Men in Black: International review

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Emma Thompson, Rafe Spall, Les Twins
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 55 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : PG13

          They’ve been absent from the big screen for seven years, but the shadowy organisation that polices and conceals alien activity on earth has resurfaced in Men in Black: International, the spin-off of the Men in Black series.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) is a newly instated member of the agency, still on probation. After witnessing Men in Black operatives in action as a child, she has long harboured a fascination with the agency and finally gets her dream job. Agent O (Emma Thompson), head of the New York branch, dispatches Agent M to MIB’s London headquarters, overseen by High T (Liam Neeson). There, she meets Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a hotshot hailed for defeating an alien species called the Hive in Paris alongside High T.

When a shape-shifting alien duo (Les Twins) corners Agent M and Agent H, they learn that the Hive may have been resurfaced, with the predatory invaders after a powerful alien artefact. Their battle against the Twins sends Agent M and Agent H to Morocco, where they befriend Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a diminutive alien. Agent H must confront Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), a powerful, dangerous figure from his past, as he and Agent M discover there just might be a mole within the organisation. The MIB can always be counted on to save the world, but what happens when a threat arises from within?

The Men in Black films are loosely based on the Malibu comics series by Lowell Cunningham. The urban legend of shadowy government agents has existed among UFO-enthusiast circles for decades, but it was the Men in Black movies that cemented the idea in the public consciousness. Being released the year after Independence Day, the first Men in Black movie also further launched Will Smith up the A-list. He and co-star Tommy Lee Jones have become closely linked with the franchise, with the third movie featuring Josh Brolin as a younger version of Jones’ character.

After the third Men in Black movie in 2012, the first we heard of a new Men in Black movie was that it would be a crossover with the 21 Jump Street films called MIB 23, which sounds like such a crazy idea that it just might have worked. Instead, we got Men in Black: International, which is pleasant and harmless if often formulaic and bland, because it takes the format of the first movie and slots new stars into it. Director F. Gary Gray of Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious fame knows how to handle a big Hollywood production, but it feels like he is directing to the brief, with no personal touches discernible. The film trundles along efficiently enough, but nothing in the movie will stick in viewers’ minds afterwards. It’s almost as if the movie was constructed to be watched on an airplane.

          Men in Black: International does what the James Bond movies often do, throwing in a bunch of exotic locales to up the production value. There’s a chase through the streets of Marrakech on a hover bike and one character is based out of Aragonese Castle on the Italian island of Ischia. The movie might have the scale expected of a summer blockbuster, but it doesn’t quite have the quirky soul of the first movie, especially because a lot more of the aliens are created with computer-generated effects. Special effects makeup legend Rick Baker, who oversaw the aliens in the first three films, was not involved with this one.

The logic behind the casting of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the lead roles seems to have been to look at whatever actors from the most successful ongoing movie franchise were available. Hemsworth has a knack for comedy and shifts effortlessly between dashing and goofy, playing a sometimes-bumbling, always-charming action hero with ease.

Thompson’s Agent M is capable, headstrong and determined and is in some ways the audience surrogate character, with this movie acting as her origin story. However, some of the beats in her arc echo those of Agent J’s in the first movie a little too strongly. Thompson brings some personality to the part, but Agent M feels like a textbook “strong female character” with not much that is inherently compelling about her on paper.

Liam Neeson is there to lend gravitas to the proceedings and pace purposefully around High T’s office and not do too much else. Emma Thompson is dryly amusing as Agent O, reprising her role from the third film. Respectable British actors appearing in Hollywood blockbusters for a paycheck is a time-honoured tradition and one that Neeson and Thompson continue here.

Kumail Nanjiani voices Pawny, who as the funny alien sidekick, is designed as the successor to Frank the Pug (who makes a cameo). This reviewer was afraid that the character would come off as annoying, but Nanjiani’s delivery keeps Pawny generally more amusing than grating. The computer animation used to create Pawny and integrate him with the live-action footage is excellent.

French dancers Les Twins, who will next be seen in the Cats movie, enliven the proceedings with their new-style hip-hop moves. However, their characters’ schtick seems to be lifted wholesale from the Twins in The Matrix Reloaded.

The previous films have playfully ‘outed’ celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Bill Gates, George Lucas and Lady Gaga as being aliens. In this film, a social media influencer (presumably a different one for the different markets the film will be released in) gets a cameo. This is one of the most worrying elements about Men in Black: International, indicating that future blockbusters will pander to audiences by shoehorning in people who are famous from YouTube or Instagram.

Men in Black: International is not a poorly made film, but in extending the MIB franchise, it fails to add anything substantial to the world-building or the mythos. Big franchise movies can often feel like products and none this year feels more like a product than Men in Black: International, but its dependable cast and high production value keep things from feeling like too much of a drag.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Creed II review

CREED II

Director : Steven Caple Jr.
Cast : Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby
Genre : Sports/Drama
Run Time : 130 mins
Opens : 29 November 2018
Rating : PG13

           As Killmonger in Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan may have lost the throne to Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, but in this sequel to Creed, he’s trying to hold on to that championship belt.

It is three years after the events of the first film, and Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has enjoyed a string of victories, becoming the newly-crowned WBC World Heavyweight Champion. However, Adonis’ reign is threatened by the formidable Viktor Dragon (Florian Munteanu). There is a personal reason Adonis accepts Viktor’s challenge: Viktor’s father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) killed Adonis’ father Apollo some 33 years ago.

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), Adonis’ coach, warns against taking on Viktor, fearful of history repeating itself. In the meantime, Adonis’ girlfriend-turned-fiancé Bianca (Tessa Thompson) has given birth to their daughter Amara. Tony “Little Duke” Evers (Wood Harris), whose father trained Apollo Creed, helps Rocky prepare Adonis to face off against Viktor. Adonis’ mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) must brace herself for the possibility that just as she lost her husband to Ivan, she will lose her son to another Drago. The stage is set for an epic confrontation with everything on the line.

2015’s Creed established both star Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler as bona fide stars; both went on to further earn this status with this year’s Black Panther. Director Steven Caple Jr., also a young, promising filmmaker, has big shoes to fill. He directs Creed II with an eye for drama, focusing on the relationships between the characters more than the spectacle. While this means that the story has room to breathe and the performers have space to make an impact, it also means that the film is not as propulsive or exciting as some might have hoped.

Creed II emerges as a less personal work than its predecessor, but there’s quite a bit here for long-time Rocky fans to sink their teeth into. A bout between Adonis Creed and the progeny of the icily unyielding Ivan Drago is almost too obvious a sequel plot, but it works. If Creed was built upon formula, then Creed II follows established sports drama tropes even closer, meaning that while there is some satisfaction to be had in the way the story turns out, there are few surprises.

Both Jordan and Stallone anchor this film as they did the previous one, and there is conflict in the relationship between Adonis and Rocky, but there is also great warmth. Adonis has let success get to his head, and rejects the wisdom Rocky has to offer, but cannot go too long without Rocky in his corner. Jordan’s physique continues to be impressive and swoon-worthy, living up to his character’s namesake Greek god. Jordan tempers the intensity he brings to the fight scenes with a playful boyishness, keeping Adonis likeable even when he’s too headstrong for his own good.

Stallone co-wrote the film with Juel Taylor, with Sascha Penn and Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker getting a ‘story by’ credit. Stallone had to be convinced by Coogler to sign off on the first Creed, so now that Stallone has a greater involvement in crafting the sequel, it’s good that the film doesn’t seem like a vanity project, with the movie dedicating just the right amount of screen time to Rocky.

Tessa Thompson’s Bianca did feel a little too much like the designated love interest the first time around, and while the character is mostly there to give Adonis that much more to fight for, she does have agency in the proceedings. Bianca becomes a mother but is also moving forward in her music career. In showing the warmth and support that surrounds Adonis in the form of Rocky, Bianca and Adonis’ mother Mary Anne, the film contrasts this with the stark coldness that Viktor grows up in.

Creed II outshines the first movie when it comes to the villains. Real-life Romanian-born, German-raised boxer Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu looks every inch the giant bruiser that has us afraid for Adonis’ safety. The harshness that characterises Ivan’s relationship with his son is not overly cartoony and engenders sympathy for both characters even as they threaten our heroes.

Lundgren has some of the film’s best moments, showcasing genuine acting chops and conveying the personal ruin that was the aftermath of Ivan’s humiliating defeat at Rocky’s hands in Rocky IV. The confrontation between Ivan and Rocky in Rocky’s restaurant is one of the film’s standout moments, and Lundgren gets the chance to shade Ivan with the depth he didn’t quite have as the villain of Rocky IV.

Creed II is a solidly built film, sticking closely with the characters rather than getting carried away with overblown spectacle. While it delivers in terms of giving weight to its links to the earlier Rocky films instead of those connections feeling like mere fanservice, the movie demands its audience’s patience, and because it is so predictable, doesn’t quite pay that off. It’s not bad by any means, but we don’t quite see the need for a Creed III after this.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Annihilation movie review

For inSing

ANNIHILATION

Director : Alex Garland
Cast : Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac
Genre : Sci-fi, horror
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 12 March 2018 (Netflix)
Rating : M18 (Violence And Disturbing Scenes)

Natalie Portman steps forth into the unknown in this sci-fi horror thriller. Portman plays Lena, a biologist and former soldier whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has vanished under mysterious circumstances. Lena learns that Kane went on a mission into ‘the Shimmer’, an otherworldly anomaly. Within the Shimmer lie all manner of mutant flora and fauna, the structure of every living thing in its boundaries transformed by a meteor which hit a lighthouse.

Lena volunteers to join an expedition into the Shimmer, with the knowledge that none who have entered before have ever left. Psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads the team, which also comprises paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and surveyor and geologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Novotny). The five women venture into the Shimmer, attempting to decipher its enigma and, more importantly, emerge alive.

Annihilation is based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. The film was adapted for the screen and directed by Alex Garland, who made his directorial debut with the much buzzed-about sci-fi drama Ex Machina. Garland decided not to re-read the book, instead adapting the material as “like a dream of the book”.

There was a degree of intrigue surrounding Annihilation and it is clearly a film that was intended to be seen on the big screen, so it’s a bit of a shame that while it received a theatrical release in the U.S. and China, it is being streamed on Netflix everywhere else. It seems that Paramount financier David Ellison wanted the film reshot after poor test screening results, deeming it “too intellectual”. Director Garland insisted on keeping the film the way it is and was backed by producer Scott Rudin. Paramount eventually made a deal to let Netflix handle international distribution.

With that background out of the way, it’s easy to see why Annihilation might not win over mass audiences, but the very things that set it apart from typical commercial films also make it interesting. Annihilation is a movie that will mess with your head, and if challenging, cerebral sci-fi is what you’re looking for, you’ll find that and then some here.

In Annihilation, what’s scary is also beautiful. The Shimmer is a world in which lots of things have gone wrong – or has everything gone right, and it’s the world outside that’s out of order? Annihilation delves into some heady themes but has the visual invention to hold our interest as it burrows ever further into the madness.

With echoes of H.P. Lovecraft, the works of John Carpenter and Stanley Kubrick, Annihilation is deliberately opaque and vague, but is tense enough to reel the viewer in. Cinematographer Rob Hardy plays with the light within the Shimmer, rendering everything ethereal but slightly menacing. The effect, when combined with other atmospherics including the music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, creates a beguiling yet disorienting world that is truly alien.

 

Annihilation isn’t all highfalutin ponderousness: there are a healthy number of visceral genre thrills, including sequences when our characters get chased by monsters like an albino alligator with shark teeth. There is one truly stomach-turning moment of gory body horror, but Annihilation gets under one’s skin with psychological trickery rather than overt grossness. Just like the characters, we’re questioning everything we see. Garland masterfully generates a sense of being sure of nothing except the danger.

It’s worth noting that the film’s main cast is all female. Each of the five characters who go on the expedition are distinct enough from each other and while there isn’t a great deal of development for everyone, there’s sufficient information conveyed about each character that we’re invested in them as a group.

Lena is competent and intelligent but haunted, and Portman portrays the character with admirable sensitivity. She’s somewhat detached from the world, as if she’s lost a piece of herself since the disappearance of her husband. Lena is flawed and difficult to pin down. We see Lena fight battles internal and external, calling on her wits and determination to survive an overwhelming, perplexing ordeal.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is severe and guarded as Dr. Ventress, the authority figure who’s hiding something. We’ve seen Tessa Thompson play badass and assured, so it’s interesting to see her play withdrawn and insecure. Gina Rodriguez is a lively presence who also brings a degree of unpredictability to the table. Of the main cast, Tuva Novotny is the blandest, and a scene in which she tells Lena about the background of each team member feels a little on the nose.

For all its trippiness and immersive atmospherics, Annihilation makes several missteps. While the framing device set after the events of the bulk of the film is ostensibly to contextualise the flashbacks, it also means that we know at least some of the outcome of the expedition. There are moments when the film feels like it’s being ambiguous and confusing for the sake of it, but it never feels lazy while doing so.

Annihilation is an intense, thrilling and deeply creepy slice of sci-fi horror that’s sufficiently different from what audiences are used to. Garland continues to show promise as a genre director with an exciting voice, and many spirited discussions about the minutiae of the film and what it all means are bound to ensue. Step into the Shimmer; it’s a wild ride.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Thor: Ragnarok – Meet The Characters

For inSing

Thor: Ragnarok – meet the characters

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

By Jedd Jong

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

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

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

#1: THOR (Chris Hemsworth)

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

#2: LOKI (Tom Hiddleston)

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

#3: HELA (Cate Blanchett)

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

#4: THE GRANDMASTER (Jeff Goldblum)

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

#5: VALKYRIE (Tessa Thompson)

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

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

#6: HEIMDALL (Idris Elba)

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

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

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

Thor: Ragnarok movie review

For inSing

THOR: RAGNAROK 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Creed

For F*** Magazine

CREED

Director : Ryan Coogler
Cast : Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashād, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Wood Harris
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 133 mins
Opens : 26 November 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

            Michael B. Jordan was the teammate of a rock creature in Fantastic Four, and now he’s under the tutelage of the actual Rocky in this spin-off. Jordan plays Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of the late legendary boxing champ Apollo Creed. After bouncing around juvenile detention halls and group homes as a kid, Adonis was taken in by Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Rashād). Adonis dreams of being a professional fighter, but wants to make his own name and not get stuck in his father’s shadow. He moves out to Philadelphia to train under Rocky Balboa (Stallone), Apollo’s rival-turned-friend. Adonis strikes up a relationship with his neighbour, singer-songwriter Bianca (Thompson). Adonis agrees to take on British fighter “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Bellew), the undefeated title holder. As the pressure mounts and doubts begin to cloud Adonis’ mind, Rocky’s health starts to fail. Adonis has to step into the ring, fighting in the name of his mother, his mentor, his girlfriend, his father and most importantly, himself.

            The theme of legacy is one that permeates Creed both in the plot of the film and behind the scenes. Creed is directed by Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Covington. Coogler conceived the idea for the spinoff when he was in film school and pitched it to Stallone, who, understandably protective of Rocky, was initially hesitant to sign off on the movie. Coogler’s father suffered a neuromuscular disorder, and dealing with his father’s mortality sowed the seeds of Creed. After Coogler’s feature film debut Fruitvale Station became a film festival darling, Stallone reconsidered and lent the film his support. Spin-offs to successful franchises can often feel like cynical cash grabs, so just as Adonis has to prove he can stand on his own, Coogler has to prove that there is a point to continuing the Rocky series, which most assumed had come to its natural conclusion with 2006’s Rocky Balboa.

            The first Rocky film is a modern classic, possibly the purest example of contemporary American myth. It’s an honest, straightforward film about a hardworking blue-collar hero with a dream. While some of the later films traded heavily in kitsch, the series as a whole is still a beloved pop culture staple. A strong affection for the movies is palpable in Creed, but Coogler is mostly able to steer things away from feeling slavish to what has gone before. This is very much in the Rocky spirit and it’s not a desecration of any childhood memories, far from it. At the same time, Creed sticks closely to the established sports drama formula, offering practically zero surprises. For the most part, Coogler is able to turn this into a strength and it reads as honouring the legacy instead of lazy storytelling, but the predictable nature of the plot and the characters might make one question if this was an absolutely necessary endeavour.

            Jordan has proven that he’s got what it takes to be an A-list leading man, displaying astonishing athletic prowess and unwavering intensity. The character has to be cocky without being obnoxious; Jordan crosses the line on several occasions but he remains generally easy to root for. In sports, entertainment and other arenas, we’ve seen many children of well-known personalities attempting to strike out on their own to varying degrees of success. There’s always a huge amount of baggage when trying to outrun the looming shadow of a figure such as Apollo Creed, which is something Jordan sells.

As is typical of the genre, Thompson’s Bianca is little more than the designated love interest. There’s the meet cute, they bond over Philly cheesesteaks, a minor misunderstanding or two, a falling out, the whole works. The romantic subplot is the most formulaic element in a movie that is almost entirely formula. Real-life cruiserweight boxer Bellew is an adequately unpleasant bully, albeit far less colourful and memorable than the best opponents in the series.


            Stallone is now the same age that Burgess Meredith, who played Rocky’s corner man Mickey, was when the first Rocky film was released. It makes sense to have Rocky assume the position of a mentor. Of course, there’s the dance of “I just don’t do that stuff no more” before Rocky relents and takes Adonis under his wing, which perhaps mirrors the process behind the scenes between Coogler and Stallone. While it is cool to see Stallone kicking ass and taking names in the Expendables films and late-period efforts like Bullet to the Head, it is just as satisfying seeing him act more his age and taking on a more emotional, less physical role. The scene where Rocky chokes up when talking about his late wife Adrian is pretty moving. This is a different ball game from Bruce Willis sleepwalking through the umpteenth Die Hard, in that Stallone does look like he’s in this for a purpose.

            Filmgoers have become wary of belated sequels/spinoffs to beloved properties after having been burned by everything from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to the recent Terminator Genisys. Even Schwarzenegger’s involvement couldn’t save that last one. Director Coogler comes at Creed from the right angle, spinning a viable if very familiar story with which to bring Rocky back, this time as a supporting character. True, it’s still something of a hard sell, but Creed packs in impactful emotional beats and rousing, inspirational moments and has enough of a driving force behind it.



Summary:Rocky fans won’t be disappointed with how director Ryan Coogler has figured out a way to bring the character back. Creed isn’t particularly ground-breaking, but is earnest and well-made enough to be worthy of ascending those famous steps.

RATING: 3.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong