When Ghost Meets Zombie (女鬼爱上尸) review

WHEN GHOST MEETS ZOMBIE  (女鬼爱上尸)

Director : Han Yew Kwang
Cast : Nathan Hartono, Ferlyn G, Jesseca Liu, Jeremy Chan, Fann Wong, Gurmit Singh, Andie Chen, Kate Pang, Suhaimi Yusof
Genre : Romance/Comedy/Horror
Run Time : 1 h 47 mins
Opens : 14 February 2019
Rating : PG13

Romantic zombie comedies are a niche subgenre, but those movies have their fans. From My Boyfriend’s Back to Warm Bodies to Burying the Ex, there’s often a cult film quality to these oddball horror romantic comedy hybrids. Throwing its hat (or disembodied limb) in the ring is When Ghost Meets Zombie.

Zhen Zhen (Ferlyn G) is a beauty pageant contestant who can be characterised as an ‘ah lian’, roughly analogous to the Essex Girl stereotype from the UK. She’s brasher and not as refined as her fellow competitors, but she refuses to compromise who she is. Zhen Zhen and the other contestants travel to Rainbow Village in Thailand for a photoshoot. Local legend has it that a group of heroic young men sacrificed themselves to save the village from an impending flood some 50 years ago, propping up a wall as everyone else got to safety. Pong (Nathan Hartono) was the leader of this group. These young men did not die but were turned into zombies by a priest.

When an accident in the village leads to Zhen Zhen’s death, her spirit inadvertently possesses Pong’s undead body. If Zhen Zhen doesn’t fulfil her heart’s desire in 49 days, she will vanish into nothingness forever. Zhen Zhen finds her way back to Singapore and discovers there’s still a way for her to fulfil her dream of winning a beauty pageant. With the help of her best friend Bai Bai (Jesseca Liu), a mortuary cosmetologist, Pong enters a male beauty pageant. Zhen Zhen’s mother Meng Na (Fann Wong) is still grappling with the death of her daughter, and Zhen Zhen’s spirit in Pong’s body must convince Meng Na that her daughter’s presence remains in this realm.

When Ghost Meets Zombie is the first feature film from WaWa Pictures, a prolific local production company known for Chinese-language TV series like Secrets for Sale, The Oath, Game Plan and Crescendo. Han Yew Kwang, who also helmed the 2015 sex comedy Rubbers, directs from a screenplay by the WaWa team. The result is a mish-mash of disparate elements which doesn’t gel. There’s a faint glimmer of something appealing buried beneath lots of stuff that just doesn’t work.

The plot is needlessly convoluted, with plenty of rules needing to be established. The supernatural mechanics of a ghost possessing a zombie are over-explained and yet still make no sense. What little underlying logic there is seems simultaneously overthought and undercooked.

There is an unsettling nature to the occult aspects of the story which the filmmakers attempt to smooth over with comedy, to very mixed results. Gurmit Singh’s Taoist priest character constantly cuts himself and even chops off his own fingers – this is somehow inherently comedic. Elsewhere, another character gets a face full of ashes after an urn containing the remains of their relative is smashed on the floor. The film doesn’t have the wicked wit needed to make the requisite dark humour work and has this bright sitcom artificiality to it which is incompatible with the more macabre elements of the story.

In addition to the various story and character problems brought about by the specific subject matter, the usual issues that plague locally-made Chinese-language comedy movies are present here. There are scores of cameos from TV personalities in lieu of jokes, and Jack Neo shows up to name-check films he’s directed in a cringe-inducing scene. The product placement from brands like massage chair maker Ogawa, beauty spa New York Skin Solutions and restaurant group Tung Lok is omnipresent and obtrusive. Then there’s the tonal whiplash, with sentimentality added to the nauseating mix of horror and comedy.

Nathan Hartono is a likeable, charming performer, and the film gets plenty of mileage out of his swoon-worthy physique. However, one can’t help but feel sympathy well up watching him get subjected to myriad indignities. As a zombie, he has almost no actual lines. He proves sufficiently adept at physical comedy and there is an attempt at developing a back-story for Pong, but it’s clear that this isn’t the best use of Hartono’s talents.

The thing is, a romantic pairing between Nathan Hartono and Ferlyn G is not the worst idea – Ferlyn’s brash persona and Hartono’s typically suave demeanour would have made for a good odd couple pairing. It’s just that the filmmakers constantly set up obstacles in their own way. This is a romance between a disembodied spirit and an undead creature, so no amount of chemistry can compensate for the logistic and metaphysical problems that arise. The sappy guitar-driven duet performed by Hartono and Ferlyn is pleasant but is a poor fit for this movie.

The supporting performers do the best with what they can – the romantic subplot between Jesseca Liu’s Bai Bai and Jeremy Chan’s Lai Lai could have been worthwhile if it weren’t so underdeveloped and fuelled by clichés. Fann Wong’s performance as a grieving mother is surprisingly affecting, but feels out of place in a madcap comedy, yet another sign of the film’s tonal inconsistency.

Gurmit Singh’s priest character, the de-facto villain, is altogether off-putting. The character is ostensibly comedic but is also meant to be menacing, and Singh just seems miscast.

When Ghost Meets Zombie tries something crazy and fails at it, but the filmmakers deserve credit for trying. It’s hard to determine what anyone really was going for and everything could stand to be a lot more streamlined, but it has Hartono in the lead role going for it. It’s perhaps in trying to appeal to fans of Channel 8 comedies and dramas while also trying to incorporate horror comedy elements into the story that When Ghost Meets Zombie falls apart.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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The LEGO® Movie 2 review

THE LEGO MOVIE 2

Director : Mike Mitchell
Cast : Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Tiffany Haddish, Stephanie Beatriz, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Charlie Day, Richard Ayoade, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell, Jadon Sand, Brooklyn Prince, Noel Fielding
Genre : Animation/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 47 mins
Opens : 7 February 2019
Rating : PG

It’s been five years since The LEGO® Movie was released, defying expectations by being a movie made to sell toys that was about so much more than just selling toys. In the meantime, the spin-offs The LEGO Batman Movie and The LEGO Ninjago Movie have graced the big screens, but The LEGO Movie 2 has plenty to live up to.

The LEGO Movie ended with Bricksburg being invaded by aliens from the Systar System. Five years later, Bricksburg has become ravaged by repeated alien invasions, and is now the wasteland Apocalypseburg. Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is still his cheery self, while the other denizens of Apocalypseburg, including Lucy (Elizabeth Banks), Batman (Will Arnett), Unikitty (Alison Brie) and Metalbeard (Nick Offerman) have become hardened road warriors.

The latest invasion is led by General Sweet Mayhem (Stephanie Beatriz), who captures Lucy, Batman, Unikitty, Metalbeard and Benny the 1980-something Space Guy (Charlie Day). Mayhem takes them back to the shape-shifting alien queen of the Systar System, Watevra Wa-Nabi (Tiffany Haddish). Emmet travels to outer space to save his friends, and along the way meets Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), a super-cool spacefaring explorer and crime-fighter who is everything Emmet has ever wanted to be. Lucy suspects that Watevra harbours malice, thinking she has brainwashed the others, but there’s more to this conflict than first appears.

The LEGO Movie was a beautifully-made animated film that explored surprisingly sophisticated ideas, benefitting from the gleeful but good-hearted anarchy that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller bring to their projects. The duo remains onboard as screenwriters for the sequel but pass the director’s chair on to Mike Mitchell. The LEGO Movie 2 is an excellent continuation of the first movie’s plot, delivering a different message from the first film but one that’s also clever and slyly subversive.

The first film ended with the revelation that there was a human world beyond the LEGO world and that the film’s story sprung from the imagination of a young boy named Finn (Jadon Sand). Finn’s sister Bianca (Brooklyn Prince) wants to play with him, with her contribution to Finn’s story represented as an alien invasion. This metatextual knowledge informs the audiences’ interpretation of the story, which comments on gendered toys. Toys are generally marketed to boys one way and to girls another way, and there’s a perception that boys and girls play with toys in different ways.

The LEGO Movie 2 also deals with growing up, taking advantage of the five-year gap between films. The desire to be perceived as tough, cool and well, grown-up is reflected in Emmet’s awe at his newfound ally Rex. Emmet’s cheerful optimism is often taken as naivete; he wishes that he could be tougher and cooler because he thinks that’s what Lucy wants of him. The movie comments on masculinity in an astute way – there are some parallels between Emmet and Hiccup, the protagonist of the How to Train Your Dragon Movies, in that both are not traditionally badass heroes. The LEGO Movie 2 addresses why it’s important that Emmet retains the essence of who he is.

Just like in the first film, there’s the sense of imagination running amok without the movie feeling like a mess. There’s a straightforward narrative trajectory and a twist or two towards the end, but there’s a joke every other minute and the film constantly feels alive. The innumerable pop culture references feel organic rather than mechanically slotted in. The animation by Animal Logic is just as dynamic and eye-catching as in the previous LEGO movies. The photo-realistic CGI animation creates the illusion of stop-motion animation and makes each LEGO brick and element feel tactile.

The returning cast is a joy to hear. From Alison Brie’s mix of innocence and rage as Unikitty to Charlie Day’s unbridled, single-minded enthusiasm as Benny, these are eminently loveable characters. Pratt shines in a dual role, with Rex Dangervest riffing on other Pratt roles including Star-Lord from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Owen Grady from the Jurassic World movies and Joshua Faraday from the Magnificent Seven remake (with a possible nod towards Cowboy Ninja Viking, still in development).

Lucy’s character is shaded in a little more, with the indication that her cool, rebellious exterior is an affectation. Will Arnett’s portrayal of Batman as a self-obsessed loner continues to be amusing, with Batman’s own complex figuring heavily into the plot of this film.

Tiffany Haddish is a hot commodity in the movie business after the success of Girls Trip, lending plenty of personality to Watevra, a mercurial force of nature. Stephanie Beatriz voicing a LEGO character is especially rich because she got her signature eyebrow scar from tripping on a LEGO brick at age 10.

The LEGO Movie 2 hits the sweet spot of being a family film that isn’t condescending to kids and isn’t pandering to adults. There’s something for everybody, and it doesn’t feel forced. There’s surprising poignancy to the message at its heart, but it’s also consistently funny and lively. Because it’s a sequel, it doesn’t have the explosive freshness of the first film, but it’s a satisfying and intelligent follow-up that has plenty to offer.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Alita: Battle Angel review

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL

Director : Robert Rodriguez
Cast : Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Keean Johnson, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Eiza González, Michelle Rodriguez, Lana Condor, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Idara Victor
Genre : Science Fiction/Action
Run Time : 2 h 2 mins
Opens : 5 February 2019
Rating : PG13

           James Cameron has long spoken of adapting Yukito Kushiro’s manga Battle Angel Alita aka Gunnm to the big screen. After developing the project through the 90s and 2000s, he turned his attention to the Avatar movies, passing the directorial baton to Robert Rodriguez. This is the result.

It is the year 2563. Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), a kindly scientist living in the post-apocalyptic Iron City, comes across a discarded robot core in a trash heap. He attaches the core to an artificial body he has built, reviving the cyborg girl. Ido dubs her ‘Alita’ (Rosa Salazar). Alita has no memory of her previous life and adjusts to her newfound existence in Ido’s care. She meets and falls for Hugo (Keean Johnson), who introduces her to the sport of motorball. Alita aspires to enter a professional motorball tournament, but Ido tries to dissuade her because it’s a lethal sport.

Chiren (Jennifer Connelly), Ido’s ex-wife, is now working with the shady and powerful Vector (Mahershala Ali), who has made his fortune in motorball. Vector sets his sights on Alita, sending cybernetically-enhanced bounty hunters including Zapan (Ed Skrein), Grewishka (Jackie Earle Haley) and Nyssiana (Eiza González) after her. Alita gradually recalls her past as a soldier in a catastrophic war 300 years ago, reconciling this past with her current existence as powerful forces pursue her.

Alita: Battle Angel might have Cameron on board as producer and co-writer to lend it pedigree, it winds up a disappointment. The film boasts some good cyberpunk design elements and eye-catching visual effects from vendor WETA, but the familiar story structure and character types make it seem like something that has sat on a shelf for 20 years. Cyberpunk is very much an 80s-90s concept – while there still are creative and compelling cyberpunk works, we’ve already begun looking on cyberpunk futures the way we look at The Jetsons-style 50s futurism.

          Alita plays the young adult novel-style ‘chosen girl’ trope painfully straight and falls back on tried and tested sci-fi movie conventions. There’s a floating metropolis where the elites live, while everyone else leads a hardscrabble existence in a post-apocalyptic city. Bionic bounty hunters roam the streets as militaristic drones keep order. With its light body horror, the film sometimes approaches the off-kilter twistedness of the source material but is never brave enough to embrace it. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and a sense of going through the motions pervades Alita. There’s a dynamism to the action sequences but a limpness to everything else.

“I’m starting to feel like I wasn’t very important,” Alita sighs to Hugo. “Just an insignificant girl thrown out with the rest of the garbage.” Naturally, Alita winds up being the most significant girl. The character is portrayed via performance capture by Rosa Salazar. Alita’s enlarged anime-esque eyes deliberately contribute to an uncanny valley quality, reminding the viewer that she’s different from everyone else. The character is a blend of giggly innocence and formidable combat prowess, with Salazar switching fluidly between the modes. Salazar’s performance is one of the most worthwhile aspects of the film.

It’s always nice to see Christoph Waltz in a non-creepy role, and as Dr Ido, he is a serviceably likeable Gepetto-esque figure. There just isn’t enough depth in the material for the relationship between Ido and Alita for audiences to care very much about it.

Jennifer Connelly is mostly flat as a character who could’ve been interesting because of her conflicted nature. Fellow Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali is wasted as a generic villain who pulls the strings behind the scenes. There is a surprise element to the Vector character that differentiates him from other similar villains, but it just isn’t enough to make him memorable.

Keean Johnson makes for a boring love interest. Much of the film’s cheesiness is derived from its romantic subplot, which becomes a driving force for Alita. We don’t know what Alita sees in Hugo. Even given some moral ambiguity, Hugo is patently dull. It sounds mean, but the best way to describe the character is ‘lame’. There’s nothing passionate or transporting about the romance, which feels like it belongs in an early-2000s Disney Channel Original Movie.

The various cyborg ‘hunter warriors’ Alita must fight are various shades or cartoony and while they might approach menacing, never seem like a legitimate threat. This is in part because of how Alita seems to be physically stronger and faster than anyone she faces.

Alita: Battle Angel isn’t a complete loss: Rosa Salazar gives it her all, and the realisation of the ‘Panzer Kunst’ fighting style and the kinetic motorball sequences are exciting and entertaining to watch. The film was shot in native 3D and looks great in that format. It’s just a shame that this is a largely flavourless version of this story, saddled with awkward dialogue and melodrama.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Killer Not Stupid (杀手不笨) review

KILLER NOT STUPID (杀手不笨)

Director : Jack Neo
Cast : Jay Shih, Nadow, Amber An, Apple Chan, Gadrick Chin, Lin Mei-Hsiu, Ricky Davao
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 49 mins
Opens : 5 February 2019
Rating : PG13

After including hints of action in the Ah Boys to Men series, Jack Neo leaps into the action-comedy genre with Killer Not Stupid. Do his broad comedic sensibilities jibe with the world of international terrorism and high-stakes intrigue? We’ll get to that in a bit.

The film centres on Hornet (Jay Shih), an elite assassin who wants out of the game. Hornet is assisted by his trusty tech guy Mark (Nadow), and they’re undertaking the proverbial ‘one last job’. Hornet and Mark must acquire a valuable flash drive dubbed ‘100K’, which contains comprising material on the world’s terrorist rings. Naturally, rival forces, including the triad leader ‘Grandma’ (Ryan Lian), are also after the drive.

Along the way, Hornet and Mark meet Sha Bao (Gadrick Chin), Mark’s former classmate from Malaysia. All three have coincidentally booked into the same hotel as Talia (Amber An), the ditzy daughter of a slain Filipino drug lord. Talia is being escorted by the no-nonsense agent Ira (Apple Chan), who soon grows sick of Sha Bao’s antics. Now that Hornet wants to quit, Mother (Lin Mei-Hsiu), his former boss, puts a hit out on him. The international criminal Adolf (Ricky Davao) is hellbent on acquiring the 100K drive, meaning Hornet is pursued on all sides on his last job.

This appears to be the result of the Ah Boys to Men films doing well in Taiwan, leading to Taiwanese investors bankrolling Neo to make a movie in Taiwan with Taiwanese stars. Killer Not Stupid is completely unrelated to I Not Stupid and its sequels. It’s a shame that Neo chose to remind audiences of that film, which remains among his best. While I Not Stupid was broadly comedic and wasn’t especially deft in its handling of suicide, it was an incisive, resonant and moving piece of satire. Killer Not Stupid is, by contrast, a spectacular failure that is almost physically painful to watch. It’s not easy to make a film this bad, such that at some point it must have been a deliberate choice to handle everything in the worst way possible.

Action-comedies are a bit of a tricky genre in that if one isn’t careful, the comedy can undermine the stakes. This is exactly what happens with Killer Not Stupid. The unfunny gags, pratfalls and lame wordplay prevent the audience from taking any part of the international terror plot seriously. The film falls back on the tired device of the heroes disguising themselves in unconvincing drag. Every joke is accompanied by cartoony sound effects, including at least two uses of the sad trombone noise. If a joke is funny, it doesn’t need sound effects, freeze frames, superimposed graphics, or sped-up footage to tell audiences to laugh. Within seconds of that, characters get shot in the head.

The most basic demonstration of stakes in action-comedies is the classic scene of Jackie Chan fighting a bad guy while he balances a priceless vase. In that moment, the stakes are that Jackie could drop and break the vase. Neo doesn’t understand this principle. It’s a pity because there clearly were talented stunt performers and riggers and competent special effects foremen involved at some point. The resources that Neo has at his disposal have engendered a self-indulgence, when other directors could have created something worthwhile with the same resources. That said, parts of the movie still feel very cheap: the MacGuffin is one of those ‘cryptex’ flash drives that you get as a corporate gift.

Mandopop duo Awaking’s Jay Shih is a passable leading man. He’s the most tolerable part of the movie because he’s one of the very few characters who isn’t mugging for the camera like a clown on cocaine. He also acquits himself well in the action scenes.

Nadow’s Mark is the standard comic relief tech guy. Most action movies have one character of this type. As annoying as Mark is, there are several other characters in the film who way outstrip him in terms of how grating they are.

Gadrick Chin’s Sha Bao has the ridiculous gimmick of being obsessed with 70s Hong Kong movies, imagining himself to be the second coming of Qin Han and Bruce Lee. None of it is funny. Amber An plays up the spoilt princess stock type to an unbearable degree.

Lin Mei-Hsiu’s character Mother is just about the worst in the film, because as Hornet’s former employer who is now out to kill him, we should be intimidated by the character so we can fear for the protagonist. Instead, the character is maximally silly.

The villain is named ‘Adolf’, in case viewers weren’t clear he’s supposed to be the villain. Jack Neo is nothing if not a master of subtlety.

“The comedy that people like will be there and comedy is what I’m good at,” Neo declared at the press conference announcing Killer Not Stupid. This reviewer acknowledges that perhaps he isn’t the target audience for the film, but it is mildly unsettling at best, horrifying at worst that anyone could find this funny. We’ve always hoped for Singaporean filmmakers to create more action films, so it’s disheartening but not surprising that Neo gets to try his hand at this genre and completely fumbles it.

RATING: 1 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World review

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD

Director : Dean DeBlois
Cast : Jay Baruchel, America Ferrara, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, F. Murray Abraham, Jonah Hill, Kit Harington, Justin Rupple, Kristen Wiig, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Gerard Butler
Genre : Animation/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 44 mins
Opens : 31 January 2019
Rating : PG

            Audiences have followed Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon friend Toothless through thick and thin. The bond between the two has made the How to Train Your Dragon series one of the most resonant ‘a boy and his X’ tales of this generation. The journey taken by Hiccup and Toothless concludes in the final instalment in the trilogy.

It has been a year since the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Hiccup and his friends have been conducting rescue missions, freeing captured dragons and bringing them back to Berk. Berk has become a haven where humans and dragons live in harmony, just as Hiccup has always dreamed. However, Berk is becoming overcrowded. Meanwhile, Hiccup faces pressure from Gobber (Craig Ferguson) to marry Astrid (America Ferrara), becoming the fully-fledged chief Berk needs as its leader.

Toothless comes across a female Fury dragon, dubbed a ‘Light Fury’ by Astrid. He is immediately smitten with her, but she proves an elusive mate. Toothless and his prospective girlfriend are in grave danger, as the notorious dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) has made it his mission to slay every Night Fury in existence. Hiccup recalls the stories his father Stoick (Gerard Butler) told him of a mythical lost world populated entirely by dragons, dubbed ‘the Hidden World’. Hiccup and Toothless go off in search of the Hidden World, as the future of mankind’s coexistence with dragons hangs in the balance.

The How to Train Your Dragon film trilogy is a classic coming-of-age tale, and this film brings the story to a bittersweet-but-satisfying close. Audiences have grown up alongside Hiccup and Toothless – the first film was released nine years ago. Director Dean DeBlois expands the world and the mythos of the series but never loses sight of the bond between Hiccup and Toothless that is at its core.

The film is beautifully animated – the titular Hidden World is a breath-taking subterranean paradise, and the chaotic, bustling Berk bursts with inventive design elements that accommodate the coexistence of humans and dragons on the same island. The flight shared by Toothless and the Light Fury recalls the “Can You Read My Mind?” sequence from the 1978 Superman film. Since the film centres on Toothless falling in love, there’s more of a giddy romanticism to the spectacle and less emphasis on action than in the previous instalments.

The returning voice cast is excellent, with Baruchel portraying a Hiccup who has further come into his own. Hiccup’s life has been shaped by trauma and tragedy, but he is also surrounded by love and support. Audiences have stood at several crossroads alongside Hiccup and seeing his character arc complete in this film is expectedly emotional.

Ferrara’s Astrid is a badass who’s also an understanding partner and responsible leader. We see how Hiccup and Astrid complement each other and witness them reach adulthood, on the brink of a life together as chief and chieftess of Berk.

The film’s portrayal of the courtship between Toothless and the Light Fury is cute and filled with awkward relatable moments. There’s a slinky mystique to the Light Fury and seeing Toothless infatuated to the point where he can’t function normally is delightful. As the film progresses, Hiccup must come to terms with the possibility that he and Toothless must part ways. The Hidden World exhibits a maturity that continues this series’ penchant for being a little deeper and a little more honest about life’s ups and downs than many other animated film series are.

While Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Tuffnut (Justin Rupple), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) all have their funny moments, these supporting comedic characters sometimes distract from the rest of the movie. The back-and-forth bickering dynamic among Hiccup and Astrid’s friends is the closest the film comes to feeling like some other Dreamworks Animation movies that use comic relief characters and smart aleck quips as a crutch.

F. Murray Abraham sounds like he’s having a fun time conjuring up a little bit of Salieri from Amadeus as the villainous Grimmel. However, it’s clear that the villain isn’t the focus of the film, and as such he come off feeling like a middling Marvel Cinematic Universe villain. Like the second film’s villain Drago, Grimmel is a dragon hunter, because the human villain in a How to Train Your Dragon film is unlikely to be a Lex Luthor-esque CEO.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World does reuse certain story and visual elements from earlier in the series, but it also gives us rich character development and a Toothless who falls in love. There will be tears and the film’s final scene is a perfectly-calibrated blend of closure and a sense of longing for more. It’s a great note to leave the series; one can only hope any potential spinoffs don’t tamper with how The Hidden World wraps things up.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Glass review

GLASS

Director : M. Night Shyamalan
Cast : James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard
Genre : Thriller/ horror
Run Time : 2 h 9 mins
Opens : 17 January 2019
Rating : PG13

Every studio wants a cinematic universe. M. Night Shyamalan sprung a surprise on viewers, as is his wont, with the reveal at the end of 2017’s Split that the film took place in the same shared universe as 2000’s Unbreakable. The ‘Eastrail #177 trilogy’ culminates with Glass.

Kevin Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy), a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder who harbours 24 distinct personalities including the animalistic Beast, is still at large after the events of Split. When the vigilante David Dunn/The Overseer (Bruce Willis) attempts to capture Kevin, both are inadvertently caught and placed in Raven Hill Memorial Hospital. At the hospital, Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), believing Kevin and David to have delusions of grandeur, attempts to rehabilitate them. She has a third patient: Elijah Price/Mr Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a self-styled supervillain and former comic book gallery owner with brittle bone disease.

Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a girl who was captured by Kevin but let go; David’s son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and Elijah’s mother Mrs Price (Charlayne Woodard) band together to discover the truth behind what afflicts the three characters. Dr Staple is convinced that there are rational, non-fantastical explanations for the ‘powers’ manifested by Kevin, David and Elijah, despite appearances to the contrary. Elijah, who has been feigning catatonia the whole time, hatches a plan of escape, a plan that involves both Kevin and David. The stage for a showdown between two supervillains and a superhero is set.

At the time of Unbreakable’s release, the comic book movie boom was still around a decade away. General audiences were not yet as well-versed in the tropes of comic book storytelling as they are today, so now seems like a good time to release a follow-up to Unbreakable. Unfortunately, Glass squanders this opportunity, winding up as a colossal disappointment that seems to get in its own way at every conceivable turn.

It’s a shame because Glass isn’t a mess from the outset: we see the glimmers of potential, then watch as they are dulled, until the film seems like a big smear. The movie sets up a dynamic clash between three fascinating characters, but they feel like shadows of the people we met in earlier films. McAvoy is more annoying than unsettling as Kevin, Willis’ David is straight-up boring, and Jackson’s portrayal of a conniving mastermind is serviceable but nothing captivating.

Shyamalan gets a few pleasingly tense moments in but is unable to sustain the viewers’ attention. The film feels hemmed in by its mental hospital setting, promising a set-piece finale that winds up severely underwhelming. This undercuts the promise of a grand, explosive conclusion to the trilogy. The dialogue is unbearably clunky in spots, with Shyamalan struggling to weave in references to story arcs and devices commonly found in comic books. His trademark cameo is also entirely awkward.

Split deservedly drew flack for its use of mental illness to signal life-threatening villainy. This reviewer’s friend compared it to a Universal Monsters film, except Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy aren’t real and Dissociative Identity Disorder is a real thing. While McAvoy sinks his teeth into the challenging role, the hints of hammy over-acting in Split have all come to the surface. As a result, Kevin is never truly scary and is sometimes unintentionally funny, and it just blends into a mass of silly voices.

While it is nice to see Willis back as David Dunn and there’s also strong continuity in seeing Spencer Treat Clark reprise his role as David’s son Joseph, the character just isn’t that interesting. Perhaps it’s a side effect of how Willis has spent much of his recent career sleep-walking through many direct-to-DVD action movies. The sense of inner turmoil and the compelling nature of an ordinary man coming to terms with extraordinary gifts drew audiences to David in Unbreakable, but here, Willis just shuffles along.

Samuel L. Jackson was by no means an unknown in 2000, but now he’s just ubiquitous, and perhaps that takes away some of Elijah Price’s mystique. The character’s gimmick, that he was a self-styled supervillain, seemed novel when Unbreakable was released, but Glass does surprisingly little with it. While there’s an attempt to flesh out the relationship between Elijah and his mother, with Charlayne Woodard delivering a heartfelt performance, it seems rote rather than adding to the mythos.

Sarah Paulson is typically reliable, but seems unnatural and stiff, hamstrung by sub-par material. Anya Taylor-Joy puts her very emotive eyes to great use as Casey, but the character’s bond to Kevin feels forced, even coming off Split.

There was every opportunity for Glass to be an original, unorthodox, engaging exploration of what it means to be a hero or a villain, and of the implications of superpowers being real. Just when he seemed on the verge of a credible comeback, Shyamalan blows it with an excruciatingly clumsy movie that breaks every promise of a thrilling threequel hinted at before.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Upside review

THE UPSIDE

Director : Neil Burger
Cast : Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Aja Naomi King, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Genevieve Angelson, Juliana Marguiles, Golshifteh Farahani, Tate Donovan
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 2 h 6 mins
Opens : 17 January 2019
Rating : PG13

There’s a specificity to the ‘unlikely buddy comedy-drama’ subgenre: the movies in this category like Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester or Scent of a Woman aren’t typical buddy movies. They’re often required to have an element of uplift and inspiration, in addition to humour arising from mismatched leads who might not get along at first. At the end of the day, each party learns something unexpected from the other. The 2011 French film The Intouchables is one of the more memorable recent entries in this subgenre, and The Upside is the Hollywood remake of it.

Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston) is a wealthy venture capitalist and investment guru who became a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident. His assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) is helping him vet applicants to be his auxiliary nurse, helping him with everyday tasks. Ex-convict Dell Scott (Kevin Hart) applies for the job not because he wants it, but because he needs to show his parole officer that he has been looking for work. Against Yvonne’s wishes, Phillip takes a liking to Dell.

While Dell is unqualified for the position, he and Phillip gradually warm to each other. Phillip introduces Dell to art and opera, while Dell bounces his ideas for businesses off Phillip. Dell tries to make amends with his ex-wife Latrice (Aja Naomi King) and his young son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo). However, it’s not all smooth sailing, as Phillip and Dell have their disagreements and must evaluate what each want out of life, finding themselves at a crossroads together despite their very different backgrounds.

The Upside has been getting a lot of flack from fans of The Intouchables, who have readily written it off as a rip-off.  The French film was inspired by the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, a wealthy hotelier who became friends with his ex-convict carer Abdel Sellou. The film has already been remade: in Spanish as Inseparables and in Telugu and Tamil as Oopiri/ Thozha, with a Hindi remake in development.

Being a remake is not one of The Upside’s biggest problems. The Intouchables has received its share of criticism for its problematic handling of race, and for falling back on stereotypes – even if it was based on a true story. With this remake, there was an opportunity to recontextualise the story and explore the sensitive subjects of race, privilege, social inequality and disability within an American setting. Unfortunately, while the film hints at these themes, it is not astute or deft enough to handle them in an insightful manner. The movie wants to be a feel-good inspirational drama, but in keeping the social issues key to the story at arm’s length, it often feels shallow.

Director Neil Burger, working from a screenplay by Jon Hartmere, appears to have trouble depicting the progression of the friendship between Phillip and Dell in a way that makes sense. They have disagreements, get over them, then have more disagreements, but each seems to react disproportionately to key incidences in the story. Dell starts out confrontational and obnoxious, while Phillip is patient, until he suddenly isn’t. It’s hard to get a handle on the two main characters even though they get a lot of screen time, because there isn’t a lot of flow in the development of their relationship.

Cranston is excellent as expected, finding the quiet sadness and ironic sense of humour in a character who has everything but mobility from the neck down. While there is a debate to be had about able-bodied actors playing disabled characters, Cranston plays the role with enough care that Phillip is sympathetic even though he’s incredibly wealthy, and not just because he is a quadriplegic.

Kevin Hart is staggeringly miscast. There’s no rule that says comedians cannot try their hand at drama, and there are many comedians who have excelled in dramatic roles, but Hart’s smart-mouth persona and shrillness threaten to smother the character, even though he is trying to dial it down here. When Dell is rude and confrontational, it feels like he’s just out to get a rise of others, rather than it coming from a place of real struggle.

While it’s not a focal point of the movie, it’s also hard not to wince at a scene in which Dell baulks at changing Phillip’s catheter, freaks out over Phillip’s accidental erection and can’t even bring himself to say the word “penis”, given former future Oscar host Hart’s history of homophobic remarks.

Nicole Kidman puts in a respectable low-key performance – it’s clear she’s looking for depth in the limited material she has but figured early on that she didn’t have to do too much. The subplot about Dell’s ex-wife and son could’ve done with more development, but the film is right to place the focus on Dell and Phillip’s relationship. Juliana Marguiles shows up for one scene, that is one of the film’s better scenes because Hart isn’t in it.

The filmmakers of The Upside must’ve known they were stepping into a minefield, given that the politics of disability, race and inequality are central to the story. In aiming for a safe, crowd-pleasing feel-good drama, The Upside does not fall into outright shameful sentimentality, but still suffers from a lack of nuance and passes up the opportunity to reframe the original story against the backdrop of urban American society.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Mule review

THE MULE

Director : Clint Eastwood
Cast : Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Allison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Dianne Wiest, Andy García, Clifton Collins Jr., Eugene Cordero, Noel Gugliemi
Genre : Crime/Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 1 h 56 mins
Opens : 10 January 2019
Rating : M18

Clint Eastwood is 88-years-old and has been working steadily since the 50s, so it makes sense that some of his recent films deal with aging. In this drama, his character’s old age is an asset, because it makes him less suspicious – as a drug mule.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a nonagenarian horticulturist and Vietnam War veteran who has fallen on hard times after his house and farm is foreclosed upon. Earl is estranged from his family, including his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) and his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Earl comes across what he thinks will be a one-off opportunity as a drug runner for a Mexican cartel. Because the work is easy and pays extremely well, Earl finds himself coming back, unexpectedly becoming one of the cartel’s top mules.

DEA Agents Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña) learn through an informant about a mule the cartel refers to as “Tata”, Spanish for “grandfather”. The deliveries are being brought into Chicago, with the agents closing in on the elusive mule. Back in Mexico, cartel kingpin Laton (Andy García) is pleased with Earl’s performance, but his lieutenants are spooked by the increasing DEA activity, taking issue with Earl’s penchant for unscheduled stops. Earl knows his successful run working for the cartel cannot last forever and faces the inevitable: he will either be killed by cartel enforcers or captured by the DEA.

The Mule is based on an article in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick, entitled The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule. Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk, who got his big break penning Eastwood’s Gran Torino, have taken loose inspiration from the life of Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a drug runner for the cartel run by El Chapo. Eastwood’s presence as director, producer and star means that it’s obvious that he has projected himself onto the Earl Stone character, who is drawn as a well-meaning, good-hearted man who just isn’t properly appreciated by his family and winds up doing bad things even though he is not a bad person.

Eastwood is too in love with the character, who functions as an avatar of himself, for the movie to accomplish very much. Having directed 34 movies, Eastwood more than knows what he’s doing on the technical front and draws out good performances from his talented cast. However, he is squarely the centre of attention. Earl berates younger people for constantly being on their smartphones and functions as a stubborn guardian of a bygone age, an old-fashioned stalwart who doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He also has at least two threesomes with prostitutes, scenes which one imagines Eastwood doing multiple takes of just to be sure.

Cooper and Peña are given underwritten roles, but Cooper does get one good scene set in a Waffle House in which he gets to do a bit more than chase after Clint Eastwood. Dianne Wiest is the standout in the cast as Earl’s ex-wife, who harbours less ill-will towards Earl than his daughter Iris (played by Eastwood’s real daughter Alison) but who still wishes things could’ve been different. The skill with which Wiest conveys quiet sadness ensures the relationship is not overly treacly.

The scenes in which Earl is friendly towards the cartel members lower on the ladder who warm to him are quite endearing. Both Andy García and Laurence Fishburne are on hand to lend additional gravitas in relatively small roles as a cartel boss and a senior DEA agent respectively.

The Mule is not an instant classic the way some of Eastwood’s films are, and it is more obviously a vanity project than several other late-period Eastwood movies. There are moments when it’s charming and the Earl Stone character is not the worst person to spend a couple of hours with, but the movie fundamentally lacks any urgency or drive. The moments of tension, when it feels like Earl’s Faustian bargain is catching up to him, are too few and far between. It is ultimately saved by the compelling nature of the true story and Eastwood’s unquestionable competence as a director but is not one of the more essential entries in his oeuvre.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Escape Room review

ESCAPE ROOM

Director : Adam Robitel
Cast : Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis, Nik Dodani
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 99 mins
Opens : 10 January 2019
Rating : PG13

       Stress and panic are thing most people instinctively try to avoid, but there’s a long history of people inducing stress and panic in themselves in the name of entertainment. Horror movies and roller coasters serve this purpose, and so do escape rooms, in which participants are trapped until they can find a way out by solving puzzles, the clues to which are hidden in the room. A little bit of pressure under controlled circumstances can be invigorating. In this horror thriller, the participants of an escape room find those circumstances going terrifyingly out of control.

College student Zoey (Taylor Russell), grocery store stockist Ben (Logan Miller), military veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), stock trader Jason (Jay Ellis), trucker Mike (Tyler Labine) and escape room enthusiast Danny (Nik Dodani) find themselves in the waiting room of the Minos Escape Room in Chicago. They were each given a puzzle box by someone they know, with the promise of a $10 000 cash prize if they solve the puzzles and escape the room.

However, as they undergo a literal trial by fire and brave a host of other deadly traps, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary escape room. Each stage contains specific references to the participants’ personal histories, indicating that a vast conspiracy lies behind their predicament. The five strangers must cooperate to find a way out or face their deaths at the hands of whatever sinister force has set up this twisted game.

           Escape Room takes on a bit of an eerie quality given the very recent tragedy in which five girls in Poland died in an escape room as the result of apparent arson. An escape room as a setting for a horror film seems like a natural idea, and two unrelated low-budget horror movie both also called ‘Escape Room’ were released in 2017.

There is appeal in the idea of a PG-13 take on Saw (specifically the second film onwards, when traps became more of a feature), a horror thriller that places an emphasis on puzzle-solving and trap design instead of excessive gore. In addition to Saw, there are shades of Cube, The Game and Final Destination, yet Escape Room is not as derivative as many other disposable horror flicks – or at least that’s how it starts.

Despite some extremely clunky dialogue and broadly-drawn characters, the film starts off engrossingly enough. Director Adam Robitel stages reasonably tense set-pieces within production designer Edward Thomas’ sets. Even without graphic violence, the stakes are established, and audiences begin to fear for the characters. There are little touches like the name ‘Minos’ being an allusion to the Greek myth of the Minotaur in the labyrinth. However, it’s not long before everything falls apart.

The actors dutifully occupy each of the stock types and there is some fun to be had in guessing the order in which the characters are killed off. Taylor Russell’s withdrawn genius student is a protagonist who’s easy to root for, while Logan Miller manages to give a little depth to the sullen, antisocial Ben. Deborah Ann Woll showcases some physicality as the ex-military Amanda, while Jay Ellis relishes playing a slime-ball finance guy.

Tyler Labine probably gets the least to do as the blue-collar guy who’s out of his depth, while Nik Dodani’s enthusiastic Danny is intentionally grating. It’s not the worst collection of six characters to show up in a horror movie, but it’s far from the most memorable.

Most negative reviews of Escape Room single out the ending, and with good reason. The conclusion of the film is equivalent to an escape room employee shuffling into the room mid-puzzle, telling the participants there never was a solution from the start, and then chasing everyone out before turning off the lights. Whatever riveting intensity the preceding scenes possessed is squandered by the extremely unsatisfying ending, which appears to set up a sequel and leaving nothing resolved.

With a better script, Escape Room seems like something that David Fincher could’ve made earlier in his career. Robitel, who also directed Insidious: The Last Key, is no David Fincher, but several set-pieces are executed with sufficient flair. Thanks to a competent cast, decent production values and passable amounts of invention in the traps and riddles, Escape Room is a safe distance from the bottom-of-the-barrel horror movies that typically get January releases, but the payoff leaves a lot to be desired.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bumblebee review

BUMBLEBEE

Director : Travis Knight
Cast : Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider, Peter Cullen, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 20 December 2018
Rating : PG13

Bumblebee-poster          The last Transformers movie gave us King Arthur, Transformers fighting Nazis, a secret order entrusted with guarding the Transformers’ history on earth, and Sir Anthony Hopkins. In addition to the usual hyperactive clanging action sequences, there was so much plot it was wont to make one’s head spin. This prequel/spinoff dials things back a notch, leaning heavily on nostalgia and steering the franchise away from the cacophony which has characterised it.

Bumblebee is the story of a girl and her car. The girl: Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), a sullen teenager coping with the death of her father. Charlie’s mother Sally (Pamela Adlon) has remarried, and while Charlie’s brother Otis (Jason Drucker) has taken to their stepfather Ron (Stephen Schneider) well, Charlie has not warmed to him. The car: a Volkswagen Beetle whom Charlie christens Bumblebee, who is secretly an Autobot from the planet Cybertron in disguise. The Autobots are locked in a vicious war with the Decepticons, and Autobot leader Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) has sent Bumblebee to earth, to scope out the planet as a possible refuge for the Autobots.

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The Decepticons Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux) track Bumblebee down to earth, and trick government agents Jack Burns (John Cena) and Dr Powell (John Ortiz) into assisting them in hunting Bumblebee. Charlie and Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), the neighbour who has a crush on her, find themselves caught in a high-stakes clash between the secretive agency Sector 7 and the Transformers. The bond between Charlie and Bumblebee undergoes a trial by fire, with the Autobot facing serious jeopardy from the humans and Decepticons alike.

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The live-action Transformers movies, with a possible exception of the first one in 2007, have been varying degrees of bad. Most of the blame has been placed on Michael Bay, who has shown contempt for the source material and its fans. Bumblebee shows the potential of the franchise when it’s placed in the hands of someone who cares about the source material, with Travis Knight taking the reins. Knight is the president of stop-motion animation studio Laika, having directed Kubo and the Two Strings.

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Bumblebee is still very much a studio product, taking full advantage of its 1987 setting to bombard audiences with nostalgia. There’s a prominently-placed can of Tab, lots of 80s music including “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” and “Never Gonna Give You Up”, Bumblebee watching The Breakfast Club on VHS, a reference to Heathers, and the designs of the Transformers are heavily inspired by their G1 incarnations. While these touches can come off as pandering, Bumblebee cuts through it with an emotional through-line, placing an emphasis on ‘heart-ware’ over hardware.

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Putting an animation director in charge means that there is more attention to movement and geometry, and the action sequences are much easier to follow than those in preceding Transformers movies. The scope of the film is more intimate, set mostly in a seaside Northern California town, a welcome respite from the often-meaningless globe-trotting that was a hallmark of the earlier live-action movies.

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Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie is a character we’ve many times before and seems to intentionally hark back to 80s coming-of-age movies. She’s withdrawn, yearning to make an emotional connection after suffering a personal loss, must fend off preening bullies, and possesses a special skill which you can bet will come in handy later in the movie. However, Steinfeld imbues Charlie with enough liveliness and personality to make her seem more than a bundle of familiar tropes. She sells the relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee, even if a good portion of the movie is Charlie yelling as something horrible happens to Bumblebee.

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The character animation on Bumblebee is very endearing. As a VW Beetle, he comes off as rounder and softer than as a Camaro. Bay’s rejection of Bumblebee’s original form as a Beetle was indicative of his approach – to him, a Beetle just didn’t look cool or badass, but Bumblebee doesn’t need to look cool and badass – he needs to look friendly and approachable. This Bumblebee is also a competent warrior, but the best bits of the film are when he’s a fish out of water, learning to acclimate to life on earth and building his friendship with Charlie. It seems like elements of his back-story from the earlier films, including that he fought in World War II alongside the allies, have been jettisoned.

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John Cena plays the stock ‘Inspector Javert’ type – not necessarily a bad guy, but it’s his job to hunt down the good guys, so he performs the role of an antagonist. Cena shines in the few moments when the character can be funny; it’s clear that comedy is his true calling. John Ortiz’s excitable scientist character Powell is the closest this movie gets to the cringe-inducing comedy stylings of Michael Bay, but the character only makes a brief appearance.

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Charlie’s mum, stepdad and brother are very much an 80s sitcom family, and that works within the framework of the film. Jorge Lendeborg Jr. is the shy love interest, but the film takes its time in developing the relationship between Memo and Charlie.

Bumblebee-Dropkick-Shatter            It’s always a delight to hear Peter Cullen’s sonorous, commanding tones as Optimus Prime, and Angela Bassett makes for a suitably formidable villain as the voice of Shatter.

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Bumblebee doesn’t put an especially original spin on the time-tested “a kid and their X” formula, but this feels much, much closer to what a live-action Transformers movie should be. Viewed on its own, it’s good, but in comparison to the earlier Michael Bay-directed films, it’s great.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong