Maleficent: Mistress of Evil review

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Director: Joachim Rønning
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Robert Lindsay, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 17 October 2019
Rating : PG

In 2014, audiences learnt the back-story behind Maleficent, the villainess of Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Beyond being a cackling sorceress/sometimes-dragon, Maleficent painted its title character as someone who rose from tragedy and betrayal to form a complex bond with the young Princess Aurora. Directed by Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge), this sequel continues that story, pitting Maleficent against a conniving, ruthless new foe.

Aurora (Elle Fanning), Queen of the Moors, is about to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) of Alstead. Aurora’s godmother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is resistant to this union. Despite her heroic actions, she has been cast as a villain in stories spread by the humans. Philip’s father King John (Robert Lindsay) thinks the wedding could help to unite the two kingdoms, but his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) harbours hatred towards Maleficent and the magical creatures with whom she is aligned. Maleficent discovers a hidden society of faes, including the wise Connall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the fiery warrior Borra (Ed Skrein). Queen Ingrith foments a war between the humans and the faes, with the young couple caught in between.

Angelina Jolie continues to be all sharp-cheekboned perfection as Maleficent. We were afraid that she might phone in it given that this is a sequel, but she still appears to relish the role. Not only does she get numerous fabulous costume changes, Maleficent goes on a journey of discovery, getting acquainted with her people and learning about their customs and beliefs. There is a conflict between her allegiance to her fae kin and to Aurora, which gives the powerful character something to struggle with.


Much of the film works because of Michelle Pfeiffer. Casting her opposite Jolie was an inspired move. The early promotional materials tried to hide it, but there’s no point beating about the bush now – Queen Ingrith is the “Mistress of Evil” of the title. Pfeiffer plays the villain with sneer and swagger hidden beneath a regal façade, with shades of her witch character from Stardust sometimes visible. Coming off like a PG-rated Cersei Lannister, it’s an absolute hoot.

There’s a lot going on in the plot of the movie, so it is to writers Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue’s credit that the movie never loses sight of its emotional core: the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. They might not be on the same page for much of the film, but it cannot be questioned that Maleficent deeply loves and cares for Aurora, something Ingrith winds up exploiting.

Just as in the first film, the show is stolen by Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent’s shape-shifting sidekick. Riley manages to be both cool and endearing. Queen Ingrith’s sadistic henchwoman Gerda (Jenn Murray) is also a fun, arch character.

While the visuals are often mesmerising and transporting, the film does lean very heavily on computer-generated imagery. This is expected of a fantasy adventure film, but some of the characters do seem unnatural. The Fairy Godmothers Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville) return from the first film, and their almost-human facial features sometimes cross over into the dreaded uncanny valley.

Prince Philip is boring, but then again, this is something inherent in the source material. Brenton Thwaites, who was busy filming Season 2 of Titans, is replaced by Harris Dickinson, who constantly seems a little bit confused and flat. However, this is also a sign that the film understands that Philip is not the main character, and that he does not have to be the hero to save the day.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is almost completely wasted in a relatively small supporting role.

The action sequences in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are grand and expansive. Like most big-budget high fantasy projects these days, it seems more than a little derivative of Game of Thrones, but the big battle scenes are dynamic and lively. The movie gets surprisingly dark, with the villain’s plot involving genocide by way of biological warfare. However, the movie still has a bounce and a sense of humour to it and is never too self-serious the way something like Snow White and the Huntsman and its sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War sometimes were. The big climactic battle takes place in broad daylight, which is a relative rarity in films of this type.

This film has a completely different design team than the first but maintains a sense of visual continuity while also giving us something new. The costumes by Ellen Mirojnick are stunning, especially Maleficent’s battle outfit, which is a sexy, elegant body paint-style number. Production designer Patrick Tatopolous creates some gorgeous fantasy environments, chief of which is the hidden fae sanctuary comprising mini-environments which have different climates.

Summary: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil sometimes transcends its fantasy adventure genre trappings thanks to strong performances by Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer, putting more of a spin on its source material than many of the live-action remakes Disney has given us lately.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

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Gemini Man review

GEMINI MAN

Director: Ang Lee
Cast : Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong, Linda Emond, Douglas Hodge
Genre : Action/Science Fiction
Run Time : 117 mins
Opens : 10 October 2019
Rating : PG13

Will Smith is one of the biggest movie stars around, so perhaps there’s no greater flex than for your film to star not one, but two Will Smiths. Is a double dose of Big Willie Style enough to save an action thriller filled with familiar plot beats and built on a borderline ridiculous premise?

Henry Brogan (Will Smith) is the world’s greatest assassin. A lifetime of killing has begun to eat away at Henry’s soul, and he is settling in for retirement. However, when Henry learns the truth behind a recent hit, he makes himself a target. Henry allies with Danny Zakarweski, a Defence Intelligence Agency operative assigned to surveil him. Together with pilot and Henry’s old friend Baron (Benedict Wong), they go on the run. Clay Verris (Clive Owen), owner of the shadowy Gemini private military company, has sent a special asset after Henry. Said asset, known as Junior (also Will Smith), is a 23-year-old clone of Henry, created without Henry’s knowledge. Henry must escape a younger, more efficient, better-trained version of himself, while also trying to save Junior out from under Clay’s thumb.

This reviewer enjoys seeing arthouse directors tackle action movies. Ang Lee has done this earlier in his career with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk. Lee attempts to imbue the proceedings with philosophical heft, and while he’s far from successful, the effort is admirable.

The movie’s big gimmick is its double act. Star Smith is duplicated using cutting-edge visual effects technology, such that this is a big step beyond the face replacement and de-aging we’ve seen in movies like the MCU films and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Junior’s face is completely synthetic. This is as close to perfect as the technology can get now, and after a while, it’s easy to forget that Junior isn’t played by an actor who just has a naturally uncanny resemblance to Smith. The visual effects are supervised by Bill Westenhofer, part of the team that won the Oscar for Lee’s Life of Pi.

There are some well-executed action sequences, including a fun bike chase through the streets and across the rooftops of Cartagena. The film also serves up eye-catching locations, including Budapest, Hungary, with scenes taking place in the historic Széchenyi Thermal Bath.

The film attempts to avoid a romantic subplot and tires to establish the Danny character as a capable operative who can hold her own, without making her a stereotypical tank top-clad gun-toting badass. Not putting a pointless romantic subplot in an action movie shouldn’t be something that’s so rare it’s worth praising, but alas, it still is.

Lee takes this very seriously – perhaps too seriously. Gemini Man doesn’t wink and nod at its preposterous premise at all, nor is its action so completely bombastic and over-the-top as to give audiences the sense that it’s being self-aware. Benedict Wong provides limited amounts of comic relief as a character who feels tacked on. This is a hitman movie that is packed with clichés that are all played painfully straight. Even the hook that the film’s antagonist is a clone of the protagonist is already somewhat overplayed. It’s also a bit confusing that Will Smith, a famously well-preserved man, is who the filmmakers chose to contrast with a younger version of himself. Sure, 51-year-old Will Smith and 23-year-old Will Smith look different, but not that dramatically.

Matters are not helped by the awkward, clunky dialogue, which alternates between exposition and “all this killing hurts my conscience”-type monologuing. There is a scene in which an informant character tells Henry “Clayton Verris is playing God with DNA. He must be stopped.” Many elements of the movie feel canned, which is at odds with how invested Lee seems to be in realising the project.

A lot becomes clear about Gemini Man once you learn that the movie has been in development hell since around 1997. At the age of 27, screenwriter Darren Lemke sold his pitch for this film, with Tony Scott attached to direct. Visual effects technology had not yet caught up with the concept. Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery were all attached to the role at some point or another.

Despite being a showcase for filmmaking technology that does push the envelope, Gemini Man can’t help but feel like something leftover from the 90s or at best the early 2000s, a cross between Face/Off and The 6th Day. The plot is also reminiscent of the Metal Gear video game franchise, in which twin brothers Solid and Liquid Snake are clones of Big Boss.

Gemini Man was shot at 120-frames-per-second in 4K resolution, like Lee’s previous film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Movies typically have a framerate of 24 fps. We saw the film in high frame rate 3D. Maybe we need time for it to grow on us, but it just makes everything looks unnatural. The action scenes seem to suffer the most, because it looks like the stunt team’s rehearsals rather than the finished film. Lee has come to favour the HFR format because it eliminates dimness, strobing and motion blurring, but it can’t help but feel less cinematic. In a way, this format draws more attention to the flatness of the story and the characters, putting everything in uncomfortable hyper-focus.

If you really love Will Smith and will watch anything he’s in, you could do far worse than this, but Gemini Man falls short of its promise of a dynamic action thriller enlivened by ground-breaking visual effects.

Gemini Man is a fun idea in search of a story, and the story that we have arrived at after the involvement of at least eight screenwriters (including Game of Thrones’ David Benioff) is an uninspired one. There’s nothing wrong with unoriginality so long as the existing parts are assembled into something entertaining, and despite an established movie star in dual lead roles and some good action choreography, Gemini Man struggles to be entertaining.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Joker review

For F*** Magazine

JOKER

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast : Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Dante Pereira-Olson
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 122 mins
Opens : 3 October 2019
Rating : NC16

This standalone movie takes inspiration from the pages of DC Comics, focusing on arguably the company’s best-known supervillain, the Joker. Director Todd Phillips, best known for the Hangover films, has modelled this film on Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, creating a portrait of a twisted man lost in a cruel and uncaring world, eventually turning violent. This film is unconnected to the films set in the DC Extended Universe, or to the upcoming Batman film that will be released in 2021.

It is 1981, and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of the faceless masses trying to eke out a living in the increasingly inhospitable Gotham City. Arthur cares for his ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of being a stand-up comedian. He is beaten down on all sides, unable to seek help for his deteriorating mental health after state funding for health programs is cut, and his fired from his job as a clown. Only his neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz) seems to understand him. Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a talk show host whom Arthur idolises, airs footage of Arthur’s disastrous stand-up act and mocks him. Resentment among the hoi polloi mounts against Gotham’s wealthy elite, embodied by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a billionaire planning a run for mayor. Arthur unleashes violence and chaos, reinventing himself as the costumed criminal called ‘Joker’.

There are many ways to make a movie based on a comic book. Lately, we’ve seen the Marvel Cinematic Universe method produce considerable success, but there are many types of stories told in the medium of comics and therefore many possible big screen interpretations. Joker is a valid take on the character – traditionally, he isn’t a character who needs a definitive back-story, and has said “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” This is a ‘man unravels’ character study – certainly not the first in the history of cinema but marrying that archetype to a well-known pop culture property is novel to a degree.

This is a movie that wears its Scorsese inspirations on its sleeve and emulates them with style, Lawrence Sher’s cinematography displaying Gotham in all its grimy, rat-ridden glory. Hildur Guðnadóttir score is creepy without overdoing it. Robert De Niro shines in a textbook star supporting role, while Frances Conroy is thoroughly convincing as a frail, delusional and pitiful woman. Then of course, there’s the central performance, which we will get to in a bit.

Joker was always going to be controversial, and the studio and the filmmakers know this. This is a great character study about someone who winds up doing horrible things – there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but it is worth remembering that films do not exist in a vacuum.

Disaffected, disenfranchised people have committed horrific crimes, something that has arguably intensified given the current political climate. There is a discussion to be had about how responsible movies are for that – one would say never directly, but it is possible that certain media could push those already predisposed to abhorrent behaviour to committing said behaviour. Given how John Hinckley Jr. strongly identified with Travis Bickle, protagonist of the afore-mentioned Taxi Driver, and attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, this is not idle handwringing. Both Phillips and Phoenix have handled reasonable questions about the possible real-life implications of the movie very poorly.

Of course, it is reductive to say that this movie should not exist because of the chance that someone could emulate its protagonist, but considering how many people valourised the Joker when he was portrayed as a villain in The Dark Knight, it’s not a stretch to think many more will valourise him since he’s portrayed here as a hero. There is a difference between idealising a fictional character and actively emulating their actions, something which can get lost in this conversation.

While the film is generally restrained when it comes to Easter Eggs and references to the source material, a few nods to the comics are rather clumsy, with one that happens towards the end of the film coming off as forced.

Joaquin Phoenix is a big get and probably the film’s greatest asset. Marvel Studios sought Phoenix to play Doctor Strange, but he turned the part down, not wanting to sign on for multiple films. Joker’s status as a one-off (at least, that’s how it was intended) gives Phoenix the chance to play this iteration of the character with no extensive commitment. It’s the kind of role any thespian would love to sink their teeth into: a tragic, compelling figure who is not okay in the slightest. It’s the type of performance that the Academy loves too – Phoenix underwent a drastic physical transformation, which usually helps with the Oscar buzz. There still are critics who find it hard to accept movies based on comic books as legitimate cinema, but the performance Phoenix gives here is hard to ignore or diminish.

As alluded to earlier, a problem that arises when making a movie about a supervillain with no superhero to counteract him is that said supervillain winds up looking heroic, even if that wasn’t the intention. We see Gotham from Arthur’s point of view. As such, the typically noble Thomas Wayne is instead depicted as a callous, condescending son of privilege, crushing the masses beneath his heel. There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about whether the film appears to condone the Joker’s action or state clearly that they are wrong – “condone” is a strong word, but Arthur certainly is drawn in a sympathetic manner. In a way, the film serves as a cautionary tale, because Arthur would have never become the Joker if the right support systems were in place to grant him the help he desperately needed, and if it were harder for him to gain access to the tools that he uses to wreak his havoc.

It is entirely plausible that the worst people will relate to the character and hold this version of the character up as an ideal, so hopefully the people who see this movie will be able to compartmentalise, and walk away from this going “that was an interesting portrayal of a supervillain and a sobering warning” rather than “Joker has it all figured out!”

Summary: There is a boldness to the way Joker interprets its comic book source material that makes it stand out from the usual crop of comic book movies, and Phoenix’s titular performance is impressive, but the controversy surrounding the film shouldn’t merely be swept under a rug. It’s intense, gripping and disturbing. We don’t necessarily want to see more comic book movies exactly like this, but if nothing else, Joker shows that comic book movies can take many strange, compelling forms.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Farewell review

For F*** Magazine

THE FAREWELL

Director: Lulu Wang
Cast : Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 100 mins
Opens : 3 October 2019
Rating : PG

Nora “Awkwafina” Lum has burst onto the scene in a big way. Starting out as a rapper, Awkwafina recently appeared in high-profile films like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight. She will next be seen in Jumanji: The Next Level, with roles in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid and Marvel’s Shang-Chi lined up. Awkwafina is known for her brash, comedic onscreen persona, but it wasn’t long before she would get a tour de force dramatic showcase to prove her versatility as an actor. The Farewell is that showcase.

Billi Wang’s (Awkwafina) family moved from China to the US when she was six. Billi has been struggling to make it as an artist and moves back in with her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). They tell Billi that her paternal grandmother ‘Nai Nai’ (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. However, the extended family has made a pact to hide this from Nai Nai, so she can live out her remaining months without worry. Under the pretences of a wedding between cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), the family reunites in Changchun to see Nai Nai one last time. Billi wrestles with the dilemma of whether she should tell her beloved Nai Nai the truth, as she is confronted with the realities of Chinese traditions and societal expectations after having lived in the US for most of her life.

The Farewell is a remarkable piece of storytelling – moving, involving and gently funny without being overwrought. Writer-director Lulu Wang has a fantastic ear for dialogue and a confident yet light directorial hand, creating a film that is filled with relatable scenarios and yet has a specificity to it that only someone with that cultural background could bring to the movie. Wang was fiercely protective over keeping most of the dialogue in Mandarin Chinese, against the wishes of the studio for the movie to be in English or to be a broad comedy. Tonally, Wang keeps everything just right – it’s just the right amount of sad, the right amount of funny, and no incident or interaction is superfluous. This is how one does family drama. The device of the big secret that the family is keeping from Nai Nai adds to the dramatic tension and serves as a focal point.

Perhaps it’s an exigency of movies about big family gatherings, but naturally not everyone gets equal amounts of characterisation or screen time. The character that suffers the most from this is Aiko, who has practically no lines. As the biggest outsider, things must be the most confusing for Aiko, who has been dragged to a pseudo-wedding because her boyfriend’s grandmother is dying but nobody is going to tell her. This reviewer would like to have seen Billi and Aiko share a moment.

Awkwafina is brilliant as Billi, bringing a raw, beautiful honesty to the part while also displaying her comedic instincts when the story calls for it. Tzi Ma, who is often given thankless bit parts in Hollywood, creates a sympathetic character in Billi’s father. The film contrasts Billi’s relationship with her father and that with her mother without putting too fine a point on it. Zhao Shuzhen’s turn as Nai Nai is confident and brimming with warmth; the affection between Billi and Nai Nai is utterly, heart-achingly believable.

Part of why The Farewell feels so authentic is because Lulu Wang drew inspiration from an incident in her own life, when her own grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and her family decided to keep it a secret from her. She first told this story in an episode of the podcast This American Life, which garnered the attention of film producers. Lulu shares a lot in common with the character Billi, including moving from China to the US with her family at age 6. Much of The Farewell was filmed in Changchun, which is where Wang’s family is from. Further adding to the verisimilitude is that Lu Hong, who portrays Billi’s grandaunt “Little Nai Nai”, is Wang’s real-life grandaunt.

The Farewell is another good example of why more filmmakers from different backgrounds and with different life experiences should be given the opportunity to make movies. Writer/director Wang demonstrates a sensitivity and a sense of humour about questions of identity and of the immigrant experience, which itself covers a wide spectrum. Drawing inspiration from the specificities of her life, Wang creates something that can reach a wide audience regardless of their cultural background. The exceedingly positive critical reaction to this film is more than deserved.

Summary: The Farewell is a touching portrait of family that asks poignant questions about cultural values and identity without being either dull or histrionic. Writer-director Lulu Wang firmly establishes herself as a talent to watch, with star Awkwafina showing off impressive dramatic chops while still being appealingly funny.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong