The Greatest Showman movie review

For inSing

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

Director : Michael Gracey
Cast : Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Paul Sparks
Genre : Musical/Drama
Run Time : 1h 45m
Opens : 28 December 2017
Rating : PG

For years, Hugh Jackman has been saying “let’s put on a show” – specifically, a movie musical based on the life of showbiz pioneer P.T. Barnum. The project was announced in 2009, and with The Greatest Showman, Jackman’s dream has come true – but just how much was this endeavour worth the actor’s blood, sweat and tears?

Phineas Taylor ‘P.T.’ Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is an enterprising showman who, after being fired from his job as a shipping company clerk, takes the biggest risk of his life: he sinks whatever money he has left into a museum of oddities. Barnum came from nothing, but married far above his station to Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams), his childhood sweetheart. The couple have two daughters: Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely).

When wax figures and stuffed animals alone fail to draw crowds, Barnum puts out the call for human oddities and persons with unique acts to join his museum, which soon gets rebranded as a ‘circus’. These include bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), dwarf Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey) who takes on the stage name ‘General Tom Thumb’, sibling trapeze artists Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) Wheeler, conjoined twins Chang (Yusaku Komori) and Eng (Danial Son) Bunker, and Prince Constantine (Shannon Holtzappfel), whose whole body is covered in tattoos.

Barnum ropes in playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to be his partner. The aristocratic young man is initially hesitant to throw in with Barnum, but eventually does. Carlyle falls in love with Anne, but because of racial prejudices, both fear they will be ostracised if they enter a relationship. James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks), theatre critic for the New York Herald, decries Barnum’s show as vile and debasing, while angry hordes protest the show because they do not want the ‘freaks’ to be seen out in public.

As Barnum’s success grows despite ever-increasing odds, so does his hubris. Barnum becomes besotted with opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), dubbed the ‘Swedish Nightingale’. He forsakes his crew of circus oddities and his own family to advance Jenny’s career in the United States. As Barnum chases fame and fortune, he must re-evaluate his priorities and decide how much is enough.

The Greatest Showman very much wants to be a great time for the whole family: uplifting, joyous, inspirational and bursting with dazzling visual spectacle. This is a movie that works better if you know nothing about P.T. Barnum. This movie dearly hopes you know nothing about P.T. Barnum. This won’t be the first review to state that perhaps the historical figure is not the best match for a tolerance-driven story about embracing one’s differences. There’s a site called History vs. Hollywood that handily compares fact-based movies with actual events, and the page for The Greatest Showman might as well just say “yeah, no”.

This is a man who got his big break exhibiting a slave woman named Joice Heth, billing her as being 161-years-old and having been George Washington’s nursemaid. After Heth died, Barnum held a live autopsy in a Broadway theatre, attended by 1500 paying audience members. And that’s just the beginning of his career in showbusiness.

Looking past that – which is a lot to look past – there is plenty in The Greatest Showman to appreciate. This is an adoring tribute to the glory days of the movie musical. Movie musicals must often hide that they are musicals, since a big section of filmgoers dislike the genre. In The Greatest Showman, there are eleven original songs, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – the duo who won an Oscar for La La Land and a Tony for Dear Evan Hansen. This film was in development before Pasek and Paul made it big.

The film’s songs all have a radio-friendly Top 40 sound – Jackman has said that he wanted the music to be something his youngest daughter would want to listen to. This is a bit of a double-edged sword – the anachronistic-sounding songs make it feel like the movie is so close to a full-on throwback, but took one crucial step back. Some of the pop instrumentation is distracting, and the movie’s low point is when the opera singer performs what is decidedly not opera.

The big signature number “This Is Me”, an ecstatic celebration of being different that is performed with gusto and sincerity by Settle, is anthemic and has a wonderful message. “Rewrite the Stars” is meant to be a sweeping romantic duet, but is instead entirely cheesy. “You know I want you/ It’s not a secret I try to hide/ But I can’t have you” are actual lyrics in the song.

The film’s group numbers are uniformly excellent. There is such dynamism to the staging, and the choreography by Ashley Wallen is a technical achievement, given the synchronisation involved, not to mention groups of dancers navigating various obstacles and special effects going off. “The Other Side”, a duet between Barnum and Carlyle in which the former talks the latter into joining him, features a fiendishly clever bit in which shot glasses are moved across a bar counter to the beat of the music.

Jackman gives this his all, and it is invigorating to see a performer who is so in his element. He’s a song and dance man as much as he is a claw-baring action hero, and he’s right at home in this movie.

Williams puts in a quietly moving performance, and her solo number, the wistful “Tightrope”, is this reviewer’s favourite song of the film. Efron is slick and charming – he’s kind of floundered about choosing many bad projects, but The Greatest Showman fits his skill set to a tee.

Zendaya is captivating, effortlessly poised and glamorous, yet also evincing the sadness beneath Anne’s surface. The forbidden romance between Anne and Phillip is clumsily executed, but has its moments. Both characters are fictional.

Unfortunately, the circus oddities do not get sufficient development. Tom Thumb and Lettie read as individuals, but the group is often relegated to providing background texture. It seems like there’s so much to each character, each of their struggles growing up different from everyone else, that doesn’t get explored.

Then there’s the strawman critic played by Sparks, who feels like a built-in defence against the film’s would-be negative reviews – but The Greatest Showman is hardly the first movie to use this device.

If you long for the heyday of big-budget, glitzy movie musicals, The Greatest Showman is as close as Hollywood has come in a while. The ambition behind the movie, especially since this is director Michael Gracey’s feature film debut, is commendable. However, it is, at the very least, troubling that a figure as monstrous as P.T. Barnum has been fashioned into a vehicle for the film’s very worthwhile positive messaging.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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November Criminals movie review

For inSing

NOVEMBER CRIMINALS

Director : Sacha Gervasi
Cast : Ansel Elgort, Chloë Grace Moretz, Tessa Albertson, Catherine Keener, David Strathairn, Cory Hardrict
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 1h 26m
Opens : 28 December 2017
Rating : NC16

Ansel Elgort and Chloë Grace Moretz are out to avenge their friend’s murder in this mystery thriller. Be warned: it’s not as exciting as it sounds, because this movie isn’t all that mysterious, nor is it very thrilling.

Elgort and Moretz play Addison and Phoebe respectively. They’re not exactly boyfriend and girlfriend – ‘friends with benefits’ is more like it, but that’s not exactly right, either. Anyway, their friend Kevin (Jared Kemp) is shot dead at the coffee shop where he works. The police write it off as a gang-related killing, but Addison insists that there’s no way Kevin, a trombonist in the school band who loved literature and wrote poetry, would’ve been in a gang. Addison refuses to let the matter lie, much to the chagrin of the school principal Mr. Karlstadt (Terry Kinney). Addison’s father Theo (David Strathairn) grows concerned about his son, especially since Addison’s mother passed away recently. Phoebe’s mother Fiona (Catherine Keener) is none too pleased that her daughter is involved with Addison, whom she deems trouble. As Addison and Phoebe get further in over their heads, the criminal elements who killed Kevin threaten their own lives.

November Criminals is based on the novel The November Criminals by Sam Munson. The film is directed and co-written by Sacha Gervasi – co-writer Steven Knight was initially set to direct, with Gervasi replacing him at the helm. Gervasi made a living as a journalist while he was studying screenwriting at UCLA. As such, it’s a shame that the investigative aspect of the plot is downplayed, and the whodunit ostensibly at the story’s core is so uninvolving. Gervasi comes from a family who have been involved in both journalism and politics, but he doesn’t bring his understanding of either field to bear in this film, which would be a natural vehicle to do so. After all, it is a murder mystery set in Washington D.C. This reviewer was hoping for a far-reaching conspiracy to swallow up our young heroes. What we get is far more mundane.

November Criminals hinges on the somewhat unconventional relationship between its two leads. Elgort and Moretz seem like a pairing that would work on paper, but the writing only serves to render both actors unlikeable, instead of highlighting their charm. This is especially true of Elgort, whose persona has often been described as off-putting. While the recent Baby Driver smartly showcased Elgort at his very best, in November Criminals, he comes off as a smug, twitchy, and ultimately insufferable know-it-all. The character’s Jewishness, which was apparently a key element in the novel, is not mentioned at all.

Much as the film does not want Phoebe to end up as a stock girlfriend character, and despite Moretz’s efforts to keep the character from being an example of that, Phoebe is little more than ‘the girlfriend’. Phoebe makes her intention to lose her virginity to Addison known early in the film, leading to an incredibly awkward sex scene – the thing is, we cannot determine how much of said awkwardness was intentional, and how much was accidental. Phoebe often comes off as whiny, and while Elgort and Moretz are passably convincing as a couple, their chemistry often lacks energy.

Strathairn and Keener, dependable actors they are, show up and do their jobs but don’t make too much of an impact. Keener’s character apparently works in government, but this plays almost zero part in the plot. Cory Hardrict’s drug dealer character D. Cash is little more than a caricature, and doesn’t have enough personality or intimidation factor.

November Criminals doesn’t balance the giddy rush of young love with the intensity of a mystery thriller, resulting in a film that’s flat-footed and dull instead of deftly exciting. Oddly enough, the least endearing traits of its leads are brought to the forefront, and there aren’t really any stakes to speak of. This would’ve been a borderline okay TV film, but is too underwhelming to see on the big screen.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle movie review

For inSing

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

Director : Jake Kasdan
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale, Rhys Darby, Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blaine, Morgan Turner, Marc Evan Jackson
Genre : Action/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 59m
Opens : 21 December 2017
Rating : PG

You’ve probably heard the expression “get your head in the game,” shouted by many a coach at many a distracted school athlete. In this fantasy action comedy, four teenagers get their heads, and the rest of them, stuck in a video game called Jumanji.

Geeky germaphobe Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), vain popular girl Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), football jock Anthony “Fridge” Johnson (Ser’Darius Blaine) and withdrawn Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner) get thrown in detention. While sorting through old magazines in the basement, they discover an old video game console. On plugging it into the TV, the group gets sucked into the video game, where they take on the form of the avatars they’ve chosen.

Spencer becomes the muscle-bound adventurer archaeologist Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Bethany becomes rotund cartographer Dr. Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black), Fridge becomes diminutive zoologist and weapons carrier Franklin “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), and Martha becomes the sexy badass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan). Capitalising on each of their characters’ special abilities, the group must work together to return the sacred Jaguar’s Eye gem to a large jaguar statue in the jungle. Along the way, they team up with pilot Jefferson “Seaplane” McDonough (Nick Jonas) and face off against the villainous John Hardin Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), whose possession of the gem allows him to wield control over the various fearsome creatures that call Jumanji home.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a sequel to the 1995 film Jumanji, which was in turn based on the children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg. While this film might feel symptomatic of Hollywood’s rabid desire to capitalise on anything with even a shred of name recognition, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a lot better than the half-baked cash grab we feared it might be.

While the first film and its source material centred on an enchanted board game, Welcome to the Jungle transforms said board game into a video game. The filmmakers do a fine job of working video game mechanics into the film without it seeming tedious. Concepts like limited lives, each avatar’s specific strengths and weaknesses, interacting with NPCs (non-player characters) and cut scenes are all integrated into the movie in amusing ways. The linear ‘quest’ structure helps keep things from getting too complicated.

The action sequences are not especially memorable, but the in-game world feels immersive and well-realised. Surprisingly, the set-pieces do not feel overly synthetic – while there’s clearly a lot of computer-generated imagery being used, it still feels like the characters are in peril. A scene in which a low-flying helicopter must escape a stampeding crash of rhinos is exhilarating. The fact that all this is taking place within a game does not diminish the stakes as much as this reviewer thought it might. Things are kept consistently silly, but never obnoxiously so.

The film’s casting is largely effective, and the actors get the opportunity to both play to and against type, since the main cast is playing two characters each: the in-game avatars, and the people in the real-world inhabiting said avatars.

Everyone looks like they’re having a lot of fun. Johnson gets to play the larger-than-life action hero, while commenting on how much he looks like a larger-than-life action hero, while also channelling Spencer’s neuroses and insecurities. When he first appears on screen, the camera pans up, past Johnson’s bulging bicep, and up to his face – upon which he immediately arches that People’s Eyebrow.

This reviewer has made no secret of not being a big Kevin Hart fan, given that his onscreen persona is often shrill and manic. Hart is bearable here, mostly because he’s working off the other cast members.

Gillan is superb, and proves she fully deserves to be an A-list leading lady in plenty more big films. Her performance blends athleticism, awkward charm and humour to excellent effect. The character’s midriff-baring costume was much ballyhooed, but it works as a pastiche of video game heroines like Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft. Gillan gets several moments of physical comedy which are a sheer joy to behold.

Of the four leads, Black handily steals the show. His affectation of spoilt ditzy teen girl mannerisms is so spot-on, completely selling the idea that the Shelly character is being ‘piloted’ by Bethany. It’s full-tilt silliness that Black visibly dedicates himself to.

Jonas is probably the film’s weak link. Each of the in-game characters are meant to be slightly exaggerated archetypes, and it seems like Seaplane was intended to be a cross between Tom Cruise’s Maverick character from Top Gun and the aviator Launchpad McQuack from the DuckTales cartoon. Jonas just doesn’t have the swagger or the innate charm to make it work.

Cannavale’s villainous Van Pelt is given a striking gimmick that’s just unsettling enough, but the character isn’t onscreen enough to make too much of an impact.

Barring a few too many inappropriate innuendos, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is serviceable family adventure fare. It does what it says on the tin, and occasionally rises above that because its cast seems admirably into it. There are several respectful nods to its predecessor, and anyone fearing this would ‘ruin their childhood’ can rest easy, because it’s not bad at all.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bleeding Steel movie review

For inSing

BLEEDING STEEL

Director : Leo Zhang
Cast : Jackie Chan, Show Lo, Nana Ouyang, Tess Haubrich, Callan Mulvey, Erica Xia-Hou, Kym Gyngell, Damien Garvey
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 47m
Opens : 21 December 2017
Rating : PG13

It was five years ago when Jackie Chan said CZ12 would be his last action movie. 63-year-old Jackie is still trucking, and is dipping his toes into the sci-fi genre with this film.

Jackie plays Lin, a highly-trained officer who has a run-in with Andre (Callan Mulvey), a ‘bioroid’ run amok. Andre is the creation of bioengineer Dr. James (Kym Gyngell), who has been placed in witness protection but is being hunted down by Andre. While Lin is working the case, his terminally-ill daughter lies dying in the hospital.

Years later, Lin, now living a new life in Sydney, Australia, discovers that Andre is still alive. The evil bioroid has his sights set on university student Nancy (Nana Ouyang), with whom Lin shares a mysterious connection (it’s really not mysterious at all, much as the movie would like to think it is). Hacker/thief Leeson (Show Lo) has been tailing Nancy, after finding a clue in the possession of Rick Rogers (Damien Garvey), a novelist who has written a story which bears striking similarity to the Dr. James case. Lin, Nancy, Leeson and Lin’s former police partner Susan (Erica Xia-Hou) must defeat Andre and his fearsome henchwoman, known only as ‘The Woman in Black’ (Tess Haubrich).

 

Bleeding Steel is spectacularly stupid, a stunning misfire that demonstrates how fundamentally China-based studios misunderstand the science fiction genre. Sure, there’s plenty of goofy sci-fi out there, but we’ve also seen smart, sophisticated genre films and TV shows in recent years which utilise the allegorical potential of sci-fi to comment on society.

Bleeding Steel can roughly be classified as cyberpunk, a subgenre authors like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson are closely associated with. This movie takes elements like genetic experimentation, mechanical organs, Frankenstein’s Monster-type cyborgs and futuristic blasters, mashing them up into a bizarre, confused product.

The movie’s conception of ‘cool’ seems firmly stuck in the 90s. The villain looks like the love child of a Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s incarnation of Mr. Freeze from Batman and Robin. His base of operations is a cross between the Helicarrier from The Avengers and the Star Destroyer from Star Wars.

The opening of the film contains a brutal, bloody firefight, indicating an intense, serious tone. All this flies out the window when the audience is served up ridiculous image after ridiculous image.

In addition to sci-fi gadgets and weapons that look surprisingly low-rent given the film’s high budget, Bleeding Steel tosses in a dose of the mystical. Nancy is seeing a medium who administer hypnotism to help cure Nancy of her recurring nightmares, and Australian illusionist Cosentino makes an inexplicable cameo as himself.

The action is generally fine. Jackie incorporates props into his fights, as we’ve come to expect from him, but this feels a little out of place in what is ostensibly a cutting-edge, high-tech movie. We get several decent-sized explosions and the shootouts are appropriately intense, if one can overlook how fake the prop blasters appear. Jackie and Haubrich face off on the roof of the Sydney Opera House in a sequence that wants to be impressive but is clearly hampered by safety precautions that were put in place. It all leads up to a generic “escape the collapsing lair” sequence.

Jackie is a safe distance from obnoxious, since this is more of a straight hero role and not quite a comedic one. But if obnoxious comedy is what you’re after, fret not, because Show Lo is on hand to provide it. As the comic relief sidekick, he is often straight-up irritating. An extended sequence in which he’s in drag is totally incongruous with the rest of the movie.

Nana Ouyang is sweet and likeable, but there’s a particularly uncomfortable scene in which another character rips open her blouse and we see the 17-year-old actress’ bra. It’s not in a sexual context, but still seems exploitative. Erica Xia-Hou handles the action beats competently, showcasing some impressive moves in a one-on-one fight with Mulvey. She pulls double duty, having also co-written the screenplay.

Mulvey, who had supporting roles in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, plays Andre. For all the carnage the character wreaks, he’s never genuinely frightening, in no small part because he looks hilarious. Mulvey delivers a performance befitting an old episode of Power Rangers.

As the femme fatale henchwoman, Haubrich struts about in a pleather get-up, coming off like a budget Eva Green.

There’s some novelty in seeing Jackie try new tricks, and in some parallel universe, there’s a version of Bleeding Steel that really worked, one that gave Jackie the opportunity to sink his teeth into a new genre. Instead, it feels like the iconic action star has been haphazardly grafted onto a silly sci-fi mishmash which generates more unintentional laughter than thrills.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Star Wars: The Last Jedi movie review

For inSing

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Built to last: meet the characters of The Last Jedi

BUILT TO LAST: MEET THE CHARACTERS OF THE LAST JEDI

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

By Jedd Jong

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

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

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

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

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

#1: REY (Daisy Ridley)

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

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

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

#2: LUKE SKYWALKER (Mark Hamill)

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

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

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

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

#3: FINN (John Boyega)

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

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

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

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

#4: GENERAL LEIA ORGANA (Carrie Fisher)

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

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

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

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

#5: POE DAMERON (Oscar Isaac)

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

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

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

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

#6: KYLO REN (Adam Driver)

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

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

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

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

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

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

#7: SUPREME LEADER SNOKE (Andy Serkis)

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

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

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

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

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

#8: ROSE TICO (Kelly Marie Tran)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Wonder movie review

For inSing

WONDER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Paddington 2 movie review

For inSing

PADDINGTON 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Man Who Invented Christmas movie review

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THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) movie review

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MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-Michelle-Pfeiffer

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

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-Daisy-Ridley

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

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-Olivia-Colman-Judi-Dench

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong