Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker review

For F*** Magazine

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast : Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 h 22 mins
Opens : 19 December 2019
Rating : PG13

42 years after the original Star Wars movie redefined cinema and started an enduring worldwide phenomenon, J.J. Abrams rings the curtain down on the Skywalker Saga with this film. While this certainly will not be the last piece of Star Wars media or indeed the last Star Wars movie ever, it’s still momentous that this marks the conclusion of the overarching core story of a galaxy far, far away.

Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega), the heroes of the Resistance, are flung together for a high-stakes mission with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance, as it always seems to. Under the leadership of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), the Resistance continues its fight against the First Order, led by her son, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The resurgence of the ancient evil known as the Sith, locked in a never-ending conflict with the Jedi, unearths long-buried secrets as foes and allies both old and new are drawn into the fray. Rey’s struggle to find her place in the galaxy and Kylo Ren’s own long-standing inner conflict take both characters to places they never imagined they would go.

You know the Aesop’s Fable about the man, the young boy and the donkey? The one about how you can’t please everyone? One imagines director/co-writer J.J. Abrams as the man in that story. There is no denying that making The Rise of Skywalker was a daunting undertaking, overwhelming in breadth (if perhaps not depth) as a story that must function as the conclusion to not just one trilogy, but three. Taking this into consideration, there is a lot in this film to enjoy.

From the word ‘go’, The Rise of Skywalker is unrelenting, and it is this propulsive kinetic energy that keeps the movie going and going and going, making its 142-minute runtime zip by. Our characters jump from set-piece to set-piece, planet to planet, taking the audience along with them. There are several involving action sequences and the lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo Ren on a barge in a roiling sea is among the best in the whole series.

Rey, Finn and Poe spent most of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi apart, and The Rise of Skywalker makes it a point to have these three characters share multiple scenes. We see how each of these characters has grown and evolved and how the events of the past two films have shaped them. The interplay between them, especially between Finn and Poe, is often entertaining. The resolution of the struggle between Rey and Kylo Ren will not please everyone, but there is an elegance in its execution, and it winds up being satisfying while also being unsatisfying, which seems like the intention.

There is a palpa…ble affection for the movies that came before, and as a result one can sense how hard Abrams, co-writer Chris Terrio and crew were trying to create something that honours the films of the past while also not directly contradicting what has been established earlier, which is easier said than done. This is, if nothing else, a big “points for trying” scenario.

The aforementioned Aesop’s Fable ends with the man and his son, carrying the donkey suspended by a pole on their shoulders, falling off a bridge into the river below and drowning. It sometimes feels like The Rise of Skywalker is doing just this. In nostalgia-driven franchises, fans are especially wary of “fan-service” – moments geared to elicit a positive reaction simply by reminding said fans of something they like. The Rise of Skywalker is stuffed with these moments. As a Star Wars fan, this reviewer did enjoy many of them, but after a while, it can get a bit tiresome when one realises this might be getting in the way of the storytelling. It’s like eating dessert for dinner: it’s fun at first, but by the end it’s too much of a good thing.

Much was made about how The Rise of Skywalker would apparently ‘retcon’ the events of The Last Jedi. While on the surface it seems like nothing here contradicts the events and the revelations of that film, one can tell that the vocal backlash against it did affect this movie – one would argue negatively. For all The Last Jedi’s perceived flaws, it was at the very least interesting. It was challenging in the way The Rise of Skywalker never is. Whatever was interesting about The Last Jedi feels flattened here.

Perhaps The Rise of Skywalker just doesn’t need to be challenging and people actually prefer it this way, but as the Skywalker Saga bounds to the finish line, it feels like narratively, the series as a whole has taken a step backwards. The film was originally set to be directed by Colin Trevorrow, and Trevorrow still receives a “story by” credit alongside Derek Connolly, Abrams and Terrio. Perhaps it was in the reworking of Trevorrow and Connolly’s original script that things got messy.

The breakneck pacing means that the movie is never boring, but there sometimes is the sense that it serves to paper over the cracks and stop audiences from pausing to look around them. The film’s haste also means that several important revelations and developments just whiz by without a chance to meaningfully explore them.

There is a sentimentality to The Rise of Skywalker, but it can be argued that the stories that have endured through the ages are often sentimental. Much of that sentimentality arises from seeing familiar faces, including C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), on new adventures that contextualise their relationships to the other characters. The two main new characters introduced here, the warrior Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and the helmeted spice runner Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), both feel very Star Wars-y.

Considering how poorly a section of Star Wars fans have conducted themselves and how they have expressed their vitriol over certain instalments of the series, making hating something a core part of their personality, there is a comfort in seeing the characters embrace and express their affection for each other. Many elements of The Rise of Skywalker might seem overly engineered, but the positivity and the message of people uniting to defend what they hold dear is sincere.

The film’s greatest accomplishment is in bringing Carrie Fisher’s Leia to the screen one last time. Through an ingenious and nigh-seamless combination of unused footage from The Force Awakens, body doubles, compositing and possibly a soundalike voice actor, the late Fisher delivers a stirring, dignified and supremely moving final performance. This is, after all, the conclusion to the Skywalker saga and this movie does place the family, the surviving members of whom are Leia and Kylo Ren, front and centre. There is a reverence which makes The Rise of Skywalker sometimes trip over itself, but the Skywalkers are given their due and then some here.

The Rise of Skywalker has myriad flaws, but it closes out the nine-film cycle in grand fashion. In straining to please fans, the film will probably end up divisive, just in a different way from The Last Jedi. Regardless, The Rise of Skywalker is still an achievement and it might not be the conclusion to the saga that this reviewer was hoping for, but we’re not quite sure how else we would have done this.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Cats (Musical, 2019-2020) – review

For F*** Magazine

CATS

17 Dec 2019 – 5 Jan 2020
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

One of the most popular and enduring stage musicals since its premiere on the West End in 1981, audiences around the world can’t seem to get enough of Cats. This is the fifth time the all-singing all-dancing feline denizens have arrived in Singapore. Featuring music by mega-composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by poet T.S. Eliot, there’s no doubt Cats is a phenomenon, even if it can be puzzling as to why.

Cats is a famously divisive show among theatre-lovers: it has its passionate devotees as well as its scoffing detractors, perhaps not unlike anything that becomes immensely popular. The success of Cats on the West End and on Broadway gave rise to the ‘megamusical’ trend, with shows becoming increasingly spectacle-based and geared towards family audiences and tourists.

It is by now a familiar chestnut that Cats doesn’t really have a plot, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. General audiences are so used to musical theatre productions being story-based that the revue format of Cats might seem difficult to get into, but the show has a way of making audiences surrender to it – we’ll discuss said ways as this review continues.

It’s more a premise than a plot: once a year, a clowder of cats who call themselves ‘Jellicle Cats’ gather for the Jellicle Ball – “Jellicle” being the way Eliot heard posh English people say “dear little”. At this momentous event, one of them is chosen to ascend to the Heaviside Layer – cat heaven. This cat will then be reincarnated. The cats all sing about themselves and each other: there’s the rock-n-roll sexpot Rum Tum Tugger, the mischievous cat burglars Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer, Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat, Gus the Theatre Cat, the slinky Macavity the Mystery Cat and the dishevelled outcast Grizabella the Glamour Cat, among many others. The Jellicles are led by Old Deuteronomy, who must eventually select one of them to ascend.

This reviewer can explain why shows like The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, Les Misérables and The Lion King have become international phenomena. This reviewer cannot quite do the same for Cats and perhaps that is a part of the show’s peculiar charm. You’ve heard it all before: Cats is weird. Cats is bonkers. Especially with the upcoming live-action-ish film adaptation, the show is something of an easy target. And yet, Cats is wonderful. Cats is irresistible. And Cats must be seen to be understood – maybe “understood” is too strong a word, but you catch our drift.

Cats is stuffed with whimsy and eccentricity, and just the characters’ names (we haven’t even gotten to Jennyanydots and Bustopher Jones) are wont to elicit bemused chuckles. There is a playful innocence to it, but also a roiling sexuality beneath the surface. These cats sing and dance, but one also imagines them – to borrow lines from another Lloyd Webber musical – “hustling and fighting, scratching and biting”.

At the time it debuted, Cats was perhaps the most avant garde mainstream thing – or the most mainstream avant garde thing. There’s no denying it’s weird, but this is the theatre we’re talking about – if one seeks it out, one will find far, far weirder things out there. Cats is just a little bit past the average amount of weird and revels in this niche space.

The history of the show’s development is full of strange and wonderful little nuggets. The show struggled to find financing and almost did not come to fruition, with Lloyd Webber on the verge of quitting and scrapping the whole thing multiple times. Eliot’s widow Valerie was understandably wary and closely watched the development of the project. Dame Judi Dench was set to play Grizabella but tore her Achilles tendon in rehearsal, with Elaine Page stepping in. The treatment of various characters has also evolved – the “Growltiger’s Last Stand” sequence went through multiple iterations, attempting to negotiate the racism in Elliot’s original text (the slur “chinks” was used and the villains were Siamese cats, with an earlier iteration of the show even having the actors put on exaggerated East Asian accents).

More than perhaps any other stage musical, Cats is also something that must be experienced live. Naturally, all live theatre is best experienced live, but photos and videos do not do the immersive nature of Cats any justice. Especially seated in the stalls, with the characters darting through the aisles, going up to sniff audience members, pausing to look around before scampering on and offstage, it’s hard not to be delighted. There isn’t much of a point in looking for something in the story to be emotionally invested in, but people have found things in many of the characters to connect to.

Photo by Jedd Jong

The set largely remains the same but is so detailed that one imagines wandering around it, constantly discovering new things. Scenic designer John Napier, whose credits also include Les Misérables and Miss Saigon, has crafted a junkyard playground that is the ideal backdrop for all of Cats’ craziness to unfold against. There’s a great Easter Egg here too – a license plate reads “NAP13R”.

One of the main draws of the show is just how demanding it is on its performers, and as a result, how spectacular it is. This is a very dance-heavy show; its original choreography by the late Gillian Lynne, who also choreographed The Phantom of the Opera. It’s not dissimilar to watching a Cirque du Soleil show, marvelling at what these performers have trained to do. When Mungojerrie (Joe Henry) and Rumpleteazer (Kristy Ingram) cartwheel and handspring across the stage, we accept that this is just the way the characters are because of the effortlessness with which these feats are performed. Actors from the show’s past have consistently described it as among the most challenging and rewarding shows of their careers.

The show’s best-known song is of course “Memory”, sung by Grizabella (Joanna Ampil). The cast of this production largely hails from the UK, with the main exception of Ampil, who is Filipino. The Broadway and West End star has played Grizabella in earlier productions of Cats, and starred in Miss Saigon, Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Misérables and Rent, among others. Interestingly, the poem about Grizabella was initially unpublished, with Eliot deeming the character too sad for a children’s book. We first hear “Memory” as a prelude – strained and feeble, since Grizabella is herself elderly and weak. It might be jarring for those who only know the song as performed by popular artists. It is only later in the show that Ampil showcases her power and “Memory” roars to brilliant, stirring life, in what is the show’s cathartic emotional climax.

George Hinson has a grand old time thrusting away as Rum Tum Tugger, who has all the lady cats eating out of his paw. Nicholas Pound, who has also played Old Deuteronomy on the West End and in previous tours, lends warmth and authority to the leader of the Jellicle cats.

Photo by Jedd Jong

However, the standout performer is not a featured star. Danielle Cato plays Cassandra, a cat who has no lines, but handily (pawily?) steals the show. Cato’s physical precision and litheness is utterly mesmerising. She is always aware that she’s playing a cat, and even when she’s just sitting on stage, it’s hard to look away from her. She perfectly captures that thing cats do when they suddenly realise they’re great and get extremely pleased with themselves for a moment, before returning to being bored.

          Cats is not for everyone, yet everyone should see it at least once just to get a feel for what all the fuss is about. Once one adjusts to not expecting a traditional three act narrative and looks at the show as a tapestry, as a shimmering reflection of the various colourful characters that make up any social group and that we might know in real life, Cats becomes easier to understand – well, “understand” is a strong word.

Jedd Jong

Photos: The Really Useful Group (except where otherwise stated)

Cats is presented by BASE Entertainment Asia and runs from 17 December 2019 to 5 January 2020 at the Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore. Tickets start from $50. Visit https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/ccats0120 for tickets and more information.

Wet Season (热带雨) review

For F*** Magazine

WET SEASON (热带雨)

Director: Anthony Chen
Cast : Yeo Yann Yann, Koh Jia Ler, Christopher Lee, Yang Shi Bin
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 28 November 2019
Rating: M18

2013’s Ilo Ilo was hailed as one of the best Singaporean films in recent memory, winning awards at international film festivals including Cannes and Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards. Critics and filmgoers were keenly watching the film’s young writer-director Anthony Chen to see what he would do next. After executive-producing and co-writing the anthology film Distance, Chen has returned to the director’s chair with Wet Season. This film has already been making the festival rounds, debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival and receiving six nominations for the Golden Horse Awards, winning Best Actress for Yeo Yann Yann.

Ling (Yeo Yann Yann) is a Malaysian-born Chinese language teacher at a secondary school in Singapore. She has been trying for a baby with her husband Andrew (Christopher Lee) for years. Andrew works in finance and is too busy at work or entertaining clients to spend much time with Ling. Ling is also responsible for caring for Andrew’s ailing father-in-law (Yang Shi Bin), a stroke patient. When Ling holds a remedial class in school, only one student, Wei Lun (Koh Jia Ler), shows up. Wei Lun appears to have been neglected by his parents, and Ling gradually takes a liking to Wei Lun, sending him home from school in her car. She also shows up to support Wei Lun at an wushu competition where he is representing the school. Ling and Wei Lun find solace in each other, but they soon become inappropriately close.

Wet Season takes what could easily have been a trashy, sensational premise and approaches it from a very sensitive, thoughtful point of view. The movie spends a lot of time setting up the circumstances surrounding its two main characters, never seeming like it’s racing to a big, dramatic plot point. Malaysian Yeo Yann Yann has repeatedly proven herself as a remarkable, subtle actor, and her performance here is as affecting as ever. Ling’s deep sadness manifests in every gesture, every glance – one can tell that great care was taking in developing the character both by Yeo and writer/director Chen.

Koh Jia Ler’s playfulness and youthful energy serve as a great foil for Yeo’s more subdued performances. Chen does a great job of juxtaposing Wei Lun’s immaturity against Ling’s maturity. Both are different characters, and while Ling is better developed, it doesn’t feel like Wei Lun is just a caricature either.

Veteran Chinese theatre actor Yang Shi Bin is remarkably convincing as Ling’s disabled father-in-law. Chen told the press that overseas film journalists thought that he had cast an actual stroke patient in the role.

The more cynical among us might view Wet Season as calibrated to play well at overseas film festivals. Its combination of controversial subject matter with the specificity of the Singapore setting means that to a European or American journalist, it might feel like a textbook critically acclaimed foreign film. That’s not to take anything away from the immense work that Chen and his cast and crew have sunk into this, but the thought was at the very back of this reviewer’s mind.

Ling’s husband Andrew is meant to be an unlikable character, but Christopher Lee’s performance lacks the nuance that his co-stars bring to the table. It sometimes seems like Andrew has wandered out of a Chinese-language drama aired on Channel 8.

The film features beautiful cinematography by Sam Care that enhances the contemplative nature of the movie and emphasises stillness, but it’s the sound design and mixing that stands out even more than the visuals. The film’s sound department includes sound designer/supervising sound editor Zhe Wu and production sound mixer/supervising sound editor Li Chi Kuo. As the title suggests, Wet Season is set during a period of high rainfall. The film features no non-diegetic music, such that the rainfall serves as the movie’s soundtrack and as a kind of inner monologue for Ling. It’s a creative decision that serves the story well, enveloping the audience in atmosphere and drawing them into the story.

The challenges faced by the characters in the film are easy for many around the world to relate to, but the setting is deliberately very Singaporean. One of the themes in the film is how students have an aversion to learning Chinese, and how schools place the language as a lower priority than subjects like Mathematics or English. The relationship between Malaysia and Singapore is also touched on, and a subplot involves caring for an elderly relative, a responsibility many Singaporeans undertake. The movie never comes off as preachy, weaving all the issues it addresses into its narrative fabric.

One technique that Chen uses to increase verisimilitude is showing characters on the toilet. This is carried from Ilo Ilo. One wouldn’t usually see a character on the toilet in a movie, so this makes the movie feel more like real life. There is also a scene in which Ling’s father-in-law soils himself; the camera never shying away from the mess.

Wet Season’s premise, coupled with the fact that its protagonists have previously played mother and son, might set tongues wagging, but Chen approaches the subject matter with enough careful nuance. It’s a sad, moving film that rarely goes straight for the tear ducts, and by the time we get to a big, dramatic emotional beat, it is well earned.

Summary: Anthony Chen’s portrait of a forbidden relationship between teacher and student is layered with heart and a sprinkling of humour. The film feels thoroughly authentic and is anchored by its excellent leads, Yeo Yann Yann delivering a powerhouse performance without doing anything overwrought.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Knives Out review

For F*** Magazine

KNIVES OUT

Director: Rian Johnson
Cast : Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Lakeith Stanfield, Katherine Langford, Jaeden Martell, Christopher Plummer, K Callan, Noah Segan, Riki Lindhome, Frank Oz
Genre : Mystery/Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 2 h 10 mins
Opens : 27 November 2019
Rating: PG13

Writer-director Rian Johnson has recently become known for helming Star Wars: The Last Jedi and is working on forthcoming Star Wars spin-off films. He had intended to make an Agatha Christie-inspired film after finishing Looper, but made The Last Jedi first, now returning to that idea.

On the night of his 85th birthday party, renowned crime novelist Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) dies of an apparent suicide in his study. Private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is called upon to investigate alongside Detective Lieutenant Elliot (Lakeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (Noah Segan). The detectives interview Harlan’s family, including his children Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), Walt (Michael Shannon) and their respective spouses Richard (Don Johnson) and Donna (Riki Lindhome). Also present are Harlan’s daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette) and his grandchildren Ransom (Chris Evans), Meg (Katherine Langford) and Jacob (Jaeden Martell). The one person who might hold the key to the mystery is Harlan’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), who became the author’s friend and confidant in his last days.

As startling revelations are made and the web of intrigue expands, the truth seems ever more elusive.

Knives Out is deliciously funny, dark and crafted with the utmost care. Johnson brings both a forensic eye to detail and a razor-sharp wit to the proceedings, assembling an intricate mystery. The movie functions both as an affectionate parody of classic whodunits and as an excellent example of a whodunit. Knives Out is filled with plants and payoffs, feints and misdirects, all executed with a master’s touch. Johnson achieves a tonal balance such that the winks and nods largely do not detract from the absorbing, ever-deepening mystery at the story’s core. Early on, one character comments that Harlan practically “lived in a Clue board,” which sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Johnson works with his usual editor Bob Ducsay and usual cinematographer Steve Yedlin to make a film that is not only narratively clever, but visually clever too. Much of the film consists of closeups of the actors’ face, inviting audiences to read said faces for clues. As with any good whodunit, it’s not just the “who” that audiences will care about, but the “why” and the “how”.

Knives Out is intended as a throwback but is also set in present day. While the political context to the story makes sense and does add dimensions to it, some pop culture references seem a bit out of place. The Hamilton one works, but the Baby Driver reference less so. Sometimes, the movie winks just a bit too hard, like when a character is literally watching Murder, She Wrote on TV. It is also easy to miss a lot of the film’s subtlety because of how broadly comedic it appears on the surface.

Johnson has gathered a fantastic ensemble cast. It would take far too long to talk about just how good each actor is in their roles, so we’ll mention a few highlights.

Just like in Logan Lucky, Daniel Craig sports a Southern accent that is deep fried and slathered in cream gravy. It is unconvincing but amusing and Craig, much funnier than most give him credit for, is clearly enjoying every second of this. Benoit Blanc is a pastiche of the “gentleman sleuth” archetype and seems to be mainly patterned after Hercule Poirot. Benoit is prone to colourful figures of speech and especially flowery turns of phrase – Craig delivers one monologue about donuts and donut holes with impeccable comic timing.

Ana de Armas will share the screen with Craig again in next year’s Bond film No Time to Die. Her Marta is probably the most fleshed-out character in the film. She’s a hard-working immigrant who is unwittingly drawn into the devious machinations of a wealthy family clamouring for a piece of the inheritance. De Armas is easy to root for, but there’s also just enough room to suspect her.

After being the embodiment of decency as Captain America, Chris Evans gets to kick back as an arrogant, flippant trust fund playboy, in a performance that will remind audiences a bit of his turn in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon and Toni Collette are all very watchable, as expected, and add to the texture of the story even if there isn’t a great deal to their parts. Lakeith Stanfield is the ideal straight man to react to this absurdity. Christopher Plummer ties everything together with a knowing manner and a twinkle of his eye – at 89, the thespian hasn’t missed a step.

Each actor contributes something special to Knives Out, and part of Johnson’s talent is in identifying what that contribution is and magnifying it.

Summary: Writer-director Rian Johnson turns genre conventions on their head while staying true to the spirit of the classic murder mystery, crafting an utterly delightful whodunit that reels one in. A talented ensemble cast brings the ceaselessly clever screenplay to wicked life. Equal parts twisty murder mystery and a humorous deconstruction of that genre, Knives Out is a hoot.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Last Christmas review

For F*** Magazine

LAST CHRISTMAS

Director: Paul Feig
Cast : Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic, Peter Serafinowicz, Rob Delaney, Patti LuPone
Genre : Drama, Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 28 November 2019
Rating: NC16

Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is an infectiously inescapable ditty during the Holiday Season. This comedy directed by Paul Feig of Bridesmaids and Spy fame and co-written by Emma Thompson is inspired by the song. What plot can be mined from the lyrics of this beloved Christmas song/breakup anthem?

Kate (Emilia Clarke) has been plagued by a string of bad luck. She works in a shop selling Christmas decorations and is constantly berated by her boss “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh). She has had several one-night stands end disastrously, unsuccessfully auditioned for various shows on the West End and is a burden on all her friends. Kate doesn’t have the best relationship with her family who immigrated to the UK from former Yugoslavia and is always being nagged at by her mother Adelia (Emma Thompson). Kate’s luck seems to change when she meets Tom (Henry Golding), a cheerful young man who is always telling her to “look up”. However, she can’t quite figure Tom out or pin him down. Tom guides Kate on a journey of self-discovery as she attempts to put her life back together.

Last Christmas is sometimes charming thanks to a role that fits Emilia Clarke well and because of its Christmastime London setting. Londoners will be the first to tell you that it isn’t the most romantic city in the world, but when dressed up in fairy lights and shot by John Schwartzman, it is very pretty. The Yuletide store where Kate works is in Covent Garden, and Last Christmas depicts London in full-on fairy tale winter wonderland mode.

In addition to Clarke, the cast is good. Michelle Yeoh has a knack for playing characters who are outwardly stern but ultimately good-hearted, as her “Santa” character is here. Henry Golding is every inch the dashing, sweet and confident rom-com leading man. Emma Thompson’s role is largely comedic, but there’s also some sadness and unarticulated frustration there that she plays well.

Musical theatre fans will also enjoy the random cameo by Broadway superstar Patti LuPone, which she likely filmed while doing Company on the West End in 2018.

Last Christmas utterly overdoses on twee. It is trying to be reminiscent of Love Actually, but the story is all over the place and the movie seems to think it is much cleverer than it really is.

Clarke may be trying her best and she may suit the part well, but Kate as a character often borders on annoying. The by-now tired “manic pixie dream girl” archetype seems to apply to both Kate and Tom here. Kate is klutzy and dysfunctional, while Tom opens her eyes to the magic that is all around her and that she’s just never noticed. Sharing the cliché between two characters doesn’t make it any less of a cliché.

If you go back to look at the comments sections for this film’s early trailers, you can see people call the big reveal even back then. The movie’s twist has been done before and been done much better, such that when we’re told what has really been happening, it’s more likely to induce eye-rolls than gasps.

The screenplay was written by Thompson and Bryrony Kimmings, with Thompson and her husband Greg Wise receiving screen story credit. There are several ideas in the script that barely get explored, including that of the immigrant experience in the UK, especially in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, as well as how the homeless and less fortunate spend their holidays. Kimmings is an artist known for her socially conscious work and one can tell that there is an attempt to make Last Christmas more meaningful than your average romantic comedy, but none of this really gels together.

In addition to “Last Christmas”, various other George Michael songs appear in the movie. The Kate character is a huge George Michael fan, and the film begins with a young Kate singing “Heal the Pain” with a church choir. The film also includes a previously unreleased track, “This Is How (We Want You To Get High)”. While the filmmakers’ affection for Michael’s music is palpable, it isn’t integrated into the storytelling that well. A key plot point is inspired by a horrifyingly literal reading of one George Michael lyric which is far more morbid than sweet.

If you love George Michael and have romantic fantasies about Covent Garden in the winter, maybe you’ll get something out of this, but otherwise this is an incredibly muddled romantic comedy that is a strange and discordant mishmash.

Summary: Last Christmas attempts to turn the romcom formula on its head, but by introducing various other elements into the mix, we end up with a Christmas pudding that leaves an odd aftertaste.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Frozen 2 review

For F*** Magazine

FROZEN 2

Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee
Cast : Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Evan Rachel Wood, Alfred Molina, Martha Plimpton, Jason Ritter, Rachel Matthews, Ciarán Hinds
Genre : Animation, Musical
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 21 November 2019
Rating : PG

In 2013, Disney’s Frozen, based on The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, became a worldwide phenomenon. The film was a critical and commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing animated film (until this year’s remake of The Lion King, if one defines that as ‘animated’). “Let It Go” became all but inescapable, winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. It seems like making a sequel would be a no-brainer, but the filmmakers took some time before committing to making Frozen 2, beginning work in earnest in early 2015.

Elsa (Idina Menzel) is settling into her role as the queen of Arendelle, but a mysterious voice that only she can hear beckons her to journey beyond the castle. Elsa initially resists, but when she realises that this voice reminds her of a lullaby her mother Queen Iduna (Evan Rachel Wood) used to sing, she is compelled to venture forth. Elsa’s sister Anna (Kristen Bell), Anna’s boyfriend Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), the snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) and Kristoff’s reindeer Sven join Elsa on her journey. They travel to the enchanted forest of Northuldra, which has for years been shut off from the outside world by a thick veil of mist. Revelations come to light as Elsa reckons with the secret origin of her cryokinetic powers, and the sisters learn truths both beautiful and hard to face about their family history.

One can see why directors Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee were initially hesitant to make a sequel to Frozen, because it has become difficult to separate the phenomenon from the movie itself. Frozen’s immense popularity brought about backlash and cries that it was overrated, and it’s easy to forget how good the movie was. Frozen 2 does not merely do everything the same is about something.

It is a spoiler to say what exactly some of Frozen 2’s themes are, but it does address the ideas of growth, change and maturity. After everything the characters have been through in the previous film, there is a sense that they’ve arrived, but the events of Frozen 2 push them further along in their character arcs. The sisterly bond between Elsa and Anna remains the beating heart of the film and there are genuinely emotional moments between them, especially when Anna feels that Elsa is still not trusting her fully.

The animation is superb, and the movie features multiple set-pieces in which the animators get to flex their prowess. Water and hair, elements that are notoriously difficult to realise with computer-generated imagery, are rendered beautifully in the film. The forces of nature feature heavily in the narrative, with wind, water, earth and flame all imbued with a dynamism and a consciousness. Also, the costumes in this movie are gorgeous – Elsa is given several show-stopping outfits that look like the world’s classiest figure skating dresses.

There is also a very cute salamander named Bruni, who is like a smaller, happier distant cousin of Tangled’s Pascal. He is very Pokémon-esque and we want one.

While it is commendable that Frozen 2 tackles heavy themes, the movie sometimes strains under the weight of this and is not fully able to support the exploration of those ideas, which requires nuance and time. There is a conversation about the movie’s themes of how history is framed to be had between parents and kids, and not every parent will be up to the task of explaining what Frozen 2 is really about in a kid-friendly way.

While Frozen 2 tries new things and is not a straight re-tread of the first film, there are times when it seems like it’s obligated to deliver what audiences love about the first. We’ll talk more about the songs next, but there are a few that feel like analogues of songs from the first movie and can as such come off as derivative.

Frozen 2 puts great emphasis on the characters from the first film and gives Elsa, Anna, Kristoff and Olaf more to do. However, this is sometimes at the expense of the newer characters, such as the likes of Northuldrans Yelana (Martha Plimpton), Ryder (Jason Ritter) and Honeymaren (Rachel Matthews) and Arendellian Lieutenant Mattias (Sterling K. Brown) feel somewhat perfunctory.

If you weren’t a fan of Olaf in the first one, Josh Gad is ever so slightly more annoying here, but there are several moments involving the character that work.

Music is arguably an even bigger part of Frozen 2 than the first one. Songwriting team Kristen and Robert Anderson-Lopez return from the first film, alongside composer Christophe Beck. The songs are a mixed bag: some are good and others feel somewhat derivative. The big number “Into the Unknown”, which is pitched as this movie’s “Let It Go”, can’t help but feel like inherently less than “Let It Go”. Thematically, it is the ‘refusal of the call’ stage of the archetypical Hero’s Journey in song form. It does feature a good use of countermelody, with Norwegian singer Aurora giving voice to the mysterious entity that calls out to Elsa.

The filmmakers seem to have realised how woefully underused Broadway star Jonathan Groff’s singing voice was in the first film, and as such have given Kristoff more songs. He gets what is arguably the film’s best number, “Lost in the Woods”, a playful riff on 80s-90s boyband ballads that is reminiscent of Peter Cetera’s “Glory of Love” and “You’re the Inspiration”.

The haunting lullaby “All is Found”, performed by Evan Rachel Wood, is analogous to “Frozen Heart” from the first film. It conveys a sense of foreboding but is also an emotional anchor to the piece.

The end credits feature pop versions of the film’s big songs: Panic! At the Disco sings “Into the Unknown”, Kacey Musgraves sings “All is Found” and Weezer sings “Lost in the Woods”. Brendon Urie’s famous four-octave rage gets showcased nicely in “Lost in the Woods”.

There’s an authenticity to Frozen 2, which is respectful of the Nordic culture that is its inspiration. The filmmakers were unable to take the customary research trips for the first film, but made it a point to visit Iceland, Finland and Norway during pre-production on Frozen 2. One of the most interesting elements of Frozen 2 is itself an elemental, an entity called the Nokk that takes the form of a horse and with which Elsa has a dramatic encounter. The contrast between the fairytale-like Norway and the ancient, mythic Iceland is meant to represent the difference between Anna and Elsa.

Part of what’s interesting about Frozen 2 is the battle between being its own thing and being the sequel to Frozen, and the filmmakers have mostly struck a good balance here. Stick around for a post-credits scene.

Frozen 2 has a lot to live up to and delivers both breath-taking animation and a substantial story. While the strain of the weighty themes can sometimes be felt and some of the songs feel like also-rans versions of songs from the first film, Frozen 2 is mostly a lively and engaging experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wira review

For F*** Magazine

WIRA

Director: Adrian Teh
Cast : Hairul Azreen, Fify Azmi, Ismi Melinda, Dato Hilal Azman, Dain Iskandar Said, Henley Hii, Yayan Ruhian, Josiah Hogan
Genre : Action
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 21 November 2019
Rating : PG13

PASKAL: The Movie, released in 2018, was one of the most successful Malaysian action films ever released. That film’s director Adrian Teh and star Hairul Azreen have followed that up with Wira, an action film of a different stripe. Where Paskal was a military movie, Wira has a heavy focus on martial arts, featuring MMA and silat.

Hassan (Hairul Azreen) is a commando who has taken an early retirement to return to his hometown, where his sister, MMA fighter Zain (Fify Azmi), is in trouble. She is indebted to local kingpin Raja (Dain Iskandar Said), a tyrant who outwardly appears to be a legitimate businessman. Hassan reunites with his father Munas (Dato Hilal Azman) and his childhood best friend Boon (Henley Hii), now a police inspector. Hassan must get in the ring alongside his sister, battling Raja’s equally cruel children Vee (Ismi Melinda) and Rayyan (Josiah Hogan). The battles Hassan must fight are not only in the ring, as he eventually faces off with Raja’s lethal head of security Ifrit (Yayan Ruhian).

Wira is undeniably an achievement for Malaysian action cinema. Director Teh set out to make a film featuring a high standard of action choreography and design, and the fight scenes in Wira are largely spectacular. In addition to playing Ifrit, Yayan Ruhian of The Raid and John Wick: Chapter 3 fame choreographed the fights. The fight between Hassan and Ifrit is an absolute showstopper, while a brawl in a moving bus is another standout sequence. Some of the fights even have the energy of the famous hallway sequence in Oldboy. Hairul Azreen moves with speed and precision and clearly knows what he’s doing. Fify Azmi’s performance is especially impressive considering this is her acting debut.

In addition to the action, there’s an old-fashioned sincerity to Wira that is quite charming. The story is straightforward to a fault, but the brother-sister bond between Hassan and Zain is a credible one. Dato Hilal Azman is a warm and steadfast presence as their father Munas. There is enough to the characters that we can care for them, and the scope is much more focused here than in Paskal, which had to distribute its attention across the various members of a Navy strike force.

The plot of Wira is basically that of Walking Tall: our hero returns from military service to his sleepy hometown to find that it has become overrun with thugs in service of a ruthless businessman, and now he must fight for his people and for the place he grew up in. It’s an utterly predictable story and audiences might find themselves twiddling their thumbs in between the fight scenes. The first half of the film, which involves lots of set-up, is slower than the second half.

Respected director Dain Iskandar Said is clearly having fun playing the cigar-chomping big bad of the piece, but the Raja character can sometimes come off as too cartoony. He also has a penchant for almost arbitrarily switching between English and Malay when he talks, speaking mostly English but then saying a few words or phrases in Malay for emphasis. It is somewhat distracting.

Some of the film’s attempts at humour are likely to be a hit with the crowds who will watch this in Malaysian cinemas, but otherwise feel jarring juxtaposed against the intensity of the rest of the proceedings. Comedians Zizan Razak and Jack Lim show up as two thugs and basically do a lot of mugging for the camera that gets quite annoying. Thankfully, there is not too much of them.

Star Hairul sustained three tears to the ligaments of his ankle while filming a scene that required him to fall from the second storey to the first, because he landed on his feet rather than on his back during one take. Fify Azmi was also hospitalised and has said in an interview that some days were so physically taxing she would immerse herself in an ice bath at her mother’s house.

The film has hidden a connection to Paskal at the very end of the film, and intends to create a cinematic universe of Malaysian action heroes. We wonder how they will explain Hairul Azreen playing two separate characters in Paskal and Wira.

Summary: Wira is slickly produced and pushes the art form of the Southeast Asian action film forward. The story is nothing to write home about and the villains are generic, but it has enough explosive energy to warrant a watch from action movie junkies.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wira the Champions: Interview with Wira director Adrian Teh and stars Hairul Azreen and Yayan Ruhian

For F*** Magazine

WIRA THE CHAMPIONS

The stars and director of Wira talk making the Malaysian action movie

By Jedd Jong

From left: Yayan Ruhian, Adrian Teh and Hairul Azreen

One of the biggest films to come out of Malaysia in recent years is PASKAL: The Movie, an action film about an elite Malaysian Navy strike team who take on a gang of Somali pirates on the high seas. Director Adrian Teh, who has directed comedies like The Wedding Diary and its sequel and King of Mahjong, is now synonymous with the action film genre. He has followed up Paskal with Wira, which means “Hero” in Malay.

Hairul Azreen in Wira

Wira tells the story of Hassan (Hairul Azreen), a young commando who retires early to return to the village where he grew after learning that his father Munas (Dato Hilal Azman) and his sister Zain (Fify Azmi) are in danger. Zain has followed in her brother’s footsteps to become an MMA fighter, taking on increasingly dangerous fights. The fights are organised by local kingpin Raja (Dain Iskandar Said), who under the guise of being a legitimate businessman and developer, keeps the residents of the village firmly under his thumb as he runs a massive drug and gambling operation. Hassan gets back into the ring and faces off against Raja’s goons, including his mysterious and formidable chief of security Ifrit (Yayan Ruhian).

Hairul Azreen in Wira

Hairul Azreen, who in addition to being an actor is a martial artist and a former stuntman, starred in Paskal and is also known for his performances in Police Evo 2 and Operasi X.

Yayan Ruhian in Wira

Yayan Ruhian, an Indonesian silat instructor, has become an action star after starring in Merantau, The Raid and The Raid 2. Yayan can also be seen in Hollywood films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Beyond Skyline and John Wick: Chapter 3. In addition to playing Ifrit, he serves as the action choreographer on Wira.

Adrian Teh on the set of Wira

Director Teh and actors Hairul and Yayan were in Singapore to promote Wira and spoke to F*** at the Grand Park City Hall hotel. Teh spoke to us in English, with Hairul and Yayan speaking in some English and in translated Malay and Indonesian, with Teh and an interpreter assisting. They discussed how Wira marks a milestone for Malaysian action movies, revealed a particularly painful injury Hairul sustained making the movie, the process of designing the action sequences and working with Dain Iskandar Said, himself a renowned director.

F*** MAGAZINE: Adrian, this is your follow-up to Paskal. What made you want to make Wira?

ADRIAN TEH: I’ve always wanted to do this kind of action film, which is [realistic] fighting scenes. In Malaysia, before Wira, I think the level of action choreography has been the same. The level has been stagnant for a while – when people want to do action films in Malaysia, it always will be “like that, like that, like that”. I wanted to do Wira because I wanted to have a breakthrough in the level of choreography and fighting scenes in a local action film. I’ve wanted to do that for a while. The success of Paskal proved to my investors that there is a market for action films Malaysia. After Paskal, they are more convinced to give me the budget for Wira.

Bus set

Adrian, there is one shot in this movie I really love – during the fight on the bus, the camera leaves the window, goes outside the bus, then comes back in the back window, all in one move. How did you film this sequence?

ADRIAN TEH: This is the reason why I hoped to have a breakthrough in terms of Malaysian action films. This is one of the shots I achieved in Wira. The whole bus fight scene took a lot time to plan, to prep and to think how it can be achieved. It combines two sets of filming: one is on [location], plus a studio shoot. We spent a lot of time studying how to get the best out of that scene, and how we can combine the studio scene with the [on-location] scene. Not only that shot, there are a few shots in the movie where we really thought of it and really gave a lot of hard work and preparation to it. The most important element to it is the fighting, is the choreography, the details to each fighting scene. I’m kind of happy with the end product.

Bus fight on location

Hairul, which fight scenes did you find the most challenging?

HAIRUL AZREEN: For me, it’s the one shot, one take – I needed to jump from the second level to the ground floor. I tore three [ligaments] in my ankle. We continued the next day. That was very hard for me, but we did it.

Fall from second storey

ADRIAN TEH: To compare the shot you mentioned just now and that shot, that one is actually technically even more challenging for us to shoot.

Ismi Melinda and Yayan Ruhian on the set of Wira

Abang Yayan, we have seen how Hollywood is influenced by the action cinema of Asia, be it Hong Kong movies, Thai movies and Indonesian movies. From your experience Hollywood, what do you feel the stuntmen there learned from you, and was there anything you learned from them?

YAYAN RUHIAN: I have made movies in Indonesia, in Hollywood and now in Malaysia. They are practically all the same, but the same feeling that I had filming The Raid and in Hollywood is what I felt filming Wira. I believe this movie will be a milestone for Malaysian film like we’ve never seen before, and this might be the next big action film. This is at an international level, like The Raid and like John Wick. The Raid and Wira show that filmmakers in Southeast Asia can create something as good as Hollywood.

Fify Azmi and Hairul Azreen in Wira

The movie is also about family. How did you come up with the story for Wira?

ADRIAN TEH: I started out by wanting to work on an action film like that, then I started looking for a story. Paskal is about a group of Navy personnel who sacrifice their lives and their time with their family to serve their country, that’s the big theme of Paskal. As a creative person, I tried to do something completely [different] with Wira. This time around, it’s about a commando who decides to retire early to go back to his kampung and rescue his family. In Paskal we talked about country and in Wira we talk about family.

Hairul, one of the important elements of the movie is the bond between Hassan and Zain, the audience must believe that they can fight back-to-back as a unit. what was it like working with Fify Azmi, and how did you develop the brother-sister bond between the two of you as actors?

HAIRUL AZREEN: Fify is a newcomer, first time acting. I needed to be comfortable with her on set and in training. The bonding that I tried to develop with Fify had to take place off the set so we could both feel comfortable when we act. We had to train together for three months.

Adrian Teh and Hairul Azreen rehearsing a scene in Wira

Adrian and Hairul, what was the transition like from Paskal to Wira?

HAIRUL AZREEN: It’s different: with Paskal, [the focus was on] tactical armed combat. My characters Arman and Hassan are also different. Arman is a straightforward guy. Hassan must save his family, his sister, so I think they are very different.

ADRIAN TEH: It’s more taxing for him to be in Wira than Paskal, physically and in terms of screentime. In Paskal, we had a team, an ensemble. For Wira, it really depends on him. For me, working on Paskal and working on Wira [presented] two different sets of challenges, but I enjoyed working with Hairul again.

Yayan and Ruhian in Wira

Abang Yayan and Hairul, the whole movie is building up the fight between the both of you, which takes place simultaneously with the fight between Fify Azmi and Ismi Melinda. Did you feel the pressure because there would be so much anticipation to see this scene?

YAYAN RUHIAN: No, because we enjoyed doing the fighting. We prepared for a long time.

ADRIAN TEH: I think because of the bootcamp, because of the training, they enjoyed the sequence. It’s not like they are not familiar with [it] and had to force themselves to memorise it; they can do it with their eyes closed. They’re very familiar, very comfortable with the action.

Yayan Ruhian and Hairul Azreen filming the fight scene in Wira

HAIRUL AZREEN: Acting with Abang Yayan is awesome because I feel like I’ve touched Hollywood. It’s such a thrill. Abang Yayan is a legend, but he is so humble and down-to-earth. For a legend like that to sit next to me and hang out with me is incredible.

It can get so intense on a film set, so it’s important to have a good temperament.

ADRIAN TEH: That’s very important, I agree. Abang Yayan has a very good temperament. He is very firm, but very tolerant of others.

Dain Iskandar Said in Wira

Adrian, Dain Iskandar Said is a director himself. What was it like working with him, and did he offer any advice or did he say to you “you are the director, I am the actor, you tell me what you want in this movie”?

ADRIAN TEH: This is the question I get the most frequently from the media. He is a legend[ary] director in Malaysia, everybody knows his work. You’d be surprised, he’s actually a very good actor. He’s very professional on set, he will never try to overstep his role. He will give me different options in his performance for me to choose [from]. When we wanted to cast him, he did not believe me. He said “come on, you just want me to make a cameo, right?” I said “no, I want you to be the main villain of the movie.” He was like “Are you sure?” and I said “I’m very sure”. He insisted that I ask him three times before he accepted the offer. I had already wanted him, I was dead sure I would cast him in the role, but he asked me to audition him three times. Only then, he said “Okay, now I can act.”

Adrian Teh on the set of Wira

What did you learn making Paskal that you brought to Wira?

ADRIAN TEH: I think I am more thorough with Wira. I paid more attention to detail with Wira. Technically and the time I had with my actors. In Wira, I had a relatively smaller group of actors than in Paskal, so I get to work with my actors in Wira better. Riding on the back of Paskal, there definitely was pressure, so I spent more time on Wira.

Yayan Ruhian and Hairul Azreen in Wira

Abang Yayan, there’s something so mesmerising about watching you fight, the way you do silat. I think there is a difference between what looks on camera and what would actually be effective in a real fight, and the way you fight has the best of both worlds: it looks so cinematic, but also looks like it would really hurt somebody. How do you attain that balance in your fighting?

YAYAN RUHIAN: It’s different, because in front of the camera, it’s not just the killing technique, but the beauty technique, that’s the difference. To kill someone, I think it’s very easy. Beauty fighting is very important in front of the camera. In front of the camera, we need to make the fighting look like real fighting.

Adrian, that’s something you were aiming for right, something that felt authentic?

ADRIAN TEH: Yes. That’s the level of choreography and the level of action we are trying to present to the audience.

Adrian Teh and Yayan Ruhian on the set of Wira

Adrian, there are many ways that filmmakers plan out and prepare fight scenes, including storyboards, animatics and stunt-viz, filming the stunt performers in the gym performing a version of the fight that is shot and edited to be a template for the actual scene in the movie. How were the fight scenes in Wira designed and planned?

ADRIAN TEH: We had seven fight scenes in Wira, three major ones and four relatively smaller ones. That was the first thing I discussed with Abang Yayan when he first got to KL. I put different elements in every fight scene so audiences wouldn’t get bored. There are five fight scenes for Hassan. I discussed it with Abang Yayan, the different intentions Hassan had in each fight scene.

So there’s a character arc for Hassan in the fight scenes.

Hairul Azreen and Fify Azmi in Wira

ADRIAN TEH: Yes – not just a character arc, but in each fighting scene, I have different points to sell. Abang Yayan is very good at that, he knows how to tell a story in a fighting scene, using the design, choreographed movement to tell you the arc of the fighting: who’s winning, who’s losing, and who turned the tide. He’s very good at that.

Hairul Azreen in Wira

Hairul, one of the things I love about your character is that even though he is a fighter and he can beat people up, he is innately decent. I love the part when he is reluctant to punch his friend Boon in the face and Boon is asking him to do it. How do you balance those sides of the character, the decent side and the violent side?

HAIRUL AZREEN: I watched two movies for reference: Ip Man and John Wick. After [a dramatic incident in the film], I’m John Wick. Before that, I’m Ip Man. It’s that simple.

ADRIAN TEH: He’s both Donnie Yen and Keanu Reeves.

Wira opens in Singapore on 21 November 2019 

The Good Liar review

For F*** Magazine

THE GOOD LIAR

Director: Bill Condon
Cast : Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Céline Buckens, Laurie Davidson
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 21 November 2019
Rating : NC16

Weirdly enough, respected English thespians Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Helen Mirren have never made a movie together, even though they have shared the Broadway stage in 2003. This thriller, based on a novel by Nicholas Searle, rectifies this decades-long oversight, giving both stars roles they easily make a meal of.

Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren) is a wealthy woman in her 70s who is hoping to make a romantic connection with someone again and gives online dating a try. She meets and quickly falls for Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), a man in his 80s. Roy, a lifelong con artist, has seemingly found the perfect mark and plots to rob Betty of her millions as Betty’s grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) smells a rat and tries to save his grandmother from Roy’s devious clutches. Both Betty and Roy are forced to confront long-hidden secrets as their relationship grows increasingly complex.

With decades of experience on the stage and screen, Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren are both aware of the kind of movie they’re making and finely calibrate their performances to fit the material. The Good Liar starts out seeming quite silly and predictable, and perhaps it does remain a bit silly, but director Bill Condon knows that his stars will do everything to invest the story with emotion and drama. It is so satisfying to watch McKellen and Mirren play off each other that we get drawn further and further into the plot, no matter how outlandish it becomes.

It seems that smaller-scale thrillers, especially ones with older audiences in mind, are an increasing rarity at the cinema. This is a movie that doesn’t have explosions and shootouts, but one that is still thrilling and exciting. Condon pulls no punches and the movie can be surprisingly brutal at times. The score by Carter Burwell with its undulating strings heightens how delightfully melodramatic this all is. It’s as if someone turned the frantic whisper of “there’s a conspiracy afoot” into music. While a healthy degree of suspension of disbelief is required of audiences, the screenplay by veteran playwright and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher is brought to largely convincing life by the film’s leads.

The movie begins feeling like a version of those Lifetime Channel movies – the ones about Craiglist serial killers and psychotic stepdaughters – for the retiree set. As such, even with two distinguished actors front and centre, it can be hard to take things seriously. As the story gets progressively darker and the shocking revelations pile up, it becomes slightly harder to enjoy the movie as a deliberately arch, mannered confection. It is nowhere near as sophisticated as it would like to be, but is directed and acted well enough to make up for this. Despite the film’s best efforts, not everything about the plot lines up in retrospect, but it is enjoyable despite this.

The movie is set in 2009, which seems like an insignificant detail at first. Roy and Betty go on a movie date to watch a certain Quentin Tarantino-directed movie, and while it would have been fine if that were the only reason to set the story in 2009, it isn’t. The film is the most interesting when it explores both Roy and Betty’s personal histories, but in those sequences, it also means we are spending time away from McKellen and Mirren, which is a trade-off director Condon had to make.

This is a modest thriller fronted by two ever-watchable, extremely skilful actors that differs enough from many entries in this genre partially because it is about two older characters, their age being a key element to the story and not an extraneous detail.

Summary: Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren play a game of cat and mouse that is sometimes far-fetched, sometimes devastating and always enjoyable.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Charlie’s Angels (2019) review

For F*** Magazine

CHARLIE’S ANGELS (2019)

Director: Elizabeth Banks
Cast : Kristen Stewart, Naomi Scott, Ella Balinska, Elizabeth Banks, Patrick Stewart, Djimon Hounsou, Sam Claflin, Djimon Hounsou, Jonathan Tucker, Nat Faxon, Chris Pang
Genre : Action/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 14 November 2019
Rating : PG13

In 1976, the television series Charlie’s Angels starring Farrah Fawcett, Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith premiered. The series ran for five years and underwent several cast changes, and the brand has remained a pop culture staple since then. The Angels landed on the big screen in a 2000 film starring Cameron Diaz, Lucy Liu and Drew Barrymore, which received a 2003 sequel. Following a short-lived 2011 TV revival, the Angels are back in cinemas with this new movie, which is couched as a continuation of the original TV series and the 2000s movies.

Elena Houghlin (Naomi Scott) is a brilliant systems engineer working at Brok Industries on a project called Calisto. The alternative energy source can be repurposed as a weapon if it falls into the wrong hands. Sabina (Kristen Stewart) and Jane (Ella Balinska), operatives of a private intelligence outfit called the Townsend Agency, must protect Elena when she blows the whistle on Brok Industries. These agents are known as ‘Angels’ – their handler Susan Bosley (Elizabeth Banks) was formerly an Angel herself. The original Bosley (Patrick Stewart) is retiring after 40 years of recruiting and training Angels. Charlie (Robert Clotworthy), The unseen boss of the Townsend Agency, communicates through speakerphone. Elena decides she wants to join the Angels, and their mission to secure Calisto takes them from Germany to Turkey.

Banks set out to make a movie about women at work and this new take on Charlie’s Angels benefits from being a lot less male gaze driven and exploitative. Yes, the main characters are still stylish and sexy, but it’s clear that this is no longer for the primary benefit of the slavering men in the audience.

There are moments when each lead gets to shine, but it’s clear that Kristen Stewart is holding it all together. She’s never looked more at ease in a mainstream tentpole movie and has a lot of fun playing the resident wild child. Ella Balinska is statuesque and certainly looks like she could handle herself in a fight, while Naomi Scott’s Elena has an endearing fangirl quality to her while also being intelligent and capable.

One of the film’s best moments is a sequence in which the three Angels dress in identical disguises, confusing security guards at Brok Industries headquarters as they carry out a heist. Some design elements, especially the costumes by Kym Barrett, work quite well.

Unfortunately, Charlie’s Angels just doesn’t feel like the big event it should be. A big screen revival of the franchise should be a brassy, celebratory affair, and this movie just feels too low-key. Much of the action comes off feeling like it belongs on TV – which isn’t quite fair to many TV shows that feature more elaborate action sequences. The hand-to-hand combat sequences are shot and edited too frenetically, while the big chases and shootouts feel perfunctory at best.

Some of the film’s attempts at humour fall flat. Stewart is saddled with several unfunny asides and one-liners that she makes work through sheer force of will. Instead of the standard tech guy or armourer, the Angels have the Saint (Luis Gerardo Méndez), a wellness guru who makes them kombucha and herbal compresses. It’s one joke that is drawn out a bit too long.

This is an unabashedly feminist take on the material, and while this franchise certainly could do with a woman’s perspective behind the camera, there are times when it all feels too clumsy. This is most notable during the opening credits, which look like stock footage of girls from various parts of the world going about their day. Yes, the message is that women can do anything, but what they’re depicted doing in the movie is rarely impressive enough to be really inspiring, at least when compared against the typical action blockbuster. There clearly is an appetite for action, horror, sci-fi, fantasy and other genre movies that depict a woman’s point of view, and one hopes Charlie’s Angels paves the way for more to follow, but the film isn’t entertaining enough to support its messaging.

While Stewart is great and both Naomi Scott and Ella Balinska do have a degree of charisma, the trio just doesn’t have the same palpable chemistry that Diaz, Liu and Barrymore shared in the 2000s films.

The spy stuff in the plot is all very standard issue: there’s a MacGuffin which our heroes must prevent from falling into the wrong hands. Banks’ desire to keep things light and breezy means that there isn’t much in the way of real stakes. When the movie goes darker, like in a scene in which one of the leads is being physically tortured, it comes off as a bit jarring. Not every spy movie needs to have the stunts and spectacle of the Mission: Impossible films, but there’s also no reason that Charlie’s Angels shouldn’t aim for a similar level of thrills.

We see what Banks is trying to do with the franchise and some of it is promising, but it all adds up to something that doesn’t quite make one want to punch the air and yell “the Angels are back!” Stay through the end credits for additional scenes that include a series of cameos.

Summary: Writer-director Elizabeth Banks brings several interesting ideas to the table, but this revival of Charlie’s Angels comes up short on thrills and spectacle, resulting in something that’s resoundingly underwhelming.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong