A Wrinkle in Time movie review

For inSing

A WRINKLE IN TIME

Director : AvaDuVernay
Cast : Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Genre : Fantasy/Sci-fi/Family
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 8 March 2018
Rating : PG

Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 young adult sci-fi fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time has captured the imaginations of children for decades. Under the guidance of director Ava DuVernay, the story makes its way to the big screen.

Young Meg Murry (Storm Reid) has never been the same since the mysterious disappearance of her astrophysicist father Alex (Chris Pine) four years ago. She and her adoptive brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) are visited by the eccentric Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a cosmic entity.

Meg, Charles Wallace and their schoolmate Calvin (Levi Miller) soon meet Mrs Whatsit’s compatriots, Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey). The three ‘Mrs Ws’ whisk the children away on an adventure in search of Meg and Charles’ father. It turns out that Alex Murry found a way to ‘tesser’ or ‘wrinkle time’, travelling through the universe and unable to find his way back. The path that lies before Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin is paved with wonder, but also untold danger.

Any time a major studio attempts to make a weird, trippy blockbuster that looks to be something outside the norm, it’s a risk. While audiences constantly crave something different, executing a project like that can be tricky. A Wrinkle in Time is as ambitious as it is flawed – while those flaws do make it very interesting, it is frustrating to glimpse the incredible film that might have been.

Ava DuVernay, director of Selma and 13th, is voice who needs to be heard. It’s a great thing that Disney hired her for A Wrinkle in Time, and DuVernay puts her stamp on the story. There are significant changes made the source material: in addition to updating the setting, the characters of Sandy and Dennys, the twins, have been omitted.

The activism that is at the heart of DuVernay’s storytelling can be glimpsed in the film, through small touches like naming the elementary school attended by Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin after novelist and civil rights activist James Baldwin.

The film’s message is admirable, and its themes of insecurity and a search for belonging are eminently relatable. Unfortunately, A Wrinkle in Time isn’t the easiest film to get into. The world-building seems somewhat haphazard, and the movie struggles to sweep viewers up. There are some beautiful visuals, but much of the computer-generated scenery feels stubbornly synthetic. Location filming in Otago, New Zealand, does lend the film some grandeur, but the landscapes stop short of feeling truly magical.

L’Engle was reading about quantum physics while she wrote A Wrinkle in Time, and in the decades since then, there has been considerable progress in that realm. Both L’Engle’s Christian faith and her interest in science manifest themselves in her writing. We are presented with a melding of science and spirituality, with a new age sensibility permeating the film. The ‘problem of evil’ is confronted head on, with all the evil in the universe emanating from a mystical, malevolent entity known as “The It”. It’s a lot to wrap one’s head around, let alone in a film aimed at kids.

The film’s diverse cast is a point in its favour and is a major way in which DuVernay exercises her voice as the film’s director. Storm Reid shows promise playing the sullen, withdrawn Meg. Many young viewers will readily identify with Meg, and the film’s treatment of body image issues is praiseworthy.

McCabe is impish and endearing, but stumbles through some of the more challenging material in the third act. Miller, best known as Peter Pan in 2015’s Pan, is winsome and just the right amount of dopey as the tagalong.

The three Mrs Ws are appropriately larger-than-life, aided by dramatic hair and makeup and colourful, eye-catching costumes. Oprah Winfrey is convincing as a powerful, benevolent being, since that mostly aligns with her public image. Witherspoon is bubbly and silly, while Kaling is stranded reciting inspirational quotes, a device which doesn’t quite work. The Mrs Ws exist mostly to dispense reams of exposition and aren’t quite as fascinating as their appearances indicate.

Pine is charming, as he is wont to be, if not quite believable as a genius scientist. Gugu Mbatha-Raw doesn’t get too much to do as Meg and Charles Wallace’s mother Kate, but the film is effectively emotional when it depicts the family coping with Alex’s disappearance. Zach Galifianakis is quirky if inessential as The Happy Medium, who fits the ‘weird character we meet along the way’ archetype to a tee.

There is great value in much of what A Wrinkle in Time has to say, but as a transportive, absorbing sci-fi fantasy epic, it doesn’t quite hang together. A Wrinkle in Time is a ‘points for effort’ movie that takes risks – it’s clearly the work of a passionate filmmaker with a distinct voice, so it’s too bad that it winds up being this muddled and unsatisfying.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

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Lady Bird movie review

For inSing

LADY BIRD

Director : Greta Gerwig
Cast : Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Beanie Feldstein, Odeya Rush, Lois Smith, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen Henderson, Jake McDorman
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 34m
Opens : 12 February 2018
Rating : M18

Lady Bird is one of the last big awards season contenders to arrive on our shores. After an excellent showing at the Golden Globes and five Oscar nominations, this little movie comes with big hype.

‘Lady Bird’ is what the title character, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), calls herself. It is 2002, and Lady Bird is a high school senior in Sacramento. She has a contentious relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and is constantly trying to assert her own identity. She also doesn’t quite get along with her adopted older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), whose girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) lives with Lady Bird and her family.

Lady Bird dreams of going to college in New York, but her mother insists on her going to one in California instead. The family is weathering financial difficulty, with Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) struggling to make ends meet. Lady Bird develops a crush on Danny (Lucas Hedges), her co-star in the school’s production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Go Along. She also has feelings for the cool musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet).

Lady Bird’s desire for the acceptance of Kyle’s friend, the wealthy and popular Jenna (Odeya Rush), drives a wedge between Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Lady Bird undergoes formative experiences as she figures out who she’ll become and works through her relationships with those who care about her and, though she won’t admit it, whom she cares for too.

The film has enjoyed an immensely positive reception, with a 99% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps it’s not fair to expect Lady Bird to be the greatest movie ever made and a life-changing rapture, but it is excellent as what it is – a coming-of-age indie comedy-drama.

Writer-director Greta Gerwig has created a film that’s personal but not self-indulgent, executing a masterful balancing act. Indie darlings are often either quite dull or stuffed with histrionics. It’s challenging to keep the dial centred, and Gerwig has more than succeeded. Lady Bird is never boring, but its characters don’t feel like overblown caricatures. Some interactions between characters are perhaps a little more heightened than they’d be in real life, but the film remains easy to connect to throughout.

The film’s authenticity comes in part from how Gerwig draws on her own experiences: like Lady Bird, Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, her mother was a nurse, and she attended an all-girls Catholic high school. Gerwig has gone from being one of the more prominent stars of the ‘mumblecore’ indie film movement to only the fifth woman in history to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Perhaps her own experience as an actress has helped her draw out entertaining, sensitive and authentic performances from her cast.

The preternaturally talented Saoirse Ronan once again proves herself as among the finest young actors working. Lady Bird could easily have come off as obnoxious and insufferable, so it’s to Ronan’s credit that she is easy to root for – not despite, but because of her flaws. The character’s search for a direction in life, the tension between her and her parents, her sexual awakening and romantic relationships, and her angst towards her hometown – these are all things that teenagers have grappled with in one form or another. The balance of the universal and the specific is something that crystallises in Ronan’s portrayal of Lady Bird.

The testy bond between Lady Bird and her mother is something that has resonated strongly with audiences – Metcalf has said in interviews that people have told her that the film made them want to call their mothers afterwards. There is never any doubt that Marion loves her daughter, but even parents with the best intentions have difficult articulating their love for their children. The film makes it easy to see things from both Lady Bird’s and Marion’s sides, with Metcalf taking great care in giving the character enough layers.

Letts, who often plays imperious, unyielding authority figures, brings welcome warmth to the role of Lady Bird’s father Larry. Larry must often be the mediator, since his wife and daughter are so headstrong, and he gets caught in the middle. He also bears the burden of the family’s financial difficulties but internalises this to try and minimise the heartache for everyone else, something many fathers can relate to.

Both of Lady Bird’s love interests are sufficiently distinct: Hedges’ Danny is awkward and sweet, while Chalamet’s Kyle is the artsy rebel-philosopher. This is different from your typical love triangle, and Lady Bird always retains agency such that it never feels like the plot device of a requisite romance is the driving force of the narrative.

The film’s depiction of high school friendship dynamics rings true as well – the way Lady Bird and Julie grow apart when Lady Bird gets accepted by the popular kids is handled with a little too much drama, but Ronan and Feldstein share excellent chemistry.

 

The way the authority figures are portrayed demonstrates the film’s maturity – the nuns and priests who run the Catholic school aren’t monstrous or ridiculously strict, they’re just a little detached from their charges because of the generation gap. Some fun is had at the expense of religion, but it never registers as bald-faced mockery.

Lady Bird is better approached as a low-key indie gem than as a masterpiece that will change the face of cinema forever. That’s not to downplay the accomplishments of its cast and crew, but one might be better positioned to take in the film’s gentle humour and quiet wisdom without the awards season baggage attached. Lady Bird is just that little bit more relatable, more entertaining and more personal than your typical coming-of-age film, benefitting from its writer-director’s perspective and its leading lady’s significant skill.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Operation Red Sea (红海行动) movie review

For inSing

OPERATION RED SEA  (红海行动)

Director : Dante Lam
Cast : Zhang Yi, Huang Jingyu, Hai Qing, Du Jiang, Zhang Hanyu, Jiang Luxia, Fang Yin, Wang Yutian, Guo Jiahao, Henry Mak
Genre : Action
Run Time : 2h 18m
Opens : 15 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Gore And Violence)

With the record-breaking box office success of Wolf Warrior 2, Chinese filmgoing audiences have further demonstrated an appetite for over-the-top, nationalistic action films. Dante Lam’s Operation Red Sea, a showcase for the Chinese Navy, aims to feed that appetite.

The film centres on a unit of the elite Jiaolong (Sea Dragon) assault team. The team is lead by Yang Rui (Zhang Yi), and its members include sniper Gu Shun (Huang Jingyu), gunner Tong Li (Luxia Jiang), Zhang Tiande (Yutian Wang) and Tong Li (Luxia Jiang).

After a successful mission rescuing the crew of a Chinese cargo ship from Somali pirates off the Gulf of Aden, the Jiaolong unit is sent into the North African nation of Yewaire. A coup in Yewaire has left the terrorist organisation Zaka with control of the nation. Among the hostages being held by Zaka are Chinese citizens. The Jiaolong team must rescue the hostages and prevent Zaka from getting their hands on yellowcake uranium to make dirty bombs.

 

Lam’s previous film, 2016’s Operation Mekong, was a bombastic action adventure that featured elaborately-staged action sequences, showcased Chinese military might and claimed to be based on a true story. Operation Red Sea ups the ante in the same aspects but is so overblown and bloated it paradoxically ends up less entertaining than Operation Mekong was. Operation Red Sea takes the loosest inspiration from the real-life evacuation of hundreds of Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from Yemen by the Chinese Navy in 2015.

There isn’t even the slightest effort made to disguise Operation Red Sea’s reason for existence: as a long recruitment film for the Chinese Navy. Just as the 2017 film Sky Hunter was made with the cooperation of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the Chinese Navy is portrayed in only the most glorious, flattering light in Operation Red Sea. It’s akin to how Michael Bay idolises the military in his films, since that’s how he gains access to the latest hardware.

Operation Red Sea, like Operation Mekong, Sky Hunter, Wolf Warrior and other recent military action films that have come out of China, is patterned after the jingoistic Hollywood blockbusters of the 80s like Rambo and Top Gun. This is interesting because China ostensibly sits at the opposite end of the socio-political spectrum, and yet we get flag-waving accompanied by innumerable explosions.

The sheer scale of the spectacle here is astounding. The production values are high, and it looks like the production took over the whole of Morocco to shoot Operation Red Sea. This reviewer’s favourite action sequence is a ridiculous tank chase in which our heroes are pursued across the desert as a sandstorm closes in on them, and they’re firing artillery rounds at the enemy tanks.

Despite the technical competence and resources on display, it’s easy to tune out during the action sequences because they’re so numbing. The major battles in the city are so chaotic that they’re difficult to follow. A good action sequence should have its own mini-narrative, its own three-act structure. Lots of cars flipping over, soldiers traversing between buildings on ziplines, and high-calibre gunfire raining down from helicopters sounds exciting, but when it’s all mashed together in an indistinguishable mass, it just becomes enervating.

You’ll notice we haven’t discussed any of the characters at length, because there isn’t much to discuss. Operation Red Sea isn’t interested in any of the journeys of its characters, who mostly exist to operate machinery. The only character who stands out is plucky journalist Xia Nan (Hai Qing), but even then, she’s a stock type. It’s difficult to care when characters get horribly maimed, and even for an action movie, the gore seems excessive. Emotional scenes are melodramatic and unintentionally funny.

The villains are stereotypical in every way. Hollywood has conditioned audiences to panic any time they hear dialogue in Arabic, and Operation Red Sea sticks to this dictum. The whole thing plays like a Call of Duty-style video game, and the terrorist forces serve as hordes of faceless enemies to mow down.

While military action blockbusters are more in this reviewer’s wheelhouse than the typical comedies released during Chinese New Year, Operation Red Sea is difficult to recommend. While some might enjoy its chest-thumping patriotism and deafening, bombastic violence, Operation Red Sea will wear other less resilient audiences down.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Black Panther movie review

For inSing

BLACK PANTHER

Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast : Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Sterling K. Brown
Genre : Action / Drama / Science Fiction
Run Time : 2h 14mins
Opens : 14 Feb 2018
Rating : PG

After making his debut on the big screen in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. His ascension to the throne will not go too smoothly, otherwise this wouldn’t be a very interesting movie.

After the death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa arrives home for his coronation. It is a bittersweet affair for T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). T’Challa is welcomed by elder statesman and spiritual leader Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the leader of the Dora Milaje bodyguard corps General Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his ex-girlfriend and undercover Wakandan intelligence operative Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

T’Challa’s claim to the crown is challenged by Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a hardened American black-ops soldier with an enigmatic link back to Wakandan royalty. Erik has allied himself with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the arms dealer who pillaged Wakanda’s valuable supply of Vibranium some 20 years ago. While tracking down Klaue, T’Challa runs into CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who finds himself along for the ride as Wakanda wages a battle for the nation’s very soul.

“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved,” Shuri tells her brother. Black Panther takes these words to heart, taking something that works – the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and improving on it. The MCU is now in its 10th year, and while it’s generated far more hits than misses, one still hears murmurs about ‘superhero movie fatigue’. The MCU movies have found an effective formula, but we want something different, something more.

Director Ryan Coogler, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, delivers that. The world-building in Black Panther is dazzling, with wonders waiting around every corner in Wakanda. The politics of the country are portrayed in an engaging manner, and Shakespearean palace intrigue is melded with the whiz-bang Afrofuturism of hovering vehicles and suits of armour that emanate from necklaces. Hannah Beachler’s production design and Ruth E. Carter’s costume design contribute to a visually captivating world brimming with texture.

Said world is populated by beautifully-realised characters – this is yet another MCU movie which boasts a cast stacked with talent. Boseman made an impression in Civil War with the stern dignity and undercurrent of vulnerability so crucial to T’Challa. The character continues to be noble but never boring, idealistic and principled without being naïve. T’Challa treats the throne with awe and respect as he mourns his father’s death. Boseman is thoroughly convincing as a steadfast leader.

Michael B. Jordan, who starred in director Coogler’s two previous films Creed and Fruitvale Station, brings swagger and contemptuous arrogance to the role of Erik. Erik’s Golden Jaguar suit means this is yet another solo MCU movie in which the hero fights an ‘evil inversion’ of himself – see Iron Man vs. Iron Monger or Ant-Man vs. Yellowjacket.

However, there’s more to Erik than your bog-standard MCU villain. Erik has one of the best motivations for an MCU villain yet, and while his tragic back-story has hints of melodrama to it, it’s also compelling and it’s easy for the audience to see his point of view. His rage and hunger for power make us root against him, but his righteous indignation and inner turmoil come from a genuine place.

Black Panther introduces some of the MCU’s best female characters yet. Danai Gurira, best known as Michonne on The Walking Dead, is a kickass right-hand woman to T’Challa who’s handy with a spear and doesn’t suffer fools. Nyong’o, who always exudes warmth and quiet intelligence, serves as a foil to Okoye while being formidable in her own right.

Letitia Wright steals the show as Shuri. Anyone who’s ever had a little sister will recognise the sometimes-annoying, sometimes-endearing traits the character displays. It’s also fun to see Shuri’s eyes light up when she talks effusively about her various mind-boggling inventions, including a new suit of armour for her brother. Executive producer Nate Moore has said that Shuri is even smarter than Tony Stark, and Wright seems to be having as much fun in the role as Robert Downey Jr. has with his.

Andy Serkis, probably grateful that audiences are getting to see his actual face instead of a computer-generated character with his expressions, reprises the role of Klaue from Avengers: Age of Ultron. He bites into the South African accent with relish and is wild, ruthless and entertaining.

Angela Bassett is suitably regal as the Queen Mother Ramonda – we wish she had more to do, but there’s already so much going on in the story. Whitaker’s Zuri is pretty much the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the film – Whitaker himself has said as much. Cleverly enough, Freeman’s Everett Ross plays an important role without overshadowing any of the leads.

Black Panther makes a further case for the cinematic universe as a sandbox for the vision of a talented filmmaker. It never feels like Coogler was curtailed or hampered by corporate higher-ups, and yet this feels of a piece with the existing MCU canon.

Black Panther boldly steps into territory that the MCU hasn’t quite trodden before. While there are the expected superhero origin story tropes, the film’s rich tapestry of culture, technology and action spectacle gives it a welcome freshness. The world of Wakanda is one you’ll want to dive into, and there’s potential for its further exploration in sequels to come.

Hang around for a mid-credits scene, and a second post-credits stinger.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Winchester movie review

For inSing

WINCHESTER

Directors: The Spierig Brothers
Cast : Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Finn Scicluna-O’Prey, Angus Sampson, Laura Brent
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1h 40mins
Opens : 8 Feb 2018
Rating : PG13

In San Jose, California, stands the Winchester Mystery House, reputedly one of the most haunted residences in the United States. This is the story of that house, and the woman who built it.

It is 1906, and Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is summoned by the Winchester Repeating Arms Co.’s lawyers to conduct an evaluation of Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren). Sarah, the widow of Winchester founder William, has sunk all the money left to her by her husband into the construction of a sprawling, labyrinth mansion. She intends to imprison the restless souls of those killed with Winchester rifles within the house’s walls.

Also living in the house are Sarah’s niece Marian Marriott (Sarah Snook) and Marian’s young son Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey). Henry is prone to sleepwalking, but Sarah believes something more sinister might be at play. Eric writes off the spooky occurrences he witnesses as the result of withdrawal from the drugs he’s addicted to, but soon, the paranormal activity grows to intense to ignore. Sarah must find a way to grant the ghosts peace, or they will torment her and her family forever.

Oh, and JUMP SCARE!

The true story of Sarah Winchester and the Mystery House she constructed is fascinating and eerie, so it is a shame to see it reduced to a mostly dull, run of the mill horror movie. Every so often, there are glimmers of potential: production designer Matthew Putland has created a decent approximation of the house’s rooms, and all three principle actors are talented if under-utilised. Unfortunately, directors Peter and Michael Spierig are only content with scratching the surface, always going for the obvious and nothing more.

Winchester could’ve been a disturbing, compelling portrait of a women driven to the brink of insanity, wracked with guilt, and swallowed up by her demons. This has all the makings of a stylish Gothic horror film – imagine what a director like Guillermo del Toro could’ve done with this material. Alas, we merely get a succession of jump scares, and the mansion never becomes the central character we are promised it will be.

There’s also the opportunity to make a political statement, given the hot-button topic gun control always is in America. There are allusions to oppressed minorities, including African-American slaves and Native Americans, but Winchester never goes anywhere interesting with this. The central ghost winds up being rather boring, given that there are supposedly hundreds of other ghosts who lurk around the manor’s halls.

There’s a degree of novelty in the fact that a respected Oscar-winning actress like Helen Mirren deigned to star in a generic horror movie. Alas, that novelty fades fast. Mirren is good but unremarkable – this can mostly be chalked up to how the script refuses to give any real depth to Sarah’s personal turmoil, and how keen the movie is to explain things the audience should have already deduced. Mirren doesn’t fling herself off the deep end, never surrendering to the madness in a way that could be considered entertaining. At the same time, the movie does want to be sufficiently respectful of Sarah Winchester, by refraining from painting her as crazy. We can only imagine the meal Mirren would’ve made of this character, were she better written.

Clarke’s Eric is the standard sceptical man of science, who refuses to believe that supernatural forces are at work. Naturally, there’s a tragic back-story he must come to terms with. Clarke’s trying, but there’s not much to work with. Same goes for Snook, who starred in the Spierig Brothers’ far superior film Predestination. She spends most of the movie looking scared.

Winchester could’ve gone in two directions: a genuinely creepy psychological thriller that delves into the mind of a truly disturbed, complex woman; or an over-the-top Hammer Horror-style haunted house movie that’s campy, arch and blood-soaked. This film is neither and is instead middle-of-the-road and disappointingly bland. Even Mirren’s presence can’t elevate Winchester, which should have plenty to say about the effect of gun violence on those who are left behind to pick up the pieces but says almost nothing.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Basmati Blues movie review

For inSing

BASMATI BLUES

Director : Danny Barron
Cast : Brie Larson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Scott Bakula, Saahil Sehgal, Donald Sutherland, Tyne Daly, Lakshmi Manchu
Genre : Musical/Comedy/Romance
Run Time : 1h 47mins
Opens : 8 Feb 2018
Rating : PG

Many famous actors have done movies they’d rather the filmgoing public forget about: Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger have Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Jennifer Aniston has Leprechaun, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire have Don’s Plum, and George Clooney has Batman and Robin.

Brie Larson has Basmati Blues.

In this musical romantic comedy, Larson plays Dr. Linda Watt, a scientist who, with her father Ben (Scott Bakula), has invented the genetically-engineered Rice 9. Linda is sent by her boss Gurgon (Donald Sutherland) to Bilari, India to sell the new strain of rice to local farmers.

In India, Linda meets Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an agriculture student who has returned to his village because he cannot afford his tuition. Linda is wooed by William Patel (Saahil Sehgal), the crooked agriculture ministry liaison. It turns out that Gurgon plans to exploit the farmers and is counting on them not reading the fine print in the contract. Linda must save the people she has befriended from the schemes of her boss.

Basmati Blues was made in 2013, before Larson hit the big time with her Best Actress Oscar win for Room. Larson is now an A-lister, set to play Captain Marvel in the MCU. This means it’s an opportune moment to release Basmati Blues, which really should’ve sat on a shelf forever.

Despite the producers’ protestations to the contrary, Basmati Blues is a white saviour movie. It trades in outmoded exoticism and retrograde stereotypes and is a fish-out-of-water love story in which a sheltered white woman learns to embrace life as she falls in love with a man in a foreign land. Basmati Blues attempts to address the western exploitation of India by way of having its villains be unscrupulous corporate overlords, but it takes a step forward and about ten back. The film was shot in the South Indian state of Kerala, but takes place in Uttar Pradesh in the North, with no effort made to ensure the authenticity of details like the languages used on signage.

Nearly every decision seems like the wrong one, and this is amateur hour in the extreme. Director Dan Baron makes his feature film debut with this film, which is ostensibly a love letter to Bollywood musicals. There are ways to do tasteful homages to the cinema of other countries – this is not the way. The production values seem cheap, the choreography is inept, and many of the songs are downright awful. We will admit to kind of enjoying the romantic duet “Foolish Heart”.

One of the primary tasks of any musical is to convince audiences that it’s perfectly normal for the characters to burst into song. Basmati Blues does not achieve this. Brie Larson dances around a lab, singing about how great it is to be a scientist, and things don’t get any less awkward from there.

None of this is Brie Larson’s fault, apart from that she should’ve known after reading the script not to have said yes to this. Her performance is sufficiently amiable, and she has a fine singing voice, but it’s hard not to feel waves of second-hand embarrassment washing over the audience whenever the Oscar winner is onscreen.

Utkarsh Ambudkar, best known for his role in The Mindy Project, is charming and earnest and, like Larson, trying to make the most out of terrible material. Saahil Sehgal is extremely handsome and believably slick, but the love triangle is tiresome. There are more misunderstandings between the main couple than in five rom-coms put together.

Respectable actors Sutherland and Daly are absolutely slumming it, but Daly does have the best voice in the whole cast. Bakula is barely in the film, but even so, he hasn’t lost his ‘aw shucks’ charm.

The Hanlon’s Razor principle states “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The filmmakers behind Basmati Blues likely never intended malice, and some might probably even be genuine fans of Bollywood cinema. However, stupidity is enough to do damage. This misbegotten travesty is a blight on Larson’s filmography, and is destined to become a so-bad-it’s-good cult classic. Prepare to cringe like you never have before.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Last Flag Flying movie review

For inSing

LAST FLAG FLYING

Director : Richard Linklater
Cast : Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson, Cicely Tyson, Yul Vasquez
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 2h 5mins
Opens : 25 Jan 2018
Rating : NC16

In this comedy-drama, three Vietnam war veterans reunite and rekindle their friendship, but under less-than-ideal circumstances. It is December 2003, and Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell), a former Navy Corpsman, receives the devastating news that his son Larry Jr. has been killed in Iraq. Doc asks bar owner Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and pastor Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who served in the Marines in Vietnam alongside Doc, to accompany him to retrieve and bury his son’s body.

Doc, Sal and Mueller arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, to receive the body of Larry Jr. There, the trio meets LCpl. Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), who was Larry’s best friend in the Marines. Sal butts heads with Lt. Col. Willitis (Yul Vasquez), as Doc tries to process the loss of his son and Mueller attempts to counsel him. Despite the tragedy that brought them back together, the three men rediscover their friendship and work through each of their own issues which have been remained unresolved over the last 30 years.

Last Flag Flying is based on the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Richard Linklater. Ponicsan is known for the 1970 novel The Last Detail, which was adapted into a film starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid. While the novel was a direct sequel to The Last Detail, featuring some of the same characters, the film adaptation of Last Flag Flying is a spiritual sequel to The Last Detail instead.

Last Flag Flying deals with some heady themes, including those of loss, faith, patriotism and friendship. It packages this into a male bonding comedy-drama, and winds being a modest, moving film. The film pays respect to veterans without veering into overblown chest-thumping territory. There are times when the film feels hampered by its road trip structure, but the dialogue is well-written and balances interaction between the characters with exposition. Our trio of protagonists must face truths about themselves and confront long-buried secrets, each man at a different point on his respective journey to make peace with himself and his past.

In recent years, Carell has made considerable efforts to push past his comfort zone as a comedic actor, and he puts in a quiet, sombre performance. Sadness weighs on Doc, sadness he doesn’t know how to express. There are times when the withdrawn meekness comes off as an affectation, but Carell is largely convincing in his portrayal of a man in the throes of crushing grief.

Cranston is the movie’s dynamo. As the belligerent, alcoholic Sal, Cranston gets all the movie’s best lines. Sal is confrontational and speaks his mind, and is wildly expressive, giving Cranston the chance to display his physical comedy chops. Naturally, there’s a hollowness at the centre of all this, and Sal is a broken man using humour to cope. He is the instigator of much of the conflict, and keeps things moving.

Of the three protagonists, Mueller is the most at peace with himself, having found God and heeded his calling to become a preacher. Fishburne starts out calm, but there are points when Mueller is pushed to his breaking point. The character often acts as mediator, and it’s to the film’s credit that his faith is treated seriously rather than mocked outright. The arguments that Mueller and Sal have over the existence of God aren’t anything we haven’t heard before, but Mueller’s point of view registers as a valid one.

Quinton Johnson, who recently made his Broadway debut in Hamilton, is warm and likeable as Charlie. Charlie is the only real link audiences have to Larry Jr., as most of what we know about Doc’s slain son is conveyed by Charlie. Veteran actress Cicely Tyson shows up in an emotional, subtly sad scene.

“Every generation has its war,” Sal observes pithily, adding “Men make the wars; wars make the men”. There might not be as much depth here as we would’ve liked, but there still is resonance to Last Flag Flying. It’s a low-key film that can sometimes feel a little slow, but is given life by its trio of protagonists. The screenplay balances sensitivity with ‘guy’s night out’ brashness, never coming across as sanctimonious or preachy even as it deals with serious issues. It could stand to be a little tighter, but there’s warmth, wisdom and just a dash of silliness that makes Last Flag Flying worthwhile and thought-provoking.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Shape of Water movie review

For inSing

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Director : Guillermo del Toro
Cast : Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Genre : Drama, Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 4m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes And Nudity)

       In The Godfather, the Corleone family received a threatening message, telling them that the enforcer Luca Brasi “sleeps with the fishes”.

This fantasy romance film puts an entirely different spin on that phrase.

It is 1962, and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor working at a secret government facility in Baltimore. Elsa lives alone, and her two best friends are her neighbour, illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the severe head of security, arrives at the facility with precious cargo in tow – a humanoid amphibian creature dubbed ‘the Asset’ (Doug Jones). Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is studying the Asset, takes issue with Strickland’s harsh treatment towards the creature.

Elisa gradually begins to bond with the creature, bringing him eggs and playing music on a gramophone in his presence. As unlikely as it seems, Elisa begins to fall in love with the Asset. When she discovers his life is in danger, Elisa sets about rescuing the Asset from the facility, making her a target of Strickland’s wrath.

Director Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the film with Vanessa Taylor, has always been a genre filmmaker. All his films can be classified as fantasy, horror, science fiction, or some combination of the above. However, this has never restricted him – rather, working within these genres has freed del Toro as a storyteller. General audiences often view genre films through a somewhat narrow lens, but del Toro broadens said lens, and The Shape of Water is an excellent example of this approach. The film has garnered 13 Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director – it’s not every day that the Academy recognises fantasy romance monster movies this way.

This is a weird, beautiful, enchanting movie. On the surface, there’s the oddness of a woman falling in love and entering a physical relationship with a humanoid fish creature. Originally, del Toro wanted to remake Creature from the Black Lagoon, but from Gill-man’s perspective, recasting the classic movie monster as a romantic lead.

Naturally, cheesy romance novels in which women fall in love with supernatural creatures of various stripes, including but not limited to vampires, werewolves, angels and immortals, come to mind. However, The Shape of Water is far more poetic and less literal than that. Its bizarreness is intertwined with enveloping warmth. This is a movie about outsiders finding solace and understanding in each other, and past the genre trappings, there’s something pure and resonant about that.

The film treats 60s America with a degree of romanticism, but is also keenly aware of the societal tensions at the time and how those attitudes continue to manifest themselves today. This is a fantasy, but the world in which it unfolds is eminently believable.

Like all del Toro’s movies, The Shape of Water is deliberately designed. All the little details vividly evoke the period, and the atmospherics, from the colour palette to Alexandre Desplat’s harp-driven score, sell the film as a meticulously crafted whole. As envisioned by production designer Paul D. Austerberry and shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, there’s a cold dankness to the research facility. However, this proves to be the right setting for the romance between Elisa and the Asset to blossom, the unromantic surrounds throwing their bond into sharper relief.

The Elisa character gives Hawkins the opportunity to deliver a sensitive yet electrifying performance. The character is mute, and has always felt like she’s been regarded as missing something everyone else does, but she is a whole person, with dreams and desires of her own. The character’s sexuality is portrayed with a refreshing frankness, and Hawkins brings no vanity to the part at all.

Hawkins’ physicality complements the physicality displayed by Doug Jones, an oft-collaborator of Guillermo del Toro’s. Like classic movie monster portrayers Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, there’s more to Doug Jones than the fact that he’s in special effects makeup in most of his roles. In The Shape of Water, he gives a legitimately masterful performance, overcoming the constraints of what must’ve been a very uncomfortable suit, especially since Jones was in water for most of the film.

With his luminous skin and limpid eyes, The Asset is beautifully designed, and has become something of an unlikely sex symbol. Legacy Effects developed the special effects suit and makeup, and it’s easy to buy the Asset as a living, breathing entity. However, he looks so much like Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies – also directed by del Toro – that this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine the Asset was Abe Sapien, even though del Toro has said they’re different characters.

Michael Shannon is in maximum creep mode, playing a truly despicable antagonist. Strickland is inherently cruel, racist and exacting, but has also bought in to the consumerist message of the ‘American dream’, coveting a fancy new Cadillac. There’s a bit of a supervillain air to Strickland, but Shannon never goes the full moustache-twirling hog. There’s the religious zealot angle, with Strickland referencing Bible stories and saying that the Asset is an aberration for not being made ‘in God’s image’. Shannon can always be counted on to play a scary villain, and Strickland is plenty scary.

Jenkins’ Giles is a loveable character, someone who’s harbouring a secret and whom, like Elisa, knows what it’s like to be an outcast. The friendship shared by Elisa and Giles is sweet, and Jenkins and Hawkins play off each other to create an unconventional, lightly comedic double act.

Spencer plays to type as Zelda, sassy and chatty and always an understanding friend and co-worker to Elisa. Stuhlbarg’s character seems like the stock sci-fi movie scientist, but we see a few layers to him as the film progresses.

The Shape of Water is an exquisite creation that brims with humanity. It’s not afraid to expose some of the ugliness of humanity, but it counteracts that with indescribable beauty. This is a fairy tale for grown-ups, with plenty to say beyond its central conceit of ‘woman falls in love with humanoid fish monster’. There will be audiences who might be put off by its superficial weirdness, but most viewers will find it easy to surrender to the film’s embrace, however cold and slimy it might seem at first.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The man within the monster: five memorable Doug Jones roles

For insing

The man within the monster: five memorable Doug Jones roles

Gaze upon the many faces of the star of The Shape of the Water

By Jedd Jong

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Todd Williamson/JanuaryImages/REX/Shutterstock (9225445l)
Doug Jones
The Shape of Water film premiere, After Party, Los Angeles, USA – 15 Nov 2017

If Andy Serkis is the actor most closely associated with performance capture roles, then Doug Jones is the actor most closely identified with the more old-fashioned ‘men in rubber suits’ technique of portraying movie monsters. Jones has over 150 credits to his name, and has often played characters under layers of prosthetics.

Director Guillermo del Toro with stars Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones

Jones co-stars with Sally Hawkins in director Guillermo del Toro’s new period fantasy romance The Shape of Water, in which he plays a humanoid amphibian creature known only as ‘The Asset’. Jones’ lanky proportions make him the ideal canvas on which special effects makeup artists can work their magic: the former contortionist comes in at 1.92 metres tall. He got his start in advertising, playing a mummy in a Southwest Airlines commercial and the moon-headed piano player in the McDonald’s ‘Mac Tonight’ ads.

The actor’s association with del Toro began in 1997, when Jones was brought in for reshoots to play the humanoid cockroach creature in Mimic. “He loves creepy monsters and wants to talk about them,” Jones recalled. The two formed an instant connection, with del Toro excited to learn about the various famous makeup artists with whom Jones had collaborated.

Special effects makeup artist Shane Mahan, designer Mike Hill and Doug Jones

Jones went on to co-star in del Toro’s Hellboy movies, and has worked all del Toro’s films since then except Pacific Rim. Jones’ other projects include Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Bye Bye Man, Batman Returns, Hocus Pocus, and Always Watching: A Marble Hornets Story, in which he played The Operator, a character based on the Slender Man internet mythological character.

There’s more to what Jones does than putting on a rubber suit and walking around. “Acting is acting,” he stated. “So whether I’m wearing a light dusting of powder that day on a sitcom, or wearing heavy rubber prosthetic make-ups, I still have to find the heart and soul of the character. That’s really where it starts with me.”

The Shape of Water has become something of an awards season darling, nominated for a whopping 13 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. Del Toro also won a Best Director Golden Globe for the film, and the film took home best picture at the Producer’s Guild Awards. Lead actors Hawkins and Jones were praised for their physicality, and for making the outlandish, weird relationship between woman and fish-man beast feel plausible and emotional.

Here is a look at five of the most memorable roles Doug Jones has played throughout his career as the go-to guy to give monsters some heart.

#1: ABE SAPIEN in HELLBOY and HELLBOY II

Early glimpses of the Asset in The Shape of Water immediately attracted comparisons to Abe Sapien, a similar-looking character Jones portrayed in the two live-action Hellboy movies. The thoughtful, reserved aquatic humanoid blue-skinned Abe serves as an ideal foil to the brash, red-skinned Hellboy (Ron Perlman). The character was voiced over by David Hyde Pierce in the first film, but Jones voiced Abe himself in the sequel. Jones also voiced Abe in two animated Hellboy films. Referring the trio of Hellboy, the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman (Selma Blair) and Abe, Jones said “between the three of us, I think we represent the freak in all of us, in all of humanity, we all feel, even supermodels that I’ve known, feel insecure and freaky at times.”

To play the intellectual Abe, Jones drew inspiration from his older brother Bob, a college professor with a PhD in molecular biology. “Abe has always been something of a lost soul, as is Hellboy, and I think that’s why people can relate to them is because we all feel like freaks in our real life at some point,” Jones said. The Abe Sapien makeup application process took seven hours for the first film, which was streamlined to five hours for the sequel. In Hellboy II, Jones also played two additional characters: the Chamberlain and the eerie Angel of Death. Jones said the mechanical wings he wore as the Angel of Death “weighed as much as a Vespa”, and even left him bleeding. “Those are small sacrifices to make when you look at the final product and say, ‘Okay, that’s what we made,’” Jones remarked graciously.

#2: THE FAUN in PAN’S LABYRINTH

In the haunting, lyrical Spanish-language dark fantasy film Pan’s Labyrinth, Doug Jones portrays the Faun. The Faun guides the young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) into a fantasy world where she must complete a series of quests. Jones, who doesn’t speak Spanish and had to learn the screenplay phonetically, received an email from del Toro, in which the director proclaimed “You must be in this film. No one else can play this part but you.” For research, del Toro gave Jones specific advice, telling the actor “Dougie, I want you to study the back end of barn animals’ — like cows, goats, you know, how do their hooves meet the ground, and how they shake their tails.”

“I read it within hours of getting it…I couldn’t put it down,” Jones said of the screenplay. “I turned the last page closed, wiped a tear and said, ‘I do have to be in this movie.’” During the five-hour long process of putting on the makeup and animatronic effects components to play the Faun, Jones would practice his Spanish dialogue and the makeup artists would help him. Jones’ voice was later dubbed over by Spanish theatre actor Pablo Adán.

The Faun also ages in reverse – he starts out looking decrepit, with moss growing all over him, but his hair eventually turns an auburn colour and he looks more youthful as Ofelia progresses in her quest. Jones had to cooperate with various others artists and technicians to bring the Faun to life. “A lot of things had to work in concert with them together and with puppeteers operating half my face and all, so he had many various elements that had to be screwed on mechanically and zippered and pinned and snapped and Velcroed,” Jones explained.

#3: THE PALE MAN in PAN’S LABYRINTH

In Pan’s Labyrinth, Jones also portrayed the exceedingly creepy Pale Man, one of the various obstacles Ofelia must overcome. The Pale Man has a bloodied mouth and an eyeless face – his eyes are instead in his palms. The fact that Jones plays both roles is intended to suggest that the Pale Man is a creation of the Faun, or even the Faun himself in another form. The Pale Man’s pursuit of Ofelia through his palace is one of the film’s most heart-stopping moments. “I have had the great honour to sit next to Stephen King during the Pale Man sequence and to see him squirm like crazy,” del Toro said, comparing the feeling of having frightened the renowned horror author to winning an Oscar.

The Pale Man’s sagging skin indicates that at one point he was plump – when he had plenty of children to eat. Ofelia is the first child to enter his lair in eons, and the Pale Man is sure she will not escape his grasp. Del Toro’s direction to Jones for the chase scene was to move like “a George Romero zombie”. To save time and allow the makeup team and himself to get more sleep, Jones would leave part of the Pale Man makeup on and wear it back to the hotel. “I didn’t tell anybody this during the shoot because I knew that Guillermo would have my hide for it because he wants me to relax and out of this all. But I had them take my head and neck off and my hands off but leave the arms and the torso on,” Jones revealed.
#4: LT. SARU in STAR TREK: DISCOVERY

We leave the realm of movies for a bit and beam over to TV, where Jones is currently a regular cast member on Star Trek: Discovery. The long-running Star Trek franchise has introduced a multitude of iconic alien species to audiences, including the Vulcans, Klingons, Romulans, Andorians and the Borg. In Star Trek: Discovery, we meet a new race: the Kelpians. Kelpians are a prey species, used to being at the bottom of the food chain. Cmdr. Saru, played by Jones, is the first Kelpian to rise through the Starfleet ranks, becoming the science officer and third-in-command on the USS Shenzhou. One of Saru’s distinguishing features is his ‘threat ganglia’, an organ at the back of the head that helps him sense oncoming danger.

Saru has a somewhat contentious but generally friendly relationship with the show’s heroine, First Officer Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green), which Jones compares to a brother-sister bond. “We annoy each other, but we have a deep love and respect for each other as well. Saru thinks she’s the smartest Starfleet officer he’s ever worked with. So that’s where the intimidation and the competition really comes from,” Jones reasoned. The makeup application process was initially four hours long, but makeup artist James McKinnon has gotten that down to two. “His detail and his finery of getting this on to me every day is amazing, but he’s getting faster at it. Mercifully so,” Jones said. “When you’re doing a long-running series, you don’t want to be in makeup four hours a day. So, getting it done in two is very helpful.”

#5: THE ASSET in THE SHAPE OF WATER

And now, to the man – or the humanoid amphibian, rather – of the hour. In The Shape of Water, set in 1962, Jones portrays a mysterious creature brought back from South America and held in a top-secret government lab in Baltimore. Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor at the facility, becomes fascinated by and eventually falls in love with the Asset, who is tormented by the sadistic ex-soldier Strickland (Michael Shannon). Elisa eventually hatches a bold plan to break the Asset out of the underground lab in which he is held.

The Asset has become something of an unlikely sex symbol, and that was entirely by design. “A note Guillermo gave me, as far as [the Asset’s] physicality goes, he kept pushing the sexy,” Jones said. “This character has to be sexy. When watching the film you have to believe that someone could actually fall in love with him and find him sexy and want to take their clothes off in his presence.” Del Toro said he set out to create the ‘Michelangelo’s David of fishmen’. He collaborated with fine artist Mike Hill, whom del Toro met at the Monsterpalooza trade event, in designing the Asset. Del Toro was unsure if Jones, a practicing Christian, would be comfortable performing some risqué scenes. “I asked what could possibly be the problem and he goes, ‘Well, there’s a f*** scene.’ As only he could say,” Jones recalled with a laugh.

Addressing the physical similarities between the Asset and Abe Sapien, Jones said “Guillermo was very specific, he did not want Abe Sapien in this film at all,” and that del Toro wanted The Shape of Water to stand alone as “its own piece of art”. While Abe is intelligent and articulate, the Asset is animalistic, and cannot speak – which is a way in which Elisa relates to the Asset, since she is mute. Jones said that the relationship between the two characters was “so lovely to explore on film.”

The Shape of Water opens in Singapore theatres on 1 February 2018

I, Tonya movie review

For inSing

I, TONYA

Director : Craig Gillespie
Cast : Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Mckenna Grace
Genre : Biography, Drama, Sports
Run Time : 1h 19m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language and Sexual Scenes)

Every awards season, we get at least a few inspirational sports biopics about resilient athletes who overcome insurmountable odds, becoming heroes to people everywhere.

I, Tonya is not that movie.

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was the first U.S. female figure skater to pull off the extremely tricky triple axel move. If you were around during the 90s, you might have a vague recollection of the rivalry between Tonya and fellow Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). This culminated in Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and Jeff’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) planning an attack against Nancy. After a hired hand breaks Nancy’s knee with a retractable baton, it isn’t long before suspicion falls on Tonya and Jeff.

The film follows the lead-up to and aftermath of this incident. Tonya’s mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney) mercilessly pushes her daughter, and Tonya’s life revolves around abusive relationships. Facing numerous setbacks and eventually cast as a villain by the media, Tonya pursues her dream of being the #1 figure skater in the world.

I, Tonya is an acerbic subversion of your bog-standard awards bait sports biopic. It’s sometimes unpleasant, and intentionally so. Director Craig Gillespie, who previously helmed the more traditional sports movie Million Dollar Arm, takes a black comedy approach to Tonya Harding’s life story. He directs from a screenplay by Steven Rogers – this is easily the Love the Coopers screenwriter’s edgiest work.

Tonally, I, Tonya is tricky. It wants the audience to laugh at the ‘white trash’ characters that populate the story, while also empathising with them. It wants to be cynical and snarky, yet sincere. There are moments when the cracks begin to show, but given the ambitiousness of this juggling of moods, I, Tonya works far better than it might have in different hands.

The film is framed with interview sequences in which the characters, a gallery of unreliable narrators, speak directly to camera. Outside these interview scenes, we also get fourth wall breaks. Everything is caustic, everyone is varying degrees of broken, and yet, it’s funny. The ice skating sequences are also absolutely mesmerising and thrilling, pinpricks of gracefulness in the blackness of awful people being awful.

Robbie, who is also the co-producer through her Lucky Chap Productions label, holds this all together. She throws every ounce of herself into a performance that is impossible to look away from and which has deservedly netted her an Oscar nomination. Piercing through the public perception of Tonya, Robbie paints the portrait of someone who has been knocked about her whole life, Tonya’s unsportsmanlike behaviour and overall demeanour a result of that. Robbie is flashy, sincere, wild and showcases impressive physicality, under the tutelage of coach Sarah Kawahara. This is the ‘sink-your-teeth-into-it’ role actors live for, and Robbie makes quite the meal of it.

Even with that highly unflattering moustache, Stan is still quite loveable. The Jeff character isn’t meant to be – he’s a dope, and he’s abusive, but is he malicious? Is he even smart enough to be capable of malice? The relationship between Tonya and Jeff rivals that of Harley Quinn and the Joker in the ‘toxic and unhealthy’ stakes. The film’s depiction of domestic abuse is harrowing, but doesn’t quite fit in with the devil-may-care glibness established earlier.

Janney handily steals the show as the abrasive, cruel, yet oddly endearing LaVona. Janney undergoes a complete transformation, and while we’ve seen the cigarette-smoking stage mom archetype before, she unearths several layers to the character. LaVona’s abusiveness towards Tonya contributes to Tonya’s acceptance of Jeff’s abuse after they are married. Janney is hotly tipped to take home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this performance.

The film also works to dispel the myth that parents who push their children past their breaking point in the pursuit of excellence are helping their children, and that’s what their children need. LaVona thinks that Tonya performs best when she is enraged, so she engineers situations to throw her child off balance – it’s psychological abuse.

As Tonya’s long-suffering coach Diane Rawlinson, Julianne Nicholson is the sole source of purity, comfort and level-headedness in this sea of scuzziness. Her presence offers a respite from the overwhelming unpleasantness of everything else.

Paul Walter Hauser has a good deal of fun with the role of Shawn, the schlubby friend with delusions of grandeur who ‘masterminds’ a criminal plot with consequences far beyond what Jeff or Tonya could have imagined. This section of the movie plays a bit like a Coen Brothers caper, with bumbling characters who are not very good at being up to no good.

I, Tonya is challenging in that it leaves the audience laughing but uncomfortable as they’re doing so. The film is sympathetic to its title character, but also leans into the tabloid perception of her as it attempts to dig beyond that surface. Mostly, I, Tonya is a terrific showcase for Margot Robbie’s increasingly stunning talents as a leading lady.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong