A Wrinkle in Time movie review

For inSing

A WRINKLE IN TIME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

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Tomb Raider (2018) movie review

For inSing

TOMB RAIDER

Director : Roar Uthaug
Cast : Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Daniel Wu, Walton Goggins, Kristin Scott Thomas, Nick Frost, Derek Jacobi
Genre : Action, Adventure
Run Time : 1h 58m
Opens : 8 March 2018
Rating : PG13

One of the gaming world’s most iconic heroines is reborn in this reboot-based-on-a-reboot. Lara Croft is back in this film based on the 2013 Tomb Raider game.

Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is a bike courier who races through the streets of London. She could inherit a fortune, but she refuses to accept that her billionaire father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), who vanished seven years ago, is dead. Lara unearths clues that lead her to his destination – the fabled island of Yamatai, the final resting place of the mythical Japanese Queen Himiko.

Lara hires ship captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to take her to the island. Braving a fierce storm and a shipwreck, Lara arrives on Yamatai, where she comes face to face with the treacherous Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins). The mysterious organisation Trinity has ordered Mathias to find Himiko’s tomb, planning to harness whatever lies within as a powerful weapon. Lara must fight for survival as she braves the adventure that will forge her into the Tomb Raider.

Video game movies haven’t quite been able to catch a break – While some had pinned their hopes on 2016’s Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed to turn the tide, those films received mixed to negative notices. Tomb Raider isn’t a game-changer, but it gets the job done.

The 2001 Tomb Raider film starring Angelina Jolie is a guilty pleasure of this reviewer’s. This incarnation eschews the glamour and nigh-superhuman imperviousness displayed by Jolie’s Lara, in favour of a human character who bleeds and gets very grimy – but still possesses impossible levels of upper body strength.

Norwegian director Roar Uthaug has made a largely efficient, straightforward adventure yarn. The movie takes a while to get into gear, and contains a few stretches of unwieldy exposition. The story has been whittled down almost to the point of being overly simplistic, but it counts for something that this is a video game movie with a coherent plot.

Once Lara enters the actual tomb, which happens over an hour into the movie, the film hits its stride. It’s exciting to see Lara navigate traps and solve puzzles as the floor falls out beneath her feet, and it’s when Lara dodges spike-covered cylinders tumbling from the ceiling that this movie becomes Tomb Raider.

This reviewer’s favourite set-piece involves Lara clambering across the wreckage of a plane that hangs over a waterfall, trying to gain purchase as the creaky metal carcass gives way. There are individual moments that made this reviewer cheer, and the best sequences are ones that closely echo those in the game. There’s also a fun if superfluous foot chase set in a bustling Hong Kong harbour.

Vikander lends Lara charm and likeability, and has gotten herself into incredible physical shape. Lara is a little more fearless and less sheltered than the character is in the 2013 game. Vikander acquits herself well during the action sequences, and it doesn’t feel as if the Oscar winner thinks this material is beneath her. Lara is resilient and resourceful, and while her back-story of searching for a long-lost parent and facing her destiny is familiar, Vikander never feels like she’s going through the motions.

In the game, there was a whole expedition who accompanied Lara to the island. The film streamlines this by mashing them into a single character, Wu’s Lu Ren. He brings swagger and action hero cred to the role. While he doesn’t get too much to do in the film’s second half, the character is integral to Lara’s journey.

Walton Goggins is a vastly underrated actor who can be counted on to play a terrific villain. Unfortunately, Mathias is a somewhat bland part – he commands an army of mercenaries and he’s ruthless, but there isn’t very much to him. The film doesn’t do the best job of establishing the looming threat that Trinity, a far-reaching secret society, poses. It seems like this will get further explored in the sequel, if one materialises.

Dominic West is just 19 years older than Vikander, so he seems a touch young to play her father. The father-daughter dynamic wants to be moving, but never quite gets there. Nick Frost shows up to provide comic relief as a pawnshop proprietor. It does feel like this movie’s supporting cast needs to make more of an impact.

Tomb Raider is gritty and grounded but never bleak and is often entertaining, but it feels like that last sprinkle of magic dust is missing. However, it does get enough right, more than most video game movies before it have and we’d be more than game for a sequel.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Shaping a Survivor: interview with Alicia Vikander’s Tomb Raider personal trainer Magnus Lygdback

For inSing

Shaping a Survivor: personal trainer Magnus Lygdbäck talks Tomb Raider

Alicia Vikander’s coach tells inSing about transforming the Oscar winner into Lara Croft

By Jedd Jong

Anyone who’s played the Tomb Raider games will tell you that adventurer archaeologist Lara Croft must be in peak physical condition to accomplish the feats she pulls off. Whether it’s dodging deadly traps in ancient tombs, fighting off hordes of enemies human and otherwise, or leaping from platforms before they collapse beneath her feet, Lara is always being pushed to the limit.

The new Tomb Raider film, based on the 2013 reboot game, is no different in this regard. While it’s pitched as a more grounded take with a less-superhuman Lara, it still asks a great deal of its star Alicia Vikander. Vikander put on 5 kg of muscle, underwent MMA training and went to the gym every day before filming began, sometimes as early as 4 am.

Vikander first showed off her new physique when she wore a backless dress to the Oscars last year, garnering attention for her defined muscles. She also gained an impressive eight-pack over the course of training for the film.

Vikander got into beast mode under the guidance of personal trainer and fellow Swede Magnus Lygdbäck. Many took notice of the trainer and nutritionist after he helped get Alexander Skarsgård into Tarzan shape for the 2016 film.

Lygdbäck is the creator of the Magnus Method physical conditioning and nutrition program, and his other film credits include training Ben Affleck for Justice League and Gal Gadot for the upcoming Wonder Woman 2. In the world of music, his starry clientele includes Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Harry Styles and Max Martin.

Lygdbäck spoke exclusively to inSing over the phone about the arduous process Vikander weathered to play Lara, and the extents to which Vikander happily pushed herself to attain the desired results.

 

inSing: Please take us through the responsibilities of a personal trainer assigned to an actor.

Magnus Lygdbäck: I’m responsible for training and overseeing the amount of training, which means I’m with Alicia on everything she did physically. Everything from stunt training to MMA fighting with different instructors, just kind of overseeing it all.

 

You’ve worked with professional athletes and musicians like Katy Perry, Britney Spears and Harry Styles. How does working on a movie differ from that? 

Oh, it’s very different. What I do with my artistes is a little more life coach-related, helping out with structure, physically and mentally preparing them for [a] tour. If Katy Perry has a show tonight for 20 000 people, to me it matters when she gets up, what kind of breakfast she eats, what kind of workout she does, what mental preparation she does three hours before the show. What you do when you get off the stage, where you store all your energy – that’s very different. It’s all about building a character when you’re doing a movie. I love doing both, but they’re very different from each other.

What was the time frame you had to work with Alicia in pre-production, and did she impress you with her progress? 

I met Alicia seven months before filming. I was working with Ben Affleck at that time on Justice League. I got one day off, flew to L.A., and had a meeting with Alicia. We discussed the character with the director, and I started off on my nutrition plan, my Magnus Method lifestyle plan. She sent me weekly updates via video. Then four months before filming, I joined her in London. That’s when we started working together physically on a daily basis. Two months before filming, we started on her diet, the cutting cycle.

 

Both you and Alicia are Swedish. Was that something that the both of you bonded over? 

Oh yeah. It was nice, and the director’s Norwegian, so the three of us had our own secret language. It’s always special to work with a countryman. At the same time, she’s been out in the world for a long time, and I’ve been out there for many years, so we’re just as comfortable speaking English as Swedish, but it was special.

One of the differences between the movie and the game is that Lara is depicted as a bicycle courier. Did Alicia undertake specific training to shoot those sequences?  

Well, to become good at something, you have to do it. She worked with the stunt team on cycling around and doing different things, obstacle courses. She was working with the great stunt team that we had to become a good cyclist.

 

In many of the Tomb Raider games, Lara performs some very impressive gymnastics moves to navigate around tombs. Was there an emphasis on gymnastics in Alicia’s training? 

Yeah, we definitely looked at the games and we want the fans to be happy with the movie, so we were looking at the games for sure.

While Lara performs very impressive physical feats, she’s not a superhero. You’ve trained actors who’ve played superheroes before. How did you reach that sweet spot where Lara can handle herself in a fight, but she’s not superhuman?

That’s up to the director to portray her the right way. Physically, you don’t want to go over-the-top, you don’t want her to look unnatural, you want to keep that feeling of a regular person. We had that in mind, we wanted a strong, gritty, bold young woman, but who’s far from perfect like a superhero would be. You keep that in mind when you build the character, but on set, that’s much more up to the director, that’s when my job is done.

 

What was the input of the director Roar Uthaug when you were working on Lara’s physicality with Alicia?

We had our initial meeting seven months before, and then, not so much. When I work, I monitor my actors. I take pictures and measurements and I keep everyone in the loop. If they’re happy with the progress or if they trust you to build a character, you don’t really need to discuss too much. Some directors want to be very involved in the process, and others don’t feel like they need to be.

 

Was there a moment when you were working with Alicia where she surprised you the most?

She surprised me every day, I have to say. With not enough sleep, with the hard schedule of all this stunt work and prep, she is such a hard-working person. She will bring it every day. She will wake up with her fist clenched and she will go to war, which I love. My job is actually much more of stepping in and telling her to take a step back. “You don’t have to do that stunt a fifth time, you’re gonna hurt yourself!” [Laughs] I would force her to take a day off in the gym, I would tell her not to do that extra rep sometimes, and I would really tell on set “take a step back, we got stunt people who can do this a seventh time, you don’t have to do it”.

 

So she was really motivated?

 

Extremely. That’s how she is. She’s motivated in everything she does, and I think you can tell. When you see her in action, she’s a perfectionist, she’s extremely hardworking. She needs someone like me to line things up and say “take a step back” every once in a while.

Oscars recap: The Shape of Water wins Best Picture at the 90th Academy Awards

The Shape of Water wins Best Picture at the 90th Academy Awards

A politically-charged but somewhat sedate Oscars nights caps off awards season

By Jedd Jong

Many presenters and winners at the 90th Academy Awards made impassioned calls for inclusivity and acceptance in the filmmaking industry and beyond, so it seemed apt that a film helmed by a Mexican director about a romance between a woman and an amphibian monster took home the top prize. The Shape of Water was nominated for 13 Oscars and took home four.

The Oscars were held at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on Sunday, March 4. The stage was framed by a proscenium arch studded with a whopping 45 million Swarovski crystals. The stage design incorporated geometric art deco elements morphing as the night went on.

Jimmy Kimmel took on hosting duties for the second consecutive year, making repeated references to the infamous Best Picture mix-up that took place at last year’s ceremony, when La La Land was mistaken announced as the Best Picture winner when it was Moonlight that had won.

Kimmel spoke pointedly about the Me Too and Times Up movements, joking “We will always remember this year as the year men screwed up so badly, women started dating fish.” He quipped that the Oscar figure is “the most respected, beloved man in Hollywood,” because he “keeps his hands where you can see them, never says a rude word, and most importantly, [has] no penis at all.” Kimmel added that it was “literally a statue of limitations”.

Just as it was last year, the ceremony was a political one, but the sentiment of giving platforms to new voices and opening the playing field came across as heartfelt. Some of the lighter moments included Kimmel’s promise that the winner who gave the shortest acceptance speech would take home a Kawasaki jet ski. Later in the ceremony, Kimmel led some attendees, including Gal Gadot and Mark Hamill, over to the TCL Chinese Theatre across the street from the Dolby Theatre to surprise moviegoers who were attending a preview screening of A Wrinkle in Time.

Following the drama of the Best Picture kerfuffle last year, nothing at this year’s ceremony was quite as dramatic, and things felt a little low-key. As this was the 90th anniversary of the Oscars, there were tributes to past winners. Living legends like 93-year-old Eva Marie Saint and 86-year-old Rita Moreno were among the presenters. Moreno made a throwback fashion choice, wearing the same skirt she wore to the Oscars when she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for West Side Story in 1962.

The show itself might not have been too exciting, but there were several rousing speeches from the winners.

One of the night’s most memorable moments came during Frances McDormand’s acceptance speech. McDormand, who won Best Actress for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, asked all the female nominees in every category to stand, sharing her spotlight with all of them. “Look around, ladies and gentlemen, because we all have stories to tell and projects we need financed,” she said. She ended her speech with the words “inclusion rider”, encouraging actresses to demand that projects draw from a more gender and race-inclusive pool of talent.

The contribution that immigrants make to America and its culture was also highlighted. “With Coco, we tried to take a step forward toward a world where all children can grow up seeing characters in movies that look and talk and live like they do,” director Lee Unkrich said. “Marginalized people deserve to feel like they belong. Representation matters.” Coco won the Oscars for Best Animated Film and Best Original Song for “Remember Me”, which was performed at the ceremony by Miguel, Natalia Lafourcade and Gael Garcia Bernal.

Allison Janney, who won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of LaVona Golden in I, Tonya, left audiences everywhere in stitches thanks to her opening line. “I did it all by myself,” Janney said immediately after accepting the statuette. After sustained laughter from the crowd, Janney added “Nothing further from the truth”. She made special mention of screenwriter Steven Rogers, who wrote the role specifically with her in mind. Rogers and star/producer Margot Robbie got teary-eyed at Janney’s speech.

Jordan Peele, writer and director of Get Out, made history as the first African-American winner in the Best Original Screenplay category. “I want to dedicate this to all the people who raised my voice and let me make this movie,” Peele said. Peele said that he started and stopped writing Get Out 20 times, often convinced the sharply satirical horror-comedy could never get made. He dedicated the win to his mother, who taught him to “love in the face of hate”.

Roger Deakins has often been called the Leonardo DiCaprio of cinematography: after 13 previous nominations, he finally won for Blade Runner 2049. Deakins’ impressive body of work also includes The Shawshank Redemption, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, Skyfall and O Brother, Where Art Thou. “I really love my job. I have been doing it a long time as you can see,” Deakins said, motioning to his white hair. “One of the reasons I really love it is because of the people I work with in front of and behind the camera,” he continued.

The Shape of Water director Guillermo del Toro got to make two speeches, one for his Best Director win and the other when the film won Best Picture. “I think the greatest thing that does and our industry does is erase the line in the sand,” del Toro mused, exhorting that “we should continue doing that, when the world tells us to make it deeper.”

The film doesn’t fit the usual awards bait mould, but this fairy-tale for grown-ups has resonated with audiences thanks to its message of embracing the other, its beautiful visuals and its sensitive performances “Everyone that is dreaming of using fantasy to tell the stories about things that are real in the world today, you can do it,” del Toro said. “This is the door. Kick it open and come in.”

The full list of winners and nominees is below:

BEST PICTURE

The Shape of WaterWINNER
Call Me By Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MissouriWINNER
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Meryl Streep, The Post

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

Gary Oldman, Darkest HourWINNER
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Allison Janney, I, TonyaWINNER
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – WINNER
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World

BEST DIRECTOR

Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of WaterWINNER
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Jordan Peele, Get Out – WINNER
Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, The Big Sick
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, The Shape of Water
Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

James Ivory, Call Me by Your NameWINNER
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, The Disaster Artist
Scott Frank, James Mangold, and Michael Green, Logan
Aaron Sorkin, Molly’s Game
Virgil Williams and Dee Rees, Mudbound

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Roger A. Deakins, Blade Runner: 2049WINNER
Bruno Delbonnel, Darkest Hour
Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk
Rachel Morrison, Mudbound
Dan Laustsen, The Shape of Water

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of WaterWINNER
Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk
Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread
John Williams, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Carter Burwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

“Remember Me,” CocoWINNER
“Mighty River,” Mudbound
“Mystery of Love,” Call Me by Your Name
“Stand Up for Something,” Marshall
“This Is Me,” The Greatest Showman

 

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM

CocoWINNER
The Boss Baby
The Breadwinner
Ferdinand
Loving Vincent

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM

Dear BasketballWINNER
Garden Party
Lou
Negative Space
Revolting Rhymes

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

IcarusWINNER
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Faces Places
Last Men in Aleppo
Strong Island

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT

Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 WINNER
Edith and Eddie
Heroin(e)
Knife Skills
Traffic Stop

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM

The Silent ChildWINNER
DeKalb Elementary
The Eleven O’Clock
My Nephew Emmett
Watu Wote: All of Us

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

A Fantastic Woman (Chile) – WINNER
The Insult (Lebanon)
Loveless (Russia)
Body and Soul (Hungary)
The Square (Sweden)

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, and Lucy Sibbick, Darkest HourWINNER
Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard, Victoria & Abdul
Arjen Tuiten, Wonder

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

Mark Bridges, Phantom ThreadWINNER
Jacqueline Durran, Beauty and the Beast
Jacqueline Durran, Darkest Hour
Luis Sequeira, The Shape of Water
Consolata Boyle, Victoria & Abdul

BEST SOUND EDITING

Richard King and Alex Gibson, DunkirkWINNER
Julian Slater, Baby Driver
Mark Mangini and Theo Green, Blade Runner 2049
Nathan Robitaille and Nelson Ferreira, The Shape of Water
Matthew Wood and Ren Klyce, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

BEST SOUND MIXING

Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landarker, and Gary A. Rizzo, DunkirkWINNER
Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin, and Mary H. Ellis, Baby Driver
Ron Bartlett, Dough Hemphill, and Mac Ruth, Blade Runner 2049
Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern, and Glen Gauthier, The Shape of Water
David Parker, Michael Semanick, Ren Klyce, and Stuart Wilson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

The Shape of Water (Production Design: Paul Denham Austerberry; Set Decoration: Shane Vieau and Jeff Melvin) – WINNER
Beauty and the Beast (Production Design: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer)
Blade Runner: 2049 (Production Design: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Alessandra Querzola)
Darkest Hour (Production Design: Sarah Greenwood; Set Decoration: Katie Spencer)Dunkirk (Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Gary Fettis)

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Blade Runner 2049 (John Nelson, Gerd Nefzer, Paul Lambert, and Richard R. Hoover) – WINNER
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, and Dan Sudick)
Kong: Skull Island (Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, and Mike Meinardus)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Neal Scanlan, and Chris Corbould)
War for the Planet of the Apes (Joe Letteri, Daniel Barrett, Dan Lemmon, and Joel Whist)

BEST FILM EDITING

Lee Smith, DunkirkWINNER
Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos, Baby Driver
Tatiana S. Riegel, I, Tonya
Sidney Wolinsky, The Shape of Water
Jon Gregory, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

 

 

Red Sparrow movie review

For inSing

RED SPARROW

Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Thekla Reuten, Joely Richardson, Sakina Jaffrey
Genre : Action, Crime, Drama
Run Time : 2h 20m
Opens : 1 March 2018
Rating : M18 (Violence and nudity)

The bird motif has followed Jennifer Lawrence in some of her biggest roles. As Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series, she became the symbolic ‘Mockingjay’. In the X-Men films, Lawrence plays Mystique, whose given name is ‘Raven’. In this spy thriller, she becomes a ‘sparrow’.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a promising ballerina with the Bolshoi ballet. After a career-ending injury, Dominika is unable to provide for her ailing mother Nina (Joely Richardson). Dominika’s uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers her a way out – he is the Deputy Director of the FSB, the Russian intelligence service, and sees spy potential in Dominika.

Dominika is eventually forced to enrol in ‘sparrow school’, where the unyielding Matron (Charlotte Rampling) trains her students in the art of seduction and psychological manipulation. Dominika’s first mission is to ingratiate herself with CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), to learn the identity of Nash’s asset, a mole within the FSB. Diving head first into geopolitical power games, Dominika must stay one step ahead of everyone else, as she decides how far she will go to serve her country.

Red Sparrow is based on the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, a former CIA agent. This film re-teams Jennifer Lawrence with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who helmed the second to fourth Hunger Games films.

Thanks to location filming in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and the U.K., as well as Jo Willems’ gorgeous cinematography, Red Sparrow is a stylish picture. This is a film that wants to be classy yet visceral, and there is plenty of graphic nudity and violence. While Red Sparrow is often engaging, dramatic and thrilling, there are times when it’s stuck in a no-man’s-land between all-out spy movie hijinks and sober realism.

Red Sparrow feels like a spy movie, and while its heightened style is part of what draws the viewer in, it also makes the viewer conscious they are watching a spy movie. There are times when it feels like the sex and violence exist to shock the audience, such that they’re distracted from the more formulaic elements of the film. We know there are going to be double-crosses and that characters will play others against each other. While Red Sparrow has a few surprises up its sleeve, it doesn’t reinvent the genre.

Because it is based on a book written by a former CIA agent, Red Sparrow purports to shed light on the techniques that modern-day Russian spies are trained in. The Russian characters tend to have an air of cartoony menace to them, and as such Red Sparrow loses a bit of credibility. Sebastian Hülk’s deadly, sadistic Matorin seems like he’s stepped straight out of a Bond film. There’s also a goofiness to some of the dialogue – addressing her class for the first time, the Matron gravely declares, “The Cold War did not end. It shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces”.

That said, Red Sparrow often works, and star Lawrence is a big part of why. There’s a lot to the character for her to play with. While Lawrence isn’t exactly convincing as a Russian woman (lots of not-great Russian accents in this movie), she gives the role her all, and marshals an intensity quite unlike what we’ve seen from her before.

Dominika is a character who is backed into a corner but masterfully turns power against those who would try to wield it over her. It is fascinating to watch Dominika exercise this jiu-jitsu-like ability, gradually taking back control after it has been completely wrested from her. Dominika’s arc is compelling and is resolved in an exciting, satisfying manner

Schoenaerts is suitably slimy as Dominika’s shifty uncle. While Edgerton is unremarkable as the heroic but flawed American agent, it seems that’s how the character was intended to come off. The dynamic between Dominika and Nate doesn’t go quite how one would expect it to, but standard spy movie tropes are mostly adhered to when all’s said and done.

Charlotte Rampling delivers a deliciously icy performance as the matron. The scenes set in the spy school, in which students are forced to strip and perform other demeaning tasks as commanded, are some of the film’s most uncomfortable and consequently, most interesting. Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons stand around and provide gravitas, which they have no problems with. Mary Louise-Parker’s appearance as the secretary of state to a US senator seems to be a poorly-judged attempt at adding humour to the mix; her scene comes off as awkward and silly.

While Red Sparrow is not as complex and layered as it would like to be and doesn’t offer too much that fans of the spy movie genre haven’t seen before, Lawrence’s performance anchors it. It’s a little too long, but the injections of sex and violence will jolt audiences out of any lulls.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Death Wish (2018) movie review

For inSing

DEATH WISH (2018)

Director : Eli Roth
Cast : Bruce Willis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Elisabeth Shue, Camila Morrone, Dean Norris
Genre : Action, Crime, Drama
Run Time : 1h 44m
Opens : 1 March 2018
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language And Violence)

Charles Bronson had a death wish all those years ago, and now Bruce Willis has one too. Willis picks up the mantle of Paul Kersey, Bronson’s most iconic character, in this remake of the 1974 film.

Bronson’s Paul Kersey was an architect; in this remake, the character is an emergency room surgeon instead. The good doctor’s world is torn apart when a brutal break-in to his house while he’s in the hospital leaves his wife Lucy Rose (Elizabeth Shue) dead, and their daughter Jordan (Camila Morrone) in a coma. Taking matters into his own hands, Paul tracks down the perpetrators, leaving a bloody trail through Chicago. He becomes known as the ‘Grim Reaper’, attracting the attention of Detectives Rains (Dean Norris) and Jackson (Kimberly Elise). As Paul enacts his brand of vigilante justice, he becomes blind to the further consequences his actions might have.

The first Death Wish film was based on the 1972 novel of the same name by Brian Garfield. A Death Wish remake has been in the works for a while – Sylvester Stallone first announced his intention to star in it in 2006. Joe Carnahan was attached to the project and wrote the script, but had an acrimonious falling out with the studio and disagreed vehemently with the choice of Bruce Willis as star. Gerardo Naranjo and the duo of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado then came and went, with Eli Roth finally taking the director’s seat.

This turns out to be a whole lot of trouble for nothing. The 2018 iteration of Death Wish is underwhelming and unintentionally funny. While the 1974 original was gritty and nasty, this remake doesn’t have much to say. In an attempt to update the premise, we get things like people posting memes of the Grim Reaper online. It’s all rote and pointless.

It’s not like there haven’t been any other vigilante revenge thrillers between the release of Death Wish V and now. Nearly every action star has been in a similar film, with Liam Neeson’s Taken series coming to mind. Then there are direct-to-DVD films like the John Travolta-starring I Am Wrath and the Antonio Banderas-starring Acts of Vengeance. There are hints that Death Wish might delve into the socio-political implications of modern day vigilante justice, but it treads no new ground.

Bruce Willis is a big part of why this doesn’t work. He’s appeared in mostly straight-to-video action films in recent years, and seems so checked out. The character’s extreme grief and rage never crystallises, and while Willis still has the residual action hero cred from the Die Hard films, Paul Kersey never registers as a real person.

Vincent D’Onofrio, who can be downright intimidating in the right roles, is awful as Paul’s younger brother Frank, coming off mostly as whiny and annoying. The two police detectives appear laughably incompetent, missing the most obvious clues to the Grim Reaper’s identity. The villains are generic thugs, and the female characters exist only to have horrible things happen to them to motivate the hero, just as in the source material.

Director Eli Roth is strongly associated with the horror genre, having helmed Hostel and its sequel. Roth loves his gore, and there are plenty of messy headshots and a particularly painful-looking DIY surgery scene. However, there’s a surprising lack of tension, and the film never generates real intensity. Perhaps this is a result of him being hired as a replacement, hence this feeling like work for hire.

Death Wish is the culmination of a huge amount of behind-the-scenes fuss that adds up to nothing much. While the involvement of cinematographer Rogier Stoffers ensures the film doesn’t look as cheap as Death Wish’s numerous direct-to-DVD brethren, both star Willis and director Roth seem like bad fits for this unnecessary reboot.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Evita musical review

For inSing

EVITA

MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands Singapore
23 February – 18 March 2018

It now seems commonplace for entertainers to enter politics, but there was a time when this wasn’t so. In 1945, 26-year-old actress Eva Duarte married Colonel Juan Perón. In 1946, Perón was elected President of Argentina, and the actress became the first lady. Eva earned adoration and scorn and has had a lasting impact on popular culture.

Evita is arguably the best-known pop culture depiction of Eva. Practically everyone has heard “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” at some point or another. With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice and directed by Hal Prince, the musical began life as a concept album in 1976, then debuted on the West End in 1978 and on Broadway in 1979.

The musical was adapted into a hit film in 1996, starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce. The film was nominated for five Oscars and won Best Original Song for “You Must Love Me”.

It is 1934, and young Eva Duarte (Emma Kingston) convinces travelling tango singer Augustin Magaldi (Anton Luitingh) to take her to Buenos Aires. Excited at what the big city can offer, Eva quickly becomes a well-known radio personality and actress. At a charity concert in 1944, she meets Colonel Juan Perón (Robert Finlayson), and positions herself to fall in love with and marry the Colonel.

Perón is elected President of Argentina in 1946. When Perón is imprisoned by his political opponents, Eva rallies the people of Argentina around him, portraying herself as coming from the working class and thus understanding their needs and concerns. Eva becomes a glamorous style icon and the face of Argentina on the world stage. She is given the title of Spiritual Leader of the nation. However, she begins to weaken, and eventually dies of cancer at 33.

Our way into the story is the narrator Che (Jonathan Roxmouth), a one-man Greek chorus who functions as critic and observer, but mostly critic.

Evita is a controversial work because it depicts Eva as a grasping opportunist who slept her way to the top. The primary source material was apparently the biography The Woman with the Whip by Mary Main, which was unabashedly Anti-Peronist. Evita has a point of view and isn’t preoccupied with appearing even remotely objective. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s clear that its portrayal of events is largely superficial. This is a story that begs for over-the-top theatrics, but also for incisive nuance – the latter being in short supply.

Perhaps this is a limitation of the form of musical theatre, but the nitty-gritty of politics is challenging to present through song and dance. Then again, Hamilton famously acquitted itself well in this regard. Eva is depicted as a power-hungry social climber, and there is an emphasis on her expensive clothing – the number “Rainbow High” is all about Eva insisting she look her most glamorous for her European tour. Eva is depicted as being duplicitous – everything that made her beloved was all an act. “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, her impassioned plea to the adoring public, is a lie – she claims to have never “invited” fortune and fame, when that’s exactly what she’s done.

It feels like Eva was a more fascinating person than the show makes her out to be. There’s no question that she was ambitious and that she had and still has her detractors, but Evita downplays her contribution to feminism in Argentina as a staunch fighter for women’s suffrage. Eva pushed for a change in the law that was enacted in 1947: not only did this give women the right to vote, but also the right to be voted for and elected to office.

How does this fare as spectacle? Blockbuster Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals are typically associated with lavish, over-the-top scenery and effects: think crashing chandeliers and roller derby stunts. This staging of Evita is sparer and non-literal, using the original scenic design by Timothy O’Brien. The main piece of set is a balcony/walkway that moves up and downstage. Elsewhere, doors are represented by a door frame, and if a scene takes place in a bedroom, all we see on the stage is the bed. Archival footage plays on a large projection screen, giving the action a bit of context but not quite helping the audience’s immersion into the story. If one’s primary contact with the musical is through the 1996 movie, with its epic scope, lavish production value and thousands-strong crowds of extras, its best to remind oneself that the stage and screen are very different mediums.

Evita contains some of Lloyd Webber’s strongest melodies and scathing, witty lyrics from Rice. Lloyd Webber’s composing in the rock genre is not everyone’s cup of tea and has often been scoffed at by fans of rock music. The influence of Latin American music is naturally present, and the blending of styles might alienate some. However, as the musical is through-sung like an opera, each song flows into the next and motifs are repeated often. This reviewer’s favourite number is “High Flying Adored”, which sees the often-fiery Che at his most tender. Under the baton of musical director Louis Zurnamer, the orchestra brought the famous score to vivid life.

Lloyd Webber is known for writing scores that are downright punishing for performers, especially women. The vocal range demanded of Kingston is staggering and handles it all with confidence. There are moments when her voice seems to want for power, but this is such an exhausting show that it doesn’t quite seem fair to fault her. Her rendition of the aria “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” is the show-stopper it should be. While this reviewer would’ve wanted to see things more from Eva’s perspective, that’s down to the writing and not Kingston’s performance. Especially when playing teenaged Eva, Kingston looks like she’s having fun. This is a daunting role, and she seems fearless in taking it on.

As intended, the show is well and truly stolen by Che. This incarnation of the narrator is patterned after Che Guevara, but the Argentinian-Cuban revolutionary never met Eva or Juan Perón. “Che” is slang for “mate” or “dude” – he’s the everyman who sees through Eva’s act and knows in his heart that while she professes to be a champion for the downtrodden, she’s mainly preoccupied with advancing her own status.

Roxmouth is an outstanding Che – he has a rich, mellifluous voice that is warm but suitably rough. Physicality is a big part of the role, since Che often mocks those in power by mimicking their mannerisms. Roxmouth imbues Che with a louche sexiness that is magnetic and commanding. One of the most interesting aspects of the show is the dynamic between Che and Eva, which culminates in the tense, confrontational “Waltz for Eva and Che”, which is staged like a duel.

Finlayson doesn’t quite have the presence Perón should have, but then again, this is Eva’s show, and she is depicted as being the driving force behind his ascension to power. Finlayson comes off as a little stiff, and his Perón doesn’t have too much personality – again, this seems down to the writing more than his performance, but even so, he’s the weakest link among the three leads.

Luitingh, who is also the resident director of the performance, has fun as Magaldi. The performance is meant to be silly, but perhaps it is a little overly so. Magaldi is the first of many men Eva uses to advance herself, before he’s literally pushed offstage by Che. Isabella Jane, who plays Perón’s mistress whom Eva displaces, sings “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” with mournful beauty.

Evita’s songs have stood the test of time and the Latin-inspired dance sequences catch the eye. However, as a biography of Eva Perón, it does leave a fair bit to be desired. Perhaps it will motivate audiences to do further reading up on Eva. As a depiction of the collision of showbusiness and politics however, Evita is heady and entertaining, if not as substantial and thought-provoking as it would like to be.

Evita is produced by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Base Entertainment Asia and David Atkins Enterprises in association with David Ian and Peter Toerien and by special arrangement with The Really Useful Group. The show runs in Singapore from 23 February to 18 March 2018, and tickets begin at $55 (excluding $4 booking fee).

By Jedd Jong

Photos by Christiaan Kotze and Pat Bromilow-Downing

 

Always and for Eva: Evita press call

For inSing

Always and For Eva

inSing goes beyond the balcony of the Casa Rosada at Evita

By Jedd Jong

It’s an understatement to say that Andrew Lloyd Webber has made quite the impact on musical theatre. Evita is one of the impresario’s earlier hits – featuring music by Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, the show opened on the West End in 1978 and on Broadway in 1979. The musical contains such numbers as “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina”, “High Flying Adored”, “On This Night of a Thousand Stars” and “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”. Now, fresh off engagements in Johannesburg and Cape Town in South Africa, the production has arrived in Singapore for the very first time.

inSing was at the press call for Evita on Tuesday, 27 February, at the MasterCard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands Singapore. The show is based on the life of Eva Perón, the Argentinian First Lady from 1946 to 1952 – affectionately referred to as “Evita”.

Eva grew up in the provincial town of Junín, and headed to Buenos Aires to pursue an acting career. She caught the eye of Colonel Juan Perón, who is elected the president of Argentina in 1946. Eva and her husband become polarising figures, attracting both worship and harsh criticism. The musical follows Eva from her teenage years to her death from cancer at the tragically young age of 33 in 1952. This is all narrated by Che, a one-man Greek chorus who is often cynical of Eva and the adoration she attracts.

Evita began life as a rock opera concept album in 1976, and it went on to receive major theatrical award including the Tony and Olivier Awards for Best Musical. Luminaries including Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone have portrayed Eva. During the musical’s 2012 Broadway run, Elena Roger played Eva, opposite Ricky Martin as Che.

In 1996, the musical was adapted into a feature film directed by Alan Parker and starring Madonna, Antonio Banderas and Jonathan Pryce. The film won a Best Original Song Oscar for “You Must Love Me”, which has since been integrated into the stage production.

Evita is directed by Harold “Hal” Prince, the nigh-legendary theatre director who turns 90 this year. The Phantom of the Opera, Sweeney Todd and Cabaret are some of his other credits. “I’ve been working for him for 15 years, and no two days are alike,” Daniel Kutner, associate director to Prince, said. “He is filled with energy, and always thinking, always creative, always looking for the next project. He’s not somebody who rests on his laurels,” Kutner continued, adding that Prince is currently working on two brand new projects.

The cast is led by English actress Emma Kingston as Eva. Kingston’s mother is Argentinian, which gives her an added connection to the material. Kingston was hand-picked by Lloyd Webber and Rice to play Eva. At the press call, we watched Kingston perform three numbers: “What’s New Buenos Aires”, “High Flying Adored” and of course “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”.

“High Flying Adored” is mostly sung by Che, who is played by South African actor Jonathan Roxmouth. Roxmouth has starred in such shows as The Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast, West Side Story and Sunset Boulevard.

In Argentina, “Che” is slang for “friend”, somewhat akin to “dude”. The character was not initially intended to be Che Guevara, but director Prince patterned Che after the Argentinian-Cuban revolutionary. Guevara never met Eva or Juan Perón.

“What I’ve found is that you don’t talk at the audience, you talk to them. I get to connect and make eye contact and see people and check in with them throughout the show,” Roxmouth said of the role. “It’s really cool from that point of view because he’s not a standard narrator, he’s a narrator in the show and out of the show at the same time. Once the audience understands that, we have a lot of fun together, and I find that very rewarding.”

“Waltz for Eva and Che”, a number in the second act, is the culmination of the relationship between the First Lady and the narrator. “The audience, you can feel, are almost willing you to touch one another…and we just don’t,” Roxmouth said. He described Eva and Che as “these two incredible forces, like oil and water”, saying that it can be interpreted that Che is Eva’s conscience in the show.

The show also stars Robert Finlayson as Juan Perón and Anton Luitingh (who is also the resident director) as Augustin Magaldi.

Evita has attracted controversy, especially from within Argentina, because it generally depicts Eva in an unflattering light and as a conniving social climber obsessed with glamour and beauty. While it’s never been officially confirmed, it appears that Rice drew primarily from the biography The Woman with the Whip by Mary Main, which was very much anti-Peronist. Main’s book has been accused of overlooking the political and socio-political causes championed by Peronism, instead focusing on the seamier aspects of Eva’s rise to power.

Kutner hopes audiences will come in with an open mind. His take is that Evita is “about how we never truly know who our leaders are. We get the perception of them, we see them on TV, we hear them, but we don’t know who they are.” Kutner pointed out how Eva and Juan Perón were some of the first politicians to become media darlings and who embraced the flashbulbs of the press and the adoration of the public. The show begins with a depiction of Eva’s funeral procession, which snaked through the city of Buenos Aires.

Kutner called the cast “terrific and peerless,” noting how daunting a show it is to sing. “Because of the challenging notes and the range of this score, it can make mincemeat out of you unless you can really navigate it,” Kutner said.

Louis Zurnamer, the musical director and conductor, noted the complexity of the rock opera score, saying “it’s challenging from a historical point of view, it is not an easy musical and not every tune you’re going to sing in the shower tomorrow,” he said. “You know that you’re dealing with something very sophisticated.”

Billed as “powerful, passionate and political”, Evita promises transport audiences in Singapore to Argentina, to witness the heady life and times of a colourful and controversial figure, a woman who was a force to be reckoned with.

Emma Kingston (Eva) and Jonathan Roxmouth (Che)

Evita is produced by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Base Entertainment Asia and David Atkins Enterprises in association with David Ian and Peter Toerien and by special arrangement with The Really Useful Group. The show runs in Singapore from 23 February to 18 March 2018, and tickets begin at $55 (excluding $4 booking fee).

Photos by Jedd Jong

Lady Bird movie review

For inSing

LADY BIRD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Operation Red Sea (红海行动) movie review

For inSing

OPERATION RED SEA  (红海行动)

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong