet another pointless grim and gritty remake, rest assured that The Jungle Book is plenty of fun. There are also stakes and a good deal of peril, but these are necessary ingredients in any riveting adventure. This might seem an odd thing to say, considering the countless times Kipling’s stories have been adapted, but there’s a certain freshness about this take on The Jungle Book. Justin Marks’ screenplay is focused and coherent, incorporating just the right amount of Kipling-isms. Director Jon Favreau manages to deliver just the right dose of nostalgia for those who hold the cartoon movie near and dear, while also delivering breath-taking scale and pulse-pounding action sequences that are awe-inspiring in 3D.

            Not only are the animals fully computer-generated, the backgrounds are as well. This is an excellent example of new ground in filmmaking technology being broken not merely for the sake of it, but in service of a good story. The visual effects were primarily created by the Moving Picture Company and Weta Digital, with Avatar’s Robert Legato serving as one of the visual effects supervisors. Favreau made the choice to have the animal characters created via key frame animation instead of relying on performance capture, in an effort to avoid the highly undesirable “uncanny valley” effect. The animal acting on display here rivals that seen in Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. There’s life and nuance; the characters becoming far more than a mere assemblage of soulless voxels. You’d think talking animals in a realistic setting might pull the viewer out of it, but The Jungle Bookdraws one in, and the viewer soon forgets that all of this was built in a computer.

            A great deal rests on newcomer Sethi’s slight shoulders; the child actor picked from over 2000 hopefuls in an “exhaustive worldwide search”. Quite a lot is demanded from Sethi, who is the sole human being onscreen for the bulk of the film. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop built life-sized animatronic animal puppets for Sethi to react to in order to aid his performance, so he wasn’t exactly “acting against nothing”, but that’s not to take away from the how challenging the role is. There are some spots where this reviewer found Sethi lacklustre, overshadowed by the dazzling imagery around him, but all things considered, it’s a commendable performance.

            The star-studded voice ensemble Favreau has gathered may seem gimmicky, until one realises how perfect each actor is for their respective characters. Kingsley brings dignity and warmth to the watchful Bagheera, while Murray’s lackadaisical charm and casual friendliness ensures Baloo is as loveable as ever. It’s very easy to believe that Elba’s baritone would emanate from a fearsome tiger and his impactful turn as Shere Khan is terrifying yet restrained, making for a worthy villain.

Nyong’o is a luminous presence onscreen, and just her voice has almost the same effect. Raksha’s bond with Mowgli provides some of the film’s most heartfelt moments; her kindness standing in contrast with Esposito’s sternness as Akela. Johansson gets just one scene, but she puts that husky femme fatale timbre to fantastic use. This film’s realisation of Kaa’s hypnotic gaze is also delightfully effective. King Louie is characterised like a mob kingpin; Walken supremely entertaining yet also subtly sinister as the orangutan-like Gigantopithecus. There’s also a great in-joke: right before meeting King Louie, Mowgli picks up a cowbell; a sly reference to Walken’s famous “needs more cowbell” sketch on Saturday Night Live.

Any number of things could have gone horribly wrong with this version of The Jungle Book: the tone could’ve been too grave, the animals could’ve looked silly, the references to the cartoon could’ve been clumsy, the cast could’ve comprised big-name stars who weren’t great voice actors, this list goes on. Favreau has managed to avoid a large number of pitfalls and we’re sure many audiences will be extremely pleased that the iconic songs “The Bare Necessities” and “I Wan’na Be Like You” weren’t excised; the latter featuring revised lyrics by Richard M. Sherman. This Jungle doesn’t merely rumble, it rocks.



Summary: The Jungle Book is visually enthralling, thrilling, funny and meticulously crafted, quality family entertainment in almost every respect.

RATING: 4.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Chef

CHEF


Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey, Jr.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Opens: 5 June 2014

Rating: NC16 (language) 

Jon Favreau goes from Iron Man to Iron Chef, writing, directing and starring in this comedy-drama. Favreau plays Carl Casper, the Miami-born head chef of a Los Angeles restaurant. Owner Riva (Hoffman) insists that Casper abide by the popular menu, but Casper argues that creatively, things have gone stale. An explosive incident involving food blogger Ramsey Michel (Platt) is the last straw. Casper leaves the restaurant behind as he accompanies his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) and son Percy (Anthony) back to Miami. There, he starts from scratch, getting a food truck up and running. Martin (Leguizamo), his friend and line cook from the restaurant, drops everything to come over to Miami to help. Soon, Casper, Percy and Martin are selling Cuban sandwiches out of the food truck, going back to basics, Casper re-evaluating his career and his relationships along the way.
            Fulfilling the roles of writer, director and star, it might seem to some like Jon Favreau has made himself a tidy little vanity project. Chef is nothing of the sort. Watching Chef is like listening to a friend talk enthusiastically about his interest, this friend phrasing it so eloquently and enticingly that before you realise it, you’re all wrapped up in it. Favreau’s passion for food bubbles over and is extremely infectious. Then there’s the matter of just how lip-smackingly delicious everything – even the humble grilled cheese sandwich – looks. Every review has said this and mine is no different: don’t go into this hungry. I actually heard the audience at my screening crying out, almost in agony, at every lovingly-shot edible item. With acclaimed chef and food truck pioneer Roy Choi as consultant and overseer, Favreau does his own “stunts” in the film and is wholly convincing as a culinary wunderkind. It’s clear Favreau has done his due diligence, leading many professional chefs and food writers to sing the film’s praises.


            Chef is more than just a Food Network cooking show. There’s an earnestness and sincerity served alongside a heaping helping of wit and humour. Many films that are billed as “feel-good movies” can feel manufactured and contrived, but Chef flows organically, its relationships and characters largely believable and relatable. The emotional beats are genuine and even though there are over-the-top moments, this reviewer was sufficiently convinced that those were required to set events in motion; most of the film an entertainingly laid-back affair. Just as Casper trains his young son in the ways of the kitchen, Percy guides his father through the world of social media. There’s a clever visual gag in which tweets are represented as floating holographic text bubbles which are then compressed and carried away by a little blue digital bird. Favreau’s most recent film as director before Chef, Cowboys & Aliens, was not very well received. However, Favreau wisely resists demonizing critics in this film and using Chef as an avenue to vent against those who didn’t like his earlier work; the character of Ramsey Michel not portrayed as a sneering villain.


            Favreau is as adept in front of the camera slicing, dicing, sautéing, grilling et al as he is behind it. Chef Casper is utterly likeable but also flawed and most definitely human and prone to outbursts. Favreau’s Casper is a culinary force to be reckoned with, but not some kind of untouchable kitchen god the way the role could have been written and acted. He has a top-tier supporting cast as well, John Leguizamo especially fun as the faithful and capable sidekick/pal. Child actor Emjay Anthony is a revelation; his Percy isn’t your standard “smart-mouthed comedy mini-adult”, you buy that this is a real kid – in fact, he’s probably better-behaved than most real kids actually are. It’s fun and surprisingly not distracting to see Robert Downey, Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, both alumni of the Iron Man films, pop up. Sofia Vergara tones down her usual loud, fiery shtick and it winds up being a really nice performance from her. Oliver Platt and Dustin Hoffman as the food critic and the restraunter respectively are well cast, too. Look out for a pretty funny cameo from comedian Russell Peters.


            If there’s any relatively major gripe with Chef, it would be the R-rating. Now, I write for a magazine named F*** and I know foul language is a fact of life in real professional kitchens, but the swearing makes this unsuitable for younger moviegoers. It’s a shame because a large portion of the film is about a father-son relationship and involves a child actor. There’s also no violence or explicit sex, just mild sexual references. And kids should see this; it’s inspirational and empowering for anyone who has a passion about anything. Still, Chefis sweet, heartfelt and clearly prepared with love; Favreau on fine form as a true multi-hyphenate.


Summary: Can you smell what the Favs is cooking? Why, it’s quality, soulful cuisine! Bon Appétit!
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong