Crawl review

CRAWL

Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast :  Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Anson Boon, Jose Palma
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 27 mins
Opens : 11 July 2019
Rating : NC16

        Mother Nature’s fury manifests in twofold terrors in Crawl, with our heroine battling a vicious storm and a congregation of alligators.

A Category 5 hurricane bears down on the small Florida town of Coral Lake, with the residents ordered to evacuate. Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) goes against the order to rescue her father Dave (Barry Pepper), who is trapped inside their rapidly-flooding house. With the fierce weather conditions making a rescue impossible, it’s up to Haley to get her father to safety. The storm has brought with it toothy, hungry alligators, who have converged on Coral Lake. Haley and Dave must draw on every bit of their survival instincts to make it out alive.

After the explosive success of 1975’s Jaws, which all but invented the modern summer blockbuster, there was an influx of natural horror films which tried to capitalise on said success. These included Grizzly, Orca and yes, Alligator. Crawl feels like a throwback to that era of natural horror movies, and there’s a certain amount of knowing what you’re getting when one watches a movie like Crawl.

The film is directed by Alexandre Aja, who became famous for the French horror film Haute Tension and went on to make The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D and Horns in Hollywood. Aja has a knack for suspense, and he brings plenty of that to Crawl. While there are many violent, gory moments, Crawl is superficially scary but never really affecting because of the silliness inherent in the premise. Alligators can be terrifying, but as rendered in Crawl, they’ve become slasher villains, feeling more like movie monsters than actual animals. Part of what made Jaws scary was the intelligence attributed to the shark, but too much of that can conversely make audiences aware that they’re watching monsters that were written to hunt down the heroes, rather than animals who behave like animals.

Crawl is a well-constructed theme park ride which, not entirely unlike the recent Annabelle Comes Home, is a good movie to go to with friends, scream at while grabbing each other’s arms, and then go home and forget about. The computer-generated animation on the alligators is mostly very good, but the backdrops, especially the storm cloud-filled skies, are patently unconvincing. The film is set in Florida but was shot in Belgrade, Serbia to benefit from tax rebates. It is a modestly budgeted horror movie which still mostly looks good and never feels too cheap.

Much of what makes Crawl work is the performances from Scodelario and Pepper. This reviewer’s friend has often said that Scodelario would be the ideal actress to play Ripley in a reboot of the Alien franchise, and Crawl is a good demo reel for that. She is trapped in damp, claustrophobic spaces, wielding a dynamo torch and fending off scaly critters. Scodelario convincingly essays someone who is skilled and resourceful, but is also justifiably scared out of her wits.

Pepper is the dude in distress for much of the movie, with Scodelario’s Haley doing much of the work, but we do get invested in his plight and want father and daughter to make it out alright. Both Scodelario and Pepper take things very seriously, such that tempting as it might be to laugh at the premise, it never becomes self-parody. It does get a bit wink-and-nod by imperilling a dog, paddling for its life as the alligators bear down on it.

Crawl is far from the most ground-breaking horror movie, but if anything, its throwback nature lends it a degree of charm. This is not a movie that’s trying to be the edgiest, most philosophical or most disturbing movie, it’s trying to be a thrill ride and with a master of suspense at the helm, it accomplishes its goal. Like many natural horror movies, it plays up the monstrousness of real animals and portrays them as especially vicious, but it is in service of an entertaining time.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Clockwork Fantasy: Cirque du Soleil’s KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities press call

Clockwork Fantasy: KURIOS press call

inSing peeks into the Cabinet of Curiosities at Cirque du Soleil’s KURIOS

By Jedd Jong

Beneath the grey-and-white grand chapiteau (big top) situated on Bayfront Avenue lies a world of wonders that comes alive during each performance of KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities. KURIOS is the 35th show produced by Quebecois entertainment company Cirque du Soleil, the world’s largest theatrical producer.

Cirque du Soleil has become known for its contemporary circus productions that put a spin on traditional circus acts by combining them with storytelling, elaborate costumes and sets, theming and special effects.

Photo credit: © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca

KURIOS takes inspiration from the steampunk genre of science fiction and is set during the turn of the century in an alternate past. The show is about a character known as the Seeker, who opens a portal to a dimension called the Valley of the Possible Impossibles. This is where the most outlandish and imaginative ideas reside. The otherworldly characters upend the way the Seeker sees the world, inspiring him with their incredible abilities.

inSing was at the press call ahead of the show’s opening for a limited engagement in Singapore. Since its debut in 2014, KURIOS has toured North America, and Japan, where the company spent one-and-a-half years before taking the show to Singapore. After its month-long engagement here, KURIOS will move on to Australia.

Writer-director Michel Laprise. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

KURIOS is written and directed by Michel Laprise, who set out to create something unlike any other Cirque show before. “We wanted to do something different, but true to the core of the values of Cirque du Soleil, what we love,” Laprise told the press. Laprise joined Cirque du Soleil in 2000, spending five years as a talent scout before being appointed Special Events Designer. He collaborated with Madonna on her Super Bowl XLVI Halftime show, before going on to direct the pop diva’s MDNA tour.

In devising the show, Laprise and his team drew up a list of what previous Cirque shows had done out of necessity and out of convenience. “We kept what we do out of necessity, but everything else, we challenged ourselves to transform it,” he declared. KURIOS has a lower stage than the company’s other touring shows, meaning the performers are closer to eye level with the audience, creating more of a connection between them.

Photo credit: © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca

Speaking about the climate that led to the creation of KURIOS, Laprise said “We were in a very bizarre mood in 2012-2013, people were sad. I thought ‘why are we sad? We live in abundance!’ People were talking as if we were living in hell.” Laprise decided to create a show that would make audiences feel good and realise how lucky they are. “After the audience leaves the big top, they will think ‘wow, everything is possible’,” Laprise mused.

Head of Wardrobe: Julie Desimone. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

To create the enchanted Cabinet of Curiosities which comes alive in KURIOS, more than a hundred costumes and 426 props are used in the show. The costumes are designed by Philippe Guillotel, and it falls to Head of Wardrobe Julie Desimone to, in her own words, “maintain the integrity of the costumes as if every night is opening night.”

Mathieu Hubener as Mr Microcosmos. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

“You want to keep it beautiful, you want to keep it creative, and it also has to really be safe and it has to be comfortable,” Desimone stated. Her favourite costume in KURIOS is that of Mr Microcosmos, a fastidious figure who represents technological progress. “It’s a challenge for my department because it’s not just a costume, it’s not just a jacket and a tie, it is a prop. It is a very large, foam, fiberglass, roughly 30-pound (13.6 kg) prop,” she said of Mr Microcosmos’ outfit. It took a team of propmakers approximately 250 hours to build Mr Microcosmos’ belly, which opens up to reveal several surprises.

The amount of moving parts in the show keeps Desimone very busy. “We do a lot of maintenance every day. We have a full team of people that just do maintenance for hours. By the time the show comes, what we’re putting on stage has been looked at and gone through many, many hands,” she said.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

While there are unique challenges to being the Head of Wardrobe at a show like KURIOS, Desimone described it as “the best job in the world.” She called the cast “incredible,” adding “When you think about what they do on a daily basis, you have to have that energy, you have to have a little bit of youth, and have to be ready to roll with the punches.” Desimone said of her cohorts, “we all have a common thread, we’re all really adaptable, we like to change, and we like to explore. We’re all very adventurous.”

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

One of the acts we watched during the press call was the Aerial Bicycle act performed by French acrobat Anne Weissbecker. The typical aerial hoop used in acrobatic performances is replaced by a bicycle, which Weissbecker rides onstage. The bicycle then takes to the air, with Weissbecker hanging beneath it.

Anne Weissbecker and Mathieu Hubener. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

When asked what the hardest part of the act is, Weissbecker replied that it’s “To make it look easy”. She pointed out that she must maintain the right speed and the perfect amount of tension on the rope so the take off is smooth and she doesn’t swing too far out from the ring. “You have to make people dream, so you have to hide what is difficult,” Weissbecker said, voicing a sentiment that many of her fellow performers probably share.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Weissbecker began studying circus arts at the age of ten, eventually overcoming her biggest fear. “I didn’t like trapeze because I was afraid of heights. It was not high, it was probably about one metre, but I felt it was so high. I get used to it, with training, you can push yourself and really have fun doing what you love,” she enthused.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

The other act we saw was the Banquine, a tumbling act performed by 13 acrobats. The act was previously featured in Cirque’s Quidam and is something Laprise specifically wanted as part of KURIOS.

Ekaterina Evdokimova and Kirill Tyurganov. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Kirill Tyurganov, who was a member of the Russian Sports Acrobatics Team before joining Cirque du Soleil, is one of the Banquine performers. “For me, this act is about breaking limits and going [beyond] the edges,” Tyurganov said. “We don’t have any additional equipment, we don’t have any props on stage, it’s all about skills and reactions.”

Tyurganov said his background as a professional athlete prepared him for the world of Cirque, but there was still a lot to learn. “When you come to Montreal, to international headquarters of Cirque du Soleil, you really dive deep into the atmosphere of creation, of something crazy and sometimes it’s mad,” he recalled.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Tyurganov has taken his wife and two young children with him on the road, describing it as an extended vacation for them. He was full of praise for Singapore, declaring “As soon as I arrived, it was like ‘oh my god, the future is coming’.” He expressed an admiration for “the mixture of cultures, food, people,” calling it “wonderful”. Tyurganov described his visit to Gardens by the Bay as “like living in Avatar”.

KURIOS features a score by French film composer Raphaël Beau, which is performed live every night. The band is led by Marc Sohier, who plays the bass guitar and double bass. “The role of the music is to support the image, the action, with the right intensity, the right volume,” Sohier said.

Marc Sohier and Eirini Tornesaki. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

The star of the band is Greek vocalist Eirini Tornesaki, who portrays the Street Singer. She described the show’s sound as “electro-swing”, and said she appreciates being part of “a big group of people working all together for the same goal, to deliver one show.” Tornesaki continued, “Sometimes when I step back and look at that, I feel very privileged to be part of such a beautiful group that puts so much energy and effort and professionalism to make this show happen.”

Rachel Lancaster, who has a background as a dance artist, choreographer and director, is the show’s resident artistic director. She voiced her hope that the show serves as more than mere escapism, saying “more than just the two-and-a-half hours that you spend watching the show or the journey emotionally that you’re taken on, it should also be with you for days or months or years.”

Some of the cast and creatives of KURIOS. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Lancaster gave praise to the team of people from many disciplines who work on the show, saying she finds fulfilment in “the small things we achieve every day.” “My job is to facilitate and help to make them happen, and when they reach their goals, I’m incredibly proud, but it’s all of their hard work,” she said of the many artists and technicians who help make KURIOS happen.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Focusing on the theatrical presentation aspect of KURIOS, Lancaster said “That’s the beauty of theatricality, how to create something that touches the audience and takes them on this journey out of nothing sometimes.” She remarked that “the best theatrical moments are usually the simplest,” stating “You can throw all the bells and whistles and light and magic at things, but if on a basic theatrical level it doesn’t work, you can masquerade, but if you really want to touch people, it’s got to be real.”

KURIOS is turning fantasy into reality from July 5 to August 4 2019 at the Big Top at Bayfront Avenue. Tickets start from $95 (excluding $4 booking fee) and can be bought here: https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/kurios0819

 

Spider-Man: Far From Home review

SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

Director: Jon Watts
Cast : Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Zendaya, Jake Gyllenhaal, Cobie Smulders, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Martin Starr, JB Smoove, Marisa Tomei, Remy Hii, Tony Revolori, Angourie Rice
Genre : Action/Superhero
Run Time : 2 h 10 mins
Opens : 2 July 2019
Rating : PG

            With audiences still reeling from Avengers: Endgame, everyone wants to know where the MCU is going next. Phase 3 officially closes out with Spider-Man: Far From Home, which sees our favourite webhead make his way in a brave new uncertain world.

Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is about to go on a school trip to Europe, where he plans to confess his feelings to MJ (Zendaya). His plans are interrupted when Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) comes calling with official superhero business. Monstrous beings known as the Elementals are attacking all over the world, and Peter and his classmates are caught in the path of Hydro-Man in Venice.

Quentin Beck/Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives to battle the Elementals. He introduces himself as a soldier from a parallel reality in the multiverse, one that was destroyed by the Elementals. Mysterio and Spider-Man team up to fight the oncoming threats, as Spider-Man is entrusted with the responsibility of being the successor to Tony Stark/Iron Man. Peter must grapple with other-worldly threats and fend off Brad Davis (Remy Hii), his rival for MJ’s affections, in an adventure that further expands the jurisdiction of the “friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man”.

Spider-Man: Homecoming adeptly managed to be both a superhero movie and a high school coming-of-age movie, director Jon Watts pulling off a delicate balance. This continues to be the case in Far From Home, which combines the “let’s go to Europe!” sequel template of many films from the 80s with blockbuster superhero spectacle. This is the first Spider-Man movie to take place primarily outside New York, and that city is a big part of what makes Spider-Man who he is. As such, it is admirable that Far From Home consistently feels like a Spider-Man movie, because of its focus on Peter’s internal struggles, how he confronts his responsibilities, and the weight of his past failures.

In 2018, Ant-Man and the Wasp was released shortly after Infinity War, as sort of a sorbet course. Far From Home is a lighter movie than Endgame, but it’s also far from inconsequential. It is a high school romantic comedy, but it also addresses the realities of a post-Thanos world. Nick Fury proclaims that he used to know everything, and now he doesn’t and that scares him. Far From Home shows us where Spider-Man fits into this world, and how he accepts (or doesn’t) the mantle of Tony Stark’s protégé.

The action sequences in this movie are larger in scale and more ambitious than in Homecoming, involving disaster movie-style destruction of European landmarks. The visual effects work, especially on the Elementals, is convincing. Sequences in which a swarm of machine gun-equipped drones bear down on our heroes are effectively frightening. There’s a lot of spectacle to go around, but Watts ensures the movie never drowns in its own superhero excess. In its own way, the movie comments on the nature of spectacle and of how audiences go to movies like this to get their fill of large-scale destruction that is ultimately empty and hollow. The film also contains some genuinely inventive, trippy sequences of visual trickery and sleight of hand to make audience’s heads spin.

Tom Holland continues to be outstanding in the role, providing both the likeable awkwardness that’s integral to the character and the remarkable physicality he has honed since playing Billy Elliot on the West End. We see how Peter has evolved after the events of Infinity War and Endgame, but how his core remains the same, and how he remains a good person who’s just in a bit over his head. Even after going to space and fighting Thanos, Peter continues to search for normalcy in a world that’s anything but.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Mysterio, who is presented as a heroic figure in all the marketing materials and whom comic book readers immediately suspected of maybe not being super upfront about everything. Without going into any details, this is a role that Gyllenhaal soaks up. There are several times when he looks completely stupid, but it is always refreshing to see someone who has made a career as a ‘serious actor’ be game for some blockbuster silliness – and hey, this is many steps up from Prince of Persia.

Zendaya’s MJ wasn’t really fleshed out in Homecoming and gets a lot more to do in this film. MJ’s aloofness and dark sense of humour are defence mechanisms. She’s afraid to let anyone get too close, but Peter is determined to win her affection. The chemistry between Holland and Zendaya has a high school crush authenticity to it, and she is a watchable presence throughout the movie.

The movie still is a comedy, with Martin Starr and JB Smoove’s harried chaperone characters providing some of the humour. Jacob Batalon’s Ned, Peter’s best friend, becomes amusingly preoccupied with something other than his friendship with Peter in this movie.

Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan gets a subplot in which he develops feelings for Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), but also gets to step into the mentor role previously filled by Tony. Jackson gets second billing but doesn’t have a tremendous amount to do here.

While it gets a lot right, Far From Home does have its flaws. Certain characters are altogether too credulous, and even for a movie in the MCU, the suspension of disbelief demanded here is high. Attempts are made to explain said credulousness away; these are not entirely convincing. The film throws multiple twists at the audience, but it can feel like it’s trying too hard to keep viewers off balance.

          Spider-Man: Far From Home is mostly up to the task of defining where the MCU is headed post-Endgame, while also being a film that’s squarely focused on Spider-Man and on Peter Parker’s personal struggles. The mid-credits scene probably has the highest stakes of any mid-credits scene yet, and the movie isn’t done with the twists until the final post-credits stinger. The MCU has big plans for Spider-Man and we’re looking forward to seeing where further adventures take him.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Annabelle Comes Home review

For inSing

ANNABELLE COMES HOME

Director: Gary Dauberman
Cast : Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Michael Cimino
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1 h 46 mins
Opens : 26 June 2019
Rating : PG13

            The third film in the Annabelle series and the seventh film in the Conjuring franchise overall welcomes audiences back to the Warren Occult Museum, where things go bump in the night.

After the events of the first Annabelle movie, paranormal investigators and demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren bring the cursed doll Annabelle back to their home for safekeeping. Annabelle is not haunted per se but is a beacon that attracts and awakens other ghosts. Blessed by a priest and kept behind a glass case made from a church window, Annabelle can do no more harm – or at least, that’s the plan.

The Warrens hire teenager Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) to babysit their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) while they’re away. Curious about the Warrens, Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) comes to the house and breaks into the secret room containing Annabelle and other objects that are either cursed, possessed or were used in occult rituals. This unleashes a litany of horrors which the three girls must outrun.

In the wake of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every studio wants a ‘universe’ of their own. The Conjuring Universe is the rare example that has worked, with the seven films making almost $1.7 billion collectively worldwide. Annabelle Comes Home demonstrates one of the reasons why the franchise is successful: the real-life Warrens conducted so many investigations that there’s a rich well to draw from. Every object in the Warrens’ museum has a story behind it, and Annabelle Comes Home shows us what happens if everything in that room came alive at once. As a result, Annabelle herself is more a supporting character, sharing the limelight with various other unearthly entities.

Annabelle Comes Home is the directorial debut of Gary Dauberman, who wrote the earlier two Annabelle films, The Nun and the two It films. Dauberman creates delightfully tense scenarios, constructed for audiences to point at the screen and yell “behind you!” This is a movie that is best watched with a crowd because it is designed as a theme park attraction, a haunted house combined with a roller coaster. There are shades of Night at the Museum and Disneyland’s classic Haunted Mansion, in which each ghost has a rich backstory.

There are jump scares aplenty, but the film retains the audience’s goodwill by being just self-aware enough without being overly cynical. Annabelle Comes Home has a sense of humour about it but always wants to be genuinely scary. The early 1970s setting also provides the movie with a good deal of texture, with one particularly inspired set-piece involving the board game Feeley Meeley.

This movie is geared towards a younger audience than the other Conjuring films are – in Singapore, it has a PG-13 rating despite having an R rating in the US. The characters still sometimes do extremely stupid things, but are overall much more likeable than in typical horror movies geared towards teens.

13-year-old Mckenna Grace has amassed an impressive résumé, with film and television credits including I, Tonya, Captain Marvel, Designated Survivor and The Haunting of Hill House. Having been raised by paranormal investigators, Judy knows a thing or two about the supernatural, so she isn’t just the typical horror movie kid in peril. Judy isn’t afraid of many things, but is especially afraid of Annabelle, which conditions the audience to fear the doll too.

Madison Iseman plays the sweet, caring babysitter, with Katie Sarife as her more rebellious, troublemaking friend. Sarife’s character is deliberately annoying, and it’s only later that we learn there’s a bit more to her, even if the emotional beats centred around her character don’t really work. Between the three characters, there’s a lot of screaming to go around, but the movie has fun with the dynamic of the younger girl protecting the older girls when it’s expected to be the other way around.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga show up in what amounts to an extended cameo, but their appearance in this film means it has a much stronger connection to the mainline Conjuring series than the other spinoffs do. However, their appearance also reminds us that some of the ideas in this movie were probably rejected from the upcoming The Conjuring 3 – one Warren investigation which producer James Wan earlier said could be the basis of The Conjuring 3 is briefly covered in this movie.

The breakout character is Bob (Michael Cimino), an earnest awkward boy with a crush on Mary Ellen who inadvertently gets caught in the chaos.

Annabelle Comes Home is not a particularly haunting movie and won’t linger in the dark corners of one’s mind the way the best horror movies do. It is entertaining and thrilling and will elicit its share of shrieks and nervous laughter. Go with a bunch of friends and try not to grab their arms too hard.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Home is calling: Invisible Stories set visit

For inSing

HOME IS CALLING: INVISIBLE STORIES SET VISIT

inSing meets the director and actors of HBO Asia’s new original series on location 

By Jedd Jong

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

HBO Asia has begun principal photography for its latest original series Invisible Stories, which is being shot on location in Singapore. The six-episode half-hour drama series revolves around the lives of everyday people living in the fictional housing estate of Sungei Merah.

The series is created by Singaporean writer-director Ler Jiyuan, who worked with a team of local writers to realise Invisible Stories. Ler has directed episodes of local TV series and TV films including Zero Calling, Code of Law and Gone Case, and recently wrote and directed episodes of Grisse for HBO Asia.

Invisible Stories is produced by Singapore-based company Birdmandog as part of HBO Asia’s partnership with Singapore’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).

Showrunner and director Ler Jiyuan. Photo credit: HBO Asia

“80% of Singaporeans live in HDB flats. I myself grew up in an HDB flat in the 90s, a three-room flat back when there were still gangsters,” Ler told the press during a break on the set. “My father was a taxi driver. Invisible Stories is the universe I came out from as a child,” he revealed, adding “I feel that it will be interesting for international audiences to see this side of Singapore, the non-crazy rich side.”

The stories being told in the series include that of a taxi driver who moonlights as a spiritual medium by night, and a banker who is a family man but lives a secret double life by night. The series features a regional cast comprising actors from Singapore, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

inSing was on set at a coffeeshop or ‘kopitiam’ in Chong Pang, a quintessentially Singapore location. This is the partial setting for the first episode, starring Yeo Yann Yann. Malaysian actress Yeo has starred in notable Singaporean films including 881, Singapore Dreaming and Ilo Ilo. In Invisible Stories, Yeo plays Lian, a single mother working at the drinks stall in a coffee shop to support her autistic teenage son.

Ler wrote the role of Lian with Yeo in mind. She was initially hesitant to take on the role, for fear of it being too emotionally taxing, but later accepted. “The first thing I felt is that it would be very heavy for me. As a mother, I am also struggling with my child and my work,” Yeo confessed. “I’m juggling between taking care of my child and my work, I was trying to avoid something that was so heavy for myself. I was scared, because once you’re in it, you have to dig [into] the pain. Of course, there’s joy, but the pain is so much deeper.”

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Yeo said she was inspired by an interview she watched in which actress Meryl Streep said she felt a responsibility to take on roles that would give voice to the voiceless. Yeo said of participating in a project that will represent Singapore on a global stage, “I’m proud of it, and I’m proud of giving voices to the unheard.”

Photo credit: HBO Asia

Yeo was sporting bruises, including bite-marks, that she assured us were mostly makeup. Yeo had shot a scene the previous day in which Lian’s son Brian had a meltdown. “A meltdown for an autistic child is when they don’t feel right. You take something away from them, they have a meltdown,” Yeo explained. The cast worked closely with a special education teacher to ensure that the life of an autistic person and their caregiver were portrayed sensitively and accurately. “Many things that we perform were approved by the advisor. The advisor was very happy that we didn’t over-exaggerate it or under-represent it,” Yeo said.

Director Ler Jiyuan. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

The issue of caring for an autistic child hits close to home for director Ler, who has two cousins with non-verbal autism. “I put myself in the shoes of a caretaker, Ler said, adding that “for them, it’s a really hardcore commitment. It’s emotionally draining, financially draining, especially for those of the lower rungs of society.” He emphasised that “the story is a very painful one, but one I still feel is necessary for us to see.”

Devin Pan on the set of Invisible Stories. Photo credit: HBO Asia

Taiwanese actor Devin Pan plays Brian, Lian’s son. Speaking in Mandarin, Pan called the meltdown scene the “most challenging scene” he has ever filmed. “You need to be very physically and mentally strong to make it through scenes like that,” he said.

Yeo Yann Yann and Devin Pan. Photo credit: HBO Asia

Yeo and Pan worked during rehearsals to form the mother-son bond their characters must share, and it carried over into the interviews with Pan holding Yeo’s hand when he felt nervous about being surrounded by the media. Speaking about working with Yeo, Pan said “I think this is the most fortunate thing that’s happened to me since I’ve left Taiwan to take on this job.” Both Yeo and Pan have a theatre background and he commented that they have similar personalities, saying “We’re both relatively carefree and easy-going but we focus on the performance, so we find it easy to play off each other when we’re acting.”

The series was born out of a desire to tell the stories of people whom we pass by on the street everyday in Singapore and wouldn’t necessarily give a second glance. “Every coffeeshop has a drinks stall aunty, but you never really think about who she is,” Ler explained. “That’s what I’m trying to do, to tell a story about people like that whom you’d walk by and never really notice; in regular dramas they’d just be extras,” he remarked.

Photo credit: HBO Asia

Yeo gained a new appreciation for what it’s like to work at a drinks stall in a coffeeshop. “Even just staying there for five minutes is not an easy thing, it’s very hot inside, it’s really not easy,” she said.

Yeo also took her seven-year-old daughter onto the HDB flat set the previous night. “She saw us struggling, melting down, fighting,” Yeo said. “I asked her ‘are you afraid of it?’ and she said ‘no, it’s fake!’” Yeo said her daughter does have some interest in acting, but that her dream job is an art teacher.

Ler Jiyuan, Yeo Yann Yann and Devin Pan on the set of Invisible Stories. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Invisible Stories is set to premiere later this year on HBO Asia’s on-air, online and on-demand platforms.

 

Toy Story 4 review

For inSing

TOY STORY 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Anna (2019) movie review

ANNA

Director: Luc Besson
Cast : Sasha Luss, Helen Mirren, Luke Evans, Cillian Murphy, Lera Abova, Eric Godon
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 20 June 2019
Rating : M18

            Luc Besson has always been drawn to lead female characters who make quite the impact, from Mathilda to Joan of Arc and Leeloo to Lucy. Anna now enters the fray, attempting to prove she can take her place in the pantheon of women who have defined Besson’s films.

It is 1990 and Anna Poliatova has become a successful fashion model in Paris and Milan. Anna has a secret double life as an assassin working for the KGB. She reports to Olga (Helen Mirren), who sends her to eliminate whomever the Russian intelligence apparatus deems as a threat. Anna begins a relationship with fellow model Maud (Lera Abova), while having dalliances with Russian intelligence officer Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans) and CIA agent Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy). The game of international espionage is one with extremely high stakes, but it’s a game that Anna knows her way around.

Anna sees Besson revisiting old territory, in that the film is very much a re-tread of La Femme Nikita, with elements of The Professional incorporated into it. This movie is of a smaller scale than recent Besson projects like 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – there are times when it feels more like something that was made by one of Besson’s stable of apprentices who have gone on to direct their own films, directors like Louis Leterrier, Olivier Megaton and Pierre Morel.

There is nothing wrong with Anna being lower-key than the average James Bond style-spy action movie, but the film is remarkably stupid while thinking it is quite clever. One’s enjoyment of Anna is very much contingent on the threshold of one’s suspension of disbelief. The film’s structure is deliberately annoying, flashing back to earlier points in the film and reframing the events to reveal a new twist multiple times. The spy games depicted in the film feel rudimentary rather than sophisticated, and the dialogue is often terrible. If Besson had gone just a bit further, Anna would’ve become a parody akin to the Austin Powers movies.

Besson is known as a director with an eye for detail, but the period setting of Anna never seems convincing. The film is largely set in 1990, and there are pagers and black-and-white surveillance monitors, but characters transfer data to and from laptops using USB sticks. One character leaves a message for another that looks like it’s been recorded with a remarkably high-resolution webcam. Although Besson’s regular cinematographer Thierry Arbogast ensures Anna never looks cheap, it just feels like something that Besson hasn’t put a lot of effort into at all. It’s also harder to watch a typically male gaze-heavy Besson movie given the recent allegations of sexual misconduct against him (allegations which he has categorically denied and which were dismissed by a Paris prosecutor).

Sasha Luss is a Russian supermodel who previously appeared as an alien princess in the afore-mentioned Valerian. She looks like a supermodel, but is devoid of charisma in a fascinating way, such that she almost seems like an inanimate object that the rest of the film is arranged around. Her line delivery is stilted and her performance in the action scenes makes it difficult to buy her as a highly trained secret agent. It’s still early days for Luss and it’s unfair to say she’ll never make a good leading lady, but especially given the mediocre material, she struggles to hold her own in a role that calls for a bona fide badass.

Luke Evans seems like a standard choice for one of Anna’s love interests, but casting Cillian Murphy as his opposite number seems baffling.

Murphy is known for indie projects and apart from the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, rarely appears in a mainstream action movie. The part doesn’t make full use of his mystique and seems like one that could’ve been given to any number of American actors.

Of all the supporting players, it’s Helen Mirren who knows what’s up. Her severe, curmudgeonly spymaster character seems to be modelled after characters from the earlier Bond movies like Rosa Klebb and Irma Bunt, forbidding and authoritative Russian intelligence officials with a nasty streak. The Oscar-winner has fun with what she knows is a silly role, chain-smoking and swearing angrily at video monitors.

Model Lera Abova lends a bit of brightness to the proceedings as the radiant Maud, but her character seems to exist solely for Anna to lie to, and so the camera can leer at Anna and Maud being intimate with each other.

Anna benefits from its supporting cast and the director’s experience making slick action movies, but it often feels like a throwaway direct-to-video movie one would catch a glimpse of on a hotel TV. The plot feels like someone half-remembered a season of Alias and tried to write it all down. It’s too ridiculous to be taken seriously as a thriller, but also not ridiculous enough to be an all-out, over the top parody.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Men in Black: International review

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Emma Thompson, Rafe Spall, Les Twins
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 55 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : PG13

          They’ve been absent from the big screen for seven years, but the shadowy organisation that polices and conceals alien activity on earth has resurfaced in Men in Black: International, the spin-off of the Men in Black series.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) is a newly instated member of the agency, still on probation. After witnessing Men in Black operatives in action as a child, she has long harboured a fascination with the agency and finally gets her dream job. Agent O (Emma Thompson), head of the New York branch, dispatches Agent M to MIB’s London headquarters, overseen by High T (Liam Neeson). There, she meets Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a hotshot hailed for defeating an alien species called the Hive in Paris alongside High T.

When a shape-shifting alien duo (Les Twins) corners Agent M and Agent H, they learn that the Hive may have been resurfaced, with the predatory invaders after a powerful alien artefact. Their battle against the Twins sends Agent M and Agent H to Morocco, where they befriend Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a diminutive alien. Agent H must confront Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), a powerful, dangerous figure from his past, as he and Agent M discover there just might be a mole within the organisation. The MIB can always be counted on to save the world, but what happens when a threat arises from within?

The Men in Black films are loosely based on the Malibu comics series by Lowell Cunningham. The urban legend of shadowy government agents has existed among UFO-enthusiast circles for decades, but it was the Men in Black movies that cemented the idea in the public consciousness. Being released the year after Independence Day, the first Men in Black movie also further launched Will Smith up the A-list. He and co-star Tommy Lee Jones have become closely linked with the franchise, with the third movie featuring Josh Brolin as a younger version of Jones’ character.

After the third Men in Black movie in 2012, the first we heard of a new Men in Black movie was that it would be a crossover with the 21 Jump Street films called MIB 23, which sounds like such a crazy idea that it just might have worked. Instead, we got Men in Black: International, which is pleasant and harmless if often formulaic and bland, because it takes the format of the first movie and slots new stars into it. Director F. Gary Gray of Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious fame knows how to handle a big Hollywood production, but it feels like he is directing to the brief, with no personal touches discernible. The film trundles along efficiently enough, but nothing in the movie will stick in viewers’ minds afterwards. It’s almost as if the movie was constructed to be watched on an airplane.

          Men in Black: International does what the James Bond movies often do, throwing in a bunch of exotic locales to up the production value. There’s a chase through the streets of Marrakech on a hover bike and one character is based out of Aragonese Castle on the Italian island of Ischia. The movie might have the scale expected of a summer blockbuster, but it doesn’t quite have the quirky soul of the first movie, especially because a lot more of the aliens are created with computer-generated effects. Special effects makeup legend Rick Baker, who oversaw the aliens in the first three films, was not involved with this one.

The logic behind the casting of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the lead roles seems to have been to look at whatever actors from the most successful ongoing movie franchise were available. Hemsworth has a knack for comedy and shifts effortlessly between dashing and goofy, playing a sometimes-bumbling, always-charming action hero with ease.

Thompson’s Agent M is capable, headstrong and determined and is in some ways the audience surrogate character, with this movie acting as her origin story. However, some of the beats in her arc echo those of Agent J’s in the first movie a little too strongly. Thompson brings some personality to the part, but Agent M feels like a textbook “strong female character” with not much that is inherently compelling about her on paper.

Liam Neeson is there to lend gravitas to the proceedings and pace purposefully around High T’s office and not do too much else. Emma Thompson is dryly amusing as Agent O, reprising her role from the third film. Respectable British actors appearing in Hollywood blockbusters for a paycheck is a time-honoured tradition and one that Neeson and Thompson continue here.

Kumail Nanjiani voices Pawny, who as the funny alien sidekick, is designed as the successor to Frank the Pug (who makes a cameo). This reviewer was afraid that the character would come off as annoying, but Nanjiani’s delivery keeps Pawny generally more amusing than grating. The computer animation used to create Pawny and integrate him with the live-action footage is excellent.

French dancers Les Twins, who will next be seen in the Cats movie, enliven the proceedings with their new-style hip-hop moves. However, their characters’ schtick seems to be lifted wholesale from the Twins in The Matrix Reloaded.

The previous films have playfully ‘outed’ celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Bill Gates, George Lucas and Lady Gaga as being aliens. In this film, a social media influencer (presumably a different one for the different markets the film will be released in) gets a cameo. This is one of the most worrying elements about Men in Black: International, indicating that future blockbusters will pander to audiences by shoehorning in people who are famous from YouTube or Instagram.

Men in Black: International is not a poorly made film, but in extending the MIB franchise, it fails to add anything substantial to the world-building or the mythos. Big franchise movies can often feel like products and none this year feels more like a product than Men in Black: International, but its dependable cast and high production value keep things from feeling like too much of a drag.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Rocketman review

ROCKETMAN

Director: Dexter Fletcher
Cast : Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Gemma Jones, Charlie Rowe, Steven Mackintosh
Genre : Biography/Fantasy/Musical
Run Time : 2 h 1 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : R21

           After Bohemian Rhapsody took home multiple Oscars, including one for Best Picture, all eyes were on the next high-profile rock star biopic on the slate, Rocketman. The film tells the story of one Sir Elton John, offering up a flight of fancy rather than a grounded documentary-style take, and is all the better for it.

Elton John (Taron Egerton, Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley at different ages), born Reginald Dwight, was raised in suburban 1950s England by his indifferent mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his kindly grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones). Reggie, as he is known, doesn’t have much of a relationship with his father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), who serves in the Royal Air Force.

The film tracks young Reggie’s journey from his time as a student in the Royal Academy of Music to his gigs playing in a backing band for touring American jazz musicians. Reggie changes his name to ‘Elton John’, and is signed on to a music publishing company as a songwriter. Soon afterwards, he is introduced to lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who will go on to become a long-time collaborator. Elton attains stratospheric success after a stunning American debut, but his personal life is in shambles. He is approached by music manager John Reid (Richard Madden) who pursues a relationship with him, but Elton finds little fulfilment, eventually becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs. It is up to Elton and those who care for him to turn his life around and ensure his talent doesn’t go to waste.

The rock star redemption tale told in Rocketman is a familiar one, and it hits all the beats one would expect: the initial struggle to get noticed, the breakthrough, a rocky personal life with relationship problems and substance abuse, and then a triumphant comeback. However, Rocketman turns this sense of familiarity into a strength, and benefits from its fantastical approach. Instead of being a staid biopic, the film is punctuated with fantasy sequences and musical numbers, and that’s where it’s able to become more than the sum of its parts.

While there are moments of Rocketman that are necessarily dark, director Dexter Fletcher infuses the whole movie with an unmistakable, almost childlike joy. Fletcher took over from Bryan Singer as director of Bohemian Rhapsody and being able to see the development of Rocketman from the ground up allows him to put more of his stamp on this movie. The film’s use of music and its placement of songs is impeccable. Because of the fantasy element, it’s not tied down to a strict timeline, allowing songs that were written later to appear earlier in the story. For example, “I Want Love” becomes a song about Elton’s childhood, and the yearnings of each member of his family.

Elton John is known for being outlandish and over the top, and the film embraces that while always emphasising his humanity. The film is produced by John himself and his husband David Furnish, and there was every danger that it could feel like a self-aggrandizing vanity project, but it’s clear that Elton John has a sense of humour. The film is an invitation to look at his life through his eyes, and while artistic license has been taken, there’s a moving honesty that flows through the movie.

At one point, Justin Timberlake was rumoured to be the frontrunner for the lead role, with Tom Hardy later attached to the part. Taron Egerton more than proves he was the right choice for the role. The Kingsman star showcases an impressive singing voice and inhabiting both the swagger and the secret insecurity that is key to bringing a part like this to life. In both his singing and mannerisms, Egerton doesn’t do a mere imitation of John and constantly seems dedicated to portraying all the facets of the singer, beyond the ones the public is familiar with.

Some of the film’s best moments are in its depiction of the friendship between John and Bernie Taupin. Jamie Bell’s portrayal of Taupin is sweet, earnest and withdrawn: John is the one in the limelight, with Taupin remaining behind the scenes, but there’s no denying the significance of his contribution to John’s music. The scene in which the two first meet and bond over their love of the country song “Streets of Laredo” is genuinely heart-warming, and the depiction of their major falling out is equally heart-breaking. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is reimagined as a duet between John and Taupin and is one of the film’s most effective emotional beats.

Rocketman doesn’t purport to be a balanced take on events, it purports to be John’s take on them. As such, several characters are portrayed as one-dimensionally nasty. Both of his parents come out of this looking bad, and Bryce Dallas Howard has fun with the role of John’s uncaring mother. One almost wants to reach into the screen and shake her, yelling “your son deserves your love!”

Richard Madden is supremely slimy as John Reid, who is depicted as heartless, manipulative and promiscuous. The same character also appeared in Bohemian Rhapsody, played in that film by Aidan Gillen. It is in the portrayal of Reid as an outright cartoon supervillain that Rocketman runs the risk of having its credibility questioned, but the movie has a built-in defence of all this being from John’s point of view.

Rocketman ends relatively early in John’s career, so events like John’s friendship with Princess Diana and his writing music for The Lion King are not shown – perhaps there might be room for a sequel. There are moments of Rocketman that are awkward and cheesy, but thanks to Fletcher’s palpable love for John’s music and Egerton’s stirring performance, its charm is irresistible. It’s a movie that tells John’s truth in the purest way, cheesiness and all.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

X-Men: Dark Phoenix review

X-MEN: DARK PHOENIX

Director: Simon Kinberg
Cast : Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Tye Sheridan, Jessica Chastain, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Evan Peters, Alexandra Shipp, Ato Essandoh
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 1 h 54 mins
Opens : 5 June 2019
Rating : PG13

Dead comic book characters have a habit of coming back to life, and none more so than Jean Grey/the Phoenix. “Mutant Heaven has no pearly gates, only revolving doors,” Professor X declared in X-Factor #70. The X-Men film series has a second go at adapting the Dark Phoenix storyline in what is also the final entry in this series.

During a rescue mission in space, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is exposed to an unidentified cosmic force which alters her telekinetic and telepathic superpowers, unleashing a powerful entity called the Dark Phoenix. Vuk (Jessica Chastain), the leader of the shape-shifting alien D’Bari race, arrives on earth to harness the power of the Dark Phoenix for herself. Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) is angry at Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) for endangering Jean in the name of what she feels is his self-aggrandisement.

Jean’s increasing instability directly endangers her boyfriend Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), with the rest of the X-Men struggling with the onset of her destructive powers. Xavier must reluctantly join forces with his old ally-turned-enemy Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to contain the threat posed by the Dark Phoenix.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix has had a rocky path to the big screen, with its release date being postponed at least three times. With long-time writer and producer Simon Kinberg making his directorial debut, Dark Phoenix feels like a group project which everyone worked hard on, but nobody is particularly proud of – something that got submitted just in time and which everyone is happy to be done with. This is a far cry from the grand finale that a film franchise as important to the current landscape of comic book movies as the X-Men series deserves.

There were a number of external factors acting on this film, and while Kinberg has claimed that the film was always planned as the end of the franchise and that Disney’s acquisition of Fox had no impact on the making of this film, there has been speculation to the contrary. This certainly feels like a much smaller film than X-Men: Apocalypse, its immediate predecessor in the mainline series of X-Men films. There is nothing wrong with a smaller X-Men film, and Logan proved how taking a more dramatic, less spectacle-driven approach can work within the larger framework of the franchise, but Logan this is not. At every turn, it feels like the filmmakers were settling for whatever they could manage, such that Dark Phoenix never touches the awe-inspiring grandeur of some of the previous entries in the series.

In X-Men: The Last Stand, the Dark Phoenix storyline had to jostle for real estate with the Gifted plot. There is more room in this film to explore what happens to Jean Grey after the Dark Phoenix is unleashed, but nothing carries the intended emotional impact. Still, Sophie Turner does an excellent job of playing a character who manifests immense power, and it’s clear that she understands the central conflict of Jean Grey. While the movie doesn’t delve deep enough into Jean’s tortured psyche, this is far from Turner’s fault.

McAvoy and Fassbender have become as identified with Professor X and Magneto respectively as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen have. While it is good to see them return to play these characters one last time, the weight of the tumultuous and far-reaching relationship between the two characters is all but absent. Xavier has become more self-absorbed after mutants have become accepted by wider sections of the populace, but this is far from the most compelling work McAvoy has done as the character.

The X-Men franchise got a hold of Jennifer Lawrence before she truly hit the big time, and her role in the Hunger Games movies seems to have caused the franchise to treat the character as a hero, when she has typically been a villain. It appears that Lawrence cannot wait to leave this role behind and is the most checked out she’s ever been in this film.

The film’s villains are almost laughably generic. The D’Bari come off like aliens from The X-Files. This is the first time extra-terrestrial beings figure into the X-Men movie franchise, but their existence is treated as no big deal. Jessica Chastain, an actor who can be a force of nature in the right role, is wasted as a character with no discernible personality to speak of.

While the script seems to strain to give everyone something to do, many of the supporting mutants are just kind of there. Characters like Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Ororo Munroe/Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit McPhee) mainly seem to be in this movie because they were in the earlier movies. It’s a shame given that these actors are all visibly doing the best they can.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is not quite the flaming train wreck that is its central action set-piece, but because it’s the last film in the series and because it’s being released about a month after Avengers: Endgame, it is a deeply underwhelming affair. X-Men Dark Phoenix is a movie that has the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time, becoming a disappointing send-off for a movie franchise that many have become attached to.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong