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

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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

Mission: Impossible – Fallout movie review

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT

Director : Christopher McQuarrie
Cast : Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Michelle Monaghan, Angela Bassett, Alec Baldwin, Vanessa Kirby, Wes Bentley
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 147 mins
Opens : 26 July 2018
Rating : PG-13

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), the Impossible Missions Force’s (IMF) greatest agent, heeds the call of duty again. He’ll do whatever it takes – be it jumping out of a plane, hanging off sheer cliff-faces, tearing through Paris on a motorbike, leaping across rooftops in London or hijacking a helicopter – to get the job done.

After the events of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the shadowy network of former spies known as the Syndicate is left without its leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). The IMF discovers that the remnants of the Syndicate, known as the Apostles, are now working for hire and plan to acquire plutonium to build three nuclear bombs. The Apostles also plan to break Lane out of prison.

It’s up to Hunt and his team to stop the Apostles and prevent worldwide devastation, but it will be an uphill task. Ethan, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and their boss Hunley (Alec Baldwin) also face opposition from within: CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) distrusts the IMF and its methods, and assigns her top agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), to keep an eye on Hunt and company. To complicate matters, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an MI6 agent who went deep undercover as a Syndicate operative and who has a personal grudge against Lane, re-enters the fray. Threatened on all sides, Hunt and company have their work cut out for them, as the stakes reach stratospheric levels.

The Mission: Impossible film series, based on the 60s TV show of the same name, is interesting in that until now, each film has been helmed by a different director: Brian DePalma directed the first one, John Woo the regrettable second entry, J.J. Abrams made his feature film directorial debut with the third, Brad Bird his live-action debut with the fourth, and Christopher McQuarrie directed the fifth. McQuarrie, who also penned the screenplay for this film, is the franchise’s first returning director, and he hits it way out of the park.

Fallout is a muscular yet nimble film, a bravura showcase of stunning set-pieces that are strung together by a credible, propulsive plot. McQuarrie achieves a masterful tone – this is a serious film in which Hunt faces grave professional and personal consequences, but it’s never a dour or overbearing one. It runs for 147 minutes but is remarkably light on its feet. The action set pieces can stretch for 15 minutes or longer at a time, but the audience is glued to the screen throughout.

Credit must be given to second unit director/stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood, who helps McQuarrie stage some of the most impressive stunts in the franchise’s storied history. Just when we thought this film couldn’t top Tom Cruise hanging off the facade of the Burj Khalifa or clinging for dear life onto the side of an Airbus A400M, this film gives us Cruise using the skids of an out-of-control helicopter as a jungle gym and performing an actual High-Altitude Low-Opening (HALO) skydive.

The motorcycle chase that criss-crosses through Paris and sees Hunt ride against traffic in the infamous Arc de Triomphe Roundabout pulls out all the stops and throws every trick in the book at the screen. The helicopter chase feels like two kids holding toys chasing each other around a room, made vivid, utterly convincing reality. Many sequences in this film are utterly insane but have a distinctly different feel to the joyously over-the-top set-pieces in something like the Fast and Furious franchise.

The plot manages to be familiar yet unpredictable and intelligent. There are the expected double-crosses and questioned allegiances, but the film stays compelling by striking an admirable balance between the end-of-the-world stakes and the personal stakes. McQuarrie takes sheer delight in teasing audiences with near-miss after near-miss. While nothing in the franchise has superseded the tension of the cable drop close call scene in the first film, several bits in Fallout come very close.

Tom Cruise might stumble here and there (*ahem*The Mummy*ahem*), as any actor is wont to, but in the recent Mission: Impossible films, he can always be counted on to be on top action hero form. This is not a man who half-asses anything, and the 56-year-old is consistently impressive, pushing himself to the absolute limit in the name of our entertainment. Cruise broke his ankle jumping across buildings in London, and that take remains in the film. Hunt displays nigh-superhuman strength and stamina that does stretch suspension of disbelief, but Cruise gives such an engaging performance that we just go along with it.

Cavill is enjoyable as Walker, an arrogant, lethal CIA agent, meant to serve as Ethan’s foil. An early sequence in which Walker’s presumptuousness nearly costs him and Ethan the entire mission establishes Walker as a risk-taker, but not one as canny as Hunt. Cavill is an actor who can sometimes be a bit boring, but he’s got enough charisma here to go toe-to-toe with Cruise.

The film succeeds in parcelling out stuff for everyone to do, meaning that both Benji and Luther do not feel side-lined – Rhames even gets to deliver one of the film’s most emotional moments. Pegg gets far more physical than in the preceding films, while still being the resident loveable goofball.

Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust felt like the ideal Bond girl, and the character continues to be capable and mesmerising. Even after all she and Hunt’s team went through in Rogue Nation, we’re questioning where her allegiance lies.

Vanessa Kirby is entertaining as the seductive black-market broker known only as the ‘White Widow’, effortlessly sexy with a dangerous gleam in her eye. Hunt’s wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) is back, and how the film works her into the plot feels at once contrived and brilliant.

Alas, Angela Bassett doesn’t get much to do, glowering condescendingly and ordering Cavill about. This reviewer was afraid Baldwin would be distracting, given his high-profile Saturday Night Live role over the last one-and-a-half years, but he still is credible and handles the character’s dramatic scenes with ease, reminding us that he’s still a serious actor too.

Pound for pound, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is this summer’s best action extravaganza so far. A breathless thrill ride with just enough on its mind, incredible feats unfold with precision and finesse. It’s spectacle that will set pulses racing, and have audiences exiting the theatre thinking “yeah, this is what going to the movies should feel like every time”.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Skyscraper movie review

SKYSCRAPER

Director : Rawson Marshall Thurber
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Møller, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell, Noah Taylor, Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, Hannah Quinlivan, Adrian Holmes
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 103 mins
Opens : 12 July 2018
Rating : PG-13

The Rock gets acquainted with glass and steel in this action thriller set in – you guessed it – a skyscraper.

Dwayne Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader who lost his leg during a mission gone wrong, and who now works as a building security assessor. Will’s family, including his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and twins Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell), are flown out to Hong Kong for his new assignment. The upper floors of the tallest building in the world, the Pearl, are about to open for business, pending Will’s assessment. The Pearl stands almost 1.07 km tall, dwarfing Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Will and his family are the guests of the Pearl’s billionaire owner, Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), and they are the building’s first residents.

Naturally, things don’t go according to plan. Will finds himself on the run from the authorities as the building is broken into and set on fire. A team of dangerous mercenaries led by Kores Botha (Roland Møller) has infiltrated the Pearl and disabled its security and fire safety systems. Sarah, Georgia and Henry are trapped in the building, and Will must get to them before it’s too late. Botha will stop at nothing at nothing to get what he wants from Zhao, and a man who wants to save his family it’s all that’s standing in his way.

This summer movie season, Skyscraper is the only major tentpole studio release that is not a sequel. That said, it is the furthest thing from original possible – not to belabour the point, but this movie might as well be called ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Die Hard’. There already exists a Die Hard knockoff named Skyscraper, starring the late Anna-Nicole Smith.

Skyscraper feels out of place amidst the giant franchise entries that have dominated and will continue to dominate the box office this summer, but that is key to its charm. It feels like a movie straight out of the 90s in a very welcome way. That’s due in part to the well-worn premise, but also to its star being the closest thing we have to the larger-than-life action heroes of the 80s and 90s.

This reviewer did not enjoy director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s previous Johnson-starring film, the buddy comedy Central Intelligence. As such, it’s surprising just how well Skyscraper is directed. The script, also written by Thurber, seems to have been reconstituted from a “just add water” action movie premix. However, the film moves with great finesse and Thurber leads audiences from one edge-of-your-seat action set-piece straight on to the next, generating breathless thrills despite the overwhelming silliness of the whole affair. Veteran production designer Jim Bissell gets to show off with the gleaming futurism of the Pearl – there’s even a high tech maze of mirrors of sorts.

What’s left to say about Johnson’s abilities as a leading man that hasn’t already been covered in countless other reviews? He’s not quite an everyman the way Bruce Willis’s John McClane started out, but he’s still got that disarming charm – Will quips about the magical properties of duct tape while stuck in the middle of a crisis. Will performs spectacular feats of implausibility, one after the other. The leap from a crane to the building has already been lampooned ever since it was made a central feature of the poster and has become a meme unto itself. Part of the joy of Skyscraper is accepting the ludicrousness and focusing on Johnson at the centre of said ludicrousness.

The script struggles to make Campbell’s Sarah more than the ‘designated wife’ so often seen in these movies, and mostly succeeds. Sarah is a Navy combat medic and can hold her own in some harrowing situations. There is a nigh-excessive degree of imperilling children in the film, but hey, these kids have the Rock as their dad. That’s a guarantee it’s going to work out all right.

Chin Han’s Zhao is perhaps a touch egotistical – you must be to build the tallest building in the world – and just might be hiding something. It’s the standard ‘rich guy you’re meant to suspect’ archetype and he does seem to enjoy strutting across the well-appointed penthouse set.

This movie’s villains were shipped in straight from Movie Bad Guys “R” Us. There are Euro-mercenaries sporting a variety of accents, led by Møller’s Kores Botha (what a great villain name). Then there are a bunch of local hires too, since this takes place in Hong Kong, including Hannah Quinlivan as a lethal leather-clad henchwoman. It’s all, to use that word again, quite ridiculous – but it’s never not entertaining.

Skyscraper genuinely reminds this reviewer of the action movies he enjoyed growing up. Sure, it’s stupid, but it’s hard to go too wrong with Johnson leading the charge. Surprisingly, it leans into its genre-ness more than Rampage, also starring Johnson, did earlier this year. As a Die Hard-style movie that could’ve easily gone straight-to-DVD but instead has a $125 million budget and stars the Rock, it works.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ant-Man and the Wasp movie review

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP

Director : Peyton Reed
Cast : Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Bobby Cannavale,, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas
Genre : Action/Adventure/Science Fiction/Superhero
Run Time : 118 mins
Opens : 4 July 2018
Rating : PG

Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have had a bit of time to recover from the earth-shattering events of Avengers: Infinity War. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) was noticeably missing from that film, and now we learn what he was up to while everyone else was tangling with Thanos.

After Scott made it back from the Quantum Realm at the end of the first Ant-Man film, Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) believes that there’s a chance his wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was lost in the Quantum Realm decades ago, might still be alive. Together with his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Pym tries to locate Janet and rescue her.

Meanwhile, Scott is under house arrest, after getting into big trouble during the events of Captain America: Civil War. Whilst evading FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and trying to be a good dad to Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), Scott returns to superheroics. He now fights alongside Hope, who’s inherited the mantle of the Wasp from her mother. They must fend off black market tech dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and the enigmatic Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can turn invisible and phase through solid objects. Scott can count on his ex-convict buddies Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian) for help, though how much they actually help is up for debate.

We’ve all seen “fun” used as a descriptor for innumerable MCU movies. There’s no denying that Ant-Man and the Wasp is fun. It’s an unabashedly silly film packed with jokes and some inspired visual gags, and its tone is consistent with that of the first Ant-Man film. While something less intense is welcome in the wake of Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp is often in danger of feeling a touch inconsequential – especially given what an impact Black Panther made earlier this year.

On paper, there’s nothing too wrong with Ant-Man and the Wasp, and it ticks all the boxes. The mission to rescue Janet from the Quantum Realm is a great premise for the sequel and has considerable emotional drive, yet there are times when the film feels no more than perfunctory. The pacing is good, and the movie feels shorter than its 118 minutes, but it seems like it’s scurrying from Point A to Point B. Plenty of jokes land, but some of the humour is a little forced, and Luis and co. feel like they’ve been shoehorned in.

Where Ant-Man and the Wasp excels is in its set-pieces. The film makes inventive use of the mass-shifting conceit, and director Peyton Reed seems to have gotten bolder in staging said set-pieces. The choreography of how the titular heroes work in tandem is dazzling. There’s a kitchen fight in which Wasp dodges a meat mallet, and a car chase down San Francisco’s Lombard Street involving a shrinking van – this could be an homage to The Dead Pool, in which Dirty Harry is pursued through the streets of San Francisco by a radio-controlled toy car. It’s a great example of a comic book film creatively exploiting its characters’ abilities.

This film leans a little more into retro sci-fi with its Fantastic Voyage-esque micro submersible and more appearances from giant ants. Christophe Beck’s score also employs a bit more of a brassy big band sound, evoking spy-fi of yore.

Rudd’s everyman who’s fallen on the wrong side of the tracks continues to be endearing, and the film tries to give Scott some character growth, though there’s not too much to be had. The scenes that Scott shares with his daughter are on the right side of twee. Scott is the regular dude among geniuses, and Rudd plays off Lilly and Douglas well.

Lilly relishes the chance to partake in the superhero action this time around, and the Wasp’s abilities are impressively realised. Hope clearly knows what she’s doing, and there’s a precision to her fighting style and movements that Scott never quite possessed. Hope has been waiting her whole life for this and is in her element, and it’s gratifying to see her fulfil her destiny as the Wasp.

Douglas gets to be a little more active in this one than in the first Ant-Man film, but he’s still mostly there to be crotchety. The relationship between Pym and Janet is sufficiently established. By necessity, Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t get to be in this one a lot, though it’s hard not to wish she had more screen time.

There’s half a good idea here with Ghost. The appearance and abilities of the character from the comics is used, but everything else about her is created for the film. Ghost is in a constant state of flux, confused and angry, and is a formidable opponent to our heroes. She’s no Thanos or Killmonger, but she’s an adequate villain for this film.

Walton Goggins plays a standard-issue Walton Goggins character, supremely untrustworthy and grinning as he goes after what he wants. Randall Park is funny as the dogged FBI agent who tries to keep Scott under his thumb, and hopefully he goes on to be a badass secret agent like the Jimmy Woo of the comics. Fishburne is reliable as Professor Bill Foster, who had a falling out with Pym when they were colleagues.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a trifle, but it’s an entertaining, well-made trifle. Not every MCU movie needs to upend the status quo, and Ant-Man and the Wasp is quite comfortable being the silly thing it is. While the movie has welcome tricks up its sleeve with the further integration of mass-shifting into the action sequences, it can sometimes feel like we’re just watching the first one again.

Stick around for a mid-credits scene and a post-credits stinger.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Lion King musical (Singapore, 2018)

THE LION KING

Marina Bay Sands Theatre, Singapore
27 June – 23 September 2018

Photo by Jedd Jong

In 2014, the Lion King stage musical overtook The Phantom of the Opera to become the highest-grossing title in the history of stage and screen. This reviewer has a soft spot for Phantom, but it’s hard to deny that The Lion King’s crown as ruler of Broadway and beyond is well-deserved.

After a record-breaking eight-month-long engagement in 2011, The Lion King returns to Singapore. The show is based on the now-classic 1994 Disney animated film of the same name. It’s a story so familiar that it’s almost redundant to synopsise it, but here’s the short version: Simba, son of King Mufasa, must face the destiny he’s been running from after surviving a tragedy engineered by his power-hungry uncle Scar. Nala, Simba’s childhood friend-turned-love-interest, must convince the rightful king to reclaim the throne and fight for the good of all the animals who inhabit the Pridelands.

While most Disney Theatrical adaptations of animated films are largely literal and generally resemble their source material, director Julie Taymor leapt far out of the box for The Lion King. The film’s anthropomorphised animals are realised through puppets of various designs and functions.

Photo by Joan Marcus ©Disney

Pulling from various cultural influences and melding them into a hypnotic whole, Taymor adopted an approach that incorporates Balinese and Javanese dance, Bunraku-like puppetry, shadow puppetry and masks. It’s a visually stimulating experience. As the line in “Circle of Life” goes, “there is far too much to take in here” – and “too much” is just the right amount.

The film’s memorable songs by Elton John and Tim Rice are supplemented with additional songs by the duo. Further shaping the unique soundscape is African choral music by Lebo M., and expansions on the film’s score by Hans Zimmer, Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin. It’s eclectic and just as it is with the visuals, the disparate influences of the show’s score could’ve been an inchoate mishmash, but it is just the opposite. The stage is flanked by two percussionists playing African and Latin drums, adding a textural layer to the music from the orchestra pit.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Right from the get-go, The Lion King is an emotional experience. The show begins with the mandrill Rafiki issuing the cry “Nants ingonyama! bagithi Baba!” – Zulu for “Here comes a lion, father”. The sun rises over the Pridelands as creatures big and small flood onto the stage. The visual dynamism, the inventiveness of the puppet designs and the physicality of the performers are all established in the powerful opening number.

This is a show that asks a lot of its performers. The core concept is that of the ‘double event’, meaning the actors who are manipulating puppets must, in a sense, perform the role twice, as both they and the puppet are visible. The choreography by Garth Fagan strikingly evokes the forms of each animal the performers are representing, and despite not literally resembling the beasts, the overall effect created by the performers and puppets is easy to buy into.

Ntsepa Pitjeng is a veteran of the production, having played Rafiki in the U.S., U.K., Brazil, China and Switzerland. The character is male in the animated film but was reimagined as female based on Taymor’s desire for more female characters in the show, and informed by how many healers and spiritual leaders in traditional African cultures across the continent are women. Pitjeng essays Rafiki’s signature blend of mischief and wisdom accumulated over the years with a crowd-pleasing performance that is rousing yet subtle when it needs to be.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Jonathan Andrew Hume, who has been with the U.K. ensemble since 2001 and who first played Simba in Singapore in 2011, returns as the protagonist. Hume delivers a passionate performance, capturing Simba’s joie de vivre and the conflict that is rooted deep within him. It can be read that all the gleeful pouncing about is merely a façade to conceal the hurt that Simba carries with him from his past. Hume’s soaring delivery of the ballad “Endless Night”, which starts out mournful then turns hopeful, is brilliant.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Noxolo Dlamini delivers an elegant turn as Nala, displaying precision in her lithe physicality and creating beautiful lines of movement. The yearning comes through in her part of the duet “Can You Feel the Love Tonight”, and Dlamini’s portrayal of someone rediscovering a long-lost friend is gently affecting.

The roles of Young Simba and Young Nala are shared between three actors each, who joined the cast during the show’s previous stop in Manila. At our performance, Young Simba was played by Julien Joshua Dolor, who is energetic, wide-eyed and loveable. The excitement and wonderment, soon to be dashed, is integral to the portrayal of Young Simba. Alas, Uma Naomi Martin, while also adorable, is noticeably stiffer as Young Nala. We don’t take joy in criticising child actors, but Dolor comes off more naturally than Martin does.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile’s Mufasa is one of the highlights of the cast. Khanyile projects the dignity of a king and the warmth of a father, a father who desperately wants to prepare his son for the duties of leading the Pridelands but is unaware of just how little time he has left. Khanyile’s delivery of “He Lives in You” is heartfelt, and his delivery of the message Mufasa’s ghost has for Simba, coupled with the stunning presentation of that scene, is awe-inspiring.

Photo by Joan Marcus © Disney

Scar is one of those villain roles that affords actors the chance to ravenously chomp the scenery, which Antony Lawrence happily partakes in. He stalks across the stage, sneers and turns the campiness up to eleven. Scar’s articulated mask enhances Lawrence’s snarling expressions. Lawrence’s Scar could stand to be a touch more menacing, but it’s an enjoyable performance all the same.

Photo by Jedd Jong

André Jewson handily (wingily?) steals the show as Zazu, the fussbudget majordomo and loyal aide to Mufasa. He accurately captures the worrywart hornbill’s vocal inflections and does remarkable physical work, influenced by mime and clown traditions. As a comedic character, Zazu chips away at the fourth wall with his beak, making Singapore-specific references and winks at pop culture. Such jokes were greeted with uproarious laughter, but they can pull one out of it a little, and momentarily make this transcendent work of art feel like a show at a theme park.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Timon and Pumbaa are to Simba what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to Hamlet. Kids are bound to love the double act. Jamie McGregor’s neurotic Timon is the ideal counterpoint to Pierre van Heerden’s easier-going, notoriously flatulent Pumbaa. The contrast in the physicality, like Laurel and Hardy or C-3PO and R2-D2 before them, is integral to the humour derived from seeing the pair onstage.

Vuyelwa Tshona, Liso Gcwabe and Mark Tatham portray Scar’s henchmen, the hyenas Shenzi, Banzai and Ed respectively. While their performances cannot be faulted, the hyena costumes are this reviewer’s least favourite. There’s a distracting gap between the head and the body, they seem kind of floppy and just don’t have the same efficiency in the design as some of the other costumes/puppets in the show. The hyenas’ number “Chow Down”, completed with electric guitar riffs, is the most incongruous in the show.

Photo by Deen van Meer © Disney

The Lion King is a show with so many moving parts, a show that’s so technical, and yet its overflowing with resonant emotion and never feels like an impersonal assemblage of sets, props and costumes. The show packs in jaw-dropping spectacle, but never loses sight of the themes of facing one’s past and the father-son relationship at the heart of the story. 21 years after its Broadway premiere, The Lion King is still a crowning achievement of stagecraft and still has the power to move audiences to tears.

Jedd Jong