Evita musical review

For inSing

EVITA

MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands Singapore
23 February – 18 March 2018

It now seems commonplace for entertainers to enter politics, but there was a time when this wasn’t so. In 1945, 26-year-old actress Eva Duarte married Colonel Juan Perón. In 1946, Perón was elected President of Argentina, and the actress became the first lady. Eva earned adoration and scorn and has had a lasting impact on popular culture.

Evita is arguably the best-known pop culture depiction of Eva. Practically everyone has heard “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” at some point or another. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice and directed by Hal Prince, the musical began life as a concept album in 1976, then debuted on the West End in 1978 and on Broadway in 1979.

The musical was adapted into a hit film in 1996, starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce. The film was nominated for five Oscars and won Best Original Song for “You Must Love Me”.

It is 1934, and young Eva Duarte (Emma Kingston) convinces travelling tango singer Augustin Magaldi (Anton Luitingh) to take her to Buenos Aires. Excited at what the big city can offer, Eva quickly becomes a well-known radio personality and actress. At a charity concert in 1944, she meets Colonel Juan Perón (Robert Finlayson), and positions herself to fall in love with and marry the Colonel.

Perón is elected President of Argentina in 1946. When Perón is imprisoned by his political opponents, Eva rallies the people of Argentina around him, portraying herself as coming from the working class and thus understanding their needs and concerns. Eva becomes a glamorous style icon and the face of Argentina on the world stage. She is given the title of Spiritual Leader of the nation. However, she begins to weaken, and eventually dies of cancer at 33.

Our way into the story is the narrator Che (Jonathan Roxmouth), a one-man Greek chorus who functions as critic and observer, but mostly critic.

Evita is a controversial work because it depicts Eva as a grasping opportunist who slept her way to the top. The primary source material was apparently the biography The Woman with the Whip by Mary Main, which was unabashedly Anti-Peronist. Evita has a point of view and isn’t preoccupied with appearing even remotely objective. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s clear that its portrayal of events is largely superficial. This is a story that begs for over-the-top theatrics, but also for incisive nuance – the latter being in short supply.

Perhaps this is a limitation of the form of musical theatre, but the nitty-gritty of politics is challenging to present through song and dance. Then again, Hamilton famously acquitted itself well in this regard. Eva is depicted as a power-hungry social climber, and there is an emphasis on her expensive clothing – the number “Rainbow High” is all about Eva insisting she look her most glamorous for her European tour. Eva is depicted as being duplicitous – everything that made her beloved was all an act. “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, her impassioned plea to the adoring public, is a lie – she claims to have never “invited” fortune and fame, when that’s exactly what she’s done.

It feels like Eva was a more fascinating person than the show makes her out to be. There’s no question that she was ambitious and that she had and still has her detractors, but Evita downplays her contribution to feminism in Argentina as a staunch fighter for women’s suffrage. Eva pushed for a change in the law that was enacted in 1947: not only did this give women the right to vote, but also the right to be voted for and elected to office.

How does this fare as spectacle? Blockbuster Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals are typically associated with lavish, over-the-top scenery and effects: think crashing chandeliers and roller derby stunts. This staging of Evita is sparer and non-literal, using the original scenic design by Timothy O’Brien. The main piece of set is a balcony/walkway that moves up and downstage. Elsewhere, doors are represented by a door frame, and if a scene takes place in a bedroom, all we see on the stage is the bed. Archival footage plays on a large projection screen, giving the action a bit of context but not quite helping the audience’s immersion into the story. If one’s primary contact with the musical is through the 1996 movie, with its epic scope, lavish production value and thousands-strong crowds of extras, its best to remind oneself that the stage and screen are very different mediums.

Evita contains some of Lloyd Webber’s strongest melodies and scathing, witty lyrics from Rice. Lloyd Webber’s composing in the rock genre is not everyone’s cup of tea and has often been scoffed at by fans of rock music. The influence of Latin American music is naturally present, and the blending of styles might alienate some. However, as the musical is through-sung like an opera, each song flows into the next and motifs are repeated often. This reviewer’s favourite number is “High Flying Adored”, which sees the often-fiery Che at his most tender. Under the baton of musical director Louis Zurnamer, the orchestra brought the famous score to vivid life.

Lloyd Webber is known for writing scores that are downright punishing for performers, especially women. The vocal range demanded of Kingston is staggering and handles it all with confidence. There are moments when her voice seems to want for power, but this is such an exhausting show that it doesn’t quite seem fair to fault her. Her rendition of the aria “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is the show-stopper it should be. While this reviewer would’ve wanted to see things more from Eva’s perspective, that’s down to the writing and not Kingston’s performance. Especially when playing teenaged Eva, Kingston looks like she’s having fun. This is a daunting role, and she seems fearless in taking it on.

As intended, the show is well and truly stolen by Che. This incarnation of the narrator is patterned after Che Guevara, but the Argentinian-Cuban revolutionary never met Eva or Juan Perón. “Che” is slang for “mate” or “dude” – he’s the everyman who sees through Eva’s act and knows in his heart that while she professes to be a champion for the downtrodden, she’s mainly preoccupied with advancing her own status.

Roxmouth is an outstanding Che – he has a rich, mellifluous voice that is warm but suitably rough. Physicality is a big part of the role, since Che often mocks those in power by mimicking their mannerisms. Roxmouth imbues Che with a louche sexiness that is magnetic and commanding. One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the dynamic between Che and Eva, which culminates in the tense, confrontational “Waltz for Eva and Che”, which is staged like a duel.

Finlayson doesn’t quite have the presence Perón should have, but then again, this is Eva’s show, and she is depicted as being the driving force behind his ascension to power. Finlayson comes off as a little stiff, and his Perón doesn’t have too much personality – again, this seems down to the writing more than his performance, but even so, he’s the weakest link among the three leads.

Luitingh, who is also the resident director of the performance, has fun as Magaldi. The performance is meant to be silly, but perhaps it is a little overly so. Magaldi is the first of many men Eva uses to advance herself, before he’s literally pushed offstage by Che. Isabella Jane, who plays Perón’s mistress whom Eva displaces, sings “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” with mournful beauty.

Evita’s songs have stood the test of time and the Latin-inspired dance sequences catch the eye. However, as a biography of Eva Perón, it does leave a fair bit to be desired. Perhaps it will motivate audiences to do further reading up on Eva. As a depiction of the collision of showbusiness and politics however, Evita is heady and entertaining, if not as substantial and thought-provoking as it would like to be.

Evita is produced by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Base Entertainment Asia and David Atkins Enterprises in association with David Ian and Peter Toerien and by special arrangement with The Really Useful Group. The show runs in Singapore from 23 February to 18 March 2018, and tickets begin at $55 (excluding $4 booking fee).

By Jedd Jong

Photos by Christiaan Kotze and Pat Bromilow-Downing

 

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Always and for Eva: Evita press call

For inSing

Always and For Eva

inSing goes beyond the balcony of the Casa Rosada at Evita

By Jedd Jong

It’s an understatement to say that Andrew Lloyd Webber has made quite the impact on musical theatre. Evita is one of the impresario’s earlier hits – featuring music by Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, the show opened on the West End in 1978 and on Broadway in 1979. The musical contains such numbers as “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, “High Flying Adored”, “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” and “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”. Now, fresh off engagements in Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa, the production has arrived in Singapore for the very first time.

inSing was at the press call for Evita on Tuesday, 27 February, at the MasterCard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands Singapore. The show is based on the life of Eva Perón, the Argentinian First Lady from 1946 to 1952 – affectionately referred to as “Evita”.

Eva grew up in the provincial town of Junín, and headed to Buenos Aires to pursue an acting career. She caught the eye of Colonel Juan Perón, who is elected the president of Argentina in 1946. Eva and her husband become polarising figures, attracting both worship and harsh criticism. The musical follows Eva from her teenage years to her death from cancer at the tragically young age of 33 in 1952. This is all narrated by Che, a one-man Greek chorus who is often cynical of Eva and the adoration she attracts.

Evita began life as a rock opera concept album in 1976, and it went on to receive major theatrical award including the Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Musical. Luminaries including Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone have portrayed Eva. During the musical’s 2012 Broadway run, Elena Roger played Eva, opposite Ricky Martin as Che.

In 1996, the musical was adapted into a feature film directed by Alan Parker and starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce. The film won a Best Original Song Oscar for “You Must Love Me”, which has since been integrated into the stage production.

Evita is directed by Harold “Hal” Prince, the nigh-legendary theatre director who turns 90 this year. The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd and Cabaret are some of his other credits. “I’ve been working for him for 15 years, and no two days are alike,” Daniel Kutner, associate director to Prince, said. “He is filled with energy, and always thinking, always creative, always looking for the next project. He’s not somebody who rests on his laurels,” Kutner continued, adding that Prince is currently working on two brand new projects.

The cast is led by English actress Emma Kingston as Eva. Kingston’s mother is Argentinian, which gives her an added connection to the material. Kingston was hand-picked by Lloyd Webber and Rice to play Eva. At the press call, we watched Kingston perform three numbers: “What’s New Buenos Aires”, “High Flying Adored” and of course “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”.

“High Flying Adored” is mostly sung by Che, who is played by South African actor Jonathan Roxmouth. Roxmouth has starred in such shows as The Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, West Side Story and Sunset Boulevard.

In Argentina, “Che” is slang for “friend”, somewhat akin to “dude”. The character was not initially intended to be Che Guevara, but director Prince patterned Che after the Argentinian-Cuban revolutionary. Guevara never met Eva or Juan Perón.

“What I’ve found is that you don’t talk at the audience, you talk to them. I get to connect and make eye contact and see people and check in with them throughout the show,” Roxmouth said of the role. “It’s really cool from that point of view because he’s not a standard narrator, he’s a narrator in the show and out of the show at the same time. Once the audience understands that, we have a lot of fun together, and I find that very rewarding.”

“Waltz for Eva and Che”, a number in the second act, is the culmination of the relationship between the First Lady and the narrator. “The audience, you can feel, are almost willing you to touch one another…and we just don’t,” Roxmouth said. He described Eva and Che as “these two incredible forces, like oil and water”, saying that it can be interpreted that Che is Eva’s conscience in the show.

The show also stars Robert Finlayson as Juan Perón and Anton Luitingh (who is also the resident director) as Augustin Magaldi.

Evita has attracted controversy, especially from within Argentina, because it generally depicts Eva in an unflattering light and as a conniving social climber obsessed with glamour and beauty. While it’s never been officially confirmed, it appears that Rice drew primarily from the biography The Woman with the Whip by Mary Main, which was very much anti-Peronist. Main’s book has been accused of overlooking the political and socio-political causes championed by Peronism, instead focusing on the seamier aspects of Eva’s rise to power.

Kutner hopes audiences will come in with an open mind. His take is that Evita is “about how we never truly know who our leaders are. We get the perception of them, we see them on TV, we hear them, but we don’t know who they are.” Kutner pointed out how Eva and Juan Perón were some of the first politicians to become media darlings and who embraced the flashbulbs of the press and the adoration of the public. The show begins with a depiction of Eva’s funeral procession, which snaked through the city of Buenos Aires.

Kutner called the cast “terrific and peerless,” noting how daunting a show it is to sing. “Because of the challenging notes and the range of this score, it can make mincemeat out of you unless you can really navigate it,” Kutner said.

Louis Zurnamer, the musical director and conductor, noted the complexity of the rock opera score, saying “it’s challenging from a historical point of view, it is not an easy musical and not every tune you’re going to sing in the shower tomorrow,” he said. “You know that you’re dealing with something very sophisticated.”

Billed as “powerful, passionate and political”, Evita promises transport audiences in Singapore to Argentina, to witness the heady life and times of a colourful and controversial figure, a woman who was a force to be reckoned with.

Emma Kingston (Eva) and Jonathan Roxmouth (Che)

Evita is produced by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Base Entertainment Asia and David Atkins Enterprises in association with David Ian and Peter Toerien and by special arrangement with The Really Useful Group. The show runs in Singapore from 23 February to 18 March 2018, and tickets begin at $55 (excluding $4 booking fee).

Photos by Jedd Jong

Lady Bird movie review

For inSing

LADY BIRD

Director : Greta Gerwig
Cast : Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Beanie Feldstein, Odeya Rush, Lois Smith, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen Henderson, Jake McDorman
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 34m
Opens : 12 February 2018
Rating : M18

Lady Bird is one of the last big awards season contenders to arrive on our shores. After an excellent showing at the Golden Globes and five Oscar nominations, this little movie comes with big hype.

‘Lady Bird’ is what the title character, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), calls herself. It is 2002, and Lady Bird is a high school senior in Sacramento. She has a contentious relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and is constantly trying to assert her own identity. She also doesn’t quite get along with her adopted older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), whose girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) lives with Lady Bird and her family.

Lady Bird dreams of going to college in New York, but her mother insists on her going to one in California instead. The family is weathering financial difficulty, with Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) struggling to make ends meet. Lady Bird develops a crush on Danny (Lucas Hedges), her co-star in the school’s production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Go Along. She also has feelings for the cool musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet).

Lady Bird’s desire for the acceptance of Kyle’s friend, the wealthy and popular Jenna (Odeya Rush), drives a wedge between Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Lady Bird undergoes formative experiences as she figures out who she’ll become and works through her relationships with those who care about her and, though she won’t admit it, whom she cares for too.

The film has enjoyed an immensely positive reception, with a 99% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps it’s not fair to expect Lady Bird to be the greatest movie ever made and a life-changing rapture, but it is excellent as what it is – a coming-of-age indie comedy-drama.

Writer-director Greta Gerwig has created a film that’s personal but not self-indulgent, executing a masterful balancing act. Indie darlings are often either quite dull or stuffed with histrionics. It’s challenging to keep the dial centred, and Gerwig has more than succeeded. Lady Bird is never boring, but its characters don’t feel like overblown caricatures. Some interactions between characters are perhaps a little more heightened than they’d be in real life, but the film remains easy to connect to throughout.

The film’s authenticity comes in part from how Gerwig draws on her own experiences: like Lady Bird, Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, her mother was a nurse, and she attended an all-girls Catholic high school. Gerwig has gone from being one of the more prominent stars of the ‘mumblecore’ indie film movement to only the fifth woman in history to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Perhaps her own experience as an actress has helped her draw out entertaining, sensitive and authentic performances from her cast.

The preternaturally talented Saoirse Ronan once again proves herself as among the finest young actors working. Lady Bird could easily have come off as obnoxious and insufferable, so it’s to Ronan’s credit that she is easy to root for – not despite, but because of her flaws. The character’s search for a direction in life, the tension between her and her parents, her sexual awakening and romantic relationships, and her angst towards her hometown – these are all things that teenagers have grappled with in one form or another. The balance of the universal and the specific is something that crystallises in Ronan’s portrayal of Lady Bird.

The testy bond between Lady Bird and her mother is something that has resonated strongly with audiences – Metcalf has said in interviews that people have told her that the film made them want to call their mothers afterwards. There is never any doubt that Marion loves her daughter, but even parents with the best intentions have difficult articulating their love for their children. The film makes it easy to see things from both Lady Bird’s and Marion’s sides, with Metcalf taking great care in giving the character enough layers.

Letts, who often plays imperious, unyielding authority figures, brings welcome warmth to the role of Lady Bird’s father Larry. Larry must often be the mediator, since his wife and daughter are so headstrong, and he gets caught in the middle. He also bears the burden of the family’s financial difficulties but internalises this to try and minimise the heartache for everyone else, something many fathers can relate to.

Both of Lady Bird’s love interests are sufficiently distinct: Hedges’ Danny is awkward and sweet, while Chalamet’s Kyle is the artsy rebel-philosopher. This is different from your typical love triangle, and Lady Bird always retains agency such that it never feels like the plot device of a requisite romance is the driving force of the narrative.

The film’s depiction of high school friendship dynamics rings true as well – the way Lady Bird and Julie grow apart when Lady Bird gets accepted by the popular kids is handled with a little too much drama, but Ronan and Feldstein share excellent chemistry.

 

The way the authority figures are portrayed demonstrates the film’s maturity – the nuns and priests who run the Catholic school aren’t monstrous or ridiculously strict, they’re just a little detached from their charges because of the generation gap. Some fun is had at the expense of religion, but it never registers as bald-faced mockery.

Lady Bird is better approached as a low-key indie gem than as a masterpiece that will change the face of cinema forever. That’s not to downplay the accomplishments of its cast and crew, but one might be better positioned to take in the film’s gentle humour and quiet wisdom without the awards season baggage attached. Lady Bird is just that little bit more relatable, more entertaining and more personal than your typical coming-of-age film, benefitting from its writer-director’s perspective and its leading lady’s significant skill.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Operation Red Sea (红海行动) movie review

For inSing

OPERATION RED SEA  (红海行动)

Director : Dante Lam
Cast : Zhang Yi, Huang Jingyu, Hai Qing, Du Jiang, Zhang Hanyu, Jiang Luxia, Fang Yin, Wang Yutian, Guo Jiahao, Henry Mak
Genre : Action
Run Time : 2h 18m
Opens : 15 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Gore And Violence)

With the record-breaking box office success of Wolf Warrior 2, Chinese filmgoing audiences have further demonstrated an appetite for over-the-top, nationalistic action films. Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea, a showcase for the Chinese Navy, aims to feed that appetite.

The film centres on a unit of the elite Jiaolong (Sea Dragon) assault team. The team is lead by Yang Rui (Zhang Yi), and its members include sniper Gu Shun (Huang Jingyu), gunner Tong Li (Luxia Jiang), Zhang Tiande (Yutian Wang) and Tong Li (Luxia Jiang).

After a successful mission rescuing the crew of a Chinese cargo ship from Somali pirates off the Gulf of Aden, the Jiaolong unit is sent into the North African nation of Yewaire. A coup in Yewaire has left the terrorist organisation Zaka with control of the nation. Among the hostages being held by Zaka are Chinese citizens. The Jiaolong team must rescue the hostages and prevent Zaka from getting their hands on yellowcake uranium to make dirty bombs.

 

Lam’s previous film, 2016’s Operation Mekong, was a bombastic action adventure that featured elaborately-staged action sequences, showcased Chinese military might and claimed to be based on a true story. Operation Red Sea ups the ante in the same aspects but is so overblown and bloated it paradoxically ends up less entertaining than Operation Mekong was. Operation Red Sea takes the loosest inspiration from the real-life evacuation of hundreds of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from Yemen by the Chinese Navy in 2015.

There isn’t even the slightest effort made to disguise Operation Red Sea’s reason for existence: as a long recruitment film for the Chinese Navy. Just as the 2017 film Sky Hunter was made with the cooperation of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the Chinese Navy is portrayed in only the most glorious, flattering light in Operation Red Sea. It’s akin to how Michael Bay idolises the military in his films, since that’s how he gains access to the latest hardware.

Operation Red Sea, like Operation Mekong, Sky Hunter, Wolf Warrior and other recent military action films that have come out of China, is patterned after the jingoistic Hollywood blockbusters of the 80s like Rambo and Top Gun. This is interesting because China ostensibly sits at the opposite end of the socio-political spectrum, and yet we get flag-waving accompanied by innumerable explosions.

The sheer scale of the spectacle here is astounding. The production values are high, and it looks like the production took over the whole of Morocco to shoot Operation Red Sea. This reviewer’s favourite action sequence is a ridiculous tank chase in which our heroes are pursued across the desert as a sandstorm closes in on them, and they’re firing artillery rounds at the enemy tanks.

Despite the technical competence and resources on display, it’s easy to tune out during the action sequences because they’re so numbing. The major battles in the city are so chaotic that they’re difficult to follow. A good action sequence should have its own mini-narrative, its own three-act structure. Lots of cars flipping over, soldiers traversing between buildings on ziplines, and high-calibre gunfire raining down from helicopters sounds exciting, but when it’s all mashed together in an indistinguishable mass, it just becomes enervating.

You’ll notice we haven’t discussed any of the characters at length, because there isn’t much to discuss. Operation Red Sea isn’t interested in any of the journeys of its characters, who mostly exist to operate machinery. The only character who stands out is plucky journalist Xia Nan (Hai Qing), but even then, she’s a stock type. It’s difficult to care when characters get horribly maimed, and even for an action movie, the gore seems excessive. Emotional scenes are melodramatic and unintentionally funny.

The villains are stereotypical in every way. Hollywood has conditioned audiences to panic any time they hear dialogue in Arabic, and Operation Red Sea sticks to this dictum. The whole thing plays like a Call of Duty-style video game, and the terrorist forces serve as hordes of faceless enemies to mow down.

While military action blockbusters are more in this reviewer’s wheelhouse than the typical comedies released during Chinese New Year, Operation Red Sea is difficult to recommend. While some might enjoy its chest-thumping patriotism and deafening, bombastic violence, Operation Red Sea will wear other less resilient audiences down.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wakanda Awaits: meet the characters of Black Panther

For inSing

Wakanda Awaits: meet the characters of Black Panther

Get to know the heroes and villains of this Marvel adventure

By Jedd Jong

Filmgoing audiences were introduced to Prince T’Challa/the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War. The Black Panther movie, directed by Ryan Coogler, takes us to T’Challa’s  home country of Wakanda. The technologically-advanced African nation has harnessed the rare mineral Vibranium, derived from a meteorite that crashed there millions of years ago.

Black Panther is the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and kicks off its tenth anniversary – the first MCU film, Iron Man, was released in 2008.

The character is the first superhero of African descent to appear in mainstream American comics. Black Panther debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966, and was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. Writers including Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates and artists including John Romita Jr., Brian Stelfreeze and Denys Cowan have worked on the Black Panther title.

The Black Panther film is already receiving rave reviews, with some calling it the best film in the MCU so far. The first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast, Black Panther is making an impact on the landscape of comic book films in a similar way that Wonder Woman did last year.

Before the movie whisks you off to Wakanda, here’s a primer on the characters you will meet there.

#1: T’CHALLA/BLACK PANTHER (Chadwick Boseman)

Chadwick Boseman has portrayed pioneering figures in African-American history in several biopics: baseball legend Jackie Robinson in 42, the godfather of soul James Brown in Get On Up and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. “The projects that I end up doing…have always been projects that will be impactful, for the most part, to my people — to black people,” Boseman said.  “To see black people in ways which you have not seen them before. So Black Panther was on my radar, and in my dreams.”

Boseman studied with a dialect coach to perfect a South African accent, and underwent an intense physical training regimen with martial artist Marrese Crump to perform the fight scenes. The film sees T’Challa struggle with the loss of his father, as he tries to keep the growing civil unrest in Wakanda under control – and face a challenger to his claim for the throne.

#2: ERIK STEVENS/KILLMONGER (Michael B. Jordan)

While Michael B. Jordan was in the critically-savaged Fantastic Four reboot, that did not scare him off taking on another role in a comic book movie. Like Chris Evans before him, who also played the Human Torch in two earlier Fantastic Four films, Jordan gets a second chance with a different Marvel character.

Jordan starred in Coogler’s earlier films Fruitvale Station and Creed, reuniting with the director as the main villain Killmonger. Killmonger is a Wakandan exile who became an American black-ops soldier, and believes that the Wakandan throne is rightfully his. Jordan described the character as “somebody you guys can root for,” calling him “a revolutionary.” Jordan repeated the adage that the villain believes he’s the hero of his own story. “If you can kind of get [the audience] to see that other point of view, I think the battle’s won,” Jordan remarked. Having already played a boxer in Creed, Jordan brought some of that physicality to Killmonger, saying that Coogler’s action scenes “tell a story with each punch”. Jordan also had to learn how to be handy with guns – “the weapons training is a totally different muscle,” he said.

#3: NAKIA (Lupita Nyong’o)

Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, a Wakandan intelligence operative and the ex-girlfriend of T’Challa. As a ‘war dog’, Nakia goes undercover on foreign soil, risking her life for the safety of her country. Nakia is one of several memorable female characters featured in the film. Nyong’o describes Nakia, who hails from Wakanda’s River Tribe, as “determined and methodical” and having “a quiet power”. Nyong’o asserts that Nakia is “she’s not your average love interest,” and that she and T’Challa have “a complicated past.”

“Wakanda is where we could be, where women are occupying their space in the future of a nation, they’re contributing equally and they’re allowed to realize their full potential and a woman’s power does not diminish a man’s,” Nyong’o observed. Nyong’o signed on without even reading the script, having admired Coogler’s previous work. After reading the script, she said she “couldn’t even believe it was a Marvel film, because it was so poignant, so politically and socially awake and aware.” The character’s fighting style is informed by judo, jiu-jitsu, silat and Filipino martial arts. She also learnt Korean for a scene set in Busan.

#4: OKOYE (Danai Gurira)

Danai Gurira, best known as silent badass Michonne on The Walking Dead, plays yet another commanding character: Okoye, the leader of the elite Dora Milaje bodyguard corps. Gurira was drawn to “the idea of protecting the leadership of this nation, the sovereignty of this nation, even if you don’t like what’s happening,” of putting country before personal politics – a dilemma that Okoye finds herself in.

Gurira describes Okoye as a traditionalist, saying “She has a pride and a patriotism about her nation. It goes beyond patriotism; it’s something even deeper.” Gurira spoke about travelling to Zimbabwe and seeing how excited the people there were about Black Panther. Musing on the impact the film will have on children of African descent all over the world, Gurira said “they’re in the centre of the screen, their faces are what you’re seeing. Their perspectives, their struggles, their stories, their characters, their destinies. That’s what we’re focused on, and their heroism.”

#5: SHURI (Letitia Wright)

Many reviews have noted Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister, as the scene-stealer of the film. Shuri is a 16-year-old genius scientist and inventor, who has devised cutting-edge technology to aid her brother’s crime-fighting efforts. Chief of these is a new suit which can harness and redistribute kinetic energy from strikes, and which fits into a necklace. In the comics, Shuri assumes the mantle of the Black Panther after her brother is grievously wounded in combat. Coogler says that Shuri’s genius is “on par with Tony Stark”.

Letitia Wright, who is being called the film’s breakout star, was recently seen in the fourth season of Black Mirror and will next be seen in Ready Player One. Wright was inspired to become an actress after watching the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee. While she describes herself as being “obsessed” with acting, faith was ultimately where she found her centre. “I don’t really consider myself religious. I view it more as a relationship,” she said, adding that she doesn’t mind if anyone finds that “weird”.  Wright says Shuri has “an innovative spirit and an innovative mind,” and as the embodiment of the future of Wakanda, “wants to take Wakanda to a new place”.

#6: RAMONDA (Angela Bassett)

The regal Ramonda, Queen Mother of Wakanda, is played by Angela Bassett. She too is reeling from the death of T’Chaka, her husband, but always appears calm and composed. In addition to being his mother, Ramonda is also one of T’Challa’s most trusted advisors. “It’s a lot of strength and balance and beauty and I’m just thrilled by getting to work with Danai and Lupita and actresses and brand new faces across the diaspora, it was beautifully cast,” Bassett said, adding that “it’s going to be quite a sight and I think it’s going to be magnetic.” Bassett played Amanda Waller in Green Lantern, and turned down the role of Storm in X-Men. This knowledge is wont to make one feel a little weird, since Storm and T’Challa ended up getting married in the comics.

#7: ULYSSES KLAUE (Andy Serkis)

Andy Serkis reprises his role from Avengers: Age of Ultron as the cutthroat South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. Serkis’ company The Imaginarium was working with James Spader and Mark Ruffalo for the motion capture work, when director Joss Whedon invited Serkis to play the role of Klaue.

When we last saw him, Klaue had his arm cut off by Ultron, and it’s now been replaced with a Vibranium cannon. “He’s got a humorous side to him, he’s got a sense of humour. But he’s equally very deadly and he’s quite mercurial and transitions emotionally very quickly,” Serkis said. Audiences are more used to seeing Serkis portray characters via performance capture, so this is the rare blockbuster in which he gets to show his real face.

#8: EVERETT K. ROSS (Martin Freeman)

CIA agent Everett K. Ross first appeared in Captain America: Civil War, helping to capture the film’s villain Zemo. Martin Freeman reprises the role here. Ross crosses path with T’Challa in Korea, and winds up travelling to Wakanda himself, where he finds himself in the thick of the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. Freeman and Serkis are the only two white actors in the main cast. “Making the film, it’s not lost on you. You think, ‘right, this is what black actors feel like all the time.’ And Andy wasn’t there often, so I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the white guy. And I’m the English white guy’,” Freeman recalled. Freeman reunited with Serkis, whom he worked with on the Hobbit movies in which Freeman played Bilbo opposite Serkis’ Gollum/Smeagol.

 

 

Black Panther movie review

For inSing

BLACK PANTHER

Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast : Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Sterling K. Brown
Genre : Action / Drama / Science Fiction
Run Time : 2h 14mins
Opens : 14 Feb 2018
Rating : PG

After making his debut on the big screen in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. His ascension to the throne will not go too smoothly, otherwise this wouldn’t be a very interesting movie.

After the death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa arrives home for his coronation. It is a bittersweet affair for T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). T’Challa is welcomed by elder statesman and spiritual leader Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the leader of the Dora Milaje bodyguard corps General Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his ex-girlfriend and undercover Wakandan intelligence operative Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

T’Challa’s claim to the crown is challenged by Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a hardened American black-ops soldier with an enigmatic link back to Wakandan royalty. Erik has allied himself with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the arms dealer who pillaged Wakanda’s valuable supply of Vibranium some 20 years ago. While tracking down Klaue, T’Challa runs into CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who finds himself along for the ride as Wakanda wages a battle for the nation’s very soul.

“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved,” Shuri tells her brother. Black Panther takes these words to heart, taking something that works – the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and improving on it. The MCU is now in its 10th year, and while it’s generated far more hits than misses, one still hears murmurs about ‘superhero movie fatigue’. The MCU movies have found an effective formula, but we want something different, something more.

Director Ryan Coogler, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, delivers that. The world-building in Black Panther is dazzling, with wonders waiting around every corner in Wakanda. The politics of the country are portrayed in an engaging manner, and Shakespearean palace intrigue is melded with the whiz-bang Afrofuturism of hovering vehicles and suits of armour that emanate from necklaces. Hannah Beachler’s production design and Ruth E. Carter’s costume design contribute to a visually captivating world brimming with texture.

Said world is populated by beautifully-realised characters – this is yet another MCU movie which boasts a cast stacked with talent. Boseman made an impression in Civil War with the stern dignity and undercurrent of vulnerability so crucial to T’Challa. The character continues to be noble but never boring, idealistic and principled without being naïve. T’Challa treats the throne with awe and respect as he mourns his father’s death. Boseman is thoroughly convincing as a steadfast leader.

Michael B. Jordan, who starred in director Coogler’s two previous films Creed and Fruitvale Station, brings swagger and contemptuous arrogance to the role of Erik. Erik’s Golden Jaguar suit means this is yet another solo MCU movie in which the hero fights an ‘evil inversion’ of himself – see Iron Man vs. Iron Monger or Ant-Man vs. Yellowjacket.

However, there’s more to Erik than your bog-standard MCU villain. Erik has one of the best motivations for an MCU villain yet, and while his tragic back-story has hints of melodrama to it, it’s also compelling and it’s easy for the audience to see his point of view. His rage and hunger for power make us root against him, but his righteous indignation and inner turmoil come from a genuine place.

Black Panther introduces some of the MCU’s best female characters yet. Danai Gurira, best known as Michonne on The Walking Dead, is a kickass right-hand woman to T’Challa who’s handy with a spear and doesn’t suffer fools. Nyong’o, who always exudes warmth and quiet intelligence, serves as a foil to Okoye while being formidable in her own right.

Letitia Wright steals the show as Shuri. Anyone who’s ever had a little sister will recognise the sometimes-annoying, sometimes-endearing traits the character displays. It’s also fun to see Shuri’s eyes light up when she talks effusively about her various mind-boggling inventions, including a new suit of armour for her brother. Executive producer Nate Moore has said that Shuri is even smarter than Tony Stark, and Wright seems to be having as much fun in the role as Robert Downey Jr. has with his.

Andy Serkis, probably grateful that audiences are getting to see his actual face instead of a computer-generated character with his expressions, reprises the role of Klaue from Avengers: Age of Ultron. He bites into the South African accent with relish and is wild, ruthless and entertaining.

Angela Bassett is suitably regal as the Queen Mother Ramonda – we wish she had more to do, but there’s already so much going on in the story. Whitaker’s Zuri is pretty much the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the film – Whitaker himself has said as much. Cleverly enough, Freeman’s Everett Ross plays an important role without overshadowing any of the leads.

Black Panther makes a further case for the cinematic universe as a sandbox for the vision of a talented filmmaker. It never feels like Coogler was curtailed or hampered by corporate higher-ups, and yet this feels of a piece with the existing MCU canon.

Black Panther boldly steps into territory that the MCU hasn’t quite trodden before. While there are the expected superhero origin story tropes, the film’s rich tapestry of culture, technology and action spectacle gives it a welcome freshness. The world of Wakanda is one you’ll want to dive into, and there’s potential for its further exploration in sequels to come.

Hang around for a mid-credits scene, and a second post-credits stinger.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Winchester movie review

For inSing

WINCHESTER

Directors: The Spierig Brothers
Cast : Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Angus Sampson, Laura Brent
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1h 40mins
Opens : 8 Feb 2018
Rating : PG13

In San Jose, California, stands the Winchester Mystery House, reputedly one of the most haunted residences in the United States. This is the story of that house, and the woman who built it.

It is 1906, and Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is summoned by the Winchester Repeating Arms Co.’s lawyers to conduct an evaluation of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). Sarah, the widow of Winchester founder William, has sunk all the money left to her by her husband into the construction of a sprawling, labyrinth mansion. She intends to imprison the restless souls of those killed with Winchester rifles within the house’s walls.

Also living in the house are Sarah’s niece Marian Marriott (Sarah Snook) and Marian’s young son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). Henry is prone to sleepwalking, but Sarah believes something more sinister might be at play. Eric writes off the spooky occurrences he witnesses as the result of withdrawal from the drugs he’s addicted to, but soon, the paranormal activity grows to intense to ignore. Sarah must find a way to grant the ghosts peace, or they will torment her and her family forever.

Oh, and JUMP SCARE!

The true story of Sarah Winchester and the Mystery House she constructed is fascinating and eerie, so it is a shame to see it reduced to a mostly dull, run of the mill horror movie. Every so often, there are glimmers of potential: production designer Matthew Putland has created a decent approximation of the house’s rooms, and all three principle actors are talented if under-utilised. Unfortunately, directors Peter and Michael Spierig are only content with scratching the surface, always going for the obvious and nothing more.

Winchester could’ve been a disturbing, compelling portrait of a women driven to the brink of insanity, wracked with guilt, and swallowed up by her demons. This has all the makings of a stylish Gothic horror film – imagine what a director like Guillermo del Toro could’ve done with this material. Alas, we merely get a succession of jump scares, and the mansion never becomes the central character we are promised it will be.

There’s also the opportunity to make a political statement, given the hot-button topic gun control always is in America. There are allusions to oppressed minorities, including African-American slaves and Native Americans, but Winchester never goes anywhere interesting with this. The central ghost winds up being rather boring, given that there are supposedly hundreds of other ghosts who lurk around the manor’s halls.

There’s a degree of novelty in the fact that a respected Oscar-winning actress like Helen Mirren deigned to star in a generic horror movie. Alas, that novelty fades fast. Mirren is good but unremarkable – this can mostly be chalked up to how the script refuses to give any real depth to Sarah’s personal turmoil, and how keen the movie is to explain things the audience should have already deduced. Mirren doesn’t fling herself off the deep end, never surrendering to the madness in a way that could be considered entertaining. At the same time, the movie does want to be sufficiently respectful of Sarah Winchester, by refraining from painting her as crazy. We can only imagine the meal Mirren would’ve made of this character, were she better written.

Clarke’s Eric is the standard sceptical man of science, who refuses to believe that supernatural forces are at work. Naturally, there’s a tragic back-story he must come to terms with. Clarke’s trying, but there’s not much to work with. Same goes for Snook, who starred in the Spierig Brothers’ far superior film Predestination. She spends most of the movie looking scared.

Winchester could’ve gone in two directions: a genuinely creepy psychological thriller that delves into the mind of a truly disturbed, complex woman; or an over-the-top Hammer Horror-style haunted house movie that’s campy, arch and blood-soaked. This film is neither and is instead middle-of-the-road and disappointingly bland. Even Mirren’s presence can’t elevate Winchester, which should have plenty to say about the effect of gun violence on those who are left behind to pick up the pieces but says almost nothing.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Basmati Blues movie review

For inSing

BASMATI BLUES

Director : Danny Barron
Cast : Brie Larson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Scott Bakula, Saahil Sehgal, Donald Sutherland, Tyne Daly, Lakshmi Manchu
Genre : Musical/Comedy/Romance
Run Time : 1h 47mins
Opens : 8 Feb 2018
Rating : PG

Many famous actors have done movies they’d rather the filmgoing public forget about: Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger have Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Jennifer Aniston has Leprechaun, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire have Don’s Plum, and George Clooney has Batman and Robin.

Brie Larson has Basmati Blues.

In this musical romantic comedy, Larson plays Dr. Linda Watt, a scientist who, with her father Ben (Scott Bakula), has invented the genetically-engineered Rice 9. Linda is sent by her boss Gurgon (Donald Sutherland) to Bilari, India to sell the new strain of rice to local farmers.

In India, Linda meets Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an agriculture student who has returned to his village because he cannot afford his tuition. Linda is wooed by William Patel (Saahil Sehgal), the crooked agriculture ministry liaison. It turns out that Gurgon plans to exploit the farmers and is counting on them not reading the fine print in the contract. Linda must save the people she has befriended from the schemes of her boss.

Basmati Blues was made in 2013, before Larson hit the big time with her Best Actress Oscar win for Room. Larson is now an A-lister, set to play Captain Marvel in the MCU. This means it’s an opportune moment to release Basmati Blues, which really should’ve sat on a shelf forever.

Despite the producers’ protestations to the contrary, Basmati Blues is a white saviour movie. It trades in outmoded exoticism and retrograde stereotypes and is a fish-out-of-water love story in which a sheltered white woman learns to embrace life as she falls in love with a man in a foreign land. Basmati Blues attempts to address the western exploitation of India by way of having its villains be unscrupulous corporate overlords, but it takes a step forward and about ten back. The film was shot in the South Indian state of Kerala, but takes place in Uttar Pradesh in the North, with no effort made to ensure the authenticity of details like the languages used on signage.

Nearly every decision seems like the wrong one, and this is amateur hour in the extreme. Director Dan Baron makes his feature film debut with this film, which is ostensibly a love letter to Bollywood musicals. There are ways to do tasteful homages to the cinema of other countries – this is not the way. The production values seem cheap, the choreography is inept, and many of the songs are downright awful. We will admit to kind of enjoying the romantic duet “Foolish Heart”.

One of the primary tasks of any musical is to convince audiences that it’s perfectly normal for the characters to burst into song. Basmati Blues does not achieve this. Brie Larson dances around a lab, singing about how great it is to be a scientist, and things don’t get any less awkward from there.

None of this is Brie Larson’s fault, apart from that she should’ve known after reading the script not to have said yes to this. Her performance is sufficiently amiable, and she has a fine singing voice, but it’s hard not to feel waves of second-hand embarrassment washing over the audience whenever the Oscar winner is onscreen.

Utkarsh Ambudkar, best known for his role in The Mindy Project, is charming and earnest and, like Larson, trying to make the most out of terrible material. Saahil Sehgal is extremely handsome and believably slick, but the love triangle is tiresome. There are more misunderstandings between the main couple than in five rom-coms put together.

Respectable actors Sutherland and Daly are absolutely slumming it, but Daly does have the best voice in the whole cast. Bakula is barely in the film, but even so, he hasn’t lost his ‘aw shucks’ charm.

The Hanlon’s Razor principle states “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The filmmakers behind Basmati Blues likely never intended malice, and some might probably even be genuine fans of Bollywood cinema. However, stupidity is enough to do damage. This misbegotten travesty is a blight on Larson’s filmography, and is destined to become a so-bad-it’s-good cult classic. Prepare to cringe like you never have before.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Last Flag Flying movie review

For inSing

LAST FLAG FLYING

Director : Richard Linklater
Cast : Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson, Cicely Tyson, Yul Vasquez
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 2h 5mins
Opens : 25 Jan 2018
Rating : NC16

In this comedy-drama, three Vietnam war veterans reunite and rekindle their friendship, but under less-than-ideal circumstances. It is December 2003, and Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell), a former Navy Corpsman, receives the devastating news that his son Larry Jr. has been killed in Iraq. Doc asks bar owner Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and pastor Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who served in the Marines in Vietnam alongside Doc, to accompany him to retrieve and bury his son’s body.

Doc, Sal and Mueller arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, to receive the body of Larry Jr. There, the trio meets LCpl. Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), who was Larry’s best friend in the Marines. Sal butts heads with Lt. Col. Willitis (Yul Vasquez), as Doc tries to process the loss of his son and Mueller attempts to counsel him. Despite the tragedy that brought them back together, the three men rediscover their friendship and work through each of their own issues which have been remained unresolved over the last 30 years.

Last Flag Flying is based on the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Richard Linklater. Ponicsan is known for the 1970 novel The Last Detail, which was adapted into a film starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid. While the novel was a direct sequel to The Last Detail, featuring some of the same characters, the film adaptation of Last Flag Flying is a spiritual sequel to The Last Detail instead.

Last Flag Flying deals with some heady themes, including those of loss, faith, patriotism and friendship. It packages this into a male bonding comedy-drama, and winds being a modest, moving film. The film pays respect to veterans without veering into overblown chest-thumping territory. There are times when the film feels hampered by its road trip structure, but the dialogue is well-written and balances interaction between the characters with exposition. Our trio of protagonists must face truths about themselves and confront long-buried secrets, each man at a different point on his respective journey to make peace with himself and his past.

In recent years, Carell has made considerable efforts to push past his comfort zone as a comedic actor, and he puts in a quiet, sombre performance. Sadness weighs on Doc, sadness he doesn’t know how to express. There are times when the withdrawn meekness comes off as an affectation, but Carell is largely convincing in his portrayal of a man in the throes of crushing grief.

Cranston is the movie’s dynamo. As the belligerent, alcoholic Sal, Cranston gets all the movie’s best lines. Sal is confrontational and speaks his mind, and is wildly expressive, giving Cranston the chance to display his physical comedy chops. Naturally, there’s a hollowness at the centre of all this, and Sal is a broken man using humour to cope. He is the instigator of much of the conflict, and keeps things moving.

Of the three protagonists, Mueller is the most at peace with himself, having found God and heeded his calling to become a preacher. Fishburne starts out calm, but there are points when Mueller is pushed to his breaking point. The character often acts as mediator, and it’s to the film’s credit that his faith is treated seriously rather than mocked outright. The arguments that Mueller and Sal have over the existence of God aren’t anything we haven’t heard before, but Mueller’s point of view registers as a valid one.

Quinton Johnson, who recently made his Broadway debut in Hamilton, is warm and likeable as Charlie. Charlie is the only real link audiences have to Larry Jr., as most of what we know about Doc’s slain son is conveyed by Charlie. Veteran actress Cicely Tyson shows up in an emotional, subtly sad scene.

“Every generation has its war,” Sal observes pithily, adding “Men make the wars; wars make the men”. There might not be as much depth here as we would’ve liked, but there still is resonance to Last Flag Flying. It’s a low-key film that can sometimes feel a little slow, but is given life by its trio of protagonists. The screenplay balances sensitivity with ‘guy’s night out’ brashness, never coming across as sanctimonious or preachy even as it deals with serious issues. It could stand to be a little tighter, but there’s warmth, wisdom and just a dash of silliness that makes Last Flag Flying worthwhile and thought-provoking.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Shape of Water movie review

For inSing

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Director : Guillermo del Toro
Cast : Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Genre : Drama, Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 4m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes And Nudity)

       In The Godfather, the Corleone family received a threatening message, telling them that the enforcer Luca Brasi “sleeps with the fishes”.

This fantasy romance film puts an entirely different spin on that phrase.

It is 1962, and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor working at a secret government facility in Baltimore. Elsa lives alone, and her two best friends are her neighbour, illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the severe head of security, arrives at the facility with precious cargo in tow – a humanoid amphibian creature dubbed ‘the Asset’ (Doug Jones). Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is studying the Asset, takes issue with Strickland’s harsh treatment towards the creature.

Elisa gradually begins to bond with the creature, bringing him eggs and playing music on a gramophone in his presence. As unlikely as it seems, Elisa begins to fall in love with the Asset. When she discovers his life is in danger, Elisa sets about rescuing the Asset from the facility, making her a target of Strickland’s wrath.

Director Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the film with Vanessa Taylor, has always been a genre filmmaker. All his films can be classified as fantasy, horror, science fiction, or some combination of the above. However, this has never restricted him – rather, working within these genres has freed del Toro as a storyteller. General audiences often view genre films through a somewhat narrow lens, but del Toro broadens said lens, and The Shape of Water is an excellent example of this approach. The film has garnered 13 Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director – it’s not every day that the Academy recognises fantasy romance monster movies this way.

This is a weird, beautiful, enchanting movie. On the surface, there’s the oddness of a woman falling in love and entering a physical relationship with a humanoid fish creature. Originally, del Toro wanted to remake Creature from the Black Lagoon, but from Gill-man’s perspective, recasting the classic movie monster as a romantic lead.

Naturally, cheesy romance novels in which women fall in love with supernatural creatures of various stripes, including but not limited to vampires, werewolves, angels and immortals, come to mind. However, The Shape of Water is far more poetic and less literal than that. Its bizarreness is intertwined with enveloping warmth. This is a movie about outsiders finding solace and understanding in each other, and past the genre trappings, there’s something pure and resonant about that.

The film treats 60s America with a degree of romanticism, but is also keenly aware of the societal tensions at the time and how those attitudes continue to manifest themselves today. This is a fantasy, but the world in which it unfolds is eminently believable.

Like all del Toro’s movies, The Shape of Water is deliberately designed. All the little details vividly evoke the period, and the atmospherics, from the colour palette to Alexandre Desplat’s harp-driven score, sell the film as a meticulously crafted whole. As envisioned by production designer Paul D. Austerberry and shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, there’s a cold dankness to the research facility. However, this proves to be the right setting for the romance between Elisa and the Asset to blossom, the unromantic surrounds throwing their bond into sharper relief.

The Elisa character gives Hawkins the opportunity to deliver a sensitive yet electrifying performance. The character is mute, and has always felt like she’s been regarded as missing something everyone else does, but she is a whole person, with dreams and desires of her own. The character’s sexuality is portrayed with a refreshing frankness, and Hawkins brings no vanity to the part at all.

Hawkins’ physicality complements the physicality displayed by Doug Jones, an oft-collaborator of Guillermo del Toro’s. Like classic movie monster portrayers Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, there’s more to Doug Jones than the fact that he’s in special effects makeup in most of his roles. In The Shape of Water, he gives a legitimately masterful performance, overcoming the constraints of what must’ve been a very uncomfortable suit, especially since Jones was in water for most of the film.

With his luminous skin and limpid eyes, The Asset is beautifully designed, and has become something of an unlikely sex symbol. Legacy Effects developed the special effects suit and makeup, and it’s easy to buy the Asset as a living, breathing entity. However, he looks so much like Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies – also directed by del Toro – that this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine the Asset was Abe Sapien, even though del Toro has said they’re different characters.

Michael Shannon is in maximum creep mode, playing a truly despicable antagonist. Strickland is inherently cruel, racist and exacting, but has also bought in to the consumerist message of the ‘American dream’, coveting a fancy new Cadillac. There’s a bit of a supervillain air to Strickland, but Shannon never goes the full moustache-twirling hog. There’s the religious zealot angle, with Strickland referencing Bible stories and saying that the Asset is an aberration for not being made ‘in God’s image’. Shannon can always be counted on to play a scary villain, and Strickland is plenty scary.

Jenkins’ Giles is a loveable character, someone who’s harbouring a secret and whom, like Elisa, knows what it’s like to be an outcast. The friendship shared by Elisa and Giles is sweet, and Jenkins and Hawkins play off each other to create an unconventional, lightly comedic double act.

Spencer plays to type as Zelda, sassy and chatty and always an understanding friend and co-worker to Elisa. Stuhlbarg’s character seems like the stock sci-fi movie scientist, but we see a few layers to him as the film progresses.

The Shape of Water is an exquisite creation that brims with humanity. It’s not afraid to expose some of the ugliness of humanity, but it counteracts that with indescribable beauty. This is a fairy tale for grown-ups, with plenty to say beyond its central conceit of ‘woman falls in love with humanoid fish monster’. There will be audiences who might be put off by its superficial weirdness, but most viewers will find it easy to surrender to the film’s embrace, however cold and slimy it might seem at first.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong