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

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

Thor: Ragnarok – Meet The Characters

For inSing

Thor: Ragnarok – meet the characters

Get reacquainted with the God of Thunder and meet his new allies and foes

By Jedd Jong

This week, the Norse god of Thunder/Avenger Thor returns to theatres in Thor: Ragnarok, which promises to be a wild and woolly cosmic adventure. Under the direction of New Zealander filmmaker Taika Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok looks set to be crammed with humour, action and eye-catching visual splendour.

This adventure finds our hero stripped of his armour and his magical hammer Mjolnir, imprisoned on the other side of the universe and forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena. Meanwhile, Hela, the goddess of death herself, makes a play for control of Thor’s home Asgard and the realms beyond it.

Before watching the latest Marvel movie, here’s a quick rundown of some of the characters we’ll see again, and some whom we’re meeting for the first time, in Thor: Ragnarok.

#1: THOR (Chris Hemsworth)

The God of Thunder is a cocky, self-assured character, so it’s no surprise that many stories see him being humbled and brought down to earth. That was a key part of his original arrival on earth, and in this film, Thor is defeated by Hela and held captive on the planet Sakaar. Hemsworth had considerable say in shaping the story, saying “I got a bit bored of myself and thought we’ve got to try something different.” Since Thor and Hulk/Bruce Banner haven’t had much interaction beyond the latter punching out the former in The Avengers, Hemsworth requested that the Hulk play a major role in Thor: Ragnarok. While some viewers might mourn the loss of Thor’s luscious locks, Hemsworth found Thor’s fuss-free new hairdo quite liberating. “It allowed the whole thing to take on a different attitude. It felt like a completely different character,” Hemsworth said.

#2: LOKI (Tom Hiddleston)

Tom Hiddleston has become this generation’s runaway unlikely sex symbol, winning legions of female fans with his seductive, darkly charming performance as Loki, the god of Mischief. Hiddleston has had the privilege of playing the role across multiple films – typically, supervillains in comic book movies don’t last more than two films. Since the conclusion of Thor: The Dark World, Loki has been ruling Asgard in the guise of his adoptive father Odin, and his reign has been all about self-aggrandisation at the expense of good governance. In serving his own ego, Loki has ignored the looming threats to Asgard, chief among them being Hela herself. In Thor: Ragnarok, Hiddleston had fun “trying to find new ways for him to be mischievous”, while also further exploring Loki’s insecurities. “The idea that Thor might be indifferent to Loki is troubling for him, because that’s a defining feature of his character is, I don’t belong in the family; my brother doesn’t love me; I hate my brother,” Hiddleston reasoned. Thor and Loki must reluctantly work together, but we know that as is always the case with Loki, things are never what they seem.

#3: HELA (Cate Blanchett)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe adds yet another Oscar-winning thespian to its ranks in the form of Cate Blanchett. The character of Hela is based on the Norse deity Hel, the ruler of the underworld also called Hel. Hela is yet another iteration of the “long-buried evil entity breaks free” archetype: “”She’s been locked away for millennia getting more and more cross, and then, with a mistake, she gets unleashed and she ain’t getting back in that box.” In the comics, Hela’s cape enhances her physical strength and maintains her youth. Hela can manifest weapons at will, and wears an elaborate headdress which she can also use as a weapon. The headdress is a defining part of the character’s design, but was cumbersome for Blanchett to wear, so Blanchett performed a portion of the role using motion capture technology. To prepare for the physically intensive role, Blanchett trained with stuntwoman and oft-collaborator of Quentin Tarantino Zoë Bell, and Hemsworth’s personal trainer Luke Zocchi, studying the Brazilian dance-infused martial art Capoeira.

#4: THE GRANDMASTER (Jeff Goldblum)

Jeff Goldblum might well be the best part of Thor: Ragnarok, as Jeff Goldblum is wont to be. The Grandmaster is an Elder of the Universe who pits lesser beings against each other in battles for his own amusement. Two other Elders of the Universe, Taneleer Tivan/The Collector and Ego the Living Planet, have appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy films. The Grandmaster can be seen dancing during the end credits of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. In some versions, the Grandmaster and the Collector are brothers. The Grandmaster is so powerful, that in one story, he controlled DC’s Justice League in a game against the DC villain Krona, who controlled the Avengers. Goldblum describes the Grandmaster as “a hedonist, a pleasure-seeker, an enjoyer of life and tastes and smells.” While the character has blue skin in the comics, Waititi opted to let Goldblum retain his own skin tone, because he didn’t want the character to invoke the blue-skinned alien Goldblum played in the comedy Earth Girls are Easy.

#5: VALKYRIE (Tessa Thompson)

Thor: Ragnarok marks the Marvel Cinematic Universe debut of Valkyrie, a key supporting chacrater in the Thor comics who was, at one point, set to appear in Thor: The Dark World. The character is based on the shieldmaiden Brynhildr, a formidable warrior from ancient Germanic mythology. Valkyrie is not to be trifled with, and is a former soldier in Odin’s elite troops who has become a mercenary working for the Grandmaster. Valkyrie is traditionally depicted as white, and Thompson is of African, South-American and European descent. Director Waititi is adamant that the casting is not to fulfil diversity criteria: “I’m not obsessed with the idea that you have to cast someone just to tick a box… You should cast people because they’re talented,” Waititi said. The director also stated he did not want the character to be “boring and pretty”, but someone would “be even more of the ‘guy’ character than the guys.”

The character is usually seen in the comics wearing armour, but Thompson said “she’s such a bad ass that she doesn’t need a lot of metal to protect her. I’m essentially in leather.” The character is equal to and in some ways superior to Thor, changing the dynamic between Thor and the female lead, who in the two previous Thor films was Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. Valkyrie is set to appear in future MCU movies, and Thompson has pitched an all-female Marvel movie to studio boss Kevin Feige. “Just to be the girlfriend or the wife…to not have your own agency is something that I just can’t relate to because I don’t see it in my life,” Thompson said of the roles often given to women in action films.

#6: HEIMDALL (Idris Elba)

As Heimdall, the Asgardian keeper of the Bifröst Bridge, Idris Elba did not get a huge amount to do in the first two Thor films. Perhaps that will change with the third instalment. No longer clad in gleaming golden armour, Heimdall has gone into exile after Hela’s invasion of Asgard, living in the woods as a wild man. Elba was notoriously outspoken about not enjoying the process of making the Marvel movies, calling them “torture”. While promoting Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Elba griped about having to go to London while in production on Mandela for contractually-obligated reshoots. “There I was, in this stupid harness, with this wig and this sword and these contact lenses. It ripped my heart out,” he said. This go-round, however, Elba seems to have enjoyed himself. “The last one [Ragnarok] was fun,” he said. “The others weren’t fun. They’re work. But on this one, Taika was great,” Elba said, praising the film’s director.

#7: BRUCE BANNER/THE HULK (Mark Ruffalo)

At the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Hulk was seen in a Quinjet, flying off to some unknown destination. Kevin Feige intended to keep it ambiguous where Hulk would end up, and fans speculated that Marvel were setting up for a Planet Hulk movie. In the comics, Planet Hulk is the storyline in which a group of genius Marvel characters called the Illuminati launch Hulk into space. He ends up on the planet Sakaar, becoming a gladiator and eventually taking over the planet. Elements of this story are incorporated into Thor: Ragnarok. Ruffalo discussed a solo Hulk with Feige, but because Universal Studios holds the rights to any Hulk-led films, this proved untenable, and Hulk was made a supporting character in Thor: Ragnarok. The character is evolved further, and now has a limited vocabulary beyond the grunts and roars we’ve heard from the Hulk in earlier MCU movies. “He’s much more of a character than the green rage machine you’ve seen in the Avengers movies,” Ruffalo said. “He’s got a swagger. He’s like a god.” In the film, the Hulk persona has been repressing the Banner side for years, and the film marks a further separation of the two personas. Hulk’s character arc in Thor: Ragnarok is set to carry on into Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel.

Thor: Ragnarok movie review

For inSing

THOR: RAGNAROK 

Director : Taika Waititi
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins
Genre : Comics/Action/Fantasy
Run Time : 130 mins
Opens : 26 October 2017
Rating : PG-13

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) were absent from Captain America: Civil War. In this Marvel Cinematic Universe adventure, we learn of the travails these characters faced on the other-side of the universe.

After the events of Thor: The Dark World, Thor’s adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken the guise of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), ruling Asgard as a vainglorious charlatan king. Loki’s lack of leadership has left Asgard vulnerable to attack from Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death who has come to claim what she believes is rightfully hers.

In the aftermath of a struggle against Hela, Thor and Loki find themselves stranded on the planet Sakaar. Thor, without his trusty hammer Mjolnir, is forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena for the amusement of Sakaar’s ruler, the eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Thor realises that his opponent is the Hulk, who has been on Sakaar fighting as the Grandmaster’s champion for the last two years. Thor must convince his fellow Avenger to help him on his quest to defeat Hela and save Asgard. Joining Thor, Loki and the Hulk is Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), formerly a member of an elite Asgardian fighting force who has become a bounty hunter in the Grandmaster’s employ. Back on Asgard, Heimdall (Idris Elba), the guardian of the Bifrost bridge, has disappeared into the woods, trying to save as many Asgardians as he can from Hela’s wrath. In facing off against the goddess of death, our heroes must prevent Ragnarok, the end of days, from coming to pass.

Thor: Ragnarok is directed by New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, continuing the MCU’s penchant for unconventional director choices. This movie looked from the trailers like it was going to be a whole lot of fun, and it is. However, perhaps the end of days shouldn’t be “a whole lot of fun” – or at least, be something more than that. The MCU has sometimes gotten flack for being a little too flippant and quippy in its tone, at the expense of meaningful drama. The two MCU films we’ve gotten earlier this year, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, packed in plenty of humour, but also had genuine heart when it counted the most. Thor: Ragnarok does not fare as well as those films in this regard.

Despite its tonal issues, there is no denying that Thor: Ragnarok is supremely entertaining. There is never a dull moment and the film delivers all the dazzling, meticulously-rendered visual effects spectacle we’ve come to expect from this franchise. This is by far the biggest film Waititi has made, and with the production support built into Marvel Studios, he acquits himself admirably. The central throw down between Thor and Hulk in the Grandmaster’s arena is well choreographed, and the colourful, eye-popping design of Sakaar is a nice homage to artist Jack Kirby.

Thor: Ragnarok might be too funny for its own good, but the central cast displays excellent comic timing. Hemsworth is easily the most likeable he’s ever been in the role, playing a character who is put through the wringer, but doesn’t lose his boyish enthusiasm and charm. He also spends the entire movie showing off his truly impressive biceps, and yes, there’s a requisite shirtless scene.

While Hiddleston is a delight as Loki, it’s easy to lose sight of exactly how much damage he’s done over the course of previous films, even when those events are name-checked. He’s a trickster, but he’s also dangerous, and that latter element seems to get lost in the shuffle.

Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Vulture turned out to be one of the best MCU villains thus far. Unfortunately, Hela emerges as a far more formulaic antagonist. This reviewer was really looking forward to seeing what an actress of Blanchett’s stature would do with the role, but there really isn’t much more to the character than strutting about and smirking seductively. Hela plainly states her motivations in an expository speech, and while there are ample displays of how formidable she is, the threat never truly takes hold – especially since so much of the film is spent away from Asgard.

Hulk’s depiction in this film represents an evolution in the right direction – he’s now slightly more articulate, when previously all he was capable of was roaring and grunting. While the dynamic that develops between Thor and the Hulk is interesting and amusing, there’s the niggling sense that elements of the Planet Hulk story arc from the comics have been shoehorned into this film. A standalone film based on Planet Hulk might have worked better, that is indeed what Ruffalo wanted, but rights issues prevented that from happening.

While Thompson doesn’t physically resemble Valkyrie as the character is often drawn in the comics, she has the swagger to pull off the character as written and looks to be enjoying herself in the role. This is a warrior who’s one of the dudes, but who is suppressing pain from her past. She’s pretty much any given Michelle Rodriguez character.

Goldblum is basically playing himself, but as a hedonistic Elder of the Universe. It’s an entertaining performance, but Goldblum never disappears into the role, and doesn’t register as someone you wouldn’t want to cross.

There is one scene in the film in which a phalanx of Valkyries, astride their winged horses, charge into battle against Hela. It’s a beautiful, awe-inspiring tableau that recalls the paintings of Gustave Doré. Alas, this is but a tiny part of Thor: Ragnarok. This is not a bad film, far from it, but it just doesn’t feel like a Thor film. It feels like a Guardians of the Galaxy movie that Thor happens to be in. Where previous MCU movies have balanced the humour with drama and emotion, the jokes here undercut the desired end-of-the-world stakes. That’s not to say Thor: Ragnarok isn’t an exceedingly enjoyable time, but it could’ve been more than that.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Now You See Me 2

For F*** Magazine

NOW YOU SEE ME 2

Director : Jon M. Chu
Cast : Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Lizzy Caplan, Mark Ruffalo, Jay Chou, Daniel Radcliffe, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Sanaa Lathan
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 10 mins
Opens : 16 June 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

The Four Horsemen ride again with new tricks up their respective sleeves in the sequel to Now You See Me. It’s been a year since the events of the first film, and Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Harrelson) and Jack Wilder (Franco) have been lying low, awaiting instructions from The Eye, the secret society into which they were inducted. FBI Agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) attempts to keep up the charade of pursuing the Horsemen while secretly leading them. Replacing Henley Reeves, who grew tired of waiting, is the enthusiastic Lula (Caplan). The Horsemen’s new mission is to expose the unethical practices of smartphone manufacturer Octa, but a spanner is thrown in the works by Walter Mabry (Radcliffe), Octa’s reclusive co-founder. The Horsemen find themselves in Macau, and must seek the help of magic shop proprietor Li (Chou) as Mabry forces them to pull off a nigh-impossible heist. In the meantime, both former benefactor Arthur Tressler (Caine) and magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) seek their vengeance on the Horsemen.



            Jon M. Chu replaces Louis Leterrier in the director’s chair for the second instalment of what studio Lionsgate is hoping shapes up to be their next big franchise. If the first film offered up flashy spectacle and a plot comprised of puzzle pieces that did not quite fit together in hindsight, Now You See Me 2 gives audiences more of the same. The screenplay by Ed Solomon ties itself into knots that do not untangle despite giving the appearance of doing so. This might seem like a film that imagines itself to be far smarter than it really is, but the more likely scenario is that the filmmakers are well aware that these movies will not hold up to scrutiny and that audiences will be content with revelling in the moment. Chu brings slickness and swagger to the proceedings that ever so slightly papers over the gaping plot holes. The director’s dance movie expertise is evident in several sequences that are elaborately choreographed, but ultimately more dizzying than dazzling.

            The first film’s greatest asset was its cast, comprising actors whose charisma and charm could almost rival that of Danny Ocean and his 11, if only the Four Horsemen weren’t outnumbered. Isla Fisher was unable to reprise the role of Henley Reeves due to her pregnancy, so Henley was written out and Lizzy Caplan steps in as new character Lula. The danger with these characters is that being showmen, they’re all egotistical and obnoxious to different degrees. Harrelson seems to be having twice as much fun as before, but comes across as irritating rather than actually funny. Atlas’ haughty, twitchy nature is something Eisenberg has no problems conveying, but Atlas has had to eat some humble pie since the events of the last film, and Eisenberg convincingly portrays that character development too. Caplan is a likeable performer, but her “over-eager new girl” shtick does also wear on the nerves after a while.

Rhodes’ charade is up and the audience knows that he is not only on the Horsemen’s side, but actively leading them. Ruffalo gives the role far more effort than it deserves, and his presence does elevate the material. Quite amusingly, Ruffalo becomes the latest Hollywood actor who has to pretend to be adept at speaking Mandarin Chinese. As the primary antagonist, Radcliffe isn’t exactly easy to buy as someone who would be able to run rings around the Horsemen. The actor has explored his darker side in other film and stage projects, but there’s supposed to be menace behind Walter’s smile, menace that Radcliffe is unable to muster.



It’s abundantly clear that Chou’s inclusion and the Macau setting merely serves to pander to Chinese audiences. Veteran actress Tsai Chin (not to be confused with the Taiwanese singer of the same name), who plays Li’s grandmother Bu Bu, is a far livelier screen presence than Chou. The film calls upon Caine and Freeman to provide gravitas while not doing very much at all, something the iconic actors do without breaking a sweat.

            Now You See Me 2 alternates between being supremely entertaining and frustrating. There’s glitz, glamour and eye candy effects work galore, but twist after twist after twist does not a truly engrossing thriller make. That’s the paradox: it does not hold up to close examination, yet invites audiences to do so. Ultimately, your enjoyment of Now You See Me 2 is contingent on just how willing you are to be taken on a ride. You’ll get bamboozled, but you just might have fun in the process.



Summary: Now You See Me 2 doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the first movie convinced general audiences that making sense isn’t the goal here. The goal is to entertain while misdirecting, and this has entertainment and misdirection in spades.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong

Spotlight

For F*** Magazine

SPOTLIGHT 

Director : Thomas McCarthy
Cast : Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 128 mins
Opens : 21 January 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Some Mature Content)

It was 2001, and facing great opposition, one small band of intrepid reporters uncovered the truth behind a string of child sex abuse cases. Spotlight tells their story. The Boston Globe’s new editor Marty Baron (Schreiber), arriving from Florida, reads a small column about a paedophile priest whom Boston’s Cardinal Law was aware of and yet did nothing to stop him. Baron assigns journalist Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton) and his team to go after what appears to be a much larger story. Alongside Robinson, Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams), Ben Bradlee Jr. (Slattery) and Matt Carroll (James) comprise the Spotlight team, the oldest newspaper investigative unit still active in the United States. Because of the sensitive nature of the case and how strongly institutional Catholicism figures in the city of Boston, the Spotlight team faces an uphill battle in illuminating the sobering, horrifying truth of the pattern of abuse that has been perpetuated by the city’s priests.

            Directed by Tom McCarthy and co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight has emerged among the stronger contenders of the 2015-2016 awards race, premiering to “sustained applause” at the Venice Film Festival. As moviegoers, we’re used to seeing fearless, heroic reporters ducking out of the gun sights of assassins or going toe to toe with Lex Luthor, getting rescued by Superman at the last moment. Spotlight presents a portrait of real-life reporters and the good that they’re capable of doing. It’s a cinematic embodiment of journalistic integrity and a measured, objective handling of a potentially provocative topic. There’s nary a whiff of embellishment and McCarthy avoids a vulgar, sensationalistic approach to the subject matter at every turn. As the cliché goes, this is a movie about “men and women just doing their jobs”, and the realism and credibility McCarthy brings to the film is just the right way to celebrate the accomplishments of the Spotlight team.

            There’s a nobility and a worthiness to the story being told, of course, but seeing reporters standing around the bullpen comparing notes doesn’t exactly scream excitement. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who also lensed the Boston-set Black Mass, adds just the right amount of dynamism to the proceedings while restraining from distracting flashiness. There is a clarity to the progression of the story in the sequence of events without it getting too dry. At the same time, Spotlight never loses sight of the human toll of the case. A cleverly-edited sequence which intercuts Pfeifer and Rezendes interviewing two very different victims conveys how many young lives were affected by the scandal without descending into hokey sentimentality.

            Spotlight boasts a luminous ensemble cast who breathe life into unglamorous unsung heroes. Keaton doesn’t get as juicy a part as in the earlier award season darling Birdman, but is still able to bring a charisma to the role of the Spotlight team’s fearless leader. Schreiber’s Marty Baron is the outsider that is desperately needed to examine and evaluate the situation from a distance and without his impetus, the investigation probably wouldn’t have happened, or would at least have been significantly delayed. As a reporter who’s less of the plucky Lois Lane archetype she portrayed in State of Play, McAdams gets some excellent scenes where Pffeifer has to maintain her composure in difficult confrontations with victims and perpetrators alike.  Ruffalo is the stand-out as the dedicated, passionate, somewhat awkward Rezendes. He mostly plays opposite Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney representing the victims. Garabedian is prickly and suffers no fools, but is ultimately well-meaning. Michael Cyril Creighton and Neal Huff both turn in affecting performances as but two of the many victims traumatised in their youth.

            A level-headed telling of the events that’s not out to shock or function as a smear piece, Spotlight offers great insight into the way investigative reporters conduct their inquiries and the positive impact that their work can have. Sure, the quiet, even-handed approach favoured by McCarthy may sacrifice superficial excitement, but Spotlight’s lack of self-conscious prestige picture artifice is refreshing. Spotlight is more concerned with lauding the Boston Globe journalists than delivering a searing takedown of the Roman Catholic Church, which is just as well. Pragmatic without being detached, compelling without being heavy-handed, Spotlight’s unassuming nature is the ideal reflection of the work ethic displayed by the journalists it is about.

Summary:This account of the Spotlight team’s investigation into the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston is concise, fair, dignified and respectful, brought to life by a powerhouse cast.

RATING: 4.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Avengers: Age of Ultron

For F*** Magazine

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

Director : Joss Whedon
Cast : Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Samuel L. Jackson
Genre : Comics/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 141 mins
Opens : 23 April 2015

(The following review is spoiler-free)

Earth’s mightiest heroes boldly step forth into a new age in the closing chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s second phase. The Avengers, comprising Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.), Thor (Hemsworth), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Renner) have unfinished business to attend to. Loki’s sceptre is being held in a Hydra stronghold, and in the process of retrieving the otherworldly weapon, the team confronts the twins Pietro (Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Olsen) Maximoff, the products of Hydra genetic enhancement experiments. Stark and Banner have an experiment of their own, the artificial intelligence system Ultron (Spader), intended as a security net for the world. However, the sentient robot has nefarious plans of its own, violently rebelling against its creators. The Avengers’ only hope may lie in Vision (Bettany), an old friend in a new form. 

            2012’s The Avengers was a monumental event, the glorious apex of Marvel Studios’ diligent world-building. Now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has truly earned the right to call itself a “universe”, Age of Ultron uniting a multitude of familiar faces while introducing new players. There’s the welcome feeling that the gang’s all here, but not just for the sake of it. This is a significant achievement on multiple levels; writer-director Joss Whedon taking on the Herculean challenge of topping the first Avengers film while charting a course forward for all of these characters. Once again, Whedon demonstrates a remarkable command of the tone, peppering the screenplay with delightfully zippy witticisms (Stark references playwright Eugene O’Neill and the practice of Prima Nocta) yet establishing the stakes and delivering genuine drama when it is required. 

What stands out as the most impressive element of this blockbuster isn’t the wham-bam spectacle, it’s the character development. While many action movies are marketed as being “character-driven”, more often than not, the plot seems like a minor inconvenience at best, fiddly bits of story standing in the way of stuff blowing up. This isn’t the case here. Whedon cleverly builds upon the relationships established in the previous films, including the “science bros” bond between Stark and Banner and the dysfunctional family dynamic within the team as a whole. Whedon is unafraid to have sizeable stretches of the film driven solely by drama or comedy in between the action, without the movie feeling like it’s spinning its wheels until Hulk next smashes something or Cap tosses his shield. The conflict has its place, there is angst but not moping and the bristling tension that arises from disagreements within the team is balanced with the sheer satisfaction of seeing our heroes work in conjunction with each other.
This is not to say that the spectacle is in short supply – far from it. This is a major tentpole release that was guaranteed to do gangbusters even before a single word of the screenplay was written, but if Avengers: Age of Ultronis anything to go by, producer Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel Studios are not about to rest on their laurels or just let these movies “make themselves”. The film’s opening, which involves the Avengers storming Baron Von Strucker’s (Thomas Kretschmann) mountain fortress, reintroduces viewers to our heroes in the thick of it with a slick, unbroken long take. There’s also a fair bit of globe-trotting, the story taking the team from their home base in New York to the fictional Eastern European city of Sokovia, South Africa and South Korea.

The movie’s signature set piece is the battle between Iron Man in his heavy-duty Hulkbuster armour and the Hulk. Stark is reluctant to fight Banner, shading the knock-down drag-out brawl with more emotional hues than a typical beat ‘em up. The climactic showdown, while familiar in the sense that it’s the plucky good guys against a horde of bad guys while trying to get innocent citizens to safety, is sufficiently different from the “big fight in a big city” finales that have become the norm in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

After defeating Loki, the Avengers’ primary adversary in this sequel is the titular Ultron, voiced by James Spader, who also performed some motion capture work to play the 8 foot tall robot. Ultron is both a physical and intellectual challenge to the Avengers and his motivations are set up quickly and efficiently. Malevolent artificial intelligence is something of a hoary sci-fi trope and one could argue that 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 still stands at the top of the heap, but Ultron certainly fulfils all the big bad pre-requisites. Spader is a casting coup; his sonorous, supercilious line delivery both threatening and entertaining. There’s also the appeal of the “I’ve got no strings” motif, even more amusing given that Robert Downey Jr. is rumoured to be playing both Geppetto and Pinocchio in an upcoming live-action version of the story.

Whedon has put admirable effort into improving the characterisations we were presented with in the first film. Hawkeye in particular gets his moment in the sun; Renner having voiced his disappointment that the character spent most of the first Avengers under Loki’s mind control. Paul Bettany finally steps out of the recording booth to play cyber-butler JARVIS’ corporeal form, Vision, lending the character an elegant combination of strength and serenity.

The character of Scarlet Witch, with her ability to play dangerous mind games as she enters into the memories and feelings of those under her thrall, presents the audience with an opportunity to explore the deepest, darkest fears of our heroes. Elizabeth Olsen is a haunted, ethereal presence as Wanda, her powers taking their own toll on her psyche. The hallucinatory scenes also shed light on Black Widow’s past, these unsettling sequences feeling straight out of a horror movie.

Much was made about how Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past beat Marvel Studios to the punch when it came to putting speedster Quicksilver on the big screen. While Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Pietro doesn’t quite have a bit as memorable as the “Time in a Bottle” kitchen run from DoFP, his Quicksilver is still pretty cool. The bond between the twins is conveyed convincingly by both Taylor-Johnson and Olsen. Mark Ruffalo continues to be an excellent Bruce Banner, this film showing how the character is at once Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Monster and the inner turmoil that results from this dichotomy. There’s also a romance between Banner and Romanoff which can feel a little forced at times but is for the most part really quite sweet. A scene early on in which Black Widow tries to calm the savage beast reminded this reviewer of the interaction between King Kong and Ann Darrow.

It pains us a little to say this and we don’t want to come off as dismissive of the efforts of the army of visual effects artists who slaved away on this film, but the CGI does border on the excessive. It’s not sloppily done and there are a mind-boggling number of visual effects shots, but at times during the Hulkbuster vs. Hulk fight, the two computer-generated characters going at it seem like just that, as if one were playing a video-game. Still, this is a minor quibble and if the film were nothing but pixel-heavy battles, then we’d have a problem. Instead, we have a compelling, dramatic story, characters that are fleshed-out and easy to get invested in, plenty of morsels for hard-core fans and lots of quotable lines and some imagery courtesy of cinematographer Ben Davis that’s destined to become iconic. While there is no post-credits stinger, there is a tag after the main-on-end titles sequence that’s as tantalising as ever. Bring on Phase 3!
Summary: Avengers: Age of Ultron can boast that it’s about the Avengers as characters and Joss Whedon’s ability to deliver excellent dialogue and moving storytelling in addition to earth-shattering spectacle remains unparalleled.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Begin Again

For F*** Magazine

BEGIN AGAIN

Director : John Carney
Cast : Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def, James Corden, CeeLo Green, Catherine Keener
Genre : Drama, Romance
Opens : 3 July 2014
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language) 
Running time: 104 mins
Lovin’ a music man ain’t always what it’s supposed to be, and that goes for the music men behind the scenes as well. In this musical romantic comedy, Mark Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan, the down-and-out exec of music label Distressed Records, who has an estranged wife (Keener) and daughter (Steinfeld). While drowning his sorrows at a bar one night, British singer-songwriter Gretta (Knightley) catches his attention and he immediately sets about getting a hold of her so they can collaborate on a record. It turns out that Gretta’s long-time boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave Kohl (Levine) has strayed after letting stardom get to his head. Gretta tries to leave Dave behind as she, Dan, her best friend Steve (Corden) and a motley crew of session musicians embark on recording an album on the streets of New York, guerrilla-style.
            Begin Again, formerly titled Can a Song Save Your Life?, is written and directed by John Carney of Oncefame. The micro-budget Irish indie flick became a cult favourite after netting a Best Original Song Oscar for Falling Slowly and was adapted into an acclaimed musical running on Broadway and the West End. Begin Again can be seen as Carney “going Hollywood”, trading in a cheap video camera for a fancy Red Digital and having Hollywood names and pop stars in the cast. While Begin Again is certainly a glossier, slicker affair, it still retains a good measure of earnestness and sweetness and is sure to appeal to fans of music movies. In what might be somewhat meta commentary, the theme of “indie vs. big record label” crops up. There’s also a rather surprising bit of anti-product placement: Dan takes a sip of Pepsi and wonders aloud “God damn, how do people drink that?!”

            Many of the elements in Begin Again can be described as “formulaic” – there’s the maverick music producer who has been reduced to an unkempt mess but who gets a second wind upon discovering an ingénue, the disapproving ex-wife and the rebellious daughter and the ingénue’s unfaithful rock star boyfriend. An early scene has a frustrated Dan tossing demo CDs out of his car window, fed up with inane pop and in search of “real music”. However, the film does possess enough self-awareness such that it doesn’t drown in a morass of clichés and that there’s a still a soul to it. Carney also has a little fun with the structure of the first half of the film, starting in medias res before rewinding to the start of that day, telling the story from Dan’s point of view – and then rewinding further and telling it from Gretta’s. There’s also a wonderfully whimsical moment of visual invention, when upon first hearing Gretta sing, Dan begins to imagine possible arrangements for the song; the piano, drums, cello and violin sitting on stage suddenly playing by themselves in his imagination.

            Mark Ruffalo is pretty much scruffy-sexy incarnate. Once again, he looks like he badly needs a shower and a shave, but perhaps that is part of his charm. He convincingly essays a man who has fallen on hard times but who clearly once had drive and inspiration, and when that returns to him he comes alive again. Keira Knightley’s role was originally intended for Scarlett Johansson – while we don’t get the Hulk and Black Widow making sweet music together, Knightley is a perfectly acceptable substitute. Her singing voice is very pleasant and she consciously avoids turning Gretta into an idealised “manic pixie dream girl” type. When she says “I’m not Judy Garland off the greyhound bus looking for stardom”, this reviewer believes her – but wants to see her make it in the music biz all the same.

            When it comes to the casting of established singers like Adam Levine and his fellow The Voice coach CeeLo Green, it’s a Catch-22 situation: on one hand, having actual musicians in your music movie gives it credibility but on the other, it can be distracting enough to pull one out of the experience. Green’s appearance in the film is more tolerable because as hip-hop star and old pal of Dan’s nicknamed Troublegum, he could well be playing himself. However, Levine is not a brilliant actor and this reviewer happens to find his high-pitched whine of a singing voice somewhat grating. We’re also 90% sure that the name “Dave Kohl” is some kind of a dig at the similarly-named Foo Fighters frontman.


            Begin Again is a great date movie because it isn’t yet another a production line rom com and it never becomes unbearably cheesy and sappy. It won’t redefine the music flick genre, but it does have its share of sweet moments. The songs, co-written by New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander with Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley, Rick Nowels and Nick Southwood, Once star Glen Hansard and Carney himself, are all very listenable if not especially memorable or catchy. And this is quite possibly the first movie to make splitter cables seem like very romantic objects.
SUMMARY: Begin Again’s formulaic elements are offset by its measured sweetness and charm.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong