Color Out of Space review

For F*** Magazine

COLOR OUT OF SPACE

Director: Richard Stanley
Cast : Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Elliot Knight, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tommy Chong
Genre: Horror/Sci-fi
Run Time : 1 h 51 mins
Opens : 20 February 2020
Rating : NC16

Two years ago, fans of cult horror films received the gift of Mandy, starring King of Weird Nicolas Cage. Cage reunites with Mandy’s producers for another outing into the land of the bizarre and unsettling, bringing writer-director Richard Stanley with him.

Cage plays Nathan Gardner, a man who lives on his family farm in rural Massachusetts with his wife Theresa (Joely Richardson), witchcraft-practicing daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) and sons Benny (Brendan Meyer) and Jack (Julian Hilliard). A meteorite crashes outside the Gardners’ home, unleashing an alien force known as the Colour that begins to mutate the living things in its proximity, warping reality itself. The Gardner family is soon consumed by madness as they are trapped by the Colour.

Richard Stanley has not made a narrative feature film since he was infamously let go from 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau; the tumultuous behind-the-scenes process is detailed in the documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. It’s good to have Stanley back, and it’s clear that his eccentricities as a filmmaker make him a good candidate to adapt the work of the influential sci-fi/fantasy-horror novelist H.P. Lovecraft. Stanley demonstrates a love for and understanding of the source material, delivering both the mounting, paranoid dread and the gooey Cronenbergian body horror that an adaptation of The Colour Out of Space should possess. The practical creature work by 13 Finger FX is appropriately gross and stomach-turning. This is not a movie for the squeamish: horrible things happen to animals and children and there is a graphic scene depicting self-harm.

While Stanley demonstrates a good command of mood and creates some entrancing visuals, the film’s dialogue is often unconvincing. One of the main things that makes Color Out of Space fall short of greatness is that none of the characters seem like real people, even though we spend a considerable amount of time with them. Joely Richardson puts in a serious, respectable performance, but it’s much harder to buy the Gardners as a family unit than it was to buy, say, the Abbotts in A Quiet Place as a family unit.

Nicolas Cage is at once the film’s greatest asset and its biggest liability. Stephen King disapproved of the casting of Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in the film adaptation of The Shining because the story was about a normal man’s descent into madness, and Nicholson already seemed crazed to start with. This problem is eminently present in Color Out of Space.

Stanley’s favourite film starring Cage is Vampire’s Kiss, in which Cage plays a literary agent who unravels after being convinced that he has been bitten by a vampire. This is the movie from which the “You Don’t Say?” meme is derived. Stanley asks Cage to do too much – few can freak out or melt down on screen the way Cage can, but this undercuts the terror that Stanley has carefully constructed, and the silliness of Cage’s performance sometimes prevents us from relating to the Gardners.

A subplot involving the haughty Mayor Tooma (Q’orianka Kilcher) doesn’t quite seem to go anywhere. Elliot Knight is a good straight man as Ward Phillips, a hydrologist surveying the area for a dam project, but like his equivalent in Lovecraft’s short story, the character functions as a narrator and doesn’t have much presence in the story.

It’s also hard not to compare this movie to the other adaptations of the story, or even unrelated films that were clearly inspired by The Colour Out of Space. Annihilation is the most obvious recent example – what was called “the Shimmer” is basically the Colour. That film did almost everything this one does, just a little bit better.

Stanley has wanted to make this film for a long time, announcing the project in 2013 and releasing a proof-of-concept trailer online that year. There are many little bits of world-building in this film that Lovecraft fans will notice – Ward wears a “Miskatonic University” t-shirt, referencing the fictional university that first appeared in Lovecraft’s Herbert West–Reanimator. Stanley intends to make a trilogy of Lovecraft adaptations, with The Dunwich Horror to follow Color out of Space. Considering how Lovecraft’s work is interconnected and taking the richness of the Mythos into account, there’s a lot to be mined here.

Recommended? Only if you’re a hardcore Lovecraft fan or really love small, weird genre movies. Even then, this asks more patience of its viewers than the average gory body horror movie.

Summary: Color Out of Space marks a welcome return for long-absent cult filmmaker Richard Stanley, but the silliness of star Nicolas Cage’s lead performance undoes the truly unsettling, disturbing elements of the film.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

 

Birds of Prey review

For F*** Magazine

BIRDS OF PREY

Director: Cathy Yan
Cast : Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Perez, Chris Messina, Ella Jay Basco, Ewan McGregor
Genre: Action/Crime/Comics
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 6 February 2020
Rating : NC16

The DC Extended Universe has had its ups and downs. While the franchise has its ardent supporters, moviegoers at large have decided that in the cinematic battle between the two big boys in comics, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has emerged victorious. DC’s not going to take that lying down, and as the DCEU heads towards each of the movies being more of their own thing instead of having the close interconnectivity that was originally planned, there’s the opportunity for some exciting alchemy. Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) is one such opportunity.

Harley Quinn/Harleen Quinzel (Margot Robbie) has struck out on her own and left the Joker – for good, as she tells herself. On a mission of reinvention, Harley finds herself in the crosshairs of mob boss and nightclub proprietor Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). Sionis is after Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco), a young pickpocket who has stolen something priceless from him. Also caught in the mix are vengeful mafia daughter Helena Bertinelli/Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), nightclub singer-turned Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance/Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Gotham City Police detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez), who wants to bring Sionis to justice. These colourful characters collide on the battleground that is Gotham City as Harley brings her signature blend of chaos to the proceedings.

Birds of Prey knows and embraces what it is. This is a very smart adaptation –  screenwriter Christina Hodson, working closely with Robbie (who also produced the film), changes a lot from the comics but also combines the pieces in a way that works. The character of Harley Quinn is not a member of the Birds of Prey, and interestingly, the film doesn’t try to make her a member of the team – she’s narrating their origin story. Harley is an unreliable narrator, which gives the film license to mess around with the structure, rewinding and fast-forwarding as Harley gives telling the story her best shot. Director Cathy Yan has style to spare, and unlike several earlier DCEU movies, this isn’t one that feels like it has been obviously been meddled with by studio executives. There will inevitably be comparisons to Deadpool, but perhaps Birds of Prey owes a bit more of the oft-overlooked Tank Girl.

Birds of Prey is messy, but it’s messy in a way that feels natural. Robbie has only played Harley Quinn once before, yet displays such ownership of the character, understanding and embodying her in a way that demonstrates her investment in the character and the source material. The fear that many DC Comics fans had going in was that Robbie had turned a Birds of Prey movie into a Harley Quinn movie – this movie feels like a Harley Quinn movie that has collided with a Birds of Prey movie in a “You got your peanut butter on my chocolate!”/”You got your chocolate in my peanut butter!” way.

The movie’s messiness may work for some more than it does for others. The device of Harley as unreliable narrator means that what should be a straightforward narrative is sometimes unnecessarily complicated. The movie must cover multiple back-stories and does so efficiently, but it can still sometimes feel like it’s spreading itself too thin, the way other comic book hero team-up movies sometimes do.

Some deviations from the source material can be difficult to be come to terms with – Barbara Gordon/Batgirl/Oracle is often instrumental in forming the Birds of Prey but is entirely absent here. Harley has just one pet hyena because it was too expensive to animate two – not a big deal. The biggest change from the comics is the character of Cassandra Cain, and this doesn’t quite work. The character bears almost no similarities to her namesake from the comics, who was a mute, deadly daughter of assassins who eventually became Batgirl. This iteration of Cassandra has more in common with Catwoman supporting character Holly Robinson. None of this is Ella Jay Basco’s fault – she plays the mouthy kid with enough attitude and is often entertaining in the role – but it is frustrating that there technically is a Batgirl in a Birds of Prey movie, just not the right one.

Margot Robbie is a great Harley. This movie further explores the characters flaws and her desire to be a part of something bigger. That something might not necessarily be the Birds of Prey, but it is fun to watch her pop in and interact with the team just as it is forming.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is outstanding as Huntress – the crossbow-fu is dazzling stuff and she manages to be both formidable and endearing. After the brutal murder of her family at the hands of a rival mob, Helena trained to be an assassin and as such has no social skills to speak of. Winstead plays both the icy killer and the awkward member of the friend group equally well.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary is a riveting character – she’s trying to get out from under the thumb of Roman Sionis and is suppressing a power that she doesn’t quite know how to use. In the comics, Black Canary is an expert martial artist who favours kicking, and there’s quite a lot of that here.

Rosie Perez’s Renee Montoya is meant to be a cliché, a hard-drinking, one-liner-dispensing caricature of a tough cop from an 80s movie, which she pulls off well.

Ewan McGregor is having the time of his life. He’s over-the-top and goofy but also suitably intimidating and unhinged. Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz is Sionis’ creepy, sycophantic lackey and they both play off each other well. Each time McGregor enters a scene, there’s the sense that he will not leave until he has stolen the show.

The film boasts some of the best action sequences of any DCEU film yet. The integration of gymnastics into Harley’s fights is done exceedingly well. The fights are stylised but also feel tactile – prepare to wince as many, many bones get broken with a loud crunch. There’s a motorbike-roller skates-car chase that is beautifully executed, and as mentioned above, all the crossbow stuff is impressive. Stunt coordinators Jonathan Eusebio, Jon Valera and Chad Stahelski of 87Eleven Action Design craft many enjoyable action sequences that while not as slick as what might be seen in a John Wick movie, do fit the overall feel of the film.

Summary: Birds of Prey is enjoyably grimy, a comic book movie that is breezily entertaining, packed with violent action and finished off with a generous sprinkle of zaniness. It’s a lot more cohesive than many previous DCEU outings and left this reviewer wanting to see more of these characters. Now can we please get that Gotham City Sirens movie already?

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Underwater review

For F*** Magazine

UNDERWATER

Director: William Eubank
Cast : Kristen Stewart, Vincent Cassel, T.J. Miller, Jessica Henwick, John Gallagher Jr., Mamoudou Athie
Genre: Action/Horror
Run Time : 1 h 35 mins
Opens : 30 January 2020
Rating : PG13

Genre movie aficionados remember 1989 as the year of the aquatic horror movie: upon learning that James Cameron’s next project would be a deep-sea sci-fi movie, other studios scrambled to make their ‘Aliens but underwater’, even if that’s not what The Abyss ultimately ended up being. That’s how we ended up with DeepStar Six, The Evil Below, Lords of the Deep, and The Rift/Endless Descent all being released in 1989. 31 years later comes Underwater, a movie that does feel like it could have fit in with those, even if it is better (and feels more expensive) than most of them.

It is the year 2050. Tian Industries’ Kepler 822 station sits at the bottom of the ocean and is one of the outposts the company is using to drill 11 km into the seabed for natural resources. When a catastrophic failure of the rig happens, mechanical engineer Norah Price (Kristen Stewart), systems manager Rodrigo Nagenda (Mamoudou Athie), biologist Emily Haversham (Jessica Henwick), engineer Liam Smith (John Gallagher Jr.), comic relief guy Paul Abel (T.J. Miller) and Captain Lucien (Vincent Cassel) appear to be the sole survivors. They band together to attempt to walk across the seabed in pressurised diving suits, to get to Roebuck Station, where they will take the escape pods to the surface. The horrifying something-or-other that caused the initial destruction of the Kepler station menaces our heroes as they try to escape said something-or-other’s tentacled grasp.

This is a theme park ride. There’s no story to speak of and you don’t have to know too much about the characters beyond wanting them to not die. Underwater is heavy on the claustrophobic thrills – director William Eubank pays great attention to detail and does a good job of making sure the physical environments feel credible even when things get fantastical, as they must. In other words, the theming is meticulous, and you get the feeling of being in a ride queue at Disney World admiring the weathering on the railings.

Kristen Stewart is good in the lead role – it’s clear the filmmakers had “young Sigourney Weaver/Jamie Lee Curtis-type” scribbled in the margins of the screenplay and Stewart fulfils this. Yes, there is some objectification going on since Stewart runs around in her underwear a lot, but the role does not feel conventionally ‘Hollywood’ sexualised – she sports a blonde buzzcut and wears glasses, with Stewart saying that shaving her head was her decision because it made it easier to take the diving helmets on and off.

The rest of the cast takes this all seriously enough, with Jessica Henwick being a standout. The character who’s afraid but goes through with it anyway and is encouraged along in their ordeal by the other characters is one of this reviewer’s favourite action/horror movie archetypes and this is something which Henwick plays convincingly. No one was having a fun time making this, so respect to the cast for suffering for their art.

Most negative reviews of Underwater have called it “derivative”, which it absolutely is. While the design elements and Eubank’s direction go a good way to making this immersive, the textbook action-horror elements are recognisable from a mile away and do pull one out of it. The first main-ish character to die is a laughably predictable choice, and after this happens, one wonders just how many clichés Underwater will adhere to (answer: a lot). You could cut and paste the exact same formula, set it in space instead of at the bottom of the ocean, and it would play the same way. In fact, a movie like that already exists: 2017’s Life. A lot of the dialogue feels canned and one character even gets a badass 80s action movie hero one-liner before doing something cool and heroic.

T.J. Miller is playing a T.J. Miller type. This is not necessarily the film’s fault, but between when Underwater was shot in 2017 and when it is finally being released, T.J. Miller has been the subject of sexual assault and work misconduct allegations, and then made a false bomb threat on an Amtrak train. It is speculated that his involvement in the film is part of why it is being released in January, commonly thought of as ‘dump month’ for studios, when Underwater has all the makings of a late-summer release. Miller is not bad in the film, but it’s just the same performance he gives in everything else.

In order to heighten the feeling of claustrophobia, there is a lot of shaky cam, even in very tight shots, which makes it hard to tell what’s going on. The characters wearing identical diving suits also makes it hard to tell them apart in some frenetic scenes, not to mention the dialogue being slightly garbled when the characters are wearing their helmets.

The film’s moral, insofar as there is one, feels kind of tacked on – “if you take from Mother Nature, she will lash out”

The Poseidon dive suits are the coolest thing about this and are created by Legacy Effects, which has worked on multiple Marvel Cinematic Universe films. Films set in and around water generally make for unpleasant shoots, and the addition of the suits must have been nigh-unbearable for the actors. Stewart said in an interview that the suit weighs 63 kg and she weighs 50 kg.

Summary: Underwater feels like a 1980s B-movie made with the pacing of present-day action movies. It is not very sophisticated, nor does it break the mould, but it is good at being the entertaining thing it is.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bombshell review

For F*** Magazine

BOMBSHELL

Director: Jay Roach
Cast : Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Rob Delaney, Mark Duplass, Liv Hewson, Allison Janney, Kate McKinnon, Malcolm McDowell
Genre: Drama/Biographical
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 30 January 2020
Rating : NC16

Millions of Americans turn to Fox News for political commentary and opinion every day, and the channel is the preferred media mouthpiece of the current occupant of the White House. This film tells the story of how a pervasive pattern of sexual harassment perpetrated by CEO Roger Ailes and other high-ranking members within the organisation was brought to light.

It is 2015 and Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), a popular anchor on Fox News, earns the ire of Donald Trump, Republican front-runner in the 2016 presidential election. After asking Trump a question about his history of alleged mistreatment of women at a televised debate, Kelly is targeted by Trump and receives a barrage of attacks for challenging him. In the meantime, Fox and Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is taken off the popular morning show and given her own show in a bad timeslot. Carlson constantly faces sexism and has repeated advances made on her by Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). After meeting with lawyers, Carlson plans to sue Ailes for harassment.

Ailes’ latest victim is Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a newcomer with dreams of being a Fox anchor. Kayla befriends Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon), a Fox staffer with something to hide. Soon, Carlson’s lawsuit causes tension within Fox News, with pressure mounting for the anchors to defend Ailes – something Kelly refuses to do. A rift forms between Ailes and media mogul Rupert Murdoch (Malcolm McDowell), the owner of Fox News, as many more credible accusations against Ailes and other men at Fox News surface.

Bombshell has a largely excellent cast giving the material their all. Charlize Theron has netted an Oscar nomination for her turn as Megyn Kelly – subtle special effects makeup alters her features to increase the resemblance, but the truly uncanny element of her performance is the voice she affects. While it sometimes sounds like she’s struggling to sustain it, it works.

Robbie is eminently sympathetic, playing some emotional moments such that they’re especially heart-rending.

Encased in layers of prosthetic makeup to play the slovenly Ailes, John Lithgow is especially watchable playing blustery characters, and Roger Ailes is nothing if not blustery, always a second away from yelling – and worse – at his employees.

Bombshell is often energetic and is very good at conveying the crushing atmosphere of fear at Fox News that caused many of Ailes’ victims to hesitate in speaking out. The film is not especially accessible to those that do not have prior knowledge of Fox News and its key personnel, but it does an adequate job of portraying the tension between Ailes and the Murdochs, as well as highlighting how sexism manifested itself on the Fox air.

Unfortunately, it feels like Jay Roach is not the best director for this. Yes, Roach has directed the Sarah Palin-centric film Game Change, but he is best known for his comedies, including the Austin Powers trilogy, Meet the Parents and Meet the Fockers. Bombshell’s overall jokey tone is at odds with the graveness of the subject matter, meaning the film’s tonal shifts are often jarring. Scribe Charles Randolph, who won an Oscar for co-writing The Big Short, brings a lot of that film’s glibness to this project. There are many stylistic choices which call attention to themselves, including characters frequently breaking the fourth wall to address the audience. This reminds audiences of the artifice of the film, and yet, there is a heavy use of handheld documentary-style camera moves, including suddenly zooming in on a character’s face as they react to something – this is perhaps more reminiscent of The Office than of most documentaries.

Not unlike 2018’s Vice, Bombshell feels like a movie that constantly gets in its own way because it is determined to present the story in a fast-paced, eye-catching manner. The movie sometimes sabotages the committed performances its actors give in the name of excitement. In trying to cover as much ground as possible, Bombshell goes for breadth over depth, with title cards popping up to introduce each new player as efficiently as possible. It does all this while keeping Megyn Kelly front and centre as the main heroine of the piece, such that it feels like the story was manipulated to give her prominence over Carlson and others. Interestingly, Kelly was wholly absent from The Loudest Voice, the 2019 TV series starring Russell Crowe as Ailes and covering much of the same ground. Kelly herself said meteorologist Janice Dean should have been featured in the film, as she became the confidant for many fellow victims of Ailes.

Many other noted Fox News personalities briefly show up in the film, including Kimberly Guilfoyle (Bree Condon), Ainsley Earhardt (Alice Eve), Abby Huntsman (Nikki Reed), Chris Wallace (Marc Evan Jackson), Sean Hannity (Spencer Garrett), Geraldo Rivera (Tony Plana), Jeanine Pirro (Alana Ubach) and Greta van Susteren (Anne Ramsay). The overall comedic tone means that some of these performances feel straight out of Saturday Night Live. Yes, this being a film about a media outlet, many of its characters are bound to be recognisable public figures, but Bombshell becomes more of a game of “how much does this actor look like their real-life counterpart?” than it needs to be.

The biggest invention in the film is Robbie’s character Pospisil. She is a composite character meant to represent the younger would-be on air talent who were subject to Ailes’ advances. Jess Carr, played by actual SNL star Kate McKinnon, is also fictional. The subplot about the unexpected bond formed between the two women rings especially false. Practically every movie based on a true story features composite characters, but because the scandal at Fox played out in the public eye, audiences can immediately tell that there wasn’t really a “Kayla Pospisil”.

Summary: Bombshell tells a compelling, important story in an off-putting jokey manner, feeling too smug and self-satisfied to properly essay its message about women fighting back against a culture of sexual harassment in the workplace. Bombshell is carried by great performances, especially from Theron, Robbie and Lithgow, but is nowhere near as effectively insightful and damning as it could’ve been.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bad Boys For Life review

For F*** Magazine

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE

Director: Adil El Arbi, Billal Fallah
Cast : Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Kate del Castillo, Nicky Jam, Joe Pantoliano, Theresa Randle, Jacob Scipio, DJ Khaled
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 2 h 3 mins
Opens : 23 January 2020
Rating : NC16

Miami detectives Mike Lowery (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) burst onto the scene in 1995’s Bad Boys, when the buddy cop subgenre was enjoying a moment. Following a 2003 sequel, talk about a third instalment has swirled for years, with various writers and directors being attached to the project. Mike and Marcus finally return in Bad Boys for Life.

Marcus has just become a grandfather and hopes to retire from the police force, something with his long-time partner and best friend Mike doesn’t take well to. A spectre from the past emerges to haunt Mike when law enforcement personnel involved in killing the leader of the Aretas Cartel are assassinated, with Mike also on the killer’s hit list. Mike bristles at the new-fangled Advanced Miami Metro Operations (AMMO) team, led by his ex-girlfriend Rita (Paola Núñez), working the case. Mike eventually warms to the AMMO team, comprising Kelly (Vanessa Hudgens), Dorn (Alexander Ludwig) and Rafe (Charles Melton). Mike, Marcus and the AMMO unit must cooperate to take out the late Aretas’ son Armando (Jacob Scipio), on a mission to avenge his mother Isabel (Kate del Castillo).

There were reasons to be sceptical about Bad Boys for Life, especially in the wake of some less-than-successful attempts at reviving dormant franchises. It turns out that Bad Boys for Life has many pleasant surprises up its sleeve and is a solidly built action-comedy that winds up being the best entry in the trilogy. Just like with the Transformers spinoff Bumblebee, the secret seems to have been removing Michael Bay from the director’s seat. In his place are Belgian filmmakers Adil El Arbi and Billal Fallah.

Working from a screenplay by Chris Bremmer, Peter Craig and Joe Carnahan, the new directors add an unexpected dramatic heft to the proceedings, while keeping a handle on the action and comedy that are at the core of the franchise. There are several poignant moments and the tonal shifts are handled far smoother than they could’ve been, such that neither the endless bickering between Mike and Marcus nor the over-the-top action undermine the moments that give the story weight. While there are still the requisite shots of scantily clad women at the club and on the beach, the movie is also less leery than it would have been had it been directed by Bay.

While the movie trims the excesses which Bay brought to the earlier two films (and most other entries in his filmography), Bad Boys for Life still feels somewhat bloated in trying to emulate the style of the earlier films. At 124 minutes, this is a touch long even if it is paced well. There’s quite a bit of set-up to get through in the film’s first half before the movie hits its stride and brings out the big guns. While many of the quips are funny, there are some clunkers, especially when the movie turns up the machismo and tosses out a few “real men don’t cry”-type jokes. The afore-mentioned tonal shifts are handled remarkably well, but some viewers might still be thrown off by gags coming right on the heels of dramatic character beats.

It is good to see Smith and Lawrence reunited and it’s clear the pair hasn’t missed a beat. Smith is even more of a brand name movie star now than he was in 2003 when the last Bad Boys film was released. He brings his trademark charisma and physicality to bear and is just so much better in this than in his last live-action star vehicle Gemini Man.

Lawrence handles most of the comedy and the filmmakers think up inventive ways to not involve Lawrence in nearly as many action scenes as Smith has. Marcus’ arc of wanting to retire after the birth of his grandson and that causing tension between him and Mike is not quite original, but it works for the character in this movie.

The movie has a fantastic female lead in Paola Núñez, who is sexy and credible as a leader. She and Smith have good chemistry and it’s easy to buy that Mike and Rita had a thing in the past. The dynamic between Mike and Rita is also a chance to show how Mike has matured: he’s still an impulsive cowboy, but he cedes command to Rita at key moments.

Each member of the AMMO team gets their time to shine – it would be easy for the extremely attractive young people whom our hero must put up with to be annoying, but Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig and Charles Melton are all likeable in their roles.

Joe Pantoliano returns as the exasperated Captain Conrad Howard, constantly nursing a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Pantoliano gets some of the film’s best comedic moments and his presence provides stronger continuity to the earlier films.

A big factor in making this work are the mother-and-son villain team. Kate del Castillo vamps it up as the cartel boss lady, while Jacob Scipio is believable as the deadly Armando.

The action sequences are considerably ambitious and are shot well – they’re still kinetic, but much easier to follow than if Bay had shot them. There’s a motorcycle-and-sidecar freeway chase sequence that ends with a confrontation with a helicopter, and a no-holds-barred shootout in an abandoned hotel in Mexico that also ends with a confrontation with a helicopter. This isn’t quite John Wick, but thanks to second unit director Mike Gunther and stunt coordinator Spiros Razatos, the action scenes are explosive and satisfying.

Summary: Will Smith and Martin Lawrence reunite at last – not only does Bad Boys for Life not disappoint, it is the best of the three films in the series so far. A surprisingly dramatic story and themes add weight to the well-executed action-comedy fluff.  This does not seem like a movie that would be released in January – with its big movie star lead, elaborate action set pieces and as a continuation of a recognisable franchise, one would expect Bad Boys for Life to be a summer release. Especially considering the film’s long development process, this is a success.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Richard Jewell review

For F*** Magazine

RICHARD JEWELL

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast : Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Nina Ariadna, Ian Gomez
Genre : Drama/Biographical
Run Time : 2 h 11 mins
Opens : 9 January 2020
Rating : NC16

From director Clint Eastwood and writer Billy Ray comes a biopic about Richard Jewell, the man who called in a bomb threat and was vilified as a suspect. The film is based on the 1997 Vanity Fair article American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell by Marie Brenner, and the 2019 book The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen.

It is July 1996 and the 26th Summer Olympics are taking place in Atlanta, Georgia. Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a security guard working at Centennial Park, notices a suspicious knapsack that is found to contain three pipe bombs. He is initially hailed as a hero but is soon regarded as a suspect in the bombing by the FBI, with agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) strongly believing Richard to be the culprit. Tipped off by Shaw, Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) breaks the story about Richard’s status as a suspect. The overwhelming media attention overwhelms Richard and his mother Bobbi (Kathy Bates). Richard turns to Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a lawyer who worked at a public law firm where Richard was a supply clerk ten years ago, for help. Watson must help Richard clear his name and turn the tide of public opinion.

Eastwood has been directing movies for over 30 years and is a skilled technical director. Richard Jewell captures the 1996 Atlanta setting with enough authenticity – the film was shot on location at the actual Centennial Park. The scene in which Richard discovers the bomb is tense and gripping. Later, a scene in which Watson times a walk between the site where the bomb was placed and the public payphones where the bomber called 911 is stylishly cut with footage of sprinter David Johnson at the Olympics. Eastwood tells the story efficiently and it is abundantly easy to sympathise with Richard, even as the viewer grows frustrated at him for being easily manipulated and a bit too naïve.

Eastwood is not just a good technical director, but a good actors’ director as well. He draws excellent performances from his cast here. Paul Walter Hauser is a loveable, hapless figure as Richard Jewell – he is not especially bright, but the film attempts to give him some dimensions.

Kathy Bates is a warm presence as Richard’s mother Bobbi, who simply wants the best for her son and cannot bear to see him falsely accused and placed under such immense pressure. Rockwell is a go-to actor for slimy roles, so it is always nice to see him in largely noble parts. Watson is an honest salt-of-the-earth type but is also fiery and impassioned. Some of the film’s best scenes are between Hauser and Rockwell.

Any film based on a true story will have inaccuracies, and one or two of the real people portrayed in said film – or those who knew them – are bound to come out and speak against the way they were characterised in the movie. With Richard Jewell, the inaccuracies seem more calculated. It’s harder to view them as honest mistakes and easier to believe that Eastwood had an agenda going on. It is common for biopics to make a larger point and provide commentary beyond the specific subject matter, but it feels like Richard Jewell leans too far in that direction, reducing the story to a vehicle for Eastwood’s political views.

The film does a huge disservice to journalist Kathy Scruggs, who passed away in 2001 from a prescription drug overdose after dealing with depression and is not around to defend herself. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an open letter by its editor-in-chief responding to how Scruggs and by extension the paper was portrayed in Richard Jewell. In the film, Scruggs is shown sleeping with a source for a scoop. The source, Jon Hamm’s FBI Agent Shaw, is a fictionalised composite character, but Scruggs was very much a real person. This propagates the insidious trope that women journalists trade sexual favours for tips. Authors Alexander and Salwen, whose non-fiction book was the basis of the movie, have firmly maintained that Scruggs did not sleep with an FBI agent to obtain information for her story.

In real life, Richard Jewell certainly was treated unjustly by both law enforcement and the media. However, the film goes out of its way to portray the media and the FBI as unscrupulous and out to destroy Richard’s life. Eastwood is remarkably unsubtle about this, and in order to simplify the story, creates two main ‘villains’ in Shaw and Scruggs. Wilde’s Scruggs is nigh-cartoonishly evil. In trying to clear the name of its title character, Richard Jewell trades in false accusations, something that is regrettable given the quality of the performances in the film.

Summary: Richard Jewell is the work of a skilled filmmaker but is also the work of a filmmaker with an agenda. It is worth seeing for the performances, especially Paul Walter Hauser’s, but this recommendation comes with the caveat that one should research the true story and not take the film’s version of events at face value. In going further than necessary to make the media and the FBI the villains of the piece, Eastwood comes off as dishonest and irresponsible, even though the film is well directed and strongly acted.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

1917 review

For F*** Magazine

1917

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast : George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Jamie Parker
Genre : War/Drama
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 9 January 2020
Rating : PG13

1917-posterHollywood has made many World War II epics, but not quite as many World War I movies, likely because of America’s increased participation in World War II compared to World War I. Still, there are several movies set during the Great War which are considered masterpieces, including All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory. Sam Mendes directs and, with Krysty Wilson-Cairns, co-writes this relentless war film that takes place over two days in April 1917.

In Northern France, British soldiers Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) are tasked with a vital and seemingly insurmountable mission: they must deliver an order from Army Command to tell a battalion of 1600 soldiers to stand down from an assault, as a trap set by the Germans lies in wait for them. Schofield and Blake must cross No Man’s Land into treacherous enemy-controlled territory to deliver the message in time. For Blake, the stakes are personal too, as his older brother is among the soldiers who will die if this information is not conveyed. Braving enemy gunfire and the elements, Schofield and Blake bravely undertake the mission of their lives.

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Filmmakers strive to achieve immersion, to make the audience feel so engrossed in watching the movie that they forget they’re doing so. 1917 achieves this. This is an awards season film, but unlike many prestige movies that vie for the Oscars and other awards, 1917 is far from a stuffy, airless affair. Mendes breathes life into the historical event, closing the 100-plus-year gap between World War I and the present day with an intense and involving epic. He was inspired by the stories of his grandfather Alfred H. Mendes, a Trinidadian World War I veteran and novelist, which increases the personal investment Mendes has in the subject matter. The result is almost akin to a cutting-edge exhibit at a museum, not entirely unlike The Scale of Our War at Te Papa Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, an exhibit that tells the story of the Gallipoli campaign using oversized hyper-realistic sculptures.

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There is an immediacy to 1917, but while the movie seems constantly gripping, it is also a masterclass in pacing – there are peaks and valleys, quiet moments and frenetic, intense ones, all carefully yet organically situated within the story. This is a movie that effectively essays anxiety, with the throb of Thomas Newman’s percussion-heavy score signalling dangers around every corner. Several set-pieces are among the most visceral and thrilling of any war film in recent memory, yet Mendes executes them with just enough restraint.

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George MacKay anchors the film, with Dean-Charles Chapman right alongside him. The film doesn’t need much to make these characters feel compelling, and just a few interactions between the two establish who they are as soldiers and as people. MacKay is remarkable in the role, especially when the film calls for him to look exhausted and tired. Our two heroes are put through the wringer and face obstacles which are incredible but never implausible.

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There’s not a lot that doesn’t work here. Some reviews have cited the lack of character development as a flaw, but this movie is focused on the experience of the characters and on putting the audience in their shoes, and doesn’t need a lot of back-story or a heartfelt monologue about their childhood to accomplish that.

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One element of the film that is possibly distracting is its big-name supporting cast. The structure of the movie means that actors like Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Richard Madden and Andrew Scott show up for roughly one scene each. They play people whom our two heroes meet along the way, meaning there is even less to them as characters than to Schofield and Blake. As such, it is possible that their appearances, which almost seem like cameos, might break the immersion, but this did not happen for us.

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Spectre, the second Bond film directed by Sam Mendes, opened with a pre-credits sequence shot and edited to look like one continuous take. Mendes ups the ante here, presenting the entirety of 1917 as if it was filmed in one continuous take. This might sound like a gimmick, but the film deploys it as an excellent storytelling tool. The film’s first moment of violence is a small one – Schofield cuts his hand on barbed wire. This reviewer winced more than he normally would, realising this is because the single take approach increases the subjectivity. Cutting away means retreating, however momentarily, to safety. 1917 offers no such safety.

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Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins can add yet another notch to his belt, and credit must also go to Steadicam operators like Pete Cavaciuti. Deakins also deployed remote-controlled cameras on wires, flying across the battlefield. Editor Lee Smith deserves plaudits too, as after a while, the game of looking for the hidden cuts becomes just too hard to play. The device of making the film look like it was magically filmed in a single take calls attention to itself because it is hard not to marvel at the technical mastery required to pull it off, and yet, it is also invisible, creating immersion rather than detracting from it.

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Summary: 1917 drops audiences onto the Western Front and is exciting, emotional and harrowing, its visceral impact the result of finely calibrated filmmaking. Inspired by his grandfather’s war stories, Sam Mendes crafts a masterpiece. 1917 captures the weariness, the adrenaline, the desperation, the horror and the sadness of war like few movies before it have.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jojo Rabbit review

For F*** Magazine

JOJO RABBIT

Director: Taika Waititi
Cast : Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson, Rebel Wilson, Alfie Allen, Stephen Merchant, Archie Yates
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 1 h 48 mins
Opens : 2 January 2020
Rating : PG13

While he’s had a long career in his native New Zealand, Taika Waititi has become a hot property in Hollywood over the last several years. What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople earned Waititi widespread acclaim, and he has had mainstream success with Thor: Ragnarok, in which he also played the character of Korg. Waititi turns his attention to World War II with this adaptation of Christine Leunens’ novel Caging Skies.

It is towards the end of the Second World War. Johannes “Jojo” Beltzer (Roman Griffin Davis) is a member of the Hitler Youth and an unabashed Hitler fanboy, living in Germany with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). Jojo is an outcast who is mocked for refusing to kill a rabbit during a Hitler Youth camp activity. His only friend is Yorki (Archie Yates), also a member of the Hitler Youth. That’s not technically true – Jojo does have another friend: an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi). Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who runs the Hitler Youth camp, takes a liking to Jojo despite initially dismissing him as unsuitable to be a soldier. However, Jojo’s resolve and loyalty to the Nazi ideals is shaken when he discovers his mother is hiding a young Jewish girl named Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie) in the attic of their house.

Jojo Rabbit is a movie that plays to all Taika Waititi’s strengths as a writer, director and performer, allowing him to put his stamp on it and make the movie something that is distinctly his. The film is a satire that aims to undercut the superficial cool factor that some perceive the Nazis as having by mocking them – this is a not a new idea. After all, Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in The Great Dictator in 1940. However, Jojo Rabbit presents the point of view of children who were growing up in Nazi Germany. There is an innocence and earnestness to the film which is married to an understanding of the horrors of war, and specifically of the Third Reich.

Jojo Rabbit is sometimes uncomfortable, but perhaps necessarily so. The film has been described as Waititi juggling a live grenade for 108 minutes, but the point of the movie is not to be audacious or to be shocking. While it can get very bleak, the film is largely a gentle, sensitive treatise on how hate is fostered and how it can be defused. The remarkable performances (more on that in a bit) give the film its beating heart.

The movie was shot on location in Prague and other locations in the Czech Republic. The cinematography by Mihai Mălaimare Jr. and music by Michael Giacchino all give Jojo Rabbit the feel of a prestige film, but because of its humorous tone and Waititi’s deft directorial touch, the movie never feels like it’s putting on airs just for awards season.

Jojo Rabbit has garnered controversy, with some critics saying the film should not be portraying the Nazis in a comical manner, even to mock them. After all, Chaplin himself wrote in his 1964 autobiography that had he been aware of the Nazi concentration camps at the time, he would not have made The Great Dictator. Steven Spielberg portrayed the Nazis as cartoon villains in the Indiana Jones films, but he said he could no longer view them that way after making Schindler’s List. Jojo Rabbit is tonally challenging, but this reviewer would argue that there is a sensitivity to the way horrific historical events are depicted, and that Waititi has succeeded in using humour judiciously. Some critics have also argued that the film should not portray any Nazis sympathetically, when Sam Rockwell’s character is depicted in a largely positive light.

Jojo Rabbit is the story of a makeshift family. Jojo’s sister Inge has died, and Elsa was a schoolmate and friend of Inge’s. In a way, Elsa is a surrogate daughter to Rosie and a surrogate sister to Jojo. Waititi has said that he intended the film to be a love letter to his mother and a tribute to single parents everywhere.

The relationships between these three characters are rendered with sublime beauty. Scarlett Johansson gives one of the finest performances of her career, essaying both strength and warmth. Thomasin McKenzie is an immensely watchable livewire and a gifted performer whom the camera loves.

However, it is Roman Griffin Davis who does the most heavy lifting and who carries the movie. The character’s arc from being obsessed with all things Nazi and unquestioning of the party line to realising that maybe Jews don’t have tails and horns and aren’t so different than he is plays out in a credible way, despite the movie’s over the top touches.

Taika Waititi’s portrayal of Hitler is buffoonish and amusing, but there’s also quite a bit of nuance to it. This isn’t Hitler the historical figure – this is a young boy’s idealised version of Hitler, part father figure, part best friend. This is Jiminy Cricket if he told Pinnochio to do the worst things. This distance gives Waititi the freedom to play a character that does not need to be historically accurate. Waititi deliberately did no research on the real Hitler. Waititi is a Polynesian Jew and said of someone with his heritage playing a version of Hitler, “what better f*** you to that guy?”.

Summary: A moving, funny and beautifully acted comedy drama, Jojo Rabbit is a movie that near-perfectly juggles all its disparate elements. This is awards season fare that rises above the average ‘Oscar bait’ because of a daring yet sensitive approach to the material. Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie and Scarlett Johansson all deliver performances that are some of the year’s best, while this is the best showcase for Taika Waititi as writer, director and performer yet.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Spies in Disguise review

For F*** Magazine

SPIES IN DISGUISE

Director: Nick Bruno, Troy Quane
Cast : Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka
Genre : Action/Comedy/Animation
Run Time : 1 h 42 mins
Opens : 25 December 2019
Rating : PG

Animation studio Blue Sky is best known for the Ice Age movies, but also made the two Rio movies about Spix’s Macaws. Blue Sky turns their attention to a far more common bird in this action-comedy, loosely based on Lucas Martell’s 2009 animated short film Pigeon: Impossible.

Lance Sterling (Will Smith) is a dashing, somewhat arrogant superspy who hits a snag in his latest mission to save the world. Lance reluctantly turns to Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), a young tech genius working in the spy agency’s gadget labs, for help. Walter is developing a highly experimental form of “biodynamic concealment”, which will allow operatives to disguise themselves as animals and go practically unnoticed. Lance accidentally drinks a serum formulated by Walter, which turns Lance into a pigeon. In this new form, Lance can no longer rely on his highly honed combat skills and must adapt to life as an Avian agent. Pigeon-Lance and Walter must work together to take down Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), a criminal mastermind with a cybernetic arm who is hellbent on acquiring cutting-edge assassin drone technology. Meanwhile, agent Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones) is convinced that Lance has gone rogue and is unaware that he has taken on the form of a pigeon.

Spies in Disguise is often energetic and entertaining, moving along at a decent clip. The film makes great use of stars Smith and Holland – the character designs resemble the actors enough while also being sufficiently stylised. While major animated movies can sometimes feel like they’re cramming a big name in there just for the sake of it, the two stars of Spies in Disguise fit well within this world. Smith’s effortless charm and Holland’s endearing earnestness are played to the hilt. There is the sense that we are watching Smith and Holland themselves, but the movie also does many things that are better suited to animation than to live-action – chief of which being the “human turns into an animal via genetic modification” aspect, which could otherwise be very David Cronenberg-esque.

There is a palpable affection for the spy-fi genre here and the film gets plenty of laughs from juxtaposing James Bond-style coolness and elaborate action sequences with the silliness of one of its main characters having been transformed into a pigeon. Early in the film, we even get an homage to Kill Bill, with Lance facing off against hordes of Yakuza goons. As with any espionage thriller worth its salt, Spies in Disguise features multiple exotic locations, including a villain’s lair in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture and a luxury resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The film’s most outstanding environment is Venice, Italy, featuring a night-time St Mark’s Square filled with pigeons.

With its marquee name stars, wacky premise, colourful animation and wink-and-nod innuendo-based jokes aimed at the parents in the audience, Spies in Disguise sometimes feels like a middling mid-2000s Dreamworks animation product. While the element of a superspy turning into a pigeon is novel and rife with comedic possibilities, much of Spies in Disguise feels formulaic. This is most evident with its villain, Ben Mendelsohn’s Killian. He is mostly just referred to as “robot hand”, because that’s his sole defining characteristic, and Dr Claw from Inspector Gadget beat Killian to the punch some 30-odd years ago. While it’s nice to hear Mendelsohn’s natural Australian accent, he seems woefully underused, especially since there are hints of how truly sinister the character could have been if there were more to him. Seeing as this is a kids’ movie, perhaps it is a good thing that he’s not trauma-inducing levels of scary, but there’s still the sense that there could’ve been more here.

As breezily enjoyable as most of the movie is, there is a slightness to it – there’s just not a lot to the story or to the characters, and the attempts at engendering an emotional investment in the characters are only occasionally successful. Walter’s back-story, drawing on the bond he shared with his mother Wendy (Rachel Brosnahan), is moving but is barely sketched out. Most of the other characters besides the two leads, including Kappel and her surveillance experts Eyes (Karen Gillan) and Ears (DJ Khaled), barely register.

The product placement for the Audi E-tron is perhaps a touch egregious, but then again that kind of thing is all over the James Bond movies anyway.

Spies in Disguise has some flashy action sequences, but some of the best parts of the movie are the interactions between pigeon-Lance and the actual pigeons who form his ‘flock’. The amorous Lovey, Walter’s pet pigeon who immediately develops a crush on pigeon-Lance, is an irresistibly adorable character.

Summary: Spies in Disguise doesn’t deliver anything cutting-edge, but adequately balances spy action with pure cartoon silliness. It plays to the strengths of stars Will Smith and Tom Holland, who complement each other well. It does often feel like a commercial product and the story and characters are feather-light, but it’s fun where it counts.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Cats movie review

For F*** Magazine

CATS

Director: Tom Hooper
Cast : James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Francesca Hayward, Les Twins, Laurie Davidson, Robbie Fairchild, Steven McRae, Danny Collins, Naoimh Morgan
Genre : Musical/Horror
Run Time : 1 h 50 mins
Opens : 26 December 2019
Rating : PG

The following review might be unsuitable for children.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical adaptation of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a compilation of children’s poems by T.S. Eliot, became an unlikely sensation. The show had long runs on both the West End and Broadway, and now comes to the screen in a way that can be most succinctly described as a mistake. Almost all of it is a mistake.

Calling it a “story” is being generous, because Cats is not really meant to have a coherent narrative. The premise is that the Jellicle Cats (say “dear little cats” in a low voice, with a thick posh accent) gather for the Jellicle Ball, a ceremony wherein they sing a song about themselves and one of their number is chosen by the leader Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, after which they will be reborn.

The plot is cat reincarnation X Factor, okay? That’s the plot.

The movie adds on a subplot about Macavity (Idris Elba), who kidnaps some of the other cats to increase his chances of being the Jellicle Choice.

Believe it or not, there are good things about Cats. Most of the changes it makes to the stage musical are baffling and highly counterproductive. However, making Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) the magic cat a soft boy with anxiety works for the story, even if the kinda-romantic subplot between him and Victoria (Francesca Hayward) feels forced.

Robbie Fairchild is good as Munkustrap, the de facto narrator – he was a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet who then became a Broadway star. Fairchild is one of the few performers in the show who sounds like they’ve undergone any actual musical theatre training.

Steven McRae, a principal dancer with London’s Royal Ballet who also dances tap, is a standout as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat.

Dame Judi Dench can do no wrong and is weirdly dignified even when reclining somewhat seductively in a cat bed. Old Deuteronomy has always been played by a man, but the gender-flip works well. The few moments in the film that come close to being emotional are courtesy of Dench.

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler of Hamilton fame, building off the original choreography by Gillian Lynne, would have looked great if it were danced by actual humans and not the hybrid beasts we do get. Similarly, Hayward, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, would have been mesmerising if it were her and not a strange fur-covered CGI approximation of her that were dancing the role.

Everything that makes Cats work as a theatrical production is rendered utterly null here. Even as theatre, Cats is divisive and widely mocked. However, it is a showcase of incredible physicality and athleticism and is, in many ways, purely experiential. You must be there to get it or even remotely think it works.

Some musicals are easier to translate to the screen than others – the ones best-suited to this transition are typically plot-heavy, because things are easier to follow in movie form. Cats never had any plot to begin with, so making a film adaptation is about as futile as herding, well, you know.

There was a 1998 filmed version of the stage show, which featured what pretty much are the standard John Napier costumes and scenic design one might see in a production of Cats. This movie has decided not to go with costumes at all.

It has decided to go with truly horrifying cat-human hybrid monsters.

It should go without saying, but human and cat physiology differ in many ways. However, human physiology is required to dance. As such, some aspects of the characters are very human-like, while others are cat-like. To quote another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “those who have seen your face draw back in fear”. It’s a face covered in digital fur, with cat ears sat atop it and whiskers above the mouth, yet the noses, lips and teeth are very human. One never quite gets over it.

You can see a performer in makeup and a leotard and accept that they’re playing a cat in the context of theatre, but this “realistic” approach almost twists the visual cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, the parts of the brain that recognise something as human. The scale is also wildly inconsistent, changing not just between scenes, but between shots. In some moments, the cats are the height of trash cans, and in others, three of them fit in a dumbwaiter.

The instrumentation is baffling, and a lot of it seems to be midi, when a movie has access to an orchestra full of real instruments since there aren’t the space limitations of an orchestra pit (or in the case of most productions of Cats, a little alcove hidden behind the set). A flailing effort is made to give some of the songs more of a pop sound, with snyth drums.

There is a new song written by Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Swift, called “Beautiful Ghosts”. “If you can’t get T.S. Eliot, get T.S.,” Swift (jokingly?) declared in a behind-the-scenes promo spot with all the hubris of a White Star Line official saying the Titanic doesn’t need that many lifeboats. “Beautiful Ghosts” has some awful lyrics (including rhyming “wanted” with “wanted”) and is the movie’s featured ballad, but is performed by Hayward, who is not primarily a singer and struggles vocally.

There are so many ways this movie doesn’t work; it’s a veritable fancy feast. It doesn’t work on a design level, it doesn’t work as a musical, it doesn’t work as family-friendly entertainment and it doesn’t work as an adaptation of the stage show. It. Doesn’t. Work.

The cast is mostly awful. James Corden and Rebel Wilson are annoying, but you knew this already. Both Bustopher Jones and Jennyanydots are silly characters who should be endearing but are rendered irritating by performers that many audiences are already predisposed to disliking.

Jason Derulo is an embarrassingly bad Rum Tum Tugger, unable to enunciate any of the lyrics and never exuding the irrepressible rock star charisma demanded of the character. He makes the sexiest character in the show decidedly unsexy. Derulo complained about his penis being digitally removed, which a) were they all filming this naked? And b) that’s the least of his concerns, really.

It pains us to say that Jennifer Hudson completely butchers “Memory”, the one song from this most people know. She goes for the Anne-Hathaway-in- LesMisérables-style crying delivery, complete with mucus. It results in a screechy, sometimes-unintelligible delivery that wants to be emotional, but cannot because it is sung by an unholy human-cat monster.

Taylor Swift is awful – she doesn’t have the voice to sing musical theatre, and she adds a “sexy” affectation on top so it sounds even shallower than usual. She also puts on a bad posh English accent. Of everyone in this, she seems the most pleased with herself, the most convinced she is doing great.

Idris Elba’s villainous Macavity is never intimidating because, again, this is all ridiculous.

Sir Ian McKellen laps milk out of a bowl and says “meow meow meow” and comes away with his dignity way less intact than Dench’s.

The characters apparently have no assholes, so critics have been quick to tear Cats a new one. To quote yet another Lloyd Webber musical, they’re “Falling over themselves to get all of the misery right”. The thing is, yes, bad movies exist, but bad movies made by major studios that are bad in this many ways are a rarity. Many, many people had to approve the bad decisions that comprise Cats. Hundreds of people worked on this – visual effects artists were working on the movie even after it had been released, with a version with “improved visual effects” made available to theatres a week into its US release – polishing the kitty litter, if you will.

In a world of franchises, of focus groups and test audiences, of movies needing to play to four quadrants and in every market around the world, a fiasco on this scale is a precious, beautiful, horrendous thing to behold. It is viscerally distressing – you feel it in your very bones. Something this bad is typically made by bumbling would-be auteurs with delusions of grandeur: your Tommy Wiseaus, your James Nguyens, your Neil Breens. Not Oscar-winning directors.

Cats has brought forth the most entertaining reviews in a long time because it is awful in ways that movies just usually aren’t.

Summary: H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories about Eldritch abominations: stare at them for too long, or try to describe them, and one goes mad. Cats is the perfect Lovecraftian horror movie. The horror, the horror.

RATING: 1 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong