Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

For inSing

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN 

Director : Simon Curtis
Cast : Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly MacDonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther
Genre : Biopic/Drama
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 26 October 2017
Rating : PG

The Winnie-the-Pooh stories have been beloved by children all around the world for decades, spawning numerous animated TV shows and films. This historical drama peels back the curtain on the surprisingly tragic true story behind the creation of Pooh and his friends who live in Hundred-Acre Wood.

It is just after World War I, and playwright Alan Alexander ‘A. A.’ Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who fought at the Battle of the Somme, is haunted by memories of the war. Seeking some peace and quiet, Alan and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) move from London to a countryside home in East Sussex. Daphne gives birth to Christopher Robin (Will Tilston and Alex Lawther at different ages), who is nicknamed “Billy Moon” by his parents. The couple hires a live-in nanny named Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to look after Christopher, and the boy soon grows attached to her.

Alan is inspired by seeing Christopher play with his stuffed toys in the woods, including teddy bear which he first names ‘Edward’ and later ‘Winnie’. This serves as the basis for children’s stories that soon become immensely popular. With the whole world clamouring to know the ‘real’ Christopher Robin, the young boy becomes subject to fame that he struggles to handle. What began as a creative expression of a father’s love for his son grows into a worldwide phenomenon, changing the Milne family’s lives forever.

Goodbye Christopher Robin might well ruin Winnie-the-Pooh for many viewers, but in the process, the film has interesting things to say about childhood, fame and creative expression. Director Simon Curtis, who also helmed the fact-based My Week with Marilyn and The Woman in Gold, has made a respectable period piece. However, like many awards season period pieces, Goodbye Christopher Robin sometimes comes off as too mannered and not sufficiently authentic. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, the film resorts to shameless emotional manipulation at times, but also offers fascinating, heart-rending insight into the relationship dynamics within the Milne family.

The film runs up against the challenge of striking a tonal balance. The events in the film span from just after the First World War to the midst of the Second. Alan is reeling from the trauma of fighting as a soldier in the First World War, but eventually writes delightful, whimsical stories. Goodbye Christopher Robin makes a valiant attempt at showing the range of moods any one person can experience, depicting a journey from sorrow, to joy, back to sorrow again. There’s profundity here, but Goodbye Christopher Robin sometimes feels like it’s skimming the surface.

Gleeson is an actor who’s mostly flown under the radar, but has consistently turned in solid work. In Goodbye Christopher Robin, Gleeson fleshes out the layers to the character of A. A. Milne. Gleeson sells both the frustration that creative types experience when they’re stuck in a rut, and the joy that they feel when inspiration presents itself. The emotional heart of the film is the relationship between Alan and his son, a relationship that is initially enriched but eventually complicated by the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Young actor Tilston is plenty adorable, and lights up the screen with his natural joy and the right degree of precociousness, such that the performance never registers as cloying or obnoxious. Alex Lawther plays Christopher Robin at age 18; he’s best known for playing young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Lawther’s performance as a young man trying to regain his identity, having shared his childhood with the world, is deeply affecting.

Kelly Macdonald’s turn as Olive, the nanny whom Christopher affectionally called “Nou”, brims with genuine warmth. Olive is depicted as being more of a maternal figure to Christopher than his actual mother Daphne who, as portrayed here by Margot Robbie, seems like an awful person. There’s a tug-of-war between the three parental figures in Christopher’s life, with a young boy for whom it’s all too much to process at the centre.

Goodbye Christopher Robin does not convey the passage of time as well as it should – the makeup used to age up Gleeson and Robbie is a little too subtle – so it doesn’t feel like as much time elapses in the story as it did in real life.

Despite being uneven, coming off as a little too packaged and artificial at times and being less than subtle in going for the tear ducts, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a largely moving story. It explores worthwhile themes and its revelatory nature will shock audiences who love Winnie-the-Pooh but did not know the details behind how the stories came to be.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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The Mountain Between Us Movie Review

For inSing

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US 

Director : Hany Abu-Assad
Cast : Idris Elba, Kate Winslet, Beau Bridges
Genre : Adventure/Romance
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 2 November 2017
Rating : M18

Being stranded on a snowy mountain would be a nightmare scenario for most of us. Luckily for Kate Winslet, she’s stranded with Idris Elba in this adventure drama. We should be so lucky.

Elba plays neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Bass, while Winslet plays photojournalist Alex Martin. The two strangers decide to jointly charter a private flight out of Boise Airport in Idaho, because Ben needs to perform an emergency surgery in Baltimore and Alex needs to get to her wedding, which takes place the next day.

Local pilot-for-hire Walter (Beau Bridges) flies Ben and Alex out of Idaho, but the plane crashes in the High Uintas Mountains. Walter dies in the crash, leaving Ben, Alex and Walter’s dog to fend for themselves. With no way to contact anyone, and no flight plan filed because it was a last-minute flight, Ben and Alex are left stranded. Making do with limited supplies and sustaining injuries from the crash, the pair must rely on each other, making a desperate bit for survival.

The Mountain Between Us is based on the novel of the same name by Charles Martin. Oscar-nominated Dutch-Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad directs from a screenplay adapted by J. Mills Goodloe, Chris Weitz and an uncredited Scott Frank. The film clearly aspires to be sweeping and romantic – while the Canadian filming locations are breath-taking, much of the dialogue is unintentionally funny, and the predicament that befalls our protagonists never truly feels sufficiently treacherous.

Survival films have the power to transport audiences into perilous, exciting situations. The Mountain Between Us strives to serve up its share of edge-of-your-seat thrills, but is hampered by sometimes-overwhelming romance novel-style melodrama. The slightly silly title should’ve been enough of an indication that this is how the film would end up.

The film weathered several major casting changes: Michael Fassbender and then Charlie Hunnam were attached to the Ben role, with Rosamund Pike, then Margot Robbie being cast as Alex. The final casting works, as both Elba and Winslet are skilled and charismatic performers. However, try as they might to sell the lines they’re given, the overall silliness stymies even these two respected actors.

It’s a good thing that Ben just happens to be a doctor – if a photojournalist were stranded on a snowy peak with a film critic, both would die in about 30 minutes. Elba is as gruff and sexy as he typically is, and does eventually get to be vulnerable and emotional. In part because Ben is as adept at survival skills as he is, the film strains suspension of disbelief.

While Winslet does her best to give Alex personality, the character largely comes off as annoying. The bickering between Ben and Alex stays a safe distance from being like what one would find in a romantic comedy, but the progression of their relationship is still unconvincing. Both actors have passable chemistry, but audiences can sit quite comfortably because they won’t be swept up by anything.

This reviewer did enjoy The Mountain Between Us because it features a Labrador Retriever who looks to be having just the best time playing in the snow. However, we gather that the filmmakers’ intention was not to have us bursting into fits of laughter. The Mountain Between Us benefits from its talented leads, but also demonstrates that even good actors are at the mercy of the material. If you love dogs and/or Idris Elba, you might be compelled to give this a go, though.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Happy Death Day movie review

For inSing

HAPPY DEATH DAY 

Director : Christopher Landon
Cast : Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Rob Mello, Cariella Smith, Phi Vu
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 96 mins
Opens : 26 October 2017
Rating : PG-13

Live. Die. Repeat. Tom Cruise endured that ordeal in Edge of Tomorrow, and now, so must Jessica Rothe. In this horror thriller, Rothe plays Tree Gelbman, a college student and Kappa sorority girl at Bayfield University. On her birthday, she wakes up in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard), a guy she met at a wild party the night before. That night, Rothe is killed by an assailant wearing a Bayfield Baby mask, the Bayfield Babies being the school’s football team. Tree awakes, gradually realising she is caught in a loop, reliving this same day over and over, repeatedly dying at the hands of the masked killer. Tree must solve her own murder and outsmart the killer to break the cycle and live another day.

Happy Death Day comes from Blumhouse, the production company which specialises in low-budget, high-return horror flicks. Director Christopher Landon has co-written five films in Blumhouse’s Paranormal Activity franchise and directed one. Happy Death Day isn’t very scary, but it’s plenty of fun. This teen-aimed horror flick is surprisingly funny, a hybrid of Scream, Mean Girls and, naturally, Groundhog Day which is efficiently constructed. The time loop time device is tried and tested, but Happy Death Day is sufficiently self-aware, toying with audience expectations and cleverly executing numerous plot twists.

The movie revels in its campiness without coming off as obnoxious, trading heavily on college movie archetypes. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel and has much in common with the teen slashers that were popular in the 90s-early 2000s, but it isn’t derivative in a dull way. Screenwriter Scott Lobdell is best known as a comic book writer, having worked on several X-Men books and Teen Titans. There’s a sly wit to the script and some of the dialogue is genuinely hilarious. It turns out that Happy Death Day has been floating around Hollywood for a while – back in 2007, when it was known as ‘Half to Death’, the project was set up at Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production house and set to star Megan Fox.

While the film doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation for the time loop, it resorts to neither a howl-worthy cop-out or shameless sequel-begging. The set-pieces aren’t particularly inspired, and this reviewer would have preferred Tree’s deaths to be a little more elaborate and staged with more panache.

Rothe displays astute comic timing and is a fun leading lady to watch. Tree is not the nicest person in the world, and is self-centred and shallow. Much like Bill Murray’s Phil Connors character in Groundhog Day, Tree must gradually learn to be a better person. Unlike Phil Connors, getting brutally murdered is part of the deal. Many horror films suffer from unlikeable protagonists that are difficult to root for, but while Tree starts off that way, there’s a satisfying arc that her character undergoes.

Broussard plays the sweet guy who helps Tree parse her mind-bending situation, and is quite charming in the role. Rachel Matthews visibly enjoys playing the insufferable sorority president Danielle. It’s highly unlikely you’ll have heard of any of the actors in this film, but that’s part of what makes it cheap to make.

Like a birthday cake laced with a bit of booze, Happy Death Day is a delightful confection with a kick. It’s silly, but is carried by enough knowing wit that it’s easy to enjoy.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Thor: Ragnarok – Meet The Characters

For inSing

Thor: Ragnarok – meet the characters

Get reacquainted with the God of Thunder and meet his new allies and foes

By Jedd Jong

This week, the Norse god of Thunder/Avenger Thor returns to theatres in Thor: Ragnarok, which promises to be a wild and woolly cosmic adventure. Under the direction of New Zealander filmmaker Taika Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok looks set to be crammed with humour, action and eye-catching visual splendour.

This adventure finds our hero stripped of his armour and his magical hammer Mjolnir, imprisoned on the other side of the universe and forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena. Meanwhile, Hela, the goddess of death herself, makes a play for control of Thor’s home Asgard and the realms beyond it.

Before watching the latest Marvel movie, here’s a quick rundown of some of the characters we’ll see again, and some whom we’re meeting for the first time, in Thor: Ragnarok.

#1: THOR (Chris Hemsworth)

The God of Thunder is a cocky, self-assured character, so it’s no surprise that many stories see him being humbled and brought down to earth. That was a key part of his original arrival on earth, and in this film, Thor is defeated by Hela and held captive on the planet Sakaar. Hemsworth had considerable say in shaping the story, saying “I got a bit bored of myself and thought we’ve got to try something different.” Since Thor and Hulk/Bruce Banner haven’t had much interaction beyond the latter punching out the former in The Avengers, Hemsworth requested that the Hulk play a major role in Thor: Ragnarok. While some viewers might mourn the loss of Thor’s luscious locks, Hemsworth found Thor’s fuss-free new hairdo quite liberating. “It allowed the whole thing to take on a different attitude. It felt like a completely different character,” Hemsworth said.

#2: LOKI (Tom Hiddleston)

Tom Hiddleston has become this generation’s runaway unlikely sex symbol, winning legions of female fans with his seductive, darkly charming performance as Loki, the god of Mischief. Hiddleston has had the privilege of playing the role across multiple films – typically, supervillains in comic book movies don’t last more than two films. Since the conclusion of Thor: The Dark World, Loki has been ruling Asgard in the guise of his adoptive father Odin, and his reign has been all about self-aggrandisation at the expense of good governance. In serving his own ego, Loki has ignored the looming threats to Asgard, chief among them being Hela herself. In Thor: Ragnarok, Hiddleston had fun “trying to find new ways for him to be mischievous”, while also further exploring Loki’s insecurities. “The idea that Thor might be indifferent to Loki is troubling for him, because that’s a defining feature of his character is, I don’t belong in the family; my brother doesn’t love me; I hate my brother,” Hiddleston reasoned. Thor and Loki must reluctantly work together, but we know that as is always the case with Loki, things are never what they seem.

#3: HELA (Cate Blanchett)

The Marvel Cinematic Universe adds yet another Oscar-winning thespian to its ranks in the form of Cate Blanchett. The character of Hela is based on the Norse deity Hel, the ruler of the underworld also called Hel. Hela is yet another iteration of the “long-buried evil entity breaks free” archetype: “”She’s been locked away for millennia getting more and more cross, and then, with a mistake, she gets unleashed and she ain’t getting back in that box.” In the comics, Hela’s cape enhances her physical strength and maintains her youth. Hela can manifest weapons at will, and wears an elaborate headdress which she can also use as a weapon. The headdress is a defining part of the character’s design, but was cumbersome for Blanchett to wear, so Blanchett performed a portion of the role using motion capture technology. To prepare for the physically intensive role, Blanchett trained with stuntwoman and oft-collaborator of Quentin Tarantino Zoë Bell, and Hemsworth’s personal trainer Luke Zocchi, studying the Brazilian dance-infused martial art Capoeira.

#4: THE GRANDMASTER (Jeff Goldblum)

Jeff Goldblum might well be the best part of Thor: Ragnarok, as Jeff Goldblum is wont to be. The Grandmaster is an Elder of the Universe who pits lesser beings against each other in battles for his own amusement. Two other Elders of the Universe, Taneleer Tivan/The Collector and Ego the Living Planet, have appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy films. The Grandmaster can be seen dancing during the end credits of Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2. In some versions, the Grandmaster and the Collector are brothers. The Grandmaster is so powerful, that in one story, he controlled DC’s Justice League in a game against the DC villain Krona, who controlled the Avengers. Goldblum describes the Grandmaster as “a hedonist, a pleasure-seeker, an enjoyer of life and tastes and smells.” While the character has blue skin in the comics, Waititi opted to let Goldblum retain his own skin tone, because he didn’t want the character to invoke the blue-skinned alien Goldblum played in the comedy Earth Girls are Easy.

#5: VALKYRIE (Tessa Thompson)

Thor: Ragnarok marks the Marvel Cinematic Universe debut of Valkyrie, a key supporting chacrater in the Thor comics who was, at one point, set to appear in Thor: The Dark World. The character is based on the shieldmaiden Brynhildr, a formidable warrior from ancient Germanic mythology. Valkyrie is not to be trifled with, and is a former soldier in Odin’s elite troops who has become a mercenary working for the Grandmaster. Valkyrie is traditionally depicted as white, and Thompson is of African, South-American and European descent. Director Waititi is adamant that the casting is not to fulfil diversity criteria: “I’m not obsessed with the idea that you have to cast someone just to tick a box… You should cast people because they’re talented,” Waititi said. The director also stated he did not want the character to be “boring and pretty”, but someone would “be even more of the ‘guy’ character than the guys.”

The character is usually seen in the comics wearing armour, but Thompson said “she’s such a bad ass that she doesn’t need a lot of metal to protect her. I’m essentially in leather.” The character is equal to and in some ways superior to Thor, changing the dynamic between Thor and the female lead, who in the two previous Thor films was Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster. Valkyrie is set to appear in future MCU movies, and Thompson has pitched an all-female Marvel movie to studio boss Kevin Feige. “Just to be the girlfriend or the wife…to not have your own agency is something that I just can’t relate to because I don’t see it in my life,” Thompson said of the roles often given to women in action films.

#6: HEIMDALL (Idris Elba)

As Heimdall, the Asgardian keeper of the Bifröst Bridge, Idris Elba did not get a huge amount to do in the first two Thor films. Perhaps that will change with the third instalment. No longer clad in gleaming golden armour, Heimdall has gone into exile after Hela’s invasion of Asgard, living in the woods as a wild man. Elba was notoriously outspoken about not enjoying the process of making the Marvel movies, calling them “torture”. While promoting Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Elba griped about having to go to London while in production on Mandela for contractually-obligated reshoots. “There I was, in this stupid harness, with this wig and this sword and these contact lenses. It ripped my heart out,” he said. This go-round, however, Elba seems to have enjoyed himself. “The last one [Ragnarok] was fun,” he said. “The others weren’t fun. They’re work. But on this one, Taika was great,” Elba said, praising the film’s director.

#7: BRUCE BANNER/THE HULK (Mark Ruffalo)

At the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the Hulk was seen in a Quinjet, flying off to some unknown destination. Kevin Feige intended to keep it ambiguous where Hulk would end up, and fans speculated that Marvel were setting up for a Planet Hulk movie. In the comics, Planet Hulk is the storyline in which a group of genius Marvel characters called the Illuminati launch Hulk into space. He ends up on the planet Sakaar, becoming a gladiator and eventually taking over the planet. Elements of this story are incorporated into Thor: Ragnarok. Ruffalo discussed a solo Hulk with Feige, but because Universal Studios holds the rights to any Hulk-led films, this proved untenable, and Hulk was made a supporting character in Thor: Ragnarok. The character is evolved further, and now has a limited vocabulary beyond the grunts and roars we’ve heard from the Hulk in earlier MCU movies. “He’s much more of a character than the green rage machine you’ve seen in the Avengers movies,” Ruffalo said. “He’s got a swagger. He’s like a god.” In the film, the Hulk persona has been repressing the Banner side for years, and the film marks a further separation of the two personas. Hulk’s character arc in Thor: Ragnarok is set to carry on into Avengers: Infinity War and its sequel.

Thor: Ragnarok movie review

For inSing

THOR: RAGNAROK 

Director : Taika Waititi
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Anthony Hopkins
Genre : Comics/Action/Fantasy
Run Time : 130 mins
Opens : 26 October 2017
Rating : PG-13

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) were absent from Captain America: Civil War. In this Marvel Cinematic Universe adventure, we learn of the travails these characters faced on the other-side of the universe.

After the events of Thor: The Dark World, Thor’s adoptive brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken the guise of their father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), ruling Asgard as a vainglorious charlatan king. Loki’s lack of leadership has left Asgard vulnerable to attack from Hela (Cate Blanchett), the goddess of death who has come to claim what she believes is rightfully hers.

In the aftermath of a struggle against Hela, Thor and Loki find themselves stranded on the planet Sakaar. Thor, without his trusty hammer Mjolnir, is forced to fight in a gladiatorial arena for the amusement of Sakaar’s ruler, the eccentric Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). Thor realises that his opponent is the Hulk, who has been on Sakaar fighting as the Grandmaster’s champion for the last two years. Thor must convince his fellow Avenger to help him on his quest to defeat Hela and save Asgard. Joining Thor, Loki and the Hulk is Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), formerly a member of an elite Asgardian fighting force who has become a bounty hunter in the Grandmaster’s employ. Back on Asgard, Heimdall (Idris Elba), the guardian of the Bifrost bridge, has disappeared into the woods, trying to save as many Asgardians as he can from Hela’s wrath. In facing off against the goddess of death, our heroes must prevent Ragnarok, the end of days, from coming to pass.

Thor: Ragnarok is directed by New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi, continuing the MCU’s penchant for unconventional director choices. This movie looked from the trailers like it was going to be a whole lot of fun, and it is. However, perhaps the end of days shouldn’t be “a whole lot of fun” – or at least, be something more than that. The MCU has sometimes gotten flack for being a little too flippant and quippy in its tone, at the expense of meaningful drama. The two MCU films we’ve gotten earlier this year, Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 and Spider-Man: Homecoming, packed in plenty of humour, but also had genuine heart when it counted the most. Thor: Ragnarok does not fare as well as those films in this regard.

Despite its tonal issues, there is no denying that Thor: Ragnarok is supremely entertaining. There is never a dull moment and the film delivers all the dazzling, meticulously-rendered visual effects spectacle we’ve come to expect from this franchise. This is by far the biggest film Waititi has made, and with the production support built into Marvel Studios, he acquits himself admirably. The central throw down between Thor and Hulk in the Grandmaster’s arena is well choreographed, and the colourful, eye-popping design of Sakaar is a nice homage to artist Jack Kirby.

Thor: Ragnarok might be too funny for its own good, but the central cast displays excellent comic timing. Hemsworth is easily the most likeable he’s ever been in the role, playing a character who is put through the wringer, but doesn’t lose his boyish enthusiasm and charm. He also spends the entire movie showing off his truly impressive biceps, and yes, there’s a requisite shirtless scene.

While Hiddleston is a delight as Loki, it’s easy to lose sight of exactly how much damage he’s done over the course of previous films, even when those events are name-checked. He’s a trickster, but he’s also dangerous, and that latter element seems to get lost in the shuffle.

Spider-Man: Homecoming’s Vulture turned out to be one of the best MCU villains thus far. Unfortunately, Hela emerges as a far more formulaic antagonist. This reviewer was really looking forward to seeing what an actress of Blanchett’s stature would do with the role, but there really isn’t much more to the character than strutting about and smirking seductively. Hela plainly states her motivations in an expository speech, and while there are ample displays of how formidable she is, the threat never truly takes hold – especially since so much of the film is spent away from Asgard.

Hulk’s depiction in this film represents an evolution in the right direction – he’s now slightly more articulate, when previously all he was capable of was roaring and grunting. While the dynamic that develops between Thor and the Hulk is interesting and amusing, there’s the niggling sense that elements of the Planet Hulk story arc from the comics have been shoehorned into this film. A standalone film based on Planet Hulk might have worked better, that is indeed what Ruffalo wanted, but rights issues prevented that from happening.

While Thompson doesn’t physically resemble Valkyrie as the character is often drawn in the comics, she has the swagger to pull off the character as written and looks to be enjoying herself in the role. This is a warrior who’s one of the dudes, but who is suppressing pain from her past. She’s pretty much any given Michelle Rodriguez character.

Goldblum is basically playing himself, but as a hedonistic Elder of the Universe. It’s an entertaining performance, but Goldblum never disappears into the role, and doesn’t register as someone you wouldn’t want to cross.

There is one scene in the film in which a phalanx of Valkyries, astride their winged horses, charge into battle against Hela. It’s a beautiful, awe-inspiring tableau that recalls the paintings of Gustav Doré. Alas, this is but a tiny part of Thor: Ragnarok. This is not a bad film, far from it, but it just doesn’t feel like a Thor film. It feels like a Guardians of the Galaxy movie that Thor happens to be in. Where previous MCU movies have balanced the humour with drama and emotion, the jokes here undercut the desired end-of-the-world stakes. That’s not to say Thor: Ragnarok isn’t an exceedingly enjoyable time, but it could’ve been more than that.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Resilience Under Fire: Miles Teller Interview for Only the Brave

For inSing

RESILIENCE UNDER FIRE: MILES TELLER TALKS ONLY THE BRAVE 

The actor tells inSing about making the fact-based firefighting drama

By Jedd Jong

Only the Brave tells the harrowing true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite crew of firefighters within the Prescott, Arizona Fire Department. In June 2013, the Hotshots battled the fearsome Yarnell Hill fire, resulting in a staggering loss of life. When then-Vice President Joe Biden attended the memorial service for the firefighters killed in the incident, he said “all men are created equal. But then, a few became firefighters.”

In the film, Miles Teller (Whiplash, The Spectacular Now, War Dogs) plays Brendan “Donut” McDonough, a young ne’er-do-well slacker who decides to pull his life together and become a firefighter after his ex-girlfriend gives birth to their daughter. The film also stars Josh Brolin as the team’s leader Eric “Supe” Marsh, Jeff Bridges as Eric’s mentor Duane Steinbrink, and Jennifer Connelly as Eric’s wife Amanda. James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsch, Scott Haze and Ben Hardy are among the actors who play fellow firefighters. Joseph Kosinki (Tron Legacy, Oblivion) directs from a screenplay by Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down, Transformers: The Last Knight) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle, The International).

Teller spoke exclusively to inSing over the phone from Los Angeles about making the film. He discussed meeting the real-life Brendan McDonough, working with Josh Brolin, the physical preparation he undertook to play the role and working with the stunt team to film the realistic firefighting scenes.

INSING: The character you play, Brendan McDonough, starts out as irresponsible and aimless and embarks on a journey towards heroism. Tell us more about that journey.

MILES TELLER: Brendan, he was a little, I guess ‘aimless’ is a good word. I think he was lacking some kind of mentorship or some kind of guidance, something that at that age is really helpful in terms of helping you to become the person you’ll become later. I think at that age; a lot of people are battling with immaturity and irresponsibility. Brendan, he was into drugs and committing some small crimes. He ends up going to jail, and when he goes back home, his mum throws him out of the house. That was an ultimatum. For him, he realised it’s time to stop being so selfish and get his life together. That’s when he decided to try out for the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and he met Eric Marsh, who became such a strong fatherly figure for him, up until the day of the tragedy.

Leading on from that, I think that after enduring JK Simmons yelling at you, nothing would faze you, but was it intimidating having someone like Josh Brolin play your boss?

No, it’s actually kind of the opposite of intimidating. I was really grateful, and I think we all benefitted from Josh’s leadership on the film. He got rid of any kind of divide or any kind of ego that could’ve been there, just because he’s done 50 movies and there were certain guys on the movie that it was their very first film. He was the best, man. He was having guys come to his house to work out and his trailer door was always open. He was really such a leader, not even just in the physical portion of the film. He would always be the first guy in the line, whether we were doing running, racing, cardio workouts. He’s in great shape and we really benefitted in the cast by having Josh as #1 on the call sheet.

What about the story of Brendan McDonough and of the Granite Mountain Hotshots resonated with you the most?

I have so much respect for anybody who’s in the position to be a first responder. The town that these guys came from, kind of a Southwest small town, I grew up in the south in a pretty small town. Especially after going to their hometown, I felt like I would’ve been friends with those guys, those were my kind of guys. Then obviously the tragedy that happened, and to get the opportunity to put a story like that of real-life heroism on screen and to do the story justice and celebrate their lives, then you’re lucky, because not every story has that kind of integrity to it.

With Brendan, I like any character who goes on a journey, a big arc or any character who goes through a big transition. And Brendan, starting out on the drugs and committing crimes to where he ends up being such a high-contributing member of society, that was interesting to me.

What was it like meeting the real-life Brendan McDonough?

I flew down to Prescott, Arizona, where the story takes place. I met Brendan, and it was uh, I’ve played a few real-life people at this point, and the first interaction is always…I was going down there basically to show face, and to show him that I was taking this very seriously. I just kind of allowed him to talk, and say what he wanted to say, and get any weird feelings about making a movie about his life out of the way, and then after that, we just hung out. We just got along and hung out for a couple of days. Apart of the work, it was fun, but it was also beneficial in playing the character.

What was it like working with director Joseph Kosinski?

Joe was great. Joe is everything that you want in a director: he’s extremely prepared, he’s extremely intelligent and thoughtful, and he absolutely wanted to maintain the integrity for these guys, he wanted the authenticity to play. That’s something that, for a movie of this budget, you don’t always get that. He was our captain on this thing, and he was also open-minded. He was open to ideas from the guys as to what they wanted to do with the character, and he’s a master behind the camera, but also in front of, in terms of talking with the actors. I couldn’t have asked for a better director.

In meeting with real-life currently active Hotshots and firefighters, what was the most surprising thing that struck you about these guys?

The actual people, like not too much. The work that they do is extremely tough. It is difficult. I have no idea what these guys go through to be able to fight these wildfires. I guess what surprised me about the guys is that they’re guys, they’re Hotshots and you feel “I’m sure I could lift more weights”, but the work they’re doing is extremely tough. And the guys that make it through, some of them surprise you because on the surface they don’t look like it, but really it’s an inner courage and strength that these guys have, that keeps them going week after week, month after month during fire season.

How does the physical work you had to do for this film compare to the preparation for a movie like Bleed for This?

It was different. For this one, we have like a two-week boot camp, where everybody got their butts kicked and got into shape. It’s a lot of physical labour, whereas boxing is such a different kind of training. Boxers are training to go 12 three-minute rounds in a fight, whereas these guys it’s more cardio, endurance, longevity. So the training was a little different, but both are tough.

What was the camaraderie like between the crew when you were training and filming, and out of all your castmates, who do you think you bonded with the strongest?

We had a great camaraderie, and I think it was very smart of the producers and the director to have that be the first introduction to everybody. To me, that brought us closer than any kind of rehearsing the scenes would have done, because you’re all links in a chain. When you’re doing these workouts, it’s not about the individual at all, it’s all about the group. I felt that was a really smart way to get everybody all in. They brought in some real Hotshots to do the training so we knew it was authentic, and everybody just bonded from the beginning.

It wasn’t necessarily one individual. We all got close. There were 20 guys including Brolin, and we were all hanging out. We were in Santa Fe, fairly small town, and we were all just hanging out.

With any film that’s based on a real-life disaster, there’s a balance between how respectful the film has to be while delivering the spectacle it has to, without being exploitative. How do you feel Only the Brave pulls that balance off?

It’s tough, because I don’t know how many people who are going to see the movie necessarily know what happened with the true story; people can look it up. I think a lot of people are going to see it based on the actors that are involved, the occupation that it is, firefighting, Joe the director, and these different elements, but I think what Joe and our screenwriter Eric Singer did is not rushing to the tragedy, not building this movie on the last catastrophe. They really do a good job of showing these guys and what they stood for, and not exploiting them for their deaths. They did a good job of not skipping through the first two-thirds of the movie just to get to that ending, which you know is going to be emotional and tragic and all those things. They did a really good job, and that is difficult to do – and there is nothing cliché about this movie at all.

What was it like working with the stunt team and the special effects crew, learning how to work with the practical fire elements?

The stunt team did a really great job. I had a stunt double for a few things, really not that much, but the entire stunt team and production too, they were able to construct this fake area of wild lands so that they could control the fire. There were times, absolutely, when the fire was really, really hot, but that’s how it goes. In real life, these guys, that’s what they’re feeling and they still have to focus and do their job. It added a sense of realism for the actor, which is always helpful.

It gives you something to interact with and act off against.

Yeah. The fire, there actually will be some CGI fire just to show the scope of it, but when you see the actors feeling the heat of the fire, that’s real fire.

I’m a big comic book movie geek, and in this movie, there are so many actors who’ve been in comic book movies. Were there any moments when anyone on set went “there’s Mr. Fantastic, there’s Gambit, there’s Thanos, there’s Obadiah Stane” and was geeking out over there?

No…I think when we were filming, Josh had [just] been cast as Thanos, so we would chat with him a little bit about that. This story was so important to everybody, everyone was kind of focused on that and wanted to do these real guys justice.

Finally, do blondes have more fun Miles?

Um, they do. When I dyed my hair blonde, I felt just very free and liberated. I just felt better about myself than when I was a brunette.

That really holds true?

Yes.

American Assassin

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AMERICAN ASSASSIN 

Director : Michael Cuesta
Cast : Dylan O’Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Shiva Negar, Taylor Kitsch, David Suchet, Navid Negahban, Scott Adkins
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 18 October 2017
Rating : NC16

The best-selling Mitch Rapp spy thriller series of novels by the late Vince Flynn has had a long journey to cinemas. Rapp makes the leap from page to screen as played by Dylan O’Brien. After a personal tragedy leaves Rapp scarred and relentlessly seeking revenge against a terrorist cell, he is noticed by CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan). Kennedy places Rapp under the tutelage of Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), a tough operative active during the Cold War who puts Rapp through his paces. Rapp succeeds, becoming an agent of the top-secret black-ops unit Orion. Alongside Turkish-based American agent Annika (Shiva Negar), Rapp and Hurley must foil an impending attack when 15 kg of weapons-grade plutonium is stolen from a decommissioned Russian nuclear facility. They face off against “Ghost” (Taylor Kitsch), a rogue former Navy SEAL and Orion operative with a grudge against his mentor, who just happens to be Stan Hurley.

Consent to Kill, the sixth book in the Mitch Rapp series, was originally meant to be the first to be adapted to film. Gerard Butler, Colin Farrell, Matthew Fox and Chris Hemsworth were rumoured to be in contention for the role. American Assassin was chosen to be adapted instead – it’s the tenth book in the series, but is a prequel, and details how Rapp became a spy.

With various book-to-film spy movie franchises out there, including the Jason Bourne, James Bond and Jack Ryan series, American Assassin needs to set itself apart from the pack. Unfortunately, director Michael Cuesta does an inadequate job where that’s concerned. The film doesn’t hold back on the violence, and superficially stands out from its less explicit PG-13 cousins in this genre. However, the character motivations and dynamics at play will be abundantly familiar to anyone who’s seen a couple of spy thrillers. Especially because this film is meant to kick off a series, it’s to its detriment that American Assassin is so unmemorable.

There’s a fair amount of globe-trotting, with scenes set in the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, Poland, Romania, Turkey and Italy. While some moments are visceral enough thanks to the brutality on display, American Assassin never generates sufficient excitement. The climactic sequence is unexpectedly spectacular but also ridiculous, a visual effects-heavy set piece that feels out of place in what is meant to be a grimy, bloody thriller.

O’Brien, star of the Maze Runner series, dials down the boyish charm and turns up the intensity to play a determined, reckless and ruthless young spy. He’s bulked up for the role and looks to be taking things very seriously, but O’Brien can’t help but come off as a little boring at times, when Rapp is meant to be unpredictable and dangerous.

Keaton is in the stage of his career where he’s playing mentor roles, and this is one that he could have easily phoned in. Instead, he delivers an energetic, hard-edged performance. However, even an actor of Keaton’s calibre would have a tough time making lines like “the enemy dresses like a deer and kills like a lion, which is what we’ve got to do” work. The fraught relationship between mentor and mentee has the makings of something electric, but does not develop in a meaningful way.

As the primary antagonist, Kitsch has a difficult time being scary. The villain being a former student of the mentor figure who has since gone rogue is about a cliché a route to go as it gets. O’Brien looks a little like Kitsch, which seems like an intentional way of highlighting that this is how Rapp could wind up if Hurley isn’t careful. Beyond that, the casting doesn’t quite work.

American Assassin lacks the nuance to be taken seriously, but is also too dour to be enjoyed as over-the-top fun. This is a film that wants to be topical – after all, Michael Cuesta directed four episodes of the political thriller TV show Homeland – but American Assassin is more preoccupied with rehashing spy movie tropes than real-world geopolitics.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Geostorm

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GEOSTORM

Director : Dean Devlin
Cast : Gerard Butler, Jim Sturgess, Abbie Cornish, Alexandra Maria Lara, Amr Waked, Eugenio Derbez, Ed Harris, Andy Garcia
Genre : Sci-Fi, Thriller
Run Time : 109 mins
Opens : 12 October 2017
Rating : PG13

There was a period in the 90s when disaster movies were huge: think TwisterDante’s PeakVolcanoArmageddonDeep Impact, movies like that. Roland Emmerich attempted to revive that subgenre in 2000s with films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012. Now, Emmerich’s long-time co-writer and co-producer Dean Devlin has made Geostorm, which is like one of those movies on steroids.

            In the near future, Jake Lawson (Gerard Butler) is a scientist and astronaut who supervised the creation of a network of satellites that regulates the earth’s climate, nicknamed ‘Dutch Boy’. Jake’s younger brother Max (Jim Sturgess), who works at the U.S. State Department, calls on Jake when Dutch Boy starts malfunctioning, causing freak weather incidents around the world. Jake travels to the International Space Station, working with an international crew of astronauts led by Commander Ute Fassbinder (Alexandra Maria Lara) from Germany.

            Back on the ground, Cheng Long (Daniel Wu), who supervises the Dutch Boy satellite positioned over Hong Kong, informs Max of a possible conspiracy to sabotage the satellite. At the Democratic National Convention in Orlando, Max convinces his girlfriend Sarah Wilson (Abbie Cornish), a Secret Service agent, to help him kidnap President Andrew Palma (Andy García). The President is the only man with the kill codes to shut down the satellite before more damage is caused. It’s a race against time to stop the ultimate calamity: a Geostorm.

            In many ways, movies like Geostorm are why this writer wanted to become a film critic. It’s definitely not a good movie, but is ludicrously entertaining and might just be the best comedy of the year.

The movie underwent a troubled production, and disastrous test screenings led to Warner Bros. ordering reshoots which reportedly cost $15 million. Because Devlin was unavailable, Danny Cannon was brought in to conduct the reshoots, with Laeta Kalogridis rewriting the screenplay, cutting characters from the film and adding new ones. Presumably, the reshoots added more jokes, giving the movie a semblance of self-awareness. As it stands, Geostorm is halfway between a straight-ahead disaster thriller and a full-on comedy. It ends up hitting the sweet spot, in that it is maximally entertaining, never unwatchable and funnier than it would’ve been had it been an intentionally bad movie akin to Sharknado.

One of the punchlines bandied about when the trailers for Geostorm first came out were that it looked like a SyFy Channel original movie with a $150 million budget. It is glorious that so many resources were spent on something this stupid. It’s a little like the Transformers movies, but Geostorm is never as smug, never as insulting, never as unbearable or self-indulgent as those films can be. The visual effects look great, and the spectacle is grand, especially in IMAX 3D. There’s an action sequence in which two astronauts are on a spacewalk and one of their spacesuits begins malfunctioning. It’s genuinely thrilling and staged quite well.

Naturally, the timing isn’t ideal. 2017 has seen several devastating hurricanes in quick succession, making it harder to accept large-scale global destruction as popcorn escapism. This is mitigated somewhat by the sci-fi context and inherent goofiness of the whole enterprise, but it is a touch tasteless that the film opens with what appears to be actual news footage of natural disasters and the dead left in their aftermath.

The movie is crammed full of stock characters, none of whom even remotely feel like they could be real people. Butler’s filmography is filled with awful movies, and Geostorm feels like the ideal use of his talents. Jake is the  totally reckless but ultimately noble hero, a man of action who’s also a super-genius, and Butler is plenty of fun in the role.

Playing opposite Butler as the brother with whom Jake doesn’t quite get along, Sturgess summons likeable earnestness and tries to take the material as seriously as possible. Cornish gets to do a little more than your average ‘designated girlfriend’ in a film of this genre does, taking the wheel and shooting at pursuers during a car chase. Unlike your average Michael Bay film, Geostorm isn’t misogynistic, and Alexandra Maria Lara’s space station commander character Ute is capable and an equal to Jake Lawson.

For his part, García plays a credible president, getting to yell the line “I am the god***n President of the United States of America!” Zazie Beetz, who is playing Domino in Deadpool 2, makes for a fun comic relief hacker character.

Geostorm is the rare mega-budget movie that’s genuinely so bad it’s good. This reviewer burst into fits of laughter any time a character says the word ‘Geostorm’ out loud, or when the word appears on a screen above a countdown timer. Sure, it’s bad, but it moves briskly and is absurdly enjoyable. If you can somehow get discounted tickets to see this in IMAX 3D, maybe as part of a cinema loyalty card program, do so.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – 7 Best Moments from Trailer #2

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi trailer #2 – 7 moments that have us shook
We dig into the much buzzed-about trailer that has everyone excited for The Last Jedi

By Jedd Jong

As Darth Vader put it so well in The Empire Strikes Back, “it is useless to resist”. The second trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi has us, and numerous Star Wars fans around the globe, in its thrall. The eighth instalment in the main series of Star Wars films continues the stories of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), characters who were introduced to audiences in The Force Awakens. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his sister General Leia (Carrie Fisher), reeling from the events of the last film and events preceding it, also return.

This being a Star Wars film, secrecy is key, and the marketing for the film must maintain a balance between guarding the details of the plot while doling out enough morsels to maintain high anticipations levels. The trailer for The Last Jedi does just this, demonstrating an expansive scope and giving us a glimpse of the various new locales and large-scale battles that will feature in The Last Jedi.

The trailer also promises intense and emotional arcs for its key characters, especially for Rey. It seems to imply that as Luke Skywalker trains his new pupil, he is taken aback by the power she demonstrates, power that could make her susceptible to the Dark Side. The trailer is tantalising, but also appears to be craftily edited, combining and changing the order of scenes to plant red herrings in audience’s minds.

Best of all, it doesn’t feel as if we’ve seen too much – Benicio del Toro, Laura Dern and Kelly Marie Tran, who are set to play significant roles, do not even appear in this particular trailer.

 

Let’s dig into seven of our favourite moments from the trailer!

#1: AT-M6 Walkers

The First Order makes no bones about displaying their military might, and the organisations inventory has only grown since the previous film. Early on in the trailer, we see a phalanx of All-Terrain Mega-Caliber 6 (AT-M6) Walkers marching on the surface of the planet Crait. These are new, heavier-duty versions of the AT-AT (All-Terrain Armoured Transport) Walkers we saw in Empire Strikes Back, but those, as well as the bipedal AT-ST Walkers, are still in use – they can be seen being deployed as Kylo Ren looks out onto a loading deck in the trailer’s first scene.

Design Supervisor Kevin Jenkins explained that the AT-M6 is inspired by the stance of a gorilla, walking on its knuckles with a high, arched back. This allows the Walker to support the Mega-Caliber cannon it carries on its back. Jenkins reasoned that these new Walkers would be impossible to take down with Snowspeeders. “I feel that it’s an iteration forward. A spitfire and a modern jet, you can see the link there,” Jenkins said, explaining the in-universe logic behind this design evolution.  “They’re part of the same thing. That was always my intention with the gorilla. It’s not a start from scratch.”

#2: Raw strength

The trailer intentionally establishes parallels between Rey and Kylo Ren, implying they could be cut from the same cloth, and that Rey has the same potential to be turned as Kylo Ren had.

“When I found you, I saw raw, untamed power, and beyond that, something truly special,” Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) ominously intones, presumably about Kylo Ren. The trailer cuts from this line to Rey igniting her lightsaber on Ahch-To, where she is being trained by Luke.

“Something inside me has always been there, and now it is awake, and I need help” Rey tells her newfound mentor. However, Luke must confront the horrifying possibility that history will repeat itself, as it is wont to within the Star Wars mythos.

“I’ve seen this raw strength only once before,” the Jedi Knight says. “It didn’t scare me enough then. It does now.” We are shown a flashback of the new Jedi Order’s temple/training facility being burnt down, an expansion of a scene glimpse in The Force Awakens. This appears the moment in which Kylo Ren, formerly Ben Solo, betrayed his Jedi master Luke by razing the facility. Something about Rey reminds Luke of his apprentice, and that can’t be good.

#3: “Let the past die”

Kylo Ren has already taken down one of his parents – the haunting scene of his confrontation with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in The Force Awakens, ending with a lightsaber through Han’s chest, was one of the most talked-about moments in that film. Now, it appears Kylo Ren is intent on killing his mother too. With a high-tech carbon fibre-esque bandage over his scar, Kylo sits at the controls of the TIE Silencer, his personal starfighter. The TIE Silencer swoops towards the Raddus, the Resistance flagship named for the Mon Calamari Admiral who died in the Battle of Scarif in Rogue One. Standing on the bridge of the ship: General Leia. Kylo Ren has the bridge in his crosshairs, his finger on the trigger. He hesitates, and the trailer cuts away.

Does he end up killing his own mother? Or is there the chance of redemption, and that seeing his mother again might reawaken the good that lies dormant within Kylo Ren? It does seems like two separate scenes have been cut together, because the bridge of the Raddus doesn’t look like it’s in the thick of battle. Having been promised a respectful send-off for the late Carrie Fisher, we’re intrigued to see how it plays out, but know that whatever happens with General Leia, we’ll have to suppress tears.

#4: Porg!

The Last Jedi introduces new cuddly critters called Porgs, adorable little penguin-owl-otter-hamster creatures native to Ahch-To, where they have been keeping Luke company during his self-imposed exile. The Porgs seemed designed expressly to sell toys, and a wide variety of Porg-based merchandise is already available. Many Star Wars fans have become stridently anti-Porg, comparing the creatures to the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi. However, we find their inherent adorableness impossible to resist. At least one of them makes its way onto the Millennium Falcon, perched on the console as Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew/Joonas Suotamo) sits in the captain’s chair.

Director Rian Johnson was inspired by the thousands of Atlantic puffins who flock to the Irish island of Skellig Michael from April to August each year. Skellig Michael is where the Ahch-To scenes were shot. Ireland will no doubt see a spike in tourism from Star Wars fans eager to visit Luke’s hideout, but only 180 visitors a day are allowed to set foot on Skellig Michael, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Some organisations, including An Taisce (the National Trust for Ireland), have expressed worries that the influx of visitors will endanger the site and its ecosystem.

#5: Finn vs. Phasma

Before he was Finn, he was reluctant First Order Stormtrooper FN-2187. It seems that Finn will never be able to shake off his former life, and the trailer shows him facing off against Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), who trained him and other members of the FN Corps. Phasma was hyped up as being a cool new character, the first prominent female Stormtrooper in the Star Wars films, but ended up doing very little in The Force Awakens. This trailer indicates she’ll finally get to showcase her badassery: wielding a telescoping spear, Phasma fights with Finn, who is armed with a Z6 riot control baton. There already is a prequel comic detailing how Phasma escaped Starkiller Base, surviving the end of The Force Awakens.

#6: “Fulfil your destiny”

In this scene, Supreme Leader Snoke is torturing Rey. Rey is wearing her Jedi outfit, writhing in pain as she is suspended in mid-air by the tyrannical Supreme Leader. This scene apparently takes place in Snoke’s throne room aboard the Supremacy, the Mega-Class Star Destroyer that is the flagship of the First Order’s fleet. The trailer is edited in such a way as to make us think Snoke’s line “fulfil your destiny” is directed towards Rey, and that after successfully seducing Ben Solo to the Dark Side, Snoke now has his sights set on Rey.

#7: Rey turns evil?

The trailer ends with a corker of a scene that has ignited heated discussion. “I need someone to show me my place in all this,” Rey says. In the next shot, Kylo Ren extends his hand towards her, seemingly inviting Rey to join him in service of the Dark Side. Keen-eyed Star Wars fans have already seen through this apparent misdirect: the two scenes are distinct, and have been edited together to trick viewers into thinking that this is what’s going on. Since Rey is in her Resistance outfit which she wears earlier in the film while being trained by Luke on Ahch-To, it stands to reason that she is addressing Luke, and not Kylo Ren. The scenes are similarly lit, and that’s why they work cut together. The prevailing theory is that Kylo Ren is really stretching out his hand to his mother Leia, and that we are seeing part of a potential redemption scene.

Either way, all (okay, most – we’ve got to save some secrets for Episode IX) when Star Wars: The Last Jedi hits Singapore theatres on 14 December 2017.

Blade Runner 2049

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BLADE RUNNER 2049

Director : Denis Villeneuve
Cast : Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Mackenzie Davis, Robin Wright, Jared Leto, Carla Juri
Genre : Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Run Time : 164 mins
Opens : 5 October 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence & Some Nudity)

The sequel to one of the most influential sci-fi films ever made has finally arrived, plunging audiences back into the neon-drenched, rain-soaked, smoky environs of future Los Angeles.

As the title suggests, it is the year 2049. Artificially engineered humans known as ‘Replicants’ live amongst us, but previous incidents with Replicants that sought to break free of their programming have made Replicants the target of prejudice. K (Ryan Gosling) is a ‘Blade Runner’ for the LAPD – he hunts and kills older models of Replicants, tying up loose ends. K’s boss Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) sends him on an assignment, during which K inadvertently unearths clues to his past.

K is a solitary figure, finding solace only in his girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas), with whom he shares an unusual relationship. Since K is a Replicant, he assumes that any childhood memories he has are merely implants. His quest to unravel a decades-old secret puts him on a collision course with the enigmatic and megalomaniacal Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who manufactures Replicants and sends his henchwoman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) out to do his dirty work. K also comes face to face with Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), a former Blade Runner who has been in hiding for the last 30 years. What K discovers will change the balance of society forever.

While 1982’s Blade Runner initially received a none-too-enthusiastic reaction from audiences and critics, Ridley Scott’s film has since been acknowledged as a cornerstone of science fiction. The film was based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick’s work often deals in themes like what it means to be human, the interplay between man and machine in future society, and the subjectivity of memory. Every effort has been made to carry that DNA into Blade Runner 2049. While it’s clear that director Denis Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher (who also co-wrote the original) and Michael Green are aware of the burden they carry in making this sequel, they do not buckle under the weight of it.

Audiences, especially those unfamiliar with the first film or with Villeneuve’s filmmaking style, should be aware that this is not an action movie – even if some of the marketing makes it look that way. This is a deeply contemplative film, thick with philosophy that will alienate more impatient viewers. It is also constructed with great consideration – the cinematography by Roger Deakins, the production design by Dennis Gassner, the music by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch – it’s all assembled with careful thought and superb skill. The atmosphere is kept consistent with that established in the first film, but Villeneuve doesn’t occupy himself with dishing out fan service, as one might expect from a belated sequel to a highly-regarded film.

Like its predecessor, this is a neo-noir, and K feels very much like a hero one would find in a classic noir film. He is a tragic, hollowed-out figure, numb to the anti-Replicant epithets that are constantly slung his way. Gosling comes off as distant and withdrawn, but never stilted or wooden. There’s humanity lurking just beneath the surface, humanity that K doesn’t quite know how to process. Gosling also handles the fight sequences well – while it’s highly unlikely Gosling would win a throw down with Dave Bautista in real life, it seems credible that K might gain the upper hand over Bautista’s character Sapper.

Ford makes his first appearance roughly 105 minutes into the film. What he lacks in screen time, he makes up for in presence. Ford is no stranger to revisiting iconic roles many years after the fact, but unlike Indiana Jones or Han Solo, Rick Deckard is not primarily a figure of fun. Ford sells the weariness that has accumulated in Deckard’s bones. Deckard is the king of his own domain: a lavishly appointed hotel in what once was Las Vegas, now an irradiated wasteland. Like K, Deckard was a Blade Runner in search of his own humanity, working a job that needed him to deny said humanity. K and Deckard represent loneliness in different forms, with Ford and Gosling playing off each other in a way that’s devoid of cheeky winks and nods.

Much as Blade Runner 2049 blazes a new trail, it conforms to genre archetypes in several ways: Wright’s character is a standard tough boss lady, while Hoeks’ scary henchwoman also is a commonly-seen character type. De Armas’ Joi is, by design, wish-fulfilment incarnate – a fantasy girlfriend with little say in the relationship. The dynamic between K and Joi is heartfelt and sorrowful, and even though their relationship is quite unlike most, is weirdly easy to relate to.

Leto’s appearance is quite brief and largely consists of him spouting cryptic philosophy as he hangs out in his Brutalist architecture lair. Beneath the posturing and overall eeriness that cloaks the character, he’s pretty much a standard sci-fi supervillain.

Blade Runner 2049 does not feel like a studio-mandated sequel. The presence of executives fretting over test screening results is barely felt. It is a work of art, but then again, art is subjective. The film’s 163-minute running time is excessive – 30 minutes of that could easily be trimmed away. However, far as cerebral sci-fi goes, this film certainly does its genre forebears proud.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong