The Last Duel review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast : Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Harriet Walter, Alex Lawther, Nathaniel Parker, Sam Hazeldine, Željko Ivanek, Marton Csokas
Genre: Historical/Drama
Run Time : 153 min
Opens : 14 October
Rating : R21

Content warning: sexual assault

In 1977, Ridley Scott made his feature film debut with The Duellists, set during the Napoleonic Wars. 44 years and 24 films later, Scott visits another era of French history with The Last Duel, set during the Hundred Years War and telling the story of the last trial by combat permitted by the Parliament of Paris.

It is 1386. Knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) are former best friends. They have grown apart because Le Gris has earned the favour of the wealthy and powerful Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), who has a personal distaste for Carrouges. Carrouges, whose wife and son died in a plague, marries Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the daughter of disgraced Lord Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker). Marguerite claims that while Carrouges was away in battle, Le Gris raped her. Sanctioned by King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) and the Parliament of Paris, Carrouges challenges Le Gris to a duel to the death. If he wins, Carrouges’ name and honour – and that of his wife – remain intact. If he loses, then Le Gris will be proven innocent in the eyes of God, and Marguerite will be burned at the stake.

Scott is a seasoned veteran behind the camera. Not all his films wind up being great, but almost all of them are technically competent, and The Last Duel is no exception. At once grand and grimy, The Last Duel sees Scott in historical epic mode, bringing the likes of Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven to mind. Alongside frequent collaborators like cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Arthur Max and costume designer Janty Yates, Scott assembles a serious, big-budget movie aimed squarely at grown-ups. Various historical locations in Ireland and France lend the movie its scale, even if experts are bound to find myriad inaccuracies in the costuming and other details.

The story is a fascinating and important one, and even if the movie falls short in certain areas, there is a serious attempt to do the historical subject matter justice. The movie takes its time and is divided into three chapters before getting to the duel, telling the story from Carrouges’, Le Gris’ and Marguerite’s points of view, ensuring that we get to know each of the players well before the climactic, grisly and intense titular sequence. Adapted from The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by medieval literature expert Eric Jager, the script is credited to Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Damon and Affleck wrote the perspectives of the men, while Holofcener wrote the perspective of the woman.

This is a movie about the repercussions in the wake of a woman’s sexual assault – more specifically, a woman who decides that in the wake of her sexual assault, she cannot stay silent. It must be noted that the film contains graphic depictions of sexual assault, and how necessary such depictions are in films specifically about the topic is something that’s often debated. The tagline declares this is “the true story of the woman who defied a nation and made history”. However, the actress playing said woman is third-billed. While the movie certainly devotes time and attention to Marguerite and to her interiority, she mostly takes a backseat to Carrouges and Le Gris, and by the time we get to the section of the movie telling her side of the story, it is more than halfway into the 153-minute runtime. There is also a perhaps unavoidable silliness in a movie of this nature, in which haircuts and accents are inevitably distracting. Scott prevents the proceedings from ever getting too jarring, but there are moments that come off as stilted and unnatural. The downside of Scott’s professionalism is his movies sometimes feel dispassionate, and while there is an intensity to The Last Duel that draws viewers in, it also feels like he isn’t as personally invested in the material as he could be.

Damon and Affleck are oft-collaborators and long-time friends. The last time they co-wrote a screenplay, it was for the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting. As such, there was some anticipation over their first collaboration as writers in 24 years. Unfortunately, Damon comes off as miscast, often feeling like he doesn’t fit the period – especially in comparison to Adam Driver, who carries himself much better in the costumes and surroundings. Affleck’s character, essentially a rich, hard-partying frat boy, seems deliberately anachronistic and he is having fun with it. Their involvement in this film is simultaneously distracting and somewhat novel. While they cannot be directly blamed for it, it is worth remembering that Affleck and Damon owe much of Good Will Hunting’s success to producer Harvey Weinstein, so perhaps it is not a coincidence that they are making a film about a survivor of sexual assault, even if theirs are far from the most pertinent voices on the matter.

Jodie Comer is far and away the best part of the movie. With Free Guy and The Last Duel in the same year, Comer is poised for big screen superstardom. In the section scripted by Holofcener, Comer shines. Her Marguerite is an intelligent, hardworking person who challenges the conventions of the time. She deals with not just being raped, but also with the constant pressure of needing to bear her husband a son. In one particularly wrenching scene, Marguerite’s mother-in-law chastises her for speaking out about the rape, saying she herself was raped but stayed silent so as not to cause trouble. The Last Duel is the most effective when it highlights how much has changed, but depressingly, much has not.

Summary: While there probably are better candidates than Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to tell this historical story, The Last Duel benefits from Ridley Scott’s assured direction and a transcendent turn from Jodie Comer. It’s far from the best statement movie made about sexual assault and the challenges that women face in speaking out about their experiences, but it proves an engrossing epic all the same.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Richard Jewell review

For F*** Magazine

RICHARD JEWELL

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast : Paul Walter Hauser, Sam Rockwell, Kathy Bates, Olivia Wilde, Jon Hamm, Nina Ariadna, Ian Gomez
Genre : Drama/Biographical
Run Time : 2 h 11 mins
Opens : 9 January 2020
Rating : NC16

From director Clint Eastwood and writer Billy Ray comes a biopic about Richard Jewell, the man who called in a bomb threat and was vilified as a suspect. The film is based on the 1997 Vanity Fair article American Nightmare: The Ballad of Richard Jewell by Marie Brenner, and the 2019 book The Suspect: An Olympic Bombing, the FBI, the Media, and Richard Jewell, the Man Caught in the Middle by Kent Alexander and Kevin Salwen.

It is July 1996 and the 26th Summer Olympics are taking place in Atlanta, Georgia. Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a security guard working at Centennial Park, notices a suspicious knapsack that is found to contain three pipe bombs. He is initially hailed as a hero but is soon regarded as a suspect in the bombing by the FBI, with agent Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) strongly believing Richard to be the culprit. Tipped off by Shaw, Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde) breaks the story about Richard’s status as a suspect. The overwhelming media attention overwhelms Richard and his mother Bobbi (Kathy Bates). Richard turns to Watson Bryant (Sam Rockwell), a lawyer who worked at a public law firm where Richard was a supply clerk ten years ago, for help. Watson must help Richard clear his name and turn the tide of public opinion.

Eastwood has been directing movies for over 30 years and is a skilled technical director. Richard Jewell captures the 1996 Atlanta setting with enough authenticity – the film was shot on location at the actual Centennial Park. The scene in which Richard discovers the bomb is tense and gripping. Later, a scene in which Watson times a walk between the site where the bomb was placed and the public payphones where the bomber called 911 is stylishly cut with footage of sprinter David Johnson at the Olympics. Eastwood tells the story efficiently and it is abundantly easy to sympathise with Richard, even as the viewer grows frustrated at him for being easily manipulated and a bit too naïve.

Eastwood is not just a good technical director, but a good actors’ director as well. He draws excellent performances from his cast here. Paul Walter Hauser is a loveable, hapless figure as Richard Jewell – he is not especially bright, but the film attempts to give him some dimensions.

Kathy Bates is a warm presence as Richard’s mother Bobbi, who simply wants the best for her son and cannot bear to see him falsely accused and placed under such immense pressure. Rockwell is a go-to actor for slimy roles, so it is always nice to see him in largely noble parts. Watson is an honest salt-of-the-earth type but is also fiery and impassioned. Some of the film’s best scenes are between Hauser and Rockwell.

Any film based on a true story will have inaccuracies, and one or two of the real people portrayed in said film – or those who knew them – are bound to come out and speak against the way they were characterised in the movie. With Richard Jewell, the inaccuracies seem more calculated. It’s harder to view them as honest mistakes and easier to believe that Eastwood had an agenda going on. It is common for biopics to make a larger point and provide commentary beyond the specific subject matter, but it feels like Richard Jewell leans too far in that direction, reducing the story to a vehicle for Eastwood’s political views.

The film does a huge disservice to journalist Kathy Scruggs, who passed away in 2001 from a prescription drug overdose after dealing with depression and is not around to defend herself. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an open letter by its editor-in-chief responding to how Scruggs and by extension the paper was portrayed in Richard Jewell. In the film, Scruggs is shown sleeping with a source for a scoop. The source, Jon Hamm’s FBI Agent Shaw, is a fictionalised composite character, but Scruggs was very much a real person. This propagates the insidious trope that women journalists trade sexual favours for tips. Authors Alexander and Salwen, whose non-fiction book was the basis of the movie, have firmly maintained that Scruggs did not sleep with an FBI agent to obtain information for her story.

In real life, Richard Jewell certainly was treated unjustly by both law enforcement and the media. However, the film goes out of its way to portray the media and the FBI as unscrupulous and out to destroy Richard’s life. Eastwood is remarkably unsubtle about this, and in order to simplify the story, creates two main ‘villains’ in Shaw and Scruggs. Wilde’s Scruggs is nigh-cartoonishly evil. In trying to clear the name of its title character, Richard Jewell trades in false accusations, something that is regrettable given the quality of the performances in the film.

Summary: Richard Jewell is the work of a skilled filmmaker but is also the work of a filmmaker with an agenda. It is worth seeing for the performances, especially Paul Walter Hauser’s, but this recommendation comes with the caveat that one should research the true story and not take the film’s version of events at face value. In going further than necessary to make the media and the FBI the villains of the piece, Eastwood comes off as dishonest and irresponsible, even though the film is well directed and strongly acted.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ford v Ferrari review

For F*** Magazine

FORD V FERRARI

Director: James Mangold
Cast : Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Jirone, Ray McKinnon, JJ Feild
Genre : Drama/Biography/Action
Run Time : 2 h 32 mins
Opens : 14 November 2019
Rating : PG13

The story of Ford’s battle to win the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans is the stuff of auto racing legend and has all the makings of a compelling Hollywood movie: clashing egos, a period setting, boardroom machinations and of course very fast cars. Director James Mangold (Logan, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) chronicles the ingenuity, adversity, triumph and heartbreak that figured in the historical event.

After Enzo Ferrari (Remo Jirone) flatly rejects a buyout of Ferrari by the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) resolves not to take this lying down. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), the vice-president of Ford, goes to famed car designer and former racer Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) with an audacious proposal: build a car for Ford to beat Ferrari at Le Mans.

Shelby is convinced that only one man, English race car driver and former WWII tank commander Ken Miles (Christian Bale), can help him and Ford achieve this goal. Miles is a genius behind the wheel with unrivalled intuition, but he is notoriously ornery and earns the ire of Ford executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). Beebe tries to block Miles from joining the Ford team, but Shelby knows they don’t stand a chance against Ferrari without Miles. Together, Shelby and Miles come up with the Ford GT40, a high-performance endurance racing car to take on Ferrari at Le Mans.

Ford v Ferrari is a robust film, an old-fashioned historical drama that will make some smile, sigh and say, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” However, it is never stodgy the way some films that try to emulate the movies of a bygone era are, and director Mangold infuses the proceedings with dynamism to spare.

Damon and Bale are superb in the lead roles and act as excellent foils for each other. Damon essays Southern charm as the Texan Shelby while also conveying the frustration of a man who knows what he’s doing but is thwarted by suits who think they know better at every turn.

Bale is intense as the fiery Miles, prone to yelling “bloody ‘ell!” and throwing wrenches at people. As is typical for the actor, Bale underwent a drastic physical transformation, shedding the 31 kg he had gained to play Dick Cheney in Vice. At first, it seems like the movie will excuse Miles’ behaviour by saying that he’s so brilliant that it doesn’t matter how he treats anyone, but the film gives him plenty of layers.

Some of the best moments in the film are the interactions between Miles and his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and his racing enthusiast son Peter (Noah Jupe). There aren’t many women in the film at all, as can be expected for a movie about auto racing in the 1960s, but Balfe makes an impression as Mollie and there is an effort to make her more than just “the wife”.

There are three main components to the plot of Ford v Ferrari: the racing, the boardroom goings-on at Ford and Ken Miles’ home life. Besides stars Bale and Damon, the racing scenes are what everyone’s here for. As mentioned above, the scenes featuring Miles’ wife and son add a much-needed humanity to the proceedings. It’s the boardroom stuff that makes the movie drag. Yes, it’s important context and we do need to see events like Iacocca’s failed trip to Italy to convince Enzo Ferrari to sell part of the company to Ford, but it can get tedious after a while. There are long stretches of the movie that are edge of your seat material, but it feels like we need to trudge through.

This is at its heart a sports movie with all the hallmarks of one, chief of which being the maverick who’s “the only man for the job” and the one other guy who is convinced of his genius and does everything to keep him on the team. Ford v Ferrari is formulaic, but it is formulaic in a satisfying way, with quite a lot added to the formula to make it more than just that.

The racing scenes are some of the best ever committed to film. They all feel tactile and the visual effects work is seamless. A large team of talented stunt drivers worked on the film: stunt coordinator Robert Nagle’s credits also include Baby Driver, John Wick: Chapter 2, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and several Fast and Furious films. The racing scenes are thrilling and cinematic in a way that makes the spectacle more resonant than that of many big visual effects-driven blockbuster movies. The attention to period detail is also worth noting – in order to recreate the Le Mans Circuit as it was in the 1960s, the crew shot in five different locations that were stitched together using visual effects. Yes, there are several inaccuracies that will be glaring to auto racing devotees (Enzo Ferrari was not personally in attendance at Le Mans 1966, for example), but the layperson will find this all quite convincing, especially by Hollywood standards.

A movie about the 1966 Le Mans race has been in development for a while: in 2011, it was announced that director Michael Mann would sign on to make the movie, then titled Go Like Hell. In 2013, both Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were circling the project, with Cruise set to play Shelby alongside Pitt as Miles.

Auto racing enthusiasts will enjoy the meticulous (if never 100% accurate) recreation of the 1966 Le Mans race and the events leading up to that, while the excellent lead performances and action scenes that are exciting no matter how much you like cars ensure everyone else in the audience isn’t left out.

Summary: Matt Damon and Christian Bale deliver entertaining performances in a movie that brings a true story to pulse-pounding life. Audiences will be rewarded for sitting through the background information that serves as set-up with spectacular racing scenes and credible human drama.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Blinded by the Light review

For inSing

BLINDED BY THE LIGHT

Director: Gurinder Chadha
Cast : Viveik Kalra, Hayley Atwell, Rob Brydon, Kulvinder Ghir, Nell Williams, Dean-Charles Chapman, Aaron Phagura, Meera Ganatra, Nikita Mehta, Tara Divina, David Hayman
Genre : Biography/Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 15 August 2019
Rating : PG

            From the director of Bend It Like Beckham comes ‘Sing It Like Springsteen’, a coming-of-age tale about a boy whose life is changed by an encounter with the music and lyrics of the Boss.

It is 1987 and Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra) is a 16-year-old kid growing up in Luton, a town in the east of England. Javed is British-Pakistani and feels trapped by his strict father Malik (Kulvinder Ghir). Javed has a secret passion for writing but knows that his father will never abide it. When Malik is laid off from his car factory job, Javed’s seamstress mother Noor (Meera Ganatra) must work twice as hard to provide for the family. Javed’s sister Yasmeen (Tara Divina) is about to get married, and Javed feels like in his family, only his other sister Shazia (Nikita Mehta) understands him.

On his first day of Sixth Form college, Javed bumps into Roops (Aaron Phagura), a Sikh classmate who introduces him to “the Boss”. Javed becomes enraptured by the music of Bruce Springsteen, feeling like the New Jersey singer somehow understands all his struggles. In the meantime, Javed finds his relationship with his childhood best friend Matt (Dean-Charles Chapman) affected by their differing musical tastes, while he attempts to woo student activist Eliza (Nell Williams).

Javed’s English teacher Ms Clay (Hayley Atwell) encourages his writing and his enthusiasm for Springsteen, while his father becomes enraged that Javed wants to write for a living. In the meantime, racial tensions in Thatcherite England mount, as Javed and his family find themselves the target of National Front extremists. It’s a lot for a boy to deal with, but he finds the Boss leading the way.

Blinded by the Light is based on journalist and documentarian Sarfraz Manzoor’s autobiography Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll. This film’s themes will be familiar to anyone who has watched a coming-of-age movie or two, but its specificity to the context of growing up in 1987 Luton gives it a meaningful point of view.

Movies like this can be insufferably rote or feel manufactured as they try to be inspirational. Blinded by the Light is sometimes cheesy and corny, but it is powered by the sheer force of its earnestness. This is a movie that whole-heartedly believes in the transporting power that resonant art can have, and that as overly dramatic as it might sound, art can change one’s life.

Every stage musical heroine and by extension, every Disney Princess, has an “I Want” song, in which they sing wistfully about their dreams and desires. One of cinema’s most beautiful, poignant scenes is of Luke Skywalker gazing out over the Tatooine Dune Sea as the twin suns set behind him in Star Wars, yearning to be part of something greater.

           Blinded by the Light is a distillation of that energy, of the desire to be something more and find something better, a desire articulated by the songs of Bruce Springsteen. Through his music, Springsteen voiced his frustrations, a feeling of being trapped and needing to escape, a vital desperation and rebellion. “Born to Run” is the most obvious example of this, with “Born in the USA” being a song about the plight of Vietnam War veterans who had been forsaken by their country, dressed in the appearance of a typical patriotic song.

While there are similarities with Bend It Like Beckham in that both films are about a South Asian teenager in the UK who is inspired by a prolific celebrity to pursue their dreams while facing opposition from their family, Blinded by the Light is less broadly comedic. It feels like an evolution of Bend It Like Beckham, a little more nuanced and with more pain lying beneath its feel-good movie exterior.

Newcomer Viveik Kalra is an appropriately shy, endearing lead, his eyebrows constantly knitted in a mixture of frustration and embarrassment. Watching Javed blossom and gain confidence as he learns to express himself and is empowered by Springsteen’s music is gratifying and even thrilling.

The film deals with all Javed’s different relationships surprisingly well – his relationship with his parents, especially with his father, and his siblings is well-defined. His falling out with his long-time friend Matt and his newfound friendship with Roops play out in believable ways. The role his teacher Ms Clay plays in nurturing his interest in writing is heart-warming. The way the conflicts are resolved also feels earned, rather than all tied up neatly in a bow. Javed’s romance with Eliza is probably the part of the film where it gets the most conventional, but Nell Williams delivers a charming performance.

Blinded by the Light is strongly acted and has a good tonal balance of comedy and drama, confronting heavy issues without ever becoming bleak. Its good-heartedness is its strongest asset and it overcomes the more conventional aspects of its coming-of-age narrative with a clear-eyed realness and irresistible sincerity.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Upside review

THE UPSIDE

Director : Neil Burger
Cast : Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman, Aja Naomi King, Jahi Di’Allo Winston, Genevieve Angelson, Juliana Marguiles, Golshifteh Farahani, Tate Donovan
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 2 h 6 mins
Opens : 17 January 2019
Rating : PG13

There’s a specificity to the ‘unlikely buddy comedy-drama’ subgenre: the movies in this category like Good Will Hunting, Finding Forrester or Scent of a Woman aren’t typical buddy movies. They’re often required to have an element of uplift and inspiration, in addition to humour arising from mismatched leads who might not get along at first. At the end of the day, each party learns something unexpected from the other. The 2011 French film The Intouchables is one of the more memorable recent entries in this subgenre, and The Upside is the Hollywood remake of it.

Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston) is a wealthy venture capitalist and investment guru who became a quadriplegic after a paragliding accident. His assistant Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) is helping him vet applicants to be his auxiliary nurse, helping him with everyday tasks. Ex-convict Dell Scott (Kevin Hart) applies for the job not because he wants it, but because he needs to show his parole officer that he has been looking for work. Against Yvonne’s wishes, Phillip takes a liking to Dell.

While Dell is unqualified for the position, he and Phillip gradually warm to each other. Phillip introduces Dell to art and opera, while Dell bounces his ideas for businesses off Phillip. Dell tries to make amends with his ex-wife Latrice (Aja Naomi King) and his young son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo). However, it’s not all smooth sailing, as Phillip and Dell have their disagreements and must evaluate what each want out of life, finding themselves at a crossroads together despite their very different backgrounds.

The Upside has been getting a lot of flack from fans of The Intouchables, who have readily written it off as a rip-off.  The French film was inspired by the true story of Philippe Pozzo di Borgo, a wealthy hotelier who became friends with his ex-convict carer Abdel Sellou. The film has already been remade: in Spanish as Inseparables and in Telugu and Tamil as Oopiri/ Thozha, with a Hindi remake in development.

Being a remake is not one of The Upside’s biggest problems. The Intouchables has received its share of criticism for its problematic handling of race, and for falling back on stereotypes – even if it was based on a true story. With this remake, there was an opportunity to recontextualise the story and explore the sensitive subjects of race, privilege, social inequality and disability within an American setting. Unfortunately, while the film hints at these themes, it is not astute or deft enough to handle them in an insightful manner. The movie wants to be a feel-good inspirational drama, but in keeping the social issues key to the story at arm’s length, it often feels shallow.

Director Neil Burger, working from a screenplay by Jon Hartmere, appears to have trouble depicting the progression of the friendship between Phillip and Dell in a way that makes sense. They have disagreements, get over them, then have more disagreements, but each seems to react disproportionately to key incidences in the story. Dell starts out confrontational and obnoxious, while Phillip is patient, until he suddenly isn’t. It’s hard to get a handle on the two main characters even though they get a lot of screen time, because there isn’t a lot of flow in the development of their relationship.

Cranston is excellent as expected, finding the quiet sadness and ironic sense of humour in a character who has everything but mobility from the neck down. While there is a debate to be had about able-bodied actors playing disabled characters, Cranston plays the role with enough care that Phillip is sympathetic even though he’s incredibly wealthy, and not just because he is a quadriplegic.

Kevin Hart is staggeringly miscast. There’s no rule that says comedians cannot try their hand at drama, and there are many comedians who have excelled in dramatic roles, but Hart’s smart-mouth persona and shrillness threaten to smother the character, even though he is trying to dial it down here. When Dell is rude and confrontational, it feels like he’s just out to get a rise of others, rather than it coming from a place of real struggle.

While it’s not a focal point of the movie, it’s also hard not to wince at a scene in which Dell baulks at changing Phillip’s catheter, freaks out over Phillip’s accidental erection and can’t even bring himself to say the word “penis”, given former future Oscar host Hart’s history of homophobic remarks.

Nicole Kidman puts in a respectable low-key performance – it’s clear she’s looking for depth in the limited material she has but figured early on that she didn’t have to do too much. The subplot about Dell’s ex-wife and son could’ve done with more development, but the film is right to place the focus on Dell and Phillip’s relationship. Juliana Marguiles shows up for one scene, that is one of the film’s better scenes because Hart isn’t in it.

The filmmakers of The Upside must’ve known they were stepping into a minefield, given that the politics of disability, race and inequality are central to the story. In aiming for a safe, crowd-pleasing feel-good drama, The Upside does not fall into outright shameful sentimentality, but still suffers from a lack of nuance and passes up the opportunity to reframe the original story against the backdrop of urban American society.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Mule review

THE MULE

Director : Clint Eastwood
Cast : Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Allison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Dianne Wiest, Andy García, Clifton Collins Jr., Eugene Cordero, Noel Gugliemi
Genre : Crime/Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 1 h 56 mins
Opens : 10 January 2019
Rating : M18

Clint Eastwood is 88-years-old and has been working steadily since the 50s, so it makes sense that some of his recent films deal with aging. In this drama, his character’s old age is an asset, because it makes him less suspicious – as a drug mule.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a nonagenarian horticulturist and Vietnam War veteran who has fallen on hard times after his house and farm is foreclosed upon. Earl is estranged from his family, including his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) and his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Earl comes across what he thinks will be a one-off opportunity as a drug runner for a Mexican cartel. Because the work is easy and pays extremely well, Earl finds himself coming back, unexpectedly becoming one of the cartel’s top mules.

DEA Agents Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña) learn through an informant about a mule the cartel refers to as “Tata”, Spanish for “grandfather”. The deliveries are being brought into Chicago, with the agents closing in on the elusive mule. Back in Mexico, cartel kingpin Laton (Andy García) is pleased with Earl’s performance, but his lieutenants are spooked by the increasing DEA activity, taking issue with Earl’s penchant for unscheduled stops. Earl knows his successful run working for the cartel cannot last forever and faces the inevitable: he will either be killed by cartel enforcers or captured by the DEA.

The Mule is based on an article in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick, entitled The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule. Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk, who got his big break penning Eastwood’s Gran Torino, have taken loose inspiration from the life of Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a drug runner for the cartel run by El Chapo. Eastwood’s presence as director, producer and star means that it’s obvious that he has projected himself onto the Earl Stone character, who is drawn as a well-meaning, good-hearted man who just isn’t properly appreciated by his family and winds up doing bad things even though he is not a bad person.

Eastwood is too in love with the character, who functions as an avatar of himself, for the movie to accomplish very much. Having directed 34 movies, Eastwood more than knows what he’s doing on the technical front and draws out good performances from his talented cast. However, he is squarely the centre of attention. Earl berates younger people for constantly being on their smartphones and functions as a stubborn guardian of a bygone age, an old-fashioned stalwart who doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He also has at least two threesomes with prostitutes, scenes which one imagines Eastwood doing multiple takes of just to be sure.

Cooper and Peña are given underwritten roles, but Cooper does get one good scene set in a Waffle House in which he gets to do a bit more than chase after Clint Eastwood. Dianne Wiest is the standout in the cast as Earl’s ex-wife, who harbours less ill-will towards Earl than his daughter Iris (played by Eastwood’s real daughter Alison) but who still wishes things could’ve been different. The skill with which Wiest conveys quiet sadness ensures the relationship is not overly treacly.

The scenes in which Earl is friendly towards the cartel members lower on the ladder who warm to him are quite endearing. Both Andy García and Laurence Fishburne are on hand to lend additional gravitas in relatively small roles as a cartel boss and a senior DEA agent respectively.

The Mule is not an instant classic the way some of Eastwood’s films are, and it is more obviously a vanity project than several other late-period Eastwood movies. There are moments when it’s charming and the Earl Stone character is not the worst person to spend a couple of hours with, but the movie fundamentally lacks any urgency or drive. The moments of tension, when it feels like Earl’s Faustian bargain is catching up to him, are too few and far between. It is ultimately saved by the compelling nature of the true story and Eastwood’s unquestionable competence as a director but is not one of the more essential entries in his oeuvre.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bohemian Rhapsody review

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Director : Bryan Singer, Dexter Fletcher
Cast : Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 136 mins
Opens : 1 November 2018
Rating : M18

            Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? The story of Freddie Mercury and the band Queen comes to the big screen in a biopic that’s somewhere in the middle, but perhaps a little closer to the fantasy end of the spectrum.

It is 1970 in England. Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), born Farrokh Bulsara to parents Bomi (Ace Bhatti) and Jer (Meneka Das), is a young singer-songwriter with dreams of stardom. Freddie goes to see the band Smile perform, and after the departure of their lead singer/bassist Tim Staffell (Jack Roth), Freddie petitions guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) to join Smile. With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), Freddie rebrands the band Queen. When they rent a recording studio to record an album, the fledgling band is discovered and is signed to record label EMI.

So begins a meteoric rise into the stratosphere for Queen, who break into the Billboard charts in the USA and become a worldwide phenomenon. However, there is trouble behind the scenes. Freddie’s fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) quickly realises he is gay, and Freddie’s personal manager and lover Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) drives a wedge between Freddie and the other members of Queen. In 1985, the band is given the chance to perform at the massive benefit concert Live Aid, but with Freddie succumbing to AIDS, it will take everything he has to return to the stage.

Bohemian Rhapsody has had a notoriously rocky journey to the big screen. The film was announced in 2010, with Sacha Baron Cohen attached to the Freddie Mercury role. Following disagreements with May and Taylor, Cohen departed the project. Ben Whishaw was briefly set to replace Cohen, then Dexter Fletcher came onboard to direct, before leaving over creative differences with producer Graham King. Rami Malek was sought to star. Bryan Singer then joined as director, but about two-thirds through production, was let go, reportedly due to absences from the set and clashes with Malek. Fletcher was then brought back to replace Singer.

The resulting film is far from a mess but does leave a bit to be desired. This reviewer got chills multiple times, and the music of Queen does a lot of the heavy lifting. There are many moments in the film that border on saccharine, but against all odds, are effectively emotional. There are also enjoyable bits when Freddie, Brian, Roger and John are all just being silly and goofing about. However, the film feels less like an insightful peek behind the curtain and more like a highlight reel of all the important moments in the band’s history.

It is this feeling of flitting from moment to moment that robs the film of its authenticity, but that also lends it some charm. When Freddie plays the opening bars of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the piano, asking Mary if there’s any potential in the tune, or when Brian stomps his feet and claps to form the start of “We Will Rock You”, or when John spontaneously generates the bassline for “Another One Bites the Dust”, audience members are supposed to nudge their friends in recognition.

There is a bombastic cheesiness to the whole affair that is perhaps fitting for the subject matter, but these moments also firmly make Bohemian Rhapsody feel like the ‘Hollywood version’ of the Queen story. There are times when the film is in danger of feeling like a Saturday Night Live sketch, especially when Mike Myers makes a cameo appearance as (fictional) EMI executive Ray Foster. One can almost picture Blue Öyster Cult waiting outside the studio, with Christopher Walken ready to demand more cowbell.

Rami Malek’s performance is a big part of why the movie ends up as an engaging, affecting work despite its shortcomings. One can sense that Malek is aware of the responsibility of portraying such an iconic and beloved musical icon, but he does not crumble under the weight of said responsibility. He’s more than just a great pretender: there’s the flamboyance, flair and prosthetic teeth, but Malek is careful not to let his portrayal of Freddie slide into caricature, even as other aspects of the movie do. The flashes of vulnerability and lostness behind his eye register as genuine. All the vocals are lip-synced to original recordings of Queen, with Marc Martel providing additional vocals.

Boynton, star of the underrated musical Sing Street, is destined for superstardom. Her portrayal of Mary Austin is heart-rending even though the film doesn’t quite flesh her character out. There’s a sweetness but also a toughness to Boynton’s Mary, such that the audience sympathises with both her and Freddie.

Some questionable wig work aside, Lee, Hardy and Mazzello are all quite believable as May, Taylor and Deacon. The real-life May and Taylor are still involved with Queen and had a significant say in what went into this movie. As a result, May especially comes off as a saint. Deacon, who retired from music in 1997, is portrayed as the butt of the joke, but each member has moments when they’re endearing and it’s clear that they all cared for each other even through Freddie’s personal tumult.

Ace Bhatti and Meneka Das make small but impactful appearances as Freddie’s parents Bomi and Jer respectively. Tom Hollander’s Jim Beach is genial and supportive – Beach is a co-producer on the film. Allen Leech’s Paul Prenter grows slimier as the film progresses, while Aaron McCusker brings a warmth and twinkle in the eye to Jim Hutton, Freddie’s boyfriend during his final days.

The film’s re-enactment of the Live Aid concert is a sweeping triumph, capturing the epic scale of the event with a depiction of Queen’s entire set beginning to end. Bohemian Rhapsody will likely be a crowd-pleaser with a middling, bordering on negative critical reception. While its gloss makes it seem like the film skims the surface, the everlasting music produced by the band and strong, committed performances make it not quite the champion, but at the very least the bronze.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

First Man review

FIRST MAN

Director : Damien Chazelle
Cast : Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Brian D’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Ciarán Hinds
Genre : Drama/Biography
Run Time : 143 mins
Opens : 18 October 2018
Rating : PG13

Call it ‘La La Moon Landing’: Damien Chazelle, the youngest winner of the Best Director Oscar, trains his sights on NASA’s quest to put the first man on the moon in this biopic.

It is 1961 and civillian test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is accepted into NASA Astronaut Group 2. Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), NASA’s first Chief of the Astronaut Office, emphasises how the Soviet Union has beaten the US to every major milestone in the Space Race. This batch of astronauts, which also includes Ed White (Jason Clarke), David Scott (Christopher Abbott), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Corey Stoll), among others, will take part in the Gemini Program. Gemini is NASA’s second human spaceflight program, and the tests conducted during the Gemini missions will lead to the Apollo Program, which aims to put a man on the moon.

The training is physically and mentally demanding, and the risk is high – several of the astronauts whom Neil becomes close to die in failed missions. This takes a toll on Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy), who fears that their children Rick (Gavin Warren and Luke Winters at different ages) and Mark (Paul Haney and Connor Blodgett at different ages) will be left without a father. NASA faces scrutiny and pressure in the aftermath of their high-profile failures, as many across the nation question the cost of the Space Race in dollars and in lives. This culminates in Neil, Buzz and Michael forming the crew of Apollo 11, with Neil becoming the first man to step foot on the lunar surface.

Following in the grand tradition of historical dramas about the Space Program like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, First Man is an awards contender that hopes to also thrill audiences. Chazelle works from a script by Spotlight and The Post co-writer Josh Singer, who adapted history professor James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. First Man combines a documentary-like feel marked by lots of grainy verité handheld shots with grand cinematic spectacle, and it’s a balance that mostly works.

There are bits of First Man that do feel a bit dry, but the film does a fine job of covering the history and an even better job of putting audiences inside the spacecraft alongside the astronauts. Before the Gemini 8 mission takes off, we get close-up shots of all the rivets and bolts inside the capsule as it creaks on the launchpad – if just one tiny thing fails, it all goes up in smoke. First Man contains some of the most realistic depictions of spaceflight ever put on screen, and endeavours to shed light on the people who made the achievements of the Space Program possible.

Chazelle reunites with several collaborators from La La Land, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren and composer Justin Hurwitz, who also scored Whiplash. The 16 mm and 35 mm film stock give the film an authentic period feel, while the moon landing sequence is presented in all its 70 mm IMAX glory. There is careful attention to detail in capturing the specifics of the ‘60s NASA setting, and production designer Nathan Crowley’s reproductions of the spacecraft and facilities is entirely convincing.

The backlash against the film for omitting the moment in which the American flag is planted on the moon seems like a mountain out of a lunar molehill. The decision to leave this well-known part of the moon landing out seems to stem from a desire to pare back the iconography of this historical moment and focus the story into something personal, giving the movie an honesty and a rawness.

Gosling anchors the film with a quiet, well-considered performance. The film characterises Neil Armstrong as someone who’s intelligent and earnest, but who is not especially well-equipped to process the grief that befalls him and those he cares about all too often. He is consumed by his work and driven to succeed, while it looks like everything around him is in danger of crumbling away. There’s an earnestness and intensity that Gosling dials to just the right level.

Foy’s Janet Armstrong is stern but caring, and her take on the role is a lot more than “worried wife back home”. Her relationship with Neil underscores how the astronauts are people with their own lives, and that serving the higher call of the Space Program comes at the expense of those lives.

The film’s supporting cast, including Clarke, Chandler and Ciarán Hinds, all give serious, unassuming ‘character actor’-type performances. Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin is characterised as someone who’s not exactly likeable, and this is something Stoll visibly enjoys playing.

First Man is a finely crafted serious awards season drama, but watching it still feels a little bit like homework. The attempts to juxtapose the US’ involvement in the Space Race against the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle are commendable but a little clumsy. In taking a matter-of-fact approach, the film loses some of the wonderment and awe associated with mankind “slipping the surly bonds of earth”. However, Chazelle and co. largely succeed in crafting a credible account of Neil Armstrong’s journey from the earth to the moon.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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

I, Tonya movie review

For inSing

I, TONYA

Director : Craig Gillespie
Cast : Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Mckenna Grace
Genre : Biography, Drama, Sports
Run Time : 1h 19m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language and Sexual Scenes)

Every awards season, we get at least a few inspirational sports biopics about resilient athletes who overcome insurmountable odds, becoming heroes to people everywhere.

I, Tonya is not that movie.

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was the first U.S. female figure skater to pull off the extremely tricky triple axel move. If you were around during the 90s, you might have a vague recollection of the rivalry between Tonya and fellow Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). This culminated in Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and Jeff’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) planning an attack against Nancy. After a hired hand breaks Nancy’s knee with a retractable baton, it isn’t long before suspicion falls on Tonya and Jeff.

The film follows the lead-up to and aftermath of this incident. Tonya’s mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney) mercilessly pushes her daughter, and Tonya’s life revolves around abusive relationships. Facing numerous setbacks and eventually cast as a villain by the media, Tonya pursues her dream of being the #1 figure skater in the world.

I, Tonya is an acerbic subversion of your bog-standard awards bait sports biopic. It’s sometimes unpleasant, and intentionally so. Director Craig Gillespie, who previously helmed the more traditional sports movie Million Dollar Arm, takes a black comedy approach to Tonya Harding’s life story. He directs from a screenplay by Steven Rogers – this is easily the Love the Coopers screenwriter’s edgiest work.

Tonally, I, Tonya is tricky. It wants the audience to laugh at the ‘white trash’ characters that populate the story, while also empathising with them. It wants to be cynical and snarky, yet sincere. There are moments when the cracks begin to show, but given the ambitiousness of this juggling of moods, I, Tonya works far better than it might have in different hands.

The film is framed with interview sequences in which the characters, a gallery of unreliable narrators, speak directly to camera. Outside these interview scenes, we also get fourth wall breaks. Everything is caustic, everyone is varying degrees of broken, and yet, it’s funny. The ice skating sequences are also absolutely mesmerising and thrilling, pinpricks of gracefulness in the blackness of awful people being awful.

Robbie, who is also the co-producer through her Lucky Chap Productions label, holds this all together. She throws every ounce of herself into a performance that is impossible to look away from and which has deservedly netted her an Oscar nomination. Piercing through the public perception of Tonya, Robbie paints the portrait of someone who has been knocked about her whole life, Tonya’s unsportsmanlike behaviour and overall demeanour a result of that. Robbie is flashy, sincere, wild and showcases impressive physicality, under the tutelage of coach Sarah Kawahara. This is the ‘sink-your-teeth-into-it’ role actors live for, and Robbie makes quite the meal of it.

Even with that highly unflattering moustache, Stan is still quite loveable. The Jeff character isn’t meant to be – he’s a dope, and he’s abusive, but is he malicious? Is he even smart enough to be capable of malice? The relationship between Tonya and Jeff rivals that of Harley Quinn and the Joker in the ‘toxic and unhealthy’ stakes. The film’s depiction of domestic abuse is harrowing, but doesn’t quite fit in with the devil-may-care glibness established earlier.

Janney handily steals the show as the abrasive, cruel, yet oddly endearing LaVona. Janney undergoes a complete transformation, and while we’ve seen the cigarette-smoking stage mom archetype before, she unearths several layers to the character. LaVona’s abusiveness towards Tonya contributes to Tonya’s acceptance of Jeff’s abuse after they are married. Janney is hotly tipped to take home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this performance.

The film also works to dispel the myth that parents who push their children past their breaking point in the pursuit of excellence are helping their children, and that’s what their children need. LaVona thinks that Tonya performs best when she is enraged, so she engineers situations to throw her child off balance – it’s psychological abuse.

As Tonya’s long-suffering coach Diane Rawlinson, Julianne Nicholson is the sole source of purity, comfort and level-headedness in this sea of scuzziness. Her presence offers a respite from the overwhelming unpleasantness of everything else.

Paul Walter Hauser has a good deal of fun with the role of Shawn, the schlubby friend with delusions of grandeur who ‘masterminds’ a criminal plot with consequences far beyond what Jeff or Tonya could have imagined. This section of the movie plays a bit like a Coen Brothers caper, with bumbling characters who are not very good at being up to no good.

I, Tonya is challenging in that it leaves the audience laughing but uncomfortable as they’re doing so. The film is sympathetic to its title character, but also leans into the tabloid perception of her as it attempts to dig beyond that surface. Mostly, I, Tonya is a terrific showcase for Margot Robbie’s increasingly stunning talents as a leading lady.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong