Rampage movie review

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RAMPAGE

Director : Brad Peyton
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Åkerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Marley Shelton
Genre : Action/Sci-fi
Run Time : 1h 47m
Opens : 12 April 2018
Rating : PG13

Rampage-posterDwayne Johnson, arguably the closest thing this generation has to 80s action heroes like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, shares the screen with monsters who dwarf even him in this creature feature.

Johnson plays Davis Okoye, an Army Special Forces soldier-turned primatologist working at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary. George, an albino silverback gorilla with whom Davis shares a close bond, begins growing and displaying violent, erratic behaviour. George has come into contact with a mutagen developed by Energyne, after a genetic splicing experiment conducted aboard a space station goes horribly awry.

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Geneticist Dr Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), a former Energyne employee, arrives to help Davis deal with George’s mutation. In the meantime, a wolf and an alligator have also been exposed to the mutagen. As the creatures become ever fiercer, government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) attempts to control the situation, while butting heads with Davis and Kate. The pair must foil the dastardly plans of Energyne’s head honchos Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman) and her doltish brother Brett (Jake Lacy), who draw the creatures to Chicago where they will wreak untold havoc.

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Rampage is based on the classic arcade game of the same name. In the original game, players controlled one of three mutated, formerly-human monsters, causing as much destruction as possible to proceed to the next level. There was not much in the way of plot, and there didn’t need to be.

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The plot in the Rampage movie serves little purpose other than to fill time and justify the giant monster action sequences. The film reunites Johnson with Brad Peyton, who directed him in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and San Andreas. Like San Andreas, there is plenty of disaster movie mayhem on display in Rampage, but while it was a little uncomfortable watching that movie right after the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, the wanton destruction is easier to enjoy in Rampage, given that there haven’t been any giant gorilla, wolf and alligator attacks in major metropolises lately.

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The visual effects work, especially on George, portrayed via motion capture by Jason Liles, is excellent. When the giant monsters are onscreen, which is the case for a significant portion of the film, things are entertaining and silly. There are some violent moments which push the PG-13 rating and it’s hard not to derive some joy from that. Even then, the city-levelling climactic action sequence can get a little numbing. Anything involving our human characters is tedious, thanks to stock back-stories and cringe-worthy exposition-laden dialogue. “It’s going to be a lot more emotional, a lot scarier and a lot more real than you’d expect,” Peyton said of the film when it was announced. Alas, Rampage is none of those.

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Dwayne Johnson delivers the performance one would expect: that of the charismatic, larger-than-life action hero who’s here to save the day. It’s nothing different from what we’ve seen before, but it gets the job done and he’s good at this stuff. Davis shares quite a bit in common with Jurassic World‘s Owen Grady: they’re both former military men who work with dangerous animals and have bonded with one creature under their care. Johnson tries to sell the relationship between Davis and George, and while that is never emotionally affecting, Johnson can’t be faulted for it.

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Harris’ Dr Kate Caldwell comes complete with a groan-inducing motivation for getting back at the company that’s done her wrong. Harris tries to make the material work, but the film seems to struggle with figuring out what purpose her character serves for most of the movie.

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Rampage is at its cheesiest not during the monster attack sequences, but when it turns its attention to the villainous Wyden siblings. Claire is coolly evil while her brother bumbles about in the background. While both Åkerman and Lacy look to be enjoying themselves, neither is ever actually threatening, and the cartoonish nature of their performances undercuts the stakes of the monster madness.

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Jeffrey Dean Morgan drawls his way through a reasonably fun supporting part as a shadowy government agent, while Joe Manganiello shows up very briefly as a private military contractor. Everyone’s playing to type, and Rampage contains frustratingly little in the way of surprises or spontaneity.

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Nobody can accuse Rampage of not delivering the all-out giant monster goods, but the movie stops considerably short of being the expertly-made escapism it could’ve been. There’s a tonal struggle between being ridiculous and being earnest that Peyton lacks the skill to reconcile. Rampage doesn’t take itself too seriously at all, but its clumsy attempts at emotional beats and its predictable, store-bought monster movie plot stand in the way of it being truly entertaining.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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A Quiet Place movie review

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A QUIET PLACE

Director : John Krasinski
Cast : Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward
Genre : Horror/Drama
Run Time : 1h 30m
Opens : 5 April 2018
Rating : PG13

In this horror thriller, silence is not only golden, but it’s the one thing that will keep what remains of humanity alive.

Vicious creatures that hunt by hearing have wiped out much of the earth’s population. The Abbott family, consisting of Lee (John Krasinski), his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and their children Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), are among the few people that remain. Living in a farmhouse, they have adopted a life of silence, as any sound they make could be their last. Grappling with loss and fear, the family that stays quiet together survives together.

A Quiet Place is directed by John Krasinski, who also rewrote a spec script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck. Krasinski’s previous directorial efforts Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and The Hollars were indie comedy-dramas, the kind of films you’d expect from an actor making his foray into directing. With A Quiet Place, Krasinski boldly steps into genre territory with a film that seems like the work of a seasoned horror filmmaker.

Krasinski wastes no time in reeling the audience into the world he creates, and once the movie gets a hold of us, it never lets go. The set-up is elegant, and the movie doesn’t get bogged down with too much exposition. The threat is firmly established, and we get to know the characters and the world they’re living in without it ever feeling boring. There is minimal gore, rendering the little explicit blood and violence that we see even more effective.

The set pieces are simple but staged with great finesse, and the sense of dread is all-encompassing. The grain silo scene is a nail-biter of the highest order. The film falls back on more than a few jump scares, but these are earned because of the effort with which the world is drawn, and because the premise justifies them.

Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography conveys the family’s melancholy, and the manipulation of light and shadow during the creature attack sequences is right up there with the similar scenes from Alien. A film like this lives or dies by the sound design, which is executed meticulously and ramps up the tension.

Beyond the atmospherics, A Quiet Place does something many horror films struggle with: it makes the audience care deeply about its characters. We get invested in the plight of this family and want to see them make it through their ordeal. The cast is small, the scope is intimate, and while we’re curious as to what happened to the rest of the world, our focus is trained on the Abbotts.

All the performances are affecting, and the film benefits from real-life husband and wife Krasinski and Blunt playing off each other. The couple visibly draws on their own experiences as parents to portray people who go to great lengths to protect their children. At no point does this seem self-indulgent, even with Krasinski starring, directing and co-writing. Both Krasinski and Blunt convey great warmth and sadness. While there are moments when the characters are deathly afraid, these performances don’t feel like what one would typically find in a horror film, further elevating the material. Blunt in a farmhouse toting a shotgun also brings Looper to mind, and Looper coming to mind is rarely a bad thing.

Millicent Simmonds is outstanding as Regan. The character has agency and her personal frustrations, regret and tension with her parents are given considerable attention. Simmonds is deaf in real life and lends the film great authenticity. Krasinski stated that he cast Simmonds so she could teach the cast what it’s like to live in a silent world. Most of the ‘dialogue’ in the film is delivered via American Sign Language, which Simmonds taught the cast.

Jupe’s Marcus is sensitive and frightened – his father is gently trying to teach him the survival skills he needs. The interaction between the parents and their children is thoroughly convincing, and this helps immensely in selling the premise.

While rival horror-centric studio Blumhouse has critically acclaimed successes like Get Out, Platinum Dunes, founded by Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller, has been mostly pumping out poorly-received remakes of classic horror franchises. Ouija: The Origin of Evil was the closest a Platinum Dunes horror movie came to be excellent. A Quiet Place is the studio’s finest offering yet.

As hard as it would’ve been to believe ten years ago, Jim from The Office has made one of the finest suspense horror movies in recent memory. Krasinski demonstrates precise control and heart, giving the film a sense of novelty as he makes it into so much more than just its gimmick.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Hurricane Heist movie review

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THE HURRICANE HEIST

Director : Rob Cohen
Cast : Toby Kebbell, Maggie Grace, Ryan Kwanten, Ralph Ineson, Melissa Bolona, Jamie Andrew Cutler, Ed Birch, Moyo Akande
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 42m
Opens : 5 April 2018
Rating : PG13

In 1996, Rob Cohen’s Daylight involved a mix of traffic, crime and very inclement weather. Cohen revisits those elements in the delightfully-titled The Hurricane Heist.

A hurricane is about to hit the Gulf Coast of Alabama. A gang of thieves, led by corrupt U.S. Treasury officer Perkins (Ralph Ineson), has planned the perfect crime: make away with $600 million under the cover of the storm. Meteorologist Will (Toby Kebbell) and his mechanic brother, former U.S. Marine Breeze (Ryan Kwanten), must brave the hurricane and foil the audacious robbery. They join forces with Treasury Agent Casey (Maggie Grace), Perkins’ former partner, as the hurricane reaches Category 5 levels and the dastardly robbers get ever closer to making off with their loot.

When this reviewer first heard of The Hurricane Heist, he was surprised it wasn’t bound straight for home video/streaming. The plot and characters feel very made-for-TV, and the visual effects are often unconvincing. However, there is a good deal of practical stunt work that is executed with a level of skill.

The Hurricane Heist was always going to be silly. The challenge is for the film to cross that threshold into being entertaining, without making the audience feel like the movie is something they must endure. The movie is only partially successful in this regard. The first two acts of the film are often tedious and while there’s a lot going on during the action sequences, it feels kind of numbing. Then, the climactic chase involving three semi-trucks outracing the hurricane’s eye wall packs in the over-the-top action that the audience came for. It isn’t quite enough to make up for the earlier parts of the film, but it’s something.

 

Rob Cohen directed big-budget fare in the 90s and early 2000s, including Dragonheart and, as the poster is quick to remind us, The Fast and the Furious and xXx. Indeed, the font for the title on the poster seems suspiciously reminiscent of The Fast and the Furious. While those films have gotten increasingly extravagant, Cohen’s box office disappointments (including 2005’s Stealth) mean that he has to make do with limited resources. The film was shot in Bulgaria, the go-to location for budget-challenged Hollywood filmmakers.

Toby Kebbell makes for a more interesting leading man than the bland, generically handsome guys one would find leading movies of this type. He affects a Southern drawl which Kebbell seems to know is unconvincing but which he tries to keep consistent. He gets a laughably standard backstory and motivation, and there’s nothing here that’s remotely affecting on an emotional level, but Kebbell is clearly trying his best.

Touches like the hero’s brother being named ‘Breeze’ seem to indicate a certain level of self-awareness, but The Hurricane Heist always feels a notch or two away from peak B-movie enjoyment levels.

Maggie Grace is a serviceable leading lady, while Ralph Ineson happily chomps into the scenery as the villain. We’ve seen The Witch so we know Ineson is capable of nuance, but it’s just as well that he dispenses with anything resembling that, eventually yelling “MY MONEY!” as he tries to keep a speeding semi-truck with a storm front bearing down behind it under control.

The Hurricane Heist is packed with clichés and is aimed at undiscerning action movie fans looking to pass a lazy Sunday afternoon. The movie never feels insultingly cheap and there is a bit of charm to the less-than-convincing visual effects, but it never makes a commitment to the full-on stupidity that would’ve brought it into ‘so bad it’s good’ territory.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Titan movie review

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THE TITAN

Director : Lennart Ruff
Cast : Sam Worthington, Taylor Schilling, Tom Wilkinson, Agyness Deyn, Nathalie Emmanuel, Diego Boneta, Noah Jupe
Genre : Sci-fi
Run Time : 1h 37m
Opens : 5 April 2018
Rating : NC16

In 2009’s Avatar, Sam Worthington played a man who transfers his consciousness into an alien body. In this sci-fi thriller, Worthington turns into an alien-like being again, albeit under different circumstances.

It is 2045, and mankind is forced to find new means of survival. Overpopulation and environmental destruction have doomed earth. Professor Martin Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson) has devised a revolutionary new procedure which will alter the genetics of test subjects, changing their physiology so they can live on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Collingwood believes that this “forced evolution” is the future of humanity.

Former soldier Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington) is one of the test subjects in the Titan program. Together with his wife Abigail (Taylor Schilling) and son Lucas (Noah Jupe), Rick moves to a research facility where he will undergo the transformation into a new species adapted to life on Titan. Unexpected side effects begin to occur, with the other test subjects turning uncontrollably violent. Abigail realises that she hasn’t been told everything about what exactly will happen to her husband and must face the horrifying reality that this terrifying leap forward in evolution might just be the end of humanity as we know it.

In Singapore, The Titan is being released on Netflix and in theatres. Smaller-scale sci-fi films have always fascinated this reviewer – it’s fun to see how filmmakers circumvent budgetary restraints and tap on their creativity to convincingly create world with limited resources.

The Titan has an intriguing premise and establishes it with a degree of plausibility. The production values pass muster, and the film benefits from the picturesque shooting location of the Canary Islands in Spain. The film has a slow build and there is a sense of dread as to what unexpected mutation lies around the corner for Rick. Towards the end, it enters action movie mode, and that’s when the movie feels a little clumsy and not fully realised.

The theme of man playing god has often fascinated filmmakers, and while The Titan stays a safe distance from schlocky silliness, its exploration of this theme lacks depth. The wider social implications of this type of genetic experimentation don’t quite take hold. Director Lennart Ruff, working from a screenplay by Max Hurwitz (with Arash Amel receiving a ‘story by’ credit), attempts to put the focus on the characters rather than the technical aspects of the procedure. Unfortunately, the characters aren’t especially interesting.

Sam Worthington seemed destined for A-list stardom after the success of Avatar, and while that has eluded him, he’s continued working steadily in smaller projects. Rick is a rather generic hero and the movie doesn’t get far enough into his head for us to appreciate the inner torment he experiences as he undergoes the procedure. It’s not a bad performance, but it could’ve been more affecting.

Taylor Schilling’s Abigail is a paediatrician, and she has a more proactive role in the story than most designated love interests in films of this type do. Thanks to her medical expertise, she can tell that’s something is amiss, and takes it upon herself to find out just what is happening to her husband. The film’s most emotional moments are when we see Abigail process that her husband is being taken from her bit by bit.

Wilkinson lends gravitas and dutifully delivers exposition, but by the end of the film, Dr Collingwood emerges as a rather one-dimensional character.

The other test subjects, who are played by actors including Nathalie Emmanuel, Diego Boneta and Aaron Heffernan, aren’t given huge amounts of character development. The fates that befall the less fortunate test subjects are shocking enough but aren’t quite as horrific as body horror movie aficionados have come to expect. The film’s restraint in not falling back on over-the-top gore is admirable.

The Titan isn’t bad, it’s just one of those films that sounds more interesting on paper than it winds up being. As a smaller scale sci-fi film, The Titan doesn’t take its premise far enough to truly capture the imagination but is unique enough to warrant curiosity.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Midnight Sun movie review

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MIDNIGHT SUN

Director : Scott Speer
Cast : Bella Thorne, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Rob Riggle, Quinn Shephard, Nicholas Coombe
Genre : Romance
Run Time : 1h 32m
Opens : 5 April 2018
Rating : PG13

Watching the sunset is one of those cliché things couples do, but in this romantic teen drama, that’s not an option for Katie Price (Bella Thorne). 18-year-old Katie has had a rare condition called Xeroderma Pigmentosum since birth. This means that even the slightest exposure to sun could lead to cancer and eventually death. She spends the whole day in her house behind specially-coated windows and is homeschooled by her father Jack (Rob Riggle).

Katie’s social interaction is limited to her best friend Morgan (Quinn Shephard). Katie has long harboured a crush on Charlie Reed (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who passes by her window every day, unaware of her existence. The two finally meet face-to-face when Katie is busking at the train station one night. Charlie is immediately smitten and they both fall for each other. However, Katie is intent on keeping her condition a secret, worried that learning about her illness will change Charlie’s perception of her. Will true love triumph blossom in the darkness?

Midnight Sun is a remake of the 2006 Japanese film of the same name. It will be difficult for anyone over the age of 13 to take this movie too seriously, as it feeds into the fantasies of many an adolescent girl. Midnight Sun feels as if it’s an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks book, and it also feels like a Lifetime “illness of the week” movie. Of course, there are the unavoidable comparisons to 2017’s Everything, Everything, which was about a girl who couldn’t go outside because of an autoimmune disorder. It seems blissfully oblivious to the cynicism it will generate, which perhaps lends it some charm.

This is the second feature film by director Scott Speer, who made his debut with Step Up Revolution and has directed music videos for most of his career. Midnight Sun feels like an extended music video, and perhaps one could imagine it being the plot of an early Taylor Swift MV. There’s too much gloss and artifice, and nothing in the film feels remotely real. At the same time, it isn’t heightened enough to work as a fantasy. This is to say nothing of the dialogue, which is unintentionally awkward rather than realistically reflecting the awkwardness that arises when one talks to their crush.

Like many teen romance films, Midnight Sun is wont to give kids unrealistic expectations of high school romance. Katie falls in love with the first boy she sets eyes upon, and it turns out that he loves her right back. True love, forever and ever. This is compounded by how the film romanticises Katie’s condition. She is adamant that Charlie sees her as more than just her illness, but the film seems incapable of doing the same. Her other defining trait is that she writes songs and plays the guitar, but for the most part, Katie is little more than someone who has Xeroderma Pigmentosum.

Both leads are attractive but have little genuine chemistry. Thorne is appealing and effectively conveys how Katie feels held back by her condition. Schwarzenegger is strapping and exceedingly handsome, fitting into the Abercrombie model mould of Hollywood’s current leading man crop. Neither is terrible, but the dialogue does them few favours and the would-be romantic scenes are hopelessly cheesy.

Rob Riggle plays the requisite cool dad, who has been helping Katie cope with her condition since childhood. Unfortunately, Riggle is more adept at playing cynical, unlikeable comedic characters, and sometimes struggles to muster the sweetness required to play Jack.

Quinn Shephard is an effervescent presence as the stock best friend, but the Morgan character never transcends her designation as the stock best friend.

This reviewer is a hopeless romantic, and there were times when he felt caught in Midnight Sun’s tractor beam. However, it’s easy to realise just how emotionally manipulative the film is, and this reaches laughable levels by the time Midnight Sun reaches its conclusion. It’s derivative of other teen romances and while the target audience might be moved, this film will induce eye-rolling in everyone else.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Ready Player One movie review

For inSing

READY PLAYER ONE

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen
Genre : Sci-fi, action
Run Time : 2h 20m
Opens : 29 March 2018
Rating : PG13

This Easter, several faith-based films are being released, including I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ. This movie is about an Easter Egg hunt of epic proportions, with none other than Steven Spielberg as our guide.

It is 2045, and teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in ‘the Stacks’, a shantytown outside Columbus, Ohio. Like millions of other people around the world, he escapes the drudgery of life by entering a virtual reality realm known as the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), where he is known as Parzival. His best friend within the sprawling game is Aech (Lena Waithe), who runs a virtual garage.

James Donovan Halliday (Mark Rylance), who created the OASIS with his former partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), has passed away. Halliday has created an Easter Egg hunt – the Easter Egg Hunter (Gunter for short) who finds three keys will inherit Halliday’s fortune of half a trillion dollars, and full control of the OASIS. Wade teams up with Aech, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) to complete this epic quest.

Their main opponent: the Sixers, an army of Gunters indentured to Innovative Online Industries (IOI). The company’s greedy CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has effectively enslaved players indebted to the company and wants control of the OASIS himself. It’s up to Parzival and company to beat Sorrento to the prize.

Ready Player One is based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. This is the ultimate geek power fantasy – what if one’s knowledge of pop culture ephemera could actually be used to gain a fortune and save the world?

At its heart, this is a hero’s journey, and the mechanics of the plot are not unlike that of many Young Adult novels with ‘chosen one’ plots. What makes Ready Player One more than the sum of its innumerable references is director Spielberg. Working from a screenplay adapted by Cline and Zak Penn, Spielberg infuses the film with energy, wide-eyed imagination and sheer awe-inspiring spectacle.

Spielberg works in one of two modes: ‘fun Spielberg’ and ‘serious Spielberg’. We saw ‘serious Spielberg’ this past awards season with The Post. While many ‘serious Spielberg’ movies are masterpieces, this reviewer always prefers ‘fun Spielberg’. The self-confessed video game enthusiast gets to indulge his inner gamer, fashioning a dizzying virtual world bursting with detail and lots of existing characters for audiences to point at the screen and recognise.

Ready Player One comments on nostalgia, escapism, and the power of pop culture in shaping our world. Much of Spielberg’s filmography inspires nostalgia, trades in escapism, and he is one of the premiere forces in shaping modern pop culture. Spielberg omitted the overt references to his own oeuvre found in the book, fearing it would come off as too self-indulgent. It feels like no one else could have made this movie, and even over 40 years after inventing the modern blockbuster with Jaws, Spielberg’s still got it. There are times when Ready Player One feels like it’s pandering to its geek target audience, but that’s inherent in the source material. There’s a pleasure in knowing that a filmmaker as exalted as Spielberg demonstrably is a geek at heart.

Of special note among the surfeit of references is a sequence which draws heavily on Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. This is a delightful tribute to the late filmmaker, who was originally set to direct A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Spielberg took over after Kubrick’s death.

The staggering scope of the OASIS is effectively conveyed. It feels like a world which would demand nothing less than complete devotion, and it’s therefore easy to buy the idea that people’s lives have been ruined in the pursuit of credits in-game. The visual effects, supervised by Roger Guyett and supplied by vendors including ILM and Digital Domain, are expansive and astounding. Credit also goes to special projects supervisor Deidre Backs, whose job it was to clear licenses to the myriad properties referenced in the film.

Spielberg’s regular composer John Williams dropped out of scoring this film to work on The Post. In his stead is Alan Silvestri, who seems like the best possible replacement for Williams. Silvestri pays homage to his iconic score for Back to the Future with rousing, melodic music.

The characters are all archetypical, but because of the storytelling device of the video game, that’s more than justified. Tye Sheridan’s Wade is a sometimes-dopey geek, a nobody in the real world but a somebody in the OASIS. He’s very much a wish fulfilment figure, but Sheridan is never annoying in the role.

Cooke’s Art3mis is a typical action girl, and the attempt at portraying the vulnerabilities that lie beneath that surface are sometimes clumsy. Cooke is poised to be the next big thing and is often more interesting than Sheridan. The romance is almost absurdly underdeveloped, undercutting Art3mis’ agency in the story somewhat.

Waithe is fun as the stock best friend character, while the two Asian characters seem to be only there so they can do martial arts. The supporting characters don’t get too much development, but that’s a function of the structure, so it’s easy to forgive.

Mendelsohn has found a niche playing middle management supervillains, and Sorrento is squarely in his wheelhouse.  It’s an entertainingly smarmy performance that’s the right side of hammy.

Rylance, Spielberg’s new muse, delivers a deeply affecting performance as misunderstood genius Halliday, who displays traits of Asperger’s syndrome. There’s a Steve Jobs-Steve Wozniak-type dynamic between Halliday and Og, which the film doesn’t quite have the space to flesh out but is compelling based on the little we see of it. This reviewer would love to see a prequel just about Halliday and Og developing the OASIS.

Ready Player One might feel intimidating to those who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool pop culture connoisseurs, but even if one doesn’t get all or even half of the references, there’s plenty to enjoy in seeing a master of the blockbuster work his magic on a massive canvas.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jedd Jong

Pacific Rim Uprising movie review

For inSing

PACIFIC RIM UPRISING

Director : Steven S. DeKnight
Cast : John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, Jing Tian, Adria Arjona, Zhang Jin
Genre : Action, Sci-fi
Run Time : 1h 51m
Opens : 22 March 2018
Rating : PG13

Once more unto the breach, dear friends: a Pacific Rim sequel has arrived in the hopes of kick-starting a full-fledged franchise. Will this world of giant monsters (Kaiju) and robots (Jaegers) proceed apace with a Guillermo del Toro-shaped void at its centre?

It is ten years after the events of the first film. Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the ne’er-do-well son of the late war hero, Jaeger pilot General Stacker Pentecost, wants nothing to do with the Pan Pacific Defence Corps. He flunked out of the academy years ago but is drawn back into the fray by his adoptive sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi).

Re-entering the Corps, Jake confronts his old rival Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). A new cadet arrives in the form of Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a resourceful young scavenger who has built her own Jaeger, Scrapper. It’s been ten years since the Kaiju last attacked earth, but a new wave of invaders, armed with a secret weapon, is inbound. Liwen Shao (Jing Tian) of Shao Industries is developing a new generation of remotely-piloted Jaegers, earning the ire of the current crop of Jaeger pilots. She has employed Kaiju expert Dr Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day) to work on the drones. When a mysterious rogue Jaeger named Obsidian Fury attacks, Jake, Nate and the cadets must defend earth and get to the bottom of who or what is controlling the robot.

It’s understandable that based on the premise alone, some wrote off the original Pacific Rim as being a brainless and cacophonous enterprise akin to the Transformers films. Del Toro ensured that was not to be, delivering a well-made genre film bursting with textural detail, featuring archetypical but compelling characters, and paying tribute to Japanese Tokusatsu and anime without feeling slavish.

It’s too bad that Pacific Rim Uprising is the movie some feared the first would be. For every decision that del Toro would’ve made, Uprising bolts in the opposite direction.

Where Pacific Rim was set in a well-realised, lived-in sci-fi future, Uprising looks shiny and toy-like. The robots in the first film had lots of personality, but the ones here are more interchangeable. When the first movie fell back on formula, it was tempered with earnestness and sincerity. This feels like a more cynical studio product. While many of the characters in the first film were likeable, the characters here are largely annoying.

Replacing del Toro in the director’s chair is Steven S. DeKnight, who created the Spartacus TV series and who was the showrunner on the first season of Daredevil. DeKnight also co-wrote the script with Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin. Uprising’s dialogue is often cringe-worthy, and while some jokes land, many do that. There are ham-fisted stabs at relevance by way of referencing outdated memes, and there isn’t enough charm to compensate for the familiarity of the plot and characters.

The world-ending stakes feel diminished, and the computer-generated robots seem to lack weight. Almost all the Jaeger vs. Kaiju battles in the first movie were in rain-soaked darkness, while the fights here take place in the daylight. While it gives us a better look at the larger-than-life combatants, it also exacerbates a sense of artifice. There are certain ideas at play that are very cool, and the throw down between Gipsy Avenger and Obsidian Fury in the Siberian tundra is fun to watch. However, none of the set-pieces are awe-inspiring the way those in the first film were.

This movie comes five years after its predecessor, and it feels a little early to tell a ‘next generation’ story. It doesn’t help that this follows many of the story beats from Independence Day: Resurgence. Despite its $150 million budget, the film sometimes feels like a direct-to-video sequel.

Unfortunately, the Jake Pentecost character is a big contributing factor. Boyega is charming and has excellent comic timing, but he is patently unconvincing as a badass action hero. Idris Elba has left gigantic shoes to fill, and while the movie is quick to remind us that Jake is not his father, it just makes us miss his father. This film sorely lacks gravitas, and Elba is essentially gravitas in human form.

The similarities between Cailee Spaeny’s Amara and Daisy Ridley’s Rey from Star Wars are impossible to miss. They’re both scrappy underdogs who are skilled mechanics and rise from obscurity to face insurmountable odds. While Ridley was endearing as Rey, Spaeny is merely whiny. The newcomer seems out of place in the big budget surroundings. She has plenty of projects lined up and is poised to hit the big time, but there’s room for improvement.

Eastwood is one of those generically handsome leading men Hollywood is trying a little too hard to make happen. There must be less clumsy ways to pander to China than this and films like Independence Day: Resurgence have. Jing Tian is stiff and far from a commanding presence as a Chinese tech mogul looking to revolutionise Jaegers. Jing has had roles in Legendary Pictures projects such as The Great Wall and Kong: Skull Island, but these attempts to kickstart a Hollywood career feel woefully inadequate.

Rinko Kikuchi, who was indelible as Mako Mori in the first film, has a drastically reduced part. Charlie Day wears on the nerves with his increased screen time, while Burn Gorman dutifully does what he can as the stock eccentric scientist.

Pacific Rim Uprising delivers popcorn spectacle and is never boring, but it strips away all the heart, sincerity and much of the technical mastery possessed by its predecessor. The influence of Chinese investors on the story is all too apparent and while kids might be entertained by the big fights, there isn’t enough to take one’s breath away. The film’s ending blatantly begs for a sequel, but there’s little here to inspire faith in wherever this series heads next.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Gringo movie review

For inSing

GRINGO

Director : Nash Edgerton
Cast : David Oyelowo, Joel Edgerton, Charlize Theron, Thandie Newton, Sharlto Copley, Amanda Seyfried
Genre : Comedy, Action
Run Time : 1h 50m
Opens : 15 March 2018
Rating : M18 (Violence, Coarse Language And Sexual Content)

Based on the poster alone, Gringo looks the wildest 2018 film you’ve never heard of. Mexican-inspired imagery including Day of the Dead skulls are arranged between marijuana leaves and guns. Stars like Charlize Theron and Amanda Seyfried are visible, and in the centre of it all is a hapless-looking David Oyelowo. It’s enough to make one wonder aloud, “what’s going on here?”

This dark action comedy revolves around Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), a mild-mannered business representative who works for the pharmaceutical corporation Promethium. Unbeknownst to Harold, his boss Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton) and Rusk’s associate/mistress Elaine Markinson (Charlize Theron) are up to no good.

On what Harold thinks is a routine business trip to Mexico, he inadvertently gets kidnapped, becoming entangled with a drug kingpin known as ‘the Black Panther’ (Carlos Corona). Harold also crosses paths with Sunny (Amanda Seyfried), whose boyfriend Miles (Harry Treadaway) has been paid to smuggle drugs across the border. Richard calls his brother Mitch (Sharlto Copley), a former mercenary-turned aid worker, to rescue Harold.

Gringo is directed by Nash Edgerton, brother and oft-collaborator of Joel. This is a film that’s hard to place: it wants to be a dark comedy and a madcap action caper at the same time but doesn’t gather enough momentum to work as either. There are individual lines which are funny and some of the performances are mildly entertaining, but Gringo seems to be mostly spinning its wheels. There are moments when it feels like a disposable direct-to-DVD flick, but then Charlize Theron shows up.

For a movie in which a pharmaceutical company gets embroiled with Mexican drug cartels, attracting the attention of the DEA, the stakes never seem especially high. Gringo is neither intense enough to work on a visceral level nor heightened and silly enough to whisk audiences along for the ride.

A major contributing factor to Gringo’s problems is how its characters are written. The protagonist Harold is a buttoned-down good guy, while his bosses are callous and amoral in an over-the-top manner.

While Oyelowo does a fine job of playing an unassuming man who gets caught in over his head, it seems like a waste of his talents. In the name of avoiding confrontations, Harold has spent most of his life as a pushover, and it’s taken a crisis for him to assert himself. This is something we’ve seen done before and done better.

Theron is not exactly known for her comedic chops, but we can see why she wanted to have a go at this. Theron is also a producer, through her Denver and Delilah production company. Elaine is an unapologetically awful person, who says things like “fat people are so funny”. This feels like a role that a more comedic actor, say someone like Kristen Wiig, would play brilliantly.

Weirdly enough, Joel Edgerton also feels miscast. Richard Rusk is a smooth-talking CEO, but Edgerton never quite comes off as gleefully slimy. Thandie Newton is wasted in a throwaway role as Harold’s wife Bonnie, while Amanda Seyfried doesn’t get much to do either.

Copley is great fun, as he usually is. His character is probably the most distinctive in the film, but he’s still underutilised. Paris Jackson, daughter of Michael, makes her feature film debut here, but it amounts to not much more than a cameo.

Gringo is a highly uneven curiosity that doesn’t have the bite, the devil-may-care energy or manic inventiveness that a dark comedy caper should. It plays into the stereotypical depiction of Mexico as lawless and overrun with drug cartels, without giving audiences anything they haven’t seen before. The talented cast is left stranded by material that’s only fitfully funny and doesn’t quite hang together.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Lee Chong Wei movie review

For inSing

LEE CHONG WEI

Director : Teng Bee
Cast : Tosh Chan, Jake Eng, Mark Lee, Yeo Yann Yann, Ashley Hua, Rosyam Nor, Freddie Wong, Uriah See, Agnes Lim
Genre : Sports, drama
Run Time : 2h 5m
Opens : 15 March 2018
Rating : PG

Celebrated Malaysian badminton player and one-time world #1 Lee Chong Wei gets his story told on the big screen in this biopic.

It is 1992, and young Lee Chong Wei (Jake Eng) watches with rapt attention as Malaysian badminton players Razif and Jalani Sidek play in the Olympic semi-finals. Chong Wei hails from the town of Bukit Mertajam in North Malaysia. Coming from a poor family, he’s unable to afford his own racquet. Chong Wei’s mother Kim Chooi encourages Chong Wei’s desire to play badminton, while his father Ah Chai (Mark Lee) is initially adamant against it, insisting that his son focus on his studies.

 

Chong Wei trains under local coach Teh Peng Huat (Freddie Wong), eventually becoming a well-known badminton player in Bukit Mertajam. He is later enrolled in the Badminton Academy of Malaysia, under the tutelage of national team coach Misbun Sidek (Rosyam Nor). Pushing himself to his limits, Chong Wei overcomes various setbacks and climbs the ranks. In the meantime, he develops affections for Wong Mew Choo (Ashley Hua), a fellow student at the academy. In the 2004 Thomas Cup, Chong Wei first faces off against China’s Lin Dan, beginning what will be one of the fiercest rivalries in badminton history.

The film is based on Chong Wei’s autobiography Dare to be a Champion. Lee Chong Wei follows established sports movie formula almost to the letter: our hero emerges from humble beginnings, is an underdog who becomes a champion through talent and determination, faces obstacles, and trains under a wise mentor or two. For the most part, director Teng Bee makes this formula work.

Lee Chong Wei is an unapologetically patriotic Malaysian film, but its subject is more than deserving of hometown hero status. The film brims with earnestness and is determined to tell a moving, personal story. The result is slick and the production values are high – barring one scene set in London which was obviously shot in Malaysia. The badminton sequences are shot and edited such that we believe the actors really are that good, and there’s no shortage of rousing moments.

While the plot beats might be familiar to anyone who’s watched a couple of sports movies, the movie possesses an authenticity which gives it a novelty factor when compared with the Hollywood sports dramas we’re accustomed to. The unique linguistic landscape of Malaysia is reflected accurately via dialogue in Bahasa Melayu, the Chinese dialects of Hokkien and Mandarin, and English. This seems like a film that will travel well, bolstered by its combination of specificity to Malaysia and the universal appeal of a true underdog tale.

Chong Wei is portrayed by newcomers Jake Eng as a boy and Tosh Chan as a young adult. Eng has a winsome quality without coming off as overly precocious or twee, while Chan’s withdrawn awkwardness enhances Chong Wei’s underdog quality. Both actors display remarkable commitment to the physicality, and more than hold their own in the badminton scenes. There are moments when Chan’s lack of acting experience comes through and he’s not quite able to fully shoulder the dramatic heft, but both actors’ portrayals of Chong Wei coalesce into a commendable whole.

The film’s supporting players are praiseworthy. Yeo Yann Yann’s portrayal of a nurturing mother coping with trying circumstances is credible, while Mark Lee gets to show off range that is rarely demanded of him in his mostly broad comedic roles.

Rosyam Nor delivers a layered, sensitive performance as Misbun. He’s tough on Chong Wei, but is also personally invested in his pupil’s journey. Freddie Wong is an amiable presence as Teh Peng Huat, who functions as a source of comfort and assurance to Chong Wei. Even as he gains success and recognition, Chong Wei’s formative years in Bukit Mertajam remain a key part of him, and his first coach represents that.

Uriah See has fun sneering his way through the part of Yang Kun Chen, Chong Wei’s haughty rival at the academy. This character appears to be fictional, or at least a composite. It veers on being cartoony, but Kun Chen does go through a progression of sorts.

Ashley Hua is sweet but remains firmly in the background as the designated love interest. The parts of the film depicting Chong Wei and Mew Choo’s romance are the cheesiest but still have their charm.

As is to be expected of films like this, Lee Chong Wei could stand to be subtler. The musical score too obviously announces what the audience is supposed to feel. The scenes of the Badminton academy board members deliberating Chong Wei’s future also feel too much like the Jedi Council deciding whether Anakin Skywalker is too old to begin his training.

While Lee Chong Wei is not without its flaws and is largely predictable, the movie represents a significant achievement for the Malaysian film industry. It’s an inspiring crowd-pleaser that draws its hero with more nuance than one might expect, even as it is a paean towards him.

The film’s chest-thumping and flag waving is somewhat cheesy, but also endearing, because unlike the typical jingoism scene in blockbuster movies, it’s not presented in a military context. Beyond the technically accomplished filmmaking, there’s a heartfelt warmth that gives Lee Chong Wei its winning edge.

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 Nuvotny). 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 Nuvotny 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