Sky On Fire (冲天火)

For F*** Magazine

SKY ON FIRE (冲天火)

Director : Ringo Lam
Cast : Daniel Wu, Zhang Jingchu, Joseph Chang, Amber Kuo, Zhang Ruoyun, Fan Guang Yao
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 40min
Opens : 1 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

sky-on-fire-posterIf Katniss Everdeen is the ‘Girl on Fire’, then Ringo Lam is the ‘Man on Fire’ – or at least, he shares that title with Denzel Washington and Scott Glenn. The director of City on Fire, School on Fire, and Prison on Fire I and II has set his sights skywards with this action thriller.

At the futuristic medical facility Sky One, researcher Ko Yuk (Zhang Jingchu) is developing a cure for cancer from ‘ex-stem cells’. Five years earlier, Ko Yuk’s mentor Professor Poon died in a mysterious fire, and Poon’s notebook containing his research perished with him. Ko Yuk was rescued by security guard Chong Tin-Po (Wu), who is now Sky One’s chief of security. Ko Yuk’s husband Tong Wing-Cheung (Fan) is an avaricious businessman whose only priority is turning a profit. Jia-Jia (Chang) and his adoptive sister Jen (Kuo) arrive from Taiwan, in the hopes of treating Jen’s late-stage cancer. They find themselves drawn into the fray as Chi-man (Zhang Ruoyun), Poon’s son, stages a heist to steal the ex-stem cell cure in the hopes of getting to the bottom of his father’s death. As Tin-Po unearths evidence of his boss’ corruption, the security chief must decide where his loyalties lie.

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Lam is among the most influential action film directors to emerge from Hong Kong, coming into his own alongside peers like John Woo, Johnnie To and Tsui Hark. Sky on Fire is written, directed and produced by Lam, who has set out to make an action thriller with some depth to it. Besides reminding viewers of Lam’s earlier work, the title ‘Sky on Fire’ is also more evocative than the originally mooted ‘Battle of Life’.

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Despite Lam’s prowess at staging action, Sky on Fire comes off as clumsy and needlessly convoluted. Instead of being emotionally impactful, the multiple characters whose relatives are dying or who have died from terminal illness make the plot melodramatic. There is an attempt at character development, but the film spends most of its time going in circles. It’s not suspenseful, since there isn’t much mystery to the circumstances surrounding Professor Poon’s death. Its plot point of unscrupulous businessmen profiting off ailing hospital patients is heavy-handed and provides no insightful commentary.

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Sky on Fire is not lacking in action, and all the vehicular collisions are satisfyingly crunchy – never mind that not a single air bag is deployed. The visual effects work only gets totally ridiculous during the film’s bombastic finale, and for the most part, the stunts are tactile. When this reviewer heard about Sky on Fire’s premise, he expected “Die Hard in a high-tech hospital”. Sky on Fire would’ve benefitted from a more focused approach, and containing the bulk of the action in or around the Sky One tower would’ve been a fun logistical challenge to see Lam tackle. As it stands, the Sky One citadel isn’t enough of a character unto itself, and it’s frustrating to watch the film drift off when its supposed anchor is right there. Thankfully, the medical techno-babble is kept to a minimum.

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Lam puts effort into giving the characters dimensions, but he struggles to keep his grip on the narrative. Wu is earnest and intense, delivering the action hero goods without coming off as laughably over-the-top. Wu’s performance further cements this reviewer’s opinion that the actor should be a much bigger deal in Hollywood, and is among the Asian movie stars best suited to staging a full-on crossover.

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As the scientist at the end of her rope, tussling with the dreaded realisation that all her work might be for nought, Zhang Jingchu gives the film a good amount of heart. Chang and Kuo are believable as affectionate siblings who would go to the ends of the earth for each other, even if their subplot is unnecessarily maudlin. Zhang Ruoyun makes a valiant attempt to prove he’s more than a pretty face, playing a satisfyingly complex character. Alas, Fan’s villainous character is too cartoony to pose a significant threat, his over-the-top performance undermining Tong’s despicable actions.

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Sky on Fire’s needlessly overwrought plotting robs the film of its potential for punchy, nail-biting thrills. Several appropriately incendiary sequences are an arsonist’s wet dream, but there are almost as many phony CGI flames as there are real ones. We know this might sound over-sensitive, but the imagery of a skyscraper engulfed in fire does reek of an exploitative invoking of 9/11, at odds with Lam’s righteous indignation at the injustice of the rich exploiting the poor. If more of the movie were dedicated to the break-in and the Sky One tower was better utilised as a setting for the action to unfold against, Sky on Fire might’ve had more of a kick.

Summary: While the performances are largely solid and there’s enough action, Sky on Fire’s heavy-handed themes and scattershot execution leave it feeling lukewarm at best.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Bad Santa 2

F*** Magazine

BAD SANTA 2
Director : Mark Waters
Cast : Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Kathy Bates, Christina Hendricks, Ryan Hansen
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1h 32min
Opens : 24 November 2016
Rating : R21 (Nudity and Coarse Language)

bad-santa-2-posterHo ho f***ing ho – everyone’s favourite chain-smoking, alcoholic, swearing, sex-addicted Santa is back. Willie Stokes (Thornton), a ne’er-do-well conman, thinks his days dressing up as Santa Claus with his accomplice Marcus Skidmore (Cox) playing the part of an elf are over. The duo used to rob department stores at Christmas, but after Marcus shot Willie eight times in in the back, it seemed unlikely that their partnership would resume. Years later, Marcus ropes Willie in to steal from the coffers of Regent (Hansen), the corrupt head of the charity Giving City. Regent’s wife Diane (Hendricks), who oversees the charity’s operations, catches Willie’s eye. Willie is forced to work alongside his estranged mother Sunny (Bates), a hardened criminal who has orchestrated the heist. The trio’s plans are disrupted by Thurman Merman’s (Kelly) arrival in Chicago. Willie won’t admit it, but he’s grown fond of the kid, whose father was imprisoned and whose mother died. As Willie spends Christmas with this peculiar ‘family’, the ruse is in danger of being uncovered.

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Bad Santa has become a cult comedy, an ode to bitter self-destructiveness that serves to counteract saccharine holiday fare. Bad Santa was shocking and irreverent, and suffice it to say, audiences are harder to get a rise out of 13 years later. The idea was first mooted around 2009, and Bad Santa 2 has finally come to fruition. Bad Santa 2 doesn’t try to top its predecessor in the offensiveness stakes: the language, political incorrectness and bawdiness are presented matter-of-factly. Director Mark Waters of Mean Girls fame replaces the first film’s director Terry Zwigoff. Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross’ screenplay is as salty as one would expect, with humour and dialogue that keeps in line with the first film’s tone. The overarching plot revolving around robbing the crooked leader of a charity gives the film enough structure for the jokes to be built on.

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Willie Stokes has become a signature character for Thornton, and nobody quite plays surly like he does. While this is by no means a subtle movie, there’s a degree of nuance that Thornton brings to Willie that enriches the character. Things do get repetitive – there are only so many ways one can be belligerent. However, Thornton’s attempts to find the barely perceptible flicker of light deep within Willie’s blackened heart provide some surprisingly moving moments. It wouldn’t be Bad Santa without Cox’s double-crossing sidekick Marcus, and the two like each other even less than in the first film. It is generally funny, but again, the back-and-forth bickering can get tiresome.

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The big coup here is Bates. Many comedy sequels have used relatives played by big names to continue the story, with mixed results, but Bates is just what Bad Santa 2 needs. In meeting Willie’s mother, we see just why he’s so screwed up. Sunny’s term of endearment for her son is “s***stick”, and Bates works her way through the script’s myriad profanities with aplomb. She fully understands the cynical spirit of Bad Santa and is a hoot to watch. It’s fun to see Sunny pretending to be a kindly old lady, dressing as Mrs. Claus for the charity, and then swiftly reverting to her mouth-like-a-truck-driver self.

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Unfortunately, Lauren Graham couldn’t return because she was busy with filming the Gilmore Girls revival for Netflix. Our leading lady here is Hendricks, whose patented mix of sweet and sexy is a fine complement to Thornton’s gruff curmudgeon tendencies. Of course, even given Willie’s multiple shortcomings, he’s just catnip to the ladies and Diane falls for him. It’s fun to see Kelly return as Thurman all these years later. While there are a great number of jokes at the expense of Thurman’s apparent mental difficulties, his naivete and sweetness and the effect he has on Willie give the film a semblance of a soul.

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A belated sequel to a popular comedy is a tricky proposition: in recent times, we’ve seen Anchorman 2 succeed, but Dumber and Dumber Too and Zoolander 2 fumble the landing. Bad Santa 2 takes another bite out of that acid-soaked candy cane, but there’s just enough character development from the first film. It is fun to see Willie, Marcus and Thurman return, with Bates’ brassy presence mixing things up.

Summary: As crude, mean and unapologetically funny as the first go-round, Bad Santa 2 avoids being merely more of the same thanks to Kathy Bates’ supporting turn.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Lion

For F*** Magazine

LION

Director : Garth Davis
Cast : Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 120 min
Opens : 24 November 2016
Rating : PG

lion-poster“Your heart will lead you home” – so sang Kenny Loggins in The Tigger Movie. Lion tells the true story of one man’s quest to find home, a quarter century after getting lost. It is 1986, and five-year-old Saroo (Pawar) accompanies his older brother Guddu (Bharate) to search for change on a train car. When Saroo falls asleep in the train and it leaves the station, he is separated from Guddu, his sister Shekilah and his labourer mother Kamla (Bose). The train takes Saroo 1200 km away from his home of Khandwa to Calcutta. Saroo doesn’t know his own surname or his mother’s name and can’t speak Bengali, the main language used in Calcutta. He eventually lands in a government centre for abandoned children. Saroo is adopted by John (Wenham) and Sue (Kidman) a couple from Tasmania, Australia.

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In 2007, the now-adult Saroo (Patel) leaves to study hospitality in Melbourne. There, he falls in love with his classmate Lucy (Mara). Over dinner with some of his classmates who were originally from India, Saroo tells them his story. He picks up on a suggestion to use Google Earth as a way of determining where his hometown is, so that he may search for his family. He is afraid of hurting his adoptive parents, who are struggling with their wayward adoptive son Mantosh (Ladwa), and keeps his quest a secret. Over the years, the pieces fall into place, and Saroo inches closer to a reunion with his long-lost family.

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Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography A Long Way Home, which was optioned as a film a month before it was published in 2013. Poet, novelist and screenwriter Luke Davies adapted the film for the screen. Director Garth Davis makes his feature film debut with Lion, which must have been a daunting undertaking. Location filming in India and Australia gives the story scope, both of Saroo’s home countries juxtaposed with each other.

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Lion is a harrowing, compelling tale, one that will resonate especially with adoptive families. The film’s Dickensian first act, with Saroo getting lost and overcoming various frightening obstacles in an unfamiliar big city, is immersive and authentic in its grimness. Through restrained stylistic flourishes, Davis conveys how Saroo is haunted by memories of his childhood and is driven by a desire for closure, the possibility that he might never see his birth mother again gnawing at him. While Lion’s first half is riveting, its second half lacks dramatic urgency. As incredible a story as this may be, Saroo’s outbursts of angst as he tries to trace his hometown grow repetitive, as does his browsing of Google Earth.

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The performances in Lion are uniformly excellent. Each actor seems intent on doing Saroo’s story justice, Patel leading the charge with a heartfelt, subdued turn. There’s a profound sadness in his eyes that sells the trauma burrowing to the surface. Patel’s Australian accent is solid too. Equally deserving of praise is Pawar, who won the role over 4000 other boys. It seems that more is required of the young actor than of Patel, since a good chunk of the film focuses on five-year-old Saroo. The brotherly bond between Saroo and Guddu is endearing, making the inevitable separation all the more painful. It’s an emotionally and physically demanding role that he pulls off with considerable panache. Pawar was unable to attend the film’s U.S. premiere because he was denied a visa. Boo.

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This ranks among Nicole Kidman’s finest work in recent years. Sue is warm and compassionate, but fears that she might not be able to keep her family together. Sue and John embody the most admirable traits of adoptive parents, and it is heart-rending to see them deal with their sons’ respective struggles. Kidman was the real-life Sue’s top choice to play her. Lion reunites Kidman and Wenham, who played enemies in Australia and play a loving couple here. While Wenham has less to do than Kidman, he helps make the onscreen Brierleys a believable family unit.

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Even though Mara gets second billing, her role is not as large as that suggests. Still, the character of Lucy, based on Saroo’s real-life girlfriend Lisa Williams, is kind and supportive while having more dimensions beyond that. Saroo and Lucy fall in love in what seems like an instant; their romance receiving limited development because that’s not where the story’s emotional weight lies.

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Lion has been less charitably described as “Oscar bait”, but it is bereft of the pomposity and self-importance some films of this type possess. Despite certain structural inconsistencies, Lion held this reviewer’s attention and laudably steers clear of being melodramatic and exploitative.

Summary: An impressive cast brings a remarkable true story to life in this powerful, well-made feature film directorial debut from Garth Davis.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Moana

For F*** Magazine

MOANA 

Director : Ron Clements, John Musker
Cast : Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Temuera Morrison, Rachel House, Nicole Scherzinger, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1h 54min
Opens : 24 November 2016
Rating : PG

moana-posterDisney heeds the call of the ocean with the studio’s 56th animated feature film. Young Moana (Cravalho), the daughter of chief Tui (Morrison) and Shira (Scherzinger), lives on the Polynesian island of Motonui. Tui insists that his daughter remain on the island to eventually take over the duties of chief, but Moana is unable to resist the beckoning of the sea. Moana’s grandmother Tala (House) encourages the girl’s instincts, much to Tui’s chagrin. When the Motnonui islanders find their livelihoods threatened as coconut trees fail to bear fruit and no fish can be caught, Moana sets out to find the one person who can fix the situation. This is the demigod Maui (Johnson), who can shape-shift into various animals. Accompanied by the none-too-bright rooster Hei Hei (Tudyk), Moana and Maui embark on a journey to return a mystical artefact known as the Heart of Te Fiti. Neither is too fond of the other, but they will need to work together to survive the arduous voyage and defeat the deadly lava goddess Te Kā.

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Moana is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, Disney animation mainstays whose first film for the studio was 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective. Clements and Musker kick-started the studio’s ‘Renaissance’ period with The Little Mermaid three years later, following that with Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog. The duo undertook extensive research trips to Polynesian islands, and the effort put into authentically capturing and portraying that rich culture is evident in Moana. The animation is detailed and vibrant, with some of the finest computer-generated water we’ve ever seen playing an important role. The ocean is personified as a living entity, with globules of water reminiscent of The Abyss extending from the surface to greet Moana.

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Moana has been billed as being vastly different from all the other Disney Princess films in the studio’s canon, but for the most part, it sticks to a tried and true Hero’s Journey formula. There’s a MacGuffin in the form of the Heart of Te Fiti jewel, there’s a quest to go on and hurdles to overcome. While there’s a big reveal during the film’s climax, there isn’t too much here that’s very surprising. Moana and Maui’s adventures take on an episodic nature. A thrilling action sequence in which the pair is ambushed by a horde of pygmy pirates called the Kakamora brings Mad Max: Fury Road to mind. There isn’t really an overarching villain, with Te Kā only really making her presence felt during the film’s final battle.

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There are plenty of visual gags that work great, including a moment in which Maui hits a snag with his shape-shifting superpowers. Hei Hei, whom Clements describes as “the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation,” is endlessly amusing. However, several stabs at self-referential humour seem a little jarring. Maui tacitly comments on Moana’s status as a Disney Princess, and there’s a particularly on-the-nose reference to The Little Mermaid. There’s also a joke about Twitter that seems Dreamworks-y.

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One of the film’s biggest selling points is that, as with Brave, there isn’t a love interest in sight. Moana has great agency and isn’t defined solely by her relationships to any of the other characters.15-year-old Cravalho was the last of hundreds of Polynesian women to audition. She makes her feature film acting debut here, bringing an appropriate blend of plucky adventurer and 21st Century teenager to her performance. While Moana is a great character, there are familiar elements to her – she wants adventure in a great wide somewhere, and longs to get out from under the thumb of her overprotective father. It is nice that the character is given a noticeably different body type from the standard svelte Disney princess, and the character’s beauty is showcased in beautifully-lit magic hour scenes.

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Johnson’s trademark charm and charisma is on display as Maui, a self-centred demigod who craves adulation. Maui’s facial expressions appear to be modelled directly on Johnson’s, with the signature ‘people’s eyebrow’ look getting the spotlight. The character isn’t intended to be wholly likeable, and while the relationship between Maui and Moana does get satisfactory development, it can be tedious at times. Musker and Clements have cleverly worked some 2D animation into the film, in the form of Maui’s tattoos. ‘Mini Maui’, who acts as the demigod’s conscience, is a clever way of giving Maui his own sidekick.

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We’re not sure why Alan Tudyk was needed solely to make clucking sound effects, but in any case, we’re glad that Hei Hei and Pua the pig don’t talk. Bit of a shame that the adorable Pua was left behind on Motonui and didn’t join Moana, Maui and Hei Hei on their voyage. House’s Gramma Tala is the stock ‘wise grandmother’ archetype through and through, but her interactions with Moana do provide some of the film’s most emotional moments. Jemaine Clement pops up voicing a colossal crab monster named Tamatoa, in what is probably the film’s low point. It seems like such a calculation, that this is the designated scene-stealing supporting villain. Clement’s Tim Curry-type delivery is all too similar to his performance in the Rio films.

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The aspect of Moana that most disappointed this reviewer is the music. Please put away your pitchforks. Oceanic music group Te Vaka, Mark Mancina and vaunted Broadway impresario Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the film’s music, with Miranda writing the lyrics. They’re all fine, but aren’t as hummable as one would expect. Maui may have his magical fish hook, but these songs seem to lack hooks of their own. The Disney animated canon has produced such memorable tunes as Part of Your World, A Whole New World, Beauty and the Beast and, yes, Let It Go. Alas, nothing in Moana is that instantly catchy and memorable. This reviewer is sure the songs will grow on him, but we were hoping for songs that cling to you immediately.

While Moana delivers grand adventure and meticulously-animated spectacle, it doesn’t hit the heights of sublime poignancy which Disney has proven capable of. It’s a fine quest movie with a few lulls and songs that are okay at best, but lots of kids are bound to gravitate to the spirited heroine.

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Inner Workings, the short film preceding the feature, is delightful and infectiously silly. Stick around for a post-credits gag.

Summary: Splendid animation and a sincerity in putting Polynesian culture on the big screen offset Moana’s formulaic elements and somewhat unmemorable songs.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Whole Truth

For F*** Magazine

THE WHOLE TRUTH 

Director : Courtney Hunt
Cast : Keanu Reeves, Renée Zellweger, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Gabriel Basso, Jim Belushi, Jim Klock
Genre : Drama/Courtroom
Run Time : 1h 34min
Opens : 24 November 2016
Rating : NC16 (Sexual Violence)

the-whole-truth-posterKeanu Reeves played a lawyer in 1997’s Devil’s Advocate, in which he dealt with unexpected supernatural goings-on. In this legal thriller, Reeves in back in the courtroom, sans Al Pacino as Satan. Reeves plays Richard Ramsay, a Louisiana defence attorney. As a favour to his friend Loretta Lassiter (Zellweger), Ramsay defends Loretta’s son Mike (Basso), on trial for murder. Mike is accused of murdering his father Boone (Belushi), in what appears to be an open-and-shut case. However, as the trial progresses, disturbing aspects about who Boone really was come to light. Ramsay’s new colleague, a young lawyer named Janelle (Mbatha-Raw), tries to get to the bottom of an increasingly tricky case.

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The Whole Truth was going to star Daniel Craig, but he abruptly dropped out four days before production was set to begin, with Reeves stepping in for him. We can’t say for sure if The Whole Truth would’ve been better with Craig in the starring role. While the whodunit central to The Whole Truth is mildly intriguing, nothing in the movie reels one in. For all the narrative’s twists and turns, The Whole Truth ends up being dull and generic. One of the pitfalls of a courtroom drama film is that this is a genre that seems more at home on TV than on the big screen. Something like 12 Angry Men doesn’t come along all the often, and it will take more than a run-of-the-mill procedural potboiler to make audiences sit up and take notice. The device of flashbacks told from the point of view of possibly unreliable narrators is a good trick, but one that’s been employed in similar movies before.

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There’s no novelty to The Whole Truth, with all the characters fitting familiar archetypes. There’s trouble in paradise as a wealthy family is thrown into crisis, and as a long-time friend of said family, our hero feels an obligation to sort things out. Director Courtney Hunt, who helmed the gritty yet sensitive Oscar-nominated Frozen River, seems to be going through the motions here. She has directed episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and this could well have been a middling episode of that long-running series. Curiously enough, the screenplay was initially reported to be by veteran screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, but the end credits state that it’s by one “Rafael Jackson”. We couldn’t find any substantial information about Jackson, and Kazan retains executive producer credit, so it’s not unreasonable to speculate that this is a pseudonym. Was Kazan embarrassed to be credited as writing the film?

Reeves has a reputation for being wooden, but he’s found success in the right roles – one needs only look to John Wick for evidence of that. Alas, Reeves’ stilted performance detracts from the film’s potential to be riveting and intense. Ramsay, who spouts lines like “just assume everyone’s screwing everyone else until proven otherwise,” is meant to have a façade of glib confidence. However, there’s a crisis of conscience roiling beneath the surface, as he’s torn between the incriminating, undeniable evidence and helping his friend. Reeves appears unable to play all these notes, and perhaps Craig would’ve brought more swagger to the part, making Ramsay harder to pin down and therefore more entertaining to watch.

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This was Zellweger’s first film after a six-year hiatus, filmed before Bridget Jones’ Baby. She’s the standout performer here, playing a trophy wife who’s vulnerable and lost after her husband’s murder – or is that all an act? Zellweger’s raw, convincing performance means we’re never quite sure one way or another. As the accused teenager, Basso doesn’t get too much to do, since, much to Ramsay’s frustration, Mike chooses to stay silent. When the veil is lifted and we discover what’s going on with Mike, Basso gets his moment to shine. `

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Mbatha-Raw injects the dreary proceedings with much-needed energy, and has no problems coming across as attentive and intelligent. The scene in which Janelle cross-examines a character witness is the film’s strongest. While Belushi is fine as a well-off, none-too-pleasant philanderer, it will be a challenge for most audiences to disassociate him from his high-profile comedic roles, most of which are hapless everymen.

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The Whole Truth’s big twist should be a gut-punch, but it registers more as “oh well, so that’s what happened. Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. What should I get for dinner?” We won’t go into the spoilerific specifics, but the use of sexual assault in the narrative comes off as a cheap shock tactic. It all adds up to an underwhelming courtroom drama that is neither absorbing nor thrilling, but just sort of sits there.

Summary: Keanu Reeves’ flat performance and a lack of urgency are two of several factors that sink this mediocre courtroom drama.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Denial

DENIAL

Director : Mick Jackson
Cast : Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Alex Jennings, Caren Pistorius, Mark Gatiss
Genre : Biography/Historical/Drama
Run Time : 1h 50min
Opens : 17 November 2016
Rating : PG-13

denial-posterIn 2000, the U.K. saw one of the most explosive libel trials in history: Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz), an American historian, was sued by Holocaust denier David Irving (Spall). This film, based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier recounts the dramatic court proceedings. Irving, who contended that Hitler never ordered the genocide of Jews, claimed that Lipstadt had defamed him and damaged his reputation by calling him out on his claims. Lipstadt’s legal team is headed by solicitor advocate Anthony Julius (Scott), known for defending Princess Diana during her divorce from Prince Charles. Representing Lipstadt in the courtroom is Richard Rampton QC (Wilkinson), a leading British libel lawyer. With Irving representing himself and Sir Charles Grey (Jennings) as the presiding judge, the high-stakes case draws the attention of the press and holocaust survivors alike.

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It might be tempting for jaded audiences to dismiss Denial out of hand as bog-standard Oscar bait. After all, it has respectable actors, most of whom are British, re-enacting true events centring on heavy themes. We’d implore you to set your cynicism aside, because this is a story worth telling. Each passing year puts more distance between us and the atrocities of the Second World War, but films like Denial rightly champion the relevance and value of remembering and learning about the Holocaust. Most viewers aren’t historians or lawyers, so it falls to screenwriter/playwright David Hare to adapt Lipstadt’s book into digestible morsels. The resulting film is engaging, easy to follow and even thrilling at the right junctures.

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Director Mick Jackson’s body of work, including blockbusters The Bodyguard and Volcano, might not belie subtlety. However, Jackson did win an Emmy for directing the made-for-HBO biopic Temple Grandin. There are times when it feels that the technicalities of the trial have been oversimplified for brevity, clarity and dramatic license, but Denial never comes off as overwrought or condescending. There is an effort made to be faithful to actual events: all the dialogue in the courtroom scenes is taken verbatim from the trial records. The sequence in which Lipstadt, Rampton and the legal team travel to Auschwitz to gather facts was shot on location and is appropriately haunting and sombre. The judicious use of brief flashbacks depicting the Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp are a way for the reality to hit home without the film being emotionally manipulative.

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Weisz is an actress who effortlessly embodies fierce intelligence, and the Oscar-winner gets to sink her teeth into a wonderfully meaty role here. Lipstadt is characterised as a principled, serious academic, who doesn’t take kindly to being told she cannot stand up for herself and who baulks at being discouraged from testifying. Weisz is an English actress playing an American woman, surrounded by English actors using their natural accents, and is completely believable. In the English justice system, the burden of proof lies with the defendant, not the plaintiff, something which baffles Lipstadt. When Lipstadt clashes with her legal team, we’re rooting for her, and she’s not afraid to admit she was wrong when she realises the rationale behind their advice.

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Seeing as this is based on Lipstadt’s first-hand account, it stands to reason that David Irving would be characterised as a thoroughly despicable man, but one could argue that he’s done a fine enough job of that on his own. Still, there’s a complexity to Irving’s views, however skewed, which gets skimmed over in Denial. Irving doesn’t dispute that Jews were killed by Nazis; he disputes that there was an executive order from Hitler specifically targeting Jews. As depicted in the film, Irving seizes on minutiae, distorting the facts to serve his ideology. He longs to be taken seriously in academia despite his views. It’s been said that it’s more fun playing bad guys, and Spall’s performance is evidence of that. Spall has an expressive visage, visibly relishing every second of hateful bluster and does a whole lot of indignant frowning.

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While Scott may be better known for his villainous roles, he’s also fun to watch as Lipstadt’s steadfast ally. He’s composed but direct and keeps a stiff upper lip. Wilkinson’s Rampton looks at first to be a crusty curmudgeon and Lipstadt locks horns with him, but then we get one of the film’s best scenes, in which they cordially break bread and come to an understanding. As architectural historian Robert Jan Van Pelt, an expert witness for the defence, Mark Gatiss turns in a quietly moving, thoughtful performance. Caren Pistorius also makes an impact in her relatively small role as Laura Tyler, a young lawyer on her first case. In her introductory scene, Tyler visits Irving’s house to deliver materials the defence has gathered, and glowers at him in disgust. Lipstadt later develops a heart-warming, almost maternal bond with Tyler.

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Denial may not be the most searing or pertinent film based on a true story, but it is insightful and emotional all the same. Bringing history into the courtroom changes things up from your average legal drama, and its real-life heroine is one you’ll be cheering for throughout the film.

Summary: The court case at the centre of Denial is a tricky one to bring to life, but an able cast led by Rachel Weisz at her sharpest and a sound, cogent script make it a moving, thought-provoking piece.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

For F*** Magazine

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM 

Director : David Yates
Cast : Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Ron Perlman, Jon Voight
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 13min
Opens : 17 November 2016
Rating : PG (Some Disturbing Scenes)

fantastic-beasts-and-where-to-find-them-posterHow exciting can a film based on a textbook be? If the textbook’s about all manner of magical creatures, pretty exciting. It is 1926 and magizoologist Newt Scamander (Redmayne), future author of the textbook Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, arrives in New York. When several animals escape from his briefcase, Newt runs afoul of the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), headed by President Seraphina Picquery (Ejogo). MACUSA’s director of security Percival Graves (Farrell) is tasked with capturing Newt. Porpentina “Tina” Goldstein (Waterston), a former MACUSA agent, aids Newt in tracking the creatures down. Jacob Kowalski (Fogler), a non-magic user or No-Maj, is inadvertently drawn into the fray, and falls for Tina’s telepathic sister Queenie (Sudol).

In the meantime, anti-wizard sentiment in the U.S. is mounting, with the New Salem Preservation Society (NSPS) gaining ground. The hate group is led by Mary Lou Barebone (Morton), whose adopted son Credence (Miller) bears the brunt of her abuse. Mary Lou petitions newspaper magnate Henry Shaw Sr. (Voight) for his support of the NSPS. Henry’s son Henry Shaw Jr. (Josh Cowdery), a U.S. senator, is attacked at a rally by an Obscurus, a sinister parasitic entity. As the wizarding is under threat from all sides, Newt and his newfound allies must restore order to a city flung into mayhem.

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This spin-off of the Harry Potter franchise is intended to expand the film series into a cinematic universe known as the Wizarding World. While we’ve all grown wary of cash-grab franchise extensions, there’s no rule that says they must be devoid of artistic merit. Director David Yates and screenwriter J.K. Rowling are no strangers to the Potterverse – he directed the last four instalments in the series and, well, she created the whole thing. It is a savvy move to make Fantastic Beasts a period piece, giving it a markedly different setting from the Potter films with which we’re familiar. Instead of being a direct prequel, it’s mostly removed from the narrative of the boy wizard and his family history, meaning this serves as an ideal jumping-on point for neophytes and younger viewers who didn’t grow up with the Potter books or films.

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The world-building on display in Fantastic Beasts is meticulous, benefitting from Rowling’s detail-oriented tendencies. Newt experiences some culture shock, and there are little touches which demonstrate how the Brits and Americans do things different. For example, non-magic users are called ‘Muggles’ in the U.K., but are referred to as “No-Majs” across the pond. The 20s New York setting, just before the onset of the Great Depression, is well-realised and immersive. There’s a scene set in a wizard speakeasy and an action set-piece set in the Central Park zoo. We watched the film in IMAX 3D, and the stereoscopic effects are satisfyingly plentiful. James Newton Howard’s score envelops the viewer, and there’s some playful jazz weaved in.

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The titular beasts are plenty of fun, and spectacle isn’t in short supply here. The Niffler, part-badger, part-pangolin and all kleptomaniac, is an adorable mischief-maker. The rhinoceros-esque Erumpent sets the stage for an inspired moment of physical comedy, and Newt has his own Baby Groot in the form of a shy plant-like creature called the Bowtruckle. Newt’s struggles in wrangling the creatures are entertaining, and many of his interactions with the animals are endearing. The visual effects, supervised by Tim Burke and Christian Manz, are extensive and generally impressive. However, this reviewer would like to have seen more practical animatronic creatures mixed in with the computer-generated ones. While Yates does a fine job, we couldn’t help imagining what a director like Guillermo del Toro would’ve created.

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Rowling alludes to the classic film Citizen Kane with Voight’s newspaper owner character and his senator son. Unfortunately, this subplot is under-developed and doesn’t sit cohesively enough with the main plot of Newt’s adventures. The NSPS, with its cult-like nature and cruel matron, is clearly Rowling’s reaction to the religious groups who called for boycotts of the Potter books and films because of their supposedly Satanic content. Newt mentions how he finds the MACUSA’s laws against marrying or even befriending No-Majs to be retrograde. While we appreciate the social commentary and the attempts to give this whimsical fantasy some real-world grounding, it’s not particularly subtle.

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Redmayne is a wonderful fit for this franchise. He seems most at home in period films, and it’s easy to buy him as a tweedy, earnest academic. Redmayne also proves adept at acting against things that aren’t there. As a markedly different type of female lead than Emma Watson’s Hermione Granger, Waterston turns in an appealing, low-key performance. Sudol gets to ham it up a little as the coquettish flapper. Fogler has been a low-rent Jack Black or Seth Rogen for much of his career, but this reviewer enjoyed him as the comic relief sidekick/audience-identification character.

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While the Harry Potter franchise boasts an abundance of colourful supporting characters, those in Fantastic Beasts don’t quite measure up. Farrell’s Graves is the Inspector Javert-type, not unlike his character in Minority Report. There’s a bit of a spin put on things, but perhaps it should’ve been played with more panache. Miller’s Credence is meant to be at once sympathetic and creepy, which he does fine. Ejogo’s Picquery is the equivalent of a police chief on a procedural show, and Voight is woefully underused.

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Fantastic Beasts has enough to offer fans who span the spectrum from “this is kinda interesting” to “legally changed my name to ‘Severus Snape’”. While its story isn’t spectacularly riveting and its social commentary is on the nose, it features likeable lead characters and entertaining spectacle. At 133 minutes though, it is about 15 minutes too long and lapses into multiple endings. It has been announced that there will be five films in the series, but thankfully, this Fantastic Beasts doesn’t do an obnoxious amount of sequel-baiting. Keep an eye out for a certain A-lister as a certain key player in Potter lore.

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Summary: This new chapter in the Wizarding World caters to devotees and newcomers alike, even if the setting is more interesting than the story itself.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

IGNITE THE TIKI TORCH: The stars and filmmakers of Moana light up the ArtScience Museum

For F*** Magazine

IGNITE THE TIKI TORCH
The stars and filmmakers of Moana light up the ArtScience Museum

Words and photos by Jedd Jong

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Disney brought a taste of the rich culture of the Polynesian islands to our own sunny isle, with a light-up at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands on the night of November 9th to kick off the festive season. Disney’s animated musical adventure comedy Moana is inspired by Oceanic mythology and centres on the titular young voyager (voiced by Auli’I Cravalho), who teams up with the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) on an epic ocean-spanning quest.

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Cravalho, producer Osnat Shure, lighting artist Roger Lee and visual development artist Griselda Sastrawinatra were at the ArtScience Museum to officiate the light-up, alongside host Carla Dunareanu. The L.A.-based Nonosina dance troupe performed a Polynesian dance set to Logo Te Pate, a song by Oceanic music group Te Vaka. Te Vaka’s frontman Opetaia Foa’i, alongside Mark Mancina and Broadway impresario Lin-Manuel Miranda, composed the music for Moana. The dance we saw was choreographed by Tiana Nonosina Liufau, who played the drums to accompany the performers.

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“we’re so excited about the holiday season and we always like to kick it off with a festive light-up,” said Marina Bay Sands’ president and CEO George Tanasijevich. “We’re very pleased to feature Moana and to partner with Disney for tonight’s event. Disney has been such a great collaborator with Marina Bay Sands over the years. This is the beginning of the holiday season, so we’re very happy that you could be here tonight.”

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“At Disney, our dream is to create happiness through magical moments for communities around the world,” proclaimed Robert Gilby, managing director of the Walt Disney Company Southeast Asia. “And today, for the Singapore community and for all visitors to Singapore, we’re delighted to celebrate this festive lighting with the star and creators of our latest fun animated feature film, Moana,” he continued. “We hope that the beautiful story and the amazing characters and this festive lighting inspire you to celebrate your own magical moments here at Marina Bay Sands.”

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Moana opens on November 23 2016.

Fallen

For F*** Magazine

FALLEN 

Director : Scott Hicks
Cast : Addison Timlin, Jeremy Irvine, Harrison Gilbertson, Joely Richardson, Lola Kirke, Sianoa Smit-McPhee, Daisy Head, Hermione Corfield, Malachi Kirby
Genre : Drama/Fantasy
Run Time : 1h 31min
Opens : 10 November 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

fallen-posterBefore sexy vampires were as a big a thing as they became, sexy angels were all the rage. The likes of City of Angels, Meet Joe Black and A Life Less Ordinary played into the fascination with someone who could quite literally sweep a girl off her feet. Sexy angels haven’t completely flown away – look at Supernatural’s Castiel. And of course, there are romantic fantasy novels in which the protagonists have the hots for the heavenly host. The Young Adult book Fallen, by Lauren Kate, is one such novel.

Lucinda “Luce” Price (Timlin) is enrolled in the Sword and Cross academy, a boarding school for troubled teenagers. Luce has been seeing disturbing, unexplainable visions, and is trying to escape a traumatic event in her recent past. While she’s treated with hostility by schoolmate Molly (Smit-McPhee), Luce befriends Pennyweather “Penn” Van-Syckle Lockwood (Kirke). Two of the boys in the school immediately catch Luce’s attention: there’s Daniel Grigori (Irvine), who keeps to himself and seems oddly familiar; and there’s Cameron “Cam” Briel (Gilbertson), the rebel without a cause. Sophia Bliss (Richardson), one of the teachers at Sword and Cross, seem to know more than she’s letting on. It’s not long before Luce discovers she’s entangled in an eons-old struggle between three otherworldly factions: the angels who sided with God, those who followed Lucifer into hell, and the undecided angels cursed to walk the earth, dubbed “the Fallen”.

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When it’s not being quite dull, Fallen is delightfully hilarious. This is a film that is one clever editing job and a character who makes metafictional jokes away from being a full-tilt parody of YA fantasy romance. It’s quite baffling that director Scott Hicks didn’t realise how unintentionally funny this all is – or maybe he did, and is hoping the teenage girl demographic just won’t notice. The love triangle in a prep school setting is cheesy enough, but on top of that, we have pseudo-theological gobbledygook slathered on thick. Not only does the film begin with a voiceover prologue explaining the three factions of angels, there’s an expository lecture that covers the same ground.

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The production values aren’t too shabby, with the 19th Century Schossberger Castle in Tura, Hungary playing the part of the Sword and Cross academy. Hungary provides not only the tax breaks, but also the old-world European sensibilities that make Fallen seem grander than it has any right to be. Alar Kivilo’s cinematography is often quite beautiful, though Fallen is guilty of believing that “blurry equals romantic”. Angels must have wings, and the CGI used to create said appendages is quite terrible. While the design team is obviously aiming for a different aesthetic than the traditional tactile, birdlike feathers, it just ends up looking like the production didn’t have the budget for proper wings.

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The acting in Fallen isn’t terrible, it’s just that the movie seems to be littered with clearly labelled boxes, with each character climbing into their allotted box and just never leaving it. The archetypes and the purpose they serve in the plot are so obvious that the turning gears of the narrative are made very noticeable. We have our chosen one protagonist who has a dark and troubled past ™, the slightly boring handsome guy, the dangerous bad boy, the garrulous, chipper geeky best friend, the edgy girl with the torn nylon stockings and dyed bob, and the shifty authority figure who’s hiding something. All present and accounted for. And yes, all the actors playing high school-aged kids look a smidgen too old, but that’s something we’re already used to.

We’ve gone this far without making this comparison, so here goes: Fallen is sub-Twilight, which is saying something. Luce is pretty much Bella Swan, but Timlin is considerably less annoying than Kristen Stewart was in the Twilight films. We’ve got two guys fighting over who’s better suited to protect the girl and stalker-ish tendencies from all three parties. Kirke is pretty tolerable as the designated muggle, and while most YA movies have at least three somewhat respectable actors as the adult supporting characters, we have to make do with one Joely Richardson. One can’t help but think of Richardson’s role in Vampire Academy, which for its tonal issues, had its tongue planted firmly in cheek.

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By the time the Hawkman and Hawkgirl-style millennia-spanning romance is laid out in full, it’s clear that Fallen’s reach exceeds its grasp, in the most laughable way possible. The on-the-nose symbolism – why yes, “Luce” is derived from “Lucifer” – is the cherry on top. This is deeply silly stuff that’s clearly well past its sell-by date. An adaptation of Torment (yes, it’s actually called that), the second book in the series, is apparently in development, which seems awfully optimistic.

Summary: If you roll your eyes when you hear the term “YA paranormal romance”, this is the very thing you’re thinking of.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

WAVERIDERS: The star and filmmakers of Moana island-hop to Singapore

For F*** Magazine

WAVERIDERS
The star and filmmakers of Moana island-hop to Singapore

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This morning, F*** was at Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre in Singapore to meet the leading lady, producer and artists from Disney’s Moana. The film tells the story of its titular heroine’s epic voyage across the ocean. Accompanied by the demigod Maui, voiced by Dwayne Johnson, Moana embarks on a quest to restore life to her home of Motonui, threatened by the lava goddess Te Kā.

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In addition to Moana’s voice actress Auli’i Cravalho, producer Osnat Shurer, lighting artist Roger Lee and visual development artist Griselda Sastrawinata took the stage to talk to the press about the film.

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Before the press conference began, we were treated to a performance of the song How Far I’ll Go from the film. Janella Salvador from the Philippines, Maudy Ayunda from Indonesia, Ayda Jebat from Malaysia, Myra Maneepat Molloy from Thailand and Minh Nhu from Vietnam performed the film in their respective native languages. Molloy and Minh Nhu are voicing Moana in the Thai and Vietnamese dubs of the film respectively.

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Cravalho did seem like a Disney princess come to life, displaying both bubbly enthusiasm and measured poise throughout the press conference. “We’re practically all family from across the sea,” she said cheerily to the crowd.

Clements, Musker and Shurer auditioned hundreds of Polynesian women for the lead role, and Cravalho was the last one they saw. “I didn’t initially audition for Moana, because [at] first, I had seen so many wonderful auditions on YouTube, and my friends were trying out, and I thought ‘you know what, whoever is chosen is going to be so awesome’,” Cravalho admitted.

The character’s name means ‘ocean’, and Cravalho’s hobbies include paddle-boarding and sailing. “It’s meant to be, I now believe in fate,” Cravalho said. She added that she doesn’t do any land sports, because she’s “a klutz on land”.

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Cravalho took the responsibility of representing her Polynesian heritage seriously. “This movie is real,” she proclaimed. “Wayfinding and navigating by the stars, that’s something that my ancestors really did, so the fact that Disney has made a film that is inspired by my culture, gives me a great deal of pride.” Moana is an adventurer, descended from a long line of voyagers who settled down and stopped traversing the ocean a thousand years ago. “Another thing that I love about Moana is that I get to describe her as a heroine,” Cravalho enthused.

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Great pains were taken to ensure that the rich culture of Oceania was not shown in a superficial manner, with Clements and Musker leading multiple research expeditions to the Pacific Islands. Disney assembled a team of advisors who came to be known as the Oceanic Story Trust, comprising anthropologists, archaeologists, educators, linguists, master tattooists, dance choreographers, haka practitioners, navigators and experts on Polynesian culture.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACravalho’s choice of favourite Disney character made perfect sense – it was a heroine who, like Moana, embarked on a life-changing, self-sacrificial adventure: Mulan. “She’s so incredibly amazing and she broke that gender norm, she went out there and did her thang. I remember telling myself at a young age, ‘that’s what I want to do.’ I want to honour my family wherever I go,” Cravalho declared.

Shurer was quick to acknowledge the massive team who assembled the film, saying “Disney has hundreds and hundreds of artists in our studio from over 25 countries, and that adds to the richness and diversity of everything we do. When you see the film, you see everyone’s work, so
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Two of those artists, Lee and Sastrawinata, have become hometown heroes. Lee was born and raised in Singapore and moved to the United States four years ago to pursue a career in animation at Walt Disney Animation Studios as a lighting artist, lighting and compositing shots. Lee’s credits include such blockbusters as Frozen, Big Hero 6 and Zootopia. “This dream seemed so out of reach, Disney seemed so far away,” Lee reflected. “It definitely needs a lot of perseverance, I focused on what I wanted to do and kept tweaking my path”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASastrawinata joined Disney Animation a year ago, and Moana is her first film at the studio. “I didn’t think that I would work on a movie with directors whose movies I watched as a kid, Aladdin and Little Mermaid, so it’s just
amazing to get to do that,” Sastrawinata said. She gravitated to the film’s lead character, recalling “I heard about Moana, a story with a heroine, and I was like ‘yes, put me in it!’”

“It’s going to make you laugh, it’s going to make you cry and it’s going to make you think,” Shurer promised. “Moana in part is about us stopping to listen to the voice inside ourselves. The world will always tell you who you’re meant to be, and it’s the voice inside us who tells us who we really are,” Shurer explained. “Any age, any gender, to stop to listen and to follow that call is relevant to every one of us.”

At the conclusion of the press conference, Cravalho, Shurer, Lee and Sastrawinata were presented with bento boxes designed by Shirley Wong. Made with local ingredients, the food was arranged to resemble characters from Moana. “This is the most beautiful food I’ve ever seen,” Cravalho exclaimed.

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Moana opens on 24 November 2016 in Singapore.

Cravalho, Shurer, Lee and Sastrawinata will attend a festive light-up ceremony at the Helix Bridge at Marina Bay Sands tomorrow night, 9th November 2016, at 8 pm.

 Words and pictures by Jedd Jong