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

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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

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