Venom review

VENOM

Director : Ruben Fleischer
Cast : Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate, Scott Haze
Genre : Comics/Action/Sci-fi
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 4 October 2018
Rating : PG13

Tom Hardy is his own worst enemy and maybe also his own best friend in this Marvel Comics adaptation. Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a journalist engaged to successful lawyer Anne Weying (Michelle Williams). Brock has trained his sights on Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), an industrialist and inventor who has privately funded space exploration missions. As the head of the Life Foundation, Drake portrays himself as a benevolent force for good, but Brock suspects that Drake is secretly conducting unethical, illegal activities which have resulted in civilian deaths.

A Life Foundation spacecraft crashes on earth, and its cargo, an alien life form, escapes. This is a symbiote, which needs to bond to a host to survive. When Dr Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), a scientist working for the Life Foundation, approaches Brock as a whistle-blower, Brock investigates and another symbiote bonds to him. This is the entity known as Venom, which manifests as a voice in Brock’s head and takes over his body, giving him enhanced strength and healing and causes him to emanate tendrils. Brock must make sense of this new unwelcome guest while uncovering the extent of Drake’s misdeeds, eventually learning to coexist with Venom and use his newfound abilities to his advantage.

There have been multiple attempts at a Venom movie, including one in the late 90s that was reportedly slated to star Dolph Lundgren, and another attempt that would have taken place within the continuity of the Amazing Spider-Man movies. Then of course there was the iteration played by Topher Grace in Spider-Man 3, which left many fans unsatisfied.

Venom was created by Todd McFarlane and David Michelinie, and is arguably Spider-Man’s best-known, most visually striking nemesis. The character’s origin directly involves Spider-Man – in the comics, the symbiote is a discarded alien suit worn by the web-slinging hero. As such, a Venom movie that is completely removed from Spider-Man feels like a tricky prospect. This reviewer had to remind himself that at least the symbiote’s host is still called “Eddie Brock”, unlike the Catwoman movie which starred a character named Patience Phillips, who was nothing like the Catwoman of the comics, Selina Kyle.

Venom-symbiote-Tom-Hardy-1

The film’s somewhat tormented production process has led to an odd beast. Venom is tonally weird. One would be forgiven for expecting a dark, disturbing movie – after all, the title character is a slimy alien parasite with pointy teeth and a long, icky tongue. However, what Venom most resembles is a buddy comedy. The symbiote seems characterised as the friend who’s a bad influence, pushing Eddie to do things he would rather not do. The symbiote is an obvious metaphor for the darkness deep within a person being brought to the surface, so it is somewhat baffling that the film does practically nothing with this concept.

The action sequences are moderately entertaining but not especially memorable. There’s a motorcycle chase and a sequence in which Venom takes on an entire SWAT team in a smoke-filled apartment building lobby, but any time the full-on creature takes over the action, things feel distinctly synthetic. The climactic fight is a battle between one thing made of CGI and another thing made of CGI, set against a mostly CGI backdrop.

Then, there is the PG-13 rating. A movie doesn’t have to be R-rated to be good, it doesn’t even have to be R-rated to be effectively disturbing. However, this is a movie in which the title character bites people’s heads off and impales his enemies through the torso. It’s a bit difficult to sell the viciousness when it must happen off-screen or obscured while something else is going on. That said, this movie could’ve been R-rated and still turned out limp.

Hardy is perfectly watchable in the role and tries to make something interesting out of the material. He ends up performing quite a bit of physical comedy, which seems out of place, but which he commits to. There is the sense that Hardy could have brought so much more to the table had the script allowed him to dig into the inherently unsettling nature of the bond between the Venom symbiote and its human host, but it seems the film is more interested in back-and-forth banter.

Michelle Williams is wasted as a character who isn’t too much more than the designated girlfriend, even though there is a nice nod to her character in the comics. Riz Ahmed plays a ruthless Elon Musk-type, who is at once a cartoony villain while also bland and barely menacing. Jenny Slate’s mousey scientist who might just be the one to bring the villain down seems like she might be interesting, but similarly gets little to do. While some comic book movies suffer from far too many characters, there are almost too few interesting characters at all in Venom.

The casual viewer might find Venom a passable diversion, but anyone who is particularly attached to the comics will be sorely dissatisfied. The film attempts to translate the character’s sarcasm to the screen, but lacks the acid-drenched wickedness which must accompany said sarcasm. The result is a relatively safe movie about a character who should always feel at least a little dangerous. Director Ruben Fleischer’s best film remains Zombieland, so perhaps comedy is where he should focus his efforts. There is a goofiness to Venom that is strongly reminiscent of comic book movies made when the filmmakers making them hadn’t fully figured things out yet: a bit of Spawn here, a bit of the 2002 Hulk movie there.

Stick around for a mid-credits tag which hints as sequel – as mediocre as this outing is, we’d be darned if we didn’t want to see a sequel make good on what this scene promises. There’s also a sneak peek at a forthcoming movie at the very end of the credits.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

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Marvellous by Design: Ryan Meinerding interview

MARVELLOUS BY DESIGN


Marvel Studios Visual Development head Ryan Meinerding talks crafting the look of a cinematic universe

By Jedd Jong

A decade and 20 movies in, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going stronger than ever, with hardcore fans and casual viewers alike watching with rapt attention with every film that’s released. In the beginning, before the MCU became the juggernaut it is today, the success of this franchise wasn’t such a sure thing, and studio head Kevin Feige was not sure if audiences would respond well enough to warrant the studio moving forward with the interconnected series of films.

Audiences have more than responded well, and a big part of the appeal of these movies is how they look, and how the design that goes into each MCU movie crystallises decades of material from the comics drawn by hundreds of artists and brings it to life onscreen.

As the head of the Marvel Studios visual development team, Ryan Meinerding has had a hand in crafting the look of the costumes, character designs and locations for practically every Marvel Studios film. Meinerding had worked with Iron Man director Jon Favreau on a version of John Carter that did not come to fruition. Favreau brought Meinerding on board, and alongside comic book artist Adi Granov and other artists, Meinerding devised the look for the first film in the MCU.

It’s staggering to think that most every image on screen in an MCU film began as a piece of concept art that Ryan and the visual development team working under his direction created. As a guest of the 11th Singapore Toy, Games and Comics Convention (STGCC), Ryan is in Singapore to meet fans and speak about his experience working on the MCU movies.

Ryan spoke to my good friend Tina Gan (a.k.a Red Dot Diva) and I at the preview of STGCC. He covered his journey with Marvel Studios so far, the character he is fondest of designing costumes for, the strength of the visual storytelling in MCU films, what it’s like working with different directors brought onto the movies, and how the visual development team works to ground the designs in reality.

JEDD: This is the tenth anniversary of Marvel Studios. Looking back through the ten years, can you take us through your history with the studio?

RYAN MEINERDING: Wow, that’s a large question. I was brought on board by Jon Favreau, I worked with Jon Favreau previously. I got to work on Iron Man 1 to design the Mark 1 and did keyframe with Adi Granov on Iron Monger, and we were trying to figure out the boot test sequence when he’s building the suit in his garage, and a couple of other things. After that project, Marvel asked me to come back to stay on board and help them figure out some of their next films, so I worked on early passes on Captain America, on Thor, and after that period of time, we went straight into Iron Man 2 and Thor.

I had recommended Charlie Wen to help come on board and help figure out Thor, so we worked together on Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. After that, when we were going to work on The Avengers, Marvel Studios asked if I would hire more artists and form a time. We hired Andy Park, Rodney Fuentebella, Jackson Sze and eventually Anthony Francisco, and that team has stayed the same throughout the rest of the movies. We hire freelance artists as well, but it’s a real joy having been there from the beginning, creating a team and having the team deliver on all of the films since The Avengers. It’s a real treat, all the artists I get to work with on a daily basis are amazing. The fact that the cinematic universe has grown from the singular movie to something that’s 20 movies large and still going strong is really incredible.

TINA: How would you describe the essential MCU look and feel?

RYAN: Since Iron Man was the first movie and he’s one of the few superheroes whose superpowers are based in technology that could actually be created, I’d say there’s a grounded quality to everything we’re trying to do. We’re usually trying to make things feel as real as possible, whether it’s about making a suit that can make you fly and having super strength, or whether it’s designing a suit for Captain America where it feels like a real tactical thing, while still retaining the iconic look from the comics. Usually we’re trying to take something iconic from the comics and turn it into something that feels as real for the story world that the directors and producers are looking to create.

JEDD: In any adaptation, especially with comic book movies, there’s always a ‘war’ between iconic imagery and original thought. How would you describe fighting that war?

RYAN: I don’t know if we ever look at it as ‘original thought’. We’re usually trying to take what’s iconic and try to make something that feels real, and honestly add enough detail to it that with HD cinema and HD TV screens, the characters don’t feel too simple. The characters in the comics were always designed to be simple and iconic so they could be drawn over and over again, and we’re trying to take those icons and really flesh them out in enough reality in concept and aesthetics to make them belong in the real world, so they feel almost more real than real.

TINA: There are many moving parts in a film production, so when you have a design for a costume, where does the costume designer come in? Do they have a say after your designs have been approved to make alterations?

RYAN: Film in general is a huge collaborative experience. We are fortunate enough to get the designs approved by going to meetings with the producers and directors, and the costume designers are in those meetings as well. If they have concerns or they want to have input and say “we don’t think this will work”, we work around that. Once we finish and have the designs approved, they take the designs and see what will really work on the actors, and the actors have input on what will be comfortable and what they’re looking for in the costumes as well. There’s always a give and take, we’re giving and taking when we’re trying to get the designs approved, and they’re giving and taking with what they can accomplish.

Alexandra Byrne, who’s an Academy Award-winning costume designer whom I’ve gotten to work with on a few movies like Thor, Avengers and Avengers 2, described the collaboration with us the best I’ve ever heard it. She said, “we can achieve something together that we can never achieve on our own.” We come at it from a concept artists’ point of view of loving the characters and wanting to do justice to the comics, and they come at way from what’s the way this costume can be built that can look the best on the actor, and those two things together end in a result that hopefully elevates the character to a place that they couldn’t have gotten to without us working together.

JEDD: Different directors have different styles of working with people. What was it like working with Jon Favreau vs Joss Whedon vs the Russo Brothers?

RYAN: Jon is great to work with. He loves working with artists, he’s an artist himself. On the first Iron Man, my desk was 20 feet from his office. He was very involved with things. He was very collaborative, he’d say “come up with some ideas about how Tony can build the suit in his garage”, and I would come up with ideas and  pitch him and he’d say “I like this, I don’t like this”, that was always really exciting.

Working with Joss is incredible too, he’s a lot of fun. In presentations he’s the guy who’s making everybody laugh, he’s just fun to be around. He was incredibly collaborative too, he has very distinct ideas about what he wants to get out of a costume, what we would bring to it, and he would react to it.

The Russo Brothers are also really cool because they have a lot of notions about grounding the costumes. They want them to feel real, to feel really practical. In most cases that ends up like the Captain America movies, pushing Cap towards a very tactical feel. Each director I’ve worked for has been amazing in their own way. It’s been a real joy to work with such talented filmmakers and try to deliver what they’re looking for.

JEDD: The MCU is unique in that it’s the first successful cinematic universe in this era of movies, and many studios have tried to emulate, but never to the same degree of success. From your point of view, what is the balance between keeping a cohesive overview of the universe while ensuring each movie and each character has their own personality? What is that like visually?

RYAN: I’d like to say that I was responsible for the whole universe, but Kevin Feige is really the guy that has all that working in his head. We as the visual development team are fortunate enough to just try to make every movie work, and Kevin will give notes on what he thinks is going to work in the long run. I think the real useful part of the visual development team and the work that we’ve done on the characters and how it fits in with the movies is the visuals are so tied to the story.

If you look at Captain America in the first movie and the first time he put on the costume, the costume was essentially the look from the comics, but it was him in the USO show and it was something he thought was silly and wanted to walk away from, even though he was a symbol of something greater than himself. When he got a chance to put on his own costume, he chose things that were a little cooler, he had the helmet, he had the leather jacket and the pants. When he came back from that mission, he could see the value in not only being a soldier but a symbol, and that translated into his look for the movie.

That sort of desire to tie the visuals and the character to something very concrete in the story is something that I feel is unique to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Because it becomes so tied to that story, it allows you to move on from that in the next movie. It’s not like you’re constantly searching for the single Captain America costume that’s going to work, it’s what is going to work for this movie and this story point and allow that visual to represent that one moment. So in the next movie, the icon can be broad enough, and the next movie can have another grounded point.

 

In The Avengers, Coulson makes him his costume and he’s a symbol again, but he feels uncomfortable as a man out of time. In Winter Soldier, when he’s actually meant to be in contemporary time periods, he’s more of a stealth figure. All of that stuff allows for a very grounded notion of “this is the character’s journey, this is where he’s been, this is where he’s going in this movie.” That kind of stuff speaks to Kevin’s overarching view and understanding that the journey is larger that just one single thing.

Honestly, if we’d landed on a singular really, really strong version of Captain America and it wouldn’t change, all of a sudden it would take away the storytelling possibilities. The fact that we’ve been able to change, the icon is flexible enough to be reinvented several times in the films, that’s actually one of the strengths of it. It’s not necessarily that we need to have that one definitive version.

JEDD: And even now as Nomad when he rips the star off, that’s storytelling too, visually.

RYAN: Totally.

TINA: Which was the most challenging movie to work on, and which was your favourite?

RYAN: The most challenging movies are always the Avengers movies, because there are so many characters. With every Avengers movie, there are more and more characters, so it just winds up being harder and harder to do. You’re trying to give each character as much love as you would if they were in their own movie on their own, but there are upwards of 30, 40, 50, 60 characters in some of these Avengers movies. My favourite character, I love designing Cap costumes because that storyline, that journey that he’s on, is one that I’ve been able to work on from the beginning, and I’m very fortunate and happy to have been working on from the beginning. Spider-Man is also very fun to work on.

JEDD: In the MCU, I think Kevin Feige did something smart in starting off with Iron Man, which is based in technology, before branching off into the fantasy and cosmic realms. Which of the realms do you most enjoy working in?

RYAN: I definitely have worked more in the grounded reality of Iron Man and Captain America. Cap is slightly different, Winter Soldier wound up being more like a political thriller, but I enjoy all of them. I think the strength of the universe now is that it has so many different aspects to it. Bringing them all together into the Avengers movie is also a terrific, fun thing to have characters bouncing off each other that you never thought you’d see. Iron Man bouncing off of Doctor Strange bouncing off of Guardians, it’s a lot of fun.

TINA: Is there something particularly cool that was designed and thought of that did not make it into the movie?

RYAN: On Iron Man 1, we designed looks for JARVIS, him as a computer system, as a wall installation. There were going to be some things when Obadiah breaks into the house, JARVIS was going to be disabled and you were going to see what he looked like.

We also had some fun ideas for Hulkbuster. When Hulkbuster was going to land in South Africa to fight Hulk, we were pitching ideas that he could take over office buildings, he would have enough reach in the technology that he could light up different office windows to point arrows, to say to pedestrians “leave the area”. We had fun ideas like that, Tony is really looking to protect all the people around him.

I don’t know if there’s anything specific besides small things like that. I’m very fortunate in that a lot of things I’ve worked on have been able to become the look that’s on screen, so I’m generally excited about the way the characters turn out in the films. In the explorations that we do, we always try to explore enough things for each character that the directors and producers feel they have enough choices to work with.

JEDD: I love to take ownership of the work I’ve done, sometimes it’s me being a little selfish, but I like to take credit for what I do. What happens when you watch the movie and go, “oh, that’s a head Andy Park did, but that’s a body I did and Charlie did the wings”. Do you look at yourselves as a team, or do you go “oh, that’s mine!”

RYAN: We always try to be very respectful of if somebody’s doing a design that’s being responded to, we try to let that artist run with it. There are times when what you’re describing happens, but hopefully we’re all a team enough that we can be excited that what’s on screen looks good and be excited that we got to work together and collaborate on it.

Ant-Man and the Wasp movie review

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP

Director : Peyton Reed
Cast : Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Bobby Cannavale,, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas
Genre : Action/Adventure/Science Fiction/Superhero
Run Time : 118 mins
Opens : 4 July 2018
Rating : PG

Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have had a bit of time to recover from the earth-shattering events of Avengers: Infinity War. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) was noticeably missing from that film, and now we learn what he was up to while everyone else was tangling with Thanos.

After Scott made it back from the Quantum Realm at the end of the first Ant-Man film, Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) believes that there’s a chance his wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was lost in the Quantum Realm decades ago, might still be alive. Together with his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Pym tries to locate Janet and rescue her.

Meanwhile, Scott is under house arrest, after getting into big trouble during the events of Captain America: Civil War. Whilst evading FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and trying to be a good dad to Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), Scott returns to superheroics. He now fights alongside Hope, who’s inherited the mantle of the Wasp from her mother. They must fend off black market tech dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and the enigmatic Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can turn invisible and phase through solid objects. Scott can count on his ex-convict buddies Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian) for help, though how much they actually help is up for debate.

We’ve all seen “fun” used as a descriptor for innumerable MCU movies. There’s no denying that Ant-Man and the Wasp is fun. It’s an unabashedly silly film packed with jokes and some inspired visual gags, and its tone is consistent with that of the first Ant-Man film. While something less intense is welcome in the wake of Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp is often in danger of feeling a touch inconsequential – especially given what an impact Black Panther made earlier this year.

On paper, there’s nothing too wrong with Ant-Man and the Wasp, and it ticks all the boxes. The mission to rescue Janet from the Quantum Realm is a great premise for the sequel and has considerable emotional drive, yet there are times when the film feels no more than perfunctory. The pacing is good, and the movie feels shorter than its 118 minutes, but it seems like it’s scurrying from Point A to Point B. Plenty of jokes land, but some of the humour is a little forced, and Luis and co. feel like they’ve been shoehorned in.

Where Ant-Man and the Wasp excels is in its set-pieces. The film makes inventive use of the mass-shifting conceit, and director Peyton Reed seems to have gotten bolder in staging said set-pieces. The choreography of how the titular heroes work in tandem is dazzling. There’s a kitchen fight in which Wasp dodges a meat mallet, and a car chase down San Francisco’s Lombard Street involving a shrinking van – this could be an homage to The Dead Pool, in which Dirty Harry is pursued through the streets of San Francisco by a radio-controlled toy car. It’s a great example of a comic book film creatively exploiting its characters’ abilities.

This film leans a little more into retro sci-fi with its Fantastic Voyage-esque micro submersible and more appearances from giant ants. Christophe Beck’s score also employs a bit more of a brassy big band sound, evoking spy-fi of yore.

Rudd’s everyman who’s fallen on the wrong side of the tracks continues to be endearing, and the film tries to give Scott some character growth, though there’s not too much to be had. The scenes that Scott shares with his daughter are on the right side of twee. Scott is the regular dude among geniuses, and Rudd plays off Lilly and Douglas well.

Lilly relishes the chance to partake in the superhero action this time around, and the Wasp’s abilities are impressively realised. Hope clearly knows what she’s doing, and there’s a precision to her fighting style and movements that Scott never quite possessed. Hope has been waiting her whole life for this and is in her element, and it’s gratifying to see her fulfil her destiny as the Wasp.

Douglas gets to be a little more active in this one than in the first Ant-Man film, but he’s still mostly there to be crotchety. The relationship between Pym and Janet is sufficiently established. By necessity, Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t get to be in this one a lot, though it’s hard not to wish she had more screen time.

There’s half a good idea here with Ghost. The appearance and abilities of the character from the comics is used, but everything else about her is created for the film. Ghost is in a constant state of flux, confused and angry, and is a formidable opponent to our heroes. She’s no Thanos or Killmonger, but she’s an adequate villain for this film.

Walton Goggins plays a standard-issue Walton Goggins character, supremely untrustworthy and grinning as he goes after what he wants. Randall Park is funny as the dogged FBI agent who tries to keep Scott under his thumb, and hopefully he goes on to be a badass secret agent like the Jimmy Woo of the comics. Fishburne is reliable as Professor Bill Foster, who had a falling out with Pym when they were colleagues.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a trifle, but it’s an entertaining, well-made trifle. Not every MCU movie needs to upend the status quo, and Ant-Man and the Wasp is quite comfortable being the silly thing it is. While the movie has welcome tricks up its sleeve with the further integration of mass-shifting into the action sequences, it can sometimes feel like we’re just watching the first one again.

Stick around for a mid-credits scene and a post-credits stinger.

RATING: 3.5 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

Wakanda Awaits: meet the characters of Black Panther

For inSing

Wakanda Awaits: meet the characters of Black Panther

Get to know the heroes and villains of this Marvel adventure

By Jedd Jong

Filmgoing audiences were introduced to Prince T’Challa/the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War. The Black Panther movie, directed by Ryan Coogler, takes us to T’Challa’s  home country of Wakanda. The technologically-advanced African nation has harnessed the rare mineral Vibranium, derived from a meteorite that crashed there millions of years ago.

Black Panther is the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and kicks off its tenth anniversary – the first MCU film, Iron Man, was released in 2008.

The character is the first superhero of African descent to appear in mainstream American comics. Black Panther debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966, and was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. Writers including Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates and artists including John Romita Jr., Brian Stelfreeze and Denys Cowan have worked on the Black Panther title.

The Black Panther film is already receiving rave reviews, with some calling it the best film in the MCU so far. The first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast, Black Panther is making an impact on the landscape of comic book films in a similar way that Wonder Woman did last year.

Before the movie whisks you off to Wakanda, here’s a primer on the characters you will meet there.

#1: T’CHALLA/BLACK PANTHER (Chadwick Boseman)

Chadwick Boseman has portrayed pioneering figures in African-American history in several biopics: baseball legend Jackie Robinson in 42, the godfather of soul James Brown in Get On Up and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. “The projects that I end up doing…have always been projects that will be impactful, for the most part, to my people — to black people,” Boseman said.  “To see black people in ways which you have not seen them before. So Black Panther was on my radar, and in my dreams.”

Boseman studied with a dialect coach to perfect a South African accent, and underwent an intense physical training regimen with martial artist Marrese Crump to perform the fight scenes. The film sees T’Challa struggle with the loss of his father, as he tries to keep the growing civil unrest in Wakanda under control – and face a challenger to his claim for the throne.

#2: ERIK STEVENS/KILLMONGER (Michael B. Jordan)

While Michael B. Jordan was in the critically-savaged Fantastic Four reboot, that did not scare him off taking on another role in a comic book movie. Like Chris Evans before him, who also played the Human Torch in two earlier Fantastic Four films, Jordan gets a second chance with a different Marvel character.

Jordan starred in Coogler’s earlier films Fruitvale Station and Creed, reuniting with the director as the main villain Killmonger. Killmonger is a Wakandan exile who became an American black-ops soldier, and believes that the Wakandan throne is rightfully his. Jordan described the character as “somebody you guys can root for,” calling him “a revolutionary.” Jordan repeated the adage that the villain believes he’s the hero of his own story. “If you can kind of get [the audience] to see that other point of view, I think the battle’s won,” Jordan remarked. Having already played a boxer in Creed, Jordan brought some of that physicality to Killmonger, saying that Coogler’s action scenes “tell a story with each punch”. Jordan also had to learn how to be handy with guns – “the weapons training is a totally different muscle,” he said.

#3: NAKIA (Lupita Nyong’o)

Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, a Wakandan intelligence operative and the ex-girlfriend of T’Challa. As a ‘war dog’, Nakia goes undercover on foreign soil, risking her life for the safety of her country. Nakia is one of several memorable female characters featured in the film. Nyong’o describes Nakia, who hails from Wakanda’s River Tribe, as “determined and methodical” and having “a quiet power”. Nyong’o asserts that Nakia is “she’s not your average love interest,” and that she and T’Challa have “a complicated past.”

“Wakanda is where we could be, where women are occupying their space in the future of a nation, they’re contributing equally and they’re allowed to realize their full potential and a woman’s power does not diminish a man’s,” Nyong’o observed. Nyong’o signed on without even reading the script, having admired Coogler’s previous work. After reading the script, she said she “couldn’t even believe it was a Marvel film, because it was so poignant, so politically and socially awake and aware.” The character’s fighting style is informed by judo, jiu-jitsu, silat and Filipino martial arts. She also learnt Korean for a scene set in Busan.

#4: OKOYE (Danai Gurira)

Danai Gurira, best known as silent badass Michonne on The Walking Dead, plays yet another commanding character: Okoye, the leader of the elite Dora Milaje bodyguard corps. Gurira was drawn to “the idea of protecting the leadership of this nation, the sovereignty of this nation, even if you don’t like what’s happening,” of putting country before personal politics – a dilemma that Okoye finds herself in.

Gurira describes Okoye as a traditionalist, saying “She has a pride and a patriotism about her nation. It goes beyond patriotism; it’s something even deeper.” Gurira spoke about travelling to Zimbabwe and seeing how excited the people there were about Black Panther. Musing on the impact the film will have on children of African descent all over the world, Gurira said “they’re in the centre of the screen, their faces are what you’re seeing. Their perspectives, their struggles, their stories, their characters, their destinies. That’s what we’re focused on, and their heroism.”

#5: SHURI (Letitia Wright)

Many reviews have noted Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister, as the scene-stealer of the film. Shuri is a 16-year-old genius scientist and inventor, who has devised cutting-edge technology to aid her brother’s crime-fighting efforts. Chief of these is a new suit which can harness and redistribute kinetic energy from strikes, and which fits into a necklace. In the comics, Shuri assumes the mantle of the Black Panther after her brother is grievously wounded in combat. Coogler says that Shuri’s genius is “on par with Tony Stark”.

Letitia Wright, who is being called the film’s breakout star, was recently seen in the fourth season of Black Mirror and will next be seen in Ready Player One. Wright was inspired to become an actress after watching the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee. While she describes herself as being “obsessed” with acting, faith was ultimately where she found her centre. “I don’t really consider myself religious. I view it more as a relationship,” she said, adding that she doesn’t mind if anyone finds that “weird”.  Wright says Shuri has “an innovative spirit and an innovative mind,” and as the embodiment of the future of Wakanda, “wants to take Wakanda to a new place”.

#6: RAMONDA (Angela Bassett)

The regal Ramonda, Queen Mother of Wakanda, is played by Angela Bassett. She too is reeling from the death of T’Chaka, her husband, but always appears calm and composed. In addition to being his mother, Ramonda is also one of T’Challa’s most trusted advisors. “It’s a lot of strength and balance and beauty and I’m just thrilled by getting to work with Danai and Lupita and actresses and brand new faces across the diaspora, it was beautifully cast,” Bassett said, adding that “it’s going to be quite a sight and I think it’s going to be magnetic.” Bassett played Amanda Waller in Green Lantern, and turned down the role of Storm in X-Men. This knowledge is wont to make one feel a little weird, since Storm and T’Challa ended up getting married in the comics.

#7: ULYSSES KLAUE (Andy Serkis)

Andy Serkis reprises his role from Avengers: Age of Ultron as the cutthroat South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. Serkis’ company The Imaginarium was working with James Spader and Mark Ruffalo for the motion capture work, when director Joss Whedon invited Serkis to play the role of Klaue.

When we last saw him, Klaue had his arm cut off by Ultron, and it’s now been replaced with a Vibranium cannon. “He’s got a humorous side to him, he’s got a sense of humour. But he’s equally very deadly and he’s quite mercurial and transitions emotionally very quickly,” Serkis said. Audiences are more used to seeing Serkis portray characters via performance capture, so this is the rare blockbuster in which he gets to show his real face.

#8: EVERETT K. ROSS (Martin Freeman)

CIA agent Everett K. Ross first appeared in Captain America: Civil War, helping to capture the film’s villain Zemo. Martin Freeman reprises the role here. Ross crosses path with T’Challa in Korea, and winds up travelling to Wakanda himself, where he finds himself in the thick of the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. Freeman and Serkis are the only two white actors in the main cast. “Making the film, it’s not lost on you. You think, ‘right, this is what black actors feel like all the time.’ And Andy wasn’t there often, so I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the white guy. And I’m the English white guy’,” Freeman recalled. Freeman reunited with Serkis, whom he worked with on the Hobbit movies in which Freeman played Bilbo opposite Serkis’ Gollum/Smeagol.

 

 

Black Panther movie review

For inSing

BLACK PANTHER

Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast : Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Sterling K. Brown
Genre : Action / Drama / Science Fiction
Run Time : 2h 14mins
Opens : 14 Feb 2018
Rating : PG

After making his debut on the big screen in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. His ascension to the throne will not go too smoothly, otherwise this wouldn’t be a very interesting movie.

After the death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa arrives home for his coronation. It is a bittersweet affair for T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). T’Challa is welcomed by elder statesman and spiritual leader Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the leader of the Dora Milaje bodyguard corps General Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his ex-girlfriend and undercover Wakandan intelligence operative Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

T’Challa’s claim to the crown is challenged by Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a hardened American black-ops soldier with an enigmatic link back to Wakandan royalty. Erik has allied himself with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the arms dealer who pillaged Wakanda’s valuable supply of Vibranium some 20 years ago. While tracking down Klaue, T’Challa runs into CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who finds himself along for the ride as Wakanda wages a battle for the nation’s very soul.

“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved,” Shuri tells her brother. Black Panther takes these words to heart, taking something that works – the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and improving on it. The MCU is now in its 10th year, and while it’s generated far more hits than misses, one still hears murmurs about ‘superhero movie fatigue’. The MCU movies have found an effective formula, but we want something different, something more.

Director Ryan Coogler, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, delivers that. The world-building in Black Panther is dazzling, with wonders waiting around every corner in Wakanda. The politics of the country are portrayed in an engaging manner, and Shakespearean palace intrigue is melded with the whiz-bang Afrofuturism of hovering vehicles and suits of armour that emanate from necklaces. Hannah Beachler’s production design and Ruth E. Carter’s costume design contribute to a visually captivating world brimming with texture.

Said world is populated by beautifully-realised characters – this is yet another MCU movie which boasts a cast stacked with talent. Boseman made an impression in Civil War with the stern dignity and undercurrent of vulnerability so crucial to T’Challa. The character continues to be noble but never boring, idealistic and principled without being naïve. T’Challa treats the throne with awe and respect as he mourns his father’s death. Boseman is thoroughly convincing as a steadfast leader.

Michael B. Jordan, who starred in director Coogler’s two previous films Creed and Fruitvale Station, brings swagger and contemptuous arrogance to the role of Erik. Erik’s Golden Jaguar suit means this is yet another solo MCU movie in which the hero fights an ‘evil inversion’ of himself – see Iron Man vs. Iron Monger or Ant-Man vs. Yellowjacket.

However, there’s more to Erik than your bog-standard MCU villain. Erik has one of the best motivations for an MCU villain yet, and while his tragic back-story has hints of melodrama to it, it’s also compelling and it’s easy for the audience to see his point of view. His rage and hunger for power make us root against him, but his righteous indignation and inner turmoil come from a genuine place.

Black Panther introduces some of the MCU’s best female characters yet. Danai Gurira, best known as Michonne on The Walking Dead, is a kickass right-hand woman to T’Challa who’s handy with a spear and doesn’t suffer fools. Nyong’o, who always exudes warmth and quiet intelligence, serves as a foil to Okoye while being formidable in her own right.

Letitia Wright steals the show as Shuri. Anyone who’s ever had a little sister will recognise the sometimes-annoying, sometimes-endearing traits the character displays. It’s also fun to see Shuri’s eyes light up when she talks effusively about her various mind-boggling inventions, including a new suit of armour for her brother. Executive producer Nate Moore has said that Shuri is even smarter than Tony Stark, and Wright seems to be having as much fun in the role as Robert Downey Jr. has with his.

Andy Serkis, probably grateful that audiences are getting to see his actual face instead of a computer-generated character with his expressions, reprises the role of Klaue from Avengers: Age of Ultron. He bites into the South African accent with relish and is wild, ruthless and entertaining.

Angela Bassett is suitably regal as the Queen Mother Ramonda – we wish she had more to do, but there’s already so much going on in the story. Whitaker’s Zuri is pretty much the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the film – Whitaker himself has said as much. Cleverly enough, Freeman’s Everett Ross plays an important role without overshadowing any of the leads.

Black Panther makes a further case for the cinematic universe as a sandbox for the vision of a talented filmmaker. It never feels like Coogler was curtailed or hampered by corporate higher-ups, and yet this feels of a piece with the existing MCU canon.

Black Panther boldly steps into territory that the MCU hasn’t quite trodden before. While there are the expected superhero origin story tropes, the film’s rich tapestry of culture, technology and action spectacle gives it a welcome freshness. The world of Wakanda is one you’ll want to dive into, and there’s potential for its further exploration in sequels to come.

Hang around for a mid-credits scene, and a second post-credits stinger.

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 Gustav 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

Spider-Man Homecoming

For F*** Magazine

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

Director : Jon Watts
Cast : Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Zendaya, Laura Harrier, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice, Michael Chernus, Bokeem Woodbine, Logan Marshall-Green
Genre : Action/Comics
Run Time : 2h 14min
Opens : 6 July 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language and Violence)

In Captain America: Civil War, we were introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) version of Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Holland). After the events of that film, Peter returns home and having been in the thick of a big superhero battle, wants more excitement. A high school sophomore, Peter juggles school work, hangs out with his best friend Ned (Batalon), nurses a crush on his Decathlon team captain Liz (Harrier), weathers the put-downs of bully Flash (Revolori) and tries to keep his Aunt May (Tomei) from discovering his secret identity. In the meantime, Spider-Man tangles with Adrian Toomes/The Vulture (Keaton), a former salvage worker with a grudge on Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.), Peter’s mentor. Toomes’ associate Phineas Mason (Chernus) has developed various gadgets using alien and other technology illegally gleaned from the aftermath of various Avengers battles. Stark thinks Peter is acting recklessly, and Peter must prove he is worthy of not only the suit that Stark has created for him, but of the mantle of a superhero.

The Spider-Man film rights are something of a tangled web: after The Amazing Spider-Man 2 under-performed and a planned franchise collapsed, Sony Pictures leased the film rights for the character to Marvel Studios. This makes Spider-Man: Homecoming technically a Sony film, but Spider-Man can now co-exist with the other heroes in the MCU – as he should be able to.

Jon Watts, a relatively fresh director who impressed Marvel execs with his film Cop Car, carves out a niche in the MCU that fits Homecoming perfectly. We’re reminded that this film takes place in a larger universe, but Homecoming doesn’t busy itself with excessive franchise set-up work – which was arguably the downfall of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Instead, Watts strikes a fine balance between the superhero action and the high school movie aspects, crafting something with a scope and scale that doesn’t exceed his grasp. These movies can get bloated, but despite a large cast of characters, Homecoming remains buoyant.

We called Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 the funniest MCU movie yet. Its reign is short-lived, as Homecoming is a worthy challenger to the title. Those Captain America public service announcement videos are a hoot. Despite a screenplay which is credited to three pairs of writers, the film doesn’t feel cluttered or scattershot. The central theme is that of responsibility – while this certainly isn’t an alien concept to the Spider-Man movies, the film doesn’t just say the word “responsibility” a bunch of times. While this is obviously a big-budget tentpole movie, there’s a certain homespun feel to it. Thankfully, this isn’t one of those teen-aimed movies made by people who obviously don’t get teenagers. The bits of Peter dealing with student life and the parts of the film in which he’s Spider-Man don’t feel like they come from disparate movies.

Homecoming boasts some quality set-pieces, with the central bifurcated Staten Island ferry sequence being the standout. The Washington Monument scene provides a judicious change of pace from the New York setting. While the visual effects work is mostly excellent and the Vulture’s wings look particularly awesome, there are some moments that lack polish. The computer-generated effects in all the previous Spider-Man films haven’t aged spectacularly, and while that’s less egregious here, there are still times when the digital double for Spider-Man himself looks too cartoony. Since Spidey’s moves are more elaborate than the standard ‘swing from building to building’ routine, the weaknesses of the CG Spidey show up a little more obviously.

Holland won plenty of fans over with his turn as Spidey in Civil War, and gets the chance to further develop the character and come into his own. Holland effortlessly essays Peter’s wide-eyed enthusiasm at the slightest thing, which probably echoes the actor’s own awe at being a part of the blockbuster franchise. There’s an earnestness to Peter and he’s just the right shade of flawed. Getting to play with a high-tech suit is fun, but when crime-fighting encroaches on Peter’s school and social life, it’s a burden he must shoulder. Holland’s physicality is a key factor to him being as good a Spider-Man as he is. However, as expected, most of the fighting and acrobatics seem to be done by the afore-mentioned digital double.

MCU villains get a bad rap, so it’s a good thing that the Vulture is one of the better ones. Keaton is ideal casting, and while he does have fun with the role, he’s intimidating without doing too much. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffered from a surfeit of one-dimensional, maniacally cackling villains. The Vulture’s motivations are logically laid out, and the idea of a regular guy who becomes a villain because the opportunity presents itself and as a means to a better life works as a foil against Spider-Man, the regular kid-turned-superhero. While some might worry that there are additional villains, the two Shockers (Woodbine, Marshall-Green) and the Tinkerer remain firmly in the background, with Homecoming avoiding a case of villain overload.

The supporting cast is fun, with Batalon making for an excitable, loveable sidekick to Holland’s Peter. The normally-glamorous former Disney Channel star Zendaya relishes playing the kooky, acerbic Michelle. Harrier’s Liz Allan fulfils the role Mary Jane normally would, as the unattainable crush Peter admires from afar. In one of several departures from the source material, Revolori’s Flash Thompson isn’t the traditional musclebound meathead, but is instead a snob who drives about in a fancy Audi.

While the promotional materials were heavy on Iron Man, Downey Jr.’s presence doesn’t overwhelm the film, which is squarely Spider-Man’s to carry. It’s apt that Tony step into the mentor role, and this signifies how far the MCU has come – it’s already been nine years since the first Iron Man film. And yes, the film is acutely aware that Marisa Tomei is considerably more attractive than the traditional grey-haired, hunched-over Aunt May as drawn in the comics. The montage in which she helps Peter prepare for prom is a sweet, low-key moment.

While Homecoming doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and doesn’t take the kind of risks with the comic book movie genre that we’ve seen from Logan and Wonder Woman earlier this year, it doesn’t have to. There’s a comfort factor in seeing Spider-Man back on the big screen, and the filmmakers demonstrate a keen understanding of what makes him tick, and of the character’s enduring appeal. Stick around for a stinger after the (extremely eye-catching) main-on-end titles, and another at the very end of the credits.

Summary: Like the high-tech suit that Tony Stark creates for Peter Parker, this Spider-Man reboot is spiffy but sufficiently familiar. Homecoming is tonally assured and energetic, with Holland making for an eminently personable Spidey.

RATING: 4 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