Crazy Rich Asians movie review

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

Director : Jon M. Chu
Cast : Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Koh Chieng Mun, Chris Pang, Sonoya Mizuno, Pierre Png, Selena Tan, Nico Santos, Janice Koh, Remy Hii, Harry Shum Jr., Fiona Xie, Carmen Soo, Jimmy O. Yang
Genre : Comedy/Drama/Romance
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 22 August 2018
Rating : PG-13

Crazy Rich Asians, the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name, has arrived on the big screen. There are many hopes pinned on this film, which has generated its share of controversy and backlash from its earliest stages of development. Let’s head to sunny Singapore and break all this down.

The film centres on Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor at NYU who has found the love of her life: the dashing Nicholas Young (Henry Golding). Nick is heading back home to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin (Chris Pang) to his fiancé Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno). Nick suggests that Rachel come along and meet the family. What could possibly go wrong?

What Nick’s been hiding from Rachel all this time is that he is the heir to the wealthiest family in Singapore. Naturally, Rachel earns the ire and extreme jealousy of all the eligible society bachelorettes who thought they stood a chance with Nick. Rachel faces the condescension and rejection of Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Rachel seems attacked on all sides, getting way in over her head. In her corner is her college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina), who hails from a wealthy Singaporean family too. Rachel also has her loving mother Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua), who immigrated to the U.S. from China, supporting her. Rachel navigates the treacherous waters of Singaporean high society, as she faces questions of identity, self-worth, and whether Nick is worth all this trouble.

On the surface, Crazy Rich Asians is a frothy romantic comedy of manners. It’s a fish out of water story and is naturally being sold on its depictions of decadence, opulence, indulgence, and other things ending in -ence. There’s a lot more to Crazy Rich Asians than first appears – the story means to examine status, the true value of material wealth, the classification of people as ‘outsiders’ or ‘insiders’ – themes that have been explored before, but not in the context of Singapore’s sphere of affluence in a major Hollywood studio film.

There’s a lot of baggage that has been piled onto this movie, whether it deserves that or not. Hollywood is looking for more representation – or more cynically, to get credit for representation. Being the first Hollywood movie with a predominantly Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club back in 1993, many are looking to Crazy Rich Asians as a triumph for representation and diversity in mainstream Hollywood movies.

This is a film that will mean different things to different people – it’s important to note that the film’s protagonist is Chinese-American, and we see things from her perspective. The questions of her identity are framed by her encountering her boyfriend’s Singaporean family. The film has been decried by several Singaporeans for being an inaccurate portrayal of the island nation. Ethnic minorities like Malays and Indians are nowhere to be found, and nearly everyone speaks in posh English or brash New York-ish accents.

This reviewer would argue that Crazy Rich Asians does not have a responsibility to depict all of Singapore, nor should it be taken as a film about Singapore. Its focus on a tiny slice of Singapore society may come across as narrow, but the circumstances specified by the story justify this depiction. This reviewer would love to see Singapore depicted in all its facets in a Hollywood film – that’s not the goal of Crazy Rich Asians, nor does it mean to be, but the frustration at a skewed version of Singapore being presented for consumption worldwide is understandable.

Crazy Rich Asians falls victim somewhat to ‘have your cake and eat it too’ syndrome. This is going to be a weird example but bear with us: the 2009 sci-fi action film Gamer wanted to be an indictment of the mass-consumption of overly violent, crass media, while being an example of the very thing it is attempting to satirise. Crazy Rich Asians does this for the lifestyles of the uber-wealthy. We’re meant to question the ultimate intangible worth of having a lot of stuff and having every whim catered to, just as we’re meant to gaze upon tableaus of ridiculous luxury with voyeuristic pleasure. There is an undeniable novelty factor, however slight, at the thought that audiences in Des Moines, Iowa might walk into the multiplex and see Newton Hawker Centre and Gardens by the Bay on the big screen.

Director Jon M. Chu, who has a background in dance movies, stages the proceedings with visual panache to spare. As with any adaptation of a novel, things are whittled down, and there’s a lot of plot to get through. The movie barrels along like a freight train – there’s nary a dull moment, but there isn’t enough room for the story to breathe. Better that than things being boring, we figure.

This is a soap opera, and there are altogether too many characters to keep track of, but the film trains its focus on Rachel. Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu makes for an intelligent, lively, likeable and vulnerable lead. The scenes in which she matches wits with Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor are a hoot, and a scene she shares with her mother, played by Tan Kheng Hua, brought this reviewer to tears.

Much ink has been spilled about Golding’s mixed heritage. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like characters in Harry Potter throwing around phrases like “pureblood” and “half-blood”, so we won’t. He’s handsome and earnest and just bland enough in the way male leads in modern rom-coms often are. Nick is a decent person, while most of the people in his social circle aren’t, making us root for Rachel and Nick to end up together.

Michelle Yeoh gives the stock type of the glowering prospective mother-in-law just enough depth, and Eleanor articulates exactly why she’s so wary of Rachel. Yeoh’s performance is a savvy one, lending the proceedings gravitas. There’s a sly bit of commentary in seeing Eleanor lead a Bible study group comprised of her rich friends – the implication is that these are people who prize material gain over all else hiding behind the veneer of religious virtue.

The rest of the cast is comprised of a lot of attractive people doing attractive people things, and sometimes they can blend together a little. The camera lingers on Pierre Png’s bare torso as he exits the shower, and much is made of how physically beautiful the characters played by Gemma Chan and Sonoya Mizuno are. There are also many characters who are outwardly attractive but are awful on the inside.

Peik Lin and her family stand out by design – they’re outlandish, brash, and they’re rich but not pretentious. Awkwafina is utterly enjoyable, delivering a giddily infectious performance. Ken Jeong and Koh Chieng Mun are plenty of fun as Peik Lin’s parents. Nico Santos hams it up as Oliver, who calls himself the ‘rainbow sheep’ of the family. Oliver does fall a little too neatly into the ‘gay best friend’ role, but Santos gives the character welcome personality.

There are times when Crazy Rich Asians is a touch too ridiculous for its own good – there’s an Apocalypse Now homage (think helicopters and “Ride of the Valkyries”) that seems a little too on the nose. However, there are others when performers showcase excellent comic timing, and the film hits a pleasantly silly pitch.

Crazy Rich Asians is a lot of things, and there will be a wide range of reactions to it. There will be more social media comments hung up on the accents, and there will be thoughtful socio-political treatises deconstructing the film and what its existence means in the current film industry landscape. As a frothy, sometimes-clumsy, almost-emotional rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians works.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Crazy Rich Asians Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh interviews

For inSing 

A GIRL, A GUY AND A POTENTIAL MOTHER-IN-LAW

Stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh talk Crazy Rich Asians

By Jedd Jong

While visiting the Singapore set of Crazy Rich Asians last year, inSing spoke to stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh. Here’s what they had to say about the film:

CONSTANCE WU

Constance Wu plays Rachel, the lead character in Crazy Rich Asians. The actress is best known for playing Jessica Huang in the TV series Fresh Off the Boat and has appeared in TV shows like Torchwood, Covert Affairs and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Wu is an outspoken feminist and champion for Asian representation in mainstream Hollywood media. As a take-off on the #StarringJohnCho meme, the #StarringConstanceWu meme similarly served to highlight how many Hollywood films could’ve worked with Asian stars like Cho and Wu in lead roles.

Wu spoke to inSing about filming on location in Singapore, working with her co-stars Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh, how she spent her downtime in Singapore, and the importance of Crazy Rich Asians in the Hollywood landscape.

inSing: What does being part of this project mean to you?

CONSTANCE WU: Being rich, being crazy and being Asian [laughs]. It’s great being part of an ensemble that really gets along really well, and is trying to make a story that’s really fun and wonderful.

What was it like filming in Singapore and Malaysia? Does the heat get to you?

We had such an incredible crew that once they realised that they needed to bring more air conditioners and stuff like that, the crew was so hardworking and so caring that they really took care of us. Even on days when it’s really hot, there are all these people with fans and water around. Even though it’s been hot, the local crews have been so wonderful, it’s so great.

Can you go out without being recognised here?

I got more recognised here than I did in Malaysia. But yeah, I think I can blend in. Sunglasses, baseball cap [laughs].

What is it like working with Michelle, is she intimidating?

Oh, no! Michelle is very kind, very down to earth, she’s not as intimidating as Eleanor. But when she plays Eleanor, she definitely brings that. But as a person, no, she’s very kind

How about working with Henry?

It was great. He was really eager to do well.

Henry has discussed the backlash he received because of the ethnicity of the character of Nick. He was saying that you can’t get more Asian than him, because he grew up in Asia and spent all this time in Asia. What was your response to that backlash?

I don’t think it’s true that you can’t get more Asian than anybody, than him, because that implies that there’s one standard, and I don’t think there’s any standard of what’s more Asian or not. I think you create your own identity, and the identity you create is borne of many things: where you choose to live, what language you speak, what language your parents speak, what music you love, what stories you love. Those are all factors that make you who you are, and there isn’t any one person who’s more Asian than another person. There are just individuals. And that’s why this movie is so great: it doesn’t show Asians as just one monolith. It shows the diversity amongst Asians. You have characters as different from Kitty Pong to Rachel. You couldn’t be more different, both of them are Asian. Diversity within an Asian cast shows the richness of character within a culture and the richness of individual spirits within a culture, that are influenced by the culture but still claiming individual identity.

Everyone loves you from Fresh Off the Boat, and now you’re in Crazy Rich Asians. Do you see yourself as the ideal Asian-American representative in Hollywood?

I don’t think I’m the [ideal] Asian representative. I really like bringing to life stories about being Asian in the world, because there aren’t a lot of them, and I think they’re beautiful stories. It’s an honour to work with Nina, with Jon, and with Kevin Kwan’s story. It’s based on very personal things that happened to him.

Have you met your fair share of crazy rich Asians?

I’ve never met many.

So you’re very much like Rachel, in that you’re not used to this opulence.

No, not at all. I don’t even think I’ve met a crazy rich person, Asian or not, any person. I grew up working-class [laughs] in Virginia, in the United States.

Awkafina has said that there have been projects where she feels like the token Asian on set, and in this movie, that’s totally gone and she feels happy to be among her peers. Do you feel that this is a landmark, moving forward?

Sure. We’ve actually never had a studio movie that starred all Asians that wasn’t a period piece. Because The Joy Luck Club, that came out I think 20 years ago, it was partially a period piece. A lot of the Asian cinema that we see in theatres are period pieces, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. They’re all beautiful and I love that we have a lot of period pieces, but why don’t we ever see Asian-Americans in a contemporary context? Why don’t we see mainstream movies where they’re using cell phones, you know? [Laughs] It’s not because we don’t, you’re using your cell phone right now. It’s a way to include them in the current conversation by showing them in a contemporary context, saying that they are here and they are contemporary, and our stories matter. So that is really ground-breaking, and is part of the reason why I took on this project.

On your Instagram, we saw that you made The Rabbit Headquarters your first stop in Singapore. What made you want to visit them?

I love rabbits, I have a rabbit and I couldn’t bring her here.

What’s your rabbit’s name?

Her name is Lida Rose. She’s four-years-old and she’s very cute. I really missed her, I don’t know why, but I really love rabbits. So the first thing I wanted to do when I came to Singapore was to go see rabbits.

You also posted on Instagram that you went to watch Wonder Woman in Singapore. Do you think that that’s on the horizon, an Asian female-led genre piece in Hollywood?

I don’t know, but I do consider this film to be a female-led piece. Even though a lot of people think it’s a love story, I don’t think it’s a love story. I truly think this story is about women and the sacrifices they make to protect men. If you look at what Michelle’s character does, Eleanor, [she] makes a sacrifice to protect Nick. If you look at what Astrid does, Astrid makes a sacrifice so that Michael doesn’t feel inferior about his lack of wealth as well. It’s all about these quiet sacrifices that women make, they don’t need to show off, and how they navigate them through their female friendships, especially Rachel’s friendship with Peik Lin, played by Awkwafina.

I do think with movies like this movie and Wonder Woman that hopefully stories that have females who are not just objects of romance but who are making sacrifices and making choices and having agency in their lives, that those are stories we’ll see. If it happens in the context of a big Marvel blockbuster, that’s great too, but if it happens in the contemporary context of Crazy Rich Asians, that’s awesome too. I think the thing that we want is narrative plentitude, as opposed to narrative scarcity, so we want more stories, and not just one. If you don’t identify with one story, then maybe there’s another story you identify with.

When you were growing up, did you find that there weren’t enough female Asian characters to look up to?

Yeah, precisely because I’m not interested in actresses who are known for their beauty. I am interested in actresses who are known for their talent and their depth. This is not the fault of the actresses, but a lot of Hollywood movies try to sexualise or romanticise women, as if they’re just supposed to be there are be pretty. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but that’s not what moves me. Growing up, I didn’t think about it too much, because you’re just a kid – you’re thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch [laughs]. You’re not thinking about those kinds of things.

I grew up in the theatre, and the theatre is very welcoming. Especially where I grew up, all the gay people went to theatre, because it’s a welcoming place. I always felt very welcome in the theatre, and that’s why I kept pursuing it, because it felt like family there.

We saw you filming a very emotional scene. How do you get into that headspace?

Oh, that’s boring. I don’t want to bore you with all the stuff I have to go to get into that. That’s the most boring stuff, actor’s stuff. I’ve trained my whole life as a serious actor. I’ve gone to a conservatory, I’ve done Shakespeare, I’ve done all of it – and it’s boring! It’s like if I taught you how to fix a car. It’s very boring [laughs].

But it gets you to that place.

Yeah. Different people have different techniques. You find the ones that work for you, and then you use them. But when the writing’s good, it’s pretty easy, and when the actors are good, it’s easy too.

HENRY GOLDING

The producers of Crazy Rich Asians searched far and wide for their dashing female lead, and settled on British-Malaysian TV personality Henry Golding. Golding is best known as a TV presenter, having hosted several travel shows. Despite having no acting credits to his name prior to this film, Golding is poised for stardom, having clinched a role in the upcoming Paul Feig-directed thriller A Simple Favour opposite Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. He is also set to play a gay Vietnamese man returning to his home country in the independent film Monsoon, from director Hong Khaou. The story goes that an accountant on Crazy Rich Asians mentioned to their line producer that they had seen Golding host a red carpet event, reducing most of the women there to jelly.

In this interview, Golding spoke about making his acting debut, addressed the backlash to his casting, discussed working with his onscreen mother Michelle Yeoh and the explained the predicament his character Nick Young finds himself in.

inSing: What has it been like filming the movie?

HENRY GOLDING: Filming has been insane. It’s been a real learning curve for myself, but the crew here have been nothing but welcoming. It’s just become this huge family. I think that really makes a difference, and the one person who spearheads that is Jon. Jon is like a big brother to everyone, he’s got the patience of a saint, and that trickles down. When you’ve got a good director who doesn’t stress or shout, it makes everybody’s job easier. It’s been nothing but an amazing experience. I have nothing bad to say about it!

What were the challenges you’ve had to overcome, seeing as this is your first feature film role?

I’ve had very little onscreen time in terms of acting experience, but through the years, I’ve always wanted to get into acting. Movies are a big, big passion of mine, and have been for such a long time. Whilst watching movies, I’ve been analysing this whole time, and I’ve identified bad acting, and in a way, my love of movies and actors really helped bring something of mine. Acting is being in the moment, and being very present. Being intuitive to emotions, you blend those together, and I hope I did a good job.

Did you feel nervous acting opposite performers who’ve been in the industry longer than you have?

That was the weird thing, not at all. If anybody, it would’ve been Michelle who would’ve freaked me out. Michelle is queen bee. She is classy, she’s the person you wish for Michelle to be, and much more. I’ve grown up watching her and when we first met, I called her up when we landed in KL and said “would you mind if we had tea [together]”, and she said “no, not at all!” So we had 2-3 hour tea and crumpets, just to get to know each other. From her side, there was zero diva, almost minus diva-ness. She’s really been everybody’s favourite, she’s a saint.

The producer Nina Jacobson said you are the ideal Nick, and you had everything they were looking for in Nick. But of course, there has been some backlash because of your ethnicity. What would you say to the critics?

There are plenty of directions we can always go with this. We’ll go through the spectrum. Historically, Asia, especially Southeast Asia, is such a mix of blood, in terms of Peranakan, you’ve got the Malacca and Penang, all those Dutch and Portuguese influences, there’s mixed blood everywhere. That’s something that the Westerners, even Chinese-Americans, don’t understand. We are such a melting pot here in Southeast Asia. What we should be proud of is we’re representing this side of the world. People are only concerned with Chinese-Americans in Hollywood. Then there’s the rest of us, who are maybe a little bit of Malay, a bit of Peranakan, everything.

When it comes to me being half-English, to me, I identify more with my Asian side. I’m from Sarawak. You cannot get more Asian than coming from five hours into the jungle. I would put myself against anybody from the States – how Asian do you have to be? I don’t understand. I’ve lived all my life in Asia, I align myself with the Asian cultures, but then it’s easy for somebody to say “he’s not Asian, he’s just a white guy!” They’ve never left wherever they’re from. It’s easy to point fingers, it’s easy to criticise, and it’s easy to always never be able to make everybody happy. That’s something we have to come to terms with. But for me, I’m extremely proud that I’m able to represent Singapore, Malaysia, all of us Southeast Asian countries. It’s very important that we’ve made it this far, and I take my hat off to Warner Bros. for taking it there. We’re breaking boundaries with this film.

Tell us about your character Nick.

Nick is…his own self. Nick has a very rich history, especially with Singapore. His family is of the old guard. For Nick, he is very acutely aware that he’s the heir apparent to these riches, that he’s Singapore’s poster child for that old system, but he wants to be his own person. He wants to shine as Nick Yong, not of Ah Ma’s creation or Eleanor’s creation. He left to find himself – he went to Oxford to study, then he went to New York, all under the guise of trying to find himself – and he found himself in Rachel. That bond is essentially the core of the story. It’s a love story. He is a bit silly in not explaining what is waiting for Rachel, but what he’s most afraid of is her judging him for that, and her thinking differently of the Nick that she fell in love with. He’s caught in between this hell and heaven, where he needs to introduce to that part of his life, but he doesn’t want to scare her. He doesn’t know how to put it across, because his grand idea would be to bring her over and throw her into that pot.

So it’s a little bit like Eddie Murphy’s character in Coming to America, in a way.

In a sense, in a sense. Thankfully, Rachel does enjoy herself, and ends up falling in love with Singapore, almost finding something in herself. She was never in touch with her ancestry, apart from her mother, her Asian-ness. For her, all of this is new. It goes back to how Asian you have to be to actually be Asian. For her, she’s a foreigner, coming to Singapore. She’s learning a culture that she’s not familiar with.

How strongly did you identify with the character?

It was very strange, because Nick shoes that I stepped into are very similar to my own, in a sense. His sense of not really identifying with the past – his identity is something he’s always had problems with. He’s not ashamed of his family, but he’s very aware that it can be very jarring for someone like Rachel. When I was growing up in England, I was seen as a foreigner, then when I’m back in Asia, I was a foreigner as well, so where do you belong? You’re a stranger everywhere. When I was creating Nick, it was more conceptualising the ideas and the memories that Nick had. Growing up with Colin, how he met Rachel, the process of him falling in love, and his relationship with his mother, one of the key components of this story. Those are the things I had to explore, and have those triggers ready for a scene which would bring those to the front.

MICHELLE YEOH

Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh is no stranger to moviegoers in Asia, and has made considerable inroads into Hollywood as well. She is perhaps best known for her roles in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and the Lee Ang-directed martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She has also taken on prestige pictures like the Aun Sung Suu Kyi biopic The Lady. Lately, Yeoh has appeared in sci-fi projects like Star Trek: Discovery and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.

In Crazy Rich Asians, Yeoh plays Eleanor Young, who butts heads with protagonist Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who is dating her beloved son Nick (Henry Golding). Much of the conflict derives from differences in culture and class, with Eleanor being the main obstacle standing in the way of Rachel finding happiness with Nick. In this interview, Yeoh told us about her character, working with co-star Golding and director Jon Chu, and the heart of the movie behind the sheen of material wealth.

inSing: How do you function in this heat without sweating buckets?

MICHELLE YEOH: There’s a crew behind us who runs around with fans [so] we don’t melt.

Throughout your career, you’ve worked with so many great directors. How does Jon Chu measure up?

Oh, wonderfully. I told him a couple of days ago, he reminds me of a young Ang Lee. The intensity, the way he works, the way he talks to himself, the way he visualises. He’s so hands-on. The way he runs around the set looking at all the details, I really enjoyed my experience working with Jon. He has been an absolute delight.

What was it like working with Henry Golding, see as it’s his first movie?

Fantastic. He’s like an old-timer. I’ve really, really enjoyed working with him. He’s very passionate, he’s very eager and he wants to do this well. I think if you ask anybody in the crew, they all adore him. Everyone wants to take him home to show their mother, and all the mothers want to take him home as their sons!

How do you approach a role like Eleanor?

It’s not difficult, because first of all, the book is there. I have a very close understanding with Jon, which is very important because as the director, he is really the soul of the film. We’ve done some major changes as well, we really worked on the relationship between the mother and son. I think this is very key for me as an actor, and key for the movie as well, otherwise what is it that holds all this craziness together? It’s that the mother would die for him. She would do anything for him – you know how Chinese mothers are. You know they would jump in front of a train for you. The thing is, we think that when we’re brought up in America, you’re like a banana. You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be respectful to your elders, you listen to them instead of just chasing your own dreams and things like that. In this movie, I think we approach this subject matter and deal with it accordingly. I think there’s no right or wrong, some of the old ways need to be changed, but I think with Eleanor, when I saw this, it was a very good opportunity. All the things you’ve heard about in the past, the Tiger Mom, the matriarch, the mother-in-law, even in the black-and-white movies – I think in this one, we try to break that cycle, if it’s possible at all.

Will this film dispel the myth of Crazy Rich Asians?

No! I hope it gives you a chance to laugh at them, and laugh with them. The thing is, we’re not trying to laugh at them, we’re trying to laugh with them. There’s nothing wrong with laughing at ourselves. I think we can take ourselves too seriously at times, that makes you miserable and makes the people around you miserable. Life is short, and can be very unpredictable, so if you don’t enjoy the moment you have, it’s a missed opportunity.

It’s there in the title, Crazy Rich Asians. How do you reconcile the materialism and the opulence with the heart?

I think there is always that balance. It doesn’t mean that if you can afford all these material things, you don’t have heart. When you are very rich, it’s how you spend the money. You can pamper yourself, but also be aware and compassionate to those around you who need it. Sometimes when you’re very young, and you have it, you haven’t got the sense of control or the sense of discipline yet, to understand what you can do. You think “me, my car, my plane, my ship, my my my my my!” I hope one day this person will have his eyes opened and be enlightened, or have a good mentor who can show him the right way.

How is this role different from the others in your career?

I hope that every time I come into a role, it is different, because otherwise, you just see Michelle Yeoh. When I get offered a role, I have to see “why am I doing this?” Do I love the script? Do I love the director? I don’t want to make a movie where you watch it and go “oh, that’s just Michelle Yeoh being Michelle Yeoh again”. It’s like when we designed for Eleanor, this is not what Michelle Yeoh would wear, this is not the kind of hairstyle I would have. My assistant went “you never wear that!” And I said “good, it’s not me in the movie!” You have to step into the roles of others, otherwise it will lose the fascination for me, and for the audience as well.

This film is seen as a very big step forward for the representation of Asian people in Hollywood? What do you see as the future for Asian actors in genre projects, stuff like Star Trek or Marvel?

I hope I have that magic ball to see! I think it’s very important that we keep pushing for these genre movies. It’s so rare, so few and [far] in between that we get [them]. We are such a big community. We have to be more united, to get out and push more of these projects out there. We have to create the box office, we have to create the marketplace. Just think about the African-Americans, and the Indians – they make these movies because there is an audience of it. If we Asians can stick together and demand more of these movies, then Crazy Rich Asians gets made.

 

Teen Titans Go! To the Movies review

TEEN TITANS GO! TO THE MOVIES

Director : Peter Rida Michall, Aaron Horvath
Cast : Greg Cipes, Scott Menville, Hynden Walch, Khary Payton, Tara Strong, Will Arnett, Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Jimmy Kimmel, Halsey, Lil Yachty, Wil Wheaton, Patton Oswalt
Genre : Animation/Comedy
Run Time : 88 mins
Opens : 30 August 2018

Superhero movie saturation has become such a commonplace topic that there now exists a superhero movie specifically about that phenomenon. In Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, the titular DC team of junior superheroes is feeling left out – it seems that everyone, even the obscure likes of the Challengers of the Unknown, is getting their own movie.

This hits Robin (Scott Menville) particularly hard, because his guardian Batman (Jimmy Kimmel) seems to get movie after movie, while he is left in the shadows. Robin’s teammates Beast Boy (Greg Cipes), Starfire (Hynden Walch), Cyborg (Khary Payton) and Raven (Tara Strong) try to cheer him up, but to no avail. Robin lobbies film director Jade Wilson (Kristen Bell) to make a movie about him.

Deciding that what the team needs is an arch-nemesis to make a compelling movie, the Teen Titans take on Slade (Will Arnett), a dastardly mercenary looking to steal a powerful crystal. In their quest for justice/a movie deal, the Titans run into a variety of other heroes, including Superman (Nicolas Cage), Wonder Woman (Halsey), Green Lantern (Lil Yachty) and The Flash (Wil Wheaton).

There have been many incarnations of the Teen Titans in the comics, arguably the best-known being The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Pérez. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is an extension of the Teen Titans Go! TV series, a comedic spinoff of the 2003 Teen Titans animated series. Teen Titans Go! has long been a bugbear of many fans. Those who grew up on the anime-esque Teen Titans series in the early 2000s consider the parody series to be an affront to their memory of the earlier show. Having grown up on the DC Animated Universe, which began with 1992’s Batman: The Animated Series, this reviewer would argue that while not without many redeeming qualities, the 2003 Teen Titans series was itself a marked step down from the DCAU.

This is a roundabout way of saying that the backlash to Teen Titans Go! mostly stems from a rejection of ‘childishness’ – quite cleverly, this is one of the themes in Teen Titans Go! To the Movies. In the film, the Teen Titans are dismissed by the other heroes because they can’t take anything seriously. This is a very silly film about just how silly superhero movies can be. On the surface, it’s all pratfalls, toilet humour and incongruous song and dance numbers. Beneath that, this movie delights in a playful meta deconstruction of superhero movies and their conventions, without losing sight of its primary audience.

The popular public conception of DC media as being darker than that of rival Marvel, sometimes to a self-conscious extent, gets a lot of play. We wish that directors Peter Rida Michall and Aaron Horvath could’ve seen bits of the upcoming live-action TV series Titans, which appears to fundamentally misunderstand the source material, just so the Teen Titans Go! version of Robin could mutter “fudge Batman”. Alas, we must make do with yet another Martha joke.

There’s a Catch-22 here: on the one hand, the detail-light and deliberately cartoony animation style of Teen Titans Go! doesn’t work particularly well on the big screen, especially when compared to the richness and technical wizardry of something like The LEGO Batman Movie. On the other hand, this being a theatrically-released movie is integral to the central premise of the Teen Titans going in search of their own movie.

The central voice cast from Teen Titans Go! and the original Teen Titans series returns, with several celebrities joining them. While notable-ish names from the music world Halsey and Lil Yachty don’t contribute too much, getting Nicolas Cage to voice Superman is a bit of a casting coup. Cage was attached to play Superman in Tim Burton’s Superman Lives, a film which didn’t come to fruition and is now legend among comic book movie fans.

Will Arnett, who voiced Batman in The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie, voices Slade, and just like everyone else involved, sounds like he’s having the greatest time. There are several cameos which will elicit a chuckle or two.

Fans of comics and related media are often afraid of being perceived as childish, because of the long-held stigma that people who read comics or collect toys are socially mal-adjusted. While that appears to be changing, there’s still a fear of embracing silliness within the genre, which has led to overcompensating with ‘grimdark’ takes on the source material. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies examines this in a surprisingly nimble way. This reviewer still isn’t sure that it works amazingly on the big screen, especially in a summer which has given us Incredibles 2, but if you’re willing to let loose for a bit and not take yourself too seriously, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies is worth a look.

Stick around for a stinger after the main-on-end titles.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Positively Preposterous Prosperity: Crazy Rich Asians set visit

POSITIVELY PREPOSTEROUS PROSPERITY

inSing witnesses the wealth and wackiness first-hand on the set of Crazy Rich Asians

By Jedd Jong

Sprawling mansions, multi-million-dollar weddings, a bachelor party on a converted container ship, private jets, limited edition supercars – oh, to live as the top 0.1% does. inSing got a whiff of that rarefied air when we visited the set of Crazy Rich Asians in Singapore. Besides taking in the luxury, we learned that, yes, rich people have their problems too. Please contain your outpourings of sympathy.

Crazy Rich Asians is based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel of the same name. Kwan was born in Singapore, and his family relocated to the United States when he was 11. The story’s protagonist is Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor at New York University. Rachel falls in love with Nick Young (Henry Golding), who hails from Singapore. Nick takes Rachel back to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin Khoo (Chris Pang) to Araminta Lee (Sonoya Mizuno). It is only then that Rachel realises that Nick belongs to one of the wealthiest families in Asia, and as the girlfriend of an extremely eligible bachelor, she draws the ire of scores of Nick’s would-be suitors.

Rachel also butts heads with Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who disapproves of her son’s choice. Rachel finds herself drawn into an intricate family drama, with players including Nick’s beautiful cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan); Astrid’s unfaithful husband Michael (Pierre Png); Peik Lin (Nora “Awkwafina” Lum), Rachel’s best friend in Singapore, rowdy groomsman Bernard Tai (Jimmy O. Yang); social-climbing Hong Kong soap opera starlet Kitty Pong (Fiona Xie); and various other colourful characters.

When we visited the set along with other members of the press, it was the penultimate day of filming in Singapore. It was a night shoot, which tends to be arduous on the cast and crew. The scene being shot that night was set after the wedding reception at the Gardens by the Bay in Marina Bay Sands. In the shadow of the towering Supertrees was a cluster of banquet tables, each with a roasted pig as its centrepiece. Food stylists would occasionally spritz the pig with oil to keep its skin glistening. A stage sat towards the front of the garden, with an ornate fan-like backdrop and a bandstand on it. The laminated dance floor before the stage was kept covered with a grey carpet. The scene of the dinner itself was shot the night before.

Observing from a distance through a bank of monitors, we watched a heated confrontation between Nick, Rachel and Eleanor, with Nick’s grandmother (Lisa Lu) witnessing the argument. In between takes, director Jon M. Chu rushed over to speak to us. While he was perspiring heavily from the muggy Equatorial weather, Chu appeared to be in good spirits. To keep the cast looking picture-perfect while shooting outdoors, Chu told us that the makeup department alone was 30 strong. “That’s the biggest makeup crew I’ve ever had, and I’ve done bigger movies,” he remarked, quipping “sometimes dressing nice to a wedding takes more effort that being ninjas on the side of a mountain” – referencing his earlier film, G.I. JOE: Retaliation.

Chu’s credits also include two Justin Bieber concert films, two films in the Step-Up series of dance movies, Jem and the Holograms and Now You See Me 2. He explained that after helming several sequels, he was ready for a change of pace and sought out material that would be more personal to him. “I grew up in a Chinese restaurant with my dad and mum who came over – my Mum is from Taiwan, and my Dad is from [Mainland] China,” Chu said. “There’s that side of me, the traditional part of it, but I also grew up in California, as a California boy my whole life, so I have this other side.”

It was the director’s sister who introduced him to the novel, which struck a chord with Chu. “It says everything that I feel, but in the most fun way, not so dark and deep or trying too hard,” Chu observed. He added that he was excited to showcase Singapore in his film, proclaiming that “The world has not seen this world on the big screen in a big American movie.”

Chu was effusive about his cast, saying “they’re hilarious, they’re amazing, they’re talented, they’re fresh, they’re excited to tell a great story.” Over the course of the night, we would consistently hear about the actors’ camaraderie on and off the set. “Our cast gets along better than any other cast. They go for karaoke every night,” Chu said, adding jokingly “Almost too much, I think it might be a problem.” He added that he wished he could hang out with them more, but alas, a director’s work is never done. As if to demonstrate this point, Chu was whisked back to work and away from the media, returning to direct another take.

Crew members were stationed across the Gardens by the Bay complex, with personnel shuttled to and fro on buggies and golf carts. A function room had been converted into a green room, where we would meet several cast and crew members when they weren’t needed on set. Producer Nina Jacobson ducked behind the partition curtain in the green room where we were waiting. Outlining the film’s appeal, Jacobson described Crazy Rich Asians as “a universal story but told in a way we haven’t seen, in a place we haven’t seen.” Jacobson co-produced the blockbuster Hunger Games franchise, so she knows cinematic potential in a book when she sees it. “When I first read the book, I couldn’t put it down,” Jacobson recalled, adding “I very much identify with Rachel, but I was also fascinated by this world.”

According to Jacobson, the film examines cultural attitudes in a way that hasn’t yet been seen on the big screen. Jacobson said one of the themes in the story is “Tension between family and duty and happiness and love,” and the film deals with negotiating those tensions in a global economy in which “increasingly, people have a foot in two worlds.” Jacobson credited Malaysian-born co-screenwriter Adele Lim with providing “insights into generational conflict,” and assured us that there would be nuance to the conflict presented in the film. “It’s not just everyone being mean to the American girl,” Jacobson clarified.

According to Jacobson, Constance Wu was the first choice for Rachel. Jacobson described her leading lady as “funny, smart, casual” and “a breath of fresh air”. Wu actively pursued the part, and didn’t even have to audition. Similarly, Michelle Yeoh was the top pick to play Eleanor.

Jacobson insisted that the filmmakers were “mindful about people’s heritage,” and were aiming to accurately represent the characters as written in the book. This led to the elephant in the room: leading man Henry Golding, born to an English father and a mother from the Iban tribe in Sarawak, Malaysia, plays Nick Young. The character is ethnic Chinese and is described in the book as resembling “Cantopop idols”. The casting received its share of backlash, with critics decrying the film as committing ‘partial whitewashing’. This seemed hypocritical, given that star Constance Wu has been an outspoken opponent of whitewashing in media.

Jacobson called Golding “by far the best person for the part,” adding that “he felt like how we always imagined Nick.” Jacobson justified the casting by pointing to how “Singapore is a very multicultural place.” Clearly prepared for the topic to be broached, Jacobson said “There are many people whose families have mixed backgrounds and we could get away with it here, especially with Michelle as his mother, who has a Malaysian background as well.” The producer explained that due diligence had been done, and that author Kwan and Warner Bros.’ international partners had all been consulted about Golding’s casting and given their approval. “He had to be both the kind of guy a girl wishes she could be with, and a guy wants to have a beer with,” Jacobson reasoned, saying that Golding struck that balance.

While Crazy Rich Asians can be loosely classified as a romantic comedy, Jacobson insisted that there is dramatic heft to the story too. “Oftentimes in romantic comedies, there’s a major contrivance or misunderstanding,” Jacobson said. “To me, a movie is as romantic as the conflict between the characters is great.” Jacobson broke down the components of the film, saying “There’s the comedy of manners, there’s the romantic comedy, but at the heart of it, there’s a real dramatic conflict.”

Production designer Nelson Coates gave us a sense of the logistical undertaking that making Crazy Rich Asians was. Principal production lasted a mere 40 days, with shooting taking place in three cities in Malaysia and in Singapore. Despite the stressful schedule and the daunting task of re-creating staggering opulence on a limited budget, Coates was easy-going and friendly. He described working with a crew from 18 different countries, saying “you have to tune your ear to different kinds of English.” He remarked on some of the challenges of working in an unfamiliar environment, saying “Singapore does a funny thing in that they blend metric and Imperial. You might get a 4’ by 8’ sheet of plywood, but it’s 16 mm thick.” Coates seemed to take it in his stride.

To create Tyersall Park, the Young family mansion, Coates turned to the Carcosa Seri Negara, formerly a luxury hotel in KL. The historic complex had been abandoned for some time, and the production team gave it a makeover to turn it into the stately home befitting the wealthiest of the wealthy. “There were bats and hornets and feral dogs, we had to do major cleans,” Coates recalled. Some movie magic was required to make multiple locations feel like they were part of the same mansion. Coates built the Tyersall Park kitchen in the Kuala Lumpur Craft Museum, earning the approval of one key cast member. “Michelle Yeoh walks in and she goes ‘how did you know?! How did you know about all the food?!’ She was so excited to see it,” Coates beamed. The gates were built near Champion’s Public Golf Course in Singapore, in a stretch that the production nicknamed “monkey road”.

Coates’ eyes lit up as he described a central set piece – a container ship that had been converted into a party yacht to host the bachelor party. “When you get in, you come down the stairs from where the helicopter’s landed, and there is the basketball court, and the pit that you can dive and do stunts into, and the cars that have been cut and turned into pool tables on the top, and a climbing wall, and a series of Ducati motorbikes in front of a huge electronic wall that has all the streets of Singapore going past you as fast as they can, so it looks like you’re in the ultimate videogame. Then there’s the gambling area, and the arcade area, and a stage where all the beauty queens from all over the world come out and do a little dance.” All this was built in a parking lot in Kuala Lumpur.

While striving for a fidelity to the source material, certain changes had to be made to accommodate filming. For example, a scene that takes place in the Lau Pa Sat hawker centre in the book is relocated to Newton Circus for the film. “I know it’s not the one that’s in the book, but we chose it because it’s triangular,” Coates said. “Everywhere you look, you see vendors. We wanted that full explosion of foods.” Coates became a big fan of Singaporean food, and was fond of one particular snack, exclaiming “I love those ice cream sandwiches!”

When actress/rapper Nora “Awkwafina” Lum swung by, the room lit up. Energetic and personable, Lum quickly put everyone at ease. Rocking a necklace shaped like an avocado, it was clear that while some characters in the film were bound by strict decorum, Lum’s Peik Lin was a little on the wacky side. “She’s fashionable, but not classy,” Lum said of her character, adding “she wears bunnies all the time”. It was easy for Lum to relate to the character. “She’s a little bit of myself – I’m crazy, I’m very eccentric, and I’m a different kind of Asian female for people to digest,” she proclaimed. “She’s not a stereotypical character – she’s not the brooding mother-in-law, she’s not the classic beauty, she’s just a little crazy – so I feel like I connect with that a lot.”

Lum’s onscreen dad is played by Ken Jeong, whom she was thrilled to work with. However, filming scenes with him was challenging in its own way. “He’s so funny that when we run takes, I can’t keep a straight face. I break character every time,” Lum laughed. “In America, we have a very limited icon list, and he’s one of the most famous prominent Asian-American entertainers that we have,” she said of Jeong. “He literally called Jon and was like ‘I don’t care if I get paid, I just want to be in this movie,” Lum revealed, adding “it’s that important for our community back home.”

The actress considers it a privilege to be part of the first Hollywood studio film in 25 years with a predominantly Asian cast. “It’s something I didn’t think I’d see in my lifetime, and definitely not something I thought I’d be a part of,” she admitted. Lum stated that it was “important for the next generation to understand that this is possible,” hoping it sets a precedent in the American entertainment industry. “I look at the cast and realise that we’ve all, at some point in our lives, been the minority on a set full of white people,” Lum said, turning vulnerable for a moment. “We’ve been ‘that Asian’ on set. And now, that dynamic doesn’t exist.”

Stay tuned for more of our coverage of Crazy Rich Asians! Up next – interviews with stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh.

Mile 22 review

MILE 22

Director : Peter Berg
Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Iko Uwais, Lauren Cohan, John Malkovich, Ronda Rousey, Terry Kinney
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 95 mins
Opens : 16 August 2018

Actor Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg have had one of the most fruitful film industry bromances in recent history. They’ve collaborated on Lone Survivor, Patriots Day and Deepwater Horizon, which were all action dramas based on true events. The duo has taken a detour into straight-up fictional action thriller territory with Mile 22.

Wahlberg plays James Silva, an impatient, misanthropic, tortured but brilliant covert operative of the CIA’s ground branch. The paramilitary force is deployed around the world as a last resort when diplomacy and conventional military options fail. James, alongside Alice Kerr (Lauren Cohan) and Sam Snow (Ronda Rousey), undertake what should be a routine escort mission.

In a Southeast Asian nation, low-level cop Li Noor (Iko Uwais) has information about an impending terror attack, but will only unlock the USB drive containing the details if he is granted safe passage to the United States. With Bishop (John Malkovich) monitoring the operation from a control centre, James and company take Li to Mile 22, the extraction point. Naturally, multiple obstacles stand in their way, turning Indocarr City into a war zone with the ground branch team at its centre.

Mile 22 sets out to be a no-frills, meat and potatoes action movie. For most of its running time, it’s one protracted chase. It’s kinetic and violent and keeps moving. In a sense, it harks back to something like John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. The problem with Mile 22 is in how it attempts to set itself apart from other action movies. More pressingly, the problem with Mile 22 is how much hinges on Mark Wahlberg.

This reviewer, unlike Berg, is no fan of Wahlberg’s. It’s extremely hard to take him seriously as an intense, hardened paramilitary operator. The film’s screenplay by Lea Carpenter gives James Silva a stock tragic backstory, but also makes him a high-functioning super-genius with no social skills. This means that being horrible to everyone around him is James’ distinguishing trait, and as a result, he’s a bad leader. If you thought it was hard to buy Ben Affleck as a math whiz/trained killer in The Accountant, it is so much harder buying Mark Wahlberg as a character along those lines. It is also baffling that a key plot point turns on a reference to a famous Saturday Night Live sketch lampooning Wahlberg. If you recognise the line, it’ll pull you straight out of the movie.

Mile 22 strains for relevance, to the point of slipping in news footage of the Trump/Kim summit in Singapore in the opening credits montage. There’s talk about election hacking and Russian collusion, but all the topical hot-button chatter feels like window dressing for what should be an efficient, uncomplicated action movie. The authenticity and real-world grounding the film strives for is also undercut by how most of it takes place in a fictional country named Indocarr, in which the main spoken language appears to be Bahasa Indonesia. Bogota, Colombia provides the humid, grey, densely-packed cityscape of Indocarr City.

Mile 22’s biggest asset is Iko Uwais, star of the modern day action masterpiece The Raid. This is a bona fide action star, extremely proficient in silat and demonstrably brilliant at realising and executing intricate fight choreography. Mile 22 gives Uwais his meatiest Hollywood role so far, but his mesmerising stunt work is done a great disservice by breakneck Hollywood action movie editing. The film’s central martial arts sequence, in which Li Noor is handcuffed to a hospital bed and battles a team of enemy agents who have infiltrated the embassy in which he’s being held, should be a dazzling display of fisticuffs. Alas, it seems to have been put in a blender.

There is deliberately very little to the other characters, but what little there is feels melodramatic and extraneous to the action. The chief example of this is Alice’s divorce subplot. Giving the female lead a domestic crisis to deal with in addition to the mission at hand can sometimes shade the character and add a little depth, but here, it’s just distracting.

The film tries to give Cohen and Rousey memorable moments, but because of how frenetic and noisy everything is, anything distinctive about their characters gets lost in the mishmash. John Malkovich stands around the control room yelling into a radio. Anyone looking forward to K-pop star CL’s role should take note that her character Queen amounts to a random techie.

There is something to be said about how propulsive and viscerally violent Mile 22 is, and it’s very clear what kind of movie Berg set out to make. It gets halfway there (Mile 11?), and the elements that wind up working against Mile 22, like the expletive-laden overcooked tough guy dialogue and how grating the lead character is, could have easily been fixed early on. Once the movie gets into gear, it doesn’t pause for nearly all of its 95-minute runtime, so if you can tolerate Wahlberg and some of the tonal weirdness, it is possible to enjoy this action movie.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Meg review

THE MEG

Director : Jon Turteltaub
Cast : Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Sophia Cai, Masi Oka
Genre : Action/Thriller/Sci-fi
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 9 August 2018
Rating : PG-13

In 2013, Discovery Channel aired Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives as part of its Shark Week line-up. The pseudo-documentary was presented as fact, and the number of people who were initially convinced showed that at least some of us secretly want to believe that somewhere in the depths lurks a Carcharocles megalodon.

In The Meg, Jason Statham faces off with the deadly living fossil. Statham plays former rescue diver Jonas Taylor, whose claims of witnessing a sea monster attacking a nuclear submarine went disbelieved. Five years after that incident, Jonas is called on by his friend Mac (Cliff Curtis), who works aboard the research facility Mana One.

An expedition sent by the Mana One is in danger – the three-person crew of the submersible Origin are trapped 11 000 metres below the surface, threatened by a giant ancient shark. This confirms Jonas’ story, and he reluctantly undertakes the mission. Among the trapped are his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee). Suyin (Li Bingbing), daughter of Dr Minway Zhang (Winston Chao), insists she can conduct the rescue herself. Meanwhile, billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) worries that the emergence of the Megalodon could jeopardise his expensive investment. As the Meg rises from the depths to threaten swimmers at the beach resort hotspot Sanya in Hainan, China, Jonas and the Mana One crew must stop the Meg’s reign of terror.

The Meg is based on Steve Alten’s best-selling 1997 novel Meg, and a film has been in various stages of development since the book was published. There’s an unavoidable amount of stupidity inherent in the material – after all, there is no shortage of cheaply-made TV movies with similar premises. If you’re in need of a laugh, look up clips of 2002’s Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, starring a hapless John Barrowman.

The Meg is like one of those movies with an exponentially larger budget, and there is some pleasure to be derived from that. Several sequences are impressively staged, and the visual effects work is generally strong. Director Jon Turteltaub attempts to keep things largely tongue-in-cheek, while also going for genuine thrills and stakes. He is only fitfully successful – the film begins feeling like it might take things somewhat seriously, then dives headlong into the ludicrous as it reaches its conclusion.

The film has high production values and boasts behind-the-scenes talent like Lord of the Rings production designer Grant Major and Clint Eastwood’s regular cinematographer Tom Stern. To raise the estimated $150 budget, the film must pander to Chinese audiences, and pander it does. It’s hard to discern how much of the silliness is intentional, and how much is a by-product of tailoring the film to the (perceived) tastes of international filmgoers.

Statham plays the lead role, an indistinct roguish action hero trying to outswim a tragic incident in his past. Turteltaub noted that this is a Jason Statham movie without the requisite gunfights and car chases, and on that level, he technically is doing something different. Statham has just enough leading man charm for audiences to kinda-sorta go along with the sheer ridiculousness, at least for the first act or so.

Statham is not particularly known for his acting chops and is regularly out-acted by the leading ladies in his films. Luckily for him, that is not the case here. Li Bingbing is uniformly stiff throughout the film, unable to carry any of the emotional moments or the action beats. While Winston Chao fares a little better as her character’s father, the would-be moving scenes between the father-daughter duo fall extremely flat.

The film’s supporting characters are all thinly-drawn stock types, as one would expect from a movie of this genre. Ruby Rose plays a cool Ruby Rose-type, Rainn Wilson plays a Rainn Wilson-type (but rich), you get the idea. Page Kennedy is meant to provide comic relief, but not many of the jokes land.

Sophia Cai plays Meiying, Suyin’s daughter. She’s a precocious moppet who cracks wise and is meant to activate everyone’s protective instincts, but the character is written and acted in a largely annoying manner. Despite the film’s best efforts, imperilling Meiying won’t draw too much of a reaction from the audience, because it’s hard to care about most of the characters here.

The Meg’s CGI shark may be technically impressive, and we appreciate that the visual effects supervisor on a movie set in the ocean is named ‘Adrian De Wet’, but when it comes down to it, the titular beast is rarely convincing. There are sequences that generate a passable level of tension, but there are only so many times the movie can riff on the “barrels dragged across the surface” gag seen in Jaws.

There’s a degree of “you know what you’re getting” with The Meg: yes, it was always going to be silly, but how effectively the film leans into that silliness is up for debate. The Meg is paced briskly enough and serves up several entertaining sequences, but compared to some of this summer’s sharper, more satisfying offerings, there’s more bark than bite.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Mega Bites: interview with The Meg actor Masi Oka

For inSing

MEGA BITES
Masi Oka talks being hunted by an ancient killer shark in The Meg

By Jedd Jong

Even in 2018, there are still corners of the world’s oceans that remain unexplored, and while it might seem implausible, it is tantalising and terrifying to imagine that hiding in one of those corners might be something like the Carcharocles megalodon. Scientists estimate that this fearsome ancestor of the Great White Shark stalked the seas between 23 to 2.6 million years ago and could grow up to 18 metres in length.

In the sci-fi action thriller The Meg, based on the best-selling 1997 novel by Steve Alten, a Megalodon rears its toothy head. the titular shark terrorises our heroes, led by Jason Statham as former deep-sea rescue diver Jonas Taylor.

Jonas had a traumatic run-in with the creature five years earlier, but nobody believed him then. Jonas’ ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee) is the pilot of the submersible Mana-One Origin, which is trapped in the Marianas Trench and effectively held hostage by the Meg. Jonas is hired by oceanographer Dr Zhang (Winston Chao) to lead the rescue effort, despite the insistence of Zhang’s daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing) that she can spearhead the rescue herself. The other crew members stuck alongside Lori in the tiny capsule are ‘the Wall’ (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) and Toshi (Masi Oka).

inSing spoke exclusively to Oka about his work on the film. Audiences might be most familiar with the actor from his role as Hiro Nakamura on the TV series Heroes and Heroes Reborn. A man of many talents, Oka started out in Hollywood as a visual effects artist at Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), working on films such as the Star Wars prequels. His diverse CV also includes a stint as an English, Spanish, and Japanese translator at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.

Photo credit: Lisa O’Connor for AFP/Getty Images

Oka has recently taken on projects as a producer, including the Netflix film Death Note. He is a cultural envoy to the U.S. Embassy, endeavouring to bridge the gap between Japan and Hollywood in the realms of arts and business. His acting roles in film and on TV also include Hawaii Five-0, Get Smart, Punk’d, Jobs and Austin Powers in Goldmember.

Oka told us what it was like working on the submersible set, how his behind-the-scenes expertise informs his acting when working on a visual effects-heavy film like this one, the camaraderie between the cast and crew, and how the nature of the co-production between American and Chinese studios influenced the final product.

INSING: Hi Masi, thanks for talking with us. Please tell us about your character Toshi.

MASI OKA: He is a Japanese co-pilot for the Mana-One submersible. We are the first expedition to go 11 000 metres under the ocean’s surface, and we also have a fateful run-in with an enormous creature, later revealed to be an ancient species of shark long thought to be extinct. He’s an overall fun tech guy, very smart, but also very goofy and loves to joke around.

Is Toshi very much like the screen persona your fans know you to have?

I think there’s a piece of me in it. Any character I play, whether it’s on TV or on film, I always approach it with a part of me, by exaggerating a part of me.

Were you a fan of the books by Steve Alten before you got the job?

To be honest with you, I hadn’t read any of Steve Alten’s books before getting the job, I didn’t know what The Meg was. When you get the opportunity to work with Jon Turteltaub, who did National Treasure and who’s such a great director, that was very inspiring. There’s such an international cast, and ensemble cast, and to be able to create a new Jaws for a new generation, was just something I couldn’t pass up. It’s a great opportunity.

This movie has a really eclectic cast. Which of the actors do you share most of your scenes with, and what was the vibe like on set?

I shared most of my scenes with Dari and Jessica McNamee. We’re the three pilots of the Mana-One submersible. The vibe on set was so fun, it was amazing. Jon Turteltaub took us out for dinner, he took care of the cast and everyone, and we felt like a family. It was like being at summer camp with friends and family. There was a camaraderie, we were collaborative, and we were just goofing around – sometimes goofing around too much. We improvised a lot on set, hopefully you see that in the DVD extras.

Was it harder for Jon to wrangle the shark or you guys?

It’s probably harder to wrangle us. At least with the shark, he just has to press some buttons. It was just a fun atmosphere. Jon is very self-deprecating, he’s an amazing leader.

You worked as a digital effects artist at ILM. From your perspective having been in the industry, what can audiences expect spectacle-wise from The Meg?

It’s amazing, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s an over-the-top thrill ride with action, humour and fun. It’s a family movie that the whole family can enjoy. This shark, you’ve never seen anything like it before. I think the CG artists did an amazing job creating this. I had to imagine what it was going to look like on set because it hadn’t been created yet, but it really exceeded my imagination in terms of the sheer size and epicness of it, and the fear factor.

What have you learned from working both behind the scenes and in front of the camera?

I’ve learned a lot in terms of the process that goes into creating these things. Many times, actors don’t understand that us standing in one place and standing two centimetres to the right – there’s a reason for that. Those two centimetres help the post-production folks to save not only money, but hours and hours of work and headaches. Being a visual effects supervisor, having worked behind the scenes, it gives you an appreciation of everyone’s work. Also, it helps me communicate. When people tell me “we’re going to do some comps and roto you out here,” I don’t have to have that explained to me. To be able to communicate with people and speak people’s languages allows the set to be more efficient, and gives everyone mutual respect for each other’s work.

Yeah, that’s something you hear from actors who talk about working with directors who are actors themselves, they understand the craft from that perspective.

Exactly. It goes both ways – to understand both ways is really important.

It’s no secret that, unfortunately, there are more bad movies about sharks than there are good ones. What makes The Meg a good shark movie?

I’m actually happy there’s been a lot of bad shark movies, so The Meg can blow them out of the water. The amount of resources that went into creating this is amazing. We have a great director, an international global cast – the CG, the acting, it’s still grounded, it’s based on reality, it feels like the stakes are real. We want to have people scared, but also laughing, crying, maybe even angry at times, and then scared again. People go through a huge range of emotions, and that also makes The Meg something in the class of its own, compared to other shark movies which jump the shark.

This film has been in development hell, or development hell’s aquarium, if you will, for a while. What do you think were the challenges the production team faced in bringing this book to the big screen?

I think Warner Bros really believed in the film. It took time to make sure we did the film justice. That means we had to have the right budget to create the special effects, the technology. There’s a lot of reasons why things go through development hell, but I’m really glad Warner Bros. persisted and found the right creatives and the resources to make this. It took a while. Nothing’s easy when it comes to moviemaking. That’s a credit to everyone that Warner Bros, Steve and the producers continued pushing forward.

Jason Statham is one of the actors who’s pretty close to the action heroes of the 80s and 90s. What was your impression of him?

Absolutely. Jason’s a wonderful actor, he’s very generous and very charismatic. He’s definitely a lot larger than life, but he’s really just humble and a generous guy. When he gets on the screen, he is that persona – he’s everything you expect of an action hero and he encompasses all the qualities of an action hero.

The Meg very much plays on our Thalassaphobia, the fear of what might be lurking in the ocean. Do you have that fear?

Yeah, I definitely do have that fear. I’m also afraid of dark places, small spaces [laughs]…I’m glad that I’m playing a character. If this were me in real life, I would not be able to do what Toshi’s doing.

Movies like The Meg are sometimes described as “B-movies with an A-movie budget” – do you like that characterisation of the movie?

Not really – I think it’s a strange thing to say something’s a B-movie when the production quality is super-high. We don’t take ourselves seriously, but we’re definitely not campy. There are campy movies out there, but this is a real film, it is a creature film but it is grounded and has real stakes. People will go on an emotional ride. It’s an A-movie with A-production value.

That’s a difficult balance, making a genre movie that people are emotionally invested in.

Yeah, it has to do with Jon’s direction, the way that shots are laid out, music, acting, it all comes really well together, a nice blend of humour and emotional stakes.

In the movie, the characters who were originally Japanese in the book are replaced with characters who are Chinese, but who serve similar functions as the original characters. How do you think this change affects the story, or if does at all?

I think we got a bigger budget because of that, with the Chinese studio. I’m glad that they kept at least one character, my character Toshi, Japanese. In fact, that’s what the Chinese producers said, they wanted to improve on Japanese and Chinese relationships through film, which I love. I’m always trying to use entertainment to bridge cultures. I’m really grateful for that.

It sounds like The Meg has a really big thrill ride element to it, and I love theme park rides. If you could design a theme park ride based on The Meg, what would it be?

Oh wow! If I could design a theme park ride based on The Meg…wow. They should definitely be in that submersible and get plopped down into water. It’s hard to say anything without giving a lot away. It might be more of an escape room – you’re in a submersible and you know the Meg is approaching in 30 minutes, and you need to find a way out of there.

What are some of your favourite creature features besides Jaws which you mentioned earlier, and how do you think The Meg measures up?

My other favourite is probably Godzilla. Being Japanese, I grew up on manga and anime and iconic monster movies. The Meg is completely different – the technology is different, we don’t have suit actors or maquettes. It’s a 75-foot shark that’s completely CGI. It’s definitely in a class of its own.

Finally, if you could bring one prehistoric animal back from extinction, could be a dinosaur or anything else, what would it be?

A prehistoric creature? What would it be…hmm…you know, dinosaurs are great, probably a Brontosaurus because they don’t seem to be too dangerous. One of my favourite anime movies is the first Doraemon film, Nobita’s Dinosaur. Nobita befriends a [Plesiosaurus] named Piisuke. Jurassic Park kinda ruined it for me, but the one prehistoric creature I would want to resurrect would be that. It would be my bodyguard. Meg 2 can be the dinosaur.

You’re commanding the dinosaur into battle against the Meg.

Exactly. You’d need a dinosaur who can actually swim.

The Meg opens in Singapore on 9 August 2018 

Christopher Robin review

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Director : Marc Forster
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen
Genre : Comedy/Drama/Fantasy
Run Time : 104 mins
Opens : 2 August 2018
Rating : PG

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” so wrote the Apostle Paul in the Book of Corinthians. In this live-action/animation hybrid comedy-drama, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) has put away childish things, but the time has come for him to rediscover them.

As a child, Christopher played in what he called the Hundred-Acre Wood with his stuffed animal friends, including the honey-loving Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings), ebullient Tigger (also Cummings), despondent donkey Eeyore (Brad Garrett), worrywart Piglet (Nick Mohammed), fastidious Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), intelligent Owl (Toby Jones), warm Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and her joey Roo (Sara Sheen). They had tea parties and grand adventures, but Christopher has bidden them farewell.

Now an adult, Christopher is married to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and they have a daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Christopher is preoccupied with work at the luggage manufacturer Winslow Industries, and is treated poorly by his boss Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss). When a crisis in the office pulls Christopher away from a weekend in the countryside with his wife and daughter, Pooh intervenes. Christopher is confused and unwilling, but eventually gets back in touch with the simple joys of his childhood, as the unexpected visit from his friends reorders his priorities.

This is an utterly devastating film that had this reviewer in tears almost from beginning to end. That is in no small part because it is emotionally manipulative, but just the premise is quite depressing: Christopher Robin has a mid-life crisis. This is not a movie meant for children, or at least primarily for children, judging by all the fidgeting kids in our screening. It’s a movie about what it’s like to lose and then regain a sense of wonderment and awe, and it’s something that’s readily relatable.

Last year, the biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin, about the toll that the success of the stories had on their author A. A. Milne and his family, especially his son Christopher Robin Milne, was released. That film was sad and poignant and might’ve ruined Winnie the Pooh for some, seeing how much pain that bear wound up costing its creator. Christopher Robin is sad and poignant in a different, perhaps more production line way.

Director Marc Forster revisits territory akin to that he covered in the 2004 film Finding Neverland, about the inspiration behind Peter Pan. Here, he works from a screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder, with Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson receiving a “story by” credit. The number of writers indicates a cluttered script, but there is a refreshing simplicity to Christopher Robin. At times, it comes off as too simple in straining to be twee and nostalgic, but it generally works.

The dreary post-WWII London setting is contrasted with the idyll of the woods in Surrey. Above and beyond the period details, the visual effects in bringing the cuddly denizens of Hundred-Acre Wood to life are key in making audiences buy into the premise. The character animation, mostly done by visual effects houses Framestore and Method, is pitch-perfect – the way each character moves, the texture of their fur, the subtle nuances in the facial expressions – Pooh and company are all brought to life so lovingly.

Ewan McGregor’s performance as Christopher is reasonably endearing, but all the human characters are quite thinly drawn. We see how much pressure Christopher is under and how he is intent on his young daughter going away to boarding school, against her wishes. Because the titular character is intended as a cipher for all adults, there’s not much that makes him distinctive, apart from how he’s friends with a bunch of sentient stuffed animals.

Hayley Atwell is underused in a sparely written role as ‘the wife’, while Bronte Carmichael does inject some personality into Madeline, but again, it’s not much more than “I don’t get to spend enough time with my dad”. The whole thing is very “cats in the cradle” – or “bears in the honey jar”, if you will. Meanwhile, Mark Gatiss relishes playing the cruel boss.

Veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, who has voiced Pooh since 1988 and Tigger since 1989, is such a joy to hear. His performance as Pooh sounds natural emanating from the fluffy three-dimensional rendering of the beloved bear. While the rest of the voice cast are not as closely associated with their respective characters as Cummings is, everyone does well – especially Brad Garrett as Eeyore, who gets some of the best lines.

Disney has been leaning extremely hard on nostalgia, and Christopher Robin puts a bit of a spin on that by commenting on the nature of adulthood and of maintaining a connection to childhood after we’ve crossed that threshold. The film doesn’t comment on this in the most insightful manner, but there are moments that are sweet as honey, and, if you’re as emotionally fragile as this reviewer, as sad as an empty honey jar.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong