Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings review

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast : Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Tony Leung, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Michelle Yeoh, Benedict Wong, Ronny Chieng
Genre: Action/Adventure
Run Time : 132 min
Opens : 1 September
Rating : PG13

We are now into Phase 4 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Post-Avengers: Endgame, it seemed like audiences would lose interest in the sprawling franchise, but while some have, there is still a lot to keep others invested. With TV series on Disney+ and many movies on the slate, the MCU is moving in various directions, one of those directions being the wuxia-inspired realm of Shang-Chi.

Shaun (Simu Liu) lives in San Francisco, working as a hotel valet alongside his best friend Katy (Awkwafina). Shaun hides a secret: he is actually Shang-Chi, the son of ruthless warlord Wenwu (Tony Leung). Armed with ancient artifacts called the Ten Rings, Wenwu has moved in the shadows for centuries. He had thought his endless need for conquest would come to an end after meeting Ying Li (Fala Chen) in the magical land of Ta Lo. Wenwu and Ying Li had two children, Shang-Chi and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). However, tragedy brought Wenwu back to the violence of his past. Now, Shang-Chi must confront what he has spent half his life running away from, as he and Katy get drawn into an epic battle involving criminal empires, magical creatures and lots and lots of martial arts.

It is perfectly understandable that many audiences were apprehensive of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. After all, it’s very easy to cynically view this as solely a bid for Asian moviegoers’ money and nothing more. Also, there have been many films aimed at appealing to both Asian and American audiences that have faceplanted embarrassingly, including The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Dragon Blade and The Great Wall.

Shang-Chi avoids practically all of those pitfalls.

This is an immersive, entertaining adventure that is largely bereft of the samey-samey feel which MCU movies can carry, and which plagued this year’s Black Widow to a certain extent. While there still is a reliance on the ‘chosen one’ origin story formula, Shang-Chi introduces myriad elements to the mix which we haven’t seen done quite like this before. Director Destin Daniel Cretton displays a healthy amount of reverence for classic wuxia movies. While purists will nitpick the action in this film, most of it is truly spectacular, choreographed beautifully and not shot with shaky-cam or hyper-edited to death. The late Brad Allan, who is the second unit director and supervising stunt coordinator on this film, was one of Australia’s top wushu athletes and a long-time member of Jackie Chan’s stunt team. There is every effort made to deliver beautiful action, and unlike in some MCU movies where it can feel like the action scenes are disjointed from the rest of the movie, everything flows well here. In addition to the martial arts-centric sequences, there’s an entertaining runaway bus setpiece that nods to 90s action films like Speed and The Rock.

While Simu Liu has a background as a stuntman and has trained in Taekwondo and Wing Chun, he sometimes feels like the least convincing fighter in the film. He has clearly worked very hard to learn and execute the choreography, but especially when compared to Arnold Sun, who plays Shang-Chi as a 14-year-old, it doesn’t fully feel like Shang-Chi has been training his entire life. Perhaps that can be explained away by how he has spent ten years in hiding.

A problem with many Marvel films and indeed many present-day action blockbusters is that the final action sequence is very heavily reliant upon CGI, and goes on for a bit too long, such that one is wont to tune out. Amusingly, the climactic battle revolves around closing a portal, something which the earlier Marvel movies have often been mocked for, but there is a bit of a twist put on it. Some may also roll their eyes at the “dead wife” motivation, but this reviewer feels it is a justified plot point here.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is shang-chi-awkwafina-ronny-chieng-simu-liu.jpg

Marvel Studios have typically been great at casting, and Shang-Chi is no exception. Simu Liu and Awkwafina are actors who might typically be relegated to playing sidekicks, and both step up to the leading roles very well. Liu has an earnestness to him and the early scenes of Shang-Chi and Katy hanging out make them seem like people whom we would want to be friends with.

Relative newcomer Meng’er Zhang displays excellent physicality and a convincing woundedness behind exterior strength as Xialing, who was always relegated to the sidelines while Wenwu focused on Shang-Chi. Zhang met her husband, action designer Yung Lee, on the set of the film. Florian Munteanu, who played Viktor Drago in Creed II, makes for an adequately intimidating henchman as Razorfist. Michelle Yeoh is elegant and has gravitas to spare, making a meal of some potentially unwieldy exposition. There’s also an appearance from an MCU character which is a great surprise if one doesn’t know they’re going to be in Shang-Chi.


Tony Leung is truly incredible. It was a valid concern that he would just be there for the sake of saying “we’ve got Tony Leung,” but the Wenwu part is a substantial one and is easily one of the greatest MCU villains yet, even though that is a low bar to clear. One of the big selling points of the film is that this is the venerable Hong Kong actor’s long-awaited Hollywood debut. Wenwu reminded this reviewer of Vincent D’onofrio’s Wilson Fisk in the Daredevil series: he does monstrous things, but we come to understand what made him this way. In his earliest comics appearances Shang-Chi was literally the son of Fu Manchu, and the movie addresses the outmoded orientalism inherent in the source material. The name “Wenwu” comes from the Chinese idiom 文武双全 (wén wǔ shuāng quán), roughly meaning “master of pen and sword,” reflecting how Wenwu is both an intellectual and physical force. Wenwu is a modified take on the Iron Man villain the Mandarin. The portrayal of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3 proved to be controversial, and that is acknowledged here in a clever way.

Representation is a tricky thing, because no one piece of media can speak for a multitude of communities. There are many East Asian communities and indeed many Chinese communities around the world, and Shang-Chi can’t be expected to tell everyone’s story. However, there is an effort made here to infuse a certain amount of authenticity into the story and especially the dialogue. When the characters speak in Mandarin Chinese, which they do roughly 40% of the time, it doesn’t feel like it’s been fed into Google Translate. It’s fun hearing someone say “I’ve eaten more salt than you have rice,” an expression commonly used by the older Chinese people to admonish the younger generation, in a Hollywood movie.

This is a story about identity and belonging. Shang-Chi has always been Asian-American: in the earliest comics, his mother was a blonde American woman. Shang-Chi’s hero’s journey centres on finding out who he really is and reckoning with his father, who put him through arduous training and moulded him into an assassin, but who ostensibly loves him. The relationships in the film are very well defined, and the audience quickly understands the underlying nature of each of the relationships: the friendship between Shang-Chi and Katy, the estranged sibling relationship between Shang-Chi and Xialing, the parental relationship between Wenwu and Shang-Chi and so on.

Summary: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a spectacular adventure. Never feeling like it’s too tied down to the now-labyrinthian MCU mythology, there is something refreshing to this even as it evokes the feeling of classic wuxia films. Simu Liu proves himself to be a worthy superhero, Awkwafina is more than just the funny sidekick, and Tony Leung is just magnificent as one of the best Marvel villains yet. Far more than just token representation for the sake of it, Shang-Chi is one of the most successful instances of a big-budget movie designed to appeal to international audiences without feeling like mere hollow pandering. Stay behind for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene, but you should know this by now.  

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Space Jam: A New Legacy review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Cast : LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Cedric Joe, Ceyair J. Wright, Harper Lee Anderson
And the voices of: Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza, Zendaya, Bob Bergen, Jim Cummings, Gabriel Iglesias, Candi Milo
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Adventure
Run Time : 116 min
Opens : 15 July 2021
Rating : PG

In the 1990s, there was a spate of basketball players trying their hand at becoming movie stars. There was Dennis Rodman in Double Team and Simon Sez, John Salley and Rick Fox in Eddie, Ray Allen in He Got Game and Shaquille O’Neal in Kazaam and Steel. By far the most memorable of these was Michael Jordan in Space Jam. 25 years later, LeBron James steps into those Nikes to lead Tune Squad.

LeBron James (LeBron James) is having a bit of a rift with his younger son Dom (Cedric Joe). Dom is passionate about computer programming and videogame development, building his own game at just 12 years old, but LeBron is pushing his son to perform on the basketball court. LeBron brings Dom along to a meeting at Warner Bros, where father and son are absorbed into the “Serververse”. This is where Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), a sentient program, holds court. He pits father and son against each other in a basketball game inspired by the game Dom is building. LeBron traverses the various realms of Warner Bros-owned intellectual properties, meeting the Looney Tunes. Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman) reunites his friends, including Daffy Duck (Eric Bauza) and Lola Bunny (Zendaya), to form the Tune Squad. LeBron doesn’t have much hope in his team but must get them into shape to face off against the Goon Squad, comprised of augmented digital avatars based on basketball players including Klay Thompson, Anthony Davis, Diana Taurasi and Nneka Ogwumike.

There are parts of the movie that are surprisingly emotional, and the father-son story is a fine backbone for a family film. The animated sequences are excellent, especially the 2D-animated stretch of the movie. There is a sophistication to the visual effects work which is commendable, and some of the design work is fun too. LeBron James is much more natural voicing the animated version of himself than he is on camera, even though he’s far from the worst athlete-turned-actor. It must be slightly strange for LeBron to act opposite actors playing fictionalised versions of his wife and children, but they mostly sell it.

Don Cheadle is a lot of fun in the villain role. Al G. Rhythm is a computer program, but Cheadle plays it completely relaxed and very human.

This reviewer loved the 2D-animated sequences set in the DC Animated Universe. It’s a thrill seeing those designs on the big screen. There’s also a section of the movie involving Wonder Woman that made this reviewer tear up.

This is “Corporate Synergy: The Movie”. Space Jam: A New Legacy is a pop culture nostalgia ouroboros. This is what happens when studios bank too heavily on recognisable IP, it starts to become a snake swallowing its own tail. The Looney Tunes characters have always been self-aware, and media involving them has always been heavy on pop culture references, but this lacks the wit of Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which was a wry showbiz satire. Here, the combination of various Warner Bros-owned properties can often feel clumsy. The LEGO Movie, Wreck-It Ralph 2 and even Ready Player One all executed this much more elegantly. There are six credited writers, four of whom also have a “story by” credit, which is usually an indication of far too many studio-mandated rewrites.

The climactic basketball match, which should be the highlight of the film, just goes on for way too long. It is interrupted by an unbearable sequence in which Porky Pig (Eric Bauza) performs a rap. It’s the moment during which the movie feels the most out of touch.

The audience at this match is comprised of characters from all sorts of Warner Bros. properties, including decidedly non-family-friend titles like Game of Thrones, It, A Clockwork Orange, and most bizarrely, Ken Russell’s The Devils. To be clear: the Droogs are a gang of rapists who are showing up in a family movie. The characters are all played by extras in costume, such that they feel more like cosplayers at a comic convention than the characters they’re meant to be. Compare this to when Disney got every living Disney Princess voice actor back for a sequence in Wreck-It Ralph 2.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is the culmination of 25 years of development hell. The original Space Jam was a massive hit, but Michael Jordan declined to return for a sequel. Options that were explored included the unfortunately titled ‘Race Jam’ with Nascar driver Jeff Gordon and ‘Skate Jam’ with Tony Hawk. Jackie Chan was courted to star in ‘Spy Jam,’ which eventually became Looney Tunes: Back in Action. That film was commercially unsuccessful, but in many ways, it is much better than Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Summary: Space Jam: A New Legacy packs in plenty of spectacle and boasts some impressive animated sequences but there’s just way too much going on. This belated sequel is bogged down by what feels like a corporate mandate to include as many Warner Bros-owned properties as possible, including several that absolutely should not be referenced in a family film. The day is almost saved by a charismatic turn from Don Cheadle.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

SADDLE SONGS: Concrete Cowboy composer Kevin Matley talks the Idris Elba-starring Western

By Jedd Jong

Photo credit: Jeff Marsh

When one thinks of Westerns, open, dusty plains and the late 19th Century American frontier usually come to mind. Concrete Cowboy is a Western of a different stripe: as its title suggests, its setting is a contemporary urban environment.

Idris Elba stars as Harp, a cowboy who is part of the Fletcher Street Riding Club in a Northern Philadelphia town. Caleb McLaughlin, best known as Lucas on Stranger Things, plays Harp’s estranged son Cole. After he gets kicked out of school for fighting, Cole is sent to live with Harp, and the troubled young man is gradually inducted into the unique urban cowboy way of life.

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Idris Elba as Harp and Caleb McLaughlin as Cole. Cr. Aaron Ricketts / NETFLIX © 2021

Concrete Cowboy is based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri and is directed by Philadelphia-based filmmaker Ricky Staub. Staub was inspired to research the Fletcher Street Riding Club, a nonprofit city horsemanship organisation, when he looked out his office window and saw a horse and buggy rolling down the street. The movie shines a light on the little-known subculture of modern-day Black cowboys scattered across America, and real-life members of the Fletcher Street Riding Club appear in the movie. The film also stars Jharrel Jerome, Lorraine Toussaint and Clifford “Method Man” Smith.

Elba is also a co-producer on the film, alongside Lee Daniels, creator of the TV series Empire and director of films including Precious, The Butler, and The United States vs Billie Holliday.

Photo credit: Amber Zbitnoff

The film’s soundtrack, which The Hollywood Reporter calls “a soulful score with subtle Western accents,” is composed by Kevin Matley, whose credits include the documentaries Kifaru and Mudbloods and the short films Still Here and The Cage. Matley’s work can be heard in commercials for brands including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Coca Cola, Ferrari and Adidas.

Speaking exclusively to F***, Matley shared about capturing the sound of the Fletcher Street Riding Club, creating a Western score while avoiding the cliches associated with the genre, his childhood interest in film music, what it was like collaborating with director Staub, and what he’s working on next. 

F*** MAGAZINE: Hi, Kevin, thank you so much for speaking to us, please tell us about how you came to be involved in this film. 
 
KEVIN MATLEY: I came to work on the film because the director and I go way back, we’ve worked on a handful of projects together, [including] a short film that did fairly decent in the festival circuit. And he sent me the script and I loved the concept; I fell in love with the story. Ricky Staub is the director and he co-wrote it with Dan Walser, one of the producers of the film. 
 
How would you describe your working relationship with Ricky Staub and how different was it going from a short to a feature; as I understand, this is his first feature?
 
Yeah, it’s funny, it was actually just kind of like an extended version. I mean we really connected right off the bat, when we started working together. He has a very keen sense of what he likes and doesn’t like, and I have gotten to know over the years of working with him pretty quickly what he doesn’t like, which is really, really helpful. And so, my process is I would write these little vignettes and pieces and send it to him, and then we slowly kind of work back and forth until it was something that we both really liked. That was pretty much the whole trajectory of the score, [it] was just a lot of back and forth, a lot of conversation.

You’ve worked on several documentaries. What are the differences in composing for narrative features versus a documentary?
 
I’m not sure if I have too much of a difference in my approach. Obviously, each film has a different musical genre, a different sort of world or creating different tones and temperatures, but I think that my goal is always to enhance and express the sort of unspoken emotion of the characters and let their dialogue tell the viewer what they’re thinking, and I tell them what they’re feeling. And so, real or fake, fiction, nonfiction, comedy, action, drama I think my approach is always the same: how do I tell the story of the film through music?

Photo credit: Oguz Uygur

Growing up, what made you interested in becoming a film composer?
 
It’s funny, I got into it really before you could just Google and find out names of composers. I was pretty young, so I started arranging some music with my brother’s guitars when I was pretty young, and sort of fell in love with the idea of creating music that way. And then, I started to notice music in film around the same age. I would actually pay less attention to the narrative, and more attention to how the music was affecting the characters and how it was affecting me. And I just really love the idea of how music and narrative together could create something so powerful.
 
So you were already interacting with movies as a composer might.
 
Yeah, long before I knew how to write music [laughs].
 
One of the things that Concrete Cowboy is about is how it’s important as a young person to have a community around you; oftentimes a community made up of people who have similar hobbies and interests to you. Was that something that you had with other composers or musicians growing up?
 
That’s a really good question. Really nothing, I mean, composers are kind of a mixed bag of people. I have my little hobbies and interests and composers that I know are interested in many different things. I think for me personally, as a music writer and just kind of an obsessive personality, I have to have things that sort of distract me from that so I can step away. I really love playing golf, I love photography, I love American football. And so, I think all of us composers are kind of similar in that, where we have to have things that can take our mind off of making music, so I think that’s probably a good similarity between all of us. 

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Ivannah-Mercedes as Esha, Lorraine Toussaint as Nessi, Idris Elba as Harp, Caleb McLaughlin as Cole, Jamil “Mil” Prattis as Paris and Cliff “Method Man” Smith as Leroy. Cr: Jessica Kourkounis / Netflix © 2021

Concrete Cowboy is set in a very interesting subculture that not a lot of people know about. How did you sonically capture the world of the Fletcher Street Riding Club?  
 
Great question. I really wanted to have a score that not only spoke to the emotion of the characters and what they were feeling, but also one that created the same world that Ricky was creating aesthetically. Ricky’s style is very visceral and very surreal and also very gritty, and so I wanted music that matched that. I wanted kind of a lush ambient sound with organic human[ity], just raw emotion on top of it. And to me, I think that that is that world, there’s so much passion with those people and what they’re doing with helping kids to get off the streets. And it’s just an amazing, amazing culture. 

Photo credit: Jeff Marsh

When we think of a Western a particular sound and style of music comes to mind and Concrete Cowboy is not a conventional Western. How did you play with that expectation in the music that you composed for this film? 
 
Yeah, also a great question. We kind of went through a few different styles before we landed on what was actually working. What we didn’t want to have was a traditional Spaghetti Western sound – I kind of toyed with that a little bit and it ‘cheesifies’ things.  
 
You didn’t want it to get too pastiche.  
 
Yeah, we didn’t want it to be cliche or kind of kitschy so we ended up trying to focus more on these people as human beings, and just aesthetic and visuals, and create that world and not think about “What are we trying to force here with this being a cowboy world?”
 
I listened to the score and I love the melancholic dignity in the horns.

Oh, thank you!

You’re welcome. I feel like that reflects how the Fletcher Street Riders are like the last of their kind, there’s kind of a twilight, because their way of life is being threatened by gentrification. Could you tell us about how you arrived at that?

I love that you said that; that’s really, really cool. 
 
Thank you!
 
It’s funny, a lot of the [score is] kind of focused on solo instruments. I feel like there’s a vulnerability to that that I was really after. There’s just something about trumpet in particular that to me is just so soulful, it’s almost like a voice, and I really wanted something like that, that I could use throughout the film. 

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Idris Elba as Harp and Caleb McLaughlin as Cole Cr. Aaron Ricketts / NETFLIX © 2021

Concrete Cowboy is a film about a father-son relationship, and it’s also about the bonds that humans form with animals. How did you express these themes in the music?
 
I think I was focused mostly on the father-son relationship. I really wanted the melodies to have, like what you said, sort of a melancholy feel to them. Cole comes from essentially a broken family and I think that there’s a lot of vulnerability to him, he’s sort of drawn into these two worlds: a life of crime, and then this other life that is giving him hope. To me, I just wanted melodies and instrumentation that reflected that.
 
The movie had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2020. Was the music recorded under lockdown conditions and if so how did you navigate that logistically?
 
It was actually all recorded before lockdown. It’s funny, we, we recorded the score in January of 2020, in Seattle, Washington, and I did a handful of more sessions and at that point, we had been hearing what was going on in China, then when we went down to Burbank to finish the post, the news was starting to break out and I think a handful of cases broke out in Washington around that time. When I flew home, the film was completely wrapped and that’s when everything sort of broke out. 

Photo credit: Oguz Uygur

Have you been working on other film projects during lockdown?
 
I haven’t been working on film projects, but I’ve just been focusing on a lot of family time, and then writing some personal records. 
 
What kinds of films do you hope to work on in the future, are there any specific genres or styles that you’d like to work in?
 
Well I will tell you one that I am going to work on it’s, it’s a documentary [called Between the Rains] about these two Kenyan tribes that have been at war for the last couple of decades, and it follows a young boy from one of the tribes, basically being raised as a warrior, and he’s just not a warrior, and it deals with global warming and the water runs out and they’re fighting over that. And it’s just a really powerful documentary and it’s with a buddy of mine, [producer] Andrew [Harrison Brown] who’s just shot it, and he and I worked together on a previous documentary called Kifaru. And so I love telling these stories. I love Kenyans; I got to meet some of the guys from the last film and I got to work with some Kenyan singers on the score and it’s a blast. I love documentaries, it’s a wonderful genre. 
 
It strikes me as something where there is perhaps more of an emphasis on authenticity or audiences might be more aware if something rings false to them, and then there’s extra work to do in research, in trying to make sure that you are being authentic in the sound you’re creating. 
 
Mm hmm, yeah, absolutely. 

CONCRETE COWBOY – (L-R) Caleb McLaughlin as Cole and Jharrel Jerome as Smush. Cr. Aaron Ricketts / NETFLIX © 2021

Finally, what do you hope audiences take away after watching Concrete Cowboy? 
 
If anything, people can see that these people are real people. It’s not just in Philadelphia, it’s around the country, and they’re doing good, and because of gentrification and a lot of different reasons, some of these tables are getting shut down, and it’s really sad. So if anybody is moved to take action and support or raise awareness, then I think that would be awesome. 

Concrete Cowboy begins streaming on Netflix April 2.

Soul review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Pete Docter
Cast : Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 106 min
Opens : 25 December 2020
Rating : PG

Of the mainstream animated studios out there, Pixar has a reputation for generally making more sophisticated fare than its competitors. With Soul, Pixar tackles a question no loftier than “what makes you who you are?”

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher and an aspiring jazz pianist. Just when he’s about to get his big break performing with the Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) quartet, he falls down a manhole and goes into a coma. Joe’s soul, bound for The Great Beyond, escapes to the You Seminar, formerly known as “The Great Before”. This is where souls live and gain defining characteristics before they enter corporeal bodies on earth. Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent thousands of years evading becoming human. As Joe fights to return to his body on earth, 22 gains an unexpected understanding of, and perhaps an appreciation for, the life she has been trying so hard to avoid.

Soul is hugely ambitious, a metaphysical, existential odyssey that is challenging and sometimes satisfying to embark upon. It is a lively, funny creation; obviously the effort of artists and technicians who have poured their hearts and, well, souls into their work. Director Pete Docter, who co-wrote the film with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers, gives Soul a poignancy that is difficult to describe.

Soul also faces the immense challenge of creating a view of the afterlife (and the ‘afore-life’) that is compatible with multiple belief systems. Great care was taken in shaping the world of the film, with the filmmakers consulting with various religious and cultural experts. The result is something vaguely new-agey and spiritual, but never explicitly religious.

Soul’s design is also often eye-catching, with some clever ideas at play. To convey the ephemeral, intangible nature of a soul, the designers were inspired by the low-density material aerogel. There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of it immensely clever. Soul is, naturally, an intensely emotional film that left this reviewer in tears. It is especially resonant for anyone who’s tried to make a living doing anything creative.

Soul does not seem like a movie made primarily for children and might be Pixar’s least accessible film yet. It is perhaps more difficult to get into than Inside Out, Docter’s previous Pixar film. This does not mean that it doesn’t have elements in it that children will enjoy, but it is going to be difficult for parents to explain what the movie is about. Soul also feels like a movie that is often in search of itself, which befits its themes, but also means it sometimes goes off in many directions. This is a film that demands to be engaged with, but its take on heady philosophical matters can seem a little simplistic or reductive at times.

There are few things as universally moving as music, so it is a canny move to centre the movie on a musician. Soul’s soundscape is a richly textured one, with jazz at its core. Co-writer Powers is, like the protagonist Joe, a Black man from New York in his mid-40s and was a journalist and music critic. Jon Batiste wrote and performed the original jazz tracks in the score, in addition to providing the animators reference for Joe’s piano playing. There is great attention paid to the cultural significance of jazz, with jazz legend Herbie Hancock and anthropologist Dr Johnnetta Cole being two of the consultants on board. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, known for scoring David Fincher films like The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, seem like unlikely candidates to score a Pixar film, but they deliver moving, uncharacteristically gentle work that is still the right amount of haunting.

Pixar’s films are generally cast well, and Soul is no exception. Jamie Foxx effortlessly essays passion and earnestness, while Tina Fey is endearing as the cynical 22, world-weary despite having never lived. Fey contributed to her character’s dialogue; 22 makes a great throwaway dig at the New York Knicks. Phylicia Rashad breathes life into the relatively small role of Joe’s stern yet loving mother and Angela Bassett is as commanding a presence as ever, voicing a legendary saxophonist. Talk show host Graham Norton brings a friendly quirkiness to hippie sign-twirler Moonwind and Rachel House is funny as the tightly-wound bureaucrat Terry, a soul-counter.

Summary: Made with an abundance of sensitivity and intelligence, Soul artfully tackles some gigantic questions in a resonant manner. Its thematic maturity means that parents will have their work cut out for them in explaining the movie to younger children, but this is a wholly rewarding experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bloodshot review

For F*** Magazine

BLOODSHOT

Director: Dave S. F. Wilson
Cast : Vin Diesel, Eiza González, Sam Heughan, Toby Kebbell, Guy Pearce, Lamorne Morris, Talulah Riley, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson
Genre: Action/sci-fi/comics
Run Time : 1 h 50 mins
Opens : 12 March 2020
Rating : PG13

Marvel and DC might be the big boys in the comics game, but avid readers know that there are many other publishers out there whose characters have great cinematic potential. There has been talk of movies based on Valiant Comics characters for a while now, with Bloodshot being the first Valiant character to arrive on the big screen.

Ray Garrison (Vin Diesel) is an elite Marine who, following a successful mission, is brutally murdered. He is brought back to life using cutting-edge regenerative nanotechnology devised by Rising Spirits Technologies (RST), headed up by Dr Emil Harting (Guy Pearce). In this powerful resurrected form, Ray – codenamed “Bloodshot” – vows revenge against the man who killed him and his wife. However, Ray is not being told the whole story and there is an insidious conspiracy afoot. Ray realises that Dr Harting and his associates KT (Eiza González), Jimmy (Sam Heughan) and Tibbs (Alex Hernandez), who all sport cybernetic enhancements, may not be entirely trustworthy. Ray might be reborn, but he is not free – using his newfound abilities, he must uncover the scheme that he is entangled in and wrest control from those who seek to use him for their own ends.

Bloodshot may feature high-tech sci-fi gadgetry, but it is a throwback, in ways both good and bad. It is a straightforward superhero origin story with an emphasis on technology rather than the fantastical, but it’s often still over-the-top and bombastic. There may not be any grand surprises here, but Bloodshot is entertaining and paced well enough.

There are a few outstanding action sequences, such as the first time Bloodshot’s full powers are revealed in combat. That scene is set in a barricaded tunnel where a truck transporting flour has crashed, making it atmospheric in an inventive way. There’s a big set-piece that takes place in the external elevator shaft of a skyscraper which is dynamic and eye-catching.

The practical effects work including the high-tech prosthetics and exo-suit, created by WETA Workshop, is done well. Director Dave S. F. Wilson’s background is in video game cinematics – he worked on games including Bioshock Infinite, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Mass Effect 2 and Halo Wars for Blur Studios. This is Wilson’s directorial debut and while his inexperience does show, it’s entirely possible that he could improve.

The hook here is that a non-Marvel/DC comic is receiving a big-budget adaptation, but Bloodshot is too generic and mired in clichés to be its own thing, unlike the Guillermo del Toro-directed Hellboy movies were in the 2000s. Bloodshot makes a stab at being self-aware – one character mentions “movie clichés” – but it doesn’t wear that self-awareness well. This is the kind of movie that has not one but two comic relief tech guys.

The dialogue is often exceedingly stupid, but despite several moments of unintentional comedy, the movie is slightly too competent to qualify as something that’s so bad it’s good. All the characters are flat, despite the efforts of some of the actors. Eiza González is doing the best she can with the material and almost contributes some level of emotional resonance to the proceedings. Diesel has the action hero cred but is altogether too bland – this is not helped by the blank slate nature of the character. One gets the sense that Wilson just isn’t a good director of actors, at least he isn’t yet. It seems beside the point to call this “predictable” because it was never going to be anything but predictable. There’s a lot of potential in the concept of a hero who is being manipulated using technology, but the film doesn’t want to delve too deeply into any of those implications.

Bloodshot is intended to launch a Valiant cinematic universe, but it’s to its credit that unlike, say, 2017’s The Mummy, it’s not overly concerned with frantically gesturing to Easter Eggs and hinting at what’s to come (even if an Easter egg or two for Valiant fans would have been nice). There isn’t even a post-credits scene. Bloodshot is closely linked to the Harbinger series, but the Harbinger movie adaptation has moved from Sony to Paramount, meaning that previous plans for an interconnected universe have likely been affected. The only time that an official other media adaptation of Valiant properties has been made before this is the 2018 web series Ninjak vs the Valiant Universe, co-produced by Bat in the Sun. In that series, Power Rangers star Jason David Frank portrayed Bloodshot.

 

Summary: Bloodshot is not a great movie – it’s not even an especially good movie – but it has a lot of things that this reviewer loves about the sci-fi action genre and even if it doesn’t reach the full potential of the source material, one can tell that some or even most of the people involved were giving this their best shot. If you’re looking for something to rival the best Marvel and DC movies out there, this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for diverting, entertaining sci-fi action that sometimes feels like it’s out of the early-mid 2000s, Bloodshot has you covered.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Underwater review

For F*** Magazine

UNDERWATER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bad Boys For Life review

For F*** Magazine

BAD BOYS FOR LIFE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Spies in Disguise review

For F*** Magazine

SPIES IN DISGUISE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker review

For F*** Magazine

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Cats (Musical, 2019-2020) – review

For F*** Magazine

CATS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jedd Jong

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

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

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

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

Photo by Jedd Jong

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

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

Jedd Jong

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

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