Ready or Not review

For inSing

READY OR NOT

Director: Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett
Cast : Samara Weaving, Mark O’Brien, Adam Brody, Henry Czerny, Andie MacDowell, Kristian Bruun, Melanie Scrofano, Elyse Levesque, Nicky Guadagni, John Ralston
Genre : Horror/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 35 mins
Opens : 22 August 2019 (exclusively at Cathay cinemas)
Rating : M18

        None of us truly knows what we’re getting into when we marry into someone else’s family. Sure, the weird uncle or two or the cousin who not-so-secretly despises you is par for the course, but sometimes things are a little more complicated than that. Such is the case in this dark comedy horror thriller.

Grace (Samara Weaving) is about to marry the love of her life, Alex Le Domas (Mark O’Brien). Alex is heir to the Le Domas gaming fortune – the empire began as a playing card printing business and now encompasses the ownership of four pro sports teams. Grace senses that she won’t be accepted into the family, but Alex’s mother Becky (Andie MacDowell) attempts to assuage her fears.

On the night of the wedding, tradition dictates that Grace draw a card from a magic box and play the game stated on the card: in this case, ‘Hide and Seek’. What starts out being a little strange soon becomes deadly, with Alex’s father Tony (Henry Czerny) leading the other relatives in hunting Grace down to kill her. Over the course of the night, Grace must survive this terrifying ‘tradition’ as she gets to the bottom of why her new husband’s family is convinced that they must murder her.

            Ready or Not plays like an alternate universe version of Crazy Rich Asians: a woman’s boyfriend is not being 100% upfront about the truth of his wealthy family, and when she meets them, hijinks ensue. Here, the hijinks are considerably bloodier than in Crazy Rich Asians. The movie draws viewers into its twisted premise, getting more engrossing as it progresses. It’s a tense, funny, sometimes gross horror comedy which has ‘cult classic’ written all over it.

Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett are two-thirds of the filmmaking collective Radio Silence, who made the 10/31/98 segment of the horror anthology film V/H/S. Working from a screenplay by Guy Busick and R. Christopher Murphy, Bettinelli-Olpin and Gillett have crafty an enjoyable little genre movie that is just the right degree of nasty.

One of the trickiest things about horror comedies is getting the tone right. Ready or Not does a good job with its world-building, drawing audiences into the mystery surrounding the bizarre blood sport at the plot’s centre. In the meantime, the characters all seem close enough to people you might be related to, hopefully minus the murder. Ready or Not takes the Eyes Wide Shut-style conceit of rich people engaging in arcane rituals behind closed doors and puts a slasher movie spin on it.

A big part of why this works is Samara Weaving. The Australian actress is a bona fide scream queen who displays a remarkable sense of timing and delivers a spectacularly committed performance here. Weaving brings some Emma Stone-ness to bear, in that she’s likeably plucky but is also unafraid of being afraid. When she screams, it’s a hoarse, desperate, truly frightening yell that makes the audience genuinely worry if Grace will make it out alive. Weaving proves that she’s game for a whole lot as the movie throws horrible obstacle after horrible obstacle at Grace. The imagery of a woman in a pristine wedding dress who gets grimier and more covered in blood as the film goes on is not especially original, but it works for Ready or Not.

The rest of the cast consists mostly of Canadian actors. Mark O’Brien’s performance is best described as “boring on purpose”: Alex is meant to be more down-to-earth and different from his eccentric, possibly cultist family, so he’s not very interesting by comparison.

Adam Brody gets the juicier role of Alex’s drunken brother Daniel, who is conflicted about his role within the family and of the Le Domas’ attitude towards violence.

Henry Czerny is intense as patriarch, with that intensity being sporadically punctured by goofiness. Andie MacDowell is coolly unflappable as his wife, and while she isn’t the first name that comes to mind when one pictures a crossbow-wielding badass, MacDowell acquits herself well.

Kristian Bruun is deliberately annoying, while Nicky Guadagni gives the archest performance as Aunt Helene. The film gradually reveals how Aunt Helene winded up as scary as she is now.

The film’s Toronto and Ontario-area locations, including Casa Loma and Parkwood Estate, contribute to the setting of an old family property that hides many secrets. Brian Tyler’s score is reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s work in parts, and like much of the rest of the movie, is just heightened enough.

Ready or Not isn’t an especially subtle movie and it does have its share of gory violence, but directors Bettnelli-Olpin and Gillett demonstrate restraint and tonal mastery with a film that depicts unpleasantness but remains an enjoyable genre romp. Look out for more of Samara Weaving, who proves she deserves to hit the A-list after this.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw review

For inSing

FAST & FURIOUS: HOBBS & SHAW

Director: David Leitch
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Vanessa Kirby, Idris Elba, Eiza González, Cliff Curtis, Roman Reigns, John Tui, Josh Magua
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2 h 16 mins
Opens : 1 August 2019
Rating : PG13

A common refrain about the Fast and Furious franchise is “remember when these movies were about street racing?” These movies haven’t been primarily about street racing for a long time, and this spin-off pushes things to the limit with more international spy action and a cyborg super-soldier.

Taking place after the events of The Fate of the Furious, DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and former SAS operative-turned-mercenary Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) become reluctant partners in a high-stakes mission to save the world.

Brixton Lore (Idris Elba), a former compatriot of Shaw’s, has become a cybernetically-enhanced terrorist. Working for the shadowy organisation Eteon, Brixton is set on unleashing a deadly virus on humanity. Shaw’s sister Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), an MI6 agent, gets drawn into the fray. Further making this a family affair are Hobbs’ brothers back home in Samoa, when he returns to seek refuge from Brixton. The two men must put their differences aside to prevent Brixton and Eteon from wiping humanity off the face of the earth.

The trailers for this movie indicated it was going to be heaps of fun. Two of the biggest action heroes in modern day cinema teaming up against a superpowered Idris Elba? What’s not to love?

Unfortunately, Hobbs & Shaw seems to find plenty to mess up. A spinoff focusing on Hobbs has been mooted since 2011’s Fast Five, when Johnson first joined the franchise. It was later suggested that Hobbs team up with Shaw. The first big hurdle is that even though Shaw was reformed in The Fate of the Furious, he was the main villain of Fast & Furious 7, murdering the character Han and blowing up Dom’s beloved L.A. house. This makes his complete recasting as a heroic figure a bit hard to swallow.

The spy movie elements to the plot feel lazy: not only have we seen the “super virus threatens the world” story before, but several beats in Hobbs & Shaw seem to follow Mission: Impossible 2 exactly.

Nobody goes to these movies for narrative consistency, but the Fast and Furious franchise has done a good deal of world-building over its eight mainline entries, and fans have become attached to these characters. Hobbs & Shaw seems to take the suspension of disbelief earned over the course of these films for granted. Yes, the movies have gotten more and more spectacularly outlandish, but even then, there’s a line that seems to have been crossed by tossing a Terminator-style villain into the mix. One of the plot points in this film is that a medical device invented by a double Nobel-prize winning scientist is broken. Our heroes go to a car mechanic to get it fixed.

Director David Leitch, one half of the team who made John Wick, knows his way around an action sequence. The hand-to-hand combat scenes in Hobbs & Shaw are generally better than the large-scale vehicular stunts. This movie is not trying to top the scale of the most recent Fast and Furious movies, but several sequences seem like do-overs of the ones we’ve already seen.

Another key shortcoming that prevents Hobbs & Shaw from being the all-out dumb entertaining action romp it should have been is its self-indulgence. Both Johnson and Statham are producers, and the movie is packed with things that seem to personally amuse them but might be a bit of a chore for audiences to sit through. There are two cameos of well-known comedic actors that are initially amusing but quickly wear out their welcome. About half an hour could have easily been cut from the movie’s 136-minute runtime. The two leads may not have much fat to trim, but the movie in which they star does.

While the film does play to both Johnson and Statham’s strengths, the duo’s endless bickering grows tiresome after a while. It is intended to echo the buddy cop movies of yore, but while there is a wink-and-nod feel to the overflowing machismo, it is likely that many viewers will think that this is the paradigm of manliness. The constant jibes Hobbs make towards Shaw and vice versa, many centred around the size of their genitalia, are juvenile and largely unfunny.

Vanessa Kirby is an excellent actress who has been great in TV shows like The Crown and movies like Mission: Impossible – Fallout. She doesn’t quite seem to fit in the world of Fast and Furious, and especially not as Shaw’s tough-as-nails sister. She’s doing her best with the material she’s given and tackles the physical aspects of the role, but it is very hard to believe Kirby taking on Johnson in a fight. The film also tosses in a spectacularly unnecessary romantic subplot.

Idris Elba seems to be enjoying himself playing a cartoon supervillain who seems straight out of GI Joe, and he is a suitably formidable opponent for our heroes. However, the movie seems overconfident that audiences will readily believe a cyborg supersoldier as the main threat in a franchise that has had corrupt businessmen, mercenaries and cyberterrorists as villains before.

The film gets the most interesting when it moves to Samoa and catches up with Hobbs’ brothers, played by Cliff Curtis, Roman Reigns, John Tui and Josh Magua. It’s here that Hobbs & Shaw feels less like a typical action movie, but the ludicrousness doesn’t let up, with a rather silly final battle capping the movie off.

Hobbs & Shaw could easily have been a breezy buddy comedy that functioned as a smaller-scale offshoot of the sometimes-bloated but often-entertaining Fast and Furious series. Unfortunately, its leads fumble the landing. The film’s self-indulgence continues with mid-credits scenes and a post-credit scene that feel like one needlessly long joke. If this movie earns anywhere near what the last several Fast and Furious movies did, then we haven’t seen the last of Hobbs and Shaw yet, and hopefully their next movie is a leaner, tighter one.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Toy Story 4 review

For inSing

TOY STORY 4

Director: Josh Cooley
Cast : Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Christina Hendricks, Joan Cusack, Madeleine McGraw, Keanu Reeves, June Squibb
Genre : Comedy/Animation/Family
Run Time : 1 h 40 mins
Opens : 20 June 2019
Rating : PG

            The denizens of Andy’s toy box are back, reuniting audiences with friends old and new in the fourth instalment of Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story film series.

At the end of Toy Story 3, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and the other toys were given by Andy to a young girl named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). A few years later, Bonnie is starting kindergarten, and at orientation, she makes a new toy from arts and crafts: Forky (Tony Hale), who is comprised of a disposable spork, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, a popsicle stick and plasticine.

Forky becomes Bonnie’s favourite toy, but Woody and the other toys have a hard time dealing with Forky because formerly being a spork, this new existence has been unexpectedly thrust upon him. When Bonnie takes Woody, Buzz, Forky and other toys along with her on a road trip with her parents, Forky attempts to escape. While chasing after him, Woody discovers an antique store where the long-lost Bo Peep (Annie Potts) now lives. The antique store is also home to the doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her unsettling army of ventriloquist dummy henchmen. Woody must escape Gabby Gabby’s clutches and bring Forky back to Bonnie, as his unexpected reunion with Bo Peep upends his existence.

The Toy Story trilogy comes extremely close to perfection, and the announcement of a fourth film was met with understandable scepticism. We should’ve known that Pixar would deliver – while it may not have the richness and complexity that Toy Story 3 did, Toy Story 4 is an excellent addition to the series. Josh Cooley, who started out at Pixar as a storyboard artist on The Incredibles, helms a film that is funny, thrilling and moving. It’s a road trip movie that hits all the right notes.

Thematically, Toy Story 4 is about purpose, and what happens when purpose goes unfulfilled. The purpose of a children’s toy is to be played with, and multiple characters in the film long to be loved by their owners but have instead been neglected. This has been a running theme in the series, but Toy Story 4 emphasises it by re-introducing Bo Peep. Through the Forky character, the film explores what exactly it means to be a toy.

The animation is, as expected, technically polished. The film places familiar characters in unfamiliar environments, with the main new locations being the bright, inviting travelling fairground and the shadowy, dusty antique store. Key to making the fantastical premises of toys that come alive work is in establishing the world as believable and tactile, which is accomplished here. Great attention is paid to the geometry of the set-pieces, in which potential dangers and obstacles are highlighted before the characters attempt to navigate them.

Many of the voice actors from the previous films return. Once again, it’s Woody who drives the story, with Tom Hanks’ performances helping to further flesh the character out. Woody’s insecurities were the catalyst of the conflict in the first Toy Story film, as he felt threatened by Buzz’s entrance onto the scene. In this film, Woody’s insecurities manifest in his fear of becoming a ‘lost toy’, and he projects some of these feelings onto Forky. It’s a satisfying arc that makes sense for the character.

Bo Peep has been turned into a resourceful action heroine, not entirely unlike Rey from the Star Wars sequel trilogy – they even both wield a staff. Bo Peep was absent from the third film, with Annie Potts returning to voice her. Her relationship with Woody and his reaction to how she has changed play a big part in the plot of this film, and the film attempts to give both parties closure.

Christina Hendricks’ Gabby Gabby is ostensibly the film’s antagonist, even if she’s not exactly a villain. There are superficial similarities between her and Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, the villain of Toy Story 3, but Gabby is a less interesting character. She still manages to be equally threatening and empathetic – the film’s horror movie-inspired sequences are entertaining but stop short of being legitimately traumatising.

Tony Hale charmingly captures the neuroses of Forky, who is caught in the throes of existential panic. The idea behind the character is a witty one, and the film manages to get more out of Forky than just the one joke that he’s a toy who’s freaking out because he was not meant to be a toy.

The duo of Key and Peele voice plush toys Ducky and Bunny and provide some of the biggest laughs in the film, with a standout sequence being their plan to acquire a set of keys from the elderly owner of the antique store. The movie uses them just enough, such that their presence doesn’t feel overly gimmicky.

Another standout character is Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves). Reeves is enjoying a surge in popularity following the release of John Wick: Chapter 3, Always Be My Maybe and the announcement that he will be in the videogame Cyberpunk 2077. An Evel Knievel-type daredevil stuntman Duke seems to have come straight out of Robot Chicken. Reeves bring enthusiasm, gruffness and a hint of a Canadian accent to the part.

Director Cooley was 15 when the first Toy Story movie came out, and it’s remarkable that the series has maintained such consistently high quality across four instalments released over 24 years. Toy Story 4 offers up a beautifully realised adventure and engaging character dynamics, bringing more to the table than mere nostalgia. Yes, a fourth Toy Story film is not strictly necessary, but the film radiates such warmth and good heartedness that it’s useless to resist its embrace.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

1995: A Space Odyssey – Captain Marvel stars and directors in Singapore

By Jedd Jong

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2018 was a banner year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, delivering the one-two punch of Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Ant-Man and the Wasp served as a palate cleanser that still teased 2019’s big event – Avengers: Endgame.

The MCU movie that immediately precedes Endgame is Captain Marvel, which introduces one of Marvel’s most powerful heroes to the cinematic canon. The post-credits stinger of Infinity War depicted Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) activating a pager and calling for Captain Marvel’s help before he demateralised alongside Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).

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Captain Marvel will depict the first meeting between Fury and the titular hero. The movie takes place largely in 1995 and centres on Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), a U.S. Air Force pilot who transforms into a super-powered intergalactic peacekeeper. When earth is threatened by the shape-shifting Skrull invaders, Captain Marvel returns to her home planet to fight them and to rediscover the past existence she has long forgotten.

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Stars Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Gemma Chan and directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were in Singapore to promote the movie at Marina Bay Sands. On the agenda was a press junket, interviews and a massive fan event in the evening.

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Boden and Fleck are the latest indie directors to move from the world of smaller-scale dramas and comedies onto the largest stage imaginable, the MCU. “When you saw Half Nelson, it was just obvious we would be doing a superhero movie next,” Fleck joked, referring to their breakout film starring Ryan Gosling. The duo is also known for directing Mississippi Grind starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, and for directing episodes of TV shows including Billions and The Affair.

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Boden has become the first woman to direct an MCU movie – the only other female director to have helmed a Marvel movie so far was Lexi Alexander, who made 2008’s Punisher: War Zone. “This is a movie I really wanted to be part of. This is a character that so many people care so much about,” Boden said, adding “it’s 2019 and I think that everybody here looks forward to the day that it’s not news-worthy that a woman is directing this type of movie.” Boden is in good company, with Patty Jenkins having directed Wonder Woman and directing its sequel, Cathy Yan helming Birds of Prey and Cate Shortland directing the upcoming Black Widow solo movie.

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Fleck recounted the process of pitching the movie to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. “When we went in there to talk to Kevin and the team at Marvel, and Brie as well, we were on the same page to make this character as complex and messy and human as possible, funny and tough and also vulnerable at the same time,” Fleck recalled. “They were like ‘yeah, that’s the movie we want to make,’ and here we are.”

Speaking about the production support built into the MCU machine, Boden added “[Marvel] said ‘We know how to make the big explosions, we need people to focus on the stories and the characters.'”

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The film chronicles Carol Danvers’ transformation into Captain Marvel, and behind the scenes, Oscar winner Brie Larson also underwent a staggering transformation to play the role. She embraced the physical challenge of portraying one of the most powerful superheroes in existence, saying “There’s something about pushing yourself beyond the threshold of what’s comfortable and then going even further than that…it means sometimes that you end up on the floor crying, begging for it to stop.” Larson surmised that those moments of breakthrough in the midst of pushing oneself to the limit embodied the spirit of Carol Danvers.

The arduous training paid off: Larson can dead-lift an impressive 102 kg and pushed a jeep up a hill for 30 seconds. Larson became fond of sending co-star Samuel L. Jackson videos of her workout progress, “just to brag”.

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Larson found the process of learning and executing action sequences rewarding, because there was a level of satisfaction in completing the task. Compared with typical acting which is up to interpretation, Larson found working on fight scenes more clear-cut. “There’s a right and a wrong way to punch an alien and that’s how it goes,” she stated.

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Larson also spent time flying in actual fighter jets, going onto Nellis Air Force Base and meeting with U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt, the first female fighter squadron commander in the Air Force’s history.

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Costumes are an integral part of any comic book movie, and the costumes in Captain Marvel are no exception. Carol’s default costume is a red, blue and gold variation of the green Starforce uniform she wears at the beginning of the film. The costumes were designed by Sanja Milkovic Hays, whose credits include Star Trek Beyond and the recent Fast and Furious films. Larson described the costume as a “restrictive rubber suit,” comparing moving around in it to “treading water all day”. She described shooting an action sequence in which Carol hangs off the side of a train, saying “It wasn’t until we got there that it was like ‘oh, I can’t lift my arms.'”

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Larson has a particularly adorable co-star in the film: a cat named Goose, based on the character Chewie from the comics. The name ‘Goose’ is a nod to Top Gun. The cat may be more significant to the plot than it first appears, so much so that it got its own character poster. “We had four cats playing our lead cat Goose,” Boden said. “Reggie is really the face, the star, the heart and the soul of the character.” Reggie shared the role with Archie, Rizzo and Gonzo. Orders came from on high to increase the cat’s screen time: Boden related that “very early on in the development process, Kevin Feige looked at one of our outlines and said ‘we need 100% more of that cat in there.’ And he got it and so did you!”

Here’s the video of me asking about the cat.

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The very slightly less adorable Samuel L. Jackson is no stranger to the MCU. In this movie, he plays a younger version of Nick Fury with the help of de-aging technology, previously used on actors including Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kurt Russell and Robert Downey Jr. in other MCU movies. This is a Fury before he lost sight in one eye and before he became the director of spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Instead of putting on a prosthetic scar and eyepatch like he normally would, Jackson wore motion capture dots on his face, so his expressions could be transferred to a more youthful visage.

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“Along with having two eyes, I have a lot less instinct than older Nick Fury has,” Jackson reflected. “I learn a lot from [Carol] over the course of the film and it helps a lot.” Jackson glanced at Larson, before exclaiming “She’s my first alien!”

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One of the members of Carol’s Starforce team is Minn-erva, played by Gemma Chan. Chan was recently seen in Crazy Rich Asians and is also known for her role in the sci-fi TV series Humans. Minn-erva is a deadly sniper with a penchant for sarcastic asides and a bit of a mean streak. “She’s pretty badass,” Chan said. “She’s not so nice, she’s got a bit of an edge, and there’s definitely a physical challenge as well.”

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Part of that physical challenge was in trying not to get bested by her own props. “The main thing during Captain Marvel that I had to be concerned about was trying not to hit myself in my face with my own rifle. The one that I practised with was a bit shorter than the one I used in the film, so I had to adjust for that,” Chan said to laughter.

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When asked who she might want to team up with in a future Marvel film, Larson mentioned Ms. Marvel. The current Ms. Marvel in the comics is Kamala Khan, a young Muslim woman hailed as a positive role model. Feige has cryptically said that he “has plans” for her inclusion in the MCU, so Larson might get her wish yet.

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One journalist bravely attempted to broach the topic of Captain Marvel’s role in fighting Thanos in Endgame. “That is a really great question that I absolutely cannot answer, but more power to you for asking and very good try,” Larson said.

Someone had to give it a go.

 

 

 

 

Bumblebee review

BUMBLEBEE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Creed II review

CREED II

Director : Steven Caple Jr.
Cast : Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby
Genre : Sports/Drama
Run Time : 130 mins
Opens : 29 November 2018
Rating : PG13

           As Killmonger in Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan may have lost the throne to Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, but in this sequel to Creed, he’s trying to hold on to that championship belt.

It is three years after the events of the first film, and Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has enjoyed a string of victories, becoming the newly-crowned WBC World Heavyweight Champion. However, Adonis’ reign is threatened by the formidable Viktor Dragon (Florian Munteanu). There is a personal reason Adonis accepts Viktor’s challenge: Viktor’s father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) killed Adonis’ father Apollo some 33 years ago.

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), Adonis’ coach, warns against taking on Viktor, fearful of history repeating itself. In the meantime, Adonis’ girlfriend-turned-fiancé Bianca (Tessa Thompson) has given birth to their daughter Amara. Tony “Little Duke” Evers (Wood Harris), whose father trained Apollo Creed, helps Rocky prepare Adonis to face off against Viktor. Adonis’ mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) must brace herself for the possibility that just as she lost her husband to Ivan, she will lose her son to another Drago. The stage is set for an epic confrontation with everything on the line.

2015’s Creed established both star Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler as bona fide stars; both went on to further earn this status with this year’s Black Panther. Director Steven Caple Jr., also a young, promising filmmaker, has big shoes to fill. He directs Creed II with an eye for drama, focusing on the relationships between the characters more than the spectacle. While this means that the story has room to breathe and the performers have space to make an impact, it also means that the film is not as propulsive or exciting as some might have hoped.

Creed II emerges as a less personal work than its predecessor, but there’s quite a bit here for long-time Rocky fans to sink their teeth into. A bout between Adonis Creed and the progeny of the icily unyielding Ivan Drago is almost too obvious a sequel plot, but it works. If Creed was built upon formula, then Creed II follows established sports drama tropes even closer, meaning that while there is some satisfaction to be had in the way the story turns out, there are few surprises.

Both Jordan and Stallone anchor this film as they did the previous one, and there is conflict in the relationship between Adonis and Rocky, but there is also great warmth. Adonis has let success get to his head, and rejects the wisdom Rocky has to offer, but cannot go too long without Rocky in his corner. Jordan’s physique continues to be impressive and swoon-worthy, living up to his character’s namesake Greek god. Jordan tempers the intensity he brings to the fight scenes with a playful boyishness, keeping Adonis likeable even when he’s too headstrong for his own good.

Stallone co-wrote the film with Juel Taylor, with Sascha Penn and Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker getting a ‘story by’ credit. Stallone had to be convinced by Coogler to sign off on the first Creed, so now that Stallone has a greater involvement in crafting the sequel, it’s good that the film doesn’t seem like a vanity project, with the movie dedicating just the right amount of screen time to Rocky.

Tessa Thompson’s Bianca did feel a little too much like the designated love interest the first time around, and while the character is mostly there to give Adonis that much more to fight for, she does have agency in the proceedings. Bianca becomes a mother but is also moving forward in her music career. In showing the warmth and support that surrounds Adonis in the form of Rocky, Bianca and Adonis’ mother Mary Anne, the film contrasts this with the stark coldness that Viktor grows up in.

Creed II outshines the first movie when it comes to the villains. Real-life Romanian-born, German-raised boxer Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu looks every inch the giant bruiser that has us afraid for Adonis’ safety. The harshness that characterises Ivan’s relationship with his son is not overly cartoony and engenders sympathy for both characters even as they threaten our heroes.

Lundgren has some of the film’s best moments, showcasing genuine acting chops and conveying the personal ruin that was the aftermath of Ivan’s humiliating defeat at Rocky’s hands in Rocky IV. The confrontation between Ivan and Rocky in Rocky’s restaurant is one of the film’s standout moments, and Lundgren gets the chance to shade Ivan with the depth he didn’t quite have as the villain of Rocky IV.

Creed II is a solidly built film, sticking closely with the characters rather than getting carried away with overblown spectacle. While it delivers in terms of giving weight to its links to the earlier Rocky films instead of those connections feeling like mere fanservice, the movie demands its audience’s patience, and because it is so predictable, doesn’t quite pay that off. It’s not bad by any means, but we don’t quite see the need for a Creed III after this.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Halloween (2018) review

HALLOWEEN

Director : David Gordon Green
Cast : Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Will Patton, Virginia Gardner, Nick Castle, James Jude Courtney, Jefferson Hall, Rhian Rees, Toby Huss, Haluk Bilginer
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 25 October 2018
Rating : M18

Halloween-posterOctober 31, 2018: the night he came home again. It has been 40 years since the events of the original Halloween film, and masked serial killer Michael Myers (Nick Castle, James Jude Courtney) has been safely locked away under the watchful eye of prison psychiatrist Dr Ranbir Sartain (Haluk Bilginer). True crime podcasters Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall) and Dana Haines (Rhian Rees) plan on interviewing both Michael and the survivor of his murderous rampage, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).

Laurie has spent the last four decades in constant fear and paranoia of Michael’s return. This has put a strain on her relationship with her daughter Karen (Judy Greer), who is married to Ray (Toby Huss) and has a daughter of her own, Allyson (Andi Matichak). When Michael escapes and returns to his old stomping grounds of Haddonfield on Halloween night, Laurie’s worst fears are realised. Even though Laurie has prepared to face Michael again, there’s no telling what terrors will unfold with Michael back on the loose.

Halloween-Jamie-Lee-Curtis-hand-through-door

The Halloween franchise has a storied, messy past. John Carpenter’s 1978 original is considered one of the finest horror films ever made, and kickstarted a wave of slasher movies in the 80s. Through multiple instalments, the Halloween films tended to lose sight of what made the first one so good. This movie ignores all the sequels, functioning as if it were only the second film in the series. This has been done before: Halloween H20: 20 Years Later ignored the films after Halloween II.

Any franchise that’s been around as long as Halloween has, especially a horror franchise, will eventually find itself wading into silliness. What once was terrifying devolves into self-parody, and eventually martial arts fights with Busta Rhymes ensue. Director/co-writer David Gordon Green and co-writers Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride strip Halloween back to basics in a satisfying, terrifying entry that stays true to the spirit of the original while having a propulsive energy of its own.

Halloween-Jamie-Lee-Curtis-behind-Michael-Myers

Green nails the sense of foreboding, the fear of what might be lurking around every corner, in every doorway and corridor, that is a key factor in establishing the nail-biting tension a good Halloween movie must possess. John Carpenter returns to the score the film alongside son Cody and Daniel Davies; the iconic Halloween theme remaining one of the best pieces of film music ever written. Cinematographer Michael Simmonds employs light and shadow to dramatic effect, while Tim Alverson’s editing ratchets up the tension that much more. This looks and feels like Halloween, but there’s an urgency to this movie and it doesn’t come off as an artefact or a hollow exercise in nostalgia.

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In revisiting the Laurie Strode role in Halloween H20, Curtis wanted to explore the effects that the trauma of Laurie’s run-in with Michael would have. She gets to dig even deeper here, and Laurie in this movie is essentially Sarah Connor, a woman who has dedicated her entire existence to preparing for Michael’s return, at the expense of her interpersonal relationships. The film’s depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder is compelling and heart-rending, and Curtis doesn’t phone this in at all. It’s a Halloween sequel worthy of the character, and a lot of the film is about Laurie’s arduous personal quest to reclaim what Michael stole from her. There’s also the implication that in fighting a monster, Laurie has become something of a monster herself, with some shots mirroring ones from the original film, but with Laurie and Michael swapping places.

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While many Halloween fans might bemoan Danielle Harris’ absence from the film, and how Laurie’s daughter from Halloween 4 has been overwritten by a different character, Greer puts in a great performance. She’s disarming and naturally funny, but Karen is hurt and, in her own way, traumatised by what her mother has put her through – Greer conveys this ably.

Halloween-Andi-Matichak

Matichak might well be a breakout star after this film. Allyson is a believable teenager but never annoying, and it’s interesting to see what traits she might have inherited from her grandmother. The film is at its best when grandmother, daughter and granddaughter play off each other. This is a film about legacy and an entry in a franchise with a legacy all its own, so the device of Michael tormenting multiple generations is a potent one.

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Castle returns as Michael, sharing the role with stunt performer James Jude Courtney. This is Michael as horror fans remember him, and just like in the original Halloween, some of the most terrifying moments are Michael just lurking in the corner, standing still. There are several exceedingly brutal kills, but the gore never takes precedence over the sense of dread.

Bilginer’s performance is a little broader than some of the others, but it works, since he’s playing a man whose obsession with serial killers has perhaps spilled over from being purely professional.

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2018 is the year in which Jim from The Office directed and starred in one of the finest suspense horror movies in recent memory, A Quiet Place. Now, 2018 can also lay claim to being the year in which the team behind Pineapple Express, Your Highness and Eastbound & Down brought the Halloween franchise back to life in a big way. Now just don’t muck it up with further sequels.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Crazy Rich Asians movie review

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

Director : Jon M. Chu
Cast : Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Koh Chieng Mun, Chris Pang, Sonoya Mizuno, Pierre Png, Selena Tan, Nico Santos, Janice Koh, Remy Hii, Harry Shum Jr., Fiona Xie, Carmen Soo, Jimmy O. Yang
Genre : Comedy/Drama/Romance
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 22 August 2018
Rating : PG-13

Crazy Rich Asians, the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name, has arrived on the big screen. There are many hopes pinned on this film, which has generated its share of controversy and backlash from its earliest stages of development. Let’s head to sunny Singapore and break all this down.

The film centres on Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor at NYU who has found the love of her life: the dashing Nicholas Young (Henry Golding). Nick is heading back home to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin (Chris Pang) to his fiancé Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno). Nick suggests that Rachel come along and meet the family. What could possibly go wrong?

What Nick’s been hiding from Rachel all this time is that he is the heir to the wealthiest family in Singapore. Naturally, Rachel earns the ire and extreme jealousy of all the eligible society bachelorettes who thought they stood a chance with Nick. Rachel faces the condescension and rejection of Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Rachel seems attacked on all sides, getting way in over her head. In her corner is her college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina), who hails from a wealthy Singaporean family too. Rachel also has her loving mother Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua), who immigrated to the U.S. from China, supporting her. Rachel navigates the treacherous waters of Singaporean high society, as she faces questions of identity, self-worth, and whether Nick is worth all this trouble.

On the surface, Crazy Rich Asians is a frothy romantic comedy of manners. It’s a fish out of water story and is naturally being sold on its depictions of decadence, opulence, indulgence, and other things ending in -ence. There’s a lot more to Crazy Rich Asians than first appears – the story means to examine status, the true value of material wealth, the classification of people as ‘outsiders’ or ‘insiders’ – themes that have been explored before, but not in the context of Singapore’s sphere of affluence in a major Hollywood studio film.

There’s a lot of baggage that has been piled onto this movie, whether it deserves that or not. Hollywood is looking for more representation – or more cynically, to get credit for representation. Being the first Hollywood movie with a predominantly Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club back in 1993, many are looking to Crazy Rich Asians as a triumph for representation and diversity in mainstream Hollywood movies.

This is a film that will mean different things to different people – it’s important to note that the film’s protagonist is Chinese-American, and we see things from her perspective. The questions of her identity are framed by her encountering her boyfriend’s Singaporean family. The film has been decried by several Singaporeans for being an inaccurate portrayal of the island nation. Ethnic minorities like Malays and Indians are nowhere to be found, and nearly everyone speaks in posh English or brash New York-ish accents.

This reviewer would argue that Crazy Rich Asians does not have a responsibility to depict all of Singapore, nor should it be taken as a film about Singapore. Its focus on a tiny slice of Singapore society may come across as narrow, but the circumstances specified by the story justify this depiction. This reviewer would love to see Singapore depicted in all its facets in a Hollywood film – that’s not the goal of Crazy Rich Asians, nor does it mean to be, but the frustration at a skewed version of Singapore being presented for consumption worldwide is understandable.

Crazy Rich Asians falls victim somewhat to ‘have your cake and eat it too’ syndrome. This is going to be a weird example but bear with us: the 2009 sci-fi action film Gamer wanted to be an indictment of the mass-consumption of overly violent, crass media, while being an example of the very thing it is attempting to satirise. Crazy Rich Asians does this for the lifestyles of the uber-wealthy. We’re meant to question the ultimate intangible worth of having a lot of stuff and having every whim catered to, just as we’re meant to gaze upon tableaus of ridiculous luxury with voyeuristic pleasure. There is an undeniable novelty factor, however slight, at the thought that audiences in Des Moines, Iowa might walk into the multiplex and see Newton Hawker Centre and Gardens by the Bay on the big screen.

Director Jon M. Chu, who has a background in dance movies, stages the proceedings with visual panache to spare. As with any adaptation of a novel, things are whittled down, and there’s a lot of plot to get through. The movie barrels along like a freight train – there’s nary a dull moment, but there isn’t enough room for the story to breathe. Better that than things being boring, we figure.

This is a soap opera, and there are altogether too many characters to keep track of, but the film trains its focus on Rachel. Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu makes for an intelligent, lively, likeable and vulnerable lead. The scenes in which she matches wits with Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor are a hoot, and a scene she shares with her mother, played by Tan Kheng Hua, brought this reviewer to tears.

Much ink has been spilled about Golding’s mixed heritage. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like characters in Harry Potter throwing around phrases like “pureblood” and “half-blood”, so we won’t. He’s handsome and earnest and just bland enough in the way male leads in modern rom-coms often are. Nick is a decent person, while most of the people in his social circle aren’t, making us root for Rachel and Nick to end up together.

Michelle Yeoh gives the stock type of the glowering prospective mother-in-law just enough depth, and Eleanor articulates exactly why she’s so wary of Rachel. Yeoh’s performance is a savvy one, lending the proceedings gravitas. There’s a sly bit of commentary in seeing Eleanor lead a Bible study group comprised of her rich friends – the implication is that these are people who prize material gain over all else hiding behind the veneer of religious virtue.

The rest of the cast is comprised of a lot of attractive people doing attractive people things, and sometimes they can blend together a little. The camera lingers on Pierre Png’s bare torso as he exits the shower, and much is made of how physically beautiful the characters played by Gemma Chan and Sonoya Mizuno are. There are also many characters who are outwardly attractive but are awful on the inside.

Peik Lin and her family stand out by design – they’re outlandish, brash, and they’re rich but not pretentious. Awkwafina is utterly enjoyable, delivering a giddily infectious performance. Ken Jeong and Koh Chieng Mun are plenty of fun as Peik Lin’s parents. Nico Santos hams it up as Oliver, who calls himself the ‘rainbow sheep’ of the family. Oliver does fall a little too neatly into the ‘gay best friend’ role, but Santos gives the character welcome personality.

There are times when Crazy Rich Asians is a touch too ridiculous for its own good – there’s an Apocalypse Now homage (think helicopters and “Ride of the Valkyries”) that seems a little too on the nose. However, there are others when performers showcase excellent comic timing, and the film hits a pleasantly silly pitch.

Crazy Rich Asians is a lot of things, and there will be a wide range of reactions to it. There will be more social media comments hung up on the accents, and there will be thoughtful socio-political treatises deconstructing the film and what its existence means in the current film industry landscape. As a frothy, sometimes-clumsy, almost-emotional rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians works.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Meg review

THE MEG

Director : Jon Turteltaub
Cast : Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Sophia Cai, Masi Oka
Genre : Action/Thriller/Sci-fi
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 9 August 2018
Rating : PG-13

In 2013, Discovery Channel aired Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives as part of its Shark Week line-up. The pseudo-documentary was presented as fact, and the number of people who were initially convinced showed that at least some of us secretly want to believe that somewhere in the depths lurks a Carcharocles megalodon.

In The Meg, Jason Statham faces off with the deadly living fossil. Statham plays former rescue diver Jonas Taylor, whose claims of witnessing a sea monster attacking a nuclear submarine went disbelieved. Five years after that incident, Jonas is called on by his friend Mac (Cliff Curtis), who works aboard the research facility Mana One.

An expedition sent by the Mana One is in danger – the three-person crew of the submersible Origin are trapped 11 000 metres below the surface, threatened by a giant ancient shark. This confirms Jonas’ story, and he reluctantly undertakes the mission. Among the trapped are his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee). Suyin (Li Bingbing), daughter of Dr Minway Zhang (Winston Chao), insists she can conduct the rescue herself. Meanwhile, billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) worries that the emergence of the Megalodon could jeopardise his expensive investment. As the Meg rises from the depths to threaten swimmers at the beach resort hotspot Sanya in Hainan, China, Jonas and the Mana One crew must stop the Meg’s reign of terror.

The Meg is based on Steve Alten’s best-selling 1997 novel Meg, and a film has been in various stages of development since the book was published. There’s an unavoidable amount of stupidity inherent in the material – after all, there is no shortage of cheaply-made TV movies with similar premises. If you’re in need of a laugh, look up clips of 2002’s Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, starring a hapless John Barrowman.

The Meg is like one of those movies with an exponentially larger budget, and there is some pleasure to be derived from that. Several sequences are impressively staged, and the visual effects work is generally strong. Director Jon Turteltaub attempts to keep things largely tongue-in-cheek, while also going for genuine thrills and stakes. He is only fitfully successful – the film begins feeling like it might take things somewhat seriously, then dives headlong into the ludicrous as it reaches its conclusion.

The film has high production values and boasts behind-the-scenes talent like Lord of the Rings production designer Grant Major and Clint Eastwood’s regular cinematographer Tom Stern. To raise the estimated $150 budget, the film must pander to Chinese audiences, and pander it does. It’s hard to discern how much of the silliness is intentional, and how much is a by-product of tailoring the film to the (perceived) tastes of international filmgoers.

Statham plays the lead role, an indistinct roguish action hero trying to outswim a tragic incident in his past. Turteltaub noted that this is a Jason Statham movie without the requisite gunfights and car chases, and on that level, he technically is doing something different. Statham has just enough leading man charm for audiences to kinda-sorta go along with the sheer ridiculousness, at least for the first act or so.

Statham is not particularly known for his acting chops and is regularly out-acted by the leading ladies in his films. Luckily for him, that is not the case here. Li Bingbing is uniformly stiff throughout the film, unable to carry any of the emotional moments or the action beats. While Winston Chao fares a little better as her character’s father, the would-be moving scenes between the father-daughter duo fall extremely flat.

The film’s supporting characters are all thinly-drawn stock types, as one would expect from a movie of this genre. Ruby Rose plays a cool Ruby Rose-type, Rainn Wilson plays a Rainn Wilson-type (but rich), you get the idea. Page Kennedy is meant to provide comic relief, but not many of the jokes land.

Sophia Cai plays Meiying, Suyin’s daughter. She’s a precocious moppet who cracks wise and is meant to activate everyone’s protective instincts, but the character is written and acted in a largely annoying manner. Despite the film’s best efforts, imperilling Meiying won’t draw too much of a reaction from the audience, because it’s hard to care about most of the characters here.

The Meg’s CGI shark may be technically impressive, and we appreciate that the visual effects supervisor on a movie set in the ocean is named ‘Adrian De Wet’, but when it comes down to it, the titular beast is rarely convincing. There are sequences that generate a passable level of tension, but there are only so many times the movie can riff on the “barrels dragged across the surface” gag seen in Jaws.

There’s a degree of “you know what you’re getting” with The Meg: yes, it was always going to be silly, but how effectively the film leans into that silliness is up for debate. The Meg is paced briskly enough and serves up several entertaining sequences, but compared to some of this summer’s sharper, more satisfying offerings, there’s more bark than bite.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Mission: Impossible – Fallout movie review

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT

Director : Christopher McQuarrie
Cast : Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Michelle Monaghan, Angela Bassett, Alec Baldwin, Vanessa Kirby, Wes Bentley
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 147 mins
Opens : 26 July 2018
Rating : PG-13

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), the Impossible Missions Force’s (IMF) greatest agent, heeds the call of duty again. He’ll do whatever it takes – be it jumping out of a plane, hanging off sheer cliff-faces, tearing through Paris on a motorbike, leaping across rooftops in London or hijacking a helicopter – to get the job done.

After the events of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the shadowy network of former spies known as the Syndicate is left without its leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). The IMF discovers that the remnants of the Syndicate, known as the Apostles, are now working for hire and plan to acquire plutonium to build three nuclear bombs. The Apostles also plan to break Lane out of prison.

It’s up to Hunt and his team to stop the Apostles and prevent worldwide devastation, but it will be an uphill task. Ethan, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and their boss Hunley (Alec Baldwin) also face opposition from within: CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) distrusts the IMF and its methods, and assigns her top agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), to keep an eye on Hunt and company. To complicate matters, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an MI6 agent who went deep undercover as a Syndicate operative and who has a personal grudge against Lane, re-enters the fray. Threatened on all sides, Hunt and company have their work cut out for them, as the stakes reach stratospheric levels.

The Mission: Impossible film series, based on the 60s TV show of the same name, is interesting in that until now, each film has been helmed by a different director: Brian DePalma directed the first one, John Woo the regrettable second entry, J.J. Abrams made his feature film directorial debut with the third, Brad Bird his live-action debut with the fourth, and Christopher McQuarrie directed the fifth. McQuarrie, who also penned the screenplay for this film, is the franchise’s first returning director, and he hits it way out of the park.

Fallout is a muscular yet nimble film, a bravura showcase of stunning set-pieces that are strung together by a credible, propulsive plot. McQuarrie achieves a masterful tone – this is a serious film in which Hunt faces grave professional and personal consequences, but it’s never a dour or overbearing one. It runs for 147 minutes but is remarkably light on its feet. The action set pieces can stretch for 15 minutes or longer at a time, but the audience is glued to the screen throughout.

Credit must be given to second unit director/stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood, who helps McQuarrie stage some of the most impressive stunts in the franchise’s storied history. Just when we thought this film couldn’t top Tom Cruise hanging off the facade of the Burj Khalifa or clinging for dear life onto the side of an Airbus A400M, this film gives us Cruise using the skids of an out-of-control helicopter as a jungle gym and performing an actual High-Altitude Low-Opening (HALO) skydive.

The motorcycle chase that criss-crosses through Paris and sees Hunt ride against traffic in the infamous Arc de Triomphe Roundabout pulls out all the stops and throws every trick in the book at the screen. The helicopter chase feels like two kids holding toys chasing each other around a room, made vivid, utterly convincing reality. Many sequences in this film are utterly insane but have a distinctly different feel to the joyously over-the-top set-pieces in something like the Fast and Furious franchise.

The plot manages to be familiar yet unpredictable and intelligent. There are the expected double-crosses and questioned allegiances, but the film stays compelling by striking an admirable balance between the end-of-the-world stakes and the personal stakes. McQuarrie takes sheer delight in teasing audiences with near-miss after near-miss. While nothing in the franchise has superseded the tension of the cable drop close call scene in the first film, several bits in Fallout come very close.

Tom Cruise might stumble here and there (*ahem*The Mummy*ahem*), as any actor is wont to, but in the recent Mission: Impossible films, he can always be counted on to be on top action hero form. This is not a man who half-asses anything, and the 56-year-old is consistently impressive, pushing himself to the absolute limit in the name of our entertainment. Cruise broke his ankle jumping across buildings in London, and that take remains in the film. Hunt displays nigh-superhuman strength and stamina that does stretch suspension of disbelief, but Cruise gives such an engaging performance that we just go along with it.

Cavill is enjoyable as Walker, an arrogant, lethal CIA agent, meant to serve as Ethan’s foil. An early sequence in which Walker’s presumptuousness nearly costs him and Ethan the entire mission establishes Walker as a risk-taker, but not one as canny as Hunt. Cavill is an actor who can sometimes be a bit boring, but he’s got enough charisma here to go toe-to-toe with Cruise.

The film succeeds in parcelling out stuff for everyone to do, meaning that both Benji and Luther do not feel side-lined – Rhames even gets to deliver one of the film’s most emotional moments. Pegg gets far more physical than in the preceding films, while still being the resident loveable goofball.

Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust felt like the ideal Bond girl, and the character continues to be capable and mesmerising. Even after all she and Hunt’s team went through in Rogue Nation, we’re questioning where her allegiance lies.

Vanessa Kirby is entertaining as the seductive black-market broker known only as the ‘White Widow’, effortlessly sexy with a dangerous gleam in her eye. Hunt’s wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) is back, and how the film works her into the plot feels at once contrived and brilliant.

Alas, Angela Bassett doesn’t get much to do, glowering condescendingly and ordering Cavill about. This reviewer was afraid Baldwin would be distracting, given his high-profile Saturday Night Live role over the last one-and-a-half years, but he still is credible and handles the character’s dramatic scenes with ease, reminding us that he’s still a serious actor too.

Pound for pound, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is this summer’s best action extravaganza so far. A breathless thrill ride with just enough on its mind, incredible feats unfold with precision and finesse. It’s spectacle that will set pulses racing, and have audiences exiting the theatre thinking “yeah, this is what going to the movies should feel like every time”.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong