Maleficent: Mistress of Evil review

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Director: Joachim Rønning
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Robert Lindsay, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 17 October 2019
Rating : PG

In 2014, audiences learnt the back-story behind Maleficent, the villainess of Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Beyond being a cackling sorceress/sometimes-dragon, Maleficent painted its title character as someone who rose from tragedy and betrayal to form a complex bond with the young Princess Aurora. Directed by Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge), this sequel continues that story, pitting Maleficent against a conniving, ruthless new foe.

Aurora (Elle Fanning), Queen of the Moors, is about to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) of Alstead. Aurora’s godmother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is resistant to this union. Despite her heroic actions, she has been cast as a villain in stories spread by the humans. Philip’s father King John (Robert Lindsay) thinks the wedding could help to unite the two kingdoms, but his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) harbours hatred towards Maleficent and the magical creatures with whom she is aligned. Maleficent discovers a hidden society of faes, including the wise Connall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the fiery warrior Borra (Ed Skrein). Queen Ingrith foments a war between the humans and the faes, with the young couple caught in between.

Angelina Jolie continues to be all sharp-cheekboned perfection as Maleficent. We were afraid that she might phone in it given that this is a sequel, but she still appears to relish the role. Not only does she get numerous fabulous costume changes, Maleficent goes on a journey of discovery, getting acquainted with her people and learning about their customs and beliefs. There is a conflict between her allegiance to her fae kin and to Aurora, which gives the powerful character something to struggle with.


Much of the film works because of Michelle Pfeiffer. Casting her opposite Jolie was an inspired move. The early promotional materials tried to hide it, but there’s no point beating about the bush now – Queen Ingrith is the “Mistress of Evil” of the title. Pfeiffer plays the villain with sneer and swagger hidden beneath a regal façade, with shades of her witch character from Stardust sometimes visible. Coming off like a PG-rated Cersei Lannister, it’s an absolute hoot.

There’s a lot going on in the plot of the movie, so it is to writers Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue’s credit that the movie never loses sight of its emotional core: the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. They might not be on the same page for much of the film, but it cannot be questioned that Maleficent deeply loves and cares for Aurora, something Ingrith winds up exploiting.

Just as in the first film, the show is stolen by Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent’s shape-shifting sidekick. Riley manages to be both cool and endearing. Queen Ingrith’s sadistic henchwoman Gerda (Jenn Murray) is also a fun, arch character.

While the visuals are often mesmerising and transporting, the film does lean very heavily on computer-generated imagery. This is expected of a fantasy adventure film, but some of the characters do seem unnatural. The Fairy Godmothers Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville) return from the first film, and their almost-human facial features sometimes cross over into the dreaded uncanny valley.

Prince Philip is boring, but then again, this is something inherent in the source material. Brenton Thwaites, who was busy filming Season 2 of Titans, is replaced by Harris Dickinson, who constantly seems a little bit confused and flat. However, this is also a sign that the film understands that Philip is not the main character, and that he does not have to be the hero to save the day.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is almost completely wasted in a relatively small supporting role.

The action sequences in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are grand and expansive. Like most big-budget high fantasy projects these days, it seems more than a little derivative of Game of Thrones, but the big battle scenes are dynamic and lively. The movie gets surprisingly dark, with the villain’s plot involving genocide by way of biological warfare. However, the movie still has a bounce and a sense of humour to it and is never too self-serious the way something like Snow White and the Huntsman and its sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War sometimes were. The big climactic battle takes place in broad daylight, which is a relative rarity in films of this type.

This film has a completely different design team than the first but maintains a sense of visual continuity while also giving us something new. The costumes by Ellen Mirojnick are stunning, especially Maleficent’s battle outfit, which is a sexy, elegant body paint-style number. Production designer Patrick Tatopolous creates some gorgeous fantasy environments, chief of which is the hidden fae sanctuary comprising mini-environments which have different climates.

Summary: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil sometimes transcends its fantasy adventure genre trappings thanks to strong performances by Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer, putting more of a spin on its source material than many of the live-action remakes Disney has given us lately.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Lion King (2019) review

THE LION KING

Director: Jon Favreau
Cast : Donald Glover, Seth Rogen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Alfre Woodard, Billy Eichner, John Kani, John Oliver, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph
Genre : Family/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 18 July 2019
Rating : PG

            Disney’s string of live-action remakes continues with a movie that is technically a photo-realistic computer-animated remake but is for all intents and purposes a live-action one. The Lion King is sure to rule the box office, but is the sojourn back to Pride Rock worth it?

The story is by now almost universally known: King Mufasa (James Earl Jones) and Queen Sarabi (Alfre Woodard) have a baby, Simba (JD McCrary). Mufasa’s brother, the conniving Scar (Chiwetel Ejiofor), seethes at being further bumped down in line for the throne. He orchestrates a series of events that leads to Mufasa’s death. Simba, believing that he should be blamed for his father’s death, escapes into exile.

He is rescued by the meerkat Timon (Billy Eichner) and the warthog Pumbaa (Seth Rogen), whom he befriends. The now-adult Simba (Donald Glover) has led a largely carefree existence since running away. He is visited by his childhood friend Nala (Beyoncé), now an adult lioness. She pleads with him to return to the Pridelands to dethrone Scar, who with his army of hyenas has turned the once-lush territory into a desolate wasteland. Simba must overcome the trauma of his past to become the one true king.

There hasn’t been a lot of nuance in the discussion of this film, which has, like several recent Disney live-action remakes, stirred up some strong feelings. There are those who welcome this with open arms because it gives them a chance to relive the original animated movie in a new way, and others who have described this as a soulless cash-grab. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but perhaps closer to the latter, because it’s true that live-action remakes need to justify their existence. Despite the obvious technical proficiency and the stellar voice cast behind this version of The Lion King, the film still struggles to prove that it isn’t a largely unnecessary venture.

What does pretty much the same movie as the 1994 version, only looking like a nature documentary with animals that somehow talk and sing, add to the original? Not very much. The direct comparison would be The Jungle Book, which was also directed by Jon Favreau. This reviewer enjoyed that film and liked how it changed the tone and mood of the original animated film from old-timey variety show to exciting adventure movie. The 2019 Lion King stays mostly faithful to the original film directed by Rob Minkoff and Roger Allers and even though it is 30 minutes longer, not very much is added to the story or the characters.

It’s difficult to grade this movie on its own merits because, being such a close adaptation of the 1994 version, it actively invites comparisons. This is probably the easiest paycheck screenwriter Jeff Nathanson has earned, because of how closely it hews to the screenplay of the original by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton.

One of the major things that is sacrificed in striving for photo-realism is the original film’s use of colour. Behind-the-scenes footage of the 1994 movie shows animators discussing the shade of pink that a sunrise should be – that movie demonstrates an understanding of how colours can be used to set the scene and influence the viewers’ emotions. Here, not only is the palette limited, but the characters’ range of motion is largely bound to what the real-life animals are capable of. Favreau has roped in many talented collaborators, including Director of Photography Caleb Deschanel and visual effects supervisor Robert Legato, but because “realism” is the watchword, the film’s dynamism is severely limited.

Just how important is “realism” to the story of The Lion King anyway? Audiences must already buy that the animals talk and sing and behave in human-like ways, so how much does it help that their fur is immaculately rendered or that their ears twitch in a certain way? The Lion King was adapted into a stage musical, which has become the highest-grossing musical in history. Artistically, it is in many ways the opposite of this live-action film. Using puppetry, masks and costumes, the musical interprets the animated movie in an eye-catching, dynamic way and is anything but literal. Julie Taymor, who directed the stage version, executive-produced the new movie – it made this reviewer hope for something a little bit wilder and more experimental than what we got.

There still is a lot this movie gets right. The music was one of the animated film’s biggest assets, and that’s the case here too. The score by Hans Zimmer, which builds upon the original score he composed with Mark Mancina and Jay Rifkin, contains some of the composer’s most evocative work. Traditional African music and choir elements arranged by Lebo M add texture and dimensions to the movie’s sound, while all the songs Elton John and Tim Rice wrote for the original animated film remain intact.

John and Rice wrote a new song, “Never Too Late”, which John performs over the closing credits. Beyoncé and Rice wrote “Spirit” – while it is a good showcase of her vocal prowess, the song doesn’t quite have the power of the songs originally written for the animated movie and the songs added for the stage musical that are absent here. Still, the influence of the music used in the stage show is felt here, with the songs sounding a bit less pop-like than they did in the original film.

The voice cast is excellent across the board, but because the characters are so limited in their expressions and mannerisms, it is sometimes hard to believe that the voices belong to these characters, the awareness that they’re just dubbed over the CGI footage frequently present.

Glover captures the playfulness of the adult Simba with the self-searching sorrow lurking underneath, while Beyoncé sounds suitably regal as Nala. JD McCrary is lively as young Simba, with “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” being one of the more enjoyable sequences in the film.

Getting James Earl Jones back was the right move, as it seems unthinkable that anyone could match the sonorous authority and underlying warmth of his Mufasa.

While Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a slinky performance that carries a good amount of Shakespearean menace with it, he ultimately falls short of the dripping deliciousness that made Jeremy Irons’ performance as Scar so memorable.

Timon and Pumbaa get the most new material, as well as the film’s biggest laughs. Billy Eichner brings self-conscious neuroses to Timon, while Seth Rogen’s guttural laugh fits Pumbaa nicely. One of the film’s darkly funny bits involves Pumbaa and an unfortunate butterfly.

This reviewer was most looking forward to John Oliver as Zazu – this is casting that’s both incredibly obvious and sublime in its perfection. He’s great as Zazu, but there are no surprises, it’s just John Oliver.

In a way, that applies to most of this film: there are several good choices being made, but there are no surprises in the way they turn out. A story like The Lion King doesn’t need to be reinvented, but this movie’s faithfulness to the animated original means that like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin before it, it’s overly concerned with hitting all its marks and not trying anything new. The photorealistic CGI is the result of plenty of hard work from armies of artists and technicians and will push filmmaking technology forward, but here, it’s not in service of telling the story in an engaging way. It may sound dismissive, but it comes down to this: there’s enough to like in The Lion King simply because it reminds us of something we already like.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Triple 9

For F*** Magazine

TRIPLE 9

Director : John Hillcoat
Cast : Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr., Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 115 mins
Opens : 17 March 2016
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language, Nudity and Violence)

Out on the streets, it’s never black and white – though sometimes it is red, owing to the dye packs that permanently stain stole cash. Oh, the red is also often blood. Criminals Michael Atwood (Ejiofor), Russell Welch (Reedus) and his brother Gabe (Paul), along with corrupt cops Marcus Belmont (Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Collins), have been committing armed bank robberies. The crew is working for Irina Vlaslov (Winslet), the wife of a powerful Russian Mafioso. Michael has a son with Irina’s sister Elena (Gadot), further complicating matters. To pull off another job, Marcus and Franco suggest calling in a code “999”, i.e. killing a cop to distract the rest of the police force so the crew can break into a government office and steal data concerning Irina’s husband. Their target is Chris Allen (Affleck), Marcus’ new partner who has transferred from a different district. Chris’ uncle happens to be Sgt. Det. Jeffrey Allen (Harrelson), who is tracking down the bank robbers. The stage is set for all-out war on the streets of Atlanta, Georgia.

            First off, we would like to get that “oh, this stars James Lye, Wong Li-Lin, Lim Yu Beng and Mark Richmond” joke out of the way. If you were watching Singaporean television in the 90s, you know what we’re talking about. Anyway, Triple 9’s screenplay, written by Matt Cook, landed on the 2010 Black List of most-liked scripts making the rounds in Hollywood and has finally been produced. At the helm is John Hillcoat, who directed the revisionist western The Proposition and the prohibition-era bootlegging drama Lawless. Triple 9 is a scuzzy, grimy crime thriller which liberally borrows from the likes of Training Day and Heat. The action sequences are messy and frenzied; our protagonists are mostly criminals who don’t get along; we deal with the theme of honour (or lack thereof) among thieves and there’s an abundance of street-level violence.

            There are many points where Triple 9’s plot feels like it comes straight out of a direct-to-DVD action flick starring 50 Cent and a pre-Mr. Robot Christian Slater. Hillcoat has managed to assemble an impressive cast and it’s impossible not to have high expectations looking the list, which comprises an Oscar winner, Oscar nominees and dependable character actors. Sometimes, seeing a name actor covered in tattoos and scars, all sweaty and grimacing while toting a gun, can feel like we’re just watching a pampered star play dress-up. For the most part, Triple 9does feel fairly authentic, with the city of Atlanta actually getting to play itself instead of doubling for some other locale. Nothing feels prettied up, nothing’s slick and shiny and the situations are overblown but not ludicrously so.

            As the straight-arrow rookie with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, Affleck is well cast and a scene in which Chris threatens a local Cartel bigwig without knowing what he’s getting into does demonstrate that the character is out of his element. Unfortunately, Ejiofor is harder to buy as a tough-talking thug. He has played sinister characters before, but he’s unable to fully shake off that innate nobility that has served him so well in other, very different roles. It comes with the territory of crime movies, but the members of the team are insufficiently distinct and can blur together after a while. Of the group, Collins is actually the most convincing as the unscrupulous, two-faced Rodriguez. Unfortunately, Paul and Reedus don’t bring too much to the table beyond “hey, Jesse Pinkman and Daryl Dixon are brothers!”

            Winslet chomps the drab scenery as the main villain of the piece, a stereotypical mob wife who’s been handed the reins of underworld power while her husband sits it out in a Russian prison. It’s a character even more ridiculously evil than Jeanine Matthews in Divergent and Insurgent. Gadot and Palmer are there to strut about in abbreviated outfits, providing eye candy and doing little else. Harrelson also doesn’t get a chance to work his offbeat, quirky charm in a role that could’ve been played by pretty much anyone.

            Triple 9 is a disappointingly generic crime flick that is elevated ever so slightly by its formidable cast. Not too much of a spin is put on the crime thriller formula and the would-be shocking twists and turns in the last act fail to have much impact at all. Hillcoat keeps things moving along and consciously avoids stretches of exposition, but that has the side effect of making the connections between the characters a little confusing to keep track of. At 115 minutes, it’s also a mite too long and could do with some tightening up. But if you’ve a taste for this sort of thing, you’ll probably find Triple 9 to be a competent thriller set on the mean, mean streets.



Summary:It fails to live up to the expectations generated by that cast list, but Triple 9 has enough brutal thrills and cops-and-robbers intrigue to scrape by.

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Martian

For F*** Magazine

THE MARTIAN

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Benedict Wong
Genre : Sci-Fi/Adventure
Run Time : 142 mins
Opens : 1 October 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language and Disturbing Scenes)

Someone alert David Bowie – there is life on Mars after all. It comes in the form of astronaut Mark Watney (Damon), who is stranded on the planet after being presumed dead when a sandstorm strikes his crew. The rest of the Ares III astronauts, Lewis (Chastain), Martinez (Peña), Johanssen (Mara), Beck (Stan) and Vogel (Hennie) are bound for home, unaware that Watney is still alive. Watney is left to fend for himself, drawing on every ounce of resourcefulness as he makes the most out of extremely limited supplies, eking out an existence on Mars. Back on earth, NASA director Teddy Sanders (Daniels), Mars missions director Vincent Kapoor (Ejiofor), public relations manager Annie Montrose (Wiig), Jet Propulsion Lab director Bruce Ng (Wong) and others labour over devising a rescue plan once they discover Watney did not die as they had believed. In the face of sheer adversity, the “Martian” must survive and work towards finally coming home. 
The Martian is based on Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name, which was lauded for being thoroughly researched. There exists a scale, albeit a subjective one, of science fiction “hardness”, with something like Guardians of the Galaxy on the “soft” side and 2001: A Space Odyssey on the “hard” side. The Martian is a rare big-budget Hollywood hard sci-fi film and it emerges triumphant. Director Ridley Scott hasn’t had a spotless track record, coming off last year’s below-average Biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings. His previous sci-fi film, 2012’s Prometheus, proved hugely divisive. With most of the key crew from Prometheus including director of photography Dariusz Wolski, editor Pietro Scalia, production designer Arthur Max and costume designer Janty Yates returning, Scott has managed to more than redeem himself. 
The Martian boasts a sweeping, epic majesty juxtaposed with the intimate tale of one man’s survival. Jordan’s Wadi Rum seems to have made a steady career doubling for the fourth planet from the sun in films like Mission to Mars, Red Planet, The Last Days on Mars and this one. While everything does look a little too slick and Hollywood-ised, there’s still a sense of authenticity, the harsh environs and the sheer remoteness of the Martian landscape driving home how slim Watney’s chances of making it out alive are. Real-life NASA staffers must be drooling at seeing manned Mars missions depicted so gloriously on the big screen, given how bureaucracy, a lack of funds and myriad other obstacles stand in the way of this actually being realized. The 3D effects are superb, most noticeably when we get to see astronauts floating through the long hallways of their spacecraft and in the exterior shots of the detailed and realistic Hermes ship drifting through space. 
Screenwriter Drew Goddard adapted Weir’s novel for the screen, and on paper, The Martian certainly sounds like it could be boring, with too many finicky technical details potentially holding the viewer at arm’s length. A good portion of the story unfolds in voice-overs that are packed with scientific exposition, but there is just as much showing as there is telling and the script is light enough on its feet, not getting weighed down by the “boring stuff”. This is a film that celebrates and champions science, all of its characters being the best and brightest. It’s also an extremely human survival story that almost defiantly refuses to spiral into mawkish sentimentality, while still hitting many emotional beats. Perhaps most surprisingly, The Martian is extremely funny. There are stakes and dire straits, but the tone is pleasantly upbeat and optimistic throughout. Sean Bean even gets to make a Lord of the Rings reference, sending many audience members in this reviewer’s screening howling with laughter. 
The Martian has been described as Apollo 13 meets Cast Away, and both films happen to star Tom Hanks. Here, Damon exudes an irresistible likeability that gives even Hanks a run for his money. Watney’s indomitable spirit and how he keeps his sense of humour intact throughout his ordeal keep us keen in seeing him alive. We cheer each instance in which his MacGyvering succeeds and wince whenever he’s hit by another setback. “Mars will come to fear my botany powers,” Watney jokingly proclaims as he sets about growing potatoes. Naturally, there are moments of introspection in which Watney considers the magnitude of his plight, and Damon is able to play those moments earnestly and compellingly. 
While the film is squarely Damon’s to carry, Scott has assembled a robust supporting cast to back him up. Cheesy as it sounds, there is something inspiring about seeing so many people put their heads together in working towards a common goal. Chastain proudly carries on the tradition of capable female characters in Ridley Scott movies, her Commander Melissa Lewis steely yet calm, a natural leader with an amusing penchant for 70s disco music. As NASA director Teddy Sanders, Daniels is the hard-nosed, pragmatic bureaucrat, but in his hands, the character does not become the stereotypical authority figure who’s standing in everyone’s way. Ejiofor does his share of hand-wringing, but it makes sense given the immense pressure on his character. Wiig is fine in a role that is not overtly comedic, though her presence at Mission Control might be distracting to those familiar with her prolific comedic exploits. 
There are places where the film falls back on formulaic genre trappings: the pilot Martinez tells engineer Johanssen to explain something “in English”; there are many scenes where characters take objects like pens and salt shakers and use them as stand-ins for spacecraft and planets in demonstrating manoeuvres and Donald Glover shows up as a hyperactive genius prone to Eureka moments. That said, it is remarkable just how refreshing The Martian is. In this day and age, it seems everything has been done before, especially in big sci-fi blockbusters. That The Martian manages to be so unique and engaging is certainly commendable. In telling the story of the efforts to bring Mark Watney home, Scott has hit a home run. 
Summary: A thrilling, surprisingly funny survival film with a grounding in actual science, The Martian features one of Matt Damon’s most charming performances to date and is a joyous ode to the merits of ingenuity and perseverance. 
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong