Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark review

For inSing

SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK

Director: André Øvredal
Cast : Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Austin Abrams, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1 h 48 mins
Opens : 15 August 2019
Rating : NC16

            We’ve heard the expressions that stories can be powerful, but it’s a figure of speech. In this horror movie, stories have literal, dark power, as a group of friends find their lives upended by a cursed book of spooky tales.

It is 1968, and in the town of Mill Valley, there is a local legend: a mansion on the outskirts of town is haunted by the spirit of a young girl who killed herself there almost a hundred years ago. On the night of Halloween, friends Stella (Zoe Colletti), August (Gabriel Rush) and Chuck (Austin Zajur) meet stranger Ramon (Michael Garza) at a drive-in movie. They are pursued by the bully Tommy (Austin Abrams), and they all find themselves in the mansion.

There, Stella comes across a book in which Sarah Bellows, the young girl in the myth, wrote horror stories. New stories appear to be written by themselves, as Stella and her friends are targeted by the otherworldly monsters that feature in said stories. Stella, August, Chuck and Ramon must unravel the mystery behind who Sarah Bellows was to save themselves from her deadly stories.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is based on the series of children’s books by Alvin Schwartz. The first volume was published in 1981, and they are akin to the Goosebumps books but for slightly older readers. The books were known for their haunting, nightmarish illustrations by Stephen Gammell, which were replaced with new illustrations by Brett Helquist in the 2011 edition.

When it was announced that Guillermo del Toro would produce and possibly direct an adaptation of the books, it seemed like a good fit because of the director’s imaginative take on the horror genre.

Del Toro is credited with co-writing the screen story and as a producer, with André Øvredal directing. The Norwegian Øvredal directed Trollhunters and The Autopsy of Jane Doe. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follows in the current resurgence of live-action horror-tinged adventure stories starring kids, like Stranger Things and It: Chapter One – this can arguably be traced back to 2011’s Super 8, which was itself patterned after films E.T. and The Goonies. Unlike those other films and TV shows, the setting is the 60s rather than the 80s, complete with Nixon references.

While Scary Stories is a largely well-made movie that isn’t as cheesy or goofy as it could’ve been, it faces the conundrum of how scary a horror movie that is aimed at kids should be. Scary Stories often finds itself stuck in the awkward position of being too scary for kids and not scary enough for adults. The film is rated NC16 in Singapore but is rated PG13 in the US. This is of course considering that ‘scariness’ is subjective. The movie has more on its mind than the typical teen-aimed jump scare fest but struggles a bit with being consistently thrilling and entertaining.

Scary Stories does get a lot right – structurally, framing the individual stories with the device of a cursed book and the mystery of that book’s author prevents the film from feeling as episodic and disjointed as it could have. However, because the movie draws on multiple stories, some are noticeably stronger than others.

The film’s creature design is a mixed bag – a few of the monsters seem generic, but a few are ingenious and inspired, with one that both stays close to the original Gammell illustration and bears the hallmarks of a del Toro-influenced design. A lot of the practical makeup effects work is great, but the more obviously computer-generated monsters lose a bit of their scariness, even if the visual effects used to create them are technically competent.

Zoe Colletti’s Stella is a sympathetic and sensitive lead character. As a girl who’s a horror fan and aspiring writer in the 1960s, Stella is an outcast who finds solace in horror movies and novels. Having a writer as the protagonist in a movie about stories is one demonstrate of the film’s thematic awareness.

Michael Garza is handsome, but ultimately comes off as too innately decent to be convincing as the mysterious bad boy from out of town.

Gabriel Rush’s August is the voice of reason, while Austin Zajur’s Chuck is the deliberately annoying prankster character. There are attempts to make them more than the archetypes they stand in for, but the slasher movie mentality of the characters just being there to get picked off does creep in.

Austin Abrams’ Tommy does some despicable things, but Abrams himself is not sufficiently intimidating as the jock bully.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark has just enough of a del Toro touch to it to set it apart from the typical horror movie aimed at the younger set and it is driven by an affection for and appreciation of the book. While it is doubtful than any adults will find it truly frightening, it is wont to give kids a nightmare or two.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Blinded by the Light review

For inSing

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

Director: Gurinder Chadha
Cast : Viveik Kalra, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Kulvinder Ghir, Nell Williams, Dean-Charles Chapman, Aaron Phagura, Meera Ganatra, Nikita Mehta, Tara Divina, David Hayman
Genre : Biography/Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 15 August 2019
Rating : PG

            From the director of Bend It Like Beckham comes ‘Sing It Like Springsteen’, a coming-of-age tale about a boy whose life is changed by an encounter with the music and lyrics of the Boss.

It is 1987 and Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is a 16-year-old kid growing up in Luton, a town in the east of England. Javed is British-Pakistani and feels trapped by his strict father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir). Javed has a secret passion for writing but knows that his father will never abide it. When Malik is laid off from his car factory job, Javed’s seamstress mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) must work twice as hard to provide for the family. Javed’s sister Yasmeen (Tara Divina) is about to get married, and Javed feels like in his family, only his other sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta) understands him.

On his first day of Sixth Form college, Javed bumps into Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh classmate who introduces him to “the Boss”. Javed becomes enraptured by the music of Bruce Springsteen, feeling like the New Jersey singer somehow understands all his struggles. In the meantime, Javed finds his relationship with his childhood best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) affected by their differing musical tastes, while he attempts to woo student activist Eliza (Nell Williams).

Javed’s English teacher Ms Clay (Hayley Atwell) encourages his writing and his enthusiasm for Springsteen, while his father becomes enraged that Javed wants to write for a living. In the meantime, racial tensions in Thatcherite England mount, as Javed and his family find themselves the target of National Front extremists. It’s a lot for a boy to deal with, but he finds the Boss leading the way.

Blinded by the Light is based on journalist and documentarian Sarfraz Manzoor’s autobiography Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll. This film’s themes will be familiar to anyone who has watched a coming-of-age movie or two, but its specificity to the context of growing up in 1987 Luton gives it a meaningful point of view.

Movies like this can be insufferably rote or feel manufactured as they try to be inspirational. Blinded by the Light is sometimes cheesy and corny, but it is powered by the sheer force of its earnestness. This is a movie that whole-heartedly believes in the transporting power that resonant art can have, and that as overly dramatic as it might sound, art can change one’s life.

Every stage musical heroine and by extension, every Disney Princess, has an “I Want” song, in which they sing wistfully about their dreams and desires. One of cinema’s most beautiful, poignant scenes is of Luke Skywalker gazing out over the Tatooine Dune Sea as the twin suns set behind him in Star Wars, yearning to be part of something greater.

           Blinded by the Light is a distillation of that energy, of the desire to be something more and find something better, a desire articulated by the songs of Bruce Springsteen. Through his music, Springsteen voiced his frustrations, a feeling of being trapped and needing to escape, a vital desperation and rebellion. “Born to Run” is the most obvious example of this, with “Born in the USA” being a song about the plight of Vietnam War veterans who had been forsaken by their country, dressed in the appearance of a typical patriotic song.

While there are similarities with Bend It Like Beckham in that both films are about a South Asian teenager in the UK who is inspired by a prolific celebrity to pursue their dreams while facing opposition from their family, Blinded by the Light is less broadly comedic. It feels like an evolution of Bend It Like Beckham, a little more nuanced and with more pain lying beneath its feel-good movie exterior.

Newcomer Viveik Kalra is an appropriately shy, endearing lead, his eyebrows constantly knitted in a mixture of frustration and embarrassment. Watching Javed blossom and gain confidence as he learns to express himself and is empowered by Springsteen’s music is gratifying and even thrilling.

The film deals with all Javed’s different relationships surprisingly well – his relationship with his parents, especially with his father, and his siblings is well-defined. His falling out with his long-time friend Matt and his newfound friendship with Roops play out in believable ways. The role his teacher Ms Clay plays in nurturing his interest in writing is heart-warming. The way the conflicts are resolved also feels earned, rather than all tied up neatly in a bow. Javed’s romance with Eliza is probably the part of the film where it gets the most conventional, but Nell Williams delivers a charming performance.

Blinded by the Light is strongly acted and has a good tonal balance of comedy and drama, confronting heavy issues without ever becoming bleak. Its good-heartedness is its strongest asset and it overcomes the more conventional aspects of its coming-of-age narrative with a clear-eyed realness and irresistible sincerity.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Kitchen review

For inSing

THE KITCHEN

Director: Andrea Berloff
Cast : Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Camp, Margo Martindale, Common, Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, Jeremy Bobb
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 8 August 2019
Rating : NC16

It is 1978, and the New York underworld will come to know and fear three women.

Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Caroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) are the wives of three Irish mobsters who get caught by the FBI and are shipped off to prison. Seeing an opening and left with little choice, they decide to step in, running their own protection racket. This causes them to run afoul of their husbands’ compatriots like Little Jackie (Myk Watford) and Ruby’s mother-in-law, the mob matriarch Helen O’Caroll (Margo Martindale).

Further complicating matters is the return of Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson), an enforcer who escaped to lie low and is now back in town. Claire finds herself falling for Gabriel, while Kathy and Ruby butt heads over how the business is to be run. The ladies eventually find themselves dealing with powerful Italian mafia don Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp), based out of Brooklyn. While they find success with their burgeoning criminal empire, the bodies start piling up and the women realise they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

The Kitchen is based on the DC/Vertigo graphic novel of the same name, written by Ollie Masters and illustrated by Ming Doyle. The film marks the directorial debut of Andrea Berloff, who was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Straight Outta Compton. The Kitchen is a brash, stylish film that plays on audiences’ familiarity with gritty gangster movies. The 70s New York portrayed in The Kitchen looks authentically grimy at first but leans into the “I’m walking here!” stereotypes and the movie is beholden to expectations of mob-centric media.

The film lulls viewers into a false sense of security in knowing where everything’s headed, before a final act packed with explosive twists. This is an appropriately bloody, violent movie, but there is some levity sprinkled throughout. The Kitchen seems to face the dilemma of wanting to give us three-dimensional characters while delivering as many recognisable mafia movie elements as possible.

Another dilemma is that the film is presented as being empowering and is fronted by three women, but at the end of the day, they are committing crimes and it can be a bit uncomfortable to find oneself cheering as bodies get sawn up.  It is possible to say “it was a different time” and go along with that, to a point. Perhaps it is a way of reclaiming how movies like The Godfather, Scarface or Goodfellas seemed to model masculinity, but The Kitchen does not dig into its moral greyness as deeply as it could’ve.

A big part of what makes this work as well as it does is the cast, led by Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy’s Kathy is likeable, non-violent and innately decent, but is also ambitious and resourceful. Even though the characters are engaging in criminal activity, McCarthy’s sympathetic performance is often just enough to keep audiences in the protagonists’ corner. She knows there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, but the women keep barrelling towards – and past – said line.

One of the major changes from the source material is the Ruby O’Carroll character, who is depicted here as a black woman who has married into an Irish mob family and resents her status as an outsider. Haddish brings a fire to the role but can’t quite evince the same depths that McCarthy can and seems ever so slightly more limited as a performer.

Elisabeth Moss’ Claire has the arc of going from the victim of domestic abuse to revelling in practicing violence on anyone who stands in her way. Moss is entertaining when Claire is unhinged, but the character is overall less interesting than the other two, who also have more control of the narrative.

Domhnall Gleeson’s quietly, disconcertingly detached Vietnam veteran hitman character provides some of the film’s more memorable moments, but Gabriel’s romance with Claire seems played more for laughs than for drama.

The film’s supporting cast includes excellent character actors like Margo Martindale and Bill Camp doing fine work, with Common getting not a lot to do as an FBI agent who watches things go down from afar.

If you don’t watch many mob movies, there’s enough to like about The Kitchen, with director Berloff showing plenty of panache. The cast seem to enjoy making the film, and McCarthy is especially outstanding. However, the film doesn’t attain the level of complexity it seems to be shooting for and is sometimes torn between serving up visceral thrills and shocks and being a compelling character study. Still, it is a good change of pace from the typically male-driven 70s mob movie.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Dead Don’t Die review

THE DEAD DON’T DIE

Director: Jim Jarmusch
Cast : Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, RZA, Selena Gomez, Tom Waits
Genre : Horror/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 45 mins
Opens : 18 July 2019
Rating : M18

There have been many zombie movies and many zombie comedies, but few with as illustrious a cast as The Dead Don’t Die. Can a bunch of stars unite to inject life into yet another story about the undead?

In the small town of Centerville, weirdness is afoot. An alteration in the axis of the earth’s rotation has resulted in fluctuating daylight hours and interference with cell phones. Even more bizarrely, the dead are rising from the grave to walk the earth. Chief Cliff Robertson (Bill Murray) and his partner Ronnie Peterson (Adam Driver) must fend off the zombies and protect the residents of Centerville from getting infected. Eccentric coroner Zelda Winston (Tilda Swinton) also battles the zombies as the cantankerous Hermit Bob (Tom Waits) observes from afar.

The Dead Don’t Die feels like a bunch of friends got together and shot a zombie movie for fun. It just so happens that acclaimed indie director Jim Jarmusch is the guy who gathered said friends, and in addition to the afore-mentioned names, the cast also includes Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, RZA and Selena Gomez.

There is nothing wrong with a bunch of friends making a movie together – that’s what Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell did with The Evil Dead. While there is some amusement to be derived from the cast and the jokes, The Dead Don’t Die feels like a movie that would’ve played best in Jarmusch’s garage with the cast and crew gathered ‘round. It feels much longer than its 105-minute runtime.

Zombie movies have been so overplayed that every new entry in the subgenre must have a ‘take’ on things to justify its existence. With The Dead Don’t Die, the ‘take’ appears to be the cast. Its plot of a small town overrun with the undead, leading to colourful characters banding together to fight the zombie hordes, is a well-worn one. There are half-hearted attempts at social commentary – polar fracking leads to the destabilisation of the earth’s axis, and the sentiment that we’re all already zombies enslaved by the pursuit of the next shiny thing is stated outright. However, the zombie-as-consumerism metaphor was already done in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead. It feels like The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t have anything to say because its messages are conveyed so half-heartedly.

There’s no denying that it’s impossible to get at least somewhat amusing results from putting this group together. Bill Murray and Adam Driver are an endearing double act as the somewhat hapless heroes, with Driver putting all his lightsaber training to good use when he swings his bat at the zombies.

Tilda Swinton handily steals the show as intended. Naming her character “Zelda Winston” as a riff on her real name is something else that contributes to the feeling that The Dead Don’t Die is a silly enterprise undertaken by a group of friends as a fun project. Similarly, Rosie Perez plays ‘Posie Juarez’. Seeing Tilda Swinton swing a samurai sword at zombies is funny and she clearly had a great time making this, but her character is the biggest source of superficial quirkiness in a sea of superficial quirk.

There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to gathering this cast beyond the occasional “oh hey, that’s Selena Gomez” moment of recognition. Tom Waits’ appearance as a shaggy hermit is funnier than it should be because it seems like that’s pretty much who Tom Waits is in real life.

This reviewer keeps going back to the point about this feeling like an amateur effort made for a laugh, because it easily would’ve been more charming as that. There’s a dissonance in seeing the cast for this movie glamming it up on the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival, where The Dead Don’t Die was the opening film. Because of the star power behind it and because Jarmusch is an established indie director, the self-referential nature of The Dead Don’t Die is smug instead of endearing. The is a film with a strictly limited appeal that based on its cast is getting a wide release, which seems ill-advised. The Dead Don’t Die is amusingly self-indulgent and does give us yet another delightfully committed, bonkers Tilda Swinton performance, but it is ultimately hollow and unsatisfying.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Lion King (2019) review

THE LION KING

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast : Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph
Genre : Family/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 18 July 2019
Rating : PG

            Disney’s string of live-action remakes continues with a movie that is technically a photo-realistic computer-animated remake but is for all intents and purposes a live-action one. The Lion King is sure to rule the box office, but is the sojourn back to Pride Rock worth it?

The story is by now almost universally known: King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) have a baby, Simba (JD McCrary). Mufasa’s brother, the conniving Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), seethes at being further bumped down in line for the throne. He orchestrates a series of events that leads to Mufasa’s death. Simba, believing that he should be blamed for his father’s death, escapes into exile.

He is rescued by the meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and the warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), whom he befriends. The now-adult Simba (Donald Glover) has led a largely carefree existence since running away. He is visited by his childhood friend Nala (Beyoncé), now an adult lioness. She pleads with him to return to the Pridelands to dethrone Scar, who with his army of hyenas has turned the once-lush territory into a desolate wasteland. Simba must overcome the trauma of his past to become the one true king.

There hasn’t been a lot of nuance in the discussion of this film, which has, like several recent Disney live-action remakes, stirred up some strong feelings. There are those who welcome this with open arms because it gives them a chance to relive the original animated movie in a new way, and others who have described this as a soulless cash-grab. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but perhaps closer to the latter, because it’s true that live-action remakes need to justify their existence. Despite the obvious technical proficiency and the stellar voice cast behind this version of The Lion King, the film still struggles to prove that it isn’t a largely unnecessary venture.

What does pretty much the same movie as the 1994 version, only looking like a nature documentary with animals that somehow talk and sing, add to the original? Not very much. The direct comparison would be The Jungle Book, which was also directed by Jon Favreau. This reviewer enjoyed that film and liked how it changed the tone and mood of the original animated film from old-timey variety show to exciting adventure movie. The 2019 Lion King stays mostly faithful to the original film directed by Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers and even though it is 30 minutes longer, not very much is added to the story or the characters.

It’s difficult to grade this movie on its own merits because, being such a close adaptation of the 1994 version, it actively invites comparisons. This is probably the easiest paycheck screenwriter Jeff Nathanson has earned, because of how closely it hews to the screenplay of the original by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton.

One of the major things that is sacrificed in striving for photo-realism is the original film’s use of colour. Behind-the-scenes footage of the 1994 movie shows animators discussing the shade of pink that a sunrise should be – that movie demonstrates an understanding of how colours can be used to set the scene and influence the viewers’ emotions. Here, not only is the palette limited, but the characters’ range of motion is largely bound to what the real-life animals are capable of. Favreau has roped in many talented collaborators, including Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato, but because “realism” is the watchword, the film’s dynamism is severely limited.

Just how important is “realism” to the story of The Lion King anyway? Audiences must already buy that the animals talk and sing and behave in human-like ways, so how much does it help that their fur is immaculately rendered or that their ears twitch in a certain way? The Lion King was adapted into a stage musical, which has become the highest-grossing musical in history. Artistically, it is in many ways the opposite of this live-action film. Using puppetry, masks and costumes, the musical interprets the animated movie in an eye-catching, dynamic way and is anything but literal. Julie Taymor, who directed the stage version, executive-produced the new movie – it made this reviewer hope for something a little bit wilder and more experimental than what we got.

There still is a lot this movie gets right. The music was one of the animated film’s biggest assets, and that’s the case here too. The score by Hans Zimmer, which builds upon the original score he composed with Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin, contains some of the composer’s most evocative work. Traditional African music and choir elements arranged by Lebo M add texture and dimensions to the movie’s sound, while all the songs Elton John and Tim Rice wrote for the original animated film remain intact.

John and Rice wrote a new song, “Never Too Late”, which John performs over the closing credits. Beyoncé and Rice wrote “Spirit” – while it is a good showcase of her vocal prowess, the song doesn’t quite have the power of the songs originally written for the animated movie and the songs added for the stage musical that are absent here. Still, the influence of the music used in the stage show is felt here, with the songs sounding a bit less pop-like than they did in the original film.

The voice cast is excellent across the board, but because the characters are so limited in their expressions and mannerisms, it is sometimes hard to believe that the voices belong to these characters, the awareness that they’re just dubbed over the CGI footage frequently present.

Glover captures the playfulness of the adult Simba with the self-searching sorrow lurking underneath, while Beyoncé sounds suitably regal as Nala. JD McCrary is lively as young Simba, with “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” being one of the more enjoyable sequences in the film.

Getting James Earl Jones back was the right move, as it seems unthinkable that anyone could match the sonorous authority and underlying warmth of his Mufasa.

While Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a slinky performance that carries a good amount of Shakespearean menace with it, he ultimately falls short of the dripping deliciousness that made Jeremy Irons’ performance as Scar so memorable.

Timon and Pumbaa get the most new material, as well as the film’s biggest laughs. Billy Eichner brings self-conscious neuroses to Timon, while Seth Rogen’s guttural laugh fits Pumbaa nicely. One of the film’s darkly funny bits involves Pumbaa and an unfortunate butterfly.

This reviewer was most looking forward to John Oliver as Zazu – this is casting that’s both incredibly obvious and sublime in its perfection. He’s great as Zazu, but there are no surprises, it’s just John Oliver.

In a way, that applies to most of this film: there are several good choices being made, but there are no surprises in the way they turn out. A story like The Lion King doesn’t need to be reinvented, but this movie’s faithfulness to the animated original means that like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before it, it’s overly concerned with hitting all its marks and not trying anything new. The photorealistic CGI is the result of plenty of hard work from armies of artists and technicians and will push filmmaking technology forward, but here, it’s not in service of telling the story in an engaging way. It may sound dismissive, but it comes down to this: there’s enough to like in The Lion King simply because it reminds us of something we already like.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Crawl review

CRAWL

Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast :  Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Anson Boon, Jose Palma
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 27 mins
Opens : 11 July 2019
Rating : NC16

        Mother Nature’s fury manifests in twofold terrors in Crawl, with our heroine battling a vicious storm and a congregation of alligators.

A Category 5 hurricane bears down on the small Florida town of Coral Lake, with the residents ordered to evacuate. Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) goes against the order to rescue her father Dave (Barry Pepper), who is trapped inside their rapidly-flooding house. With the fierce weather conditions making a rescue impossible, it’s up to Haley to get her father to safety. The storm has brought with it toothy, hungry alligators, who have converged on Coral Lake. Haley and Dave must draw on every bit of their survival instincts to make it out alive.

After the explosive success of 1975’s Jaws, which all but invented the modern summer blockbuster, there was an influx of natural horror films which tried to capitalise on said success. These included Grizzly, Orca and yes, Alligator. Crawl feels like a throwback to that era of natural horror movies, and there’s a certain amount of knowing what you’re getting when one watches a movie like Crawl.

The film is directed by Alexandre Aja, who became famous for the French horror film Haute Tension and went on to make The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D and Horns in Hollywood. Aja has a knack for suspense, and he brings plenty of that to Crawl. While there are many violent, gory moments, Crawl is superficially scary but never really affecting because of the silliness inherent in the premise. Alligators can be terrifying, but as rendered in Crawl, they’ve become slasher villains, feeling more like movie monsters than actual animals. Part of what made Jaws scary was the intelligence attributed to the shark, but too much of that can conversely make audiences aware that they’re watching monsters that were written to hunt down the heroes, rather than animals who behave like animals.

Crawl is a well-constructed theme park ride which, not entirely unlike the recent Annabelle Comes Home, is a good movie to go to with friends, scream at while grabbing each other’s arms, and then go home and forget about. The computer-generated animation on the alligators is mostly very good, but the backdrops, especially the storm cloud-filled skies, are patently unconvincing. The film is set in Florida but was shot in Belgrade, Serbia to benefit from tax rebates. It is a modestly budgeted horror movie which still mostly looks good and never feels too cheap.

Much of what makes Crawl work is the performances from Scodelario and Pepper. This reviewer’s friend has often said that Scodelario would be the ideal actress to play Ripley in a reboot of the Alien franchise, and Crawl is a good demo reel for that. She is trapped in damp, claustrophobic spaces, wielding a dynamo torch and fending off scaly critters. Scodelario convincingly essays someone who is skilled and resourceful, but is also justifiably scared out of her wits.

Pepper is the dude in distress for much of the movie, with Scodelario’s Haley doing much of the work, but we do get invested in his plight and want father and daughter to make it out alright. Both Scodelario and Pepper take things very seriously, such that tempting as it might be to laugh at the premise, it never becomes self-parody. It does get a bit wink-and-nod by imperilling a dog, paddling for its life as the alligators bear down on it.

Crawl is far from the most ground-breaking horror movie, but if anything, its throwback nature lends it a degree of charm. This is not a movie that’s trying to be the edgiest, most philosophical or most disturbing movie, it’s trying to be a thrill ride and with a master of suspense at the helm, it accomplishes its goal. Like many natural horror movies, it plays up the monstrousness of real animals and portrays them as especially vicious, but it is in service of an entertaining time.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Spider-Man: Far From Home review

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

Director: Jon Watts
Cast : Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Jake Gyllenhaal, Cobie Smulders, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Martin Starr, JB Smoove, Marisa Tomei, Remy Hii, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice
Genre : Action/Superhero
Run Time : 2 h 10 mins
Opens : 2 July 2019
Rating : PG

            With audiences still reeling from Avengers: Endgame, everyone wants to know where the MCU is going next. Phase 3 officially closes out with Spider-Man: Far From Home, which sees our favourite webhead make his way in a brave new uncertain world.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is about to go on a school trip to Europe, where he plans to confess his feelings to MJ (Zendaya). His plans are interrupted when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) comes calling with official superhero business. Monstrous beings known as the Elementals are attacking all over the world, and Peter and his classmates are caught in the path of Hydro-Man in Venice.

Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives to battle the Elementals. He introduces himself as a soldier from a parallel reality in the multiverse, one that was destroyed by the Elementals. Mysterio and Spider-Man team up to fight the oncoming threats, as Spider-Man is entrusted with the responsibility of being the successor to Tony Stark/Iron Man. Peter must grapple with other-worldly threats and fend off Brad Davis (Remy Hii), his rival for MJ’s affections, in an adventure that further expands the jurisdiction of the “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man”.

Spider-Man: Homecoming adeptly managed to be both a superhero movie and a high school coming-of-age movie, director Jon Watts pulling off a delicate balance. This continues to be the case in Far From Home, which combines the “let’s go to Europe!” sequel template of many films from the 80s with blockbuster superhero spectacle. This is the first Spider-Man movie to take place primarily outside New York, and that city is a big part of what makes Spider-Man who he is. As such, it is admirable that Far From Home consistently feels like a Spider-Man movie, because of its focus on Peter’s internal struggles, how he confronts his responsibilities, and the weight of his past failures.

In 2018, Ant-Man and the Wasp was released shortly after Infinity War, as sort of a sorbet course. Far From Home is a lighter movie than Endgame, but it’s also far from inconsequential. It is a high school romantic comedy, but it also addresses the realities of a post-Thanos world. Nick Fury proclaims that he used to know everything, and now he doesn’t and that scares him. Far From Home shows us where Spider-Man fits into this world, and how he accepts (or doesn’t) the mantle of Tony Stark’s protégé.

The action sequences in this movie are larger in scale and more ambitious than in Homecoming, involving disaster movie-style destruction of European landmarks. The visual effects work, especially on the Elementals, is convincing. Sequences in which a swarm of machine gun-equipped drones bear down on our heroes are effectively frightening. There’s a lot of spectacle to go around, but Watts ensures the movie never drowns in its own superhero excess. In its own way, the movie comments on the nature of spectacle and of how audiences go to movies like this to get their fill of large-scale destruction that is ultimately empty and hollow. The film also contains some genuinely inventive, trippy sequences of visual trickery and sleight of hand to make audience’s heads spin.

Tom Holland continues to be outstanding in the role, providing both the likeable awkwardness that’s integral to the character and the remarkable physicality he has honed since playing Billy Elliot on the West End. We see how Peter has evolved after the events of Infinity War and Endgame, but how his core remains the same, and how he remains a good person who’s just in a bit over his head. Even after going to space and fighting Thanos, Peter continues to search for normalcy in a world that’s anything but.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Mysterio, who is presented as a heroic figure in all the marketing materials and whom comic book readers immediately suspected of maybe not being super upfront about everything. Without going into any details, this is a role that Gyllenhaal soaks up. There are several times when he looks completely stupid, but it is always refreshing to see someone who has made a career as a ‘serious actor’ be game for some blockbuster silliness – and hey, this is many steps up from Prince of Persia.

Zendaya’s MJ wasn’t really fleshed out in Homecoming and gets a lot more to do in this film. MJ’s aloofness and dark sense of humour are defence mechanisms. She’s afraid to let anyone get too close, but Peter is determined to win her affection. The chemistry between Holland and Zendaya has a high school crush authenticity to it, and she is a watchable presence throughout the movie.

The movie still is a comedy, with Martin Starr and JB Smoove’s harried chaperone characters providing some of the humour. Jacob Batalon’s Ned, Peter’s best friend, becomes amusingly preoccupied with something other than his friendship with Peter in this movie.

Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan gets a subplot in which he develops feelings for Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), but also gets to step into the mentor role previously filled by Tony. Jackson gets second billing but doesn’t have a tremendous amount to do here.

While it gets a lot right, Far From Home does have its flaws. Certain characters are altogether too credulous, and even for a movie in the MCU, the suspension of disbelief demanded here is high. Attempts are made to explain said credulousness away; these are not entirely convincing. The film throws multiple twists at the audience, but it can feel like it’s trying too hard to keep viewers off balance.

          Spider-Man: Far From Home is mostly up to the task of defining where the MCU is headed post-Endgame, while also being a film that’s squarely focused on Spider-Man and on Peter Parker’s personal struggles. The mid-credits scene probably has the highest stakes of any mid-credits scene yet, and the movie isn’t done with the twists until the final post-credits stinger. The MCU has big plans for Spider-Man and we’re looking forward to seeing where further adventures take him.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Annabelle Comes Home review

For inSing

ANNABELLE COMES HOME

Director: Gary Dauberman
Cast : Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Michael Cimino
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1 h 46 mins
Opens : 26 June 2019
Rating : PG13

            The third film in the Annabelle series and the seventh film in the Conjuring franchise overall welcomes audiences back to the Warren Occult Museum, where things go bump in the night.

After the events of the first Annabelle movie, paranormal investigators and demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren bring the cursed doll Annabelle back to their home for safekeeping. Annabelle is not haunted per se but is a beacon that attracts and awakens other ghosts. Blessed by a priest and kept behind a glass case made from a church window, Annabelle can do no more harm – or at least, that’s the plan.

The Warrens hire teenager Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) to babysit their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) while they’re away. Curious about the Warrens, Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) comes to the house and breaks into the secret room containing Annabelle and other objects that are either cursed, possessed or were used in occult rituals. This unleashes a litany of horrors which the three girls must outrun.

In the wake of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every studio wants a ‘universe’ of their own. The Conjuring Universe is the rare example that has worked, with the seven films making almost $1.7 billion collectively worldwide. Annabelle Comes Home demonstrates one of the reasons why the franchise is successful: the real-life Warrens conducted so many investigations that there’s a rich well to draw from. Every object in the Warrens’ museum has a story behind it, and Annabelle Comes Home shows us what happens if everything in that room came alive at once. As a result, Annabelle herself is more a supporting character, sharing the limelight with various other unearthly entities.

Annabelle Comes Home is the directorial debut of Gary Dauberman, who wrote the earlier two Annabelle films, The Nun and the two It films. Dauberman creates delightfully tense scenarios, constructed for audiences to point at the screen and yell “behind you!” This is a movie that is best watched with a crowd because it is designed as a theme park attraction, a haunted house combined with a roller coaster. There are shades of Night at the Museum and Disneyland’s classic Haunted Mansion, in which each ghost has a rich backstory.

There are jump scares aplenty, but the film retains the audience’s goodwill by being just self-aware enough without being overly cynical. Annabelle Comes Home has a sense of humour about it but always wants to be genuinely scary. The early 1970s setting also provides the movie with a good deal of texture, with one particularly inspired set-piece involving the board game Feeley Meeley.

This movie is geared towards a younger audience than the other Conjuring films are – in Singapore, it has a PG-13 rating despite having an R rating in the US. The characters still sometimes do extremely stupid things, but are overall much more likeable than in typical horror movies geared towards teens.

13-year-old Mckenna Grace has amassed an impressive résumé, with film and television credits including I, Tonya, Captain Marvel, Designated Survivor and The Haunting of Hill House. Having been raised by paranormal investigators, Judy knows a thing or two about the supernatural, so she isn’t just the typical horror movie kid in peril. Judy isn’t afraid of many things, but is especially afraid of Annabelle, which conditions the audience to fear the doll too.

Madison Iseman plays the sweet, caring babysitter, with Katie Sarife as her more rebellious, troublemaking friend. Sarife’s character is deliberately annoying, and it’s only later that we learn there’s a bit more to her, even if the emotional beats centred around her character don’t really work. Between the three characters, there’s a lot of screaming to go around, but the movie has fun with the dynamic of the younger girl protecting the older girls when it’s expected to be the other way around.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga show up in what amounts to an extended cameo, but their appearance in this film means it has a much stronger connection to the mainline Conjuring series than the other spinoffs do. However, their appearance also reminds us that some of the ideas in this movie were probably rejected from the upcoming The Conjuring 3 – one Warren investigation which producer James Wan earlier said could be the basis of The Conjuring 3 is briefly covered in this movie.

The breakout character is Bob (Michael Cimino), an earnest awkward boy with a crush on Mary Ellen who inadvertently gets caught in the chaos.

Annabelle Comes Home is not a particularly haunting movie and won’t linger in the dark corners of one’s mind the way the best horror movies do. It is entertaining and thrilling and will elicit its share of shrieks and nervous laughter. Go with a bunch of friends and try not to grab their arms too hard.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Anna (2019) movie review

ANNA

Director: Luc Besson
Cast : Sasha Luss, Helen Mirren, Luke Evans, Cillian Murphy, Lera Abova, Eric Godon
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 20 June 2019
Rating : M18

            Luc Besson has always been drawn to lead female characters who make quite the impact, from Mathilda to Joan of Arc and Leeloo to Lucy. Anna now enters the fray, attempting to prove she can take her place in the pantheon of women who have defined Besson’s films.

It is 1990 and Anna Poliatova has become a successful fashion model in Paris and Milan. Anna has a secret double life as an assassin working for the KGB. She reports to Olga (Helen Mirren), who sends her to eliminate whomever the Russian intelligence apparatus deems as a threat. Anna begins a relationship with fellow model Maud (Lera Abova), while having dalliances with Russian intelligence officer Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans) and CIA agent Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy). The game of international espionage is one with extremely high stakes, but it’s a game that Anna knows her way around.

Anna sees Besson revisiting old territory, in that the film is very much a re-tread of La Femme Nikita, with elements of The Professional incorporated into it. This movie is of a smaller scale than recent Besson projects like 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – there are times when it feels more like something that was made by one of Besson’s stable of apprentices who have gone on to direct their own films, directors like Louis Leterrier, Olivier Megaton and Pierre Morel.

There is nothing wrong with Anna being lower-key than the average James Bond style-spy action movie, but the film is remarkably stupid while thinking it is quite clever. One’s enjoyment of Anna is very much contingent on the threshold of one’s suspension of disbelief. The film’s structure is deliberately annoying, flashing back to earlier points in the film and reframing the events to reveal a new twist multiple times. The spy games depicted in the film feel rudimentary rather than sophisticated, and the dialogue is often terrible. If Besson had gone just a bit further, Anna would’ve become a parody akin to the Austin Powers movies.

Besson is known as a director with an eye for detail, but the period setting of Anna never seems convincing. The film is largely set in 1990, and there are pagers and black-and-white surveillance monitors, but characters transfer data to and from laptops using USB sticks. One character leaves a message for another that looks like it’s been recorded with a remarkably high-resolution webcam. Although Besson’s regular cinematographer Thierry Arbogast ensures Anna never looks cheap, it just feels like something that Besson hasn’t put a lot of effort into at all. It’s also harder to watch a typically male gaze-heavy Besson movie given the recent allegations of sexual misconduct against him (allegations which he has categorically denied and which were dismissed by a Paris prosecutor).

Sasha Luss is a Russian supermodel who previously appeared as an alien princess in the afore-mentioned Valerian. She looks like a supermodel, but is devoid of charisma in a fascinating way, such that she almost seems like an inanimate object that the rest of the film is arranged around. Her line delivery is stilted and her performance in the action scenes makes it difficult to buy her as a highly trained secret agent. It’s still early days for Luss and it’s unfair to say she’ll never make a good leading lady, but especially given the mediocre material, she struggles to hold her own in a role that calls for a bona fide badass.

Luke Evans seems like a standard choice for one of Anna’s love interests, but casting Cillian Murphy as his opposite number seems baffling.

Murphy is known for indie projects and apart from the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, rarely appears in a mainstream action movie. The part doesn’t make full use of his mystique and seems like one that could’ve been given to any number of American actors.

Of all the supporting players, it’s Helen Mirren who knows what’s up. Her severe, curmudgeonly spymaster character seems to be modelled after characters from the earlier Bond movies like Rosa Klebb and Irma Bunt, forbidding and authoritative Russian intelligence officials with a nasty streak. The Oscar-winner has fun with what she knows is a silly role, chain-smoking and swearing angrily at video monitors.

Model Lera Abova lends a bit of brightness to the proceedings as the radiant Maud, but her character seems to exist solely for Anna to lie to, and so the camera can leer at Anna and Maud being intimate with each other.

Anna benefits from its supporting cast and the director’s experience making slick action movies, but it often feels like a throwaway direct-to-video movie one would catch a glimpse of on a hotel TV. The plot feels like someone half-remembered a season of Alias and tried to write it all down. It’s too ridiculous to be taken seriously as a thriller, but also not ridiculous enough to be an all-out, over the top parody.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Men in Black: International review

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Emma Thompson, Rafe Spall, Les Twins
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 55 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : PG13

          They’ve been absent from the big screen for seven years, but the shadowy organisation that polices and conceals alien activity on earth has resurfaced in Men in Black: International, the spin-off of the Men in Black series.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) is a newly instated member of the agency, still on probation. After witnessing Men in Black operatives in action as a child, she has long harboured a fascination with the agency and finally gets her dream job. Agent O (Emma Thompson), head of the New York branch, dispatches Agent M to MIB’s London headquarters, overseen by High T (Liam Neeson). There, she meets Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a hotshot hailed for defeating an alien species called the Hive in Paris alongside High T.

When a shape-shifting alien duo (Les Twins) corners Agent M and Agent H, they learn that the Hive may have been resurfaced, with the predatory invaders after a powerful alien artefact. Their battle against the Twins sends Agent M and Agent H to Morocco, where they befriend Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a diminutive alien. Agent H must confront Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), a powerful, dangerous figure from his past, as he and Agent M discover there just might be a mole within the organisation. The MIB can always be counted on to save the world, but what happens when a threat arises from within?

The Men in Black films are loosely based on the Malibu comics series by Lowell Cunningham. The urban legend of shadowy government agents has existed among UFO-enthusiast circles for decades, but it was the Men in Black movies that cemented the idea in the public consciousness. Being released the year after Independence Day, the first Men in Black movie also further launched Will Smith up the A-list. He and co-star Tommy Lee Jones have become closely linked with the franchise, with the third movie featuring Josh Brolin as a younger version of Jones’ character.

After the third Men in Black movie in 2012, the first we heard of a new Men in Black movie was that it would be a crossover with the 21 Jump Street films called MIB 23, which sounds like such a crazy idea that it just might have worked. Instead, we got Men in Black: International, which is pleasant and harmless if often formulaic and bland, because it takes the format of the first movie and slots new stars into it. Director F. Gary Gray of Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious fame knows how to handle a big Hollywood production, but it feels like he is directing to the brief, with no personal touches discernible. The film trundles along efficiently enough, but nothing in the movie will stick in viewers’ minds afterwards. It’s almost as if the movie was constructed to be watched on an airplane.

          Men in Black: International does what the James Bond movies often do, throwing in a bunch of exotic locales to up the production value. There’s a chase through the streets of Marrakech on a hover bike and one character is based out of Aragonese Castle on the Italian island of Ischia. The movie might have the scale expected of a summer blockbuster, but it doesn’t quite have the quirky soul of the first movie, especially because a lot more of the aliens are created with computer-generated effects. Special effects makeup legend Rick Baker, who oversaw the aliens in the first three films, was not involved with this one.

The logic behind the casting of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the lead roles seems to have been to look at whatever actors from the most successful ongoing movie franchise were available. Hemsworth has a knack for comedy and shifts effortlessly between dashing and goofy, playing a sometimes-bumbling, always-charming action hero with ease.

Thompson’s Agent M is capable, headstrong and determined and is in some ways the audience surrogate character, with this movie acting as her origin story. However, some of the beats in her arc echo those of Agent J’s in the first movie a little too strongly. Thompson brings some personality to the part, but Agent M feels like a textbook “strong female character” with not much that is inherently compelling about her on paper.

Liam Neeson is there to lend gravitas to the proceedings and pace purposefully around High T’s office and not do too much else. Emma Thompson is dryly amusing as Agent O, reprising her role from the third film. Respectable British actors appearing in Hollywood blockbusters for a paycheck is a time-honoured tradition and one that Neeson and Thompson continue here.

Kumail Nanjiani voices Pawny, who as the funny alien sidekick, is designed as the successor to Frank the Pug (who makes a cameo). This reviewer was afraid that the character would come off as annoying, but Nanjiani’s delivery keeps Pawny generally more amusing than grating. The computer animation used to create Pawny and integrate him with the live-action footage is excellent.

French dancers Les Twins, who will next be seen in the Cats movie, enliven the proceedings with their new-style hip-hop moves. However, their characters’ schtick seems to be lifted wholesale from the Twins in The Matrix Reloaded.

The previous films have playfully ‘outed’ celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Bill Gates, George Lucas and Lady Gaga as being aliens. In this film, a social media influencer (presumably a different one for the different markets the film will be released in) gets a cameo. This is one of the most worrying elements about Men in Black: International, indicating that future blockbusters will pander to audiences by shoehorning in people who are famous from YouTube or Instagram.

Men in Black: International is not a poorly made film, but in extending the MIB franchise, it fails to add anything substantial to the world-building or the mythos. Big franchise movies can often feel like products and none this year feels more like a product than Men in Black: International, but its dependable cast and high production value keep things from feeling like too much of a drag.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong