Phantom Thread movie review

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PHANTOM THREAD

Director : Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast : Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Richard Graham, Camilla Rutherford, Harriet Sansom Harris, Brian Gleeson, Julia Davis
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 2 h 10 min
Opens : 25 January 2018
Rating : NC16

In any year when Daniel Day-Lewis stars in a film, every other actor nominated for acting awards alongside him must be quaking in their boots. Those days might be over, since Gary Oldman is the hot favourite to win the Best Actor Oscar for Darkest Hour, and more so, since this film is purportedly Day-Lewis’ final movie.

It is the 1950s, and Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a highly sought-after London dressmaker, whose clientele includes socialites and European royalty. Reynolds’ singular brilliance is coupled with particularity and imperiousness, making him difficult to be around. Reynolds’ sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) manages the day-to-day operations of his fashion house.

While eating at a restaurant in the countryside, Reynolds meets young Belgian waitress Alma (Krieps) and is immediately taken by her. Alma becomes Reynolds’ muse, and is by his side constantly. Cyril is initially suspicious of Alma, since she disrupts Reynolds’ working rhythm. A rift soon develops between Reynolds and Alma, as she struggles to get out from under his controlling grip. Reynolds must decide what is more important to him: the love of a woman, or his chosen craft.

Phantom Thread is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, often hailed as one of the finest directors working. His filmography includes There Will Be Blood, The Master, Boogie Nights and Magnolia – this is a filmmaker’s filmmaker, an auteur’s auteur, widely admired by his peers. Anderson just picked up his seventh Oscar nomination, but has yet to win one. His work is meticulous, but also sometimes difficult to get into. Phantom Thread is an arthouse film through and through, and more impatient audiences might find it challenging to engage with.

The film succeeds as a layered exploration of what it’s like to fall in love with an obsessive artist, and the power struggle that results in such a relationship. Reynolds is, in many ways, an absurd man. He is exacting, temperamental and inconsiderate, but this is viewed as the price of his genius as a fashion designer. While Phantom Thread does get intense, it’s also surprisingly funny. While 1950s London high society is depicted as a rarefied world that audiences get to peek into, the film also acknowledges the inherent silliness of how the fabulously wealthy act.

Day-Lewis is, it goes without saying, superb. While he doesn’t undergo a drastic physical transformation as he did for earlier films including My Left Foot and Lincoln, Day-Lewis still constructs a fascinating, magnetic character. Day-Lewis is famous for being a method actor, never breaking character the entire time he works on a given movie. There’s a degree of mystique to him, and as such, it seems apt that he plays an artist who sets only the highest standards for his own work. Reynolds has obvious unresolved mommy issues, but Day-Lewis’ performance and Anderson’s writing ensure that the character is more than your stock ‘tortured misunderstood genius’ type.

Vicky Krieps is a Luxembourgian actress who will be unfamiliar to most English-speaking filmgoers, but who is poised to become a sought after in Hollywood after her stunning turn in this film. It mustn’t be easy to hold one’s own opposite Day-Lewis, which Krieps does. Alma is something of a faux-naif, and seems like she’s less than Reynolds in every way: social standing, education and refinement. It is a joy to see Alma gain the upper hand and take him on when she is tired of living solely on his terms. The relationship ends up being unpredictable, and the interplay between Day-Lewis and Krieps gives the movie its spark.

Manville scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her turn as Cyril. The almost symbiotic relationship between brother and sister has an intriguing dynamic – it can be interpreted that Reynolds sees his sister as a substitute for his late mother. Cyril’s omnipresence also makes Alma feel like she can’t have Reynolds to herself. In some ways, it’s a love triangle, but not in the traditional romantic sense – it’s more like a power triangle.

There are bound to be viewers who will decry Phantom Thread as pretentious, or others who might find it unintentionally funny because it is so mannered. However, cinephiles will likely appreciate the care with which Anderson has crafted this film, and the work of his collaborators, from Mark Bridges’ costumes to Jonny Greenwood’s piano-driven score. If this is indeed Day-Lewis’ swansong, it is an excellent performance to remember him by – but there was never any doubt it would be.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Maze Runner: The Death Cure movie review

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MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE

Director : Wes Ball
Cast : Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Ki Hong Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosa Salazar, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper
Genre : Sci-fi/Action
Run Time : 2 h 22 min
Opens : 25 January 2018
Rating : PG13

Every movie franchise based on a series of Young Adult novels must come to an end – unless, of course, we get prequels. The Maze Runner trilogy closes out with its longest and most explosive entry yet, but are audiences still inclined to care?

Picking up where the previous film The Scorch Trials left off, the crew of surviving Gladers continue their battle for survival. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) are the last of the original gang. They are supported by resistance fighters Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and Brenda (Rosa Salazar). The trio sets out on a dangerous mission to rescue their fellow Glader Minho (Ki Hong Lee), against the order of the Right Arm resistance movement’s new leader Vince (Barry Pepper).

Minho is being held at WCKD headquarters in the fabled ‘Last City’, where he is being experimented on by WCKD scientists desperately devising a cure for the Flare Virus. Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the only female Glader, has aligned herself with WCKD boss Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson). Paige’s right-hand man Janson (Aidan Gillen) is viciously pursuing Thomas and his cohorts, since they escaped his grasp earlier on. With the help of an unexpected ally, Thomas, Newt and Frypan must infiltrate WCKD to rescue Minho and topple the regime.

It feels like it’s longer than it’s actually been since the Hunger Games films were huge. The sub-Hunger Games Divergent franchise has already fizzled out, with the adaptation of the final book needing to decamp to TV because of poor box office results. The Maze Runner series is hanging on, despite several setbacks including star O’Brien’s near-fatal accident on the set of this film. The Death Cure dutifully rounds things out, and is a marked improvement on the second instalment, which was mostly treading water. However, only the series’ most loyal adherents are likely to get invested in this film.

Director Wes Ball has no other feature film credits to his name other than the three Maze Runner films. Taking this into account, his efforts are worthy of some admiration. The Death Cure features several ambitious action sequences, including a fun train heist opening and numerous shootouts. However, the film’s numerous influences are all too apparent, and it can become a game of ‘spot the reference’: Mad Max, Resident Evil, I Am Legend, Terminator: Salvation and of course The Hunger Games, among others, are liberally sampled. Unoriginality is an easy sin to forgive if the results are entertaining. The Death Cure isn’t as entertaining as it ought to be.

If one is attached to the characters from the previous movies, the dramatic occurrences will matter more. Otherwise, several key deaths come across as perfunctory rather than emotional. Because the world has been opened up wider than in the previous two films, the ‘boy’s own adventure’ quotient of the Gladers sticking together in the face of adversity is somewhat diluted.

The character dynamics are pushed further forward – the brotherhood between Thomas and Newt is tested, and Thomas must eventually confront Teresa, whom he views as a traitor. O’Brien is a serviceable action hero and Brodie-Sangster is endearing if not especially convincing when Newt must be tough.

Gillen’s sneering Janson just isn’t that intimidating a villain, especially since he’s consistently outsmarted by teenagers. He spends most of the film pursuing our heroes about, almost catching them. Clarkson’s understated turn works better than if she went all moustache-twirling villainess (not that too many villainesses have moustaches), but she seems bored at times.

The always-watchable Walton Goggins pops up as the enigmatic, horribly disfigured Lawrence. Unfortunately, the film underuses Esposito and Pepper, and there might be one too many rousing speeches made to the disenfranchised rebels locked out of the city walls.

The Death Cure is a mildly satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, but its excessive length and derivative action and visuals hold it back. It doesn’t patch up the most glaring plot holes or justify its villains’ stupidity, but our heroes are likeable enough to root for and the spectacle is competently staged. By the time the film reaches its fiery, chaotic conclusion, if feels like things should have ended a fair bit earlier – but end things do, and there are worse notes to go out on than this.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

All the Money in the World movie review

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ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris, Marco Leonardi, Andrew Buchan, Timothy Hutton
Genre : Crime/Historical/Drama
Run Time : 2 h 12 min
Opens : 25 January 2018
Rating : NC16

The grandson of the richest man in the world is kidnapped by an Italian crime organisation and as he refuses to pay the ransom, the boy’s mother goes to great lengths to free her son. It’s a story that almost too dramatic, too sensational to be true, and yet, it is.

It is 1973, and J.P. “Paul” Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is abducted on the streets of Rome. Paul’s parents are divorced: his father John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan) is the son of the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer). Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) tries desperately to free her son, but her ex-father-in-law refuses to pay the $17 million ransom – despite being worth over $2 billion himself.

In the meantime, one of Paul’s kidnappers, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), develops sympathy for the teenager, and cannot fathom why Paul’s family refuses to pay for his freedom. The eldest Getty assigns Fletcher Case (Mark Wahlberg), a negotiator and former CIA operative, to investigate and secure Paul’s freedom, for as little money as possible. Despite being at odds, Gail works together with Fletcher to ensure her son gets out alive, as every passing hour puts Paul in greater danger.

All the Money in the World could have been just another awards season prestige flick based on a true story, but the behind-the-scenes drama has almost overshadowed the plot of the film itself. Kevin Spacey was originally cast as J. Paul Getty, but in the light of sexual assault allegations levelled against Spacey that came to light last October, director Ridley Scott elected to excise Spacey from the film. Christopher Plummer was cast at the last minute, and Scott scrambled to reshoot the movie with just over a month until its planned release date.

The results are seamless, with Plummer slotted into the film in a manner that’s barely noticeable. All the Money in the World is a slickly-made film – Scott is a seasoned filmmaker and several key crew members, including cinematographer Dariusz Wolsk, costume designer Janty Yates and production designer Arthur Max, are frequent collaborators of his. However, its efficiency means it feels like a less-than-personal work.

The film is based on the nonfiction book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, by John Pearson. The film is a little heavy-handed in its approach, and David Scarpa’s screenplay contains multiple pithy lines musing on the meaning (or meaninglessness) of money and other possessions. “Everything has a price,” the eldest Getty proclaims. “The great struggle in life is coming to grips with what the price is.” There are more than a few moments in which All the Money in the World is a little too on-the-nose.

Williams does the most legwork, delivering a fine, moving performance. Gail is someone who has lived on the fringes of great wealth, but cannot count herself as rich. She embodies a mother’s love: Williams never over-plays Gail’s anguish at the prospect of never seeing her son again, and in addition to the expected desperation, there’s temerity and resolve. Gail is pressed on all sides, constantly thronged by the paparazzi, drawn into a spectacle she wants no part of. Placing Gail front and centre and emphasising her prominent role in fighting for her son’s release was the right narrative approach.

The 88-year-old Plummer continues to be a class act. Getty is not a likeable character, since he is wholly consumed by his fortune and has dedicated his existence to maintaining, growing and protecting said fortune. However, Plummer has a knowing twinkle in his eye, and brings considerable charm to the part. He paints a portrait of a shrewd, quietly megalomaniacal tycoon, delivering a commanding performance without exerting much effort. While some of Getty’s lines are clunkers, Plummer makes the dialogue work.

Wahlberg is far and away the film’s weak link. Fletcher Case is presented as Getty’s go-to fixer, a smooth-talking man of mystery with a covert past. It’s difficult to take Wahlberg seriously, as he can sometimes lapse into whininess. Late in the film, when Fletcher has a heated confrontation with Getty, Wahlberg struggles to hold his own opposite Plummer.

The news that Wahlberg demanded a $1.5 million fee for reshoots and held up the production until he got paid that amount doesn’t help. It’s a consolation that since this was exposed, Wahlberg donated his reshoot pay to the Time’s Up Initiative in co-star Williams’ name.

The dynamic that develops between Paul and his captor Cinquanta is an interesting element of the story, since Cinquanta winds up being sympathetic to Paul, almost caring towards his prisoner. Duris imbues Cinquanta with a believable level of humanity, while Charlie Plummer (no relation to Christopher) is serviceable as a scared, somewhat spoiled teenager. Paul does display unexpected resourcefulness when he needs to, making for some of the film’s most thrilling sequences.

All the Money in the World is a little too manicured and workmanlike to be truly affecting, save for one genuinely wince-inducing, gory scene. However, it is well-paced and there’s an urgency to the proceedings, with enough tension to keep audiences engaged. Williams carries the show, with Plummer stealing it at key points. Shame that Wahlberg had to be there too.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

90th Academy Awards nominations announced

For inSing

90th Academy Awards nominations announced
The Shape of Water leads the pack with 13 nominations

By Jedd Jong

The nominees for the 90th Academy Awards were announced on 23 January at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) headquarters, by actors Tiffany Haddish and Andy Serkis. This will prove to be an eclectic year for the Oscars, and even before the ceremony has taken place, history has already been made. There were the usual suspects, including Meryl Streep earning her 21st nomination and Daniel Day-Lewis his sixth. There were some surprises too, and fantasy, horror and comedy films got more recognition than usual.

The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy about a mute woman’s romantic relationship with a humanoid amphibian creature, earned 13 nominations. Dunkirk came in second, with eight. Christopher Nolan earned his first ever Best Director nomination for the war film.

“I share these nominations with all the young filmmakers in Mexico and Latin America who put their hopes in our craft and the intimate stories of their imagination,” del Toro said. Like Nolan, he earned his first Best Director Oscar nod this year.

The Shape of Water’s leading lady Sally Hawkins added, “Tt is a privilege to tell such stories and to be able to make films that show there is a life beyond the life that people know – one that is not always seen.”

Lady Bird and Mudbound, Female-centric films from women directors garnered several nods, including a Best Director nomination for Ladybird director Greta Gerwig. Rachel Morrison, the Director of Photography for Mudbound, made history as the first woman to be nominated for the Best Cinematography Oscar.

“I am struggling to find the words to express how much the nomination for best director and best screenplay means to me — in a year where there are so many brilliant films by so many of my heroes of cinema — all I can say is thank you from the bottom of my heart,” Gerwig said.

Get Out, the satirical horror comedy which has been hailed as one of the best films of 2017 but which seemed like a bit of a long shot for awards season recognition, earned four nominations, including Best Picture. Director Jordan Peele and actor Daniel Kaluuya were also nominated. “I just spoke to Daniel. You know when you’re on the phone trying to disguise the sound of an ugly cry? I failed at that,” Peele wrote on Twitter upon hearing the news of the nominations.

Other unexpected nods include a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for Logan, seeing as comic book movies aren’t typically recognised in non-technical categories at the Oscars. Phantom Thread, seen as a bit of a long shot apart from Day-Lewis’ starring role, also picked up a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Lesley Manville.

In the snubs corner, Wonder Woman was completely shut out, even from technical categories. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri director Martin McDonagh was nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category, but not Best Director. Mudbound director Dee Rees was not nominated either. Many industry watchers felt that The Post’s Steven Spielberg was a safe bet for a Best Director nomination. Jessica Chastain also lost out on a Best Actress nod for Molly’s Game, perhaps edged out of the category by Margot Robbie in I, Tonya.

The Oscars ceremony takes place of 4 March at the Dolby Theatre, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel.

The full list of nominees follows:

BEST PICTURE:

Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE:

Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE:

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post

 

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE:

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

BEST DIRECTOR:

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan
Get Out, Jordan Peele
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig
Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE:

The Boss Baby, Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
The Breadwinner, Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
Coco, Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson
Ferdinand, Carlos Saldanha
Loving Vincent, Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman

 

BEST ANIMATED SHORT:

Dear Basketball, Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant
Garden Party, Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
Lou, Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
Negative Space, Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
Revolting Rhymes, Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY:

Call Me by Your Name, James Ivory
The Disaster Artist, Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
Logan, Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green
Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin
Mudbound, Virgil Williams and Dee Rees

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY:

The Big Sick, Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
Get Out, Jordan Peele
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh

 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY:

Blade Runner 2049, Roger Deakins
Darkest Hour, Bruno Delbonnel
Dunkirk, Hoyte van Hoytema
Mudbound, Rachel Morrison
The Shape of Water, Dan Laustsen

 

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE:

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James, Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman
Faces Places, JR, Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda
Icarus, Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan
Last Men in Aleppo, Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed, Soren Steen Jepersen
Strong Island, Yance Ford, Joslyn Barnes

 

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT:

Edith+Eddie, Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405, Frank Stiefel
Heroin(e), Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon
Knife Skills, Thomas Lennon
Traffic Stop, Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

 

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM:

DeKalb Elementary, Reed Van Dyk
The Eleven O’Clock, Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
My Nephew Emmett, Kevin Wilson, Jr.
The Silent Child, Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
Watu Wote/All of Us, Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

 

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM:

A Fantastic Woman (Chile)
The Insult (Lebanon)
Loveless (Russia)
On Body and Soul (Hungary)
The Square (Sweden)

 

BEST FILM EDITING:

Baby Driver, Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
Dunkirk, Lee Smith
I, Tonya, Tatiana S. Riegel
The Shape of Water, Sidney Wolinsky
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Jon Gregory

BEST SOUND EDITING:

Baby Driver, Julian Slater
Blade Runner 2049, Mark Mangini, Theo Green
Dunkirk, Alex Gibson, Richard King
The Shape of Water, Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

 

BEST SOUND MIXING:

Baby Driver, Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
Blade Runner 2049, Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill
Dunkirk, Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo
The Shape of Water, Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick

 

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN:

Beauty and the Beast, Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer
Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
Darkest Hour, Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
Dunkirk, Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
The Shape of Water, Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

 

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE:

Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer
Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood
The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, John Williams
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Carter Burwell

 

BEST ORIGINAL SONG:

“Mighty River” from Mudbound, Mary J. Blige
“Mystery of Love” from Call Me by Your Name, Sufjan Stevens
“Remember Me” from Coco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
“Stand Up for Something” from Marshall, Diane Warren, Common
“This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

 

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIR:

Darkest Hour, Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick
Victoria and Abdul, Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard
Wonder, Arjen Tuiten

BEST COSTUME DESIGN:

Beauty and the Beast, Jacqueline Durran
Darkest Hour, Jacqueline Durran
Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges
The Shape of Water, Luis Sequeira
Victoria and Abdul, Consolata Boyle

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS:

Blade Runner 2049, John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick
Kong: Skull Island, Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlan
War for the Planet of the Apes, Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whis

 

 

12 Strong movie review

For inSing

12 STRONG

Director : Nicolai Fuglsig
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Elsa Pataky
Genre : War/Action
Run Time : 2 h 10 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : NC16

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Armed Forces leapt into action, sending troops into Afghanistan to combat the Taliban. 12 Strong tells the story of Task Force Dagger, who were the first personnel to take on the Taliban in the weeks following 9/11.

Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) has no combat experience, but volunteers to lead Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595. He is backed up by Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), with whom Nelson has trained. Nelson’s team also includes Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña) and Sergeant First Class Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes).

The men of ODA 595 must win the trust of General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), the leader of the Northern Alliance who has plenty of experience fighting the Taliban. Nelson and company traverse the mountainous terrain on horseback, towards the strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif. If the Northern Alliance and the U.S. Forces can wrest control of Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban, it will strike a crushing blow to the enemy. Outnumbered forty to one, Nelson, Dostum and those under their command wage a bloody, explosive battle.

12 Strong is based on the nonfiction book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, by journalist Doug Stanton. The book was adapted for the screen by Silence of the Lambs screenwriter Ted Tally and Hunger Games scribe Peter Craig. This film marks the directorial debut of Danish filmmaker Nicolai Fuglsig – his experience as a war photojournalist must have informed the making of this film.

There are many films set during World War II which are couched as inspirational and uplifting, some of them in danger of romanticising the war. The protracted war in Afghanistan and Iraq has weighed heavily on the consciousness of the American public. 12 Strong is an account of a recently-declassified battle that took place early on in this war. While the movie wants to be thrilling and emotional, it’s difficult to overlook the larger context which is not presented in the movie.

12 Strong wants to be an old-fashioned epic, complete with majestic, sweeping establishing shots, and our heroes riding on horseback as explosions go off behind them in slow motion. It also wants to reframe the narrative by emphasising that there were Afghans who allied themselves with the U.S. troops. However, the film’s handling of this comes off as a naive “there were good Afghans! Who would’ve thought?” viewpoint.

The film has some pacing issues, and the countless sequences of our heroes on horseback rounding yet another mountain pass, in between cutting back to the other characters who are back at the base, becomes repetitive. However, the payoff is spectacular: the climactic battle is drawn out and overstuffed, but is visceral and exciting. It must’ve been quite the logistical undertaking: there are tanks, explosions, guns, rocket launchers, helicopters, bombers and yes, horses. However, there’s the niggling feeling that since this is based on a true story, we shouldn’t be ‘enjoying’ the action sequences the way we’d revel in the thrills of a sci-fi action movie or a fantasy picture.

Hemsworth cuts quite the heroic figure astride a horse. While he and the other actors in the cast attempt to imbue their characters with some personality, as is often the case in military movies like this, the characters can become indistinct and blur together. It is fun that Hemsworth’s real-life wife Elsa Pataky makes a cameo as Nelson’s wife in this film.

Shannon, one of the more interesting actors out there, doesn’t get too much to do. Shannon is often cast in villainous roles, but maybe he’s just more interesting playing those characters, as opposed to the straight arrow Spencer. Even then, he’s played heroic characters who were more engaging to watch before.

Negahban is charismatic as Dostum, battle-hardened and commanding. The film’s portrayal of the warlord seems a little simplified for the sake of convenience. Dostum is a polarising, controversial figure, but in 12 Strong, he occupies the role of ‘wise native’. “Stop being a soldier,” Dostum counsels Nelson, motioning to Nelson’s heart. “Start using this”.

“America is famous for making propaganda movies,” Negahban said, adding that he hopes 12 Strong shows “we are acknowledging, we are honouring those people who put their lives on the line to help get rid of terrorism or war, to bring peace.” Maybe it’s a start.

            12 Strong is co-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, famous for his high-octane mega-blockbusters. While the film is thrilling and rousing at times, it’s hard to shake the feeling that recent military history has been put through an action movie lens. While there’s spectacle and Chris Hemsworth makes for a great action hero, 12 Strong would like us to believe that Chris Hemsworth can save the day riding in on horseback, when we know it’s far from that simple.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review

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THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Director : Martin McDonagh
Cast : Frances McDormand, Woody Harrleson, Sam Rockwell, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Abbie Cornish, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Željko Ivanek
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 h 57 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : NC16

Irish writer-director Martin McDonagh traverses from In Bruges to Outside Ebbing, after a detour caused by Seven Psychopaths, with his third feature film.

The film revolves around Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), a divorced mother grieving the death of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). A year after Angela’s rape and murder, no arrests have been made. Mildred rents out three disused billboards (three guesses as to where they’re located), calling out Ebbing Police Chief William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

The billboards draw a strong reaction from the Ebbing populace, including Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) – not least because Willoughby has terminal pancreatic cancer. Both Mildred’s son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) take issue with the billboards, blaming Mildred for reopening that wound. Mildred still has a few people in her corner, including her co-worker Denise (Amanda Warren), and James (Peter Dinklage), who harbours feelings for Mildred. Mildred hopes the billboards will put pressure on the police to solve the case, but unexpected, violent consequences ensue.

If Seven Psychopaths was McDonagh channelling Quentin Tarantino, then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is McDonagh channelling the Coen Brothers. It’s a happy coincidence that Carter Burwell, who has scored most of the Coens’ movies, has also scored McDonagh’s previous two films. It seems less coincidental that McDormand, oft-collaborator of the Coens and the wife of Joel Coen, plays the starring role.

However, this is no mere act of mimicry. McDonagh, who is also an accomplished playwright, has brought his own lyricism to each of his films. Three Billboards is the most serious film McDonagh has made, but it isn’t without its outstanding moments of pitch-black humour.

In part because of the pulpier elements of McDonagh’s two earlier films, one might go into Three Billboards expecting all the characters to be broadly-drawn archetypes. It seems almost by design that the audience thinks they have each player in this story figured out the moment we see them. “There’s the righteous mother,” “there’s the lazy cop”, “there’s the scumbag ex-husband”, that sort of thing. The surprises along the way are organic and well thought-out.

While Three Billboards wears its references on its sleeve, it subverts expectations with masterful subtlety. The dialogue, stuffed with words we can’t print, sounds authentic as spoken by these characters – especially impressive considering the writer-director isn’t American. The fictional town of Ebbing, Missouri has a realistic bleakness to it, and does seem like the place where something awful might happen and the world at large just wouldn’t notice it.

McDormand leads an ensemble of talented actors who do the material justice and then some. When it comes to strong performances per capita, Three Billboards is at the top of the heap this awards season. All the performances are the right degree of over-the-top – colourful and exaggerated enough to grab the viewer’s attention, but not to the point of being cartoony.

McDonagh wrote the Mildred role with McDormand in mind, and the character plays to all McDormand’s strengths as an actress. Mildred is tough-as-nails, bitter and takes no guff from anyone. Beneath the unyielding exterior, she is grappling with unspeakable grief and frustration and is a deeply flawed, conflicted person. The dramatic move she makes in renting out the billboards stirs up trouble, just as she planned, but she ultimately gets more than she bargained for.

We’re conditioned to root for Mildred and against Chief Willoughby, so we’re naturally surprised when the Chief ends up being not an awful person. We won’t give away too much, but Harrelson is able to shade the character while making him a little larger than life, and the interplay between Willoughby and Mildred is intense but restrained.

Rockwell’s character goes through the most dramatic arc. Dixon is racist, lazy, belligerent and often abuses his authority – but that’s just how the character begins. Rockwell has often portrayed characters who are slimy charmers, but he digs deep here, delivering a layered, fascinating performance.

The supporting cast members all snap right into place. Hedges, who was nominated for an Oscar for Manchester by the Sea, is believably conflicted as Mildred’s son. Hawkes is aggressive but not ludicrously so as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie. Samara Weaving steals the show several times as Penelope, Charlie’s dim-witted girlfriend, showcasing delightful comic timing. Dinklage is likeable and just awkward enough as the designated ‘nice guy’ whose affections for Mildred are unlikely to be reciprocated.

Not everything here works: the film’s handling of race is clumsy and inconsistent, and as the film barrels towards its conclusion, a few noticeable plot contrivances start stacking up. As assuredly as McDonagh handles the tone, some viewers might still find it jarring when the film moves from its truly harrowing moments to its lighter-hearted ones.

Three Billboards succeeds as an indie darling-type film that is rough around the edges and is never too precious about itself. The film recently collected four Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture Drama and awards for McDormand and Rockwell. The film’s peculiar yet finely tuned mix of grimness and off-kilter humour keeps it interesting, and its performances, especially McDormand’s, are thoroughly riveting.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Post movie review

For inSing

THE POST

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Allison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods
Genre : Biography/Drama/Historical
Run Time : 1h 56 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : PG13

         Every awards season, there are bound to be at least a few ‘big important movies’ – films based on true events that have a timely relevance, boasting pedigree in front of and behind the camera. The Post ticks all those boxes.

It is 1971. The New York Times runs a story about how the U.S. government has been lying about the Vietnam War to the public, based on leaked clandestine reports which document the ongoing war, going back over 20 years. These reports were compiled on the instructions of Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former Secretary of Defence, for academic study.

Katherine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female owner of The Washington Post, is about to publicly list the paper. While the Initial Public Offering will broaden the Post’s reach, Graham also fears losing the control entrusted to her by her late husband, who succeeded Graham’s father as the owner of the paper.

President Nixon and the Attorney General file an injunction against The New York Times, taking the paper to court over the story. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sees the opportunity to dig further into the story. Assistant Editor Ben Bagdikan (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down the source, former analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), and procures more than 4000 pages of the Pentagon Papers. Graham must choose whether to publish, at the risk of her and Bradlee being imprisoned, and with the paper at stake.

The sitting President of the United States has made no secret of his disdain for the press, branding any outlet which runs stories unfavourable to him as “fake news”. This climate prompted Steven Spielberg to rush The Post into production, and he made this film while his next movie Ready Player One was in post-production. The Post makes a statement about the importance of the freedom of the press, but perhaps it makes that statement a little too obviously. “We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable — my god, who will?” Bradlee exclaims, in one of several lines that spell out what the film is about.

Because The Post is made by people who more than know what they’re doing, it gets a lot right. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn (with additional editing by Sarah Broshar) do their usual fine work. The movie looks and sounds like how one would expect a 70s-set political thriller to look, and the setting feels authentic – complete with a multitude of unfortunate hairdos. While the first half of the film can be somewhat dry, things get genuinely thrilling as the movie heads towards an exciting conclusion. The stakes are clearly established, and it’s clear that the decisions the characters must make are consequential ones.

Behind the scenes, there’s the success story of Liz Hannah, for whom every aspiring screenwriter’s dream came true: her first screenplay was made into a film by Steven Spielberg. Josh Singer, who won an Oscar for co-writing Spotlight, rewrote Hannah’s script. Hannah had long been fascinated with Graham, and the writer’s boyfriend encouraged her to pen a screenplay about the newspaper heiress.

The Post wants to be a personal story in addition to being a historical account, but struggles with the balance. A scene between Graham and her daughter Lally (Allison Brie) comes off as a slightly awkward attempt to generate emotion while also supplying some backstory.

The Post is at its best when its talented actors are turned loose. Putting Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in a scene together, regardless of context, is bound to produce electrifying results. The role of Kay Graham is comfortably in Streep’s wheelhouse: a powerful woman grappling with a monumental dilemma. Graham must make her way in a man’s world, facing doubt at every turn. She remains warm and personable even in the face of adversity, and is at once a magnetic and comforting presence.

Hanks has fun, biting into the role with relish. Bradlee is a dogged, persistent editor, who is described at one point as a “pirate”. Bradlee is a little more abrasive than your standard charming, affable Hanks part, and he spars with Graham and other characters throughout the film. Hanks and Streep visibly enjoy playing off each other, and Spielberg brings out the best in his stars.

The supporting cast is first-rate too: Paulson is especially likeable as Bradlee’s wife Antoinette, and gets an excellent scene in which she lays out why she admires Graham as Bradlee seems to dismiss his boss’ predicament. Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk is funny and down-to-earth as assistant editor Ben Bagdikan, who flies back to Washington with the Papers safely buckled into the airplane seat next to him.

There’s no denying that The Post is timely and well-made, but perhaps it’s a little too aware of its status as a big important movie. It takes audiences from Point A to B with enough clarity, but perhaps not enough nuance, and it will be hard for some viewers to see past how obviously The Post is calibrated for awards season appeal.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Reel life: movies inspired by true stories this awards season

For inSing

REEL LIFE: MOVIES INSPIRED BY TRUE STORIES THIS AWARDS SEASON

By Jedd Jong

 

Awards season is upon us again, and producers often have a knack for sniffing out incredible true stories to turn into awards contender films. Said projects can also provide actors with the opportunity to showcase their talents and challenge themselves, sometimes undergoing drastic physical transformations.

It’s easy to be cynical about biopics, and to write them off as emotionally manipulative. After all, Hollywood hasn’t been shy about bending the truth. However, artistic license is to be expected, and half the fun of watching films based on a true story is doing the research afterwards, to ascertain how far the film deviated from actual events.

Historical films or inspirational biopics might seem like a bit of a slog, and they tend to follow predictable patterns. However, this awards cycle has given a few off-kilter films based on a true story that break that mould, and that might even be – who knows – fun to sit through. Naturally, there are a few which are more straightforward, serious affairs, but which pack pedigree behind the scenes too.

From Winston Churchill’s tumultuous first days as wartime Prime Minister, to the glamorous, dangerous world of underground high-stakes poker, to the kidnapping of the grandson of the richest man in the world, here are five films based on true stories to check out this awards season. Warning: veracity may vary.

#1: DARKEST HOUR (Opens 4 Jan)

This is perhaps the most traditional entry on the list. After all, English-made movies and films set during the Second World War have long been perceived as awards-friendly. Directed by Joe Wright of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement fame, this film covers the first few weeks of Winston Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. As Nazis advance across Western Europe, Churchill must rally the British people as he faces opposition from within his own cabinet.

It might be hard to believe, but celebrated and very hard-working actor Gary Oldman has yet to win an Oscar. This just might be his chance – after all, Oldman won the Best Actor in a Drama Golden Globe for this performance. Casting Oldman as Churchill was a gamble that paid off. Prosthetic makeup effects designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji helped to transform Oldman into the iconic British Bulldog. Oldman’s entertaining performance captures the larger-than-life quality so key to Churchill, but also conveys his private decision-making process. The film also stars Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James.

#2: THE POST (Opens 18 Jan)

This is also a film that seems calibrated for maximum awards season appeal. It’s a historical drama that’s timely, given the current political climate. It also has A-list talent in front of and behind the camera. Meryl Streep plays Kay Graham, the first female publisher of The Washington Post – and of any newspaper in the U.S., for that matter. After The New York Times acquires the top-secret documents known as ‘the Pentagon Papers’, a battle between journalism and the U.S. government ensues. Graham, the Washington Post’s editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and other editors and journalists fight tooth and nail to expose the truth about the horrifying scope of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War to the public.

The Post is directed by Steven Spielberg, from a screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer. Hannah, who worked at Charlize Theron’s production company and as a production assistant on Ugly Betty, caught a one-in-a-million break: it’s not every day that Steven Spielberg wants to direct a film from a screenplay by a first-time screenwriter. Hannah had long been fascinated with Graham, and was encouraged by her boyfriend to write a script about the publisher. Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer was brought on to rework the script. The film’s impressive cast also includes Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons and David Cross.

#3: MOLLY’S GAME (Opens 4 Jan)

Jessica Chastain stars as Molly Bloom, who went from would-be Olympic skier to cocktail waitress to operating the highest-stakes underground poker games in Los Angeles and New York. The players include Hollywood celebrities, superstar athletes and powerful Wall Street brokers. Eventually, both the Italian and Russian mafia get involved, and Molly is investigated by the FBI.

The film is written by Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, known for A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Steve Jobs and for creating the television series The West Wing and The Newsroom. Molly’s Game also marks Sorkin’s directorial debut. The film is slick, glitzy and packed with Sorkin’s signature firecracker dialogue, but it has also drawn criticism for being superficial and perhaps not as substantial as other fact-based awards contender films. Best Actress nominations for various awards are rolling in for Chastain, who portrayed a similar shrewd, cunning character in the lobbyist drama Miss Sloane. Molly’s Game also stars Idris Elba, Kevin Costner and Michael Cera.

#4: I, TONYA (Opens 1 Feb)

If Molly’s Game is a showcase for Jessica Chastain, then I, Tonya is an even flashier one for Margot Robbie. Robbie plays U.S. national team figure skater Tonya Harding, who became an infamous tabloid fixture after her ex-husband masterminded an attack on Tonya’s teammate and rival, Nancy Kerrigan. The film is based on interviews with Tonya and the other figures in the story, including her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and Jeff’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who hired the men who attacked Nancy. Janney won the Best Supporting Actress award at the Golden Globes for her portrayal of the cruel, off-putting yet oddly endearing LaVona.

I, Tonya is a twisted inversion of the standard inspirational sports drama. Packed with dark comedy, violence and plenty of swearing, the film exploits the absurdity of the events surrounding Tonya’s rise and fall. I, Tonya also pulls the curtain back to examine just what made Tonya who she is, depicting the abuse she endured at the hands of her mother and her ex-husband. Robbie’s performance is mesmerising and unmistakably the work of a dedicated actress. While Robbie trained to perform some of the skating herself, the nigh-impossible triple axel jump that was Tonya’s signature move was accomplished using visual effects. Only seven women other than Tonya have landed the triple axel in figure skating history.

#5: ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (Opens 25 Jan)

Director Ridley Scott brings the story of Paul Getty’s kidnapping to the big screen. Paul (Charlie Plummer), the grandson of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer, no relation), is kidnapped by an Italian criminal organisation. The eldest Getty refuses to pay the $17 million ransom set by the kidnappers. Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams), who was formerly married to John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan), will stop at nothing to ensure her son’s safe return to her side. The film also stars Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris and Timothy Hutton.

The role of J. Paul Getty was originally set to be played by Kevin Spacey. Following sexual assault allegations against Spacey, Scott elected to recast the role and reshoot the movie with Christopher Plummer as Getty instead. The scramble to redo the movie was unprecedented and costly. It then emerged that Wahlberg demanded a $1.5 million payday for the reshoots, while Williams, who plays the lead, received $1000 for the reshoots. After being criticised for this, Wahlberg will now donate the $1.5 million to the Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund in Williams’ name. The initiative aims to help combat sexual harassment across industries, after the extent sexual harassment in Hollywood was made known in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal.

BONUS: THE DISASTER ARTIST (No Singapore release date yet)

For years, the cognoscenti has been chortling and riffing along to what has often been deemed the worst movie ever made: 2003’s The Room. A poorly-acted, hilariously scripted, all-around ineptly made drama, The Room has gone from pop culture oddity to so-bad-it’s-good phenomenon. midnight screenings regularly draw crowds who dress up as their favourite characters, toss footballs around and fling spoons at the screen. Lines like “oh hai Mark,” “you’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” and “so anyway, how is your sex life?” are oft-quoted gems. It’s a bit of a long story to explain here.

The Disaster Artist stars James Franco as Tommy Wiseau, the peculiar and enigmatic writer-director-star of The Room. James Franco just won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for his performance as Wiseau. Franco’s brother Dave stars as Greg Sestero, Wiseau’s friend and the actor who plays Mark, the best friend of Wiseau’s character Johnny, in The Room. Franco is also the director of The Disaster Artist, which is based on the book of the same name written by Sestero and journalist Tom Bissell. The film also stars Seth Rogen, Ari Graynor and Alison Brie, with appearances by Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Sharon Stone and Zac Efron. Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael, whose bad movie podcast How Did This Get Made? had an episode dedicated to The Room, appear in supporting roles. At the time of writing, The Disaster Artist does not have a Singapore release date. However, one hopes that awards season buzz pushes this chronicle of misbegotten cinema to our shores sooner rather than later.

 

 

Downsizing movie review

For inSing

DOWNSIZING

Director : Alexander Payne
Cast : Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård
Genre : Comedy/Sci-fi
Run Time : 2h 15 min
Opens : 11 January 2018
Rating : NC16

In this sci-fi comedy-drama, Matt Damon discovers that it’s a small world after all. And as the song goes, it is indeed a world of laughter, a world of tears, a world of hopes, and a world of fears.

Damon plays occupational therapist Paul Safranek. It is the near-future, and Norwegian scientist Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) has devised a revolutionary procedure known as ‘downsizing’. In a bid to solve the world’s overpopulation crisis, those who sign up for the irreversible procedure are shrunken down to a height of five inches. While downsizing is controversial, it is also touted as helping to save the planet. One’s personal net worth and apparently, quality of life also increases exponentially.

Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) sign up to be downsized, after Paul is convinced by his high school classmate Dave (Jason Sudeikis) who, along with his wife Carol (Maribeth Monroe) has become small. Paul and Audrey are set to move into the luxurious small community Leisureland. However, Audrey gets cold feet, and doesn’t go through with the procedure at the last minute, stranding a now-small Paul in Leisureland.

Paul gradually gets accustomed to his new life, and befriends his party animal upstairs neighbour, Serbian businessman Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz). Paul also meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a housecleaner hired by Dusan. Lan Tran is a Vietnamese dissident who was downsized against her will. As Paul gets to know her better and visits the run-down dormitory tower populated by immigrant workers where Lan Tran stays, his eyes are opened to a world beyond his own. Eventually, considering an earth-shattering development, Paul must make the biggest choice of his life.

Director Alexander Payne, who also cowrote the film with Jim Taylor, is known for comedy-dramas that are slightly quirky but otherwise down-to-earth – films like Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska and About Schmidt. Downsizing is his most outlandish effort yet, a sci-fi social satire with a wild premise that promises to tackle big ideas.

The setup works well: the world-building is amusing and well thought-out, and the film makes the concept of downsizing seem plausible within its reality. Textural elements like the Leisureland sales pitch, featuring cameos by Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern, work as a riff on American consumerism. There are many delightful visual gags – typically involving everyday objects rendered absurdly large next to the now-tiny characters.

The production design by Stefania Cella is clever and subtly eye-catching. Rolfe Kent’s score is a joy to listen to, and highlights the inherent absurdity of the premise. The societal implications of downsizing and its implementation seem key to the plot at first, but gradually get pushed aside.

The film veers in a direction that seems like the wrong one, squandering its intriguing set-up. Yes, this centres around the Ngoc Lan Tran character, who has become controversial in her own right. While Hong Chau’s performance has been praised, and she was recently nominated for a Golden Globe, it seems that many poor decisions were made in the writing of the character.

Just like elsewhere in the film, the Lan Tran character has great potential – she’s a Vietnamese refugee who was forcibly downsized in prison, then escapes to America as a stowaway. Chau draws on her own past as the child of Vietnamese ‘boat people’ refugees in portraying the character. However, it’s soon clear that Lan Tran is a caricature. She speaks in heavily-accented broken English, and this is treated as inherently funny. Her speech and mannerisms overshadow any complexity the character has.

The dynamic that develops between her and Paul ends up in a disappointing place. As this bond progresses, Lan Tran also takes on the role of ‘ethnic person spirit guide’ to Paul, showing him that there’s a world outside his relatively privileged bubble, and opening his mind. It’s no fault of Chau’s, who has defended the character as multi-faceted and well-written. However, as much as Payne and Taylor get right in the writing of Lan Tran, they make several more missteps.

Paul is hardly compelling, and ends up as little more than another guy in a movie going through a midlife crisis. He’s an ordinary guy placed in an extraordinary circumstance, but the character’s folksy “golly gee, gosh darn” earnestness rings false. While Damon may have been relatable, his recent public reactions to Hollywood scandals have eroded that somewhat. The original casting of Paul Giamatti might have worked better.

Waltz hams it up and is visibly enjoying himself as the aging playboy whose main goal in life is to enjoy himself. The pairing of Waltz and Udo Kier, a fellow European actor often typecast as scary villains, is effective and entertaining. Alas, despite being billed on the poster, Wiig is barely in the film at all.

Downsizing’s reach exceeds its grasp, and while it plants seeds early on that could grow into something fascinating, it seems to bolt in the opposite direction, becoming a story centred around a boring guy and his mundane epiphanies. This reviewer enjoys science fiction in the context of social commentary, but it’s tricky to pull off well. Downsizing makes a few miniscule steps in the right direction, but stumbles before our eyes.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Commuter movie review

For inSing

THE COMMUTER

Director : Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast : Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Dean-Charles Chapman
Genre : Thriller/Action
Run Time : 1h 45 min
Opens : 11 January 2018
Rating : PG-13

Commutes to and from work generally aren’t fun. We get on the bus or the train, and just want it to be over with. It’s less fun when the mass rapid transit system breaks down, or shuts down for full days for maintenance. No, we’re not speaking from personal experience, why do you ask?

For Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson), his commute home from work becomes something worse than “not fun” – a matter of life and death. Michael is a New York police officer-turned insurance agent. On the Metro North Hudson Line, Michael is approached by Joanna (Vera Farmiga), a woman whom he’s never met. Joanna gives Michael a task to solve, promising a financial reward. This mission seems simple, but gets deceptively complicated.

The puzzle soon turns deadly, and Michael must track down a mysterious passenger on the train and secure a sensitive item they’re carrying, or disastrous consequences will ensue. In addition to the passengers on the train, the lives of Michael’s wife Karen (Elizabeth McGovern) and son Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman) are at stake. Michael turns to his former police partner Alex Murphy (Patrick Wilson) for help, but the shadowy forces controlling the game are watching Michael’s every move.

The Commuter re-teams Neeson with director Jaume Collet-Serra, who helmed Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. Neeson did not star in Collet-Serra’s last film The Shallows, truly a missed opportunity to have Neeson voice the shark. It’s easy to see why the star and director were attracted to the screenplay, written by Byron Willinger, Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle. This promises to be a Hitchcockian mystery thriller, a little bit Strangers on a Train, a little bit North by Northwest. It’s a safe distance from the generic “guy holding a gun while grimacing” action thriller, which Neeson has done his fair share of.

Collet-Serra is adept at setting moods, and while he has overdosed on the stylistic flourishes in previous films, there’s just the right amount of flashiness here. We get moments like the camera pulling through a hold punched in a train ticket that’s slotted into the back of a seat, and a Vertigo-style dolly zoom effect for good measure. It offsets the dullness of the train car setting. Production designer Andrew Bridgland does a commendable job of creating an entirely believable set.

However, it soon becomes clear that this train is on a somewhat rickety set of rails. The set-up is so engrossing and the tension so masterfully constructed, one can’t help but think “the pay-off can’t be that good, can it?” When all is revealed, it’s far from a cop-out, but is still something of a let-down. The conspiracy at the heart of Michael’s predicament is patently mundane, and while the film runs through as many twists as possible before reaching the denouement, said denouement is hardly surprising. The climactic action set-piece is also a mite overblown, heavy on the visual effects and at odds with the grounded feel the rest of the movie was going for.

Neeson is as dependable a leading man as ever, and some aspects of the character have been tailored to him – Michael is an Irish immigrant, so Neeson gets to use his natural accent. Michael is meant to be a relatable everyman, but was also a cop, which functions as a built-in excuse for why he’s so good at fighting. Even so, several sequences strain suspension of disbelief, but they’re as exciting as they are outlandish so we’ll let that slide.

Neeson is pulling almost all the weight here, and the supporting cast features several interesting actors who are almost entirely wasted. Jonathan Banks, familiar to Breaking Bad fans as Mike the Cleaner, gets a nearly non-existent part. The Conjuring stars Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, who don’t share any scenes here, are both somewhat memorable but still underutilised. Sam Neill does almost nothing. Perhaps it’s part of strengthening the red herring effect, in that we know so little about all the other characters that everyone is a viable suspect, but it’s disappointing that Neeson doesn’t get to play off any of these other performers.

The Commuter is a good deal more interesting that your average disposable released-in-January action thriller, thanks to Collet-Serra’s confident direction and an initially-fascinating mystery. Liam Neeson is also doing a little more than the typical running and gunning we’ve seen from his recent oeuvre. Unfortunately, there’s a good deal of unintentional silliness to contend with, and the resolution to the mystery is efficient but ho-hum.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong