Ready Player One movie review

For inSing

READY PLAYER ONE

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen
Genre : Sci-fi, action
Run Time : 2h 20m
Opens : 29 March 2018
Rating : PG13

This Easter, several faith-based films are being released, including I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ. This movie is about an Easter Egg hunt of epic proportions, with none other than Steven Spielberg as our guide.

It is 2045, and teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in ‘the Stacks’, a shantytown outside Columbus, Ohio. Like millions of other people around the world, he escapes the drudgery of life by entering a virtual reality realm known as the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), where he is known as Parzival. His best friend within the sprawling game is Aech (Lena Waithe), who runs a virtual garage.

James Donovan Halliday (Mark Rylance), who created the OASIS with his former partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), has passed away. Halliday has created an Easter Egg hunt – the Easter Egg Hunter (Gunter for short) who finds three keys will inherit Halliday’s fortune of half a trillion dollars, and full control of the OASIS. Wade teams up with Aech, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) to complete this epic quest.

Their main opponent: the Sixers, an army of Gunters indentured to Innovative Online Industries (IOI). The company’s greedy CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has effectively enslaved players indebted to the company and wants control of the OASIS himself. It’s up to Parzival and company to beat Sorrento to the prize.

Ready Player One is based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. This is the ultimate geek power fantasy – what if one’s knowledge of pop culture ephemera could actually be used to gain a fortune and save the world?

At its heart, this is a hero’s journey, and the mechanics of the plot are not unlike that of many Young Adult novels with ‘chosen one’ plots. What makes Ready Player One more than the sum of its innumerable references is director Spielberg. Working from a screenplay adapted by Cline and Zak Penn, Spielberg infuses the film with energy, wide-eyed imagination and sheer awe-inspiring spectacle.

Spielberg works in one of two modes: ‘fun Spielberg’ and ‘serious Spielberg’. We saw ‘serious Spielberg’ this past awards season with The Post. While many ‘serious Spielberg’ movies are masterpieces, this reviewer always prefers ‘fun Spielberg’. The self-confessed video game enthusiast gets to indulge his inner gamer, fashioning a dizzying virtual world bursting with detail and lots of existing characters for audiences to point at the screen and recognise.

Ready Player One comments on nostalgia, escapism, and the power of pop culture in shaping our world. Much of Spielberg’s filmography inspires nostalgia, trades in escapism, and he is one of the premiere forces in shaping modern pop culture. Spielberg omitted the overt references to his own oeuvre found in the book, fearing it would come off as too self-indulgent. It feels like no one else could have made this movie, and even over 40 years after inventing the modern blockbuster with Jaws, Spielberg’s still got it. There are times when Ready Player One feels like it’s pandering to its geek target audience, but that’s inherent in the source material. There’s a pleasure in knowing that a filmmaker as exalted as Spielberg demonstrably is a geek at heart.

Of special note among the surfeit of references is a sequence which draws heavily on Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. This is a delightful tribute to the late filmmaker, who was originally set to direct A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Spielberg took over after Kubrick’s death.

The staggering scope of the OASIS is effectively conveyed. It feels like a world which would demand nothing less than complete devotion, and it’s therefore easy to buy the idea that people’s lives have been ruined in the pursuit of credits in-game. The visual effects, supervised by Roger Guyett and supplied by vendors including ILM and Digital Domain, are expansive and astounding. Credit also goes to special projects supervisor Deidre Backs, whose job it was to clear licenses to the myriad properties referenced in the film.

Spielberg’s regular composer John Williams dropped out of scoring this film to work on The Post. In his stead is Alan Silvestri, who seems like the best possible replacement for Williams. Silvestri pays homage to his iconic score for Back to the Future with rousing, melodic music.

The characters are all archetypical, but because of the storytelling device of the video game, that’s more than justified. Tye Sheridan’s Wade is a sometimes-dopey geek, a nobody in the real world but a somebody in the OASIS. He’s very much a wish fulfilment figure, but Sheridan is never annoying in the role.

Cooke’s Art3mis is a typical action girl, and the attempt at portraying the vulnerabilities that lie beneath that surface are sometimes clumsy. Cooke is poised to be the next big thing and is often more interesting than Sheridan. The romance is almost absurdly underdeveloped, undercutting Art3mis’ agency in the story somewhat.

Waithe is fun as the stock best friend character, while the two Asian characters seem to be only there so they can do martial arts. The supporting characters don’t get too much development, but that’s a function of the structure, so it’s easy to forgive.

Mendelsohn has found a niche playing middle management supervillains, and Sorrento is squarely in his wheelhouse.  It’s an entertainingly smarmy performance that’s the right side of hammy.

Rylance, Spielberg’s new muse, delivers a deeply affecting performance as misunderstood genius Halliday, who displays traits of Asperger’s syndrome. There’s a Steve Jobs-Steve Wozniak-type dynamic between Halliday and Og, which the film doesn’t quite have the space to flesh out but is compelling based on the little we see of it. This reviewer would love to see a prequel just about Halliday and Og developing the OASIS.

Ready Player One might feel intimidating to those who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool pop culture connoisseurs, but even if one doesn’t get all or even half of the references, there’s plenty to enjoy in seeing a master of the blockbuster work his magic on a massive canvas.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jedd Jong

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Lee Chong Wei movie review

For inSing

LEE CHONG WEI

Director : Teng Bee
Cast : Tosh Chan, Jake Eng, Mark Lee, Yeo Yann Yann, Ashley Hua, Rosyam Nor, Freddie Wong, Uriah See, Agnes Lim
Genre : Sports, drama
Run Time : 2h 5m
Opens : 15 March 2018
Rating : PG

Celebrated Malaysian badminton player and one-time world #1 Lee Chong Wei gets his story told on the big screen in this biopic.

It is 1992, and young Lee Chong Wei (Jake Eng) watches with rapt attention as Malaysian badminton players Razif and Jalani Sidek play in the Olympic semi-finals. Chong Wei hails from the town of Bukit Mertajam in North Malaysia. Coming from a poor family, he’s unable to afford his own racquet. Chong Wei’s mother Kim Chooi encourages Chong Wei’s desire to play badminton, while his father Ah Chai (Mark Lee) is initially adamant against it, insisting that his son focus on his studies.

 

Chong Wei trains under local coach Teh Peng Huat (Freddie Wong), eventually becoming a well-known badminton player in Bukit Mertajam. He is later enrolled in the Badminton Academy of Malaysia, under the tutelage of national team coach Misbun Sidek (Rosyam Nor). Pushing himself to his limits, Chong Wei overcomes various setbacks and climbs the ranks. In the meantime, he develops affections for Wong Mew Choo (Ashley Hua), a fellow student at the academy. In the 2004 Thomas Cup, Chong Wei first faces off against China’s Lin Dan, beginning what will be one of the fiercest rivalries in badminton history.

The film is based on Chong Wei’s autobiography Dare to be a Champion. Lee Chong Wei follows established sports movie formula almost to the letter: our hero emerges from humble beginnings, is an underdog who becomes a champion through talent and determination, faces obstacles, and trains under a wise mentor or two. For the most part, director Teng Bee makes this formula work.

Lee Chong Wei is an unapologetically patriotic Malaysian film, but its subject is more than deserving of hometown hero status. The film brims with earnestness and is determined to tell a moving, personal story. The result is slick and the production values are high – barring one scene set in London which was obviously shot in Malaysia. The badminton sequences are shot and edited such that we believe the actors really are that good, and there’s no shortage of rousing moments.

While the plot beats might be familiar to anyone who’s watched a couple of sports movies, the movie possesses an authenticity which gives it a novelty factor when compared with the Hollywood sports dramas we’re accustomed to. The unique linguistic landscape of Malaysia is reflected accurately via dialogue in Bahasa Melayu, the Chinese dialects of Hokkien and Mandarin, and English. This seems like a film that will travel well, bolstered by its combination of specificity to Malaysia and the universal appeal of a true underdog tale.

Chong Wei is portrayed by newcomers Jake Eng as a boy and Tosh Chan as a young adult. Eng has a winsome quality without coming off as overly precocious or twee, while Chan’s withdrawn awkwardness enhances Chong Wei’s underdog quality. Both actors display remarkable commitment to the physicality, and more than hold their own in the badminton scenes. There are moments when Chan’s lack of acting experience comes through and he’s not quite able to fully shoulder the dramatic heft, but both actors’ portrayals of Chong Wei coalesce into a commendable whole.

The film’s supporting players are praiseworthy. Yeo Yann Yann’s portrayal of a nurturing mother coping with trying circumstances is credible, while Mark Lee gets to show off range that is rarely demanded of him in his mostly broad comedic roles.

Rosyam Nor delivers a layered, sensitive performance as Misbun. He’s tough on Chong Wei, but is also personally invested in his pupil’s journey. Freddie Wong is an amiable presence as Teh Peng Huat, who functions as a source of comfort and assurance to Chong Wei. Even as he gains success and recognition, Chong Wei’s formative years in Bukit Mertajam remain a key part of him, and his first coach represents that.

Uriah See has fun sneering his way through the part of Yang Kun Chen, Chong Wei’s haughty rival at the academy. This character appears to be fictional, or at least a composite. It veers on being cartoony, but Kun Chen does go through a progression of sorts.

Ashley Hua is sweet but remains firmly in the background as the designated love interest. The parts of the film depicting Chong Wei and Mew Choo’s romance are the cheesiest but still have their charm.

As is to be expected of films like this, Lee Chong Wei could stand to be subtler. The musical score too obviously announces what the audience is supposed to feel. The scenes of the Badminton academy board members deliberating Chong Wei’s future also feel too much like the Jedi Council deciding whether Anakin Skywalker is too old to begin his training.

While Lee Chong Wei is not without its flaws and is largely predictable, the movie represents a significant achievement for the Malaysian film industry. It’s an inspiring crowd-pleaser that draws its hero with more nuance than one might expect, even as it is a paean towards him.

The film’s chest-thumping and flag waving is somewhat cheesy, but also endearing, because unlike the typical jingoism scene in blockbuster movies, it’s not presented in a military context. Beyond the technically accomplished filmmaking, there’s a heartfelt warmth that gives Lee Chong Wei its winning edge.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Last Flag Flying movie review

For inSing

LAST FLAG FLYING

Director : Richard Linklater
Cast : Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, J. Quinton Johnson, Cicely Tyson, Yul Vasquez
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 2h 5mins
Opens : 25 Jan 2018
Rating : NC16

In this comedy-drama, three Vietnam war veterans reunite and rekindle their friendship, but under less-than-ideal circumstances. It is December 2003, and Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell), a former Navy Corpsman, receives the devastating news that his son Larry Jr. has been killed in Iraq. Doc asks bar owner Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and pastor Rev. Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne), who served in the Marines in Vietnam alongside Doc, to accompany him to retrieve and bury his son’s body.

Doc, Sal and Mueller arrive at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, to receive the body of Larry Jr. There, the trio meets LCpl. Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), who was Larry’s best friend in the Marines. Sal butts heads with Lt. Col. Willitis (Yul Vasquez), as Doc tries to process the loss of his son and Mueller attempts to counsel him. Despite the tragedy that brought them back together, the three men rediscover their friendship and work through each of their own issues which have been remained unresolved over the last 30 years.

Last Flag Flying is based on the novel of the same name by Darryl Ponicsan, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Richard Linklater. Ponicsan is known for the 1970 novel The Last Detail, which was adapted into a film starring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young and Randy Quaid. While the novel was a direct sequel to The Last Detail, featuring some of the same characters, the film adaptation of Last Flag Flying is a spiritual sequel to The Last Detail instead.

Last Flag Flying deals with some heady themes, including those of loss, faith, patriotism and friendship. It packages this into a male bonding comedy-drama, and winds being a modest, moving film. The film pays respect to veterans without veering into overblown chest-thumping territory. There are times when the film feels hampered by its road trip structure, but the dialogue is well-written and balances interaction between the characters with exposition. Our trio of protagonists must face truths about themselves and confront long-buried secrets, each man at a different point on his respective journey to make peace with himself and his past.

In recent years, Carell has made considerable efforts to push past his comfort zone as a comedic actor, and he puts in a quiet, sombre performance. Sadness weighs on Doc, sadness he doesn’t know how to express. There are times when the withdrawn meekness comes off as an affectation, but Carell is largely convincing in his portrayal of a man in the throes of crushing grief.

Cranston is the movie’s dynamo. As the belligerent, alcoholic Sal, Cranston gets all the movie’s best lines. Sal is confrontational and speaks his mind, and is wildly expressive, giving Cranston the chance to display his physical comedy chops. Naturally, there’s a hollowness at the centre of all this, and Sal is a broken man using humour to cope. He is the instigator of much of the conflict, and keeps things moving.

Of the three protagonists, Mueller is the most at peace with himself, having found God and heeded his calling to become a preacher. Fishburne starts out calm, but there are points when Mueller is pushed to his breaking point. The character often acts as mediator, and it’s to the film’s credit that his faith is treated seriously rather than mocked outright. The arguments that Mueller and Sal have over the existence of God aren’t anything we haven’t heard before, but Mueller’s point of view registers as a valid one.

Quinton Johnson, who recently made his Broadway debut in Hamilton, is warm and likeable as Charlie. Charlie is the only real link audiences have to Larry Jr., as most of what we know about Doc’s slain son is conveyed by Charlie. Veteran actress Cicely Tyson shows up in an emotional, subtly sad scene.

“Every generation has its war,” Sal observes pithily, adding “Men make the wars; wars make the men”. There might not be as much depth here as we would’ve liked, but there still is resonance to Last Flag Flying. It’s a low-key film that can sometimes feel a little slow, but is given life by its trio of protagonists. The screenplay balances sensitivity with ‘guy’s night out’ brashness, never coming across as sanctimonious or preachy even as it deals with serious issues. It could stand to be a little tighter, but there’s warmth, wisdom and just a dash of silliness that makes Last Flag Flying worthwhile and thought-provoking.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Maze Runner: The Death Cure movie review

For inSing

MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE

Director : Wes Ball
Cast : Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Ki Hong Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosa Salazar, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper
Genre : Sci-fi/Action
Run Time : 2 h 22 min
Opens : 25 January 2018
Rating : PG13

Every movie franchise based on a series of Young Adult novels must come to an end – unless, of course, we get prequels. The Maze Runner trilogy closes out with its longest and most explosive entry yet, but are audiences still inclined to care?

Picking up where the previous film The Scorch Trials left off, the crew of surviving Gladers continue their battle for survival. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) are the last of the original gang. They are supported by resistance fighters Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and Brenda (Rosa Salazar). The trio sets out on a dangerous mission to rescue their fellow Glader Minho (Ki Hong Lee), against the order of the Right Arm resistance movement’s new leader Vince (Barry Pepper).

Minho is being held at WCKD headquarters in the fabled ‘Last City’, where he is being experimented on by WCKD scientists desperately devising a cure for the Flare Virus. Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the only female Glader, has aligned herself with WCKD boss Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson). Paige’s right-hand man Janson (Aidan Gillen) is viciously pursuing Thomas and his cohorts, since they escaped his grasp earlier on. With the help of an unexpected ally, Thomas, Newt and Frypan must infiltrate WCKD to rescue Minho and topple the regime.

It feels like it’s longer than it’s actually been since the Hunger Games films were huge. The sub-Hunger Games Divergent franchise has already fizzled out, with the adaptation of the final book needing to decamp to TV because of poor box office results. The Maze Runner series is hanging on, despite several setbacks including star O’Brien’s near-fatal accident on the set of this film. The Death Cure dutifully rounds things out, and is a marked improvement on the second instalment, which was mostly treading water. However, only the series’ most loyal adherents are likely to get invested in this film.

Director Wes Ball has no other feature film credits to his name other than the three Maze Runner films. Taking this into account, his efforts are worthy of some admiration. The Death Cure features several ambitious action sequences, including a fun train heist opening and numerous shootouts. However, the film’s numerous influences are all too apparent, and it can become a game of ‘spot the reference’: Mad Max, Resident Evil, I Am Legend, Terminator: Salvation and of course The Hunger Games, among others, are liberally sampled. Unoriginality is an easy sin to forgive if the results are entertaining. The Death Cure isn’t as entertaining as it ought to be.

If one is attached to the characters from the previous movies, the dramatic occurrences will matter more. Otherwise, several key deaths come across as perfunctory rather than emotional. Because the world has been opened up wider than in the previous two films, the ‘boy’s own adventure’ quotient of the Gladers sticking together in the face of adversity is somewhat diluted.

The character dynamics are pushed further forward – the brotherhood between Thomas and Newt is tested, and Thomas must eventually confront Teresa, whom he views as a traitor. O’Brien is a serviceable action hero and Brodie-Sangster is endearing if not especially convincing when Newt must be tough.

Gillen’s sneering Janson just isn’t that intimidating a villain, especially since he’s consistently outsmarted by teenagers. He spends most of the film pursuing our heroes about, almost catching them. Clarkson’s understated turn works better than if she went all moustache-twirling villainess (not that too many villainesses have moustaches), but she seems bored at times.

The always-watchable Walton Goggins pops up as the enigmatic, horribly disfigured Lawrence. Unfortunately, the film underuses Esposito and Pepper, and there might be one too many rousing speeches made to the disenfranchised rebels locked out of the city walls.

The Death Cure is a mildly satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, but its excessive length and derivative action and visuals hold it back. It doesn’t patch up the most glaring plot holes or justify its villains’ stupidity, but our heroes are likeable enough to root for and the spectacle is competently staged. By the time the film reaches its fiery, chaotic conclusion, if feels like things should have ended a fair bit earlier – but end things do, and there are worse notes to go out on than this.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

All the Money in the World movie review

For inSing

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris, Marco Leonardi, Andrew Buchan, Timothy Hutton
Genre : Crime/Historical/Drama
Run Time : 2 h 12 min
Opens : 25 January 2018
Rating : NC16

The grandson of the richest man in the world is kidnapped by an Italian crime organisation and as he refuses to pay the ransom, the boy’s mother goes to great lengths to free her son. It’s a story that almost too dramatic, too sensational to be true, and yet, it is.

It is 1973, and J.P. “Paul” Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is abducted on the streets of Rome. Paul’s parents are divorced: his father John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan) is the son of the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer). Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) tries desperately to free her son, but her ex-father-in-law refuses to pay the $17 million ransom – despite being worth over $2 billion himself.

In the meantime, one of Paul’s kidnappers, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), develops sympathy for the teenager, and cannot fathom why Paul’s family refuses to pay for his freedom. The eldest Getty assigns Fletcher Case (Mark Wahlberg), a negotiator and former CIA operative, to investigate and secure Paul’s freedom, for as little money as possible. Despite being at odds, Gail works together with Fletcher to ensure her son gets out alive, as every passing hour puts Paul in greater danger.

All the Money in the World could have been just another awards season prestige flick based on a true story, but the behind-the-scenes drama has almost overshadowed the plot of the film itself. Kevin Spacey was originally cast as J. Paul Getty, but in the light of sexual assault allegations levelled against Spacey that came to light last October, director Ridley Scott elected to excise Spacey from the film. Christopher Plummer was cast at the last minute, and Scott scrambled to reshoot the movie with just over a month until its planned release date.

The results are seamless, with Plummer slotted into the film in a manner that’s barely noticeable. All the Money in the World is a slickly-made film – Scott is a seasoned filmmaker and several key crew members, including cinematographer Dariusz Wolsk, costume designer Janty Yates and production designer Arthur Max, are frequent collaborators of his. However, its efficiency means it feels like a less-than-personal work.

The film is based on the nonfiction book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, by John Pearson. The film is a little heavy-handed in its approach, and David Scarpa’s screenplay contains multiple pithy lines musing on the meaning (or meaninglessness) of money and other possessions. “Everything has a price,” the eldest Getty proclaims. “The great struggle in life is coming to grips with what the price is.” There are more than a few moments in which All the Money in the World is a little too on-the-nose.

Williams does the most legwork, delivering a fine, moving performance. Gail is someone who has lived on the fringes of great wealth, but cannot count herself as rich. She embodies a mother’s love: Williams never over-plays Gail’s anguish at the prospect of never seeing her son again, and in addition to the expected desperation, there’s temerity and resolve. Gail is pressed on all sides, constantly thronged by the paparazzi, drawn into a spectacle she wants no part of. Placing Gail front and centre and emphasising her prominent role in fighting for her son’s release was the right narrative approach.

The 88-year-old Plummer continues to be a class act. Getty is not a likeable character, since he is wholly consumed by his fortune and has dedicated his existence to maintaining, growing and protecting said fortune. However, Plummer has a knowing twinkle in his eye, and brings considerable charm to the part. He paints a portrait of a shrewd, quietly megalomaniacal tycoon, delivering a commanding performance without exerting much effort. While some of Getty’s lines are clunkers, Plummer makes the dialogue work.

Wahlberg is far and away the film’s weak link. Fletcher Case is presented as Getty’s go-to fixer, a smooth-talking man of mystery with a covert past. It’s difficult to take Wahlberg seriously, as he can sometimes lapse into whininess. Late in the film, when Fletcher has a heated confrontation with Getty, Wahlberg struggles to hold his own opposite Plummer.

The news that Wahlberg demanded a $1.5 million fee for reshoots and held up the production until he got paid that amount doesn’t help. It’s a consolation that since this was exposed, Wahlberg donated his reshoot pay to the Time’s Up Initiative in co-star Williams’ name.

The dynamic that develops between Paul and his captor Cinquanta is an interesting element of the story, since Cinquanta winds up being sympathetic to Paul, almost caring towards his prisoner. Duris imbues Cinquanta with a believable level of humanity, while Charlie Plummer (no relation to Christopher) is serviceable as a scared, somewhat spoiled teenager. Paul does display unexpected resourcefulness when he needs to, making for some of the film’s most thrilling sequences.

All the Money in the World is a little too manicured and workmanlike to be truly affecting, save for one genuinely wince-inducing, gory scene. However, it is well-paced and there’s an urgency to the proceedings, with enough tension to keep audiences engaged. Williams carries the show, with Plummer stealing it at key points. Shame that Wahlberg had to be there too.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

12 Strong movie review

For inSing

12 STRONG

Director : Nicolai Fuglsig
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Peña, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban, William Fichtner, Rob Riggle, Elsa Pataky
Genre : War/Action
Run Time : 2 h 10 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : NC16

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. Armed Forces leapt into action, sending troops into Afghanistan to combat the Taliban. 12 Strong tells the story of Task Force Dagger, who were the first personnel to take on the Taliban in the weeks following 9/11.

Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) has no combat experience, but volunteers to lead Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) 595. He is backed up by Chief Warrant Officer Cal Spencer (Michael Shannon), with whom Nelson has trained. Nelson’s team also includes Sergeant First Class Sam Diller (Michael Peña) and Sergeant First Class Ben Milo (Trevante Rhodes).

The men of ODA 595 must win the trust of General Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban), the leader of the Northern Alliance who has plenty of experience fighting the Taliban. Nelson and company traverse the mountainous terrain on horseback, towards the strategic city of Mazar-i-Sharif. If the Northern Alliance and the U.S. Forces can wrest control of Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban, it will strike a crushing blow to the enemy. Outnumbered forty to one, Nelson, Dostum and those under their command wage a bloody, explosive battle.

12 Strong is based on the nonfiction book Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistan, by journalist Doug Stanton. The book was adapted for the screen by Silence of the Lambs screenwriter Ted Tally and Hunger Games scribe Peter Craig. This film marks the directorial debut of Danish filmmaker Nicolai Fuglsig – his experience as a war photojournalist must have informed the making of this film.

There are many films set during World War II which are couched as inspirational and uplifting, some of them in danger of romanticising the war. The protracted war in Afghanistan and Iraq has weighed heavily on the consciousness of the American public. 12 Strong is an account of a recently-declassified battle that took place early on in this war. While the movie wants to be thrilling and emotional, it’s difficult to overlook the larger context which is not presented in the movie.

12 Strong wants to be an old-fashioned epic, complete with majestic, sweeping establishing shots, and our heroes riding on horseback as explosions go off behind them in slow motion. It also wants to reframe the narrative by emphasising that there were Afghans who allied themselves with the U.S. troops. However, the film’s handling of this comes off as a naive “there were good Afghans! Who would’ve thought?” viewpoint.

The film has some pacing issues, and the countless sequences of our heroes on horseback rounding yet another mountain pass, in between cutting back to the other characters who are back at the base, becomes repetitive. However, the payoff is spectacular: the climactic battle is drawn out and overstuffed, but is visceral and exciting. It must’ve been quite the logistical undertaking: there are tanks, explosions, guns, rocket launchers, helicopters, bombers and yes, horses. However, there’s the niggling feeling that since this is based on a true story, we shouldn’t be ‘enjoying’ the action sequences the way we’d revel in the thrills of a sci-fi action movie or a fantasy picture.

Hemsworth cuts quite the heroic figure astride a horse. While he and the other actors in the cast attempt to imbue their characters with some personality, as is often the case in military movies like this, the characters can become indistinct and blur together. It is fun that Hemsworth’s real-life wife Elsa Pataky makes a cameo as Nelson’s wife in this film.

Shannon, one of the more interesting actors out there, doesn’t get too much to do. Shannon is often cast in villainous roles, but maybe he’s just more interesting playing those characters, as opposed to the straight arrow Spencer. Even then, he’s played heroic characters who were more engaging to watch before.

Negahban is charismatic as Dostum, battle-hardened and commanding. The film’s portrayal of the warlord seems a little simplified for the sake of convenience. Dostum is a polarising, controversial figure, but in 12 Strong, he occupies the role of ‘wise native’. “Stop being a soldier,” Dostum counsels Nelson, motioning to Nelson’s heart. “Start using this”.

“America is famous for making propaganda movies,” Negahban said, adding that he hopes 12 Strong shows “we are acknowledging, we are honouring those people who put their lives on the line to help get rid of terrorism or war, to bring peace.” Maybe it’s a start.

            12 Strong is co-produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, famous for his high-octane mega-blockbusters. While the film is thrilling and rousing at times, it’s hard to shake the feeling that recent military history has been put through an action movie lens. While there’s spectacle and Chris Hemsworth makes for a great action hero, 12 Strong would like us to believe that Chris Hemsworth can save the day riding in on horseback, when we know it’s far from that simple.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Molly’s Game movie review

For inSing

MOLLY’S GAME

Director : Aaron Sorkin
Cast : Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Brian d’Arcy James, Chris O’Dowd, Bill Camp, Graham Greene, Jeremy Strong, Joe Keery
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 2h 21m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : NC16

The tagline to the recent Justice League film was ‘all in’ – that film has nothing to do with Poker, but ‘assemble’ was taken. This biopic is about someone who could be considered the Wonder Woman of high-stakes Poker.

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) has had a rough go of it. Growing up in Colorado under the tutelage of her father Larry (Kevin Costner), she has long harboured dreams of becoming a professional skier. Molly overcame a spinal injury in her childhood, but a career-ending accident dashed those dreams.

Needing to reinvent herself, Molly moves out to Los Angeles, working as a cocktail waitress and as a personal assistant for investor Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong). Dean runs a poker game out of LA’s Cobra Lounge that attracts Hollywood A-listers and business moguls, and places Molly in charge of hosting the game. Molly quickly learns the ropes, and sets up her own game, operating out of a plush penthouse suite. When she moves the game to New York, she attracts a whole new set, including Wall Street power brokers and sports stars. However, the Russian and Italian mafia soon get involved, and Molly finds herself investigated by the FBI. She hires Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to represent her, telling the attorney her story.

Molly’s Game is the directorial debut of Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the scribe behind The Social Network, Moneyball, A Few Good Men and The West Wing. We know what to expect from Sorkin screenplays: every exchange of dialogue is a verbal knife fight, with quotable barbs flying in all directions. It’s easy to be dazzled by the witty verbosity, but it can also be a turn-off because Sorkin’s style can feel glib and self-satisfied.

Sorkin has found the ideal source material with which to make his directorial debut, as the true story includes elements that he’s played around with before. The protagonist is wildly ambitious and dives head-first into a glamorous, seductive, sometimes dangerous world. It’s all there in the subtitle of Bloom’s book: ‘From Hollywood’s Elite to Wall Street’s Billionaire Boys Club, My High-Stakes Adventure in the World of Underground Poker’. It’s a fascinating true story, just add cinematic style, which Sorkin brings plenty of.

The film establishes a smart alecky tone from the outset, with Bloom going over her backstory in voiceover. There are stylistic devices including graphics on the screen that attempt to explain specific moments in the Poker games – even with the visual aids, it all flew over this reviewer’s head. Sorkin might be known for his writing, but he displays a keen awareness of how film works as a visual medium, and the movie never feels static or airless. Sorkin achieves a blend of the lurid and the cerebral that fits the material like a glove.

Chastain is spectacularly adept at playing powerful women, and she makes quite a meal of this role. It’s not dissimilar to her turn in the lobbyist drama Miss Sloane, but there’s the added physical element of Molly being a skier. Molly is sharper than a tack, and any man is putty in her hands. Chastain is mesmerizing – the character wields her sexuality like a dagger, but never makes the fatal strike. She sinks her teeth into this and then some, and is wildly entertaining in the process.

Elba takes a backseat as Charlie, and the interactions between him and Molly begin as sizing each other up, before evolving into something approaching sincerity. Molly and Charlie are on the same side, but it is never an easy alliance, and Elba and Chastain engage with the material and with each other in a lively manner.

Molly’s Game features a veritable carousel of dopey guys whom Molly has wrapped around her little finger. They generally seem intelligent and are all successful, but when they’re in Molly’s thrall, they are rendered dopey. Chris O’Dowd is entertainingly schlubby and it’s fun to see Joe Keery, best known as Steve from Stranger Things, pop up in this – complete with famous coiffeur.

The casting of Michael Cera is a bit weird. He’s playing a Hollywood star referred to only as ‘Player X’, but the identity of Player X can be determined with a quick Google search. Cera doesn’t quite sell the competitive streak and treachery hidden behind a disarming exterior that is crucial to the role.

Costner has settled into gruff mentor roles well, and the relationship between Molly and her father has its moments, even if it ventures into cliché territory. When her father visits Molly late into the film, it’s meant to be an emotional moment and Costner does his best to sell it, but the sarcasm in the dialogue doesn’t let up, somewhat undercutting the sincerity.

Unlike many awards season biopics, Molly’s Game is not a chore to sit through. It speeds along, seducing the audience as it goes. It does feel like the work of someone who is a little too pleased with himself and it could stand to be a mite less smug, but thanks to Chastain’s confident, hypnotic turn, Molly’s Game is engrossing and entertaining.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Paddington 2 movie review

For inSing

PADDINGTON 2

Director : Paul King
Cast : Ben Whishaw, Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Grant, Madeleine Harris, Samuel Joslin
Genre : Comedy/Family
Run Time : 1h 44m
Opens : 7 December 2017
Rating : PG

Everyone’s favourite marmalade-loving Peruvian bear is back on the big screen. Unfortunately, he finds himself in the big house, too. Paddington (Ben Whishaw) is thrown in prison, after being framed for a robbery he did not commit. His adoptive family, comprising Henry (Hugh Bonneville), Mary (Sally Hawkins), Judy (Madeleine Harris) and Jonathan (Samuel Joslin) Brown, plus housekeeper Mrs Bird (Julie Walters), must clear Paddington’s name. Paddington must find a way to foil the dastardly plans of Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), a fading actor who will stop at nothing to acquire a priceless treasure. While in prison, the cuddly little bear must defend himself from various nasty types, including the imposing prison chef Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson). With a positive attitude, good manners, and a little help from people who care about him, Paddington just might survive this ordeal.

After the runaway success of 2014’s Paddington, a sequel was inevitable. We can’t stop the cynics from viewing this film as a shameless cash-grab, but we don’t have to. Paddington 2 does a fine job of that all by itself. This is a film that brims with heart, is ever-so-English, impeccably acted, and not too sickeningly twee. Like its predecessor, there’s also a sweet pro-inclusivity message, conveyed by way of Peter Capaldi’s Mr. Curry, who hates Paddington just because he’s an immigrant.

On top of that, Paddington 2 is hilarious. Director and co-writer Paul King, who also helmed the first Paddington film, delivers a delightfully witty movie that features a mix of expertly-choreographed physical comedy set-pieces and clever wordplay. The film is a masterclass in the art of the setup and the payoff – things that register at first as silly details later become important in the plot, and it snaps together in such a satisfying way. The action-packed finale plays like a cross between the climactic scene of Back to the Future Part III and the opening set-piece of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

The first Paddington movie was going to star Colin Firth as the voice of the loveable bear, and Ben Whishaw was brought on as a last-minute replacement. Whishaw is effortlessly sweet and earnest without it coming off as an affectation. The computer-generated effects seem to have improved since the last movie, and it’s easy to buy Paddington as an actual character. While it’s not as photo-real as the work in War for the Planet of the Apes (nor is it intended to be), this reviewer found himself as invested in Paddington’s journey as he was in Caesar’s.

The stable of talented English actors who fill the supporting cast returns from the first film, with the addition of a few big names. Bonneville plays the pragmatic patriarch who, after years in the insurance business, has lost his taste for whimsy. Hawkins serves as a foil as the warm-hearted Mary. Walters is endlessly amusing as the plucky Mrs Bird, while Capaldi is as crotchety as he can be without Malcolm Tucker-style swearing.

Hugh Grant is the runaway scene-stealer. He gamely sends up his own career, playing a self-obsessed actor whose glory days are far behind him. Seeing as Grant was one of the hottest stars of the 90s and saw his stock fall after personal scandals and massive flops, it’s admirable that he’s willing to poke fun at himself. Not only that, he appears to be having a grand old time doing so. As excellent as Nicole Kidman was in the first film, Grant’s villainous turn handily one-ups hers.

Brendan Gleeson is also a joy to watch as the widely-feared prison cook whom Paddington gamely tries to befriend. All the actors seem to enjoy being a part of the project, and nobody looks like they’ve been forced to put on a happy face.

Given the current political and pop culture climate, few things are cynic-proof. There are popular YouTube channels dedicated to mercilessly dismembering every last thing anyone finds remotely enjoyable, and plenty of think-pieces endeavour to do the same. Paddington 2 is a shining light in this fog of scoffing and irony. What the film possesses in sincerity, it matches in technical accomplishment and engaging storytelling. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll feel the warm fuzzies.

In a year that’s given us some surprising, spectacular blockbusters, Paddington 2 might not be a shock to the system, but it shouldn’t be. It should be a hug, and that it certainly is. The film is dedicated to the memory of Paddington creator Michael Bond, who passed away just before filming wrapped. If future Paddington movies are anywhere as good as this, his legacy is in the safest paws.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Man Who Invented Christmas movie review

For inSing

THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS

Director : Bharat Nalluri
Cast : Dan Stevens, Jonathan Pryce, Christopher Plummer, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark
Genre : Biography, Comedy, Drama
Run Time : 1h 44m
Opens : 30 November 2017
Rating : PG (Some Coarse Language)

Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol has become a cultural touchstone, and imagery from the story is a part of Christmas decorations all over the world. The novel has also spawned numerous film adaptations. Rather than being yet another one of those, this film attempts to take audiences into Dickens’ mind as he was writing the novel.

It is 1843, and Dickens (Dan Stevens) is having a professional slump. While Oliver Twist was a massive success, his last three books have been deemed commercial failures. When his publishers press him for a new book, Dickens goes about devising a parable set during Christmas, about a miserly old man named Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer). Dickens’ wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) and his friend John Forster (Justin Edwards) must contend with his mood swings as he attempts to rush out the book in time for Christmas.

Dickens has imaginary interactions with the characters of the book, including Scrooge, who takes delight in mocking him and wearing him down. Dickens realises that he must address the long-festering wound that is the resentment he holds towards his father John (Jonathan Pryce), whom Dickens blames for sending him off to work in a factory as a young boy. As he frantically searches for a satisfying ending to the book, Dickens must exorcise the ghosts that have haunted him all his life.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is based on the book of the same name by historian and author Lee Standiford, subtitled ‘How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits’. On the surface, this looks like a delightful Christmastime confection, light-hearted and aimed squarely at Anglophiles. However, director Bharat Nalluri and writer Susan Coyne try their utmost to keep the film from being overly treacly or sentimental, and attempt to delve into the author’s psyche.

There are some interesting devices at play here: the story takes on a Shakespeare in Love-type tone, revealing the inspirations that Dickens drew upon. While it wants to be light-hearted, quirky and charming in an old-fashioned way, the film also wants to depict the obsessed, ‘tortured artist’ side of Dickens. There is some of the frothy approach that Nalluri took with the underrated Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, but that is at odds with the Victorian grimness inherent in Dickens’ own backstory.

2017 has been a banner year for Dan Stevens, who has starred in films like Beauty and the Beast and the TV series Legion. Stevens’ energetic portrayal of Dickens brims with manic energy, but the actor does look like he’s constantly searching for the pain that has been brewing in the author’s soul. The film provides a somewhat compelling portrait of the creative process, and the relationship an author can have with his characters – they may seem like figments of the imagination to everyone else, but to Dickens, they are as real as can be.

Plummer is an elder statesman of the acting profession, and join the ranks of many talented actors who have played the curmudgeonly, miserly Scrooge. Scrooge functions as a manifestation of Dickens’ own doubts and insecurities, and the back-and-forth between author and character can be fun to watch. Plummer plays the role with restraint, nibbling at the scenery rather than chewing it outright.

Jonathan Pryce is a talented, often entertaining actor, but the relationship between Dickens and his somewhat-irresponsible father is quite underdeveloped. This thread seems to be the most interesting, but isn’t given enough attention.

Justin Edwards is likeable as Dickens’ friend and eventual biographer, who serves as the physical model for the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present. Morfydd Clark doesn’t get too much to do as Dickens’ long-suffering wife, but Anna Murphy’s bright-eyed maid character Tara adds a dash of innocence and optimism.

The Man Who Invented Christmas will appeal to avid readers of Dickens’ work and the author’s interactions with his own characters differentiate this from your run-of-the-mill biopic, but the film isn’t as wholly charming as it could’ve been. Because of its tonal confusion, it’s hard to fully get into, and rarely pushes past the point of ‘mildly interesting’. Still, the movie has it charms and features Christopher Plummer in fine form.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Murder on the Orient Express (2017) movie review

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MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

Director : Kenneth Branagh
Cast : Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzari, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Sergei Polunin
Genre : Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 116 mins
Opens : 30 November 2017
Rating : PG

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-posterIn western literature, three characters vie for the title of ‘the world’s greatest detective’: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Batman (yes, comics are literature too). This film sees the return of the middle character to the big screen.

It is winter, 1934. Renowned Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has just solved a case in Israel, and is looking forward to a holiday in Istanbul. His break is abruptly cut short when he’s summoned back to London on assignment, and must board the Orient Express. Poirot is invited on the luxurious train as a guest of the train’s director Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot’s friend.

The train is derailed due to an avalanche, and a passenger, shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) is found dead. Poirot gathers the other passengers, who are all suspects in the murder. They include: Ratchett’s butler Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Ratchett’s accountant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), the Princess’ personal attendant Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), car dealer Binamiano Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his wife, Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton). As the passengers are trapped in a snowy mountain range, awaiting their rescue, Poirot faces what just might be his most difficult case yet.

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Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel Murder on the Orient Express is one of the great whodunits, and has been adapted for film and TV several times. The best-known adaptation is Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version starring Albert Finney as Poirot. Making another big screen adaptation of the venerated novel seems like a tall order, and most of the negative reviews of this film have deemed it “unnecessary”. While it’s hard to say for certain that the world needed a new Murder on the Orient Express movie, this reviewer was mostly entertained.

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There’s an old-fashioned charm and grandeur to the film, which is sumptuously, handsomely photographed in glorious 65 mm film by cinematographer Harris Zambarkalous – some of the cameras had just been used to shoot Dunkirk, in which Branagh had a supporting role. There’s a painterly quality to the computer-generated backgrounds, and everything looks luxe and inviting.

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Branagh pulls double duty as director and star. This is a vanity project, and while it teeters on self-indulgence, Branagh is a delight as Poirot. Sporting that magnificent moustache, this looks like the most fun the thespian has had since playing Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter movies. He is always the centre of attention, relishing every moment he’s onscreen – of which there are many.

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The supporting cast is exceedingly impressive, stacked with an assortment of talented actors. They characters don’t come off as characters, so much as ornaments that Branagh arranges around himself. However, there is an art to said arrangement, and the casting is uniformly strong.

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Depp is appropriately sleazy and unlikeable, while many of the other actors play on popular perceptions of them based on most of their roles. Pfeiffer’s turn is deliciously witty, while Cruz is almost comically stern as a buttoned-down missionary. While Josh Gad tones down his usual comedic schtick, he still sticks out among the cast.

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Ridley brings English proper-ness and a fresh-faced quality to the Mary role. Dench’s Russian accent is a mite too subtle, but it’s clear that she too is enjoying the affair. Odom, best known for originating the role of Aaron Burr in the hit musical Hamilton, is a serious and taciturn Dr. Arbuthnot, who is a composite of Col. Arbuthnot and Dr. Constantine in the source material. It’s super easy to be suspicious of Dafoe, because he is, well, Dafoe.

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As far as celebrity cameos go, Polunin’s appearance as Count Andrenyi isn’t as out of place as it could’ve been. The renowned ballet dancer cuts a slim, severe figure as the haughty count. Lucy Boynton, breakout star of Sing Street, doesn’t get too much to do as the Countess.

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It’s difficult to put a fresh spin on a story as established as Murder on the Orient Express, and there are times when Branagh’s struggle in assembling the film is evident: there is little genuine suspense to be generated, and some moments, especially during the big reveal, are unintentionally funny. However, there is so much talent involved, with said talent looking to be having great fun, and the film looks so splendid that one can readily overlook some of the bumpiness experienced on this ride.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong