Ant-Man and the Wasp movie review

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP

Director : Peyton Reed
Cast : Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Judy Greer, David Dastmalchian, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Bobby Cannavale,, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas
Genre : Action/Adventure/Science Fiction/Superhero
Run Time : 118 mins
Opens : 4 July 2018
Rating : PG

Fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have had a bit of time to recover from the earth-shattering events of Avengers: Infinity War. Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) was noticeably missing from that film, and now we learn what he was up to while everyone else was tangling with Thanos.

After Scott made it back from the Quantum Realm at the end of the first Ant-Man film, Dr Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) believes that there’s a chance his wife Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), who was lost in the Quantum Realm decades ago, might still be alive. Together with his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Pym tries to locate Janet and rescue her.

Meanwhile, Scott is under house arrest, after getting into big trouble during the events of Captain America: Civil War. Whilst evading FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and trying to be a good dad to Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), Scott returns to superheroics. He now fights alongside Hope, who’s inherited the mantle of the Wasp from her mother. They must fend off black market tech dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and the enigmatic Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can turn invisible and phase through solid objects. Scott can count on his ex-convict buddies Luis (Michael Peña), Dave (Tip “T.I.” Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian) for help, though how much they actually help is up for debate.

We’ve all seen “fun” used as a descriptor for innumerable MCU movies. There’s no denying that Ant-Man and the Wasp is fun. It’s an unabashedly silly film packed with jokes and some inspired visual gags, and its tone is consistent with that of the first Ant-Man film. While something less intense is welcome in the wake of Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp is often in danger of feeling a touch inconsequential – especially given what an impact Black Panther made earlier this year.

On paper, there’s nothing too wrong with Ant-Man and the Wasp, and it ticks all the boxes. The mission to rescue Janet from the Quantum Realm is a great premise for the sequel and has considerable emotional drive, yet there are times when the film feels no more than perfunctory. The pacing is good, and the movie feels shorter than its 118 minutes, but it seems like it’s scurrying from Point A to Point B. Plenty of jokes land, but some of the humour is a little forced, and Luis and co. feel like they’ve been shoehorned in.

Where Ant-Man and the Wasp excels is in its set-pieces. The film makes inventive use of the mass-shifting conceit, and director Peyton Reed seems to have gotten bolder in staging said set-pieces. The choreography of how the titular heroes work in tandem is dazzling. There’s a kitchen fight in which Wasp dodges a meat mallet, and a car chase down San Francisco’s Lombard Street involving a shrinking van – this could be an homage to The Dead Pool, in which Dirty Harry is pursued through the streets of San Francisco by a radio-controlled toy car. It’s a great example of a comic book film creatively exploiting its characters’ abilities.

This film leans a little more into retro sci-fi with its Fantastic Voyage-esque micro submersible and more appearances from giant ants. Christophe Beck’s score also employs a bit more of a brassy big band sound, evoking spy-fi of yore.

Rudd’s everyman who’s fallen on the wrong side of the tracks continues to be endearing, and the film tries to give Scott some character growth, though there’s not too much to be had. The scenes that Scott shares with his daughter are on the right side of twee. Scott is the regular dude among geniuses, and Rudd plays off Lilly and Douglas well.

Lilly relishes the chance to partake in the superhero action this time around, and the Wasp’s abilities are impressively realised. Hope clearly knows what she’s doing, and there’s a precision to her fighting style and movements that Scott never quite possessed. Hope has been waiting her whole life for this and is in her element, and it’s gratifying to see her fulfil her destiny as the Wasp.

Douglas gets to be a little more active in this one than in the first Ant-Man film, but he’s still mostly there to be crotchety. The relationship between Pym and Janet is sufficiently established. By necessity, Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t get to be in this one a lot, though it’s hard not to wish she had more screen time.

There’s half a good idea here with Ghost. The appearance and abilities of the character from the comics is used, but everything else about her is created for the film. Ghost is in a constant state of flux, confused and angry, and is a formidable opponent to our heroes. She’s no Thanos or Killmonger, but she’s an adequate villain for this film.

Walton Goggins plays a standard-issue Walton Goggins character, supremely untrustworthy and grinning as he goes after what he wants. Randall Park is funny as the dogged FBI agent who tries to keep Scott under his thumb, and hopefully he goes on to be a badass secret agent like the Jimmy Woo of the comics. Fishburne is reliable as Professor Bill Foster, who had a falling out with Pym when they were colleagues.

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a trifle, but it’s an entertaining, well-made trifle. Not every MCU movie needs to upend the status quo, and Ant-Man and the Wasp is quite comfortable being the silly thing it is. While the movie has welcome tricks up its sleeve with the further integration of mass-shifting into the action sequences, it can sometimes feel like we’re just watching the first one again.

Stick around for a mid-credits scene and a post-credits stinger.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Incredibles 2 movie review

For inSing

INCREDIBLES 2

Director : Brad Bird
Cast : Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush, Phil LaMarr
Genre : Animation/Family/Action
Run Time : 125 mins
Opens : 14 June 2018
Rating : PG

A lot can happen in 14 years. While that’s how long audiences have had to wait for a sequel to Pixar’s The Incredibles, barely a minute has elapsed in-universe.

Incredibles 2 picks up right where the first film left off. Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and their children Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) seem like the ideal crime-fighting family. However, superheroes are still deemed illegal, with the authorities blaming the Incredibles and their ilk for the collateral damage incurred.

Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), heir to a telecommunications fortune and superhero fanboy. Together with his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), Winston runs DeavorTech and has a plan to win over the public and lawmakers, to make superheroes legal again. Bob feels a touch insecure when DeavorTech gravitates towards Helen, making her the face of this campaign while he’s left at home looking after the children.

To complicate things, Jack-Jack begins manifesting an array of powers. In the meantime, Elastigirl faces off against a dastardly villain called ‘the Screenslaver’, who hypnotises his victims via monitors. Together with long-time allies Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird), The Parr family must adjust to the new status quo and save the world while they’re at it.

A follow-up to The Incredibles has been one of the most-requested films from Pixar fans. That movie was a game-changer, a stylish superhero film that also served as meta commentary on the superhero phenomenon. It’s been said that The Incredibles is the best Fantastic Four movie that could ever be made. It also touched on similar themes as the considerably more adult graphic novel Watchmen, primarily the relationship between superheroes and the public they protect, and following superheroes after they retire and attempt to adjust to everyday life.

As such, expectations for Incredibles 2 are sky-high. The film mostly meets those expectations. It’s unavoidable that the 14-year wait has dilated those expectations, but it’s important to consider how much the pop culture landscape has changed, and how big a boom the comic book movie genre has experienced in those intervening years. While Incredibles 2 isn’t as ground-breaking as its predecessor, it’s still enjoyable and, as expected from Pixar, finely made.

Many of the design elements first seen in The Incredibles are vividly expanded upon here. The appealing 50s-tinged retro-futurism is turbo-charged here – writer-director Brad Bird displays a similar mastery of nostalgia as he did with The Iron Giant. The Parrs move into a house that strongly resembles Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and Michael Giacchino’s score homages both John Barry’s James Bond scores and Neal Hefti’s Batman ’66 theme. The influence of the classic Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons is also strongly felt. It’s nostalgia on multiple levels, since audiences are already nostalgic for the first Incredibles film. However, most nostalgia-driven media these days is centred around the 80s or 90s, not the 50s, giving Incredibles 2 a degree of novelty.

The action set pieces are marvels to behold. From the city-spanning spectacle of Elastgirl attempting to halt a runaway train to the physical comedy of Jack-Jack tussling with an unruly raccoon, Incredibles 2 packs in memorable, eye-catching moments. Several new superheroes, including the portal-generating Voyd (Sophia Bush), allow for even more dynamic visual invention. Every comic book movie seems to struggle with outdoing the last in terms of delivering spectacle, so its admirable that the action sequences in Incredibles 2 are as stylish and animated with as much panache as they are.

The characterisation remains consistent, and much of the fun and the heart in this film, as with the previous one, is in how convincing the Parrs are as a family unit. Superpowers may be thrown into the mix, but the interactions between parents and children are eminently relatable. Bob struggles with feeling inadequate as the spotlight is placed squarely on his wife, and the film fleshes this out instead of reducing it to a single joke. We see Bob try to be a good father to his three kids, struggling with understanding new math, helping Violet deal with relationship issues, and wrangling Jack-Jack, who can now disappear between dimensions (among other things).

Helen wants to be there for her family, but enjoys the thrill of solo superhero work, realising how much she’s missed that. Given how filmgoers are opening up to female-led superhero movies, it makes sense to train the spotlight on Elastigirl.

The Screenslaver has a cool gimmick and his character is commentary on our dependence on passive consumption of media. It’s meta, but not quite as meta as this reviewer was hoping. A supervillain with the power to control minds and brainwash heroes to do his bidding is hardly a fresh idea, but Incredibles 2 mostly makes it work.

The show is completely stolen by Jack-Jack. The film relishes in depicting the various mind-boggling abilities he exhibits, and how Bob and the other kids attempt to wrangle him. Lucius’ reaction to Jack-Jack’s powers is priceless, and the scene in which Bob goes to Edna for advice regarding the baby is hilarious. Despite a tendency to take the form of a demon, Jack-Jack is adorably good-natured yet not overly cutesy.

If you loved The Incredibles, there’s a lot in Incredibles 2 to enjoy. It might not reach the same heights as its predecessor, nor is it as poignant and emotional as many Pixar films, but it’s clear that plenty of love and effort went into constructing this stylish, entertaining movie.

Bao, the short film directed by Domee Shi that precedes the feature, is a gorgeously-animated, adorable and heart-rending meditation on empty nest syndrome which also plays on how integral food is to familial relations in Chinese families. Try not to watch it hungry.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Deadpool 2 review

For inSing

DEADPOOL 2

Director : David Leitch
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Julian Dennison, Morena Baccarin, Zazie Beetz, Stefan Kapičić, Leslie Uggams, Karan Soni
Genre : Action / Adventure
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 17 May 2018
Rating : M18 (Violence & Coarse Language)

The Merc with the Mouth is back and mouthier than ever, and he’s brought along friends.

Maybe “friends” is too strong a word.

Wade Wilson/Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), the wise-cracking, nigh-indestructible killer for hire, is settling down with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), in between a busy schedule of hit jobs around the world. Wade has his already topsy-turvy life turned further upside down by the arrival of an unexpected guest. Nathan Summers/Cable (Josh Brolin), a grizzled cyborg from the future has travelled to the present with a mission. His target: Russell “Rusty” Collins/Firefist (Julian Dennison), a young mutant who will grow up into a murderous tyrant if his impulses are left unchecked. Rusty has been raised in an orphanage where he and the other mutant orphans have been abused by the principal and orderlies.

Deadpool realises he’ll need the help of allies old and new, including former roommate Blind Al (Leslie Uggams), bartender and pal Weasel (T.J. Miller), taxi driver Dopinder (Karan Soni), the metal-skinned Piotr Rasputin/Colossus (Stefan Kapičić), who is still trying to recruit Deadpool to join the X-Men, and Neena Thurman/Domino (Zazie Beetz), a mutant with the power of preternaturally good luck. Wade also tries assembling his own mutant superhero team called the ‘X-Force’, to mixed results.

The first Deadpool film faced an uphill battle in getting made and proved to be wildly successful among critics and audiences. That film faced countless behind-the-scenes bureaucratic issues stemming from the Fox top brass and had to work around the resulting budget cuts, but Reynolds’ pet project finally came to fruition.

Deadpool 2 faces a similar situation as Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 – the underdog has triumphed, resources are being thrown at the sequel, and now’s the time to prove there are more tricks up the filmmakers’ sleeves. There’s also a deeper dive into the source material, with long-anticipated characters making their big screen debuts.

Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick are back for the sequel, with Reynolds credited as the third writer. The first film’s director Tim Miller has been replaced by David Leitch, veteran stunt coordinator and one half of the John Wick directing team.

Deadpool 2 gets a lot right, and is a movie that’s comfortable in its mottled, sore-covered skin. Many of the self-referential jokes are brilliant, the action sequences are more elaborate and involved, the casting for new characters is excellent, and Reynolds settles further into what has become his signature role. However, all this doesn’t quite fit together as well as it should have. There are times when the editing feels choppy, and characters enter the plot inorganically, coming off more as plot devices than actually developed characters.

The irreverent, tongue-in-cheek tone of the movie is a double-edged sword. There are plenty of funny comic book movies, yes, but none that so freely and frequently take shots at other, specific films. It’s intrinsic to the Deadpool character, but the barrage of snarky quips can wear viewers down. It’s also a little tricky to decide when the film is trying to be genuine and when it’s trying to be ironic, the side effect being that any moments that are potentially emotional get robbed of their effect. Deadpool’s motivation in this film is one that’s been seen a lot and nullifies the emotional drive of the first film.

Beneath the violence, swearing and fourth wall-breaking humour, the first Deadpool film had a very traditional origin story structure. Deadpool 2 almost doesn’t have enough of a structure, which some might argue suits the character. However, when the jokes take precedence over the story, the stakes are blunted and everything feels inconsequential. While the humour in the Guardians of the Galaxy films sometimes stepped on the emotional beats, those movies did a slightly better job in juggling the jokes and the heartfelt moments than Deadpool 2 does.

Brolin is an ideal Cable, and yes, we do get a line about how he doesn’t quite match the stature of the character in the comics. Brolin is shredded and plays a great straight man to Reynolds. Beetz has the kick-ass attitude that’s key to Domino, and after seeing her performance, it doesn’t matter the character doesn’t look like she’s usually drawn. The film is dedicated in memory of Sequana Harris, the Domino stunt double who died in an accident on set.

Leitch is no stranger to large-scale action set pieces and the central prison truck chase is staged with energy and finesse. A lot of the close-quarters combat looks great and the canvas has been increased from the first film. However, one character who is completely rendered in CGI looks incredibly awkward and difficult to buy as occupying the same space as the other characters.

Deadpool 2 strains to subvert expectations and deliver more of what everyone came for but suffers from a lack of focus. It’s all one big joke, as it should be, and on that level, Deadpool 2 is entertaining. It’s calibrated to reward fans who’ll catch all the references and whisper in their friends’ ears “Rob Liefeld, the artist who co-created Deadpool, is terrible at drawing feet”. However, as much as the movie wants to be shocking, the films winds up being pretty lightweight, enjoyable without making as much of an impact as it could have.

The mid-credits scene is an absolute hoot, but perhaps jokes about a certain entry in Reynolds’ filmography are wearing a little thin by now.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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

 

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