Star Wars: The Last Jedi movie review

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STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Director : Rian Johnson
Cast : Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Kelly Marie Tran, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro, Lupita Nyong’o
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 32m
Opens : 14 December 2017
Rating : PG

(The following review contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

In 2015, under the auspices of Disney, Star Wars came back in a big way. The Force Awakens launched a new trilogy, and sparked fevered speculation about where the story would go next. In The Last Jedi, questions are answered, expectations are subverted, and yet more questions are generated – all in engrossing, spectacular fashion.

We pick up where The Force Awakens left off: Rey (Daisy Ridley) has arrived on Ahch-To in search of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has been in self-imposed exile. Luke blames himself for the creation of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the dark warrior who was once Luke’s Jedi apprentice, then known as Ben Solo.

Kylo’s mother General Leia Organa (Carrier Fisher) leads the increasingly battered Resistance against the First Order, headed up by Kylo’s master, the enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Ace pilot Poe Dameron’s (Oscar Isaac) recklessness puts him in conflict with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), Leia’s long-time friend and subordinate. Meanwhile, former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and Resistance engineer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) hatch a plan to infiltrate the Supremacy, Snoke’s Mega-Class Star Destroyer. The battle for the galaxy heats up as our heroes and villains inch ever closer to fulfilling their destinies.

The Force Awakens was criticised for being too much of a retread of A New Hope, but it can be argued that audiences needed to be reminded of what it was about Star Wars that hooked them in the first place. With writer-director Rian Johnson at the helm, The Last Jedi does what every great sequel should: build upon its predecessor while taking the story in bold new directions. There are some elements that echo The Empire Strikes Back, but it is not a beat-for-beat do-over of that film. There is a consistency to how the characters we know and love from The Force Awakens and the original trilogy are further developed, and the surprises that lie in store do not feel contradictory to what has been laid out before.

On the level of sheer spectacle, The Last Jedi delivers amply. Key creatives including production designer Rick Heinrichs and costume designer Michael Kaplan return from The Force Awakens, but Johnson brings his regular cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who has worked with the director since Brick, on board.

The opulent casino on the planet Canto Bight has a bit of a latter-day Doctor Who vibe to it, while the mineral-rich planet Crait is blanketed by salt flats that cover crimson clay – the clay is kicked up by the Resistance ski speeders as they hurtle towards the First Order’s walkers. Snoke’s throne room, surrounded by a seamless blood-red curtain, is the ideal locale for one of the film’s most dramatic scenes to unfold in. Hearing those John Williams-composed leitmotifs accompanying the appearance of each character just completes the experience in the best way.

The Last Jedi is also a masterclass in tone: this is an intense movie, but it’s also a funny one, and humour is employed in just the right doses. The levity never undermines the tremendous, galaxy-shattering stakes at hand. Johnson has achieved something which many Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have struggled at getting right.

While many might decry the Porgs, cuddly little avian/mammalian critters, as obviously created just to make Disney mountains of cash in plush toy sales, this reviewer found them irresistibly charming. They pop up at just the right points in the story, and are nowhere near as annoying as some find the Ewoks and many find Jar Jar Binks to be. BB-8 gets more screen time and is straight-up heroic, actively aiding our heroes during conflict.

Hamill gets top billing, after making a silent cameo at the very end of The Force Awakens. Luke is characterised as disillusioned and bitter – Rey clearly wants him to mentor her, but given his past failings, Luke is reluctant to take on another apprentice. Hamill’s performance is unexpectedly abrasive, yet moving and deeply sincere.

Rey and Kylo Ren are pitted against each other in a compelling way, the film highlighting their parallels and the danger that Rey could go down the same dark path trodden by Luke’s old student. Ridley’s youthful energy is in full force, while the physical demands of the role are increased. The dynamic between Rey and Luke and between Rey and Kylo sparks with life and keeps the viewer invested.

The film delves further into Kylo’s fractured psyche. The character is ultimately a child playing pretend, trying to fill a void within by chasing the legacy of the grandfather he idolises. He’s destructive and impulsive, and is thus easily manipulated by Snoke. While Andy Serkis does a fine sneery performance, Snoke is saddled with some of the more cliched lines in the film, which veer dangerously close to Bond villain speechifying.

The late Fisher gets many moments to shine as the regal, wise Leia, who keeps her composure under the most stressful situations as she shepherds the Resistance. It is a quietly stirring performance and we can’t think of a better send-off for the actress.

While Isaac’s Poe Dameron was merely the roguish hero archetype in The Force Awakens, this movie deconstructs that trope, and floats the idea that sometimes being brash and anti-authoritarian, as cool as it looks, is self-serving rather than furthering the cause.

Tran’s Rose Tico is a fantastic character, and a great way to shine a light on the Resistance members who aren’t fighting on the frontlines. She’s a bit of a fangirl and is thrilled to meet Finn, the Stomtrooper-turned-hero. Rose also gives the film a chance to comment on social stratification, since her family was exploited by the rich and powerful.

While Dern and del Toro are both reliable, the role of ‘slicer’ DJ, a hacker and thief for hire, seems like a waste of del Toro’s distinctive talents. Dern doesn’t get too much to do, but Holdo is memorable as she is at the centre of a particularly dramatic moment.

If one has become fixated on and overly attached to specific fan theories, The Last Jedi will disappoint for not realising said theories – but then again, it never had an obligation to. Johnson has a bit of fun at the fanbase’s expense, toying with expectations while staying faithful yet not slavish to the Star Wars films that have come before.

The Last Jedi is as exhilarating as it is moving. The Last Jedi feels like a whole movie rather than a placeholder or a mere trailer for the next film to come. While it clearly functions as a middle instalment in the trilogy, it’s also a beginning and an end.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Built to last: meet the characters of The Last Jedi

BUILT TO LAST: MEET THE CHARACTERS OF THE LAST JEDI

Star Wars welcomes back heroes and villains we love from The Force Awakens while adding new ones

By Jedd Jong

Back in the 70s, 80s, late 90s and 2000s, Memorial Day weekend in mid-late May was when everyone knew to expect a Star Wars movie. Starting with The Force Awakens, the space opera franchise has claimed the Christmas period for itself, with that film and Rogue One opening in winter rather than summer. Star Wars frenzy is reaching a fever pitch with the release of The Last Jedi right around the corner.

The eighth instalment in the main series of films has a tough act to follow, considering how The Force Awakens grossed over $2 billion at the worldwide box office. While some have decried it for being too repetitive in following the template laid down by the original Star Wars film A New Hope, the film was critically acclaimed and announced loud and proud that Star Wars was back.

Beloved characters such as Han Solo, Leia and Chewbacca appeared in The Force Awakens supporting roles – in Luke Skywalker’s case, he barely appeared at all. We were introduced to a trio of intrepid heroes: Rey, the scavenger with a destiny to fulfil; Finn, the Stormtrooper who defects to the side of good; and Poe Dameron, the heroic ace pilot – plus Poe’s trusty Astromech droid BB-8. Leading the charge on the side of the villains was Kylo Ren, who answers to the shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke.

Director Rian Johnson takes the reins from J. J. Abrams for The Last Jedi, and the trailers have teased that Johnson has plenty of tricks up his sleeves. Fans have been tantalised with the promise of an upended status quo – in the trailer Luke says through gritted teeth, “this is not going to go the way you think!”

Before you watch The Last Jedi in theatres – which we have a feeling you will (the Force told us) – get reacquainted with the characters who inhabit this galaxy far, far away, and meet a few who will be introduced in the new movie. Don’t worry, this piece is spoiler-free – we wrote it before watching the movie.

#1: REY (Daisy Ridley)

After clinching the coveted role of the new lead heroine in a Star Wars trilogy, English actress Daisy Ridley was launched into superstardom. The filmmakers received much praise for putting a woman front and centre – this reflects the reality behind-the-scenes, with Star Wars creator George Lucas ceding control of Lucasfilm to producer Kathleen Kennedy.

In The Force Awakens, Rey, the scavenger from the far-flung desert planet of Jakku, was plunged headlong into the adventure of a lifetime. She shares an unexplained link to Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, and touching it triggered a vision littered with little clues that fans were eager to decipher. The Last Jedi will see Rey undergo training at the hands of Luke Skywalker, while resisting the call of the Dark Side as Snoke tries to turn her, just as he has turned Kylo Ren.

Ridley characterises Rey’s arc in The Last Jedi as “more of an emotional journey, than a physical one.” Ridley added that Rey “gets to ask questions about herself and the world around her,” questions which encompass her “parentage and heritage – wherever that may be.” To undertake the combat scenes, Ridley said she trained for a year, and has become more confident in his lightsaber-wielding abilities. Ridley also revealed that even after she has become the new face of Star Wars, her father is still a die-hard Star Trek devotee.

#2: LUKE SKYWALKER (Mark Hamill)

It’s impossible to look at Rey’s arc in The Force Awakens and not draw comparisons to Luke – orphan (?) living on a desert planet who dreams of adventure inadvertently gets roped in to join the fight against an evil empire, taking their first steps towards their destiny. The plot of The Force Awakens involved tracking down a vanished Luke – after his nephew/pupil Kylo Ren (née Ben Solo) turned to the Dark Side, Luke considered this a personal failure and went into self-imposed exile on the planet Ahch-To. Bringing Luke’s lightsaber with her, Rey travelled to Ahch-To to find Luke and learn from him. Hamill says that Luke is dogged by “that guilt, that feeling that it’s his fault, that he didn’t detect the darkness in [Kylo] until it was too late.”

Hamill didn’t find the stardom that many thought would come after starring in the Star Wars trilogy, but he has gone on to become an established and sought-after voice actor, memorably voicing the DC Comics villain the Joker in various animated series, animated films and video games. To reprise the role of Luke Skywalker, once a wide-eyed rookie and now a wizened, haunted mentor figure, Hamill went on a strict diet and exercise regiment, losing around 22 kg.

Hamill admits to being shocked by the direction in which Johnson’s script takes Luke, and initially disagreeing with it. “It it took me a while to get around to his way of thinking, but once I was there it was a thrilling experience,” Hamill explained, saying he hopes the audience will share that thrill.

Hamill said that being appreciated by the fans is a “reward that just never stops giving” and “really moving”. Hamill was conferred the Disney Legend award at this year’s D23 convention, which he called an “out-of-body experience”.

#3: FINN (John Boyega)

The man formerly known as Stormtrooper FN-2187 went from being a soldier for the First Order to a selfless champion of the Resistance. Boyega, who like his co-star Ridley is a 25-year-old from England, has also become a recognisable star. He will next be seen headlining and co-producing Pacific Rim: Uprising, as the son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost from the first Pacific Rim movie.

Boyega is a self-professed Star Wars mega-fan, and he brought an action figure of Han Solo for Harrison Ford to autograph when Boyega first met Ford during pre-production on The Force Awakens. Boyega echoes the sentiments of cast members who say audiences are in for a surprise. “[Rian] had a chance to really go crazy, and I’m a big Star Wars buff so certain things I saw I was just like ‘Well, that’s a first,’” Boyega said, calling this “really cool to experience.” Boyega got along well with Johnson, comparing the director to Santa Claus because of his jovial nature. Johnson gifted Boyega the prop blaster that Finn uses in the film.

While it seemed like Rey and Finn were being set up as romantic partners, with Finn having an obvious crush on Rey in The Force Awakens, the characters spend the bulk of the movie apart from each other. “They are separate in this film; it’s like two separate stories,” Boyega said, teasing “maybe they are in a long-distance relationship right now?”

Instead of Rey, Finn is teaming up with Resistance technician Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and both have to go undercover in a First Order installation. As seen in the trailer, he clashes with former boss Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). Describing the scenario, Boyega joked “imagine you work at McDonald’s. You push your manager into a chute compactor and then a year later you decide to go back dressed as one of the colleagues. It’s not the best situation.”

#4: GENERAL LEIA ORGANA (Carrie Fisher)

One of the most iconic heroines in science fiction/fantasy film, the Leia character is now shrouded in tragedy. Onscreen, the character must deal with not only the burden of knowing her son has turned evil, but that he has killed his father; her husband, Han Solo. The real world lost actress Carrie Fisher, who has served as an inspiration to many thanks to her honest and humorous recollections of her tumultuous personal and professional life. Fisher died on December 27 2016 and just a day later, her mother Debbie Reynolds passed away too. The Last Jedi marks Fisher’s final film appearance.

Fisher had filmed all her scenes before her death, and Johnson has stated that he did not tailor the movie to be a send-off to her, but several emotional scenes have taken on greater resonance in the wake of Fisher’s passing. Johnson and Hamill both called Fisher “irreplaceable”. Johnson felt that he and Fisher “connected as writers”, and he welcomed Fisher’s input on the screenplay. When Fisher died, Johnson was deep into post-production, and he said that coming back to the editing suite after the Christmas and New Year break to watch Fisher’s scenes was “so hard”. Johnson called Fisher’s performance in the film “beautiful and complete”.

The film’s female cast members paid tribute to the trailblazing character and the actress who portrayed her. “[Leia] really stayed with me throughout my formative years,” Christie said, adding that she admired how Leia “doesn’t care what people think and isn’t prepare to be told what to do.” For Christie, this “was really instrumental…as someone who didn’t feel like I fit in that homogenized view of what a woman is supposed to be and there was inspiration there.”

Tran spoke of Fisher’s courage in putting herself on the public stage, flaws and all, to candidly talk about her struggles with substance abuse and mental illness. “She was so unapologetic, and so openly herself, and that is something that I am really trying to do, and it’s hard,” Tran admitted. “I think that she will always be an icon as Leia, but also as Carrie,” Tran saying, saying she was “so fortunate to have met her” and that Fisher “really will live on forever.” Fisher’s legacy lives on in part through her daughter Billie Lourd, who reprises the role of Lieutenant Connix from The Force Awakens.

#5: POE DAMERON (Oscar Isaac)

The dashing Resistance pilot Poe Dameron is the most swashbuckling figure of our trio of new protagonists – in The Force Awakens, he offers a whoop as his X-Wing skims the surface of a lake on Takodana. Many identified the Poe character as being in the mould of Han Solo. However, Isaac says that the character will veer a little away from that archetype, while retaining his heroism. “I think what Rian [Johnson] did was make it less about filling a slot and more about what the story needs,” Isaac considered. At this point in the story, the Resistance is low on manpower, fleeing for their lives from the powerful First Order, and in need of someone to take the helm. “Leia is grooming me — him — to be a leader of the Resistance, as opposed to a dashing, rogue hero,” Isaac said.

Isaac’s comments strengthen the impression that The Last Jedi will be considerably darker than The Force Awakens, and that our heroes are in for a rough ride. “The heroes get challenged very specifically. It’s almost like you get to discover their character flaws and those things get tested,” Isaac said, adding that audiences will get a better sense of Poe, Finn and Rey “because you get to really know somebody in a crisis.”

Large swathes of the internet are ‘Stormpilot shippers’ – they root for the characters of Poe and Finn to end up as romantic partners. There’s palpable chemistry on display between Isaac and Boyega, and Poe even names Finn. Isaac does a pretty telling lip bite when the characters are reunited in The Force Awakens, after each thinks the other has died. “I was playing romance. In the cockpit I was playing… there was a deep romance,” Isaac said.

Alas, dreams of ‘Stormpilot’ becoming canon have been dashed by Boyega, who said the romantic pairing “only exists in Oscar’s head”.

#6: KYLO REN (Adam Driver)

The villainous Kylo Ren is an impulsive, fiery character, someone whose unconscionable actions can be justified at least in part by having been manipulated by powerful dark forces. Driver, who has been described by some as “unconventionally handsome”, won over droves of fangirls with his portrayal of the brooding Kylo.

Kylo idolises his grandfather Darth Vader, and longs to bring the Empire, in its new guise as the First Order, back to the heights of its power under Vader. “He’s a vulnerable kid who doesn’t know where to put his energy, but when he puts his mask on, suddenly, he’s playing a role,” Driver said of the character. “J.J. had that idea initially and I think Rian took it to the next level.”

Kylo is at the centre of the most talked-about moment in The Force Awakens – the death of Han Solo. Driver understood the gravity of this moment, saying he felt “sick to his stomach” watching the movie at the premiere, in anticipation of the horrible deed his character would execute. “I was holding my wife [Joanne Tucker]’s hand, and she’s like, ‘You’re really cold. Are you OK?’ Because I just knew what was coming – I kill Harrison Ford – and I didn’t know how this audience of 2000 people was going to respond to it, you know?”

As part of playing the character, Driver was withdrawn and self-serious on set. “The things about that character that I find painful, that I really relate to, I kind of prefer to keep to myself,” Driver said of his process.

Various cast members attempting to get him to lighten up. Hamill invited Driver for lunch, but he declined. Boyega attempted surprising Driver with random hugs, which Driver did not seem to enjoy. “He just stands there,” Boyega said. “He just waits for me to be done.”

Driver does have a fun side though: he famously portrayed Kylo Ren going incognito on Starkiller Base as ‘Matt the Radar Technician’ in a side-splitting Saturday Night Live sketch that aired in January 2016.

#7: SUPREME LEADER SNOKE (Andy Serkis)

Other than Rey’s parentage, the other giant magnet for speculation in The Last Jedi is the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke. The enigmatic head of the First Order who snatched young Ben Solo from Luke Skywalker’s tutelage, turning him into Kylo Ren. The character is portrayed via performance capture by Andy Serkis, famed for playing Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies and Caesar in the Planet of the Apes reboot trilogy.

Serkis has been fielding many questions about the mysterious Snoke. “He’s definitely not a Sith, but he’s certainly at the darker end of the Force,” Serkis revealed, adding “that begins to unfold a little in this one,” – whatever “that” may be. Snoke is apparently “extremely strong with the Force,” but Serkis adds that while Snoke is “terribly powerfully”, he is also “a very vulnerable and wounded character.” Snoke’s deformities include a mangled jaw, and to help capture that in his performance, Serkis would tape down the left side of his mouth to restrict the lip movement.

The character was seen in The Force Awakens as a hologram seated on a throne, and appeared to be humongous. In The Last Jedi, we see Snoke in the flesh, and he’s about 2.7 m tall. Snoke has a penchant for luxury, which manifests itself in his gold robes and striking crimson-hued throne room. Snoke’s personal security force, the Praetorian Guard, also wear bright red armour. Serkis characterised Snoke as “flamboyant” and “slightly oligarch”.

In The Last Jedi, Snoke is none too pleased with his young apprentice. “His training of Kylo Ren is not yielding what he wants,” Serkis said. “Therefore, his anger towards Kylo Ren is intensified because he can’t bear weakness in others.” Serkis added that part of Snoke’s manipulation of Kylo involves playing Kylo and General Hux (Dohmnall Gleeson), Kylo’s right-hand man, off each other.

Johnson has warned fans that all the mysteries regarding the character might not be laid bare in this instalment, saying “We’ll learn exactly as much about Snoke as we need to.” Johnson added that it was “really exciting” seeing Serkis, whom he called “a force of nature”, play the character, since he got to do “much more in this film than in the last one.”

#8: ROSE TICO (Kelly Marie Tran)

The Last Jedi introduces several new characters, with Resistance engineer Rose Tico touted to have the largest part among these inductees. Rose is played by Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran. This is set to be Tran’s big break – prior to clinching the role, she was active in improv groups, appearing in the College Humor Originals and Ladies Like Us web series. There are very few actors of Asian descent in the Star Wars saga – prior to Tran, the largest roles played by Asian actors were that of Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Tran describes Rose as being “smart, brave and loyal, someone who knows she comes from a humble beginning – she’s not a princess, she’s not a superhero.” The character is someone who has always been comfortable fighting the good fight while remaining firmly in the background, but circumstances draw her to the forefront of a galaxy-spanning conflict. Rose’s older sister Paige (Veronica Ngo) has taken a more active role in the conflict as a gunner.

“I think she symbolises that there are always so many background players in any revolution, and without those people you can’t have those people at the forefront,” Tran said, reasoning that “if their ships aren’t working, they can’t be fighting the First Order.

Tran has admitted to having never seen any of the Star Wars films prior to clinching the role. She has said that because she wasn’t a die-hard fan to begin with, she was able to approach the audition as if it were for any other part, lessening the pressure in the moment. Of course, the fact that she is part of a worldwide phenomenon will sink in sooner or later. “When I saw the action figures, I was like, ‘This is insane,’ but it still hasn’t sunk in or registered on me,” Tran said.

“Growing up I watched a lot of [pop culture] and didn’t really get to see a lot of people that looked like me,” Tran said. “I think that I’m really lucky to be this person, and I get to be part of this franchise. I hope that it is a move in a better direction.”

Tran worked long hours at a temp agency to pay the bills, and revealed that she nearly quit acting. Her persistence has led her to join the Resistance, and we can already see Rose being an inspiration to many young viewers of all backgrounds.

 

Wonder movie review

For inSing

WONDER

Director : Stephen Chbosky
Cast : Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Daveed Diggs, Mandy Patinkin, Crystal Lowe, Izabela Vidovic, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon
Genre : Drama/Family
Run Time : 1h 54m
Opens : 14 December 2017
Rating : PG

Everyone has felt like at outcast at some point or another in their lives. It seems August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) has felt like at outcast at every point in his ten years alive. Auggie was born with a craniofacial condition and because of his deformity, has gotten used to drawing stares from strangers. Auggie’s parents Isabel (Julia Roberts) and Nate (Owen Wilson) decide that after being home-schooled all this time, Auggie should enrol in a regular school.

Auggie faces his first day at Beecher Preparatory School with trepidation. The principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin) has assigned three children to help Auggie feel welcome: Julian (Bryce Gheisar), Charlotte (Elle McKinnon) and Jack (Noah Jupe). Julian relentlessly bullies Auggie and Charlotte can get a little over-excited, so Auggie finds himself becoming friends with Jack. Summer (Millie Davis) also decides to reach out to Auggie.

In the meantime, Auggie’s sister Olivia (Izabela Vidovic), nicknamed “Via”, feels neglected because her parents have shown Auggie so much attention. She develops a crush on her schoolmate Justin (Nadji Jeter), while grieving the loss of her grandmother (Sonia Braga). While adversity has figured strongly in the Pullmans’ lives because of Auggie’s condition, weathering this together also pulls them closer.

Wonder is based on the 2012 novel of the same name by R.J. Palacio. Director Steven Chbosky works from a screenplay he co-adapted with Steven Conrad and Jack Thorne. Chbosky directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower based on his own book, which also dealt with themes of being different and navigating school as an outcast. Wonder is cuddlier and more conventional.

Cynics will be quick to decry it as sentimental and emotionally manipulative and, at times, Wonder tends towards that end of the spectrum. However, it is never so cloying and saccharine as to alienate viewers outright, and there is plenty here that is easy relatable – especially for the parents in the audience. Wonder deals with themes of acceptance, bullying and friendship in a familiar but amiable way. The film shifts between several points of view, letting the audience see the story through a few different perspectives. This device could’ve made the movie fragmented or messy, but the transitions are handled organically, and this approach fleshes the story out.

Jacob Tremblay burst onto the scene with his stirring turn in Room, and continues to prove his chops as Auggie. Crucially, the character has a personality and the film is quick to show that there’s so much more to Auggie than how he looks. Quite endearingly, Auggie is a Star Wars fan, like Tremblay is in real life. A certain Wookiee whom Auggie relates to appears in some imaginary sequences. Auggie is realistically withdrawn, but when he gets to open up to someone, becomes animated. The role is acted with considerable nuance.

Roberts plays the over-protective, stressed-out mum who’s always being pulled in many directions. Many mothers in the audience will recognise the constant frazzled state she’s in, and how Isabel has had to sacrifice her own dreams to care for her children. Wilson plays the cool, slightly goofy dad, and gets a few emotional moments in which Nate professes his love for Auggie.

Izabela Vidovic, who played the daughter of Jason Statham’s character in Homefront, also delivers a credible performance. It is to the story’s credit that one sibling feeling they must step aside for the other is explored in a satisfying manner. The romantic subplot between Via and Justin is simplistic, but is sweet and complements the rest of the film.

Broadway stars Mandy Patinkin and Daveed Diggs provide solid supporting turns as principal and teacher respectively. Hamilton star Diggs is warm, but exercises restraint, such that Mr. Browne does not come off as a standard ‘inspirational teacher’ type. Patinkin brings a soulful authority to the role – every school should be so lucky to have a principal like Mr. Tushman.

Wonder might turn off the jaded, but this isn’t a movie made for them. Sure, the movie has its share of fortune cookie hokum, but there’s a palpable sincerity to it and there are sure to be viewers who’ll find it inspirational and uplifting. It falls short of profundity, but Wonder makes for a good movie to watch as a family and discuss afterwards.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Paddington 2 movie review

For inSing

PADDINGTON 2

Director : Paul King
Cast : Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Grant, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin
Genre : Comedy/Family
Run Time : 1h 44m
Opens : 7 December 2017
Rating : PG

Everyone’s favourite marmalade-loving Peruvian bear is back on the big screen. Unfortunately, he finds himself in the big house, too. Paddington (Ben Whishaw) is thrown in prison, after being framed for a robbery he did not commit. His adoptive family, comprising Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) Brown, plus housekeeper Mrs Bird (Julie Walters), must clear Paddington’s name. Paddington must find a way to foil the dastardly plans of Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a fading actor who will stop at nothing to acquire a priceless treasure. While in prison, the cuddly little bear must defend himself from various nasty types, including the imposing prison chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson). With a positive attitude, good manners, and a little help from people who care about him, Paddington just might survive this ordeal.

After the runaway success of 2014’s Paddington, a sequel was inevitable. We can’t stop the cynics from viewing this film as a shameless cash-grab, but we don’t have to. Paddington 2 does a fine job of that all by itself. This is a film that brims with heart, is ever-so-English, impeccably acted, and not too sickeningly twee. Like its predecessor, there’s also a sweet pro-inclusivity message, conveyed by way of Peter Capaldi’s Mr. Curry, who hates Paddington just because he’s an immigrant.

On top of that, Paddington 2 is hilarious. Director and co-writer Paul King, who also helmed the first Paddington film, delivers a delightfully witty movie that features a mix of expertly-choreographed physical comedy set-pieces and clever wordplay. The film is a masterclass in the art of the setup and the payoff – things that register at first as silly details later become important in the plot, and it snaps together in such a satisfying way. The action-packed finale plays like a cross between the climactic scene of Back to the Future Part III and the opening set-piece of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The first Paddington movie was going to star Colin Firth as the voice of the loveable bear, and Ben Whishaw was brought on as a last-minute replacement. Whishaw is effortlessly sweet and earnest without it coming off as an affectation. The computer-generated effects seem to have improved since the last movie, and it’s easy to buy Paddington as an actual character. While it’s not as photo-real as the work in War for the Planet of the Apes (nor is it intended to be), this reviewer found himself as invested in Paddington’s journey as he was in Caesar’s.

The stable of talented English actors who fill the supporting cast returns from the first film, with the addition of a few big names. Bonneville plays the pragmatic patriarch who, after years in the insurance business, has lost his taste for whimsy. Hawkins serves as a foil as the warm-hearted Mary. Walters is endlessly amusing as the plucky Mrs Bird, while Capaldi is as crotchety as he can be without Malcolm Tucker-style swearing.

Hugh Grant is the runaway scene-stealer. He gamely sends up his own career, playing a self-obsessed actor whose glory days are far behind him. Seeing as Grant was one of the hottest stars of the 90s and saw his stock fall after personal scandals and massive flops, it’s admirable that he’s willing to poke fun at himself. Not only that, he appears to be having a grand old time doing so. As excellent as Nicole Kidman was in the first film, Grant’s villainous turn handily one-ups hers.

Brendan Gleeson is also a joy to watch as the widely-feared prison cook whom Paddington gamely tries to befriend. All the actors seem to enjoy being a part of the project, and nobody looks like they’ve been forced to put on a happy face.

Given the current political and pop culture climate, few things are cynic-proof. There are popular YouTube channels dedicated to mercilessly dismembering every last thing anyone finds remotely enjoyable, and plenty of think-pieces endeavour to do the same. Paddington 2 is a shining light in this fog of scoffing and irony. What the film possesses in sincerity, it matches in technical accomplishment and engaging storytelling. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel the warm fuzzies.

In a year that’s given us some surprising, spectacular blockbusters, Paddington 2 might not be a shock to the system, but it shouldn’t be. It should be a hug, and that it certainly is. The film is dedicated to the memory of Paddington creator Michael Bond, who passed away just before filming wrapped. If future Paddington movies are anywhere as good as this, his legacy is in the safest paws.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Man Who Invented Christmas movie review

For inSing

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

Director : Bharat Nalluri
Cast : Dan Stevens, Jonathan Pryce, Christopher Plummer, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark
Genre : Biography, Comedy, Drama
Run Time : 1h 44m
Opens : 30 November 2017
Rating : PG (Some Coarse Language)

Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol has become a cultural touchstone, and imagery from the story is a part of Christmas decorations all over the world. The novel has also spawned numerous film adaptations. Rather than being yet another one of those, this film attempts to take audiences into Dickens’ mind as he was writing the novel.

It is 1843, and Dickens (Dan Stevens) is having a professional slump. While Oliver Twist was a massive success, his last three books have been deemed commercial failures. When his publishers press him for a new book, Dickens goes about devising a parable set during Christmas, about a miserly old man named Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). Dickens’ wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) and his friend John Forster (Justin Edwards) must contend with his mood swings as he attempts to rush out the book in time for Christmas.

Dickens has imaginary interactions with the characters of the book, including Scrooge, who takes delight in mocking him and wearing him down. Dickens realises that he must address the long-festering wound that is the resentment he holds towards his father John (Jonathan Pryce), whom Dickens blames for sending him off to work in a factory as a young boy. As he frantically searches for a satisfying ending to the book, Dickens must exorcise the ghosts that have haunted him all his life.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is based on the book of the same name by historian and author Lee Standiford, subtitled ‘How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits’. On the surface, this looks like a delightful Christmastime confection, light-hearted and aimed squarely at Anglophiles. However, director Bharat Nalluri and writer Susan Coyne try their utmost to keep the film from being overly treacly or sentimental, and attempt to delve into the author’s psyche.

There are some interesting devices at play here: the story takes on a Shakespeare in Love-type tone, revealing the inspirations that Dickens drew upon. While it wants to be light-hearted, quirky and charming in an old-fashioned way, the film also wants to depict the obsessed, ‘tortured artist’ side of Dickens. There is some of the frothy approach that Nalluri took with the underrated Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, but that is at odds with the Victorian grimness inherent in Dickens’ own backstory.

2017 has been a banner year for Dan Stevens, who has starred in films like Beauty and the Beast and the TV series Legion. Stevens’ energetic portrayal of Dickens brims with manic energy, but the actor does look like he’s constantly searching for the pain that has been brewing in the author’s soul. The film provides a somewhat compelling portrait of the creative process, and the relationship an author can have with his characters – they may seem like figments of the imagination to everyone else, but to Dickens, they are as real as can be.

Plummer is an elder statesman of the acting profession, and join the ranks of many talented actors who have played the curmudgeonly, miserly Scrooge. Scrooge functions as a manifestation of Dickens’ own doubts and insecurities, and the back-and-forth between author and character can be fun to watch. Plummer plays the role with restraint, nibbling at the scenery rather than chewing it outright.

Jonathan Pryce is a talented, often entertaining actor, but the relationship between Dickens and his somewhat-irresponsible father is quite underdeveloped. This thread seems to be the most interesting, but isn’t given enough attention.

Justin Edwards is likeable as Dickens’ friend and eventual biographer, who serves as the physical model for the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present. Morfydd Clark doesn’t get too much to do as Dickens’ long-suffering wife, but Anna Murphy’s bright-eyed maid character Tara adds a dash of innocence and optimism.

The Man Who Invented Christmas will appeal to avid readers of Dickens’ work and the author’s interactions with his own characters differentiate this from your run-of-the-mill biopic, but the film isn’t as wholly charming as it could’ve been. Because of its tonal confusion, it’s hard to fully get into, and rarely pushes past the point of ‘mildly interesting’. Still, the movie has it charms and features Christopher Plummer in fine form.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) movie review

For inSing

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

Director : Kenneth Branagh
Cast : Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin
Genre : Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 116 mins
Opens : 30 November 2017
Rating : PG

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-posterIn western literature, three characters vie for the title of ‘the world’s greatest detective’: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Batman (yes, comics are literature too). This film sees the return of the middle character to the big screen.

It is winter, 1934. Renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has just solved a case in Israel, and is looking forward to a holiday in Istanbul. His break is abruptly cut short when he’s summoned back to London on assignment, and must board the Orient Express. Poirot is invited on the luxurious train as a guest of the train’s director Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot’s friend.

The train is derailed due to an avalanche, and a passenger, shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is found dead. Poirot gathers the other passengers, who are all suspects in the murder. They include: Ratchett’s butler Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Ratchett’s accountant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), the Princess’ personal attendant Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), car dealer Binamiano Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his wife, Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton). As the passengers are trapped in a snowy mountain range, awaiting their rescue, Poirot faces what just might be his most difficult case yet.

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-banner

Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express is one of the great whodunits, and has been adapted for film and TV several times. The best-known adaptation is Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Poirot. Making another big screen adaptation of the venerated novel seems like a tall order, and most of the negative reviews of this film have deemed it “unnecessary”. While it’s hard to say for certain that the world needed a new Murder on the Orient Express movie, this reviewer was mostly entertained.

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There’s an old-fashioned charm and grandeur to the film, which is sumptuously, handsomely photographed in glorious 65 mm film by cinematographer Harris Zambarkalous – some of the cameras had just been used to shoot Dunkirk, in which Branagh had a supporting role. There’s a painterly quality to the computer-generated backgrounds, and everything looks luxe and inviting.

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Branagh pulls double duty as director and star. This is a vanity project, and while it teeters on self-indulgence, Branagh is a delight as Poirot. Sporting that magnificent moustache, this looks like the most fun the thespian has had since playing Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter movies. He is always the centre of attention, relishing every moment he’s onscreen – of which there are many.

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The supporting cast is exceedingly impressive, stacked with an assortment of talented actors. They characters don’t come off as characters, so much as ornaments that Branagh arranges around himself. However, there is an art to said arrangement, and the casting is uniformly strong.

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Depp is appropriately sleazy and unlikeable, while many of the other actors play on popular perceptions of them based on most of their roles. Pfeiffer’s turn is deliciously witty, while Cruz is almost comically stern as a buttoned-down missionary. While Josh Gad tones down his usual comedic schtick, he still sticks out among the cast.

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Ridley brings English proper-ness and a fresh-faced quality to the Mary role. Dench’s Russian accent is a mite too subtle, but it’s clear that she too is enjoying the affair. Odom, best known for originating the role of Aaron Burr in the hit musical Hamilton, is a serious and taciturn Dr. Arbuthnot, who is a composite of Col. Arbuthnot and Dr. Constantine in the source material. It’s super easy to be suspicious of Dafoe, because he is, well, Dafoe.

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As far as celebrity cameos go, Polunin’s appearance as Count Andrenyi isn’t as out of place as it could’ve been. The renowned ballet dancer cuts a slim, severe figure as the haughty count. Lucy Boynton, breakout star of Sing Street, doesn’t get too much to do as the Countess.

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It’s difficult to put a fresh spin on a story as established as Murder on the Orient Express, and there are times when Branagh’s struggle in assembling the film is evident: there is little genuine suspense to be generated, and some moments, especially during the big reveal, are unintentionally funny. However, there is so much talent involved, with said talent looking to be having great fun, and the film looks so splendid that one can readily overlook some of the bumpiness experienced on this ride.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

SGIFF 2017: Looking for Lucy – Josh Hartnett Interview

For inSing

SGIFF 2017: LOOKING FOR LUCY – JOSH HARTNETT INTERVIEW

Josh Hartnett tells inSing about his role in Atsuko Hirayanagi’s Oh, Lucy!

By Jedd Jong

Josh Hartnett’s face graced the bedroom walls of many a teenage girl in the late 90s-early 2000s: Hartnett’s career began with a leading role in the crime drama series Cracker. He then appeared in the teen-aimed horror films Halloween H20: 20 Years Later and The Faculty, and achieved stardom after starring in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour and Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, which were both released in 2001.

However, Hartnett was never quite comfortable with how he was packaged, and had always been intent on pursuing artistically-driven, less commercial projects. This was at odds with the studios’ desire to sell him as a teen heartthrob. Hartnett took a hiatus from acting to do a little soul-searching, returning to his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. Hartnett returned to the scene with a starring role in the British-American horror drama TV series Penny Dreadful, and has been focusing on independent film projects. Hartnett has worked with international film directors including Roland Joffé, Tran Ahn Hung, Robert Duvall and James Franco.

Hartnett stars opposite Shinobu Terajima in the comedy-drama Oh, Lucy!, written and directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi. The film is Hirayanagi’s feature film debut, and is based on the short film of the same name which she directed and which made the film festival rounds in 2014.

Hartnett plays John, an American working in Tokyo as an English teacher. Terajima plays Setsuko, a middle-aged Japanese woman who feels invigorated after attending John’s lessons. John’s unconventional methods include giving Setsuko a blonde wig and renaming her ‘Lucy’. Setsuko soon becomes attached to this persona, and develops a preoccupation with John. When John vanishes, Setsuko travels to California in search of him.

Kaho Minami and Josh Hartnett in Oh, Lucy!

Oh, Lucy! Is being screened as a special presentation feature at the 28th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). Hartnett and director Hirayanagi will be in Singapore as special guests of the festival. Ahead of his trip here, Hartnett spoke exclusively to inSing on the phone from Los Angeles. He discussed making the film in Tokyo, the unique tone of the movie, his hopes for his career when he was a young actor, and passing on roles in major comic book films.

INSING: Tell us about John, your character in this film.

JOSH HARTNETT: John is a guy who’s escaping from a lot of stuff in his life. He’s living in Tokyo at the beginning of the film working as an English teacher, but he doesn’t speak much Japanese, so he’s not a very good English teacher. He has a policy that attracts certain types of people. He’s very tactile, very huggy, and he makes them speak English when they’re in the classroom. He attracts a few lonely people to class, one of which is the lead of the film whom he renames ‘Lucy’, and she becomes a little bit obsessed with him, and the story moves on from there.

Did you base John on any teachers or instructors you have had as a student?

I look at John and think he is trying his other to escape the responsibilities in his life, and he is doing anything he can to survive. He winds up in a situation, not really knowing how to teach in this way, and he’s a bit of a charlatan. I’ve live in New York for the last two years, where there’s no shortage of charlatans, and I now I’m in Los Angeles where they’re everywhere. I’ve seen a lot of people within this industry who prey on people who are getting started as actors. They represent themselves as acting coaches or voice coaches, some managers even – people that find a sort of Svengali approach to separating young people from their money, under the guise of helping them with their careers. I think that John has no qualms about doing that. I don’t think he’s particularly ambitious – he doesn’t necessarily want to hurt anyone, but he’s not against taking money from them for doing very little. I’ve come across a lot of people like John, but nobody in particular that makes this character who he is.

Andrew Barker, writing for Variety, called Oh Lucy! “a chocolate trifle with an arsenic core”. Do you agree with this description of the movie?

Yeah, in a sense. Chocolate with arsenic inside…there’s definitely a poison core to Lucy herself at the beginning of the film. But I think the film is incredibly honest about not only what this character is going through, but what can happen to a person who’s inverted their own expectations of life to fit in, [finding] themselves depressed and not knowing which way to turn. I do think that there’s a lot of comedy in the film, but it also is dramatic. That tone is difficult for a director to find, you don’t see a lot of films that ride that knife’s edge well. I think that Atsuko does this perfectly with this film.

Josh Hartnett and writer-director Atsuko Hirayanagi

Leading on from that, what was Atsuko Hirayanagi like as a director? Seeing as she also wrote the film and it is based on a short film that she made, I assume that her vision is very strong and pure.

Yes, that’s what attracted me to the project to begin with. She had a very clear vision for what she wanted to achieve, and looking at her short film, I was able to see what she wanted to achieve. To work with Atsuko is to work with someone who’s very open to your ideas, very interested in having conversations about your character or about the story. In the end, she knows the parameters of what she wants to achieve, and that to me is the perfect director, a director who will take the time to listen to tell you, and tell you either “you’re right on” or “no, that’s not what we’re looking for”. It just makes thing so much easier as an actor to come in and be clear about what you’re going to be doing.

What insight did you gain into Japanese culture and societal attitudes working on this film?

There are things that I already knew – I’ve been in Tokyo before doing press for movies that had come out there over the last 15-20 years. I had been around Tokyo before, but I’d never spent as much time there, and never as much time at my leisure, wandering around the city. I’d never been on a set in Japan before. The set was extraordinarily efficient, of course, but there was a sense of importance, a respect for the work that sometimes is missing from American films. It’s not necessarily that people don’t respect the work, it’s just that there’s a casual approach at times.

Like they’ve gotten used to it?

Maybe that’s it, maybe it’s just day-in day-out work, and in Tokyo there aren’t as many films being made in this way, so there was a real sense of importance that people were bringing to the set. To me, that was very exciting. It’s always exciting to be on a set where people feel like they’re a part of something special.

Woody Harrelson and Josh Hartnett in Bunraku

You starred in a very different film that incorporates elements of Japanese culture: Bunraku. How would you compare that experience with working on Oh, Lucy!

[Laughs] That’s entirely different. Bunraku was the brainchild of an Israeli writer director [Guy Moshe] who has a great affinity for Samurai films and for Westerns. His view of Japanese culture was cinematic. This film is maybe the opposite, in a way it’s trying to pull back the curtain for all of these characters about their misconceptions of what the other culture is like. Entirely different, from that point of view. Also, that film was so physical, and this film, I did almost nothing but smoke pot [laughs]. There was nothing physical about this film. Apples and oranges, for sure.

Josh Hartnett in Pearl Harbour

Starting out in Hollywood, it seemed like the studios wanted to package you as a teen heartthrob, but perhaps that wasn’t the image you wanted for yourself as an actor – you’ve spoken about being self-conscious after being on the cover of every magazine. What was it like re-evaluating your life and career after that period, and looking back now, what are your reflections on that time in your life?

In a way, I wish I hadn’t taken it so seriously, but I couldn’t have done anything else when I was that age. I was a very serious young man. I wanted to prove both to myself and to the directors and producers of Hollywood that I was an artist, and always wanted to be a part of artistic films. I also was always attracted to that when I was younger.

I worked in a video store when I was 15, 16 years old, and became a gigantic fan of independent cinema and foreign cinema. If I was going to have an opportunity to express myself in film and work with the types of directors I wanted to work with, I was going to take it. It wasn’t necessarily the career path that people within the industry wanted for me, because they wanted to me to fulfil the image they had set for me, which would make everybody some money.

I was always clear about what I wanted from the industry, and I had to be true to who I am. I couldn’t tell that young man anything about which way to go, because he was too strong-minded, and I’m sort of proud of myself for that.

There’s a difficulty as an actor in balancing big studio projects with independent films, is there a tendency to place actors in one box or the other?

In a way, yes. It’s somewhat more just what my expectations were of myself at that time. I didn’t necessarily think about that balance between the system, I was more about “how do I get to work with people like Tran Ahn Hung?” At the time, I really wanted to work with Wes Anderson, and I almost did a film with David Fincher and that film fell apart. To be able to work with these types of people was what I wanted all along. I spent some time talking to Julian Schnabel about working with him on a film. A lot of films didn’t quite come together the way I hoped they would, but I was always pursuing the films that I was interested in as a moviegoer and as a fan.

Josh Hartnett in Penny Dreadful

Following Penny Dreadful, will you be pursuing more arthouse films like Oh, Lucy!, are you planning to go after roles in studio movies, or a little bit of both?

Right now, I’m pretty much doing independent films. I’m reading everything that comes across my desk. I’ve done four independent films since we finished Penny Dreadful, and I’m about to start the fifth in 2 weeks. Then I might work on a play – John Malkovich and I worked on a film last year [Valley of the Gods] together and he asked me to do a play that he’s directing in London, I might do that.

In order to make a good living in this industry, you have to do something within the system. I’m not unaware of that, so I will try to find something that’s good within the system. I thought that Penny Dreadful was right smack dab in the middle of the Hollywood system, but it was also very interesting and way outside the box. I’ll try to find something else like that if I can.

That was John Logan’s wheelhouse, where he has done artistic, interesting stuff within a studio context.

Yeah, he does that quite well. If you can find someone to work with who can pull that off within the system, then that’s the perfect place to be.

You were offered several roles in comic book films, and you said you regretted passing on the role of Batman. What are your attitudes towards the genre, given how prevalent comic book and superhero movies are today?

At that stage in my career, I was being offered everything. I was, as I explained before, very focused on working with certain types of directors. I didn’t know Chris Nolan was going to be able to pull off that type of work in that film. I think the way that people interpret interviews is sometimes a little off-based. I don’t have enormous regrets about that, it was an off-hand comment. I wish I would’ve seen the forest for the trees at the time, having a relationship with a director, and I used him as an example. Sometimes, that’s a better choice than just worrying about the film itself. Sometimes, a great director can take a genre piece and elevate it, that’s all I’m saying. The way John Logan did Penny Dreadful, he elevated a horror genre piece to something that was special. I’m more aware of that now than I was at the time, and that’s all I’m saying.

Josh Hartnett and Shinobu Terajima in Oh, Lucy!

You’ve been politically active. How has your activism been affected by the big changes in US politics over the last two years?

[Sighs] The bizarre thing in my life that’s occurred is that since the western world has lost its mind, I’ve been having children [laughs]. So my focus has become more internalised and focused on family while these big events have occurred. That being said, I’ve become very interested in how these current events will affect the future, for my kids’ sake. There’s a time for outrage, and there’s a time for expressing one’s hopes for change. We’ve gone through a cycle of both over the course of the last couple of years.

My girlfriend [Tamsin Egerton] is English, and we’ve spent time in England after Brexit. There’s a real long slump where people feel their country has been taken away from that, a lot of people in London felt that way. Then of course, the election here, a lot of people feel that way as well. It is important to remain engaged, and I feel like I am engaged, but we need to affect change within the system in a positive way, otherwise it won’t last.

As far as I can tell at this point, the best way forward is to keep doing what we’re doing, and continue to stymie Republican efforts to take away people’s rights, and hope that in the next couple of years, elections will swing things back towards sanity. You just have to remain focused on the end goal, which is just not letting people be persecuted in your country.

I absolutely agree. Before I let you go, have you been to Singapore?

I’ve only been to the airport in Singapore so far, but we are coming in for the premiere, so I’m looking forward to it.

What are your impressions of the country, and what have you heard about us so far?

Okay, so I have a lot of impressions that I know from people who’ve lived there. The producer Han [West] went to school there. Recently I watched a BBC show about extraordinary hotels, and a lot of that was based in Singapore, so I learned about the culture through that. I think I have a pretty interesting perspective, I have a lot of expectations for it, but I’m sure I’m way off base. It’s not a culture that I know enough about, I’ve just heard stories from people. I’m excited to come take a look.

 

 

 

Coco Movie Review

For inSing

COCO

Director : Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Voice Cast : Gael García Bernal, Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor
Genre : Animation/Comedy/Musical
Run Time : 109 mins (+22 mins for Olaf’s Frozen Adventure)
Opens : 23 November 2017
Rating : PG

Coco-posterThe dead have never been more alive than in this animated fantasy-comedy-musical. Nobody’s suffering from even the slightest hint of rigor mortis, and the Land of the Dead is filled with dancing and singing. That’s not to say there isn’t drama afoot.

Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy who dreams of being a musician, and who idolises the singer and film star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most famous musician in the history of Mexico. There’s just one catch: music is forbidden from the Rivera household. This is because Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was married to a musician, who abandoned the family and broke her heart. Miguel’s great-grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), the oldest living member of the Rivera clan, has never quite recovered from this.

On the night of Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead celebration, the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest. Miguel accidentally finds himself a visitor in the Land of the Dead where he meets his deceased relatives, who attempt to get Miguel safely home to the land of the living. Miguel befriends the roguish trickster Hector (Gael García Bernal), who says he can help Miguel cross back. It’s a family reunion between the living and the dead, but it’s also a race against time – if Miguel doesn’t make it back by sunrise, he will find himself a permanent resident in this ghostly realm.

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The Mexican tradition of Día de Muertos has figured in popular culture before, notably in the computer game Grim Fandango, the earlier animated film The Book of Life, and in the pre-titles sequence of the Bond movie Spectre. Día de Muertos embodies an uplifting attitude towards death that treats it as a part of life – death is still mourned, but perhaps is not as feared or as a dreaded as in other cultures.

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Coco does not appear to cherry-pick elements of Mexican culture to bolt on to a generic product. This is a film which is richly authentic and takes sheer delight in being so. While director Unkrich is white and was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Coco does not feel like the work of a curious outsider peering in through the window. The screenplay is credited to Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, and this is a strong, fully-realised story. Molina was promoted to co-director partway through production. The central conceit is clever, the characters are distinctive but not overly gimmicky, and the jaw-dropping twist is sheer masterful storytelling.

This being a Pixar film, the visuals are a joy to behold. The animation team had to rethink how the characters move, since the skeletal denizens of the afterlife do not have the musculature which informs how flesh-and-blood human beings move. The designers have great fun devising the look of the Land of the Dead. It’s colourful and zany, but everything feels guided by rock-solid design principles, and not one detail seems superfluous.

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Directors of photography Matt Aspbury and Danielle Feinberg utilise warm lighting that makes the afterlife appear inviting and festive rather than foreboding, while keeping it otherworldly. The film features a variety of creatures known as Alebrije, which function as spirit guides. Mama Imelda’s Alebrije, a winged jaguar called Pepita, is especially striking. Miguel’s ‘Alebrije’ of sorts is a mangy-but-loveable stray dog named Dante – after Dante’s Inferno.

The voice actors impart believable verve, and are just heightened and theatrical enough without coming off as too over-the-top. Miguel is eminently loveable, and the character’s conflict between following his passion for music and the life his family dictates for him is one that is readily relatable.

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The Hector character is a likeable scamp who can fast-talk his way out of any jam, and who ‘knows a guy who knows a guy’. Once Hector is introduced, we think we’ve got him all figured out, since he fits that old archetype to a tee. Bernal lends the character surprising nuance, and as we learn more about him, there’s considerable depth to be found.

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Bratt has fun as the beloved matinee idol Ernesto de la Cruz. He sings the song “Remember Me”, but for the other songs, Ernesto’s singing voice is provided by Antonio Sol. The mini-mythology of the canon of songs that Ernesto has sung and movies he’s starred in provides valuable texture to the world.

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As in almost every culture, music figures heavily in Mexican traditions. Coco features songs written by Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Frozen fame, as well as Germaine Franco and co-screenwriter Molina. The film’s signature song “Remember Me” is a stirring, evocative number and it works as a crucial plot point as well as it does a standalone ballad.

Coco did not just move this reviewer to tears, it made him bawl. There’s power and enveloping warmth to this tale and the visually inventive way in which it’s told. Just as Inside Out was the launchpad for many a family discussion on mental health after watching the movie, Coco is a great way for kids to process death and how it is a part of life. Steeped in a fascinating culture and bringing that culture to mass audiences, Coco is an all-involving celebratory masterpiece.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wind River movie review

For inSing

WIND RIVER

Director : Taylor Sheridan
Cast : Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow
Genre : Crime/Thriller/Mystery
Run Time : 108 mins
Opens : 23 November 2017
Rating : M18

Wind-River-posterWriter-director Taylor Sheridan takes audiences into the frozen wilds of Wyoming with this sombre mystery thriller. The setting: the Wind River Native American reservation. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife service agent, comes across the body of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) in the snow. Natalie’s parents Martin (Gil Birmingham) and Annie (Althea Sam) are inconsolable. Natalie appears to have been raped and murdered, and rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to assist Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) with the investigation. Far outside her comfort zone, Jane must summon her wits and resourcefulness to catch the perpetrator and avenge Natalie’s death.

Sheridan is a former actor who has quickly become a sought-after screenwriter, penning Sicario and the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water. This time, he is directing in addition to writing. He has a knack for crime thrillers with a socially conscious bent, and with Wind River, Sheridan seeks to highlight how female Native American victims of murder or kidnapping often go unnoticed. This intense story unfolds against the beautiful desolation of the American northwest, with Park City, Utah doubling for Wyoming. The surroundings hammer home the bleakness of the story, emphasising the sense of being forgotten by society at large, far from the creature comforts of the city.

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Wind River is a slow burn, and requires the audience to stick with it before things heat up. This isn’t a movie that’s intended to be entertaining or even particularly thrilling, and as such, it might be difficult for some audiences to sit through. When it gets brutal, Wind River is uncompromising and raw. There is a scene of sexual violence which is difficult to stomach, and there are a few bloody shootouts. The title card at the beginning of the film stating the film is “inspired by true events” refers to not one specific incident, but thousands of stories about sexual assault of women on Native American reservations, where few outside the community notice their plight.

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This is one of Renner’s best performances, and the Cory Lambert character is a finely-realised hero. Renner’s turn is understated and strong, and he is convincing as a rugged guy who lives off the land, rifle in hand. The character could easily have come off as generic, especially since he has lived through a personal tragedy, but Renner commands the audience’s attention. He balances out the steeliness with quiet humanity – Cory is depicted as a devoted father to his young son Casey (Teo Briones). Cory comes across as someone who values human connection but who has been burned by past experiences, hence his detachedness. While Cory was married to a Native American woman, he will always be viewed as an outsider in the community.

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Olsen looks like she’s out of her depth, which is exactly what the role calls for. Jane Banner recalls Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer character in Sicario: the principled newcomer who is about to undergo a trial by fire. The dynamic that develops between Cory and Jane is satisfying to watch, in part because Cory acknowledges Jane’s strength and isn’t deliberately giving her a hard time about not knowing her way around the territory. It’s also fun to imagine that we’re watching Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch teaming up on their own adventure.

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Birmingham’s performance as the grieving father is honest and affecting, but the Native American characters take a backseat in a story that’s ostensibly about Native Americans. While the film consciously avoids the ‘white saviour’ narrative, it is a valid criticism that a movie about the injustices suffered by Native Americans has two white people as its protagonists, and focuses on Native Americans as a group rather than as individual characters.

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Wind River keeps in line with Sheridan’s penchant for thought-provoking films which aren’t necessarily all that exciting on their face, but which bring attention to social issues in a non-preachy manner. This is yet another auspicious indicator that Sheridan has a stellar career behind the camera ahead of him, but audiences should take note that Wind River is sometimes punishing, thanks to its painful subject matter.

RATING: 3.5 out of Stars

Jedd Jong

Musical Review: The Addams Family Musical

For inSing

THE ADDAMS FAMILY MUSICAL 

15 November to 3 December at the MediaCorp MES Theatre in Singapore

Even almost 80 years after they first graced the pages of The New Yorker, Charles Addams’ creation remains popular. There are no shortage of Wednesday Addamses every Halloween, and the instantly recognisable Victor Mizzy-composed theme song is wont to make everyone snap along. It seems like a no-brainer for the larger-than-life clan to take to the stage in musical form.

Gomez (Cameron Blakely), Morticia (Rebecca Thornhill) Addams and their children Wednesday (Carrie Hope Fletcher) and Pugsley (Grant McIntyre) live a blissfully off-kilter existence. A dilapidated mansion situated in Central Park that is haunted by their ancestors serves as home. In addition to the immediate family, we also meet Grandma (Valda Aviks), Gomez’s brother Fester (Cory English), zombie butler Lurch (Dickon Gough) and the disembodied hand Thing.

The Addams Family is about to be thrown into chaos, because Wednesday is intent on marrying her boyfriend Lucas Beineke (Oliver Ormson), a normal, all-American boy whose family is from Ohio. This sends Gomez into a panic, as he goes about trying to hide Wednesday’s plans from her mother. When Lucas and his parents Alice (Charlotte Page) and Mal (Dale Rapley) visit the Addamses for dinner, Wednesday pleads with her family to ‘act normal’. Alas, normal is but an illusion, as the prospective in-laws meet the peculiar Addamses and are subjected to all manner of unexplained goings-on.

The show features music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, with a book by Marshall Rickman and Rick Elice. The initial Broadway production garnered mixed to negative reviews, and has since been reworked for a U.S. and U.K. tour – this production is the same one that just toured the U.K., with several key cast changes.

This reviewer didn’t have the highest expectations of the musical – it seemed like Rocky Horror lite, with the Beinekes as ersatz versions of Brad and Janet. Several Addams Family stories have hinged on regular folk being foils to our mysterious and creepy heroes, so this isn’t particularly new territory. Then there’s the matter of the whole thing hinging on Wednesday’s romantic relationships – isn’t that precisely the kind of thing Wednesday wouldn’t be into?

However, this reviewer was completely won over. The show is a delight, consistently funny and tuneful with a committed cast. The libretto is littered with silly puns and cheeky double entendres, most of which land. The tonal balance between the goofy light-heartedness and the macabre and diabolical that is so crucial to this property is pulled off without a hitch.

Under the direction of Andrew Corcoran, the pit orchestra sounds much larger than its eight musicians, with many pulling double or triple duty – pianist Joel Nah also plays the accordion, for instance. For the most part, the songs are not the persistent ear-worms this reviewer was hoping for, and with a few numbers, their inspirations are a little too apparent – the first verse of “Secrets” is more or less a reworked “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid. However, the cast more than sells it.

Then, there’s the design. Diego Pitarch’s set is cleverly designed to look more expensive than it is. There are Gothic accents in the right places, and plenty of cascading fog. The Addamses are all instantly recgonisable, with Pitarch’s costume designs retaining signature elements while judiciously adding flourishes. For example, Wednesday has a corset, and her dress isn’t straight black but a dark bluish-green.

The most impressive costumes belong to the assorted spectral ancestors who comprise the show’s Greek chorus, which include a pirate, a matador, a tribal warrior, a Spanish Inquisitor, a Roman Emperor and a Tudor Queen. These reminded this reviewer of the work of Colleen Atwood, who is Tim Burton’s regular costume designer. They look sufficiently authentic, while also being heightened and fantastical.

 

Blakely is a charismatic Gomez – the actor has remarkable physical comedy chops, and looks like he’s relishing every moment. It’s a larger-than-life performance that includes dance moves that seem physically impossible for human legs to execute – or at the very least, improbable. As the henpecked head of the house, the audience empathizes with Gomez, while also rooting for him because he’s such a dedicated father and husband. His warm rendition of the bittersweet number “Happy/Sad”, which draws inspiration from Sondheim’s song in Company named “Sorry/Grateful” aims squarely at heartstrings.

Thornhill sticks to what works, dutifully conveying the traits that Morticia has always been identified with. She exudes a wonderfully sardonic air, and glides across the stage with an effortless slinkiness. Her solo number “Death is Just Around the Corner” exemplifies the show’s synthesis of dark humour and pastiche of classic Broadway musicals. Blakely and Thornhill’s big dance number, “Tango de Amor”, is absolutely mesmerising.

Carrie Hope Fletcher – that’s all we need to say. The boundlessly talented, immensely likeable theatre star/online personality/author is a truly winning Wednesday. She and Blakely sell the father-daughter bonding moments for all they’re worth – it’s the second time they’ve played father and daughter, since Fletcher played Éponine and Blakely played Thénardier.

Just watching how she purposefully strides across the stage, crossbow in hand, one can tell she completely gets the character. Carrie’s largely teenage female fanbase contributed significantly to the show’s success in the U.K. If you’re overly attached to Christina Ricci’s specific portrayal of Wednesday, hearing the character sing about how she loves all things cute and cuddly might be discordant, but the character still feels like Wednesday throughout.

With the makeup and costumes, the supporting cast members are all convincing as their respective Addams denizens. McIntyre hits the sweet spot of making Pugsley unsettling but also weirdly endearing, while Aviks gets several key opportunities to steal the show. English’s Fester is bizarre and likeable, just the way the character should be. The already-towering Dickon Gough gets some extra height out of his platform boots, and displays laudable physicality as the inarticulate Lurch.

Alas, the weak link in the cast seems to be Oliver Ormson. He has the look of a handsome all-American jock, but his voice is too reedy and doesn’t complement Fletcher’s well enough, with Fletcher singing rings around him. Still, the pair generates adequate chemistry, and “Crazier Than You” is the wild ride it should be.

Page is the surprise standout as Alice – her character goes through quite the dramatic arc, and her solo in the Act One closer “Full Disclosure” has resonant feminist undertones. Page gives the part her all, and Rapley complements her nicely as the buttoned-down conservative, midwestern dad.

The Addams Family Musical is far from the kookiest, most out-there depiction of Charles Addams’ beloved creation, but even with its conventional storyline, there’s enough dark humour and stylistic oomph to propel the show. It’s a devilishly good time for the whole family, if you don’t mind lying to your kids when they ask you to explain some of the bawdier jokes.

Jedd Jong