Maleficent: Mistress of Evil review

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Director: Joachim Rønning
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Robert Lindsay, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 17 October 2019
Rating : PG

In 2014, audiences learnt the back-story behind Maleficent, the villainess of Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Beyond being a cackling sorceress/sometimes-dragon, Maleficent painted its title character as someone who rose from tragedy and betrayal to form a complex bond with the young Princess Aurora. Directed by Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge), this sequel continues that story, pitting Maleficent against a conniving, ruthless new foe.

Aurora (Elle Fanning), Queen of the Moors, is about to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) of Alstead. Aurora’s godmother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is resistant to this union. Despite her heroic actions, she has been cast as a villain in stories spread by the humans. Philip’s father King John (Robert Lindsay) thinks the wedding could help to unite the two kingdoms, but his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) harbours hatred towards Maleficent and the magical creatures with whom she is aligned. Maleficent discovers a hidden society of faes, including the wise Connall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the fiery warrior Borra (Ed Skrein). Queen Ingrith foments a war between the humans and the faes, with the young couple caught in between.

Angelina Jolie continues to be all sharp-cheekboned perfection as Maleficent. We were afraid that she might phone in it given that this is a sequel, but she still appears to relish the role. Not only does she get numerous fabulous costume changes, Maleficent goes on a journey of discovery, getting acquainted with her people and learning about their customs and beliefs. There is a conflict between her allegiance to her fae kin and to Aurora, which gives the powerful character something to struggle with.


Much of the film works because of Michelle Pfeiffer. Casting her opposite Jolie was an inspired move. The early promotional materials tried to hide it, but there’s no point beating about the bush now – Queen Ingrith is the “Mistress of Evil” of the title. Pfeiffer plays the villain with sneer and swagger hidden beneath a regal façade, with shades of her witch character from Stardust sometimes visible. Coming off like a PG-rated Cersei Lannister, it’s an absolute hoot.

There’s a lot going on in the plot of the movie, so it is to writers Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue’s credit that the movie never loses sight of its emotional core: the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. They might not be on the same page for much of the film, but it cannot be questioned that Maleficent deeply loves and cares for Aurora, something Ingrith winds up exploiting.

Just as in the first film, the show is stolen by Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent’s shape-shifting sidekick. Riley manages to be both cool and endearing. Queen Ingrith’s sadistic henchwoman Gerda (Jenn Murray) is also a fun, arch character.

While the visuals are often mesmerising and transporting, the film does lean very heavily on computer-generated imagery. This is expected of a fantasy adventure film, but some of the characters do seem unnatural. The Fairy Godmothers Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville) return from the first film, and their almost-human facial features sometimes cross over into the dreaded uncanny valley.

Prince Philip is boring, but then again, this is something inherent in the source material. Brenton Thwaites, who was busy filming Season 2 of Titans, is replaced by Harris Dickinson, who constantly seems a little bit confused and flat. However, this is also a sign that the film understands that Philip is not the main character, and that he does not have to be the hero to save the day.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is almost completely wasted in a relatively small supporting role.

The action sequences in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are grand and expansive. Like most big-budget high fantasy projects these days, it seems more than a little derivative of Game of Thrones, but the big battle scenes are dynamic and lively. The movie gets surprisingly dark, with the villain’s plot involving genocide by way of biological warfare. However, the movie still has a bounce and a sense of humour to it and is never too self-serious the way something like Snow White and the Huntsman and its sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War sometimes were. The big climactic battle takes place in broad daylight, which is a relative rarity in films of this type.

This film has a completely different design team than the first but maintains a sense of visual continuity while also giving us something new. The costumes by Ellen Mirojnick are stunning, especially Maleficent’s battle outfit, which is a sexy, elegant body paint-style number. Production designer Patrick Tatopolous creates some gorgeous fantasy environments, chief of which is the hidden fae sanctuary comprising mini-environments which have different climates.

Summary: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil sometimes transcends its fantasy adventure genre trappings thanks to strong performances by Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer, putting more of a spin on its source material than many of the live-action remakes Disney has given us lately.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

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Gemini Man review

GEMINI MAN

Director: Ang Lee
Cast : Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong, Linda Emond, Douglas Hodge
Genre : Action/Science Fiction
Run Time : 117 mins
Opens : 10 October 2019
Rating : PG13

Will Smith is one of the biggest movie stars around, so perhaps there’s no greater flex than for your film to star not one, but two Will Smiths. Is a double dose of Big Willie Style enough to save an action thriller filled with familiar plot beats and built on a borderline ridiculous premise?

Henry Brogan (Will Smith) is the world’s greatest assassin. A lifetime of killing has begun to eat away at Henry’s soul, and he is settling in for retirement. However, when Henry learns the truth behind a recent hit, he makes himself a target. Henry allies with Danny Zakarweski, a Defence Intelligence Agency operative assigned to surveil him. Together with pilot and Henry’s old friend Baron (Benedict Wong), they go on the run. Clay Verris (Clive Owen), owner of the shadowy Gemini private military company, has sent a special asset after Henry. Said asset, known as Junior (also Will Smith), is a 23-year-old clone of Henry, created without Henry’s knowledge. Henry must escape a younger, more efficient, better-trained version of himself, while also trying to save Junior out from under Clay’s thumb.

This reviewer enjoys seeing arthouse directors tackle action movies. Ang Lee has done this earlier in his career with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk. Lee attempts to imbue the proceedings with philosophical heft, and while he’s far from successful, the effort is admirable.

The movie’s big gimmick is its double act. Star Smith is duplicated using cutting-edge visual effects technology, such that this is a big step beyond the face replacement and de-aging we’ve seen in movies like the MCU films and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Junior’s face is completely synthetic. This is as close to perfect as the technology can get now, and after a while, it’s easy to forget that Junior isn’t played by an actor who just has a naturally uncanny resemblance to Smith. The visual effects are supervised by Bill Westenhofer, part of the team that won the Oscar for Lee’s Life of Pi.

There are some well-executed action sequences, including a fun bike chase through the streets and across the rooftops of Cartagena. The film also serves up eye-catching locations, including Budapest, Hungary, with scenes taking place in the historic Széchenyi Thermal Bath.

The film attempts to avoid a romantic subplot and tires to establish the Danny character as a capable operative who can hold her own, without making her a stereotypical tank top-clad gun-toting badass. Not putting a pointless romantic subplot in an action movie shouldn’t be something that’s so rare it’s worth praising, but alas, it still is.

Lee takes this very seriously – perhaps too seriously. Gemini Man doesn’t wink and nod at its preposterous premise at all, nor is its action so completely bombastic and over-the-top as to give audiences the sense that it’s being self-aware. Benedict Wong provides limited amounts of comic relief as a character who feels tacked on. This is a hitman movie that is packed with clichés that are all played painfully straight. Even the hook that the film’s antagonist is a clone of the protagonist is already somewhat overplayed. It’s also a bit confusing that Will Smith, a famously well-preserved man, is who the filmmakers chose to contrast with a younger version of himself. Sure, 51-year-old Will Smith and 23-year-old Will Smith look different, but not that dramatically.

Matters are not helped by the awkward, clunky dialogue, which alternates between exposition and “all this killing hurts my conscience”-type monologuing. There is a scene in which an informant character tells Henry “Clayton Verris is playing God with DNA. He must be stopped.” Many elements of the movie feel canned, which is at odds with how invested Lee seems to be in realising the project.

A lot becomes clear about Gemini Man once you learn that the movie has been in development hell since around 1997. At the age of 27, screenwriter Darren Lemke sold his pitch for this film, with Tony Scott attached to direct. Visual effects technology had not yet caught up with the concept. Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery were all attached to the role at some point or another.

Despite being a showcase for filmmaking technology that does push the envelope, Gemini Man can’t help but feel like something leftover from the 90s or at best the early 2000s, a cross between Face/Off and The 6th Day. The plot is also reminiscent of the Metal Gear video game franchise, in which twin brothers Solid and Liquid Snake are clones of Big Boss.

Gemini Man was shot at 120-frames-per-second in 4K resolution, like Lee’s previous film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Movies typically have a framerate of 24 fps. We saw the film in high frame rate 3D. Maybe we need time for it to grow on us, but it just makes everything looks unnatural. The action scenes seem to suffer the most, because it looks like the stunt team’s rehearsals rather than the finished film. Lee has come to favour the HFR format because it eliminates dimness, strobing and motion blurring, but it can’t help but feel less cinematic. In a way, this format draws more attention to the flatness of the story and the characters, putting everything in uncomfortable hyper-focus.

If you really love Will Smith and will watch anything he’s in, you could do far worse than this, but Gemini Man falls short of its promise of a dynamic action thriller enlivened by ground-breaking visual effects.

Gemini Man is a fun idea in search of a story, and the story that we have arrived at after the involvement of at least eight screenwriters (including Game of Thrones’ David Benioff) is an uninspired one. There’s nothing wrong with unoriginality so long as the existing parts are assembled into something entertaining, and despite an established movie star in dual lead roles and some good action choreography, Gemini Man struggles to be entertaining.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Joker review

For F*** Magazine

JOKER

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast : Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Dante Pereira-Olson
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 122 mins
Opens : 3 October 2019
Rating : NC16

This standalone movie takes inspiration from the pages of DC Comics, focusing on arguably the company’s best-known supervillain, the Joker. Director Todd Phillips, best known for the Hangover films, has modelled this film on Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, creating a portrait of a twisted man lost in a cruel and uncaring world, eventually turning violent. This film is unconnected to the films set in the DC Extended Universe, or to the upcoming Batman film that will be released in 2021.

It is 1981, and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of the faceless masses trying to eke out a living in the increasingly inhospitable Gotham City. Arthur cares for his ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of being a stand-up comedian. He is beaten down on all sides, unable to seek help for his deteriorating mental health after state funding for health programs is cut, and his fired from his job as a clown. Only his neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz) seems to understand him. Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a talk show host whom Arthur idolises, airs footage of Arthur’s disastrous stand-up act and mocks him. Resentment among the hoi polloi mounts against Gotham’s wealthy elite, embodied by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a billionaire planning a run for mayor. Arthur unleashes violence and chaos, reinventing himself as the costumed criminal called ‘Joker’.

There are many ways to make a movie based on a comic book. Lately, we’ve seen the Marvel Cinematic Universe method produce considerable success, but there are many types of stories told in the medium of comics and therefore many possible big screen interpretations. Joker is a valid take on the character – traditionally, he isn’t a character who needs a definitive back-story, and has said “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” This is a ‘man unravels’ character study – certainly not the first in the history of cinema but marrying that archetype to a well-known pop culture property is novel to a degree.

This is a movie that wears its Scorsese inspirations on its sleeve and emulates them with style, Lawrence Sher’s cinematography displaying Gotham in all its grimy, rat-ridden glory. Hildur Guðnadóttir score is creepy without overdoing it. Robert De Niro shines in a textbook star supporting role, while Frances Conroy is thoroughly convincing as a frail, delusional and pitiful woman. Then of course, there’s the central performance, which we will get to in a bit.

Joker was always going to be controversial, and the studio and the filmmakers know this. This is a great character study about someone who winds up doing horrible things – there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but it is worth remembering that films do not exist in a vacuum.

Disaffected, disenfranchised people have committed horrific crimes, something that has arguably intensified given the current political climate. There is a discussion to be had about how responsible movies are for that – one would say never directly, but it is possible that certain media could push those already predisposed to abhorrent behaviour to committing said behaviour. Given how John Hinckley Jr. strongly identified with Travis Bickle, protagonist of the afore-mentioned Taxi Driver, and attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, this is not idle handwringing. Both Phillips and Phoenix have handled reasonable questions about the possible real-life implications of the movie very poorly.

Of course, it is reductive to say that this movie should not exist because of the chance that someone could emulate its protagonist, but considering how many people valourised the Joker when he was portrayed as a villain in The Dark Knight, it’s not a stretch to think many more will valourise him since he’s portrayed here as a hero. There is a difference between idealising a fictional character and actively emulating their actions, something which can get lost in this conversation.

While the film is generally restrained when it comes to Easter Eggs and references to the source material, a few nods to the comics are rather clumsy, with one that happens towards the end of the film coming off as forced.

Joaquin Phoenix is a big get and probably the film’s greatest asset. Marvel Studios sought Phoenix to play Doctor Strange, but he turned the part down, not wanting to sign on for multiple films. Joker’s status as a one-off (at least, that’s how it was intended) gives Phoenix the chance to play this iteration of the character with no extensive commitment. It’s the kind of role any thespian would love to sink their teeth into: a tragic, compelling figure who is not okay in the slightest. It’s the type of performance that the Academy loves too – Phoenix underwent a drastic physical transformation, which usually helps with the Oscar buzz. There still are critics who find it hard to accept movies based on comic books as legitimate cinema, but the performance Phoenix gives here is hard to ignore or diminish.

As alluded to earlier, a problem that arises when making a movie about a supervillain with no superhero to counteract him is that said supervillain winds up looking heroic, even if that wasn’t the intention. We see Gotham from Arthur’s point of view. As such, the typically noble Thomas Wayne is instead depicted as a callous, condescending son of privilege, crushing the masses beneath his heel. There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about whether the film appears to condone the Joker’s action or state clearly that they are wrong – “condone” is a strong word, but Arthur certainly is drawn in a sympathetic manner. In a way, the film serves as a cautionary tale, because Arthur would have never become the Joker if the right support systems were in place to grant him the help he desperately needed, and if it were harder for him to gain access to the tools that he uses to wreak his havoc.

It is entirely plausible that the worst people will relate to the character and hold this version of the character up as an ideal, so hopefully the people who see this movie will be able to compartmentalise, and walk away from this going “that was an interesting portrayal of a supervillain and a sobering warning” rather than “Joker has it all figured out!”

Summary: There is a boldness to the way Joker interprets its comic book source material that makes it stand out from the usual crop of comic book movies, and Phoenix’s titular performance is impressive, but the controversy surrounding the film shouldn’t merely be swept under a rug. It’s intense, gripping and disturbing. We don’t necessarily want to see more comic book movies exactly like this, but if nothing else, Joker shows that comic book movies can take many strange, compelling forms.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Farewell review

For F*** Magazine

THE FAREWELL

Director: Lulu Wang
Cast : Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 100 mins
Opens : 3 October 2019
Rating : PG

Nora “Awkwafina” Lum has burst onto the scene in a big way. Starting out as a rapper, Awkwafina recently appeared in high-profile films like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight. She will next be seen in Jumanji: The Next Level, with roles in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid and Marvel’s Shang-Chi lined up. Awkwafina is known for her brash, comedic onscreen persona, but it wasn’t long before she would get a tour de force dramatic showcase to prove her versatility as an actor. The Farewell is that showcase.

Billi Wang’s (Awkwafina) family moved from China to the US when she was six. Billi has been struggling to make it as an artist and moves back in with her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). They tell Billi that her paternal grandmother ‘Nai Nai’ (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. However, the extended family has made a pact to hide this from Nai Nai, so she can live out her remaining months without worry. Under the pretences of a wedding between cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), the family reunites in Changchun to see Nai Nai one last time. Billi wrestles with the dilemma of whether she should tell her beloved Nai Nai the truth, as she is confronted with the realities of Chinese traditions and societal expectations after having lived in the US for most of her life.

The Farewell is a remarkable piece of storytelling – moving, involving and gently funny without being overwrought. Writer-director Lulu Wang has a fantastic ear for dialogue and a confident yet light directorial hand, creating a film that is filled with relatable scenarios and yet has a specificity to it that only someone with that cultural background could bring to the movie. Wang was fiercely protective over keeping most of the dialogue in Mandarin Chinese, against the wishes of the studio for the movie to be in English or to be a broad comedy. Tonally, Wang keeps everything just right – it’s just the right amount of sad, the right amount of funny, and no incident or interaction is superfluous. This is how one does family drama. The device of the big secret that the family is keeping from Nai Nai adds to the dramatic tension and serves as a focal point.

Perhaps it’s an exigency of movies about big family gatherings, but naturally not everyone gets equal amounts of characterisation or screen time. The character that suffers the most from this is Aiko, who has practically no lines. As the biggest outsider, things must be the most confusing for Aiko, who has been dragged to a pseudo-wedding because her boyfriend’s grandmother is dying but nobody is going to tell her. This reviewer would like to have seen Billi and Aiko share a moment.

Awkwafina is brilliant as Billi, bringing a raw, beautiful honesty to the part while also displaying her comedic instincts when the story calls for it. Tzi Ma, who is often given thankless bit parts in Hollywood, creates a sympathetic character in Billi’s father. The film contrasts Billi’s relationship with her father and that with her mother without putting too fine a point on it. Zhao Shuzhen’s turn as Nai Nai is confident and brimming with warmth; the affection between Billi and Nai Nai is utterly, heart-achingly believable.

Part of why The Farewell feels so authentic is because Lulu Wang drew inspiration from an incident in her own life, when her own grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and her family decided to keep it a secret from her. She first told this story in an episode of the podcast This American Life, which garnered the attention of film producers. Lulu shares a lot in common with the character Billi, including moving from China to the US with her family at age 6. Much of The Farewell was filmed in Changchun, which is where Wang’s family is from. Further adding to the verisimilitude is that Lu Hong, who portrays Billi’s grandaunt “Little Nai Nai”, is Wang’s real-life grandaunt.

The Farewell is another good example of why more filmmakers from different backgrounds and with different life experiences should be given the opportunity to make movies. Writer/director Wang demonstrates a sensitivity and a sense of humour about questions of identity and of the immigrant experience, which itself covers a wide spectrum. Drawing inspiration from the specificities of her life, Wang creates something that can reach a wide audience regardless of their cultural background. The exceedingly positive critical reaction to this film is more than deserved.

Summary: The Farewell is a touching portrait of family that asks poignant questions about cultural values and identity without being either dull or histrionic. Writer-director Lulu Wang firmly establishes herself as a talent to watch, with star Awkwafina showing off impressive dramatic chops while still being appealingly funny.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Ad Astra review

For F*** Magazine

AD ASTRA

Director: James Gray
Cast : Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, Ruth Negga, Liv Tyler, Donald Sutherland, Jamie Kennedy, Kimberly Elise
Genre : Sci-fi/Adventure
Run Time : 123 mins
Opens : 19 September 2019
Rating : PG13

Director James Gray, known mainly for his contemplative dramas, launches into big-budget adventure movie territory with Ad Astra, while still retaining a more sombre, introspective tone than the typical movie of this type. ‘Ad Astra’ is Latin for “to the stars”. Brad Pitt was originally attached to star in Gray’s previous film, the historical adventure drama The Lost City of Z, and while he was eventually replaced with Charlie Hunnam, Pitt stayed on as a producer. Pitt and Gray collaborate again on Ad Astra, which puts the established movie star front and centre.

In the near future, space exploration has advanced considerably, with humanity travelling to the outer reaches of our solar system. Extensive colonies and bases have been established on the moon and on Mars. Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is the son of decorated astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), who vanished years ago on a mission to Neptune. Space Command has received indications that against all odds, Clifford might still be alive. The experiments that were begun on the mission that Clifford led now have a ripple effect in the form of crippling power surges, endangering life on earth. Roy resolves to track his father down and solve a mystery that has haunted him for decades.

We don’t get many big-budget sci-fi films that are very serious, in part because spectacle sells. There is a scale of sci-fi “soft” to “hard”, with Guardians of the Galaxy on the “soft” end and something like The Martian towards the “harder” end. Director Gray takes a very serious approach, and one can tell that a lot of research has gone into envisioning what the future of space travel might look like.

Some of the themes from The Lost City of Z, especially those of singular obsession, delusion and a desperation for a greater purpose, carry over into this film. This is a good showcase for Pitt too, who plays a heroic character burdened by sorrow and on the brink of collapse, trundling towards his goal, however futile it might be. There is little room for supporting characters, but Pitt ably carries this.

Unfortunately, Ad Astra is caught between trying to be extremely self-serious and providing the action and spectacle audiences expect. As such, the action sequences feel disjointed from the rest of the movie and do not serve the plot. We get lots of contemplative voiceover from Pitt’s character, much of it bordering on pretentious. The film’s emotional core, the father-son story, is also hard to engage with and be moved by.

As is typical for these films, the protagonist’s wife does a lot of waiting around back home and not much else. Liv Tyler plays an astronaut’s significant other again, 21 years after Armageddon, and has even less to do here than she did in the Michael Bay extravaganza. Also, while Donald Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones are both in this film, they do not meet, denying us a Space Cowboys semi-reunion (but this is more for this reviewer’s amusement than an actual point against the movie).

Ad Astra conveys the solitude and beautiful desolation of drifting through the cosmos, wondering about one’s place in the universe. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, who lensed Interstellar and Dunkirk for Christopher Nolan and Spectre for Sam Mendes, makes this look grand and expansive. It’s can a bit navel gaze-y, but we saw this in IMAX and the breath-taking outer space vistas do make watching this on a huge screen somewhat worthwhile.

Two sequences seem to stick out from this otherwise sombre affair: a chase on moon buggies that pit(t)s our heroes against a band of space pirates, and an unexpected attack by bloodthirsty baboons that have gone feral after being left alone in a space station. While these two sequences provide superficial excitement, they occur relatively early in the film, such that the bulk of the latter half of the movie consists of Pitt staring into the middle distance as we occasionally cut to the exterior of the spaceship floating past Saturn’s rings.

Ad Astra may not necessarily find a big audience in theatres, but there are moviegoers who hunger for science fiction that’s more “search for our place in the universe” and less “lasers and giant spiders”.

Summary: Ad Astra is a rare movie in that it’s a star vehicle in an age when star vehicles are less common than big franchise movies, and in that it’s a serious science fiction movie with a big budget. However, Pitt’s central performance and the film’s visual splendour cannot compensate for its coldness as it trips over itself trying to be as deep and contemplative as possible.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Action, Lights, Camera: Interview with stunt coordinator/performer Ingrid Kleinig

ACTION, LIGHTS, CAMERA: INTERVIEW WITH STUNT PERFORMER/COORDINATOR INGRID KLEINIG

By Jedd Jong

Getting set on fire, crashing motorcycles into vans, dangling from the side of a skyscraper, driving a big rig across the Namibian desert, duelling with Vin Diesel and shooting arrows into oncoming orcs – it’s all in a day’s work for stunt performer/coordinator Ingrid Kleinig.

Kleinig grew up in Australia in a family of professional stunt drivers. Her career kicked off in a dramatic way, when she performed suspended in mid-air 42 metres above the arena at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Kleinig was a member of the physical theatre troupe Legs on the Wall, performing acrobatics on the side of tall buildings.

In Australia, Kleinig worked on TV shows including Rescue Ops and Cops LAC, before going on to work in Hollywood. She has been a stunt double for Evangeline Lilly in the Hobbit films and Ant-Man and the Wasp, Margot Robbie’s stunt double in The Legend of Tarzan and Suicide Squad and Brie Larson’s stunt double in Kong: Skull Island and Captain Marvel.

As was one of only two female stunt drivers on Mad Max: Fury Road, she was part of the team that won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture. Kleinig’s other credits include The Last Witch Hunter, Ghost in the Shell, Justice League and Spider-Man: Far From Home.

Ingrid Kleinig Alain Moussi Margot Robbie

Ingrid Kleinig, Alain Moussi and Margot Robbie on the set of Suicide Squad

Kleinig was in Singapore as one of the invited guests at the Disney Storytelling Plus bootcamp, joining people working behind the scenes in the entertainment industry to share her experiences with young aspiring filmmakers. I had brought action figures of Harley Quinn, the Wasp and Captain Marvel along to the interview – noticing the Harley Quinn figure, Kleinig chuckled and said “this brings back memories”.

In this interview, she told me about the role that stunt coordinators and performers have in storytelling, why she doesn’t like to use the term ‘accident’, and a competition between her and Margot Robbie that made producers very nervous.

Photo credit: Alina Gozin’a

JEDD: Looking through your filmography, it’s so impressive. In the Hollywood Reporter video about women in stunts, you said that you would rather be a stunt performer than an actress because you get to do all the fun stuff. 

INGRID KLEINIG: Absolutely.

What ranks as among the most fun of all the stuff you’ve done, give us the greatest hits!

KLEINIG: The greatest hits – I rode a motorcycle and crashed head-on into a van that was on fire, then flew threw the flames and landed on the road on the other side.

No biggie.

KLEINIG: No biggie. I’ve crashed a Lamborghini into a lake and gone head-first through the windshield. I’ve made out with Jared Leto, in a sense [laughs] – on camera, that was as Harley Quinn. I’ve done so many great things, it’s hard to narrow it down.

In your bio, it says you have a background in physical theatre. I looked it up, and that involved literally hanging off the side of skyscrapers. 

KLEINIG: Indeed! You did your research. I spent about ten years working with a company called Legs on the Wall, and we did the festival circuits around the world doing acrobatics on the side of skyscrapers.

Ingrid Kleinig on the set of Mad Max: Fury Road

Recently, we’ve seen several second unit directors and stunt coordinators become directors, the most prominent examples probably being Chad Stahelski and David Leitch of 87eleven. What are the unique insights that someone with a background in stunts can bring to the table as filmmakers and storytellers? 

KLEINIG: A lot of directors of action films don’t necessarily have experience shooting action, so coming from that background obviously Chad and Dave now with the John Wick films and everything that they’re doing, Hobbs & Shaw, they’re very much action-based films. It centres around the physicality and stunts and so what they can do is enhance that side of it. There are so many other people coming to the table with the acting side of things and have got their bases covered.

Ingrid Kleinig, stunt coordinator/fight choreographer Richard Norton and Margot Robbie on the set of Suicide Squad

From our point of view, what we do when we’re doing pre-production for a film is stunt pre-viz, which is basically creating a film. We’ll get a script and everything is scripted except for this scene which might be a five-minute fight scene. All it says is – I quote – “they fight”. Or “the biggest finale fight ever of a film” and again I’m quoting, it says “an all-or-nothing battle ensues.” That’s it. We have to fill in the blanks and come on board three months before the actors come on board, before we start shooting, and we play around with ideas and come up with concepts. Go to the director, give us their notes, it’s a back-and-forth. We’re brainstorming and creating and filming from the ground up. That leads directly into second unit direction and of course direction.

Leading on from that, what is something a director says or does that gives you confidence in them and lets you know that they understand how to work with a stunt team? 

KLEINIG: Good question! I think the best thing that a director can do is show faith in their stunt coordinator and their stunt team. You can see it very early on. I particular enjoy working with a director that knows what they want. They’ll come into a room, you show them a scene that you’ve worked [on] thus far, and it’s immediate. “Yes, no. Yes, no. Yes, no.” The “no’s” are generally because of their own story points that they have in their head that haven’t been communicated yet or hasn’t been [worked] out with the rest of the cast and crew. Not stylistically, but more in terms of character arcs and plots and that kind of thing. “She can’t do this here because the scene after this is such and such”. Someone who has all that information in their head and who can see the overall picture, it’s a real privilege to see that at work.

Ingrid Kleinig and Brie Larson on the set of Captain Marvel

They have all the pieces on the board, moving them around, and it hasn’t all been fitted together yet. 

KLEINIG: Yeah, absolutely. They’ve got the overall picture. We’ve got the script and the pre-viz and what have you, but we are concentrating so explicitly on the action scenes that often we can lose sight of what’s come before and after…

The connective tissue.

KLEINIG: The connective tissue, absolutely. That’s where…working with a director that can be like Rain Man and keep all the balls in the air is a privilege.

Evangeline Lilly and Ingrid Kleinig on the set of Ant-Man and the Wasp

While every safety precaution is taken, stunts are inherently dangerous and sometimes tragic accidents happen. Olivia Jackson was very badly injured doing Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Joe Watts is in a coma after an accident on the set of Fast & Furious 9, and Joi “SJ” Harris died on the set of Deadpool 2. How do such incidents affect the stunt community, and what is it like trying to maintain standards of safety and prevent accidents from happening?

KLEINIG: First of all, I don’t believe in the word ‘accident’. There is no such thing as an accident. There is always human error at play in those instances, so there has been a mistake somewhere along the way. In every one of those instances, obviously hindsight is a wonderful thing, but you can see the point or the moment where something could’ve been done to prevent what happened. Unfortunately, that’s hindsight speaking, and beforehand there were checks and balances that weren’t put in place or an extra step wasn’t put in place.

A lot of the time, I think it’s because it’s not necessarily a difficult stunt. It’s often not the most difficult stunts when people are getting injured. Because it’s not seen as a difficult stunt, perhaps not all the safety measures are put in place.

Perhaps it’s a complacency? That’s too strong a word. 

KLEINIG: It is…I think because as a community we do amazing, crazy things all the time, so you can get a little casual with it, especially when you’ve been doing it for a very long time. The global stunt community is very small. We all know each other or there’s one degree of separation so any of these things hit us all very hard. All we can do is learn from them and maintain diligence, and just be aware that every day, not to become casual about it. Maintain the checks, have multiple eyes, multiple heads and multiple heads on every single set-up.

Left: Ingrid Kleinig. Right: Margot Robbie

Andy Horwitz, a producer on Suicide Squad, said of Margot Robbie “Her double is always on set, most of the time [she] just stands there and watches. She keeps thinking she’s going to have to go in.” I understand that a lot of times producers say things like that to hype the movie up, and I don’t want to take anything away from Margot Robbie, but I wanted to know, how did you feel hearing that? 

KLEINIG: [Laughs] You know what, Margot Robbie absolutely earned everything that everybody always says about her. She’s one of the most physically talented performers I’ve ever worked with. She’s unbelievable. She trained as a classical dancer very strongly growing up, which means that especially when it comes fight choreography, we can do anything we want with her. She’s Australian and we tend to be very outdoorsy, very capable with those kinds of things and very competitive. She and I had this great sort of constructive competitiveness that brings out the best in each other.

There’s actually an anecdote where we were doing breath-hold training for Suicide Squad. I would get to four minutes and she would get to four-and-a-half, she went to five and I got to five-ten, and she got to five-and-a-half. We kept trying to up each other and trying to up each other, and the producers were like “Stop. You have gone above and beyond, no one needs to overdo this, we don’t need anything more. We don’t need five minutes. We only need one minute. Stop.” It’s great and it brings out the best in each other for the film and the character when we’re working so hard.

Ingrid Kleinig on the set of Suicide Squad

Everyone has days when they don’t particularly feel like going to work. Broadway actress Amber Gray calls it the ‘I Don’t Wannas’. What happens when you get a case of the I Don’t Wannas, how do you get yourself through the day? 

KLEINIG: Caffeine! [Laughs] There are days when I wake up and I just go “ugh, I don’t want to go to school today!” but I think it comes down to the fact that I love my job. The hardest part of my job is the pre-production, because sometimes it feels like you’re going round and round in circles. You do a fight scene, you perfect it, you film it, it’s edited and put together, everything’s there, it feels like a complete work of art, you hand it over and it comes back in pieces. You have to do that over and over again. I think for Ant-Man and the Wasp, we did 30 pre-vizes for the restaurant fight scene. It just kept coming back. We sent it out there into the world thinking it’s a work of art. Each time it comes back in pieces, we rebuild it and it just gets better and better. While it’s exhausting, you have to look back and go “we’re doing this because it’s going to get better.”

Watch Ingrid Kleinig’s stunt reel here:

Sir Mix-A-Lot: Interview with Oscar-winning sound mixer Andy Nelson

By Jedd Jong

Filmmakers strive to create an immersive experience, to give viewers a chance to step into carefully crafted realities that they can get lost in. Whether it’s an alien world, a distant period in history or a dizzying musical fantasy-scape, sound is an element that is often overlooked in creating this immersion. Every film crew includes sound recordists, designers, mixers, composers and editors who ensure that the audience hears exactly what they should.

Andy Nelson is a re-recording mixer with over four decades of experience under his belt. Growing up in London, Nelson’s career in the industry began at age 16, when he was a projectionist at a local cinema. He then moved into sound mixing for TV and movies, working on films like Schindler’s List, The Thin Red Line, X-Men, Moulin Rouge!, Star Trek (2009), Les Misérables and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

Nelson has garnered a staggering 21 Oscar nominations, and won for Saving Private Ryan and Les Misérables. At the 88th Academy Awards, Nelson was nominated for two separate films in the same year, Bridge of Spies and The Force Awakens. He has mixed for directors including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Stanley Kubrick, J.J. Abrams and Terence Malick.

Nelson was in Singapore as one of the invited guests of the Disney Storytelling+ Bootcamp, joining others who have worked behind-the-scenes in film and television to share their expertise with a new generation of filmmakers and storytellers. Nelson spoke about an emotional moment he experienced working on Schindler’s List, how different musicals require varying approaches to sound mixing, the differences between John Williams and Hans Zimmer’s methods of film scoring and his work on Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story.

JEDD: You have an illustrious list of credits. To the average moviegoer, they think of “sound” as just one element, but there are so many categories within that. There’s music, Foley, sound design, re-recording, sound mixing, ADR. Can you break it down for us and take us through what your job entails?

ANDY NELSON: I normally work with a partner. I handled all the music and the dialogue myself, and the other mixer handles the sound effects, but between us, we have to craft the tracks. I usually start with the dialogue and I try and make sure everything is perfectly clear and clean and the best it can be from the performance point of view, then I usually craft the music into that. When the composer’s written all the score, you assume you’re going to need all the music that’s been written, then we put the sound effects into that.

Then, once all the components are in, a little bit like a recipe, then we start to blend it and mix it together and pick our moments through each scene. Is this a strong sound effects moment? Is this a strong music moment? Should there be any sound at all? Silence is pretty powerful as well. We work in tandem, obviously with the director all the time, to design the track the way he or she wants it to be.

From left: Ron Judkins, Andy Nelson, Steven Spielberg, Bradley Cooper, Mark Ulano and Gary Rydstrom at the 2019 Cinema Audio Society Awards

Many elements of filmmaking require a balance of creativity and technical mastery. How do you achieve that balance with regards to sound mixing? 

NELSON: The way I approach it is I have to know what I’m doing from a technical standpoint, but I never want to let that get in the way of telling the story. Sometimes you just do something that maybe technically isn’t the right thing to do, but if it works, it works. One of the things you have to do as the mixer when you create the final soundtrack is you have to create a trust between you and the director, because they’re putting their baby into your hands, essentially. One of the things I’ve never wanted to do is let the technology get in the way, or make them feel that I would say “no, we can’t do that because…” I treat it much more as a creative process for that reason.

Avatar

Over the years, you’ve worked with directors including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, JJ Abrams, Terence Malick and Stanley Kubrick. How much are directors typically involved in the process of sound design, mixing and re-recording?

NELSON: Oh, heavily, very heavily. Somebody like Jim Cameron on Avatar, he would allow us to do our pass and get us into shape, but then when he came in and sat down and wanted to start, then we would roll our sleeves up and get to work. He would be very pinpoint precision, laser-sharp about what should happen at this moment, how that sound should be at that moment. With Steven, I’ve done 18 films with Steven so we have shorthand between us that’s pretty good nowadays. I get a first pass at the entire movie and then he’ll come and sit with me and we’ll work through it together.

Schindler’s List

As a fanboy, I have to ask, do you have any memorable Steven Spielberg stories? 

NELSON: Gosh. I’ll tell you a story about when I was working on a scene on Schindler’s List, a very complicated scene we were doing. I played it to him and I finished playing and I put the lights up. He was sitting right next to me. He had tears rolling down his face and he said “I don’t know what I would do to change this, so let’s move on.” It was a very important moment for me because it told me so much about him as a director. It wasn’t that I had done an incredible sound mix or anything, it was just that the scene was working and as a director, that’s all he wants, for the scene to work the way he imagines. For me, that’s a master storyteller at work. As a director, he could’ve said “let’s go through it again ten more times or 50 more times,” but he was so precise in what he wanted and it achieved what he wanted on an emotional level. I’ll never forget it. It was only my second film with him. I’m going to be doing West Side Story with him next year; that will be my 19th film. I hope it continues.

Steve Pederson, Steven Spielberg, Michael Kahn, Andy Nelson and Scott Millan, on the mixing stage for Schindler’s List

I think it was Marco Beltrami who said “befriend the sound mixer so music gets placed louder in the mix than sound effects.” What is it like determining what gets priority in the mix; who decides that? 

NELSON: We all kind of chip in, really. I’m handling the music physically myself, I happen to love music, it’s one of the reasons I got into it in the first place, was falling in love with what music does to visuals, it just took me to places in my mind and it still does today. I’m a defender of music, but I feel that music is overused in movies nowadays. I think that sometimes there’s too much score – I’m the first to put my hand up and suggest “Do we need it here? Is it coming in at the right point emotionally? Does it connect with the story correctly?” I’m definitely always trying to advocate to make the music work, but I’d be the first to say if it’s not working, we shouldn’t be using it.

Leading on from that, I wanted to talk specifically about musicals. You worked on Moulin Rouge!, Les Misérables, La La Land and you’re going to be working on West Side Story. Each of those movies is quite different from the others, even though they’re all musicals. What was the approach to the sound of Moulin Rouge!, Les Misérables and La La Land

Moulin Rouge!

NELSON: They were all completely different. First of all, Moulin Rouge!, you’re dealing with Baz Luhrmann. Baz Luhrmann is the most incredible creative director you could imagine. He spins with ideas constantly. His films are so richly layered that it took us weeks just to dig through and find all the little moments that worked in the way he wanted to tell that story. It was an incredibly complicated soundtrack to mix.

Les Misérables

Jump forward to Les Misérables, that was a completely revolutionary film in the sense that they recorded everything live. That took a tremendous amount of organisation. Tom Hooper started talking to me months before they started shooting about the approach and how we’d have to paint microphones out digitally and how the set had to be much quieter than normal because you had to protect the vocal. All we were relying on was the best vocal we could get.

La La Land

La La Land was a mixture of the two, oddly enough. There were some live moments in La La Land, particularly the Audition piece at the end, which was all live, little bits of the duet on the hill were live. There were also big playback moments – you can’t really do live recording if there’s a lot of instance, for instance. With Les Misérables there was no dancing, so it could be live. La La Land was a little bit of both, and I thought it worked really well for that reason.

West Side Story (2020)

With West Side Story, there has been an earlier film adaptation of that musical. How much will your approach to the sound be influenced by that? 

NELSON: I think Steven wants a different sort of style and a different take. It’s obviously the classic music with Leonard Bernstein’s score, it’s exactly the same songs, but he’s going to approach it in a different sort of style altogether. I can’t really speak to it because they’re right in the middle of shooting, I haven’t really seen anything of it yet. There may be some live recording; we’ll see.

Gary Rydstrom, Gary Summers, presenter Anjelica Huston, Andy Nelson and Ronald Judkins at the Oscars in 1999

There are hundreds, sometimes thousands of people who work on a given movie. To a certain extent, your contributions to a film might be considered less “visible” than say that of an actor or a director, but you are doing crucial work and you have been recognized for it. What are your thoughts on the concept of recognition within the industry, and what do you feel gives you validation and satisfaction in your work? 

NELSON: Look, anything that you get an accolade for is always a real treat; I don’t take it for granted in the slightest. I think what I’ve always tried to do is value the relationship I’ve created over the years with directors and composers, because I’m very close with people like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, I’ve worked on many, many different films with them all. Those relationships to me are the most satisfying thing. If a film happens to get some accolades on top of that, then we all celebrate, but the work is the most important thing. The sense of accomplishment when we seem to pull something off, that’s the satisfaction for me, not the awards.

Andy Nelson and John Williams at the 2014 CAS Awards

Speaking of composers like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, what is the process of working with them like, and what are some of the differences that you’ve seen between the way different composers work? How do you accommodate that in your mixing? 

NELSON: Well, if you take John Williams, John Williams has a very classic style of writing and he is much more about the performance of the orchestra and tends to want the orchestra to play together, because that’s where he feels the cohesion happen between the players.

Does he still mostly conduct himself? 

NELSON: He does whenever possible, yes, absolutely – and the orchestra loves it, you can tell.

It’s a thrill.

NELSON: It’s a thrill. With somebody like Hans, he’ll approach it differently where he’ll record the strings, then record the brass, then we blend them together afterwards. There’s good and bad in both of those [approaches]. The good part is I have more control, but the bad part is they’re not playing as cohesively as if they were all playing in one go, so you win some and you lose some. It’s just different approaches. With someone like Hans of course, he wants to layer in his synthetic sounds with it, the Hans Zimmer sound, which is often string samples that go with the real strings, whereas someone like John would rely more on the real strings only.

Was there a particular film (or films) that you watched as a kid that make you first sit up and take notice of that film’s use of sound? 

NELSON: Funnily enough, the first film I was ever taken to as a kid was West Side Story.

Full circle!

NELSON: Very much full circle. I can’t say I sat up and took notice of it at the time, but I think I was aware of it more and more. When I started working at a cinema at the age of 16, the first film I learned to throw on the projector was actually Midnight Cowboy, and I remember thinking how great the sound was in that, how great John Barry’s score was. I became very aware, and I started collecting soundtrack albums at that age just to take home and listen to because I just fell in love with cinema music, without even knowing I’d be handling any of it to come, because at that point I didn’t know what my career was going to be like at all. Easy Rider was playing at the same time as Midnight Cowboy; another fantastic soundtrack.

What a moment that was!

NELSON: It was a great moment. The James Bond movies, you know. Music in film has always transported me, as a kid right up to today. When the lights go down and the music plays, I’m in another land. I’m in heaven. [Chuckles]

With Jerry Goldsmith, I’ve never seen a single episode of Star Trek Voyager, I heard the Voyager theme and started crying. He has that power.

L.A. Confidential

NELSON: Jerry is great. I worked with him once on L.A. Confidential, which was a terrific film Curtis Hanson made. I loved Jerry, yeah, never got to work on any of the big shows with him before he passed away, sadly, but what a talent.

What are some of the most cherished memories in your professional life that you find yourself revisiting? 

NELSON: I honestly can’t tell you that there’s one; I tend to categorise them in different ways. To this day, the smile on my face when I first ran The Force Awakens with J.J., just because I felt he’d gone back to…tapped into the real magic of what Star Wars was, I’ll never forget that moment. I had a smile on my face through the whole time we worked on that movie. Can’t wait to see the new one.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Did you work on the new one?

NELSON: I haven’t started it yet, but I am going to do the new one. Probably in about a week’s time I’ll be starting.

Exciting!

NELSON: Yeah, I’m looking forward to it.

The Thin Red Line

Avatar was obviously fantastic, very challenging for me. A lot of Steven’s films, just because he’s such a master filmmaker, obviously. Terry Malick, Thin Red Line, another good one. I could go on and on. They’re like favourite kids, what’s your favourite child? You can’t say. [Chuckles]

Finally, you have won and been nominated for many awards and have attended awards shows including the Oscars and the BAFTAs. Do you have an awards show story you’d like to tell?

NELSON: I mean, getting up on stage and having to accept the award for Les Mis, I’d never wanted to stand up on that stage and speak because I was terrified at the thought of that. We’d made an agreement that if win [the BAFTA], one person would speak in London, and if we were lucky enough to go to the Oscars, I would speak for that. I said “we’ll never be there”.

Simon Hayes, Mark Paterson and Andy Nelson at the Oscars in 2013

You thought you were safe.

NELSON: I agreed to it and I wasn’t safe. I had to stand up. That was in itself extraordinarily terrifying because there’s nothing quite like that moment. Then we celebrated a lot afterwards, so that’s good [chuckles].

Good Boys review

GOOD BOYS

Director:  Gene Stupnitsky
Cast : Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Will Forte
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 90 mins
Opens : 12 September 2019
Rating : NC16

            When you come across a comedy titled ‘Good Boys’, you can bet it’s named ironically: there’s going to be lots of sexual humour, swearing, drugs and alcohol. Such is the case with this film, in which a trio of 11-year-olds engages in some decidedly family-unfriendly behaviour.

Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and Thor (Brady Noon) are three best friends who have just started sixth grade. Max has a crush on Brixlee (Millie Davis), and thinks he might have his shot with her when he is invited by popular kid Soren (Izaac Wang) to a ‘kissing party’. Max, Lucas and Thor don’t actually know how to kiss. Their quest to prove they’re not uncool and to ensure they won’t embarrass themselves at the party spirals into a misadventure involving party drugs, beer, a drone and running headlong into freeway traffic.

Good Boys is a risque comedy in the mould of Superbad which, if you can believe it, was released 12 whole years ago. Whenever children star in films which they technically aren’t allowed to see yet, there is the danger that things will get exploitative. While a lot of inappropriate stuff happens in Good Boys, there is an undercurrent of sweetness and sincerity which anchors the film and makes it seem like more than just an excuse to have kids yell the F-word a lot, even if plenty of F-words do get yelled.

Much of what makes the movie work is the chemistry between the three leads. Jacob Tremblay, the breakout star of Room, has a strait-laced likeability to him and seems unerringly sweet even when he’s swearing up a storm. Keith L. Williams is the epitome of wholesomeness as Lucas, a stickler for the rules who did not sign up for any of this. Brady Noon’s Thor is the wannabe bad boy with a secret talent for musical theatre; his character is the least interesting of the three because it’s the most common archetype but he’s still entertaining in the role.

While the movie probably derives too much of its comedy from kids playing with sex paraphernalia, not knowing what they are, many of the jokes are sharp and funny. The film captures the typical 11-year-old’s desire to appear more grown up than they are and to pretend to understand more than they do. Good Boys works in no small part because it depicts the real anxieties of growing up and being caught between childhood and teenhood, even if in an extremely exaggerated manner.

“Restraint” is not a word one might use to describe a movie that features kids brandishing dildos as weapons, but Good Boys is careful not to actually cross the line. For all its purported shock value, there is no actual nudity or sex depicted, just lots of talk about it. This seems like the right choice, as the awkwardness of the situations that the protagonists find themselves in is more relatable than if the movie just dove head-first into filth. That said, nobody strictly needs to see a kid kiss what he thinks is a “CPR dummy”, wondering why there’s hair in its mouth.

Good Boys was a surprise success in the U.S., becoming the first R-rated comedy since 2016’s The Boss to top the box office. It shows there’s an appetite for movies like this, but there is the worry that imitators who don’t quite have the skill of the filmmakers of Good Boys will attempt to follow in this film’s footsteps. There is a laziness to some of its crass humour, but there’s plenty of heart here and three winning performances from its lead cast.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

IT Chapter Two review

IT CHAPTER TWO

Director: Andy Muschietti
Cast : James McAvoy, Jaeden Martell, Jessica Chastain, Sophia Lillis, Jay Ryan, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Bill Hader, Finn Wolfhard, Isaiah Mustafa, Chosen Jacobs, James Ransone, Jack Dylan Grazer, Andy Bean, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 2 h 49 mins
Opens : 5 September 2019
Rating : M18

            In 2017, It received critical acclaim and became the highest grossing movie of all time. Anticipation was high for Chapter Two, which concludes the story of the Losers Club’s battle against Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).

At the end of the first film, the members of the Losers Club vowed that if Pennywise were to re-emerge, they would return to Derry, Maine to face him. 27 years later, the clown rears his grotesque grinning head. Mike (Isaiah Mustafa as an adult, Chosen Jacobs as a child), who has stayed in Derry and become the town librarian, summons his friends, who have all moved away, back home.

Bill (James McAvoy/Jaeden Martell) is now an author and screenwriter, married to actress Audra (Jess Weixler). Beverly (Jessica Chastain/Sophia Lillis) is a fashion designer in an abusive marriage. Richie (Bill Hader/Finn Wolfhard) is a stand-up comedian. Ben (Jay Ryan/Jeremy Ray Taylor) has become a successful architect. Eddie (James Ransone/Jack Dylan Grazer) is a risk analyst. Stanley (Andy Bean/Wyatt Oleff) is an accountant. Each has moved on with their lives, but the spectre of Pennywise, of It, hangs over them. As the bonds of their childhood friendship are re-forged, the Losers Club battles Pennywise in his myriad terrifying forms again.

Stephen King’s novel It had a structure that alternated between following the Losers Club as adults and as kids. This two-part film adaptation has changed that by focusing the first movie on the Losers Club as kids, then the second on the characters as adults. The movie is 169 minutes long compared to the first film’s 135. Director Andy Muschietti seems to have been emboldened by the success of Chapter One, taking more risks with Chapter Two. However, those risks do not always pay off.

This reviewer loved the first film, which engendered sincere sympathy and affection from the audience for its characters in a way very few horror films have before. It Chapter Two continues to be character-driven, and part of the reason why its runtime is so long is that we need to spend enough time with each character to see their arcs through. However, there is also a greater emphasis on set-pieces and spectacle. Instead of concentrating the terror, as the scare sequences in the first movie did so well, the set-pieces here seem to diffuse the terror.

There’s a lot in this movie which sounds scary on paper, and several of It’s manifestations are unsettling on a conceptual level. However, they end up being mostly CGI. Even when the visual effects work is very good, on a base level, audiences know that whatever is menacing the actors isn’t really occupying the same space as them. The film evokes practical creature effects classics like The Thing and The Fly, but minus most of the tactility. Even when Spanish actor/contortionist Javier Botet portrays one of It’s forms, the creature has an obviously computer-generated face. The problem with the more outlandish It-erations in this movie is that they tend to take away from Bill Skarsgård’s performance, which is scary enough as is.

While there are several outstanding performers in the cast portraying the grown-up Losers Club, the child versions of the characters are just a lot more compelling. The casting in the film is generally good. Physically, James Ransone is a very close match for Jack Dylan Grazer, doing a lot with his eyebrows and the corners of his mouth to match Grazer’s performance.

Jessica Chastain has made a career playing women who are fiercer and have a harder edge to them than Beverly. Sophia Lillis was the standout in the first film, but Beverly seems a smidge less interesting in this one.

James McAvoy’s Bill is the team’s de-facto leader. While McAvoy is sympathetic and watchable as ever, he sometimes seems to be doing a bit too much. The character is an avatar for Stephen King, meaning we get some meta jokes that are amusing but possibly cross over into being a touch obnoxious.

Bill Hader is the designated scene-stealer. As expected, he’s hilarious, but the film also gives the character several more layers behind his trash-talking exterior. We see that Richie’s sense of humour is a defence mechanism to disguise his true self. Despite the strength of Hader’s performance, the character feels in danger of becoming just the comic relief character.

Isaiah Mustafa’s Mike is sensitive and conscientious, having dedicated the past two decades to studying It’s history. He delivers some clunky exposition, and it’s when the movie explains It’s origins that things get somewhat tedious.

Ben has undergone the most obvious physical transformation. While this reviewer was invested in the love triangle between Ben, Beverly and Bill, Jay Ryan is handsome but not terribly interesting in the role.

It Chapter Two attempts to explore how trauma affects us and the burden that childhood pain can have on us as adults. The ensemble cast gets to shine, but the story is less focused in this outing, meaning it’s less scary. There are authentically unnerving moments, but there are far more scenes in which the characters are pursued by various things made of CGI. The film’s ambition is admirable, but it’s hard not to be at least a little disappointed given the sublime quality of its predecessor.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Losers Stick Together: facing fear in IT: Chapter 2

The cast and filmmakers discuss making the horror sequel

By Jedd Jong

In Stephen King’s novel It, the titular entity of pure evil that is most often seen in the guise of a clown menaces a group of characters who form ‘the Losers Club’. The novel alternates between following the characters as adults and as children. The 2017 film adaptation focused on the younger versions of the Losers Club, with audiences being introduced to their grown-up iterations in this sequel, which is set 27 years later when It/Pennywise re-emerges.

The first It film was always intended to be part of a duology. “The big picture, the second chapter, was always in the back of my mind,” director Andy Muschietti said.
“We were always excited about the second part, because it’s really the second half of the story.”

It was praised for how compelling the characters were and how easy it was to be emotionally invested in them, a relative rarity in the world of horror. For Muschietti, breaking up the two timelines was part of creating that emotional investment for audiences.

“I had agreed to make the first movie only about the children, because it would be emotionally more interesting, more compelling without breaking it with time jumps,” Muschietti explained.

With its focus on the adult characters but with flashbacks featuring the young cast also a part of the story, the second movie depicts the “dialogue between the timelines” that echoes the structure of the book. “It’s about the characters’ relationships with the past, looking at events that happened 27 years ago and finding themselves,” Muschietti added.

From left: Ben Ryan, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Isaiah Mustafa, Chosen Jacobs, Jaeden Martell, Jack Dylan Grazer, James Ransone, Sophia Lillis, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Finn Wolfhard, Andy Bean, Wyatt Oleff

In casting the film, the filmmakers had to find actors who were believable as adult versions of characters whom audiences had grown to love over the course of the first film. “For us, of course, the first thing we wanted was great acting, then physical resemblance to the kids,” producer (and Andy’s sister) Barbara Muschietti said. “We just think we got the perfect cast of grownup Losers,” she enthused, adding that the filmmakers “never had Plan Bs” and went with their first choices for each role.

The ensemble cast is led by James McAvoy as Bill Denborough. Bill has always been haunted by the death of his brother Georgie, the first onscreen victim of Pennywise we saw in the first film. Speaking about how Jaeden Martell’s performance as the younger Bill inspired him, McAvoy said “I suppose I stole Jaeden Martell’s emotional vulnerability and his openness. As a kid, I think Bill is a strange mix of suppression and complete vulnerability, and Jaeden nailed that.”

Bill has become a successful novelist and screenwriter and is in many ways patterned after Stephen King himself. McAvoy pointed out that while the members of the Losers Club have generally moved on, there is a curse that still follows them. “The Losers that leave [Derry] all become arguable winners, but they all have this tainted side to their success—none of them seem to be able to have children, for one,” McAvoy remarked, adding that each character deals with “emotional issues that darken all of their, what seem like, perfect lives.”

Jessica Chastain portrays Beverly, the one female member of the Losers Club. Beverly hasn’t quite been able to outrun the spectre of her abusive father, seeing as she is now stuck in an abusive marriage. “For Beverly, she’s still living with her ideas of what love is,” Chastain explained. “The first person she really loved is her father, so this idea—that love means someone you love can hurt you at the same time—has lasting impact on her.”

One of It Chapter Two’s most memorable scenes places Beverly in the middle of a literal bloodbath. The scene required over 17 000 litres of fake blood, something Chastain was game for. “I love horror films, I love Carrie, and I said, ‘Let’s make Carrie on steroids,’” Chastain recalled, referencing another film adaptation of a Stephen King novel.

Chastain called Lillis’ performance as the younger Beverly “beautiful,” and emulated one specific aspect of Lillis’ physicality. “I hadn’t told Andy [Muschietti] I was doing this, but I was holding my hands the way she did,” Chastain revealed. “When he saw me, he said, ‘You’re walking with her hands.’”

Bill Hader plays the trash-talking Richie Tozier, and his performance has been called the standout of the film. Hader said he “worked within the character lines” that had been drawn by Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard, who played Richie in the first film.

“Like a lot of comedy people, you deal with stuff by joking about it,” the former Saturday Night Live star said about Richie, who in this film has become a stand-up comedian. “He’s the first guy, when they realize what’s happening, to say, ‘Oh, I’m outta here. F*** this.’ He has deep, deep repression.”

The most dramatic physical transformation is that of the character Ben, played by New Zealand actor Jay Ryan. “Ben, once he leaves town, he starts running, physically and emotionally, for 27 years,” Ryan said. “He learns how to say no, to stand up to bullies, and he becomes a leader in his profession.” Ben, who has become an architect, still holds a torch for Beverly, whom he had a crush on as a kid. “It seems to the outside world that here’s a man who has everything, but he doesn’t really have any real human connections,” Ryan elaborated, saying that Ben is “ready to go back to Derry and really reveal his true self.”

James Ransone plays Eddie, who was portrayed by Shazam! star Jack Dylan Grazer as a kid. “I thought, ‘That kid talked really fast. If I can keep up with him, everything’s gonna be fine,’” Ransone joked.

“He’s probably spent a lot of his time pretending to not think about his childhood by focusing on his wife,” Ransone said of Eddie. Eddie winds up marrying a woman who is reminiscent of his constantly nagging mother. “You get in those type of relationships, where it’s a constant project that needs fixing. You focus on that so that you don’t have to think about yourself,” Ransone mused.

Isaiah Mustafa plays Mike, the one character who has stayed behind in Derry. Mike has spent the last 27 years researching It and coming up with a plan to defeat the monstrous creature. It is Mike who summons his friends back home and reconvenes the Losers Club. “I believe he felt a responsibility to stay in Derry, to be the custodian of this energy that they cultivated as a group,” Mustafa said. “So, once that evil returned, he could call his friends and say, ‘Let’s do this thing again.’”

Andy Bean plays Stanley, who was played by Wyatt Oleff as a kid. Bean described the character as having a good marriage and leading “quite a beautiful, content, comfortable life.” The horrible childhood memories he has been repressing come bubbling back to the surface when Mike calls. “I think he had buried his memories so deep that he didn’t really remember anything until he heard Mike’s voice—it’s his voice,” Bean said.

Just as the Losers have grown and evolved, so has Pennywise, played once again by Bill Skarsgård. “He wants them back, in a way,” Barbara Muschietti said of Pennywise, adding that he’s “also angry, because they defeated him before, and in coming back, they are showing brave behaviour…which he can’t stand.” To fight the Losers, Pennywise must “become a more evil, bigger monster,” manifesting in startling and dramatic new forms.

Speaking about how Pennywise is different in this film, Andy Muschietti said “He’s changed in the sense that the fears are more about things that frighten us as adults.” While said fears are rooted in traumatic events from the Losers’ childhoods, they take a shape that is more threatening to them 27 years after their initial encounter with Pennywise.

“This is a journey that the Losers need to take back to their childhood, to access the power of belief,” the director said. The mission for the Losers is to take that horrifying entity of their past, “to be able to confront it, understand it and ultimately, overcome it.”

One of the film’s central themes is that of facing one’s fears, and how there is an unspoken power to the bonds of friendship. The Losers “return to face their past—it’s a brave and powerful thing to do,” Barbara Muschietti opined. “Your fears go with you until you really face them, and that’s when you grow.”

Interview transcripts courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures