Raya and the Last Dragon review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Cast : Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk
Genre: Animation/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 114 min
Opens : 5 March 2021
Rating : PG

Disney Animation has drawn on stories from various regions as the basis for their films. With Raya and the Last Dragon, the House of Mouse goes a little mousedeer, telling a story inspired by the mythology of Southeast Asia.  

Dragons were the protectors of the mythical land of Kumandra, sacrificing themselves to save humanity when monsters called the Druun attacked, petrifying all in their path. Kumandra is divided into Heart, Talon, Fang, Spine and Tail, each land named for a different part of the dragon.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is a warrior princess from the Heart kingdom, whose father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) is training her to become the guardian of the Dragon Gem. Chief Benja attempts to broker peace between the disparate lands, but the Druun return and the conflict continues. As an adult, Raya finds and revives Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon. Raya and Sisu must unite the fractured pieces of the Dragon Gem to bring back all who were lost to the Druun. Along the way, Raya must face off with a figure from her past: the equally formidable Namaari (Gemma Chan), princess of the Fang Kingdom.  

Raya and the Last Dragon is gorgeously animated and the world of Kumandra is a visually captivating one. The details in the costumes and architecture are plentiful, and the effects animation, especially on the angry black mist that is the Druun, is exceptional. The hand-to-hand fight sequences are well choreographed and there is a genuine sense of thrilling adventure to the story.

The voice cast is also excellent, with Kelly Marie Tran bringing both steeliness and warmth to the part of Raya. Awkwafina’s rasp works well as the voice of an animated character and she plays the fish-out-of-water aspect of Sisu entertainingly. Daniel Dae Kim effortlessly essays calm authority, while Benedict Wong seems to be having the best time as Tong, a boisterous gentle (?) giant type. Boun (Izaac Wang), a kid entrepreneur who runs a shrimp congee restaurant out of a boat, is also a fun, likeable road movie side character.

The most interesting part of the film is the rivalry between Raya and Namaari, and the possibility that they might still find common ground with each other. Namaari is sufficiently different from your standard snarling Disney villain, and this reviewer feels not enough of the movie is about this relationship.

While watching Raya and the Last Dragon, it’s evident that there is a tension between making this something fresh and innovative, while also honouring the storied legacy of Disney animation, and fulfilling expectations associated with its most successful films. As such, Raya and the Last Dragon can sometimes feel tied down to Disney animated movie formula. There’s a plucky princess raised by a single father, and she goes on a quest accompanied by a comic relief sidekick (or two or three). Sticking to a formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Raya breaks from formula in certain significant ways, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie is still constrained by certain expectations associated with Disney animated movies.   

Tonally, there are moments that don’t quite work. This is a movie about a world and its inhabitants dealing with trauma and loss. However, it also wants to be light-hearted and appealing to children – hence characters like an adorable half-armadillo-half-pillbug named Tuk-Tuk (Alan Tudyk) who clearly exists to sell toys – not that we don’t want a Tuk-Tuk plushie.

Like the Dragon Gem, the story sometimes seems fragmented, and feels episodic the way many movies with a road trip structure do. Some of the dialogue is clunky, and several of the anachronistic jokes don’t work, including a moment when Raya proclaims, “bling’s my thing”. Several of Sisu’s jokes sound like improvisational riffs that Awkwafina came up with in the booth, and can be a little grating, but Sisu is generally likeable. Unfortunately, Sisu’s character design sticks out – typically, East Asian and Southeast Asian dragons are depicted with a maned head and a scaly body, but Sisu is entirely furry and doesn’t seem like she belongs stylistically.

Kumandra incorporates facets of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos. For Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney assembled the Southeast Asia Story Trust comprised of experts in various fields, including an Indonesian linguist, a textile expert from the USC Pacific Asia Museum and a visual anthropologist. Head of Story Fawn Veerasunthorn is an artist of Thai descent, while co-writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim are of Vietnamese and Malaysian Chinese descent, respectively.

There is a desire here to tell a story that has a degree of authenticity, but “authenticity” is something that’s hard to measure empirically. As Moana did with Polynesian countries, Raya and the Last Dragon amalgamates and mashes up Southeast Asian countries to create the fictional Kumandra. While there is an overlap in the cultural traditions and mythologies of many Southeast Asian countries, residents of said countries would also generally prefer for others not to get one country confused with the other, and that creates a kind of paradox in telling a story that is inspired by a blend of cultures.

Watching Raya, it’s also hard not to think of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and the follow-up The Legend of Korra, which have thus far been western animation’s most successful attempts at creating fantasy worlds inspired by disparate Asian cultures. The world-building of Avatar seems more thought out than it is in Raya, but then of course the animated series had a lot more time to spend on that.

Summary: Raya and the Last Dragon sometimes struggles with telling a story that is authentic to the region from which it draws inspiration while also delivering what audiences expect from a Disney animated adventure, but it mostly succeeds in pulling off this balance. It may not be as revolutionary as Disney had hoped, but it is still a largely entertaining adventure that draws on rich storytelling traditions. Hopefully, filmmakers from varied backgrounds will continue getting the support they need in Hollywood to tell more stories from more places.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Marksman review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Robert Lorenz
Cast : Liam Neeson, Joe Perez, Katheryn Winnick, Juan Pablo Raba, Teresa Ruiz, Dylan Kenin, Luce Rains
Genre: Action/Thriller/Drama
Run Time : 108 min
Opens : 25 February 2021
Rating : PG13

Some might say comic book movies are the most prevalent genre now, but perhaps “Liam Neeson with a gun” is a close second. Here’s another one to add to the pile, and in case you weren’t sure if Neeson’s character wields a gun, it’s right there in the title.

Jim Hanson (Liam Neeson), not to be confused with the creator of the Muppets whose name is one letter away, is a rancher and retired U.S. Marine. His wife has died of cancer and his farm is about to be foreclosed upon. His property is along the Mexico/US border in Arizona, and he happens upon a woman named Rosa (Teresa Ruiz) and her son Miguel (Joe Perez) trying to cross the border, pursued by cartel members. Joe reluctantly embarks on a mission to get Miguel to family members in Chicago, all the while pursued by the cartel members, who are led by the deadly lieutenant Maurico (Juan Pablo Raba).

This movie makes very good use of Liam Neeson’s talents. He’s outwardly gruff but innately decent, a badass with a heart of gold. Neeson is a perfect fit for the neo-Western genre, and Jim is very easy to root for. The movie is sturdy and straightforward, and young actor Perez is not bad opposite Neeson. The Marksman is predictable but is solidly made and handsomely shot by Director of Photography Mark Patten, who has mostly worked in British TV.

For a movie in which the protagonist is relentlessly pursued, there is a crucial lack of urgency to the proceedings. The Marksman feels considerably longer than its 108 minutes. Director Robert Lorenz seems to be aiming for the stillness of a classic western, but instead it feels like the characters are just waiting around. When the action does happen, it is largely unremarkable.

The Marksman also strains to be apolitical to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, but the issue of people crossing the US/Mexico border illegally is an inherently political one. It wants to be grounded, but also doesn’t want to engage with reality too directly, which is sometimes to the movie’s detriment.

There are moments when Jim and Miguel display glimmers of personality, but the movie is mostly taciturn and doesn’t really let us get to know either character. It also trades in cliches, with Jim having a bog-standard backstory (retired military man whose wife has died). Katheryn Winnick plays Jim’s stepdaughter Sarah, who is ostensibly the female lead but is almost completely a non-entity.

Lorenz, the movie’s director, producer and co-writer, is a long-time producing partner of Clint Eastwood. This feels like something that Eastwood would star in, and perhaps Neeson works better because he is a warmer presence than Eastwood is, especially now. There’s a scene in this movie in which Jim and Miguel watch the Eastwood starrer Hang ‘Em High in a motel room, which Lorenz included as a nod to his mentor.

If you love Liam Neeson’s late-career action work, this is more of the same. It’s not the most exciting or the most compelling, but it does play to all his strengths, and does have an old-fashioned reliability to it.

Summary: A competent if only sporadically engaging neo-western, The Marksman sees Liam Neeson on fine late-career form.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Galaxy of Possibilities: Lucas Museum of Narrative Art Director of Archives Laela French talks Star Wars Identities

For F*** Magazine

F*** talks to the art historian and curator about bringing the blockbuster Star Wars exhibit to Singapore

From 30 January to 13 June 2021, Star Wars fans in Singapore can make the jump to hyperspace and into a galaxy far, far away at the Star Wars Identities exhibition at the ArtScience Museum. Originally slated to open in April 2020, the exhibition was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but has finally opened in Singapore

This exhibition contains over 200 artefacts, including costumes, props, concept art and models that were used in the production of the Star Wars Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy, the Clone Wars animated series and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The exhibition debuted in Montreal in 2012 and after touring cities including Paris, London, Brussels, Sydney and Tokyo, the exhibition makes its 12th and final stop in Singapore, before the objects on display return to the Lucasfilm Archives. Highlights of the exhibition include screen-used costumes of characters like Darth Vader, C-3PO, Boba Fett, Princess Leia, Padmé Amidala and Chewbacca. The exhibition also contains original concept art created by artists including Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnston, as well as models of ships like the Millennium Falcon, the Mon Calamari Home One, The Slave One and the Devastator Star Destroyer.

Visitors will not only be able to see these elements from the Star Wars saga before them, but also embark on a journey themselves. Each visitor wears an RFID wristband, and via ten interactive stations, will craft their own unique character within the Star Wars universe, choosing their character’s species, home planet, personality traits and making decisions when faced with various scenarios. At the end of their journey, visitors will meet the character created via these choices. Through the lens of Star Wars characters, the exhibit examines how our origins, the influences on us and the choices we make shape our identities.

Laela French at the launch of Star Wars Identities in Munich

Lucas Museum of Narrative Art Director of Archives Laela French was part of the team that initially designed the exhibit in 2012 and has overseen its world tour. Speaking to F*** over video call from Los Angeles, French shared her insights as an art historian and museum creator, discussed what the exhibit has in store for die-hard fans and neophytes alike, and explained why Star Wars has maintained its resonance and hold on popular culture across decades.

(The following interview has been edited for clarity)

F*** Magazine: Hi Laela, thank you for talking to us! Please let our readers know what your work as the Director of Archives at the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art entails, and about your history with the Lucasfilm collection.   

LAELA FRENCH: I am the Director of Archives for the Lucasfilm archive collection, which is now under the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. What that really means is that I oversee and caretake all the props, models, costumes and concept art that were used in the making of Star Wars. Of course, the archive is more than just Star Wars. It includes Indiana Jones and any other film productions that George was involved with or was a producer for, such as Willow… 

Tucker, the Man and his Dreams?
 

Tucker, exactly, yes! So it’s a great collection, but of course it’s always all about Star Wars, and sometimes a little bit of Indiana Jones. It’s like a museum collection: we make sure that it’s stored correctly, we’re cataloguing it and caretaking it, we do research sometimes on the collection with partners or with Disney and Lucasfilm. And we mount and tour exhibitions, as Star Wars Identities is here in Singapore for you. And my background is in museums and collections care and exhibitions.  

Star Wars is a franchise that many people have different relationships with. How does this exhibit cater to fans of different ages who may have gotten into Star Wars at different points in their lives, or have varying degrees of intensity in being a fan of Star Wars? What are the levels at which different people can experience this exhibit? 

One of the things that I love so much about this collection, and I’ve been with it for so long, is that it is so meaningful to so many people around the world, it’s woven into our cultural and social fabric. We can communicate through Star Wars language and iconography. Doesn’t matter if you’re eight or 80, at this point, everyone knows about Star Wars at some level, even if they haven’t seen the movies.

We always mount our exhibitions with education and museum visitors in mind. With our Star Wars fans, we’re always wanting to put surprises in the exhibition for our super-nerd fans, because we know that they know so much already, so we always want to give them a little extra surprise. But we always think about the non-Star Wars fan who’s coming to an exhibition at the museum, so we want to make sure that even if you’re not a fan, this exhibit is still for you. It’s like if you were going to a Monet exhibition or a fine art exhibit, you didn’t know about the artist, but you’re going in to learn something. We also design our exhibitions so that different age groups can really explore and enjoy it. So I always say, kids ages eight to 80. But truthfully, I’ve seen four-year-olds go through this exhibit and they recognise the characters in Star Wars, they just see Yoda and they’re instantly engaged. So it’s a very generous exhibition for all kinds of people, all different ages, whether you’re a superfan or you haven’t even seen the films yet. 

How does this exhibit combine the experience of entering the world of Star Wars, through the “identity” component, with looking at the movies from a real-world behind-the-scenes perspective? 

What we’re looking at in this exhibition is the science of human identity and trying to answer the question, “What makes humans unique, what makes us each unique?” and we worked with a very deep and exciting group of scientists [in the fields of] psychology biology, genetics, across the gamut – anyone touching on human identity in some capacity we had on our committee, and we debated how to organise this using Star Wars. This exhibition is really built on the idea that we can tell the story of human identity through Star Wars.

We can break down personalities into five basic groups, and this is science, not fantasy stuff here, [it’s] psychotherapy. Those [types] are really well defined by Star Wars characters so we can find someone that’s very neurotic in C-3PO and see someone who’s brave and maybe a little reckless in Han Solo. The idea is that fans will recognise Star Wars characters, and we can talk about that what’s underneath that character and identifying who they are and what they represent.

And then you get to actually do your own Star Wars identity quest through the exhibition, creating your own Star Wars avatar. In that sense, you’re answering these different questions learning about the science of human identity in building your own Star Wars character. What I love is adults tend to answer the questions honestly and earnestly; they’re really serious about it. Kids are just like, “I’m all bad. I’m all good,” they’re just having Fantasyland, but they’re still learning while playing and that is just one of the best things about the exhibition. 

Concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

Filmmaking is a collaborative art form. We often talk about George Lucas’ original vision, but many artists and technicians over the decades have helped bring that vision to life. Which artists, whose work is displayed in this exhibit, would you single out for their contributions? 

Well, I have to start with Ralph McQuarrie. To me, there’s no Star Wars without George Lucas, and there’s no Star Wars without Ralph McQuarrie also. We have a heavy display in this exhibition, we have over 100 pieces of art and so much of it is Ralph McQuarrie’s paintings. His visual designs for the different planet scenes really created the look and feel of Star Wars from the get-go. So, I have to say he put the biggest mark on Star Wars feeling and looking like the way Star Wars does. He was behind the design of Darth Vader, he was behind the design of so many characters in the first go-around: Chewbacca, for example. Even Han Solo in his character design, he really put a touchstone all of that. After that, I would think that it’s Joe Johnston right behind him, creating a lot of ship designs and some of the other characters. So those two artists really created the visual look of Star Wars that we know and understand today. 

Schematic by Joe Johnston

Star Wars is a gateway in many ways; fans have discovered the different mythological, literary and film influences on Star Wars by starting there and going backwards. Do you hope that visiting this exhibit might be a gateway for kids to discover the artistic influences on Star Wars? 

I really hope so. And while this is really an exhibit on science and identity, we still are pulling right back into the hero’s journey and mythology. And so kids get really excited about that, and it leaves a little bit of a seed in them, then they’re going to go back and realise how much mythology influences all the stories that we’re telling, from the early days of Homer and The Odyssey and The Iliad. Then you go on over to the Norse mythology, like Ragnarok, those stories, and how there’s the same thread through all of them, the hero’s journey is really central to so much of our human experience. On the other side, they’re really excited by what they see in terms of design, that kind of artistry, the paintings, or the model-making or the costume design, which is exquisite, I mean truly, it’s just the best thing about Star Wars. I hope it inspires a whole new generation of artists and filmmakers and storytellers as well. 

I think there can still be a snobbishness about art, this divide between “high” and “low” art, which is why I love the approach of pop culture as a gateway into exploring different art forms. As someone who has worked in the worlds of fine art and of pop culture, how does something like Star Wars bridge those worlds? 

Well, I think that Star Wars not only bridges it but hopefully just obliterates the gap entirely. George Lucas is a filmmaker and a storyteller, and he’s also an art collector. Now he’s building a museum for visual storytelling and art collecting, so for him, it was never snobbery or elite art, it was always storytelling. I think what he’s doing through Star Wars, and through all the visual art is at the centre, it’s the story that you see in the artwork. If that painting tells a story, and it resonates for you, it counts, and there is no high art or low art. It’s what each visitor gets out of the painting in front of them. And you might get a whole masterpiece out of one story or painting and another person next to you goes “meh” and it doesn’t resonate for them and that doesn’t make it good or bad. It’s just that the story doesn’t work for that person, and they go and find a different painting that maybe tells a great story for them. So I think that’s for me what I hope Star Wars has contributed to high or low art and sort of changing the whole conversation and getting rid of the terms “high” and “low”. And just coming to the idea of “Do you enjoy this art?” If you don’t, it’s okay. We don’t all love every movie ever made, right? Every year, I go “I love that movie; didn’t love that movie.” It’s okay. 

Star Wars fans don’t even love every Star Wars movie ever made.  

Exactly, that’s right. We all have our favourite moments and our least favourite ones. It’s not “good” or “bad”. It’s just enjoy what you enjoy, and then you move on from there. 

You worked at the Autry Museum. Can you shed some light on the specific influences that the Western genre has on Star Wars, as can be seen from the objects on display at this exhibit? 

I mean, honestly, Star Wars is a space Western, right? And George Lucas, who’s the storyteller of Star Wars, he grew up a fan of cinema, he would go and watch all kinds of movies, and he’s a fan of the Western serials that were popular when he was growing up. And that idea is that you go to the theatre, and you’d watch the movie, and then it would leave you on a cliffhanger. And then you’d be waiting for the next week to go back and see what happened. He grew up on all of that kind of cinema.

And it’s not that he set out to make this a Western in space, per se, but he wanted to do this adventure and journey, and part of what his cinematic background was infused with was those Western stories. But there is something similar between the Western and the Kurosawa films from Japan. These other stories that are told, they all share a similar underlying adventure, where the lone wolf rolls into town and becomes the good guy. That’s what Han Solo is, and he’s your character in Star Wars that really pulls in the identity of the American West. And right down to his gunslinger holster and his Western shirt and everything, he really could be dropped into a Western film and fit right in. I love that. 

One of the things I love about Star Wars is that it’s the first successful pastiche franchise. It pulls from all of these varied influences that impacted George Lucas in one way or another, but synthesises them in an interesting way. It’s at once very familiar and very novel.  

I think a lot of people who hit that level of artistry and have that reach, like Star Wars has for 40+ years, is because it’s not just one single note. He didn’t just do one thing that made Star Wars amazing. He did many things that pulled together made it off the charts, kind of groundbreaking. The visual effects, right? That right there could have made a great movie, but then it wasn’t just these groundbreaking visual effects. It was the design in Star Wars that was also amazing, and completely fresh and new. And he didn’t just say, “Oh, that’s a good enough design. Let’s go on,” he kept pushing and pushing his artists until he was like, “Yes, that’s what I want.” He had this visual aesthetic that was very, very strong. And then it was based on mythology and the hero’s journey, which is a timeless story that resonates for any generation, so it wasn’t just a movie that worked great in the 70s but that doesn’t resonate anymore, it still resonates even today. Those are just some of the few things that he did that amalgamated together to make Star Wars just become what you call a classic, right? It’s something that transcends time and lives on and is enjoyed through many generations. 

I imagine the Lucasfilm archives must be like the warehouse at the end of Raiders. What is it like in that building, and was there any item in the archives that really surprised you?  

You know, it doesn’t quite look like the end of Raiders. But we used to have a warehouse for the while we were making Episodes, I, II and III [of] Star Wars that totally looked like the end of Raiders and it made us laugh, so in a way, yes, we have that. We have several storage locations. So the main collection’s at Skywalker Ranch, and I think what’s really surprised me is how much material archivally almost from the first memo to the final film shot, how much material it takes to make a film – how much artwork and artistry, and how many artists, from sculptors to painters to costume designers and costume makers, how many different artisans it took to make Star Wars [into] Star Wars today, and how many new inventions that were pushed into Star Wars to make Star Wars what it is that we see today. That’s reflected in the artwork in the collection. So when I see the collection together, and I’m like, “There’s that guy who made that and then there’s the lady that designed and built that,” and it just keeps going and there’s hundreds and hundreds of people. And a lot of film is like that. It’s not just Star Wars, but I think Star Wars beautifully represents the many artists that it takes to tell a beautiful cinematic story. 

One of the things I love about film is that you’re watching a two-hour-long movie, but you’re not seeing the amount of work that goes into it and the iterative process on the way there. That’s for you to discover later. There will be visitors who will look at the concept art of a garden gnome named “Minch” and be surprised that that’s how Yoda began.  

Absolutely, and we have the garden gnome artwork. I think that will be one of the things that will surprise people that come to the exhibition, and even if they’re not Star Wars fans, is seeing the visual journey from first sketch to final character design because really, we’re talking about identity. So part of the exhibition is exploring the identity of all the characters in Star Wars – not everyone, but the primary ones. So you get to study Jabba, from his first sketch and all the different little maquettes. And I love the one where he looks like Fu Manchu with his big moustache, all the way to what he finally looked like in the end. And of course, Yoda is a great one for that. But so is Chewbacca, how Chewbacca came to be who he is as a character. It’s the idea of design and not stopping too soon and keep pushing and pushing and pushing. I think that’s a great visual lesson for so many students today, whether they’re art students, or writers or storytellers or even scientists, that sometimes it takes a lot of effort and layers and layers of repetition till you get to the right answer, whether it’s you’re solving a scientific problem, or whether you’re solving an artistic design problem. 

Concept art by Ralph McQuarrie

The making of Star Wars is so storied that the mythology is not just within that fictional universe, but the real-life behind-the-scenes process has become mythologised in a way, too.  

It’s true. And because there’s such a worldwide fan base, sometimes that mythology gets put into dogma [laughs]. So we always have a little challenge here and there, when we would put something on display, and then fans would get upset because it kind of challenged their understanding of the Star Wars universe that they had come to adopt into their world. So we’re always a little cognisant of that. We always want it to be celebratory, and celebrate the fans and celebrate especially the uber-fans who have been with Star Wars since they were kids, and they’re bringing it to their kids and their grandkids. But at the same time, not every single thing is known about every single aspect of how Star Wars got made.

You know, there’s still some mysteries out there that we’re still being asked, and I don’t know the answer to that. When we’re doing research for different productions, I’m like, “I don’t know the answer to that.” So there’s still mysteries out there. And honestly, I kind of love that. I love that it’s an archive that’s so deep and rich, we have production notes, and binders of production designer notes, that in 100 years, in 200 years, they will have film curatorial historians coming through and still writing new things about Star Wars, even though it’s been 100 years, because not everything is known. So to me, that’s exciting. 

As you mentioned, there are fans who can be very fixed in the way they look at Star Wars, and in what Star Wars means to them. What is the best mindset to have, stepping into Star Wars Identities? 

Honestly, I think the best way to come into any exhibition but Star Wars Identities, especially, is if you’re coming in as a fan, to go back to why you’re a fan. What did that moment feel like? Tap back into that eight-year-old kid, if that’s what it was, and remember that and play, come in and just have fun, because it’s really what exhibitions are for. It’s supposed to inspire and bring joy, and, and be open. In that sense, you’re now opening to the experience ahead of you. The only time I’ve had challenges is when when a visitor will come in with a preconceived notion and expectation, and that that’s where they may find disappointment. But when we turn the tables around and invite them to remember what it is that they love about Star Wars, then that all opens right back up. And honestly, I’ve never really had to do that but more than one or two times. Everyone tends to go right back to why they love Star Wars, especially in the room with all the objects. 

For the non-Star Wars fan coming to Star Wars identities, I think that they’ll be pleasantly surprised to be learning about human identity through the characters of Star Wars, even if they don’t know the films, in a way they’re going to come out knowing a little bit about who those characters are. And what we have found in touring this exhibition is that it’s the non-Star Wars fans who go “Oh my god, I kind of didn’t want to see this movie, or I missed my moment, I got turned off on it for whatever reason, or it’s not my kind of movie, I’m not at all going, ‘Oh my god, I gotta go watch this movie!'” And then we get these letters that go “I had no idea. I just loved the films, but I didn’t watch them until after I went through the exhibition.” So I would say just come and have a good time.

Creating your own Star Wars identity through the exhibition was one of the [most fun] things I’ve ever done. Let me tell the story: when we were mounting this exhibit, it was 2012. I started my job with this collection not as a Star Wars fan. Not everyone believes that, but it’s true. I’m a museum nerd, I’m more of a museum caretaker. Not to say I don’t love the films, but I didn’t come in as like the uber-fan; I’m more of an art historian. So when I when we were doing the exhibit, I helped curate it and design it, and when we were installing it in Montreal for the first venue, we finally got to test the identity quest. And I did it and I was giggling like a five-year-old, going “Oh my god, that was so much fun. I’m gonna go do it again.” I did it 17 times. I just went and had a blast. And I realised, “Oh my god, we did it.” All of our partners, everyone who worked on this exhibit, we totally had a home run because I was having a blast. And I’m like the most jaded [person], too close to the project, too critical of all the details. And I was just like, “Forget it, I’m gonna go do it again,” and I had so much fun. When I got to share it with my kids and my family. They were the same way. They were like, “This is the best thing we’ve ever done!” And again, they put up with me being with the collection. So I think just come and have a good time, then enjoy it. It’s so much fun. It’s such a fun, fun exhibit. It’s really my favourite thing we’ve ever done. 

This exhibit was originally going to launch in Singapore in April 2020, and then Circuit Breaker happened, and it’s been in storage for nine months. Walking through the exhibit was surreal, because we’re all wearing masks, and there’s safe distancing and more frequent disinfection, but it’s a real, largely uncompromised museum experience. What do you think the future holds for museum spaces, post-COVID-19?  

I’m more hopeful. And I love that you guys call it “Circuit Breaker”; I had never heard that before. At least we don’t use. We don’t use that term in America, that’s neat, I like that. I think because it’s just a circuit break, that will get restored. I don’t think we’re going to be stuck in this particular style. I do think things will have changed forever forward from COVID-19. I do feel like that ability to work from home for so many corporations around the world and the flexibility; it’s creating a lot of silver linings. It’s been obviously a challenging time for all of the world, but I think there will be some benefits coming from it. For exhibitions, I feel like we will restore back to how we were before. I don’t see us always stuck in paranoid land of a pandemic. Pandemics do end. Historically, throughout time, they all come to an end, they all come to an end in a two-to-three-year window. I do feel like when it comes to an end, we’re going to have a slow transition back to normalcy. We’re all gonna be a little bit like, “Oh, is it really, really, really over?” but I think we will get there. And then we’ll be back to our crowded galleries and having human experiences the way we used to be with a big, huge sigh of relief. So, I have faith in that and I’m so grateful for all the effort that the Singapore ArtScience museum have brought to this to make this work during COVID. It was Herculean, really for all the teams, but we did it and we’re really thrilled that in Singapore, you guys can have a semi-normal moment going to the exhibition and that’s really a great way to end this exhibit. 

Finally, as an art historian, what do you imagine someone with your job, 200 years in the future, would say about Star Wars 

Well, because we’re going to have this amazing Star Wars archive, as part of the Lucas Museum of narrative art in Los Angeles. The 200-year future with my job, living in Los Angeles caretaking this collection, what are they going to say about Star Wars? They’re going to say that it was one of the most seminal, groundbreaking, moments in cinematic history, like Shakespeare to Elizabethan England. The after-effects will be much better seen and understood in 200 years than we are in the only 40-year window. But if I’m looking at it as a trajectory, with a rocket trail, I see it only continuing and growing and especially now in the hands of Disney, as a global franchise, and with theme parks and Star Wars Land, like I don’t see it slowing down and I don’t see it coming to a full stop. I always see it as woven into our social fabric and vernacular and vocabulary. I just see that 200 years from now they’re going to be really looking at all of the effects of what George Lucas created with his Skywalker story. And in a positive light, I just feel like it’s gonna be really meaningful just like what Shakespeare did. I’m not saying Star Wars is equal to Shakespeare for the literary snobs in the world, I’m just saying the impact will be same felt. They’re already holding classes at universities on Star Wars. So I just see that going more in in the cinema I think cinema has always been looked at as lowbrow. We talked about highbrow-lowbrow, right? I think cinema is going to be seen as a new way of telling stories in high fashion, whatever that really means. Maybe we’ll lose that terminology altogether. 

Visit https://www.marinabaysands.com/museum/exhibitions/star-wars-identities.html for tickets and more details

Soul review

For F*** Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Monster Hunter review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Cast : Milla Jovovich, Tony Jaa, Ron Perlman, Cliff “T.I.” Harris Jr, Meagan Good, Diego Boneta, Josh Helman, Jin Au-Yeung, Hirona Yamazaki
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 104 min
Opens : 24 December 2020
Rating : PG13

Paul W.S. Anderson, best known for the Resident Evil films, tackles another videogame adaptation, bringing Capcom’s Monster Hunter to the big screen.

Captain Natalie Artemis (Milla Jovovich), whose squadron includes Link (T.I.), Dash (Meagan Good), Marshall (Diego Boneta), Steeler (Josh Helman) and Axe (Jin Au-Yeung), is a U.S. Army Ranger. A freak electrical storm suddenly whisks Artemis and her team into a mysterious realm dominated by other-worldly monsters. Artemis meets the Hunter (Tony Jaa), who has spent his life fighting the monsters, including the Black Diablos and the Nerscylla. Despite initially being antagonistic to each other, Artemis and Hunter must overcome their differences to help each other survive, and so that Artemis can find a way home.

Monster Hunter is not as bad as many of the Resident Evil films and is often entertaining. One would be hard-pressed to call it “good”, but there are a few enjoyable sequences, and some of the monsters are rendered well.

Milla Jovovich may have limited range as an actor, but she is very good at playing tough characters, and the Artemis character caters to all her strengths. The best parts of the film are not the monster fight sequences, though there are plenty of those – the best parts of the movie are the scenes that Jovovich and Jaa share.

Jaa is immensely charismatic, a winsome movie star through and through. There is not much in the way of characterisation for Hunter, let alone any of the other characters who aren’t him or Artemis, but Jaa makes the most of what he’s given. The movie also isn’t as bloated as it could’ve been, given the amount of lore in the game series.

This is a movie that evaporates almost as soon as it’s over. There’s just not a lot here, and it is frustrating because there are interesting textural elements, and there are things about the movie one wishes Anderson had focused on more. Perhaps this is due in part to the appearance of his oft-collaborator Ron Perlman, but this reviewer spent most of Monster Hunter imagining what a filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro could have done with this material. The games are action role-playing games and are not primarily story-driven, which means there was room to create a story here, and it’s just threadbare.

The entire aspect of a human military unit entering the world of Monster Hunter is not taken from the games. Anderson was inspired by a one-off crossover event in the 2010 game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, in which a military squad briefly fought monsters from the Monster Hunter series. This means that, just like in the Resident Evil films, Milla Jovovich is playing a character who was created from whole cloth for the movies and is not present in the games on which they are based. As such, Artemis feels like an avatar, it feels like there’s basically nothing to her, and that Hunter is a much more interesting character by comparison. Anderson also probably thinks it’s quite clever that the character is named after the Ancient Greek goddess of the hunt. Elements from Mad Max: Fury Road, the live-action Transformers movies and Stargate feel grafted onto the movie.

The supporting characters are mostly non-entities. This renders the controversy surrounding one line that was meant to be throwaway banter, that resulted in the movie being pulled from Chinese cinemas, and which has now been deleted from the film, all the more pointless.

A problem that has plagued many of Anderson’s films is also evident here: hyperactive editing. Hand-to-hand combat scenes are rendered essentially incomprehensible, which is even more of a shame considering that a martial artist of Tony Jaa’s calibre is the second lead.

The selling point of the movie is the monsters, which were designed with the input of game director Kaname Fujioka and producer Ryozo Tsujimoto. Some of the monsters are better-executed than others – the fire-breathing Rathalos is a good movie dragon and the climactic battle is one of the film’s more exciting moments. Unfortunately, the spider-like Nerscylla often feel artificial when they should be scary and unsettling. Overall, the monsters can’t help but feel generic and lacking in character, even if some are integrated well into the live-action footage.

Summary: Monster Hunter is a passable diversion, but it’s hard to connect to much in the movie at all. Sporadically entertaining but ultimately flimsy, this video game adaptation doesn’t seem interested in exploring the world of the source material. It is a lot more watchable than many of the same director’s Resident Evil films though, and Tony Jaa is a significant bright spot.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wonder Woman 1984 review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Patty Jenkins
Cast : Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Connie Nielsen, Robin Wright, Lily Aspell, Amr Waked
Genre: Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 151 min
Opens : 17 December 2020
Rating : PG

In 2017, the first Wonder Woman movie finally brought the iconic superheroine to the big screen. The film broke ground and was a critical and financial success, meaning everyone would watch director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot closely to see where the sequel would go.

66 years after the events of the first film, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) lives in Washington, DC and works as an archaeologist and anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute. Her new colleague Dr Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), a gemologist, is meek, nerdy, and often ignored, and wishes to be like Diana. A mysterious artifact with unfathomable power that Diana has recovered begins to change the life of Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), a grifter who projects an image of wealth but whose multi-level marketing oil business is floundering. Things start to change for Diana too, as Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who sacrificed his life in the First World War, magically returns. As things begin spinning out of control, Diana must discover the source of these seemingly mystical transformations and set things right.

Wonder Woman 1984 is a corny movie, but corny in a good way. This is an earnest, sincere and ultimately hopeful film that is completely unconcerned with looking or seeming cool. As such, it will probably have its detractors, but there’s something about it that is very appealing. It almost has an Amblin movie’s soul, befitting the 80s setting. There is something Spielbergian to its earnestness, and one gets the sense that Jenkins and the other filmmakers wholeheartedly believe in what the movie is saying.

Gal Gadot continues to own the Wonder Woman role with poise, sensitivity and strength, the proportions of each component finely calibrated. She essays the quiet sadness of someone who has never gotten over losing the love of her life, while having many more facets to her than just that. There are moments when one can see the years in her eyes, and this wiser, more mature but still compassionate and good-hearted Diana is a fully fleshed-out character.

The movie also finds clever ways to reference iconic attributes of the character from the comics, some of which would be considered too cheesy to translate to live-action.

The movie feels shorter than its 151 minutes but is still too long. It certainly doesn’t feel as fresh as the first go-round, but that is par for the course with sequels. The message at the heart of the movie is straightforward to the point of being simplistic. The “be careful what you wish for” strain allows Wonder Woman 1984 to explore certain themes but can sometimes come off as shallow. The movie wants to say that everyone should be content with what they have and not fixate on wanting too much more, which is not a bad message, but that might hit differently in a year in which so much has been taken away from so many. The action set-pieces are largely unmemorable, with the best sequence being the prologue, which depicts the Themysciran Contest. A major climactic duel takes place in darkness, is shot mostly in close-ups and is choppily edited, such that it is challenging to follow.

Wonder Woman 1984 revels in its 80s setting, with production designer Aline Bonetto and costume designer Lindy Hemming creating a thoroughly convincing milieu. Diana rocks some very stylish 80s fashion (just look at those lapels!) and Barbara’s makeover from dowdy to glam is fun to watch. The movie also references geopolitical tensions at the time and comments on rampant consumerism. The 80s in America were very much about being defined by what one bought and owned – Wonder Woman is a character who is so innately good, she seems naturally at odds with greed and superficiality.

Gadot and Pine continue to share crackling chemistry, even if the reason behind Steve’s resurrection might be contrived for some. The fish-out-of-water stuff with Steve discovering life in the 80s is endearing. Diana and Steve share a beautiful moment that seems deliberately evocative of the “Can You Read My Mind” flight in the 1978 Superman movie.

Pedro Pascal is wonderfully cast as Maxwell Lord. Imagine if the fake wealth gurus who show up in unskippable YouTube ads suddenly had all the power in the world. It’s a frightening thought, and one that the film fully exploits. Pascal has said his performance was inspired by Nicolas Cage, which is evident at certain points.

Kristen Wiig is not an obvious choice to play a supervillain, which is precisely why she works in the role. Barbara’s arc is one we’ve seen in many comic book movies, with characters like the Riddler in Batman Forever and Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 bearing similar traits. However, Wiig brings a humanity and tenderness to the character, keeping her sympathetic even as she becomes increasingly vicious.

It may not have everything everyone is looking for in a comic book movie but Wonder Woman 1984 is confident about what it is.

Summary: Earnest and heartfelt, Wonder Woman 1984’s innate sweetness and optimism is hard to resist, even if its action sequences are disappointing. Stay for a crowd-pleasing stinger scene during the end credits.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Tiong Bahru Social Club review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Tan Bee Thiam
Cast : Thomas Pang, Goh Guat Kian, Jalyn Han, Noorlinah Mohamed, Jo Tan, Munah Bagharib
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Sci-fi
Run Time : 88 min
Opens : 10 December 2020
Rating : NC16

How does one measure happiness? We know when we feel happy or unhappy, but are there empirical values that can be attached to that? In this Singaporean satirical comedy-drama, the idea of what it would take to make the happiest community in the world is explored.

Ah Bee (Thomas Pang) lives with his mother Mui (Goh Guat Kian) in the Pearl Bank apartment complex. Now 30, Ah Bee must step out on his own. He joins the Tiong Bahru Social Club, an experimental community, as a Happiness Agent. Overseen by manager Haslinna (Noorlinah Mohammed), all the residents of the community wear a ring that monitors their happiness levels and are constantly surveilled. Ah Bee is assigned to care for his senior client, Ms Wee (Jalyn Han), an eccentric cat lady who doesn’t buy into the whole “happiest society on earth” rhetoric. Ah Bee meets other Happiness Agents, including Geok (Jo Tan) and Orked (Munah Bagharib), but he soon finds that this almost-cult of enforced happiness might not be the best place for him, and must figure out if he belongs in Tiong Bahru Social Club.

This reviewer will admit to often not being very interested in local movies. Tiong Bahru Social Club is one of the most fascinating Singaporean movies in recent memory. It is meticulously designed and shot, has something to say, and is genuinely funny. Director Tan Bee Thiam displays confidence as a filmmaker, while cinematographer and editor Looi Wan Ping constructs an aesthetically pleasing film that’s beautiful to look at even as things feel increasingly off.

The semi-sci-fi elements, including an artificial intelligence assistant named BRAVO60, and the “quirky” dream sequences are all there in just the right amounts, such that one element of the movie doesn’t overwhelm another. Despite how deliberately mannered Tiong Bahru Social Club looks and feels, it is unmistakably authentic. This hits the sweet spot of being something that will resonate with many Singaporean viewers while also being accessible to international viewers. Beyond that, this movie will give international viewers unique, focused insight into Singaporean society unlike anything else.

Tiong Bahru Social Club has great characters, but is not necessarily plot-driven, though this is by design. Director Tan is keenly aware of the tone of the film at all times – the movie’s “happiness cult” is wont to remind audiences of movies like Sorry to Bother You, but it never gets genuinely dark. Upsetting perhaps, but never horrifying, when some viewers might be willing the movie to fully embrace that darkness as it reaches its conclusion, so it helps to bear in mind that this is not Black Mirror. While it is enjoyable, the movie does feel longer than its 88-minute runtime and can sometimes come across as a little too self-conscious, the way many deliberately designed movies do.

Thomas Pang makes for a great agreeable ‘blank slate’ lead character, while actors like Jo Tan and Munah Bagharib create characters who are odd but likeable, and whom audiences understand are struggling with something under the surface. Noorlinah Mohammed’s Stepfordian turn as Haslinna is the right amount of annoyingly corporate and insincere. Both Goh Guat Kian and Jalyn Han give the sometimes-outlandish movie a good degree of grounding. Veteran theatre practitioner Han is especially entertaining as a cantankerous cat-loving lady who sees through all the bulls**t and who enjoys ordering Ah Bee about.

One of the many fascinating things about Tiong Bahru Social Club is that it is cowritten by Tan and Antti Toivonen, who moved from Finland to Singapore 11 years ago. According to the 2020 World Happiness Report, Helsinki, Finland was ranked the happiest city in the world, with Singapore coming in at 49th. Toivonen himself has acknowledged that many Finns would disagree with the findings of the report, but then again, the grass is always greener etc. Singapore’s never-ending march of progress means that humanity can get lost in the shuffle – the recent demolition of the Pearl Bank Apartment complex, where Ah Bee and his mother live at the beginning of the film, is emblematic of this.

This film captures that Singaporean obsession with measuring and quantifying everything – everything can be used to judge someone’s value, and everyone’s always sizing everyone else up. As such, it can feel extremely repressive and stifling. The film’s wry observation of this strongly resonated with this reviewer.

Tiong Bahru Social Club will appeal to cinephiles and film students who are preoccupied with things like shot composition, lighting and transitions. More importantly, it also uniquely captures the Singaporean fixation with turning everything, however intangible and ephemeral, into a Key Performance Indicator. This is that rare arthouse film that is thoroughly accessible and enjoyable.

Summary: Tiong Bahru Social Club is a charming, witty and visually pleasing satirical comedy that succinctly captures the Singaporean obsession with measuring and assigning empirical value to abstract things. This is the most striking, memorable and enjoyable local film in a long time. There’s also a cat named Mochi, who gets credited on the poster and in the end titles.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Freaky review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Christopher Landon
Cast : Vince Vaughn, Kathryn Newton, Katie Finneran, Celeste O’Connor, Misha Osherovich, Uriah Shelton, Alan Ruck, Melissa Collazo
Genre: Horror/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 43 min
Opens : 12 November 2020
Rating : NC16/M18

“Body swap slasher movie” – that’s a killer elevator pitch right there. This movie’s initial title was Freaky Friday the 13th, which was likely changed due to rights issues, but tells you all you need to know. Happy Death Day director Christopher Landon continues his collaboration with Blumhouse, Hollywood’s reigning horror studio, with this horror comedy.

The Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn) is a serial killer who has become the stuff of urban legend. Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton) is a shy Bayfield Valley High School student. After an altercation involving a cursed Aztec dagger, they swap bodies. Millie, now in the guise of the Butcher, must convince her best friends Nyla (Celeste O’Connor) and Josh (Misha Osherovich) of her far-fetched predicament. Meanwhile, the Butcher, inhabiting Millie’s body, sets about murdering the other high school students. Millie-as-the-Butcher must retrieve the dagger to reverse the transformation within 24 hours, or it will become permanent.

Landon began his career as a screenwriter and wrote four Paranormal Activity films, directing one. He directed the juvenile, largely off-putting Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, before establishing himself as “the comedy slasher guy” with Happy Death Day and its sequel. Freaky sees Landon upping his game, refining a lot of the techniques he used in the Happy Death Day films. There’s an economy to the way Freaky sets things up and pays them off, and the structure works. This also looks slightly more expensive than many other Blumhouse movies do, with the opening sequence in a mansion filled with antiquities being an atmospheric way to begin the movie.

It’s been almost 25 years since Scream, the meta horror-comedy that defined a generation of slasher movies. Freaky follows in those bloody footprints with a healthy amount of wink-wink genre awareness, but never becomes self-indulgent. This is considerably gorier than Happy Death Day, which was a PG13 movie, while Freaky very much isn’t. Tonally, this works: it’s scary when it needs to be, it’s funny when it needs to be, and it’s a little emotional when it needs to be. There’s even a bit of social commentary, with the-Butcher-as-Millie taking on high school boys who behave in a sexually aggressive manner. The plot device of the dagger is efficient – there’s no need for circuitous explanations about the mechanics of the body swapping. There’s also an inspired visual effects flourish during one crucial moment that sells the body swap well.

While Landon generally has a handle on the tone, Freaky’s cheekiness can sometimes get the better of it. Bear McCreary’s heightened, arch score pretty much announces “hi, I’m a horror movie score, get ready for some jump scares”. Depending on your mood, this can either heighten everything else going on, or pull one out of it a bit. Some moments of comedy are a bit too broad, with the scene in which Nyla and Josh consult the Spanish teacher about the engraving on the dagger sticking out as quite silly. Plenty of the jokes land, but some of them don’t – several attempts at approximating Gen Z dialogue miss the mark, but it’s not as bad as it could have been.

A key ingredient to any body swap story is the differences between the two people doing the swapping. While Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton are physically distinct, there are times when it feels like the movie might have been a bit miscast. Vaughn’s casting is likely a nod to the misbegotten 1998 remake of Psycho that he starred in. He is very good at affecting the teenage girl-ness – not quite to the level of Jack Black in the Jumanji movies, but almost there. While Vaughn is physically imposing, he’s just not very scary in this, and for it to work completely, the Butcher must be convincingly frightening before the swap takes place. The excellent supporting cast does make up for it, with Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich being very likeable as the stock best friends. Alan Ruck is also good as a particularly odious shop teacher.

Freaky largely plays by genre rules but has plenty of fun with them and makes the most out of its fantastic premise.

Summary: A teen horror comedy with a bit more kick than most examples of the genre, Freaky knows what it is and has fun while it’s at it.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Blood Vessel review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Justin Dix
Cast : Nathan Phillips, Alyssa Sutherland, Alex Cooke, Christopher Kirby, Mark Diaco, John Lloyd Fillingham, Troy Larkin, Vivienne Perry, Ruby Isobel Hall
Genre: Horror
Run Time : 1 h 35 min
Opens : 29 October 2020
Rating : NC16

Sony’s Spider-Man spinoff Morbius may have moved from October 2020 to 2021, but filmgoers can still get their vampire fix in a more offbeat way with the brilliantly named Blood Vessel. It’s called Blood Vessel, that’s just the best. Does this horror adventure live up to the cleverness of its title?

It is 1945, in the waning days of the Second World War. The survivors of a sunken hospital ship are floating in a life raft when they come across a German minesweeper. The survivors, including Australian Nathan Sinclair (Nathan Phillips), British medic Jane Prescott (Alyssa Sutherland), Russian sniper Alexander Teplov (Alex Cooke), British intelligence analyst Gerard Faraday (John Lloyd Fillingham) and American cooks Lydell Jackson (Christopher Kirby) and Jimmy Bigelow (Mark Diaco) board the seemingly-abandoned ship. They soon discover the horrifying ancient evil that is the ship’s cargo and must fight for their survival as tensions among the group rise.

Blood Vessel sounds potentially ridiculous, but it takes its premise seriously enough. This is a film with a limited budget, but said budget is put to good use. Director Justin Dix crafts a credible atmosphere of dread and parcels out information about the characters and the threat they face in an organic, digestible way. Cinematographer Sky Davies creates a dramatic-looking movie bathed in ominous red light and there’s the sense that there’s something interesting – and terrifying – around each corner on the ship. There is a palpable love for the genre here that does not get overwhelmed by goofy wink-wink tendencies, as can sometimes happen with horror films that function partially as homages. The Alexander Teplov character, played by Alex Cooke, is mysterious and fascinating and easy to root for, despite the other characters’ initial suspicion of him. As the lone woman in the main cast, Alyssa Sutherland’s level-headed and compassionate Jane also feels more layered than some of the other characters.

Unfortunately, Blood Vessel is not quite as fun as we had hoped – or at least, it takes a while to get there. Perhaps owing to the film’s limited budget, there aren’t a lot of elaborate set-pieces, and the movie does feel longer than its 95 minutes. Compared to something like Overlord, which was similarly themed around Nazi experimentation with the occult, Blood Vessel isn’t quite as entertaining. There seems to be a struggle between delivering “the goods” and making something with more substance to it than one might expect from a Nazi vampire horror flick.

The acting is also a mixed bag – certain performers, like those named above, are relatively naturalistic, but both Mark Diaco’s brash “I’m walking here!” New Yorker and John Lloyd Fillingham’s exceedingly weaselly English dweeb character are altogether too broad. There is an attention to detail in crafting the sets and props, as we’ll get to in a bit, but the film was primarily shot on the HMAS Castlemain, a restored WWII-era Royal Australian Navy Bathurst-Class Corvette. This looks nothing like any of the ships in the Nazi Kriegsmarine, but then again, some allowances can be made, given that this movie also contains vampires.

Blood Vessel is produced by Wicked of Oz Studios, the special effects studio established by writer-director Justin Dix. Dix worked on films including the Star Wars instalments Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, which were primarily filmed in Australia. The props and special effects makeup work in Blood Vessel bear all the hallmarks of being made by people who are skilled at what they do and deeply love it. A key prop is a spooky grimoire-like tome, with a sculpted cover depicting the skull of a gorgon and a spine that has a column of bones on it – the book’s spine is an actual spine. The sarcophagus containing the main vampire is a work of art, and it’s a pity that it isn’t onscreen for longer.

There are obvious limitations faced by the filmmakers and this movie is often a bit bleaker and dourer than seems appropriate for the material, but it’s evident that this is a lovingly-made little beast.

Summary: Blood Vessel is hampered by various practical shortcomings, but the dedication of its filmmakers means this movie punches above its weight class and could be regarded as a hidden action-horror gem in time to come.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Tenet review

 

Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast : John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Himesh Patel, Aaron Taylor Johnson, Michael Caine
Genre: Action/Sci-fi/Thriller
Run Time : 2 h 31 min
Opens : 27 August 2020 (Sneaks 26 August)
Rating : PG13

Tenet-poster           One of writer-director Christopher Nolan’s well-known trademarks is the way he plays with time and the perception of time. Memento, Inception and Interstellar all have the perception of time as central themes – even his comparatively straightforward World War II movie Dunkirk was presented in three separate time frames that later converge. Nolan takes his preoccupation with time and how it can be presented onscreen to a new level with Tenet.

John David Washington plays the otherwise-unnamed Protagonist, an elite secret agent. He is roped in to achieve no less than saving the world from destruction. At first, all he has to go on is one word, “Tenet”, and a hand gesture of interlocking fingers. Together with his handler Neil (Robert Pattinson), the Protagonist must unravel an intricate plot that involves a concept called “inversion” – time affects everything in one forward direction, but an unknown person or organization has figured out a way to reverse this effect, imbuing people and objects with the ability to function counter to the normal flow of time. Key to this mystery is the powerful and ruthless Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh), whom the Protagonist tries to get to through Sator’s wife, Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), who longs to be free of Sator’s controlling grip. The Protagonist and his allies must cross the world and bend the very fabric of time and space to prevent an unfathomable cataclysm.

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Tenet’s reputation as a confusing movie precedes it. Early in the film, one character tells the Protagonist “don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” However, the movie seems to actively want the audience to engage with its ideas and unravel the heady concepts that fuel it. It’s up to each viewer how much effort they want to expend in understanding the movie. Kip Thorne, the theoretical physicist whose work inspired Interstellar, serves as a consultant on this movie too.

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It helps to think of Tenet as a Bond movie with all the sci-fi elements layered on top and below that formula. Nolan has made no secret of being a massive 007 fan, with the snow fortress sequence in Inception an obvious homage to On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Indeed, Tenet has a somewhat Bond-like protagonist, a Bond villain, something of a Bond girl, globe-trotting action and even a cold open not unlike a classic pre-title sequence in a Bond movie. Tenet almost stubbornly refuses to feel like a generic big studio action movie, even though the promotion for the film included its trailer premiering within the video game Fortnite, and a song by rapper Travis Scott that plays over the end credits, both things one might imagine Nolan baulking at.

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The action set-pieces are astounding, and all feel satisfying tactile. There is a sequence in which a cargo plane veers off the runway and crashes into a section of an airport which was achieved by crashing an actual plane into a hangar at the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville. The other filming locations include Mumbai, India; Olso, Norway; Tallinn, Estonia and the Amalfi Coast, Italy. A car chase filmed on the Laagna Highway in Tallinn, which involves multiple heavy-duty vehicles including a firetruck, is a lavish, kinetic spectacle. The hydrofoil catamaran race combines glamour and thrills the way the best Bond movies do. This is Nolan’s loudest movie to date, with enough major action-driven moments to make the 151-minute runtime pass by at a decent clip.

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The film’s visual signature is that of people and objects moving backwards in time, contrary to everything else in a given scene. This isn’t something that is especially new, but just like with the rotating hallway fight sequence in Inception, Nolan has taken something that we might have seen before and amped it up aggressively. There are a few satisfying moments in which the film’s concepts play out visually in grand fashion.

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Like many of Nolan’s movies, Tenet had the potential to come off as cold, but Washington brings a spirited warmth and a liveliness to the proceedings. He is exceedingly charismatic and acquits himself well during the many complex action sequences. He also has excellent chemistry with Pattinson, who is extremely watchable as the Protagonist’s right-hand man. The Protagonist is deliberately left unnamed and in the hands of another actor, could have been a hollow cipher, but Washington has enough charm and gravitas to transcend that.

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Nolan is not known for writing women especially well. Debicki’s Kat is a better-developed, more interesting character than many others. She still is a damsel in a degree of distress, but gains agency in an interesting way and has a strong hand in moving the plot forward. Branagh, who also featured in Dunkirk, sometimes plays the evil oligarch role a bit too broadly but is often legitimately scary.

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There’s a scene in Looper in which the Older Joe tells his younger self that he would rather not explain the mechanics of time travel, otherwise they would end up sitting in the diner all day making diagrams out of straws. Tenet sometimes feels like Christopher Nolan making diagrams with straws, but it also benefits from the director’s “blank check” status – after his various successes, he gets a blank check to make whatever kind of movie he wants. Tenet is perhaps just a touch more opaque and headache-inducing than it needs to be, but it is also an invigorating cinematic experience. Just brace yourself for the hundreds of “Tenet explained” videos that will be popping up on YouTube in the coming months.

Summary: The singular vision of an accomplished filmmaker, Tenet is as perplexing as it is visually stunning, something that will leave audiences discussing it even as their heads spin.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong