Bad Boys For Life review

For F*** Magazine

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE

Director: Adil El Arbi, Billal Fallah
Cast : Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Kate del Castillo, Nicky Jam, Joe Pantoliano, Theresa Randle, Jacob Scipio, DJ Khaled
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 2 h 3 mins
Opens : 23 January 2020
Rating : NC16

Miami detectives Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) burst onto the scene in 1995’s Bad Boys, when the buddy cop subgenre was enjoying a moment. Following a 2003 sequel, talk about a third instalment has swirled for years, with various writers and directors being attached to the project. Mike and Marcus finally return in Bad Boys for Life.

Marcus has just become a grandfather and hopes to retire from the police force, something with his long-time partner and best friend Mike doesn’t take well to. A spectre from the past emerges to haunt Mike when law enforcement personnel involved in killing the leader of the Aretas Cartel are assassinated, with Mike also on the killer’s hit list. Mike bristles at the new-fangled Advanced Miami Metro Operations (AMMO) team, led by his ex-girlfriend Rita (Paola Núñez), working the case. Mike eventually warms to the AMMO team, comprising Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens), Dorn (Alexander Ludwig) and Rafe (Charles Melton). Mike, Marcus and the AMMO unit must cooperate to take out the late Aretas’ son Armando (Jacob Scipio), on a mission to avenge his mother Isabel (Kate del Castillo).

There were reasons to be sceptical about Bad Boys for Life, especially in the wake of some less-than-successful attempts at reviving dormant franchises. It turns out that Bad Boys for Life has many pleasant surprises up its sleeve and is a solidly built action-comedy that winds up being the best entry in the trilogy. Just like with the Transformers spinoff Bumblebee, the secret seems to have been removing Michael Bay from the director’s seat. In his place are Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Billal Fallah.

Working from a screenplay by Chris Bremmer, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan, the new directors add an unexpected dramatic heft to the proceedings, while keeping a handle on the action and comedy that are at the core of the franchise. There are several poignant moments and the tonal shifts are handled far smoother than they could’ve been, such that neither the endless bickering between Mike and Marcus nor the over-the-top action undermine the moments that give the story weight. While there are still the requisite shots of scantily clad women at the club and on the beach, the movie is also less leery than it would have been had it been directed by Bay.

While the movie trims the excesses which Bay brought to the earlier two films (and most other entries in his filmography), Bad Boys for Life still feels somewhat bloated in trying to emulate the style of the earlier films. At 124 minutes, this is a touch long even if it is paced well. There’s quite a bit of set-up to get through in the film’s first half before the movie hits its stride and brings out the big guns. While many of the quips are funny, there are some clunkers, especially when the movie turns up the machismo and tosses out a few “real men don’t cry”-type jokes. The afore-mentioned tonal shifts are handled remarkably well, but some viewers might still be thrown off by gags coming right on the heels of dramatic character beats.

It is good to see Smith and Lawrence reunited and it’s clear the pair hasn’t missed a beat. Smith is even more of a brand name movie star now than he was in 2003 when the last Bad Boys film was released. He brings his trademark charisma and physicality to bear and is just so much better in this than in his last live-action star vehicle Gemini Man.

Lawrence handles most of the comedy and the filmmakers think up inventive ways to not involve Lawrence in nearly as many action scenes as Smith has. Marcus’ arc of wanting to retire after the birth of his grandson and that causing tension between him and Mike is not quite original, but it works for the character in this movie.

The movie has a fantastic female lead in Paola Núñez, who is sexy and credible as a leader. She and Smith have good chemistry and it’s easy to buy that Mike and Rita had a thing in the past. The dynamic between Mike and Rita is also a chance to show how Mike has matured: he’s still an impulsive cowboy, but he cedes command to Rita at key moments.

Each member of the AMMO team gets their time to shine – it would be easy for the extremely attractive young people whom our hero must put up with to be annoying, but Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig and Charles Melton are all likeable in their roles.

Joe Pantoliano returns as the exasperated Captain Conrad Howard, constantly nursing a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Pantoliano gets some of the film’s best comedic moments and his presence provides stronger continuity to the earlier films.

A big factor in making this work are the mother-and-son villain team. Kate del Castillo vamps it up as the cartel boss lady, while Jacob Scipio is believable as the deadly Armando.

The action sequences are considerably ambitious and are shot well – they’re still kinetic, but much easier to follow than if Bay had shot them. There’s a motorcycle-and-sidecar freeway chase sequence that ends with a confrontation with a helicopter, and a no-holds-barred shootout in an abandoned hotel in Mexico that also ends with a confrontation with a helicopter. This isn’t quite John Wick, but thanks to second unit director Mike Gunther and stunt coordinator Spiros Razatos, the action scenes are explosive and satisfying.

Summary: Will Smith and Martin Lawrence reunite at last – not only does Bad Boys for Life not disappoint, it is the best of the three films in the series so far. A surprisingly dramatic story and themes add weight to the well-executed action-comedy fluff.  This does not seem like a movie that would be released in January – with its big movie star lead, elaborate action set pieces and as a continuation of a recognisable franchise, one would expect Bad Boys for Life to be a summer release. Especially considering the film’s long development process, this is a success.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Richard Jewell review

For F*** Magazine

RICHARD JEWELL

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast : Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Nina Ariadna, Ian Gomez
Genre : Drama/Biographical
Run Time : 2 h 11 mins
Opens : 9 January 2020
Rating : NC16

From director Clint Eastwood and writer Billy Ray comes a biopic about Richard Jewell, the man who called in a bomb threat and was vilified as a suspect. The film is based on the 1997 Vanity Fair article American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell by Marie Brenner, and the 2019 book The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen.

It is July 1996 and the 26th Summer Olympics are taking place in Atlanta, Georgia. Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a security guard working at Centennial Park, notices a suspicious knapsack that is found to contain three pipe bombs. He is initially hailed as a hero but is soon regarded as a suspect in the bombing by the FBI, with agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) strongly believing Richard to be the culprit. Tipped off by Shaw, Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) breaks the story about Richard’s status as a suspect. The overwhelming media attention overwhelms Richard and his mother Bobbi (Kathy Bates). Richard turns to Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a lawyer who worked at a public law firm where Richard was a supply clerk ten years ago, for help. Watson must help Richard clear his name and turn the tide of public opinion.

Eastwood has been directing movies for over 30 years and is a skilled technical director. Richard Jewell captures the 1996 Atlanta setting with enough authenticity – the film was shot on location at the actual Centennial Park. The scene in which Richard discovers the bomb is tense and gripping. Later, a scene in which Watson times a walk between the site where the bomb was placed and the public payphones where the bomber called 911 is stylishly cut with footage of sprinter David Johnson at the Olympics. Eastwood tells the story efficiently and it is abundantly easy to sympathise with Richard, even as the viewer grows frustrated at him for being easily manipulated and a bit too naïve.

Eastwood is not just a good technical director, but a good actors’ director as well. He draws excellent performances from his cast here. Paul Walter Hauser is a loveable, hapless figure as Richard Jewell – he is not especially bright, but the film attempts to give him some dimensions.

Kathy Bates is a warm presence as Richard’s mother Bobbi, who simply wants the best for her son and cannot bear to see him falsely accused and placed under such immense pressure. Rockwell is a go-to actor for slimy roles, so it is always nice to see him in largely noble parts. Watson is an honest salt-of-the-earth type but is also fiery and impassioned. Some of the film’s best scenes are between Hauser and Rockwell.

Any film based on a true story will have inaccuracies, and one or two of the real people portrayed in said film – or those who knew them – are bound to come out and speak against the way they were characterised in the movie. With Richard Jewell, the inaccuracies seem more calculated. It’s harder to view them as honest mistakes and easier to believe that Eastwood had an agenda going on. It is common for biopics to make a larger point and provide commentary beyond the specific subject matter, but it feels like Richard Jewell leans too far in that direction, reducing the story to a vehicle for Eastwood’s political views.

The film does a huge disservice to journalist Kathy Scruggs, who passed away in 2001 from a prescription drug overdose after dealing with depression and is not around to defend herself. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an open letter by its editor-in-chief responding to how Scruggs and by extension the paper was portrayed in Richard Jewell. In the film, Scruggs is shown sleeping with a source for a scoop. The source, Jon Hamm’s FBI Agent Shaw, is a fictionalised composite character, but Scruggs was very much a real person. This propagates the insidious trope that women journalists trade sexual favours for tips. Authors Alexander and Salwen, whose non-fiction book was the basis of the movie, have firmly maintained that Scruggs did not sleep with an FBI agent to obtain information for her story.

In real life, Richard Jewell certainly was treated unjustly by both law enforcement and the media. However, the film goes out of its way to portray the media and the FBI as unscrupulous and out to destroy Richard’s life. Eastwood is remarkably unsubtle about this, and in order to simplify the story, creates two main ‘villains’ in Shaw and Scruggs. Wilde’s Scruggs is nigh-cartoonishly evil. In trying to clear the name of its title character, Richard Jewell trades in false accusations, something that is regrettable given the quality of the performances in the film.

Summary: Richard Jewell is the work of a skilled filmmaker but is also the work of a filmmaker with an agenda. It is worth seeing for the performances, especially Paul Walter Hauser’s, but this recommendation comes with the caveat that one should research the true story and not take the film’s version of events at face value. In going further than necessary to make the media and the FBI the villains of the piece, Eastwood comes off as dishonest and irresponsible, even though the film is well directed and strongly acted.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

1917 review

For F*** Magazine

1917

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast : George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Jamie Parker
Genre : War/Drama
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 9 January 2020
Rating : PG13

1917-posterHollywood has made many World War II epics, but not quite as many World War I movies, likely because of America’s increased participation in World War II compared to World War I. Still, there are several movies set during the Great War which are considered masterpieces, including All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. Sam Mendes directs and, with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, co-writes this relentless war film that takes place over two days in April 1917.

In Northern France, British soldiers Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with a vital and seemingly insurmountable mission: they must deliver an order from Army Command to tell a battalion of 1600 soldiers to stand down from an assault, as a trap set by the Germans lies in wait for them. Schofield and Blake must cross No Man’s Land into treacherous enemy-controlled territory to deliver the message in time. For Blake, the stakes are personal too, as his older brother is among the soldiers who will die if this information is not conveyed. Braving enemy gunfire and the elements, Schofield and Blake bravely undertake the mission of their lives.

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Filmmakers strive to achieve immersion, to make the audience feel so engrossed in watching the movie that they forget they’re doing so. 1917 achieves this. This is an awards season film, but unlike many prestige movies that vie for the Oscars and other awards, 1917 is far from a stuffy, airless affair. Mendes breathes life into the historical event, closing the 100-plus-year gap between World War I and the present day with an intense and involving epic. He was inspired by the stories of his grandfather Alfred H. Mendes, a Trinidadian World War I veteran and novelist, which increases the personal investment Mendes has in the subject matter. The result is almost akin to a cutting-edge exhibit at a museum, not entirely unlike The Scale of Our War at Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, an exhibit that tells the story of the Gallipoli campaign using oversized hyper-realistic sculptures.

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There is an immediacy to 1917, but while the movie seems constantly gripping, it is also a masterclass in pacing – there are peaks and valleys, quiet moments and frenetic, intense ones, all carefully yet organically situated within the story. This is a movie that effectively essays anxiety, with the throb of Thomas Newman’s percussion-heavy score signalling dangers around every corner. Several set-pieces are among the most visceral and thrilling of any war film in recent memory, yet Mendes executes them with just enough restraint.

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George MacKay anchors the film, with Dean-Charles Chapman right alongside him. The film doesn’t need much to make these characters feel compelling, and just a few interactions between the two establish who they are as soldiers and as people. MacKay is remarkable in the role, especially when the film calls for him to look exhausted and tired. Our two heroes are put through the wringer and face obstacles which are incredible but never implausible.

1917-Dean-Charles-Chapman-George-McKay-German-plane

There’s not a lot that doesn’t work here. Some reviews have cited the lack of character development as a flaw, but this movie is focused on the experience of the characters and on putting the audience in their shoes, and doesn’t need a lot of back-story or a heartfelt monologue about their childhood to accomplish that.

1917-Colin-Firth-1

One element of the film that is possibly distracting is its big-name supporting cast. The structure of the movie means that actors like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden and Andrew Scott show up for roughly one scene each. They play people whom our two heroes meet along the way, meaning there is even less to them as characters than to Schofield and Blake. As such, it is possible that their appearances, which almost seem like cameos, might break the immersion, but this did not happen for us.

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Spectre, the second Bond film directed by Sam Mendes, opened with a pre-credits sequence shot and edited to look like one continuous take. Mendes ups the ante here, presenting the entirety of 1917 as if it was filmed in one continuous take. This might sound like a gimmick, but the film deploys it as an excellent storytelling tool. The film’s first moment of violence is a small one – Schofield cuts his hand on barbed wire. This reviewer winced more than he normally would, realising this is because the single take approach increases the subjectivity. Cutting away means retreating, however momentarily, to safety. 1917 offers no such safety.

1917-George-MacKay-jump

Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins can add yet another notch to his belt, and credit must also go to Steadicam operators like Pete Cavaciuti. Deakins also deployed remote-controlled cameras on wires, flying across the battlefield. Editor Lee Smith deserves plaudits too, as after a while, the game of looking for the hidden cuts becomes just too hard to play. The device of making the film look like it was magically filmed in a single take calls attention to itself because it is hard not to marvel at the technical mastery required to pull it off, and yet, it is also invisible, creating immersion rather than detracting from it.

1917-George-MacKay-trench-explosion-overhead

Summary: 1917 drops audiences onto the Western Front and is exciting, emotional and harrowing, its visceral impact the result of finely calibrated filmmaking. Inspired by his grandfather’s war stories, Sam Mendes crafts a masterpiece. 1917 captures the weariness, the adrenaline, the desperation, the horror and the sadness of war like few movies before it have.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jojo Rabbit review

For F*** Magazine

JOJO RABBIT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Spies in Disguise review

For F*** Magazine

SPIES IN DISGUISE

Director: Nick Bruno, Troy Quane
Cast : Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka
Genre : Action/Comedy/Animation
Run Time : 1 h 42 mins
Opens : 25 December 2019
Rating : PG

Animation studio Blue Sky is best known for the Ice Age movies, but also made the two Rio movies about Spix’s Macaws. Blue Sky turns their attention to a far more common bird in this action-comedy, loosely based on Lucas Martell’s 2009 animated short film Pigeon: Impossible.

Lance Sterling (Will Smith) is a dashing, somewhat arrogant superspy who hits a snag in his latest mission to save the world. Lance reluctantly turns to Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), a young tech genius working in the spy agency’s gadget labs, for help. Walter is developing a highly experimental form of “biodynamic concealment”, which will allow operatives to disguise themselves as animals and go practically unnoticed. Lance accidentally drinks a serum formulated by Walter, which turns Lance into a pigeon. In this new form, Lance can no longer rely on his highly honed combat skills and must adapt to life as an Avian agent. Pigeon-Lance and Walter must work together to take down Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), a criminal mastermind with a cybernetic arm who is hellbent on acquiring cutting-edge assassin drone technology. Meanwhile, agent Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones) is convinced that Lance has gone rogue and is unaware that he has taken on the form of a pigeon.

Spies in Disguise is often energetic and entertaining, moving along at a decent clip. The film makes great use of stars Smith and Holland – the character designs resemble the actors enough while also being sufficiently stylised. While major animated movies can sometimes feel like they’re cramming a big name in there just for the sake of it, the two stars of Spies in Disguise fit well within this world. Smith’s effortless charm and Holland’s endearing earnestness are played to the hilt. There is the sense that we are watching Smith and Holland themselves, but the movie also does many things that are better suited to animation than to live-action – chief of which being the “human turns into an animal via genetic modification” aspect, which could otherwise be very David Cronenberg-esque.

There is a palpable affection for the spy-fi genre here and the film gets plenty of laughs from juxtaposing James Bond-style coolness and elaborate action sequences with the silliness of one of its main characters having been transformed into a pigeon. Early in the film, we even get an homage to Kill Bill, with Lance facing off against hordes of Yakuza goons. As with any espionage thriller worth its salt, Spies in Disguise features multiple exotic locations, including a villain’s lair in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture and a luxury resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The film’s most outstanding environment is Venice, Italy, featuring a night-time St Mark’s Square filled with pigeons.

With its marquee name stars, wacky premise, colourful animation and wink-and-nod innuendo-based jokes aimed at the parents in the audience, Spies in Disguise sometimes feels like a middling mid-2000s Dreamworks animation product. While the element of a superspy turning into a pigeon is novel and rife with comedic possibilities, much of Spies in Disguise feels formulaic. This is most evident with its villain, Ben Mendelsohn’s Killian. He is mostly just referred to as “robot hand”, because that’s his sole defining characteristic, and Dr Claw from Inspector Gadget beat Killian to the punch some 30-odd years ago. While it’s nice to hear Mendelsohn’s natural Australian accent, he seems woefully underused, especially since there are hints of how truly sinister the character could have been if there were more to him. Seeing as this is a kids’ movie, perhaps it is a good thing that he’s not trauma-inducing levels of scary, but there’s still the sense that there could’ve been more here.

As breezily enjoyable as most of the movie is, there is a slightness to it – there’s just not a lot to the story or to the characters, and the attempts at engendering an emotional investment in the characters are only occasionally successful. Walter’s back-story, drawing on the bond he shared with his mother Wendy (Rachel Brosnahan), is moving but is barely sketched out. Most of the other characters besides the two leads, including Kappel and her surveillance experts Eyes (Karen Gillan) and Ears (DJ Khaled), barely register.

The product placement for the Audi E-tron is perhaps a touch egregious, but then again that kind of thing is all over the James Bond movies anyway.

Spies in Disguise has some flashy action sequences, but some of the best parts of the movie are the interactions between pigeon-Lance and the actual pigeons who form his ‘flock’. The amorous Lovey, Walter’s pet pigeon who immediately develops a crush on pigeon-Lance, is an irresistibly adorable character.

Summary: Spies in Disguise doesn’t deliver anything cutting-edge, but adequately balances spy action with pure cartoon silliness. It plays to the strengths of stars Will Smith and Tom Holland, who complement each other well. It does often feel like a commercial product and the story and characters are feather-light, but it’s fun where it counts.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Cats movie review

For F*** Magazine

CATS

Director: Tom Hooper
Cast : James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Francesca Hayward, Les Twins, Laurie Davidson, Robbie Fairchild, Steven McRae, Danny Collins, Naoimh Morgan
Genre : Musical/Horror
Run Time : 1 h 50 mins
Opens : 26 December 2019
Rating : PG

The following review might be unsuitable for children.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical adaptation of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a compilation of children’s poems by T.S. Eliot, became an unlikely sensation. The show had long runs on both the West End and Broadway, and now comes to the screen in a way that can be most succinctly described as a mistake. Almost all of it is a mistake.

Calling it a “story” is being generous, because Cats is not really meant to have a coherent narrative. The premise is that the Jellicle Cats (say “dear little cats” in a low voice, with a thick posh accent) gather for the Jellicle Ball, a ceremony wherein they sing a song about themselves and one of their number is chosen by the leader Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, after which they will be reborn.

The plot is cat reincarnation X Factor, okay? That’s the plot.

The movie adds on a subplot about Macavity (Idris Elba), who kidnaps some of the other cats to increase his chances of being the Jellicle Choice.

Believe it or not, there are good things about Cats. Most of the changes it makes to the stage musical are baffling and highly counterproductive. However, making Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) the magic cat a soft boy with anxiety works for the story, even if the kinda-romantic subplot between him and Victoria (Francesca Hayward) feels forced.

Robbie Fairchild is good as Munkustrap, the de facto narrator – he was a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet who then became a Broadway star. Fairchild is one of the few performers in the show who sounds like they’ve undergone any actual musical theatre training.

Steven McRae, a principal dancer with London’s Royal Ballet who also dances tap, is a standout as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat.

Dame Judi Dench can do no wrong and is weirdly dignified even when reclining somewhat seductively in a cat bed. Old Deuteronomy has always been played by a man, but the gender-flip works well. The few moments in the film that come close to being emotional are courtesy of Dench.

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler of Hamilton fame, building off the original choreography by Gillian Lynne, would have looked great if it were danced by actual humans and not the hybrid beasts we do get. Similarly, Hayward, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, would have been mesmerising if it were her and not a strange fur-covered CGI approximation of her that were dancing the role.

Everything that makes Cats work as a theatrical production is rendered utterly null here. Even as theatre, Cats is divisive and widely mocked. However, it is a showcase of incredible physicality and athleticism and is, in many ways, purely experiential. You must be there to get it or even remotely think it works.

Some musicals are easier to translate to the screen than others – the ones best-suited to this transition are typically plot-heavy, because things are easier to follow in movie form. Cats never had any plot to begin with, so making a film adaptation is about as futile as herding, well, you know.

There was a 1998 filmed version of the stage show, which featured what pretty much are the standard John Napier costumes and scenic design one might see in a production of Cats. This movie has decided not to go with costumes at all.

It has decided to go with truly horrifying cat-human hybrid monsters.

It should go without saying, but human and cat physiology differ in many ways. However, human physiology is required to dance. As such, some aspects of the characters are very human-like, while others are cat-like. To quote another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “those who have seen your face draw back in fear”. It’s a face covered in digital fur, with cat ears sat atop it and whiskers above the mouth, yet the noses, lips and teeth are very human. One never quite gets over it.

You can see a performer in makeup and a leotard and accept that they’re playing a cat in the context of theatre, but this “realistic” approach almost twists the visual cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, the parts of the brain that recognise something as human. The scale is also wildly inconsistent, changing not just between scenes, but between shots. In some moments, the cats are the height of trash cans, and in others, three of them fit in a dumbwaiter.

The instrumentation is baffling, and a lot of it seems to be midi, when a movie has access to an orchestra full of real instruments since there aren’t the space limitations of an orchestra pit (or in the case of most productions of Cats, a little alcove hidden behind the set). A flailing effort is made to give some of the songs more of a pop sound, with snyth drums.

There is a new song written by Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Swift, called “Beautiful Ghosts”. “If you can’t get T.S. Eliot, get T.S.,” Swift (jokingly?) declared in a behind-the-scenes promo spot with all the hubris of a White Star Line official saying the Titanic doesn’t need that many lifeboats. “Beautiful Ghosts” has some awful lyrics (including rhyming “wanted” with “wanted”) and is the movie’s featured ballad, but is performed by Hayward, who is not primarily a singer and struggles vocally.

There are so many ways this movie doesn’t work; it’s a veritable fancy feast. It doesn’t work on a design level, it doesn’t work as a musical, it doesn’t work as family-friendly entertainment and it doesn’t work as an adaptation of the stage show. It. Doesn’t. Work.

The cast is mostly awful. James Corden and Rebel Wilson are annoying, but you knew this already. Both Bustopher Jones and Jennyanydots are silly characters who should be endearing but are rendered irritating by performers that many audiences are already predisposed to disliking.

Jason Derulo is an embarrassingly bad Rum Tum Tugger, unable to enunciate any of the lyrics and never exuding the irrepressible rock star charisma demanded of the character. He makes the sexiest character in the show decidedly unsexy. Derulo complained about his penis being digitally removed, which a) were they all filming this naked? And b) that’s the least of his concerns, really.

It pains us to say that Jennifer Hudson completely butchers “Memory”, the one song from this most people know. She goes for the Anne-Hathaway-in- LesMisérables-style crying delivery, complete with mucus. It results in a screechy, sometimes-unintelligible delivery that wants to be emotional, but cannot because it is sung by an unholy human-cat monster.

Taylor Swift is awful – she doesn’t have the voice to sing musical theatre, and she adds a “sexy” affectation on top so it sounds even shallower than usual. She also puts on a bad posh English accent. Of everyone in this, she seems the most pleased with herself, the most convinced she is doing great.

Idris Elba’s villainous Macavity is never intimidating because, again, this is all ridiculous.

Sir Ian McKellen laps milk out of a bowl and says “meow meow meow” and comes away with his dignity way less intact than Dench’s.

The characters apparently have no assholes, so critics have been quick to tear Cats a new one. To quote yet another Lloyd Webber musical, they’re “Falling over themselves to get all of the misery right”. The thing is, yes, bad movies exist, but bad movies made by major studios that are bad in this many ways are a rarity. Many, many people had to approve the bad decisions that comprise Cats. Hundreds of people worked on this – visual effects artists were working on the movie even after it had been released, with a version with “improved visual effects” made available to theatres a week into its US release – polishing the kitty litter, if you will.

In a world of franchises, of focus groups and test audiences, of movies needing to play to four quadrants and in every market around the world, a fiasco on this scale is a precious, beautiful, horrendous thing to behold. It is viscerally distressing – you feel it in your very bones. Something this bad is typically made by bumbling would-be auteurs with delusions of grandeur: your Tommy Wiseaus, your James Nguyens, your Neil Breens. Not Oscar-winning directors.

Cats has brought forth the most entertaining reviews in a long time because it is awful in ways that movies just usually aren’t.

Summary: H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories about Eldritch abominations: stare at them for too long, or try to describe them, and one goes mad. Cats is the perfect Lovecraftian horror movie. The horror, the horror.

RATING: 1 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker review

For F*** Magazine

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast : Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 h 22 mins
Opens : 19 December 2019
Rating : PG13

42 years after the original Star Wars movie redefined cinema and started an enduring worldwide phenomenon, J.J. Abrams rings the curtain down on the Skywalker Saga with this film. While this certainly will not be the last piece of Star Wars media or indeed the last Star Wars movie ever, it’s still momentous that this marks the conclusion of the overarching core story of a galaxy far, far away.

Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega), the heroes of the Resistance, are flung together for a high-stakes mission with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance, as it always seems to. Under the leadership of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), the Resistance continues its fight against the First Order, led by her son, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The resurgence of the ancient evil known as the Sith, locked in a never-ending conflict with the Jedi, unearths long-buried secrets as foes and allies both old and new are drawn into the fray. Rey’s struggle to find her place in the galaxy and Kylo Ren’s own long-standing inner conflict take both characters to places they never imagined they would go.

You know the Aesop’s Fable about the man, the young boy and the donkey? The one about how you can’t please everyone? One imagines director/co-writer J.J. Abrams as the man in that story. There is no denying that making The Rise of Skywalker was a daunting undertaking, overwhelming in breadth (if perhaps not depth) as a story that must function as the conclusion to not just one trilogy, but three. Taking this into consideration, there is a lot in this film to enjoy.

From the word ‘go’, The Rise of Skywalker is unrelenting, and it is this propulsive kinetic energy that keeps the movie going and going and going, making its 142-minute runtime zip by. Our characters jump from set-piece to set-piece, planet to planet, taking the audience along with them. There are several involving action sequences and the lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo Ren on a barge in a roiling sea is among the best in the whole series.

Rey, Finn and Poe spent most of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi apart, and The Rise of Skywalker makes it a point to have these three characters share multiple scenes. We see how each of these characters has grown and evolved and how the events of the past two films have shaped them. The interplay between them, especially between Finn and Poe, is often entertaining. The resolution of the struggle between Rey and Kylo Ren will not please everyone, but there is an elegance in its execution, and it winds up being satisfying while also being unsatisfying, which seems like the intention.

There is a palpa…ble affection for the movies that came before, and as a result one can sense how hard Abrams, co-writer Chris Terrio and crew were trying to create something that honours the films of the past while also not directly contradicting what has been established earlier, which is easier said than done. This is, if nothing else, a big “points for trying” scenario.

The aforementioned Aesop’s Fable ends with the man and his son, carrying the donkey suspended by a pole on their shoulders, falling off a bridge into the river below and drowning. It sometimes feels like The Rise of Skywalker is doing just this. In nostalgia-driven franchises, fans are especially wary of “fan-service” – moments geared to elicit a positive reaction simply by reminding said fans of something they like. The Rise of Skywalker is stuffed with these moments. As a Star Wars fan, this reviewer did enjoy many of them, but after a while, it can get a bit tiresome when one realises this might be getting in the way of the storytelling. It’s like eating dessert for dinner: it’s fun at first, but by the end it’s too much of a good thing.

Much was made about how The Rise of Skywalker would apparently ‘retcon’ the events of The Last Jedi. While on the surface it seems like nothing here contradicts the events and the revelations of that film, one can tell that the vocal backlash against it did affect this movie – one would argue negatively. For all The Last Jedi’s perceived flaws, it was at the very least interesting. It was challenging in the way The Rise of Skywalker never is. Whatever was interesting about The Last Jedi feels flattened here.

Perhaps The Rise of Skywalker just doesn’t need to be challenging and people actually prefer it this way, but as the Skywalker Saga bounds to the finish line, it feels like narratively, the series as a whole has taken a step backwards. The film was originally set to be directed by Colin Trevorrow, and Trevorrow still receives a “story by” credit alongside Derek Connolly, Abrams and Terrio. Perhaps it was in the reworking of Trevorrow and Connolly’s original script that things got messy.

The breakneck pacing means that the movie is never boring, but there sometimes is the sense that it serves to paper over the cracks and stop audiences from pausing to look around them. The film’s haste also means that several important revelations and developments just whiz by without a chance to meaningfully explore them.

There is a sentimentality to The Rise of Skywalker, but it can be argued that the stories that have endured through the ages are often sentimental. Much of that sentimentality arises from seeing familiar faces, including C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), on new adventures that contextualise their relationships to the other characters. The two main new characters introduced here, the warrior Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and the helmeted spice runner Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), both feel very Star Wars-y.

Considering how poorly a section of Star Wars fans have conducted themselves and how they have expressed their vitriol over certain instalments of the series, making hating something a core part of their personality, there is a comfort in seeing the characters embrace and express their affection for each other. Many elements of The Rise of Skywalker might seem overly engineered, but the positivity and the message of people uniting to defend what they hold dear is sincere.

The film’s greatest accomplishment is in bringing Carrie Fisher’s Leia to the screen one last time. Through an ingenious and nigh-seamless combination of unused footage from The Force Awakens, body doubles, compositing and possibly a soundalike voice actor, the late Fisher delivers a stirring, dignified and supremely moving final performance. This is, after all, the conclusion to the Skywalker saga and this movie does place the family, the surviving members of whom are Leia and Kylo Ren, front and centre. There is a reverence which makes The Rise of Skywalker sometimes trip over itself, but the Skywalkers are given their due and then some here.

The Rise of Skywalker has myriad flaws, but it closes out the nine-film cycle in grand fashion. In straining to please fans, the film will probably end up divisive, just in a different way from The Last Jedi. Regardless, The Rise of Skywalker is still an achievement and it might not be the conclusion to the saga that this reviewer was hoping for, but we’re not quite sure how else we would have done this.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Cats (Musical, 2019-2020) – review

For F*** Magazine

CATS

17 Dec 2019 – 5 Jan 2020
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

One of the most popular and enduring stage musicals since its premiere on the West End in 1981, audiences around the world can’t seem to get enough of Cats. This is the fifth time the all-singing all-dancing feline denizens have arrived in Singapore. Featuring music by mega-composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by poet T.S. Eliot, there’s no doubt Cats is a phenomenon, even if it can be puzzling as to why.

Cats is a famously divisive show among theatre-lovers: it has its passionate devotees as well as its scoffing detractors, perhaps not unlike anything that becomes immensely popular. The success of Cats on the West End and on Broadway gave rise to the ‘megamusical’ trend, with shows becoming increasingly spectacle-based and geared towards family audiences and tourists.

It is by now a familiar chestnut that Cats doesn’t really have a plot, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. General audiences are so used to musical theatre productions being story-based that the revue format of Cats might seem difficult to get into, but the show has a way of making audiences surrender to it – we’ll discuss said ways as this review continues.

It’s more a premise than a plot: once a year, a clowder of cats who call themselves ‘Jellicle Cats’ gather for the Jellicle Ball – “Jellicle” being the way Eliot heard posh English people say “dear little”. At this momentous event, one of them is chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer – cat heaven. This cat will then be reincarnated. The cats all sing about themselves and each other: there’s the rock-n-roll sexpot Rum Tum Tugger, the mischievous cat burglars Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, Gus the Theatre Cat, the slinky Macavity the Mystery Cat and the dishevelled outcast Grizabella the Glamour Cat, among many others. The Jellicles are led by Old Deuteronomy, who must eventually select one of them to ascend.

This reviewer can explain why shows like The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, Les Misérables and The Lion King have become international phenomena. This reviewer cannot quite do the same for Cats and perhaps that is a part of the show’s peculiar charm. You’ve heard it all before: Cats is weird. Cats is bonkers. Especially with the upcoming live-action-ish film adaptation, the show is something of an easy target. And yet, Cats is wonderful. Cats is irresistible. And Cats must be seen to be understood – maybe “understood” is too strong a word, but you catch our drift.

Cats is stuffed with whimsy and eccentricity, and just the characters’ names (we haven’t even gotten to Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones) are wont to elicit bemused chuckles. There is a playful innocence to it, but also a roiling sexuality beneath the surface. These cats sing and dance, but one also imagines them – to borrow lines from another Lloyd Webber musical – “hustling and fighting, scratching and biting”.

At the time it debuted, Cats was perhaps the most avant garde mainstream thing – or the most mainstream avant garde thing. There’s no denying it’s weird, but this is the theatre we’re talking about – if one seeks it out, one will find far, far weirder things out there. Cats is just a little bit past the average amount of weird and revels in this niche space.

The history of the show’s development is full of strange and wonderful little nuggets. The show struggled to find financing and almost did not come to fruition, with Lloyd Webber on the verge of quitting and scrapping the whole thing multiple times. Eliot’s widow Valerie was understandably wary and closely watched the development of the project. Dame Judi Dench was set to play Grizabella but tore her Achilles tendon in rehearsal, with Elaine Page stepping in. The treatment of various characters has also evolved – the “Growltiger’s Last Stand” sequence went through multiple iterations, attempting to negotiate the racism in Elliot’s original text (the slur “chinks” was used and the villains were Siamese cats, with an earlier iteration of the show even having the actors put on exaggerated East Asian accents).

More than perhaps any other stage musical, Cats is also something that must be experienced live. Naturally, all live theatre is best experienced live, but photos and videos do not do the immersive nature of Cats any justice. Especially seated in the stalls, with the characters darting through the aisles, going up to sniff audience members, pausing to look around before scampering on and offstage, it’s hard not to be delighted. There isn’t much of a point in looking for something in the story to be emotionally invested in, but people have found things in many of the characters to connect to.

Photo by Jedd Jong

The set largely remains the same but is so detailed that one imagines wandering around it, constantly discovering new things. Scenic designer John Napier, whose credits also include Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, has crafted a junkyard playground that is the ideal backdrop for all of Cats’ craziness to unfold against. There’s a great Easter Egg here too – a license plate reads “NAP13R”.

One of the main draws of the show is just how demanding it is on its performers, and as a result, how spectacular it is. This is a very dance-heavy show; its original choreography by the late Gillian Lynne, who also choreographed The Phantom of the Opera. It’s not dissimilar to watching a Cirque du Soleil show, marvelling at what these performers have trained to do. When Mungojerrie (Joe Henry) and Rumpleteazer (Kristy Ingram) cartwheel and handspring across the stage, we accept that this is just the way the characters are because of the effortlessness with which these feats are performed. Actors from the show’s past have consistently described it as among the most challenging and rewarding shows of their careers.

The show’s best-known song is of course “Memory”, sung by Grizabella (Joanna Ampil). The cast of this production largely hails from the UK, with the main exception of Ampil, who is Filipino. The Broadway and West End star has played Grizabella in earlier productions of Cats, and starred in Miss Saigon, Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Misérables and Rent, among others. Interestingly, the poem about Grizabella was initially unpublished, with Eliot deeming the character too sad for a children’s book. We first hear “Memory” as a prelude – strained and feeble, since Grizabella is herself elderly and weak. It might be jarring for those who only know the song as performed by popular artists. It is only later in the show that Ampil showcases her power and “Memory” roars to brilliant, stirring life, in what is the show’s cathartic emotional climax.

George Hinson has a grand old time thrusting away as Rum Tum Tugger, who has all the lady cats eating out of his paw. Nicholas Pound, who has also played Old Deuteronomy on the West End and in previous tours, lends warmth and authority to the leader of the Jellicle cats.

Photo by Jedd Jong

However, the standout performer is not a featured star. Danielle Cato plays Cassandra, a cat who has no lines, but handily (pawily?) steals the show. Cato’s physical precision and litheness is utterly mesmerising. She is always aware that she’s playing a cat, and even when she’s just sitting on stage, it’s hard to look away from her. She perfectly captures that thing cats do when they suddenly realise they’re great and get extremely pleased with themselves for a moment, before returning to being bored.

          Cats is not for everyone, yet everyone should see it at least once just to get a feel for what all the fuss is about. Once one adjusts to not expecting a traditional three act narrative and looks at the show as a tapestry, as a shimmering reflection of the various colourful characters that make up any social group and that we might know in real life, Cats becomes easier to understand – well, “understand” is a strong word.

Jedd Jong

Photos: The Really Useful Group (except where otherwise stated)

Cats is presented by BASE Entertainment Asia and runs from 17 December 2019 to 5 January 2020 at the Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. Tickets start from $50. Visit https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/ccats0120 for tickets and more information.

Wet Season (热带雨) review

For F*** Magazine

WET SEASON (热带雨)

Director: Anthony Chen
Cast : Yeo Yann Yann, Koh Jia Ler, Christopher Lee, Yang Shi Bin
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 28 November 2019
Rating: M18

2013’s Ilo Ilo was hailed as one of the best Singaporean films in recent memory, winning awards at international film festivals including Cannes and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. Critics and filmgoers were keenly watching the film’s young writer-director Anthony Chen to see what he would do next. After executive-producing and co-writing the anthology film Distance, Chen has returned to the director’s chair with Wet Season. This film has already been making the festival rounds, debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival and receiving six nominations for the Golden Horse Awards, winning Best Actress for Yeo Yann Yann.

Ling (Yeo Yann Yann) is a Malaysian-born Chinese language teacher at a secondary school in Singapore. She has been trying for a baby with her husband Andrew (Christopher Lee) for years. Andrew works in finance and is too busy at work or entertaining clients to spend much time with Ling. Ling is also responsible for caring for Andrew’s ailing father-in-law (Yang Shi Bin), a stroke patient. When Ling holds a remedial class in school, only one student, Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler), shows up. Wei Lun appears to have been neglected by his parents, and Ling gradually takes a liking to Wei Lun, sending him home from school in her car. She also shows up to support Wei Lun at an wushu competition where he is representing the school. Ling and Wei Lun find solace in each other, but they soon become inappropriately close.

Wet Season takes what could easily have been a trashy, sensational premise and approaches it from a very sensitive, thoughtful point of view. The movie spends a lot of time setting up the circumstances surrounding its two main characters, never seeming like it’s racing to a big, dramatic plot point. Malaysian Yeo Yann Yann has repeatedly proven herself as a remarkable, subtle actor, and her performance here is as affecting as ever. Ling’s deep sadness manifests in every gesture, every glance – one can tell that great care was taking in developing the character both by Yeo and writer/director Chen.

Koh Jia Ler’s playfulness and youthful energy serve as a great foil for Yeo’s more subdued performances. Chen does a great job of juxtaposing Wei Lun’s immaturity against Ling’s maturity. Both are different characters, and while Ling is better developed, it doesn’t feel like Wei Lun is just a caricature either.

Veteran Chinese theatre actor Yang Shi Bin is remarkably convincing as Ling’s disabled father-in-law. Chen told the press that overseas film journalists thought that he had cast an actual stroke patient in the role.

The more cynical among us might view Wet Season as calibrated to play well at overseas film festivals. Its combination of controversial subject matter with the specificity of the Singapore setting means that to a European or American journalist, it might feel like a textbook critically acclaimed foreign film. That’s not to take anything away from the immense work that Chen and his cast and crew have sunk into this, but the thought was at the very back of this reviewer’s mind.

Ling’s husband Andrew is meant to be an unlikable character, but Christopher Lee’s performance lacks the nuance that his co-stars bring to the table. It sometimes seems like Andrew has wandered out of a Chinese-language drama aired on Channel 8.

The film features beautiful cinematography by Sam Care that enhances the contemplative nature of the movie and emphasises stillness, but it’s the sound design and mixing that stands out even more than the visuals. The film’s sound department includes sound designer/supervising sound editor Zhe Wu and production sound mixer/supervising sound editor Li Chi Kuo. As the title suggests, Wet Season is set during a period of high rainfall. The film features no non-diegetic music, such that the rainfall serves as the movie’s soundtrack and as a kind of inner monologue for Ling. It’s a creative decision that serves the story well, enveloping the audience in atmosphere and drawing them into the story.

The challenges faced by the characters in the film are easy for many around the world to relate to, but the setting is deliberately very Singaporean. One of the themes in the film is how students have an aversion to learning Chinese, and how schools place the language as a lower priority than subjects like Mathematics or English. The relationship between Malaysia and Singapore is also touched on, and a subplot involves caring for an elderly relative, a responsibility many Singaporeans undertake. The movie never comes off as preachy, weaving all the issues it addresses into its narrative fabric.

One technique that Chen uses to increase verisimilitude is showing characters on the toilet. This is carried from Ilo Ilo. One wouldn’t usually see a character on the toilet in a movie, so this makes the movie feel more like real life. There is also a scene in which Ling’s father-in-law soils himself; the camera never shying away from the mess.

Wet Season’s premise, coupled with the fact that its protagonists have previously played mother and son, might set tongues wagging, but Chen approaches the subject matter with enough careful nuance. It’s a sad, moving film that rarely goes straight for the tear ducts, and by the time we get to a big, dramatic emotional beat, it is well earned.

Summary: Anthony Chen’s portrait of a forbidden relationship between teacher and student is layered with heart and a sprinkling of humour. The film feels thoroughly authentic and is anchored by its excellent leads, Yeo Yann Yann delivering a powerhouse performance without doing anything overwrought.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Knives Out review

For F*** Magazine

KNIVES OUT

Director: Rian Johnson
Cast : Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer, K Callan, Noah Segan, Riki Lindhome, Frank Oz
Genre : Mystery/Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 2 h 10 mins
Opens : 27 November 2019
Rating: PG13

Writer-director Rian Johnson has recently become known for helming Star Wars: The Last Jedi and is working on forthcoming Star Wars spin-off films. He had intended to make an Agatha Christie-inspired film after finishing Looper, but made The Last Jedi first, now returning to that idea.

On the night of his 85th birthday party, renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies of an apparent suicide in his study. Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is called upon to investigate alongside Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). The detectives interview Harlan’s family, including his children Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Walt (Michael Shannon) and their respective spouses Richard (Don Johnson) and Donna (Riki Lindhome). Also present are Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) and his grandchildren Ransom (Chris Evans), Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell). The one person who might hold the key to the mystery is Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who became the author’s friend and confidant in his last days.

As startling revelations are made and the web of intrigue expands, the truth seems ever more elusive.

Knives Out is deliciously funny, dark and crafted with the utmost care. Johnson brings both a forensic eye to detail and a razor-sharp wit to the proceedings, assembling an intricate mystery. The movie functions both as an affectionate parody of classic whodunits and as an excellent example of a whodunit. Knives Out is filled with plants and payoffs, feints and misdirects, all executed with a master’s touch. Johnson achieves a tonal balance such that the winks and nods largely do not detract from the absorbing, ever-deepening mystery at the story’s core. Early on, one character comments that Harlan practically “lived in a Clue board,” which sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Johnson works with his usual editor Bob Ducsay and usual cinematographer Steve Yedlin to make a film that is not only narratively clever, but visually clever too. Much of the film consists of closeups of the actors’ face, inviting audiences to read said faces for clues. As with any good whodunit, it’s not just the “who” that audiences will care about, but the “why” and the “how”.

Knives Out is intended as a throwback but is also set in present day. While the political context to the story makes sense and does add dimensions to it, some pop culture references seem a bit out of place. The Hamilton one works, but the Baby Driver reference less so. Sometimes, the movie winks just a bit too hard, like when a character is literally watching Murder, She Wrote on TV. It is also easy to miss a lot of the film’s subtlety because of how broadly comedic it appears on the surface.

Johnson has gathered a fantastic ensemble cast. It would take far too long to talk about just how good each actor is in their roles, so we’ll mention a few highlights.

Just like in Logan Lucky, Daniel Craig sports a Southern accent that is deep fried and slathered in cream gravy. It is unconvincing but amusing and Craig, much funnier than most give him credit for, is clearly enjoying every second of this. Benoit Blanc is a pastiche of the “gentleman sleuth” archetype and seems to be mainly patterned after Hercule Poirot. Benoit is prone to colourful figures of speech and especially flowery turns of phrase – Craig delivers one monologue about donuts and donut holes with impeccable comic timing.

Ana de Armas will share the screen with Craig again in next year’s Bond film No Time to Die. Her Marta is probably the most fleshed-out character in the film. She’s a hard-working immigrant who is unwittingly drawn into the devious machinations of a wealthy family clamouring for a piece of the inheritance. De Armas is easy to root for, but there’s also just enough room to suspect her.

After being the embodiment of decency as Captain America, Chris Evans gets to kick back as an arrogant, flippant trust fund playboy, in a performance that will remind audiences a bit of his turn in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and Toni Collette are all very watchable, as expected, and add to the texture of the story even if there isn’t a great deal to their parts. Lakeith Stanfield is the ideal straight man to react to this absurdity. Christopher Plummer ties everything together with a knowing manner and a twinkle of his eye – at 89, the thespian hasn’t missed a step.

Each actor contributes something special to Knives Out, and part of Johnson’s talent is in identifying what that contribution is and magnifying it.

Summary: Writer-director Rian Johnson turns genre conventions on their head while staying true to the spirit of the classic murder mystery, crafting an utterly delightful whodunit that reels one in. A talented ensemble cast brings the ceaselessly clever screenplay to wicked life. Equal parts twisty murder mystery and a humorous deconstruction of that genre, Knives Out is a hoot.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong