Jojo Rabbit review

For F*** Magazine

JOJO RABBIT

Director: Taika Waititi
Cast : Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, Archie Yates
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 1 h 48 mins
Opens : 2 January 2020
Rating : PG13

While he’s had a long career in his native New Zealand, Taika Waititi has become a hot property in Hollywood over the last several years. What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople earned Waititi widespread acclaim, and he has had mainstream success with Thor: Ragnarok, in which he also played the character of Korg. Waititi turns his attention to World War II with this adaptation of Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies.

It is towards the end of the Second World War. Johannes “Jojo” Beltzer (Roman Griffin Davis) is a member of the Hitler Youth and an unabashed Hitler fanboy, living in Germany with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Jojo is an outcast who is mocked for refusing to kill a rabbit during a Hitler Youth camp activity. His only friend is Yorki (Archie Yates), also a member of the Hitler Youth. That’s not technically true – Jojo does have another friend: an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who runs the Hitler Youth camp, takes a liking to Jojo despite initially dismissing him as unsuitable to be a soldier. However, Jojo’s resolve and loyalty to the Nazi ideals is shaken when he discovers his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic of their house.

Jojo Rabbit is a movie that plays to all Taika Waititi’s strengths as a writer, director and performer, allowing him to put his stamp on it and make the movie something that is distinctly his. The film is a satire that aims to undercut the superficial cool factor that some perceive the Nazis as having by mocking them – this is a not a new idea. After all, Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in The Great Dictator in 1940. However, Jojo Rabbit presents the point of view of children who were growing up in Nazi Germany. There is an innocence and earnestness to the film which is married to an understanding of the horrors of war, and specifically of the Third Reich.

Jojo Rabbit is sometimes uncomfortable, but perhaps necessarily so. The film has been described as Waititi juggling a live grenade for 108 minutes, but the point of the movie is not to be audacious or to be shocking. While it can get very bleak, the film is largely a gentle, sensitive treatise on how hate is fostered and how it can be defused. The remarkable performances (more on that in a bit) give the film its beating heart.

The movie was shot on location in Prague and other locations in the Czech Republic. The cinematography by Mihai Mălaimare Jr. and music by Michael Giacchino all give Jojo Rabbit the feel of a prestige film, but because of its humorous tone and Waititi’s deft directorial touch, the movie never feels like it’s putting on airs just for awards season.

Jojo Rabbit has garnered controversy, with some critics saying the film should not be portraying the Nazis in a comical manner, even to mock them. After all, Chaplin himself wrote in his 1964 autobiography that had he been aware of the Nazi concentration camps at the time, he would not have made The Great Dictator. Steven Spielberg portrayed the Nazis as cartoon villains in the Indiana Jones films, but he said he could no longer view them that way after making Schindler’s List. Jojo Rabbit is tonally challenging, but this reviewer would argue that there is a sensitivity to the way horrific historical events are depicted, and that Waititi has succeeded in using humour judiciously. Some critics have also argued that the film should not portray any Nazis sympathetically, when Sam Rockwell’s character is depicted in a largely positive light.

Jojo Rabbit is the story of a makeshift family. Jojo’s sister Inge has died, and Elsa was a schoolmate and friend of Inge’s. In a way, Elsa is a surrogate daughter to Rosie and a surrogate sister to Jojo. Waititi has said that he intended the film to be a love letter to his mother and a tribute to single parents everywhere.

The relationships between these three characters are rendered with sublime beauty. Scarlett Johansson gives one of the finest performances of her career, essaying both strength and warmth. Thomasin McKenzie is an immensely watchable livewire and a gifted performer whom the camera loves.

However, it is Roman Griffin Davis who does the most heavy lifting and who carries the movie. The character’s arc from being obsessed with all things Nazi and unquestioning of the party line to realising that maybe Jews don’t have tails and horns and aren’t so different than he is plays out in a credible way, despite the movie’s over the top touches.

Taika Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler is buffoonish and amusing, but there’s also quite a bit of nuance to it. This isn’t Hitler the historical figure – this is a young boy’s idealised version of Hitler, part father figure, part best friend. This is Jiminy Cricket if he told Pinnochio to do the worst things. This distance gives Waititi the freedom to play a character that does not need to be historically accurate. Waititi deliberately did no research on the real Hitler. Waititi is a Polynesian Jew and said of someone with his heritage playing a version of Hitler, “what better f*** you to that guy?”.

Summary: A moving, funny and beautifully acted comedy drama, Jojo Rabbit is a movie that near-perfectly juggles all its disparate elements. This is awards season fare that rises above the average ‘Oscar bait’ because of a daring yet sensitive approach to the material. Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie and Scarlett Johansson all deliver performances that are some of the year’s best, while this is the best showcase for Taika Waititi as writer, director and performer yet.

RATING: 4.5 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

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

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

For F*** Magazine

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

Director : Rupert Sanders
Cast : Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Peter Ferdinando
Genre : Sci-fi/Action
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : PG-13

“Oh boy.”

That’s the common reaction when the live-action Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is mentioned. There’s a cybernetically-enhanced elephant in the room, (it’s got retractable metal tusks) but we’ll get to that later.

It is the future, and robot technology has become commonplace, many humans augmenting themselves with cybernetic implants. Hanka Robotics has gone a big step further, implanting a human mind into a fully synthetic robot body. The result is Major Mira Killian (Johansson), whose creation was overseen by Dr. Ouélet (Binoche). The Major works for the Section 9 task force, under the command of Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Kitano). Alongside her colleagues Batou (Asbæk) and Togusa (Chin Han), the Major must hunt down a shadowy villain named Kuze (Pitt), who has been remotely hacking Hanka’s products, making various robots turn on their owners. At the same time, the Major is haunted by visions of a burning pagoda, and seeks to piece together the mystery of her former, human existence.

The elephant is on its way – hear that synth-tinged trumpeting? First, some background: Ghost in the Shell is based on Masamune Shirow’s manga, first published in 1989. The manga was adapted into an anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii in 1995, and has since spawned other films, anime television series and video games. Ghost in the Shell rode the cyberpunk wave of the 90s, and has proven to be a deeply influential work. It was one of the main inspirations for The Matrix – the Wachowski siblings reportedly screened the 1995 film for producer Joel Silver, saying “we want to do that, but for real”.

One of the myriad issues with this adaptation is that it’s late to its own party. Filmgoers have seen similar futuristic cityscapes and high-tech prosthetics in other sci-fi films. It’s akin to how John Carter arrived around 100 years after its source material was written, with Star Wars and Avatar among others having become popular in the intervening years. There are plenty of eye-catching visuals in this take on Ghost in the Shell, but one gets the sense that director Rupert Sanders is dutifully duplicating the imagery from Oshii’s anime film, divorcing those images of their intended impact.

And now, the elephant. The protagonist was originally named Major Motoko Kusanagi, and the casting of Johansson led to widespread outrage, making ‘whitewashing’ a household phrase – even though it’s something Hollywood has done for years. Here is an action heroine in a big-budget movie, a role that could’ve and should’ve been played by an Asian actress, but a white actress was cast instead for box office appeal. Some make the argument that Motoko has no assigned race, as she is an android, and that ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ is a pseudonym. By this logic, an Asian actress still could have played the part. If this were a movie about Catherine the Great, Boudicca or Joan of Arc, retaining the original historical context, that wouldn’t have been possible.

“Maybe it’s much ado about nothing,” this reviewer told himself, taking his seat during the screening. “Maybe it’ll be so much fun I won’t notice. Maybe it’s a non-issue”. It’s not. It’s a non-non-issue. It’s an issue. Because so much emphasis is placed on the Major unearthing her past and coming to terms with the life she had before her brain was plopped into a robot shell, questions of identity fuel the plot. Like it or not, race is a part of one’s identity – not the sole part, mind you, but depending on the person, a key one. Without giving too much away, the big plot twist carries with it some ghastly implications where race is concerned.

To be fair to Johansson, her casting makes sense on some levels. She has considerable action heroine cred from playing Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has been in sci-fi films like The Island and Lucy, and played an artificial intelligence construct in Her. While Johansson handles the fights well and gets to show off her toned physique in a skin-tight bodysuit, the Major is mostly confused rather than confident. While some episodes of Stand Alone Complex have hinted at it, Motoko’s back-story in the original Ghost in the Shell is not a driving force of the plot. By making the rediscovery of her past the Major’s primary motivation, screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger have reduced the character to ‘Jason Bourne as the Terminator’.

Noted Japanese actor-director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano makes what is only his second appearance in a Hollywood film, after 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic. All his dialogue is in Japanese, he gets to retain his dignity and has a few moments of badassery. Asbæk is not as physically imposing as most fans would expect Batou to be, but he’s fine. Pitt’s role is minimal, his character being something of a composite of Kuze from Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig and the Puppet Master from the original manga run and the 1995 film. While there’s an attempt to make him sympathetic even as he carries out ruthless acts, we don’t get to know enough about the character to feel for him.

While not to the extent of 2014’s Godzilla, Ghost in the Shell is yet another Hollywood tentpole movie that wastes Binoche’s considerable talents as an actress. The character of Dr. Ouélet is comparable to Gary Oldman’s Dennett Norton in the RoboCop remake. A lot of this film reminded us of the RoboCop remake, only that was more fun. We also have Chin Han sporting a hairstyle that’s even more awkward than the one he had in Masters of the Sea. We did not know such a thing could be possible.

It may sound pretentious to scoff at a movie for “dumbing things down” for American audiences, but it’s hard to argue that this isn’t what Ghost in the Shell is doing. The source material’s heady themes of transcendence and the nature of consciousness are largely unmined, and the unfettered sexuality is neutered. Ah well, maybe there actually was an Asian actress in a co-lead role, but she was just cloaked in thermo-optic camouflage.

Summary: While it showcases familiar key visuals, Ghost in the Shell retrofits a Hollywood sci-fi action plot onto sophisticated source material. The negative buzz about casting a white actress as the protagonist is also fully warranted.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Sing

For F*** Magazine

SING 

Director : Garth Jennings
Cast : Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, Taron Egerton, Nick Kroll, Nick Offerman, Garth Jennings, Peter Serafinowicz, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Beck Bennett, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharaoh
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1h 50min
Opens : 8 December 2016
Rating : PG

sing-posterIllumination Entertainment aims to unite all creatures great and small through the power of song in this animated musical comedy. Buster Moon (McConaughey) the koala is running out of options. After a string of flops, the showbiz entrepreneur’s theatre will soon be foreclosed upon. Moon and his business partner Eddie (Reilly) the sheep mount a singing competition to save the theatre. The contestants include harried housewife Rosita (Witherspoon) the pig, the flamboyant pig Gunter (Kroll) who is paired with Rosita, an arrogant jazz crooning mouse named Mike (MacFarlane), punk-rocker porcupine Ash (Johansson), stage fright-afflicted elephant Meena (Kelly), and Johnny (Egerton), a mountain gorilla who goes against the wishes of his criminal father Marcus (Serafinowicz) by pursuing his passion for singing. As Moon seeks the financial assistance of wealthy diva Nana Noodleman (Saunders), Eddie’s grandmother, this motley crew of animal performers must sing to save the theatre.

sing-group-shot

“Hey, let’s put on a show!” is a stock trope as old as Hollywood itself. To save an orphanage/theatre/hospital/school from being demolished, an unlikely group must draw on their talents and mount a fund-raising production. Babes in Arms, starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, codified this formula. Sing adds funny anthropomorphic animals and top 40 hits to the mix, but the results feel rote. Illumination Entertainment is quickly gaining on the big boys like Pixar and Dreamworks, what with the Minions taking over the world and all. Sing is the studio’s second film this year, following The Secret Life of Pets. Sing is probably Illumination’s most Dreamworks-like film yet, with its celebrity voice cast and surfeit of pop tracks. For a studio trying to set itself apart from the competition, perhaps that’s not the wisest move.

Sing suffers immensely for being released in the same year as Disney’s Zootopia. The design of Zootopia was thoroughly thought through, and each frame was bursting with clever, amusing details to notice. In Sing, anthropomorphic animals are plonked into a non-descript coastal city. While some might appreciate an animated film that isn’t hyperkinetic, Sing lacks dynamism and forward momentum. There’s a nicely staged set piece in the middle and the film’s climax is enjoyable, but Sing lacks the energetic visuals and propulsive pacing of Zootopia or The Secret Life of Pets. For a film with lots of dancing in it, it feels oddly static in parts.

sing-buster-moon-and-miss-crawley

As a tribute to old-fashioned movie musicals, Sing seems half-hearted at best, and the selection of songs isn’t especially inspired. There are shades of A Chorus Line and The Producers, but there’s no thematic cohesion to the musical numbers, and Sing often feels like an animated variety show with a bit of plot tacked on. If you roll your eyes whenever a cheery pop ditty shows up in a Dreamworks movie, prepare to cringe through a good amount of Sing. This reviewer did appreciate that Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure makes an appearance, when it seems more likely that the filmmakers would’ve gone with the Under Pressure rip-off Ice Ice Baby.

To accommodate the large cast of characters, most of the arcs are simplistic. McConaughey delivers an amiable, earnest performance, but seems miscast. There’s the dissonance of a Texan drawl coming out of a koala’s mouth – perhaps Hugh Jackman would’ve been a better fit, especially since Jackman has more of a slick, old-school showman vibe than McConaughey does. It might be difficult for kids to care about a character who can’t pay the electric bill to keep his theatre operational – there’s a difference between mature themes and adult worries.

sing-gunter-and-rosita

Rosita is the overtaxed stay-at-home mom who struggles to care for her 25 children and jumps at the chance to break out of her routine and embrace her inner diva. It’s a predictable arc and Witherspoon’s performance isn’t distinctive. MacFarlane’s character is smug and self-important, with a penchant for big band jazz – we can’t argue with that casting. Johansson’s Ash is spurned by her boyfriend and is out to prove that she can make it as a solo act – shooting quills into the audience while rocking out is pretty punk. Director Jennings’ cameo as Miss Crawley, a senile green iguana with a glass eye who works as Moon’s assistant, might not be a patch on Brad Bird as Edna Mode in The Incredibles but it has its moments.

sing-ash

The big revelation here is Taron Egerton of Kingsman: The Secret Service fame, who shows off some impressive pipes. We’ve often seen the archetype of a kid who marches to the beat of his own drummer, much to the chagrin of his parents – Johnny the Gorilla is not unlike Lenny from A Shark’s Tale, who wanted out of the mob headed by his father. The Cockney street tough accent sounds right coming out of a gorilla.

sing-johnny

If you were moved by Tori Kelly’s rendition of Hallelujah during the In Memoriam segment at this year’s Emmys, you’ll get to hear her sing it again here – never mind that the song is overused. Since Kelly is the one professional singer in the principal cast, it’s a shame that Meena sings as little as she does. Jennifer Hudson, as the younger version of Nana Noodleman, gets to open the film with a soaring rendition of Golden Slumbers, and then is absent from the rest of the film.

Sing isn’t just clichéd, it’s a gathering of lots of clichés in one place. If singing and dancing cartoon animals are all you’re looking for, then Sing has you covered – but then again, the history of animation is filled with singing and dancing animals. Sing has several entertaining sequences and a talented voice cast, but is too generic for its own good.

Summary: You know how this song goes: Sing’s “let’s put on a show plot” doesn’t offer any surprises, and will inevitably be compared to stronger animated films from this year.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Captain America: Civil War

For F*** Magazine

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

Director : Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Cast : Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Chadwick Boseman, Emily VanCamp, Daniel Brühl, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Martin Freeman
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 27 mins
Opens : 28 April 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

Earth’s mightiest heroes are torn asunder in this, the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Following calamitous incidents in New York, Washington D.C., Sokovia and Lagos, the politicians of the world seek to establish a governing body to supervise the actions of the Avengers. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey) agrees to sign what becomes known as ‘The Sokovia Accords’, while Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans) refuses to comply. Sam Wilson/Falcon (Mackie), Wanda Maximoff/Scarlett Witch (Olsen), Sharon Carter/Agent 13 (VanCamp), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Renner) and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Rudd) take Rogers’ side. Backing up Stark are Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson), James Rhodes/War Machine (Cheadle), Vision (Bettany), and new additions T’challa/Black Panther (Boseman) and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Holland). In the meantime, Rogers is still tracking down Bucky Barnes/the Winter Soldier (Stan), his childhood friend who was brainwashed into becoming a ruthless killing machine. Then there’s the enigmatic Dr. Helmut Zemo (Brühl), who seeks details on one of the Winter Soldier’s past missions to enact a treacherous scheme. If the world’s heroes are too busy fighting one another, who will protect everyone else?


             It’s generally agreed upon that 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier is among the strongest entries in the MCU thus far. It’s an intense political thriller with lavish action spectacle and a resonant emotional component woven into a concinnate whole. With that film’s directors Joe and Anthony Russo and its writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely returning for Civil War, we had appropriately high expectations. Civil War is not so much a standalone Captain America movie as it is Avengers 2.5, packing in quite a number of characters from the MCU and introducing a couple of new ones. There are lots of moving parts and the story comes off as disjointed. The film gets off to a wobbly start, lacking particularly striking imagery or an impactful action sequence to open with. The source of the conflict at the heart of the film is established clearly enough, but Rogers’ and Stark’s resentment for each other doesn’t get enough room to really simmer to a boil.

            In the comics, the Civil War event centred on secret identities and superhero registration. Since secret identities have largely been a non-issue in the MCU, collateral damage has become the catalyst for conflict. There are some pretty high stakes and the film wants us to take the rift between the MCU’s two biggest heroes very seriously, but not at the expense of quips and general joking about. There are many humorous moments that do land and a reference to Empire Strikes Back had this reviewer doubling over with laughter. Cap, Falcon and Bucky also share a real ‘bro’ moment that’s quite endearing. However, there are several instances where the one-liners result in a sense of flippancy, undermining the gravity of the situation at hand.

            Both Evans and Downey have become very comfortable with their roles as Captain America and Iron Man respectively. There is a valiant attempt at having both parties make valid points, though the film tends to side with Cap because, well, he’s in the title. There’s plenty of snarky back-and-forth jibes, but the ideological disagreements get no room to breathe. There’s not very much to say about the performances of all the returning cast members, since the characterisation is generally consistent with how they’ve been drawn in previous films. Stan continues to be eminently sympathetic as Bucky – half puppy, half killing machine. Vision and Scarlet Witch share a few scenes together, as a nod to the characters’ romance in the comics, but these come off as superfluous. The budding romance between Cap and Agent 13 feels extremely tacked on. There are plenty of references to previous entries in the series, with an emphasis on Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron, so one wouldn’t quite be able to make head or tail of this going in blind.

            Fans will be pleased to know that both Black Panther and Spider-Man are handled as well as possible. Boseman brings a stern dignity to the role of the Wakandan prince who is both royalty and costumed crime-fighter, the requisite outsider with no prior link to the Avengers. Stark ropes in teenage science whiz and vigilante Peter Parker. Holland’s portrayal of Spider-Man feels very true to the spirit of the character: the wisecracks, the wide-eyed awe, the pubescent awkwardness, it’s all there in the right amounts. Marisa Tomei briefly shows up as Parker’s Aunt May, and the Spider-Man scenes have increased our anticipation of the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming all the more. The design of the suit is divisive: while it harks back to the more traditional artwork of the likes of Steve Ditko and John Romita Sr., the slightly old-fashioned spandex look doesn’t quite fit in with the established MCU aesthetic, especially since it’s established that Stark designed the suit for Parker.

            The “villain problem” that has plagued most MCU movies continues here. Helmut Zemo, who is markedly different from the costumed supervillain of the comics, is portrayed as a sly manipulator lurking behind the scenes for his own ends, pulling the marionette strings and fanning the flames of internecine strife. Unfortunately, Brühl makes so little of a mark that this reviewer had to go back to write this paragraph after completing the review, initially forgetting the need to elaborate on the villain.

            The standout action sequence is, naturally, the full-on clash between the two factions set at an airport in Leipzig. The scene is packed with fun visual gags and moments engineered to get the audience on their feet, cheering. It’s quite a shame then that the rest of the action sequences, perhaps barring the climactic brawl, are generally unmemorable. The heavy use of shaky-cam and breakneck editing means we can’t take in the choreography or get a good sense of who’s doing what in the middle of a fight.

            There’s a lot in Civil War that works fine and the people making these movies have enough experience under their belts to not make a complete fumble of things. However, because many of us are experiencing comic book movie fatigue, it takes a lot more than general competence to get us truly excited. There’s ultimately very little in Civil War that’s actually truly novel. It’s a victory, but far from a flawless one.

Summary: The introduction of Spider-Man and Black Panther into the MCU are highlights, but Civil War’s lack of cohesiveness and the hard-to-follow fight sequences prevent it from being the earth-shattering event it’s pitched as.

RATING: 3.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong


            

The Jungle Book

For F*** Magazine

THE JUNGLE BOOK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

RATING: 4.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Hail, Caesar!

For F*** Magazine

HAIL, CAESAR!

Director : Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Cast : Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 10 March 2016
Rating : PG

The Coen Brothers peel back the curtain on the turning cogs of the ‘50s Hollywood studio system machine in this comedy. Eddie Mannix (Brolin) is a fixer employed by Capitol Pictures, who has to ensure that celebrities’ dirty laundry remains in the hamper. When Baird Whitlock (Clooney), the star of the blockbuster Biblical epic Hail, Caesar!, is abducted, it’s up to Mannix to procure the $100 000 ransom and rescue the actor. Hobie Doyle (Ehrenreich), another one of Mannix’s clients, is a “singing cowboy” actor who is cast in a period drama helmed by prestigious director Laurence Laurentz (Fiennes) in the studio’s attempt to push him as a big star. He is drawn into Mannix’s mission to find Whitlock. Other figures working on the Capitol Pictures soundstages include actress/synchronised swimmer DeeAnna Moran (Johansson) and song-and-dance man Burt Gurney (Tatum), who harbours a dark secret.

            At the time of writing, Hail, Caesar! has an 82% score from film critics but only a 45% audience score on review aggregating site Rotten Tomatoes. The Coens’ tribute to 50s Hollywood is certainly geared towards cinephiles and packs in plenty of nostalgic period detail, with plenty of homages to the tropes and styles of that era’s moviemaking business. There’s a freewheeling frivolity to the film that might alienate those unfamiliar with the historical context in which the Hail, Caesar! is set. There are Easter Eggs and references galore, most of which were lost on this reviewer. In addition to drawing on the films of Old Hollywood, the Coens reference their own back catalogue: the fictional Capitol Pictures studio also featured in Barton Fink.

The Coens have written and directed some startlingly bleak black comedies, and in contrast, Hail, Caesar! is a frothy and frolicsome enterprise. By having the main character be a studio fixer, whose job it is to keep everyone in line and on brand, the Coens have the opportunity to satirise the iron grip the Old Hollywood studio system had on its contract stars. We do get some of that, to be sure, but the film favours silliness over bite at every turn.



            Because of the clout the Coens have built up over their career, they have access to some big names and many of the cast members in Hail, Caesar! are returning Coen Brothers alumni. Eddie Mannix is a fictionalisation of the real-life Hollywood fixer-turned producer of the same name. Brolin captures the character’s strong work ethic and is a reliable straight man of the “comically serious” variety, trudging through the over-the-top shenanigans that occur throughout the film. In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Hail, Caesar!, Clooney plays characters who aren’t too bright, forming the so-called “numbskull trilogy”. Here, Clooney’s Baird Whitlock is modelled after Kirk Douglas; his character in the film-within-a-film being a Roman centurion who is eventually moved by the power of Jesus Christ. Clooney’s lackadaisical charm shines through; Clooney clearly very comfortable working with the Coens.

            A selection of famous faces pop up in extended cameos that could be described as “gratuitous” if one isn’t in a particularly charitable mood – but we’ll be darned if the casting isn’t spot on. Swinton hams it up in a dual role as rival gossip columnists who happen to be twin sisters. Coens oft-collaborator Frances McDormand is a film editor who has a scarf-related mishap and Jonah Hill shows up as a surety agent. Johansson plays an Esther Williams-esque actress and participates in a lavishly choreographed synchronised swimming sequence. Her character is perceived as sweet and elegant, when she’s actually a surly, irascible chain-smoker. Tatum is absolutely hilarious here, while also getting to show off some very fancy footwork in a tap dance number that’s a tribute to Gene Kelly. Ehrenreich may not be as well-known as his co-stars, but he’s plenty likeable as the unrefined singing cowboy who has his life taken over by the studio.

            Hail, Caesar!is plenty of very broadly played fun and is sure to appeal to viewers who have an affinity with the movies of 50s Hollywood and the behind-the-scenes gossip that came with them. Alas, it’s far from the Coens’ sharpest material and there are instances where they seem to be caught up in the minutiae and get a little carried away with their elaborate odes to this bygone era of filmmaking. This can be viewed as something of a companion piece to Trumbo, set against the same political climate in Hollywood but played straight, natch. If it’s nostalgia, whimsy and a couple of intricately staged musical numbers that you’re after, the Coens have got you covered.

Summary: A light-hearted romp through 50s Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! is packed with loving homages but does play a little too “inside baseball” for non-initiates to get into.

RATING: 3.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Avengers: Age of Ultron

For F*** Magazine

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

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

(The following review is spoiler-free)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jedd Jong 

Lucy

For F*** Magazine

LUCY

Director : Luc Besson
Cast : Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Analeigh Tipton, Choi Min-sik, Amr Waked
Genre : Action/Thriller
Opens : 21 August 2014
Rating : NC-16 (Some Drug References and Violence)
Running time: 90 mins

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Scarlett Johansson kicks a lot of ass as Black Widow but doesn’t have any actual superpowers to speak of. As the eponymous Lucy, she has all the superpowers. Just your average girl abroad, Lucy gets mixed up with the wrong crowd in Taipei and is made an unwilling drug mule for Korean crime lord Mr. Jang (Choi). Inserted into her abdomen is a packet of blue crystals known as CPH4. When the drugs enter her system following an encounter with some thugs, Lucy begins to tap into the unmined potential of her brain. She contacts Professor Samuel Norman (Freeman), the leading expert in this area. According to Prof Norman, humans use only 10% of their cerebral capacity. As the drug’s effects strengthen, Lucy inches towards optimizing 100% of her mind, giving her the power over her own body, the bodies of others and matter itself. As she heads towards omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence, what’s next?

            From The Messenger: the Story of Joan of Arc to La Femme Nikita to The Fifth Element and to a different extent The Lady, writer-director Luc Besson’s forte is making extraordinarily skilled, powerful women look awesome. He’s at it again in Lucy, with Scarlett Johansson stepping in the shoes once filled by a young Natalie Portman and Milla Jovovich.  We’ll give Lucy this: it’s ambitious and it’s different. Besson could’ve been content with churning out a run-of-the-mill actioner and apparently, he isn’t. This strange beast of a sci-fi action fantasy flick has been only semi-facetiously compared to Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Mixed in with the requisite gunplay and car chases through Paris are scenes of an Australopithecus drinking from a prehistoric lake. This touch also imbues the name “Lucy” with extra significance.

            Unfortunately, it is very often evident that Besson has bitten off more than he can chew. “Humans are concerned more with having than being,” Professor Norman says during an expository lecture. This sort of faux-portentous philosophising is served with a side of heavy-handed symbolism: Lucy being recruited for the delivery job in the beginning of the film is intercut with footage of a mouse approaching a mousetrap and of a cheetah hunting gazelles. Cue the eye-rolling. Sometimes, it’s hard to discern if Besson truly thinks this is a deep, contemplative masterpiece or if he is aware that Lucy is simply a gleefully silly romp. The answer to “life, the universe and everything” makes even less sense than “42”, the answer famously put forth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And let’s not forget that the “10% of the brain” myth is discredited, misleading pseudo-science.

            Johansson zones in as the superhuman Lucy and plays the transition from scared, naïve girl in over her head to single most powerful being in the world with entertaining élan. Lucy engages in more than a few morally dubious acts, but Johansson makes us cheer the character along regardless. Morgan Freeman once again does that thing he’s been doing lately: showing up in a movie to lend authority without doing any real acting. But hey, when you’ve got Morgan Freeman spouting all that techno-babble, it probably subconsciously lends it some credence. Choi Min-sik, Oldboy himself, is a suitably commanding presence as a downright scary career criminal who, after slaughtering a room full of innocent hotel guests, washes his hands with a bottle of Evian. Amr Waked is good as Captain Del Rio, the hapless cop dragged through Paris by Lucy as a “reminder” of her humanity. Fans of British TV will also get a kick out of Julian Rhind-Tutt hamming it up as he forces the drug mules’ mission upon them.

            While a lot of it can be seen as wrongheaded and embarrassing, Lucy is very entertaining once the CPH4 is in her system and the plot gets into gear. There’s also lots of trippy imagery (strands of light over Paris! Shapeshifting arms! Nebulae in deep space!), created by Industrial Light & Magic, Rodeo FX and other visual effects houses. A scene set in an airplane is quite intense. Luc Besson’s regular cinematographer Theirry Arbogast and composer Eric Serra make the film a rather sumptuous sensory feast, in a way different from the biggest, most explosive blockbusters out there.


Summary: It’s high-falutin’ and quite silly, but dazzling visuals, fun action and a commanding lead performance by Scarlett Johansson make Lucy a halfway-decent diversion.
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong