Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings review

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast : Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, Ronny Chieng
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 132 min
Opens : 1 September
Rating : PG13

We are now into Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Post-Avengers: Endgame, it seemed like audiences would lose interest in the sprawling franchise, but while some have, there is still a lot to keep others invested. With TV series on Disney+ and many movies on the slate, the MCU is moving in various directions, one of those directions being the wuxia-inspired realm of Shang-Chi.

Shaun (Simu Liu) lives in San Francisco, working as a hotel valet alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Shaun hides a secret: he is actually Shang-Chi, the son of ruthless warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung). Armed with ancient artifacts called the Ten Rings, Wenwu has moved in the shadows for centuries. He had thought his endless need for conquest would come to an end after meeting Ying Li (Fala Chen) in the magical land of Ta Lo. Wenwu and Ying Li had two children, Shang-Chi and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). However, tragedy brought Wenwu back to the violence of his past. Now, Shang-Chi must confront what he has spent half his life running away from, as he and Katy get drawn into an epic battle involving criminal empires, magical creatures and lots and lots of martial arts.

It is perfectly understandable that many audiences were apprehensive of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. After all, it’s very easy to cynically view this as solely a bid for Asian moviegoers’ money and nothing more. Also, there have been many films aimed at appealing to both Asian and American audiences that have faceplanted embarrassingly, including The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Dragon Blade and The Great Wall.

Shang-Chi avoids practically all of those pitfalls.

This is an immersive, entertaining adventure that is largely bereft of the samey-samey feel which MCU movies can carry, and which plagued this year’s Black Widow to a certain extent. While there still is a reliance on the ‘chosen one’ origin story formula, Shang-Chi introduces myriad elements to the mix which we haven’t seen done quite like this before. Director Destin Daniel Cretton displays a healthy amount of reverence for classic wuxia movies. While purists will nitpick the action in this film, most of it is truly spectacular, choreographed beautifully and not shot with shaky-cam or hyper-edited to death. The late Brad Allan, who is the second unit director and supervising stunt coordinator on this film, was one of Australia’s top wushu athletes and a long-time member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. There is every effort made to deliver beautiful action, and unlike in some MCU movies where it can feel like the action scenes are disjointed from the rest of the movie, everything flows well here. In addition to the martial arts-centric sequences, there’s an entertaining runaway bus setpiece that nods to 90s action films like Speed and The Rock.

While Simu Liu has a background as a stuntman and has trained in Taekwondo and Wing Chun, he sometimes feels like the least convincing fighter in the film. He has clearly worked very hard to learn and execute the choreography, but especially when compared to Arnold Sun, who plays Shang-Chi as a 14-year-old, it doesn’t fully feel like Shang-Chi has been training his entire life. Perhaps that can be explained away by how he has spent ten years in hiding.

A problem with many Marvel films and indeed many present-day action blockbusters is that the final action sequence is very heavily reliant upon CGI, and goes on for a bit too long, such that one is wont to tune out. Amusingly, the climactic battle revolves around closing a portal, something which the earlier Marvel movies have often been mocked for, but there is a bit of a twist put on it. Some may also roll their eyes at the “dead wife” motivation, but this reviewer feels it is a justified plot point here.

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Marvel Studios have typically been great at casting, and Shang-Chi is no exception. Simu Liu and Awkwafina are actors who might typically be relegated to playing sidekicks, and both step up to the leading roles very well. Liu has an earnestness to him and the early scenes of Shang-Chi and Katy hanging out make them seem like people whom we would want to be friends with.

Relative newcomer Meng’er Zhang displays excellent physicality and a convincing woundedness behind exterior strength as Xialing, who was always relegated to the sidelines while Wenwu focused on Shang-Chi. Zhang met her husband, action designer Yung Lee, on the set of the film. Florian Munteanu, who played Viktor Drago in Creed II, makes for an adequately intimidating henchman as Razorfist. Michelle Yeoh is elegant and has gravitas to spare, making a meal of some potentially unwieldy exposition. There’s also an appearance from an MCU character which is a great surprise if one doesn’t know they’re going to be in Shang-Chi.


Tony Leung is truly incredible. It was a valid concern that he would just be there for the sake of saying “we’ve got Tony Leung,” but the Wenwu part is a substantial one and is easily one of the greatest MCU villains yet, even though that is a low bar to clear. One of the big selling points of the film is that this is the venerable Hong Kong actor’s long-awaited Hollywood debut. Wenwu reminded this reviewer of Vincent D’onofrio’s Wilson Fisk in the Daredevil series: he does monstrous things, but we come to understand what made him this way. In his earliest comics appearances Shang-Chi was literally the son of Fu Manchu, and the movie addresses the outmoded orientalism inherent in the source material. The name “Wenwu” comes from the Chinese idiom 文武双全 (wén wǔ shuāng quán), roughly meaning “master of pen and sword,” reflecting how Wenwu is both an intellectual and physical force. Wenwu is a modified take on the Iron Man villain the Mandarin. The portrayal of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 proved to be controversial, and that is acknowledged here in a clever way.

Representation is a tricky thing, because no one piece of media can speak for a multitude of communities. There are many East Asian communities and indeed many Chinese communities around the world, and Shang-Chi can’t be expected to tell everyone’s story. However, there is an effort made here to infuse a certain amount of authenticity into the story and especially the dialogue. When the characters speak in Mandarin Chinese, which they do roughly 40% of the time, it doesn’t feel like it’s been fed into Google Translate. It’s fun hearing someone say “I’ve eaten more salt than you have rice,” an expression commonly used by the older Chinese people to admonish the younger generation, in a Hollywood movie.

This is a story about identity and belonging. Shang-Chi has always been Asian-American: in the earliest comics, his mother was a blonde American woman. Shang-Chi’s hero’s journey centres on finding out who he really is and reckoning with his father, who put him through arduous training and moulded him into an assassin, but who ostensibly loves him. The relationships in the film are very well defined, and the audience quickly understands the underlying nature of each of the relationships: the friendship between Shang-Chi and Katy, the estranged sibling relationship between Shang-Chi and Xialing, the parental relationship between Wenwu and Shang-Chi and so on.

Summary: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a spectacular adventure. Never feeling like it’s too tied down to the now-labyrinthian MCU mythology, there is something refreshing to this even as it evokes the feeling of classic wuxia films. Simu Liu proves himself to be a worthy superhero, Awkwafina is more than just the funny sidekick, and Tony Leung is just magnificent as one of the best Marvel villains yet. Far more than just token representation for the sake of it, Shang-Chi is one of the most successful instances of a big-budget movie designed to appeal to international audiences without feeling like mere hollow pandering. Stay behind for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene, but you should know this by now.  

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Black Widow review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Cate Shortland
Cast : Scarlett Johansson, Florence Pugh, David Harbour, Rachel Weisz, O-T Fagbenle, William Hurt, Ray Winstone, Ever Anderson, Violet McGraw
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 134 min
Opens : 8 July 2021 (Sneaks from 7 July)
Rating : PG13

Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies have become an expected feature of the theatrical release calendar, and 2020 was the first year since 2009 in which none were released in cinemas. While the MCU is branching out on Disney+, it’s good to hear the Marvel Studios logo fanfare in a cinema again. After multiple delays, Black Widow finally arrives.

Set right after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is a fugitive from the authorities. While attempting to keep a low profile, she crosses paths with Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), a sister figure who has undergone similar training. The duo eventually reunites with Alexei Shostakov/Red Guardian (David Harbour) and Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) – years ago, the four Russians posed as a family, undercover in rural Ohio. Now, they must work to dismantle the Red Room program run by the ruthless Dreykov (Ray Winstone), and attempt to free the brainwashed women whom Dreykov is conditioning to be the next generation of deadly operatives, known as ‘Widows’. Dreykov’s secret weapon, the enigmatic Taskmaster, is a Terminator-like assassin who can mimic the moves of any combatant he studies. Natasha, who has spent her whole life running from her past, must confront it, finally gaining a degree of closure.

The Black Widow character is long overdue for a solo movie, something that’s been floated since even before the character’s MCU debut in 2010’s Iron Man 2, with a Black Widow movie announced as early as 2004. Scarlett Johansson has never been given a great deal to sink her teeth into with the character, and the preceding MCU films have offered little more than tantalising hints at the character’s dark backstory of being trained and brainwashed from childhood into the perfect killing machine. This is a movie that is interested in its characters, and director Cate Shortland excels at scenes in which people are talking to each other, hashing out unresolved tension. There is a stylishness to the proceedings and a touch of spy movie flair. Several action sequences are entertaining, and the violence seems more brutal, impactful and immediate than in many other MCU films, perhaps pushing the PG13 rating a bit.

By now, we’re used to hearing criticisms of the MCU movies being formulaic. Unfortunately, despite a few stylistic touches, Black Widow still often feels like it’s rolled off the Marvel Studios production line. The pacing of the movie is very much “dialogue scene, action scene, dialogue scene, action scene,” in a way that feels very dutiful. There is an attempt to balance the character stuff with the superhero stuff, and it’s not quite as effortless as it should be.

The big climactic action sequence is stuffed with CGI, and by then it can’t help but feel like the movie is on autopilot. The action sequences in Black Widow and indeed in most other MCU movies are technically proficient, but it seems there are only so many ways a vehicle can flip over. It’s a bit of an open secret that MCU action scenes are mostly handled by a separate team, and some directors are better at making everything fit together than others, so the movie sometimes feels a bit disjointed. The curse of the mediocre villain strikes again – while Taskmaster’s mimicry gimmick is initially interesting, there’s just not a lot to him, and the dynamic of Taskmaster being the heavy and Dreykov as the puppet master is efficient but overly familiar.

The best parts of Black Widow are when the makeshift family of Natasha, Yelena, Alexei and Melina are spending time together. There are bits of the movie that even feel like The Incredibles. The way Natasha views the arrangement as a sham, whereas Yelena still has an emotional attachment to it, is an excellent approach to this setup. The new additions to the cast are all excellent, with rising star Pugh positioning herself in just the right MCU role. Her interactions with Johansson really feel like two sisters bickering, and there’s a believable chemistry between them, conveying the sense of two people making up for lost time.

David Harbour steals the show with a warm, loveable performance as Russia’s very own super soldier. He brings a great deal of dad energy to the proceedings and looks to be having a great time. Weisz is a lower-key, dignified presence, even if Melina is not an especially interesting character as written.

Summary: While not a wholly satisfying swansong for Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, this solo outing introduces some enjoyable characters into the MCU and is interested in its characters’ internal lives, even as there is plenty of requisite action spectacle. The movie is at its most enjoyable when it’s about Natasha’s makeshift family unit, with Florence Pugh’s Yelena making for an endearing little sister figure. As is the custom, stick around for a post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Spider-Man: Far From Home review

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Avengers: Endgame review

AVENGERS: ENDGAME

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

The following review is spoiler-free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Captain Marvel review

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Cast : Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Algenis Pérez Soto, Rune Temte, Akira Akbar
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 2 h 4 mins
Opens : 7 March 2019
Rating : PG13

            The Marvel Cinematic Universe is mostly set in the present day, but has taken detours to the past: Captain America: The First Avenger was set during World War II, Agent Carter was set just after World War II, flashbacks in the Ant-Man films were set in the 60s and the prologue of Guardians of the Galaxy was set in the 80s. Captain Marvel now takes us to the 90s to meet a hero who’ll be a key player in the MCU going forward.

Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is a former US Air Force fighter pilot who has been imbued with superpowers and is a part of Starforce, an elite Kree military unit. Serving under the leadership of Yonn-Rog (Jude Law), Carol, known by the Kree as “Vers”, fends off the threat of the shape-shifting Skrulls. When Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of the Skrulls, sets his sights on earth, Carol finds herself defending the planet she once called home, and confronts the former existence she has forgotten.

On earth, Carol meets Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), an agent of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.). Fury’s worldview is upended by the knowledge of an impending alien invasion. In attempting to trace her past, Carol reconnects with her Air Force colleague and best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), whose daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) was especially close to Carol. A series of events leads Carol to re-evaluate where her allegiances as she realises the full potential of her cosmic powers.

Captain Marvel is the last MCU film before Avengers: Endgame arrives in a month and a half. In the post-credits stinger of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, Nick Fury pages Captain Marvel just before he disintegrates, alongside half of all life on earth. This film builds hype for Endgame and adds to the speculation of what role Captain Marvel will play in the fight against Thanos but setting it in the 90s also gives it enough distance from the other MCU films, such that it can also be its own thing.

The directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who helmed Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind, is the latest example of how the MCU has shepherded filmmakers known for making smaller films, such that they acquit themselves well given the large canvas of the MCU. The Russo Brothers, James Gunn, Jon Watts and Taika Waititi achieved similar success with their MCU films.

             Captain Marvel is part space opera, part fish-out-of-water comedy, all hero’s journey. The MCU films can feel samey-samey and while this sticks to the formula in parts, there are still surprises to be had, and the film’s status as a prequel doesn’t mean that audiences are entirely ahead of the plot.

There’s a variety to the action sequences, with the space opera stuff contrasted with a car chase and a fight on an LA Metro Rail train. There are also mid-air chases and space dogfights. While the cosmic action in Captain Marvel isn’t quite as exciting or inventive as in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, it’s still executed with enough flair. The 90s nostalgia is not as pandering as some audiences might have feared, and manifests in some very sly ways. The Stan Lee cameo, one of the last ones the late Marvel Comics writer filmed, is particularly clever.

While the movie is a big piece of positive PR for the U.S. Air Force, it doesn’t come off as propagandistic. Captain Marvel handles the themes of militarism and war with admirable nuance: the Kree have been locked in a protracted conflict with the Skrulls, and it turns out things are not as black and white as they first appear. It’s not the most insightful message, but it fits the story that’s being told here.

The film is character-driven, and Carol is always at its centre. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, who served as a consultant on this film and makes a cameo appearance, said “Carol falls down all the time, but she always gets back up. We say that about Captain America as well, but Captain America gets back up because it’s the right thing to do. Carol gets back up because ‘F*** you.’” Brie Larson captures this defiance, but also lends the character a sense of humour and great vulnerability. Sure, Captain Marvel eventually ends up as one of the most powerful characters in the MCU, but this movie is about her journey to that point, and she falls and gets back up again plenty of times throughout said journey.

The film has been pre-emptively smeared as a screeching screed pushing a scary agenda. It’s much ado about nothing. The sexism that Carol faces in the film is common in the real world: she gets told she’s too emotional and that she needs to smile more. The character isn’t going around bashing men in the head because men are inherently evil. There’s a roundedness to the character and the film also emphasises her friendship with Lynch’s Monica.

Goose the cat, known as Chewie in the comics, is a scene-stealer who’s allocated just enough screen time such that its presence never feels gimmicky.

We meet Nick Fury when he’s less experienced and more naïve than how we know him. This reviewer thinks Samuel L. Jackson is always more interesting to watch when he isn’t playing into the myth of him being an untouchable badass. He gets to bring a good deal of humanity and heart to Fury.

The de-aging visual effects used on Jackson work seamlessly. They’re perhaps a little more noticeable on Clark Gregg as a younger Phil Coulson, but it is good to see that character back in an MCU movie regardless.

Ben Mendelsohn has great fun with the role of Talos, a character who seems at first like yet another generic MCU villain, but who winds up being a lot more than that. Mendelsohn brings a surprising depth to the character.

Jude Law is fine as the tough mentor character Yon-Rogg, but the movie seems aware that he’s not as compelling as some of the other characters. Gemma Chan gives Minn-Erva a dangerously sexy edge, making a bit part interesting. As the corporeal manifestation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, Annette Bening gets to play wise, funny and maybe even a bit menacing.

While Captain Marvel doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it has enough surprises up its sleeve and is built upon a solid, engaging character arc. Its combination of space opera and 90s action-comedy works. Larson says that Carol “doesn’t have anything to prove,” but Captain Marvel has proven that the titular character more than deserves a prime spot in the MCU pantheon. Stick around for two post-credits scene, one that sets up things to come, and another that’s purely comedic.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

1995: A Space Odyssey – Captain Marvel stars and directors in Singapore

By Jedd Jong

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2018 was a banner year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, delivering the one-two punch of Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Ant-Man and the Wasp served as a palate cleanser that still teased 2019’s big event – Avengers: Endgame.

The MCU movie that immediately precedes Endgame is Captain Marvel, which introduces one of Marvel’s most powerful heroes to the cinematic canon. The post-credits stinger of Infinity War depicted Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) activating a pager and calling for Captain Marvel’s help before he demateralised alongside Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).

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Captain Marvel will depict the first meeting between Fury and the titular hero. The movie takes place largely in 1995 and centres on Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), a U.S. Air Force pilot who transforms into a super-powered intergalactic peacekeeper. When earth is threatened by the shape-shifting Skrull invaders, Captain Marvel returns to her home planet to fight them and to rediscover the past existence she has long forgotten.

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Stars Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Gemma Chan and directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were in Singapore to promote the movie at Marina Bay Sands. On the agenda was a press junket, interviews and a massive fan event in the evening.

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Boden and Fleck are the latest indie directors to move from the world of smaller-scale dramas and comedies onto the largest stage imaginable, the MCU. “When you saw Half Nelson, it was just obvious we would be doing a superhero movie next,” Fleck joked, referring to their breakout film starring Ryan Gosling. The duo is also known for directing Mississippi Grind starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, and for directing episodes of TV shows including Billions and The Affair.

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Boden has become the first woman to direct an MCU movie – the only other female director to have helmed a Marvel movie so far was Lexi Alexander, who made 2008’s Punisher: War Zone. “This is a movie I really wanted to be part of. This is a character that so many people care so much about,” Boden said, adding “it’s 2019 and I think that everybody here looks forward to the day that it’s not news-worthy that a woman is directing this type of movie.” Boden is in good company, with Patty Jenkins having directed Wonder Woman and directing its sequel, Cathy Yan helming Birds of Prey and Cate Shortland directing the upcoming Black Widow solo movie.

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Fleck recounted the process of pitching the movie to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. “When we went in there to talk to Kevin and the team at Marvel, and Brie as well, we were on the same page to make this character as complex and messy and human as possible, funny and tough and also vulnerable at the same time,” Fleck recalled. “They were like ‘yeah, that’s the movie we want to make,’ and here we are.”

Speaking about the production support built into the MCU machine, Boden added “[Marvel] said ‘We know how to make the big explosions, we need people to focus on the stories and the characters.'”

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The film chronicles Carol Danvers’ transformation into Captain Marvel, and behind the scenes, Oscar winner Brie Larson also underwent a staggering transformation to play the role. She embraced the physical challenge of portraying one of the most powerful superheroes in existence, saying “There’s something about pushing yourself beyond the threshold of what’s comfortable and then going even further than that…it means sometimes that you end up on the floor crying, begging for it to stop.” Larson surmised that those moments of breakthrough in the midst of pushing oneself to the limit embodied the spirit of Carol Danvers.

The arduous training paid off: Larson can dead-lift an impressive 102 kg and pushed a jeep up a hill for 30 seconds. Larson became fond of sending co-star Samuel L. Jackson videos of her workout progress, “just to brag”.

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Larson found the process of learning and executing action sequences rewarding, because there was a level of satisfaction in completing the task. Compared with typical acting which is up to interpretation, Larson found working on fight scenes more clear-cut. “There’s a right and a wrong way to punch an alien and that’s how it goes,” she stated.

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Larson also spent time flying in actual fighter jets, going onto Nellis Air Force Base and meeting with U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt, the first female fighter squadron commander in the Air Force’s history.

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Costumes are an integral part of any comic book movie, and the costumes in Captain Marvel are no exception. Carol’s default costume is a red, blue and gold variation of the green Starforce uniform she wears at the beginning of the film. The costumes were designed by Sanja Milkovic Hays, whose credits include Star Trek Beyond and the recent Fast and Furious films. Larson described the costume as a “restrictive rubber suit,” comparing moving around in it to “treading water all day”. She described shooting an action sequence in which Carol hangs off the side of a train, saying “It wasn’t until we got there that it was like ‘oh, I can’t lift my arms.'”

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Larson has a particularly adorable co-star in the film: a cat named Goose, based on the character Chewie from the comics. The name ‘Goose’ is a nod to Top Gun. The cat may be more significant to the plot than it first appears, so much so that it got its own character poster. “We had four cats playing our lead cat Goose,” Boden said. “Reggie is really the face, the star, the heart and the soul of the character.” Reggie shared the role with Archie, Rizzo and Gonzo. Orders came from on high to increase the cat’s screen time: Boden related that “very early on in the development process, Kevin Feige looked at one of our outlines and said ‘we need 100% more of that cat in there.’ And he got it and so did you!”

Here’s the video of me asking about the cat.

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The very slightly less adorable Samuel L. Jackson is no stranger to the MCU. In this movie, he plays a younger version of Nick Fury with the help of de-aging technology, previously used on actors including Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kurt Russell and Robert Downey Jr. in other MCU movies. This is a Fury before he lost sight in one eye and before he became the director of spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Instead of putting on a prosthetic scar and eyepatch like he normally would, Jackson wore motion capture dots on his face, so his expressions could be transferred to a more youthful visage.

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“Along with having two eyes, I have a lot less instinct than older Nick Fury has,” Jackson reflected. “I learn a lot from [Carol] over the course of the film and it helps a lot.” Jackson glanced at Larson, before exclaiming “She’s my first alien!”

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One of the members of Carol’s Starforce team is Minn-erva, played by Gemma Chan. Chan was recently seen in Crazy Rich Asians and is also known for her role in the sci-fi TV series Humans. Minn-erva is a deadly sniper with a penchant for sarcastic asides and a bit of a mean streak. “She’s pretty badass,” Chan said. “She’s not so nice, she’s got a bit of an edge, and there’s definitely a physical challenge as well.”

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Part of that physical challenge was in trying not to get bested by her own props. “The main thing during Captain Marvel that I had to be concerned about was trying not to hit myself in my face with my own rifle. The one that I practised with was a bit shorter than the one I used in the film, so I had to adjust for that,” Chan said to laughter.

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When asked who she might want to team up with in a future Marvel film, Larson mentioned Ms. Marvel. The current Ms. Marvel in the comics is Kamala Khan, a young Muslim woman hailed as a positive role model. Feige has cryptically said that he “has plans” for her inclusion in the MCU, so Larson might get her wish yet.

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One journalist bravely attempted to broach the topic of Captain Marvel’s role in fighting Thanos in Endgame. “That is a really great question that I absolutely cannot answer, but more power to you for asking and very good try,” Larson said.

Someone had to give it a go.

 

 

 

 

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