Encanto review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Byron Howard, Jared Bush, Charise Castro-Smith
Cast : Stephanie Beatriz, John Leguizamo, María Cecilia Botero, Olga Merediz, Diana Guerrero, Jessica Darrow, Angie Cepeda, Wilmer Valderrama, Carolina Gaitán, Mauro Castillo, Adassa, Rhenzy Feliz, Ravi Cabot-Conyers
Genre: Animation/Musical/Comedy
Run Time : 109 min
Opens : 25 November
Rating : PG

We’re familiar with ‘chosen one’ stories of characters who step into a destiny they could have only dreamed of; discovering and cultivating powers to face insurmountable odds. Disney’s 60th animated feature is kind of an inverse of that, focusing on an ‘un-chosen one’.

The Madrigal family, led by matriarch Abuela Alma (María Cecilia Botero, Olga Merediz), live in the mountains of Colombia. Living in an enchanted house and blessed by a magical candle with an undying flame, every member of the family has superhuman powers. Mirabel (Stephanie Beatriz) is an unusual member of the Madrigal family because she has no powers to speak of, and always feels like she has nothing to contribute. When the magic begins to fade, the other Madrigals’ powers begin to waver and cracks form in the house’s façade, Alma inadvertently blames Mirabel. Mirabel must uncover a dark family secret to undo the damage and save her family before it’s too late.

Encanto is lively and beautifully animated, a sweet, engaging and entertaining tale brimming with richness and texture. Zootopia directors Byron Howard and Jared Bush co-directed the movie with Charise Castro-Smith, best known as a playwright. Howard and Bush displayed a knack for world-building with Zootopia which they carry over to Encanto. Like the best of Disney’s animated movies, Encanto is not only visually captivating, but also funny, poignant and exciting. The film is inspired by the writing of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, known for his tales of magical realism. The yellow butterfly which figures into the plot is a reference to Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude. Underneath the colourful, dynamic exterior is a story about family and belonging, and of contending with generational trauma and the burden of preserving beliefs and traditions while preparing for the future.   

With any fantasy story, the question of “how much is too much?” is a factor when it comes to the world-building. While Howard and Bush do an excellent job of building out the milieu in which Encanto takes place, the rules of the magic seem arbitrary. Yes, there’s a ticking clock, but the exact nature of Mirabel’s mission seems unclear. There are many characters to keep track of, reflecting a large and close-knit family, but that means several characters are reduced to caricatures. The film’s ending is also less-than-satisfying and slightly underwhelming given the emotional highs of earlier points in the films.

Stephanie Beatriz gives a spirited vocal performance with an undercurrent of insecurity and frustration as Mirabel, and the movie gives us several memorable characters in the Madrigal clan beyond her.

Both Mirabel’s sisters, whom she is constantly compared to, are endearing in their own way: Isabela (Diane Guerrero) is always perfect and put-together, while Luisa (Jessica Darrow) has super strength. Each sister gets their own song in which they confess about what they struggle with beyond their seemingly ideal exteriors.

Because Mirabel is so easy to root for, it’s only natural that audiences might feel a certain contempt for Alma, who blames Mirabel for the Madrigal family’s problems. However, the movie does a wonderful job of giving Alma completely understandable reasons for her behaviour towards Mirabel. Raising triplets as a single parent after escaping an unspecified occupying enemy force, Alma has presided over the Madrigals for three generations now, and her fear that it will all fall apart is justified, even if it manifests harshly.

John Leguizamo is entertaining as he always is, playing arguably the movie’s most interesting character, Tio Bruno. Bruno’s ability to see visions of the future ultimately resulted in him being cast out of the family, as he was perceived as a bad omen. Leguizamo plays the tragicomic aspects of the character wonderfully.

Arguably, the biggest star associated with Encanto isn’t one of the voice cast, but composer Lin-Manuel Miranda. This is one of several Disney projects the musical theatre impresario has worked or is working on, including Moana and the upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid. The songs in Encanto are a lot of fun and are paired with wild fantasy sequence visuals. In many ways, Encanto is reminiscent of Miranda’s In the Heights. It’s probably no coincidence that Olga Merediz, who provides Abuela Alma’s singing voice, originated the role of Abuela Claudia in In the Heights on Broadway. The incidental music is by Germaine Franco, who worked on Coco.

The 2D-animated short film Far from the Tree, which precedes Encanto, is worth noting. Written and directed by Natalie Nourigat, the story of a curious raccoon is an unexpectedly emotional examination of generational trauma (yes really) and the balance parents must strike in protecting their children while also nurturing their curiosity about the world. Far From the Tree had this reviewer in tears even before Encanto began proper.

Summary: A lively, endearing tale suffused with texture and personality, Encanto plays with the ‘chosen one’ trope to create another Disney animated film destined to become a classic. Featuring eye-catching animation and energetic, witty songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Encanto is an irresistible delight.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ghostbusters: Afterlife review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jason Reitman
Cast : McKenna Grace, Finn Wolfhard, Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor
Genre: Action/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 124 min
Opens : 18 November
Rating : PG13

When it comes to long-dormant franchises, there’s usually one of two approaches to take: either a remake/reboot, or what’s come to be known as a ‘legacy sequel’. Both approaches have their risks, but fans generally seem more amenable to legacy sequels. These usually involve a new set of characters who have some connection to the characters of the original movie, with at least some of the older characters showing up in a supporting capacity. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the latest example.

Single mother Callie (Carrie Coon) and her children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace) move to a rural town in Summerville, Oklahoma, after Callie’s father dies. He had come to be known as the ‘dirt farmer’ by locals and was apparently conducting strange experiments out of fear of a coming apocalypse. Phoebe has a keen interest in science and discovers artifacts in the basement of her grandfather’s house. Together with her classmate Podcast (Logan Kim) and summer school teacher Mr Grooberson (Paul Rudd), Phoebe uncovers the mystery of her grandfather’s experiments. Meanwhile, Trevor discovers an old Cadillac ambulance in the garage. Phoebe, Podcast, Mr Grooberson, Trevor and Trevor’s colleague/crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) eventually discover a conspiracy involving Ivo Shandor, the founder of Summerville, and come face to face with the apocalypse that Callie’s father was trying to prevent.

In an age of often-bloated franchise blockbusters, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is almost refreshingly low-key. Its relatively modest scale is a double-edged sword, as we’ll get to in a bit, but for the most part, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is surprisingly charming. With its rural setting, main characters who are kids, light comedy and supernatural/sci-fi adventure elements, this movie is very reminiscent of Amblin’s heyday. It’s no coincidence that Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard is in this, since Ghostbusters: Afterlife is mostly operating in that same mode. Much as director/co-writer Jason Reitman is paying tribute to his father Ivan, who directed and co-wrote the original film, this is also a Spielberg homage. Much of the humour in the original Ghostbusters came via Bill Murray’s smug, glib performance as Peter Venkman. The tone here seems a lot more earnest and sincere, more wide-eyed and less cynical.

One of the major pitfalls of legacy sequels is that they can devolve into a collapsing pile of Easter Eggs. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is mostly judicious with the fan-service, and most references to events of the first film make sense within the plot. However, there also is a lot of “look, there’s that thing that you like!” Ghostbusters: Afterlife can often feel too reverential, which is understandable given that it’s literally directed by the original filmmaker’s son. There’s meant to be a sense of awe around what this movie has in store for die-hard fans, most evident in how the identity of Callie’s father is apparently some huge secret, when everyone had already figured it out from the first trailer. It takes Ghostbusters: Afterlife almost an hour before the non-mystery is ‘solved’ and the grandfather’s name is confirmed aloud. As is common in legacy sequels, the characters come off more as links to the franchise’s past than as actual characters. This emphasis on ‘respect’ seems to primarily be a reaction to the 2016 reboot, to which there was an outsized, vitriolic ‘culture war’ backlash. That reverential fear sometimes holds Ghostbusters: Afterlife back, and it’s consequentially afraid to cut loose and be too funny, when the original film was primarily a comedy.

There’s also the matter of Ghostbusters: Afterlife’s status as an ‘event movie’. It wants to mostly be small and intimate, but also feels the pressure to provide big action set-pieces, and by the conclusion, turns into something akin to the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The younger Reitman infamously stated in 2007 that he did not want to make a Ghostbusters film, saying “Ghostbusters is iconic, but it’s my dad’s, and I don’t think I can touch that,” adding “It would be the most boring Ghostbusters movie of all time. There would be no ghost busting.” A lot can change in 14 years and Ghostbusters: Afterlife does have ghost busting in it, but there is slight conflict between the big-budget spectacle and the character drama.

One of the movie’s greatest strengths is its approach to the special/visual effects. The terror dogs are mostly executed with animatronic effects when they’re standing still, that then switches to CGI when they’re moving. The look of the proton streams is unmistakably 80s, evoking classic optical effects while not looking too dated. The Muncher ghost, this movie’s riff on Slimer, also looks sufficiently tactile, almost like he’s made of play-doh. The movie will often have something digital happen, then a practical explosion or spark as the pay-off, which works great. The effect that feels the most out of place is the ‘mini-pufts’, tiny Stay-Puft Marshmallow men who are completely digital and sometimes feel a bit synthetic compared to the other effects.

Summary: Often charming and amiable, Ghostbusters: Afterlife stands out amongst the landscape of big-budget franchise blockbusters by being a more intimate, lower-key affair. There is plenty here for long-time fans to latch on to, and while that means the movie is often in danger of becoming just an Easter Egg hunt, it also reflects the richness of the Ghostbusters mythology. Yes, there’s a lot of “here’s that thing that you like!” but it’s also offset by a genuine earnestness and sincerity. The mix of practical and digital effects to evoke the look of an 80s movie while not feeling too dated also largely works. Stay back for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Space Jam: A New Legacy review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Malcolm D. Lee
Cast : LeBron James, Don Cheadle, Khris Davis, Sonequa Martin-Green, Cedric Joe, Ceyair J. Wright, Harper Lee Anderson
And the voices of: Jeff Bergman, Eric Bauza, Zendaya, Bob Bergen, Jim Cummings, Gabriel Iglesias, Candi Milo
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Adventure
Run Time : 116 min
Opens : 15 July 2021
Rating : PG

In the 1990s, there was a spate of basketball players trying their hand at becoming movie stars. There was Dennis Rodman in Double Team and Simon Sez, John Salley and Rick Fox in Eddie, Ray Allen in He Got Game and Shaquille O’Neal in Kazaam and Steel. By far the most memorable of these was Michael Jordan in Space Jam. 25 years later, LeBron James steps into those Nikes to lead Tune Squad.

LeBron James (LeBron James) is having a bit of a rift with his younger son Dom (Cedric Joe). Dom is passionate about computer programming and videogame development, building his own game at just 12 years old, but LeBron is pushing his son to perform on the basketball court. LeBron brings Dom along to a meeting at Warner Bros, where father and son are absorbed into the “Serververse”. This is where Al G. Rhythm (Don Cheadle), a sentient program, holds court. He pits father and son against each other in a basketball game inspired by the game Dom is building. LeBron traverses the various realms of Warner Bros-owned intellectual properties, meeting the Looney Tunes. Bugs Bunny (Jeff Bergman) reunites his friends, including Daffy Duck (Eric Bauza) and Lola Bunny (Zendaya), to form the Tune Squad. LeBron doesn’t have much hope in his team but must get them into shape to face off against the Goon Squad, comprised of augmented digital avatars based on basketball players including Klay Thompson, Anthony Davis, Diana Taurasi and Nneka Ogwumike.

There are parts of the movie that are surprisingly emotional, and the father-son story is a fine backbone for a family film. The animated sequences are excellent, especially the 2D-animated stretch of the movie. There is a sophistication to the visual effects work which is commendable, and some of the design work is fun too. LeBron James is much more natural voicing the animated version of himself than he is on camera, even though he’s far from the worst athlete-turned-actor. It must be slightly strange for LeBron to act opposite actors playing fictionalised versions of his wife and children, but they mostly sell it.

Don Cheadle is a lot of fun in the villain role. Al G. Rhythm is a computer program, but Cheadle plays it completely relaxed and very human.

This reviewer loved the 2D-animated sequences set in the DC Animated Universe. It’s a thrill seeing those designs on the big screen. There’s also a section of the movie involving Wonder Woman that made this reviewer tear up.

This is “Corporate Synergy: The Movie”. Space Jam: A New Legacy is a pop culture nostalgia ouroboros. This is what happens when studios bank too heavily on recognisable IP, it starts to become a snake swallowing its own tail. The Looney Tunes characters have always been self-aware, and media involving them has always been heavy on pop culture references, but this lacks the wit of Looney Tunes: Back in Action, which was a wry showbiz satire. Here, the combination of various Warner Bros-owned properties can often feel clumsy. The LEGO Movie, Wreck-It Ralph 2 and even Ready Player One all executed this much more elegantly. There are six credited writers, four of whom also have a “story by” credit, which is usually an indication of far too many studio-mandated rewrites.

The climactic basketball match, which should be the highlight of the film, just goes on for way too long. It is interrupted by an unbearable sequence in which Porky Pig (Eric Bauza) performs a rap. It’s the moment during which the movie feels the most out of touch.

The audience at this match is comprised of characters from all sorts of Warner Bros. properties, including decidedly non-family-friend titles like Game of Thrones, It, A Clockwork Orange, and most bizarrely, Ken Russell’s The Devils. To be clear: the Droogs are a gang of rapists who are showing up in a family movie. The characters are all played by extras in costume, such that they feel more like cosplayers at a comic convention than the characters they’re meant to be. Compare this to when Disney got every living Disney Princess voice actor back for a sequence in Wreck-It Ralph 2.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is the culmination of 25 years of development hell. The original Space Jam was a massive hit, but Michael Jordan declined to return for a sequel. Options that were explored included the unfortunately titled ‘Race Jam’ with Nascar driver Jeff Gordon and ‘Skate Jam’ with Tony Hawk. Jackie Chan was courted to star in ‘Spy Jam,’ which eventually became Looney Tunes: Back in Action. That film was commercially unsuccessful, but in many ways, it is much better than Space Jam: A New Legacy.

Summary: Space Jam: A New Legacy packs in plenty of spectacle and boasts some impressive animated sequences but there’s just way too much going on. This belated sequel is bogged down by what feels like a corporate mandate to include as many Warner Bros-owned properties as possible, including several that absolutely should not be referenced in a family film. The day is almost saved by a charismatic turn from Don Cheadle.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Soul review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Pete Docter
Cast : Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 106 min
Opens : 25 December 2020
Rating : PG

Of the mainstream animated studios out there, Pixar has a reputation for generally making more sophisticated fare than its competitors. With Soul, Pixar tackles a question no loftier than “what makes you who you are?”

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher and an aspiring jazz pianist. Just when he’s about to get his big break performing with the Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) quartet, he falls down a manhole and goes into a coma. Joe’s soul, bound for The Great Beyond, escapes to the You Seminar, formerly known as “The Great Before”. This is where souls live and gain defining characteristics before they enter corporeal bodies on earth. Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent thousands of years evading becoming human. As Joe fights to return to his body on earth, 22 gains an unexpected understanding of, and perhaps an appreciation for, the life she has been trying so hard to avoid.

Soul is hugely ambitious, a metaphysical, existential odyssey that is challenging and sometimes satisfying to embark upon. It is a lively, funny creation; obviously the effort of artists and technicians who have poured their hearts and, well, souls into their work. Director Pete Docter, who co-wrote the film with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers, gives Soul a poignancy that is difficult to describe.

Soul also faces the immense challenge of creating a view of the afterlife (and the ‘afore-life’) that is compatible with multiple belief systems. Great care was taken in shaping the world of the film, with the filmmakers consulting with various religious and cultural experts. The result is something vaguely new-agey and spiritual, but never explicitly religious.

Soul’s design is also often eye-catching, with some clever ideas at play. To convey the ephemeral, intangible nature of a soul, the designers were inspired by the low-density material aerogel. There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of it immensely clever. Soul is, naturally, an intensely emotional film that left this reviewer in tears. It is especially resonant for anyone who’s tried to make a living doing anything creative.

Soul does not seem like a movie made primarily for children and might be Pixar’s least accessible film yet. It is perhaps more difficult to get into than Inside Out, Docter’s previous Pixar film. This does not mean that it doesn’t have elements in it that children will enjoy, but it is going to be difficult for parents to explain what the movie is about. Soul also feels like a movie that is often in search of itself, which befits its themes, but also means it sometimes goes off in many directions. This is a film that demands to be engaged with, but its take on heady philosophical matters can seem a little simplistic or reductive at times.

There are few things as universally moving as music, so it is a canny move to centre the movie on a musician. Soul’s soundscape is a richly textured one, with jazz at its core. Co-writer Powers is, like the protagonist Joe, a Black man from New York in his mid-40s and was a journalist and music critic. Jon Batiste wrote and performed the original jazz tracks in the score, in addition to providing the animators reference for Joe’s piano playing. There is great attention paid to the cultural significance of jazz, with jazz legend Herbie Hancock and anthropologist Dr Johnnetta Cole being two of the consultants on board. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, known for scoring David Fincher films like The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, seem like unlikely candidates to score a Pixar film, but they deliver moving, uncharacteristically gentle work that is still the right amount of haunting.

Pixar’s films are generally cast well, and Soul is no exception. Jamie Foxx effortlessly essays passion and earnestness, while Tina Fey is endearing as the cynical 22, world-weary despite having never lived. Fey contributed to her character’s dialogue; 22 makes a great throwaway dig at the New York Knicks. Phylicia Rashad breathes life into the relatively small role of Joe’s stern yet loving mother and Angela Bassett is as commanding a presence as ever, voicing a legendary saxophonist. Talk show host Graham Norton brings a friendly quirkiness to hippie sign-twirler Moonwind and Rachel House is funny as the tightly-wound bureaucrat Terry, a soul-counter.

Summary: Made with an abundance of sensitivity and intelligence, Soul artfully tackles some gigantic questions in a resonant manner. Its thematic maturity means that parents will have their work cut out for them in explaining the movie to younger children, but this is a wholly rewarding experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Gentlemen review

For F*** Magazine

THE GENTLEMEN

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast : Mathew McConaughey, Charlie Hunnam, Henry Golding, Michelle Dockery, Jeremy Strong, Eddie Marsan, Colin Farrell, Hugh Grant, Tom Wu
Genre: Crime/Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 53 mins
Opens : 27 February 2020
Rating : M18

When Guy Ritchie made the two Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr, there still was a rough-and-tumble street quality to them. Then he made a movie version of the 60s spy-fi series The Man from U.N.C.L.E., which still had recognisable Ritchie elements. Then he made the medieval fantasy King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, and even more out of left field than that, directed the live-action remake of Disney’s Aladdin. With The Gentlemen, Guy Ritchie returns to his wheelhouse of street-level gangster mayhem, complete with crass irreverent dialogue and plenty of violence.

American-born Mickey Pearson (Matthew McConaughey) is the UK’s top marijuana kingpin – he reigns over a carefully cultivated empire and now, he’s looking to sell, to live a life of peace with his wife Rosalind (Michelle Dockery) who runs a custom car garage.  Fellow American Matthew Berger (Jeremy Strong) has his eye on Mickey’s operation and faces competition from Dry Eye (Henry Golding), the ambitious apprentice of crime boss Lord George (Tom Wu). Newspaper editor Big Dave (Eddie Marsan) hires private investigator Fletcher (Hugh Grant) to investigate Mickey’s dealings, after being snubbed by Mickey at a high society shindig. Fletcher offers to sell his findings to Mickey’s right-hand man Raymond (Charlie Hunnam), meeting Raymond to tell him all the juicy details.

This is vintage Guy Ritchie – rough-and-tumble, witty, twisty, stylish and entertaining. Taken by themselves, none of the individual components of The Gentlemen offer anything new, but Ritchie has assembled them into a whole that works. Ritchie balances the silly and the sinister – there’s a lot about The Gentlemen that’s intended to be funny, but there are also genuinely tense scenes in which characters face off and you’re not sure who’s going to make it out alive. While The Gentlemen is predictable overall, Ritchie’s strength is in creating the illusion of unpredictability in the moment. The movie’s framing device is a meeting between Fletcher and Raymond, which provides the ideal framework for expository details about each characters’ backstory without it seeming tedious. There is a playfulness to The Gentlemen – the meta-fictional component of Fletcher writing a screenplay means that the movie winks so hard a couple of eyelashes almost fly off, but there’s a bit of charm in that.

As with any filmmaker who has cultivated a recognisable style and has become a brand name, there will be those who find said style annoying. The Gentlemen is not a restrained movie, with the Ritchie-ness turned up to 11: adherents will be there for it, but those who aren’t already fans of the director might well be alienated. There are attempts to be shocking that are in line with what one might expect from a Guy Ritchie crime movie – many instances of the c word are dropped and there are many racial slurs used against Jews, East Asians and black people (the film is slightly too amused with the Vietnamese name “Phuc”). Sure, this is a gangster movie populated by unpleasant characters whom we expect to do and say unpleasant things, but there are times when it feels like Ritchie is straining for relevance, that he’s an old dog trying and not always succeeding at performing new tricks. The casual racism is more lazy than shocking. There’s so much going on to the point where it feels like all the subplots and digressions are there to distract the viewer from how rote it is.

Ritchie has assembled a strong ensemble – the casting largely makes sense. McConaughey is having a grand old time playing the wily American – for how over-the-top this movie often is, there’s a level of control to his performance which is quite impressive, even though this doesn’t seem like an acting challenge for McConaughey.

Grant plays against type as a weaselly private investigator who is flamboyant and all too pleased with himself. He plays off Hunnam, Ritchie’s King Arthur, who plays the gruff straight man. Some of the film’s best moments are the interactions between the two, during which it almost feels like a stage play.

Henry Golding plays against type as a young crime lord on the way up – it’s probably the role that’s the most different from the others he’s played in his relatively brief career, but is one that gives him acting cred – “gangster in a Guy Ritchie movie” just looks good on an actor’s CV. It’s a shame that the character is the target of most of the movie’s racism.

Colin Farrell is entertaining as a wrestling coach who wants nothing to do with the drug-dealers and gangsters but is drawn into the fray because his students have stolen from one of Mickey’s weed farms and filmed it, the video going viral. We’re grading on a curve, but he is likely the most decent, ethical character in the film.

Michelle Dockery is, as predicted, under-used – the movie wants to establish Rosalind as being as formidable as her husband, but the narrative always favours him, such that she takes a backseat because that is the nature of the story.

Summary: A vulgar, dirty crime comedy that’s often as dumb as it is clever, The Gentlemen is, for better and worse, trademark Guy Ritchie material.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Addams Family (2019) Review

For F*** Magazine

THE ADDAMS FAMILY

Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan
Cast : Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Allison Janney, Conrad Vernon, Bette Midler, Elsie Fisher, Titus Burgess
Genre : Animation/Comedy
Run Time : 87 mins
Opens : 31 October 2019
Rating : PG

The Addams Family is as old as Superman: the loveably macabre characters debuted in The New Yorker in 1938, the same year the Man of Steel graced the cover of Action Comics #1. Charles Addams’ bizarre creation has endured through the decades, spawning numerous live-action and animated film and TV incarnations. The Addamses return to the big screen in this animated movie.

Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia (Charlize Theron) Addams live in an abandoned mental asylum atop a hill in New Jersey. The family unit also includes their children Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) and their butler Lurch (Conrad Vernon). Pugsley is preparing for the Mazurka, a rite of passage involving choreographed swordplay that all Addams men must undergo. Grandmama (Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) have arrived early, with the rest of the extended Addams clan soon to follow to attend the ceremony. Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), the host of a home makeover reality TV show, fears that the Addamses’ presence will jeopardise the sales of a planned community called Assimilation. Margaux’s distaste for the Addamses grows more intense when Wednesday befriends Margaux’s daughter Parker (Elsie Fisher).

The top-shelf voice cast is incredible, each of the main actors suiting their characters to a tee. One could very easily picture Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron playing live-action versions of Gomez and Morticia Addams, and one can tell they had a lot of fun with the roles. Theron’s withering delivery is another example of how she is underestimated as a comedic performer. Chloë Grace Moretz is just droll enough as Wednesday, while Nick Kroll’s excitable Uncle Fester is goofily endearing.

The character designs deliberately hew closely to the original Charles Addams drawings, so while most might not be used to seeing a shorter, stouter Gomez Addams, that’s how he was drawn even before the characters had first names. One addition to Wednesday’s design is especially clever – her trademark French Braid pigtails now end in nooses.

The writing is not very strong, but many of the jokes do land and some sight gags are inspired – there’s a joke about Instagram filters which is legitimately funny. The film attempts to touch on the themes of parental expectations of children and the fear of the other – while it doesn’t tackle these with much nuance or insight, they are themes that go well with the Addams Family. At the very least, the plot isn’t yet another version of “a normal family moves in next door” – or at least, it isn’t just that.

There’s a long and storied legacy to live up to whenever someone attempts a new version of The Addams Family. Some versions are better regarded than others, and time will tell if this take on The Addams Family will be regarded fondly. It just feels so underwhelming. Unfortunately, the animation comes off as somewhat flat and noticeably cheaper than the big-budget work of major Hollywood animation studios. The movie’s plot is very slight and feels more like a TV episode than a feature film. Margaux’s mission to drive the Addamses out to increase house sales in Assimilation is the A-plot and Pugsley’s preparation for the Mazurka is the B-plot.

The movie also sometimes succumbs to the gimmicks that are commonly seen in animated films that try to toss the accompanying parents a bone. The chief of this is the casting of Snoop Dogg as Cousin Itt, whose speech is famously garbled, therefore making the casting of a big name in the role especially pointless, and that’s apparently supposed to be the joke.

The movie struggles with how weird and dark it should go, because it’s ostensibly still aimed at kids. Directors Conrad Vernon and Craig Tierney also made Sausage Party, so they’re no strangers to more adult animated material. However, The Addams Family has most of the edges sanded off. The jokes are all on the safe side of dark, and while there are delightful moments like Morticia using her parents’ ashes as makeup, the movie never truly lives up to the potential of the franchise. This is not the first version of The Addams Family to have this problem, but in making it commercial and accessible, the filmmakers lose some of the subversiveness that is key to the appeal of these characters. The project was apparently conceived as a stop-motion animation project to be directed by Tim Burton, before eventually morphing into what it is now. That would certainly have been more interesting.

Summary: The Addams Family is a largely competent but unremarkable incarnation of the long-time goth icons. An impressive voice cast cannot disguise that this is ultimately a cookie-cutter animated movie that just isn’t weird enough to rank among the best versions of The Addams Family.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Good Boys review

GOOD BOYS

Director:  Gene Stupnitsky
Cast : Jacob Tremblay, Keith L. Williams, Brady Noon, Molly Gordon, Midori Francis, Izaac Wang, Will Forte
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 90 mins
Opens : 12 September 2019
Rating : NC16

            When you come across a comedy titled ‘Good Boys’, you can bet it’s named ironically: there’s going to be lots of sexual humour, swearing, drugs and alcohol. Such is the case with this film, in which a trio of 11-year-olds engages in some decidedly family-unfriendly behaviour.

Max (Jacob Tremblay), Lucas (Keith L. Williams) and Thor (Brady Noon) are three best friends who have just started sixth grade. Max has a crush on Brixlee (Millie Davis), and thinks he might have his shot with her when he is invited by popular kid Soren (Izaac Wang) to a ‘kissing party’. Max, Lucas and Thor don’t actually know how to kiss. Their quest to prove they’re not uncool and to ensure they won’t embarrass themselves at the party spirals into a misadventure involving party drugs, beer, a drone and running headlong into freeway traffic.

Good Boys is a risque comedy in the mould of Superbad which, if you can believe it, was released 12 whole years ago. Whenever children star in films which they technically aren’t allowed to see yet, there is the danger that things will get exploitative. While a lot of inappropriate stuff happens in Good Boys, there is an undercurrent of sweetness and sincerity which anchors the film and makes it seem like more than just an excuse to have kids yell the F-word a lot, even if plenty of F-words do get yelled.

Much of what makes the movie work is the chemistry between the three leads. Jacob Tremblay, the breakout star of Room, has a strait-laced likeability to him and seems unerringly sweet even when he’s swearing up a storm. Keith L. Williams is the epitome of wholesomeness as Lucas, a stickler for the rules who did not sign up for any of this. Brady Noon’s Thor is the wannabe bad boy with a secret talent for musical theatre; his character is the least interesting of the three because it’s the most common archetype but he’s still entertaining in the role.

While the movie probably derives too much of its comedy from kids playing with sex paraphernalia, not knowing what they are, many of the jokes are sharp and funny. The film captures the typical 11-year-old’s desire to appear more grown up than they are and to pretend to understand more than they do. Good Boys works in no small part because it depicts the real anxieties of growing up and being caught between childhood and teenhood, even if in an extremely exaggerated manner.

“Restraint” is not a word one might use to describe a movie that features kids brandishing dildos as weapons, but Good Boys is careful not to actually cross the line. For all its purported shock value, there is no actual nudity or sex depicted, just lots of talk about it. This seems like the right choice, as the awkwardness of the situations that the protagonists find themselves in is more relatable than if the movie just dove head-first into filth. That said, nobody strictly needs to see a kid kiss what he thinks is a “CPR dummy”, wondering why there’s hair in its mouth.

Good Boys was a surprise success in the U.S., becoming the first R-rated comedy since 2016’s The Boss to top the box office. It shows there’s an appetite for movies like this, but there is the worry that imitators who don’t quite have the skill of the filmmakers of Good Boys will attempt to follow in this film’s footsteps. There is a laziness to some of its crass humour, but there’s plenty of heart here and three winning performances from its lead cast.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dora and the Lost City of Gold review

For inSing

DORA AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD

Director: James Bobin
Cast : Isabela Moner, Eugenio Derbez, Michael Peña, Eva Longoria, Jeff Wahlberg, Nicholas Coombe, Madeleine Madden, Temuera Morrison, Q’orianka Kilcher, Benicio del
Genre : Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 42 mins
Opens : 29 August 2019
Rating : PG

           Dora, the beloved bilingual icon of preschool television, makes the leap to the big screen in her first live-action adventure.

Dora (Isabela Moner and Madelyn Miranda at different ages) has spent all her life in the jungle with her researcher parents Cole (Michael Peña) and Elena (Eva Longoria), and her monkey friend Boots. Dora’s cousin Diego (Jeff Wahlberg and Malachi Barton at different ages) left for the city when he was seven, while Dora continued to stay in the jungle.

Now 16, Dora makes the big move to L.A. to join Diego. Having never been exposed to the typical teenage existence, Dora sticks out at school and causes Diego much embarrassment. During a field trip, Dora, Diego and their classmates Sammy (Madeline Madden) and Randy (Nicholas Coombe) are kidnapped. A gang of mercenaries including Powell (Temuera Morrison) and the fox Swiper (Benicio del Toro) are after Dora’s parents, believing they have found the lost Incan city of Parapata. The four meet Alejandro (Eugenio Derbez), a professor who knows Dora’s parents. Drawing on her childhood in the jungle, Dora must protect her friends and stop the villains from plundering the mythical city.

An adaptation of Dora the Explorer is a tricky thing to get right: naturally, many elements from the animated series aimed at two to five-year-olds do not translate well into live-action. Dora and the Lost City of Gold is smarter than it seems, and not just because there are self-reflexive jokes about Dora breaking the fourth wall. Working from a screenplay by Nicholas Stoller and Matthew Robinson, director James Bobin plays with familiar aspects of the TV show and has made a film that is in part about growing up.

Sure, this is ostensibly an adventure movie and has many of the traditional trappings associated with the genre, but at its heart, Dora and the Lost City of Gold is about growing up and adjusting to different circumstances. Dora is a fish out of water, mocked by everyone and unable to fit in at high school. She struggles with being responsible for the survival of others, but through everything, is resolutely optimistic and knows the best thing she can be is herself.

Dora is earnest and positive to a fault, but the film celebrates the character for it. Isabela Moner plays the upbeat Dora with a vibrant can-do energy, but also shades the character in and gives her more dimensions than the deliberately simplistic characterisation of Dora in the TV show did. Moner is a Dora fan, having dressed up as her for Halloween. It’s clear that Moner is having great fun inhabiting this character, and while the film places Dora in a new context, it never loses the essence of who she is and why she’s been such a beloved character.

The dynamic between Dora and Diego is an interesting one with shades of sadness to it, because they used to be close as young children but have drifted apart since Diego moved away. Diego still loves his cousin, but Dora can’t understand why Diego is now embarrassed by her. Over the course of the adventure, they repair their relationship; this is done surprisingly well.

The adult supporting cast have lots of fun, especially Michael Peña as Dora’s father. Eugenio Derbez does his typical goofy schtick but puts a bit of a spin on it as the movie progresses.

Like many family films, Dora and the Lost City of Gold sometimes has trouble calibrating how much of it should be aimed at kids and how much should cater to the accompanying adults. There are a few metafictional jokes and the movie even manages to sneak in a trippy hallucinatory sequence. There is some very juvenile bodily function humour, but perhaps that’s balanced with the film’s comments on the colonisation of Central and South America.

The scenes in which Dora and company solve puzzles and escape lethal traps are reminiscent of Tomb Raider and Indiana Jones. Some of the set pieces feel a little theme park-ish or like something out of Legends of the Hidden Temple – Moner starred in a TV movie based on that gameshow. This movie sometimes trips up on how cartoony to make things, especially when it comes to Boots and Swiper, who are not especially convincing CGI characters.

The musical score by John Debney and Germaine Franco is reminiscent of John Williams while incorporating indigenous Peruvian musical instruments and vocals. Beyond the music, Quechua, the language of the Incas, features in the movie. There is a greater respectfulness of indigenous culture which isn’t often seen in adventure movies, where ancient treasures are just something the good guys and bad guys fight over.

          Dora and the Lost City of Gold is mostly funny and good-natured; it’s charming because it’s uncynical. There are certain aspects of the film that come off as clumsy because of the gulf between the source material and what the filmmakers are going for, but most of it works. With Moner’s unerringly cheery performance at its centre, the Dora movie is an enjoyably silly family film.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Toy Story 4 review

For inSing

TOY STORY 4

Director: Josh Cooley
Cast : Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Christina Hendricks, Joan Cusack, Madeleine McGraw, Keanu Reeves, June Squibb
Genre : Comedy/Animation/Family
Run Time : 1 h 40 mins
Opens : 20 June 2019
Rating : PG

            The denizens of Andy’s toy box are back, reuniting audiences with friends old and new in the fourth instalment of Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story film series.

At the end of Toy Story 3, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and the other toys were given by Andy to a young girl named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). A few years later, Bonnie is starting kindergarten, and at orientation, she makes a new toy from arts and crafts: Forky (Tony Hale), who is comprised of a disposable spork, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, a popsicle stick and plasticine.

Forky becomes Bonnie’s favourite toy, but Woody and the other toys have a hard time dealing with Forky because formerly being a spork, this new existence has been unexpectedly thrust upon him. When Bonnie takes Woody, Buzz, Forky and other toys along with her on a road trip with her parents, Forky attempts to escape. While chasing after him, Woody discovers an antique store where the long-lost Bo Peep (Annie Potts) now lives. The antique store is also home to the doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her unsettling army of ventriloquist dummy henchmen. Woody must escape Gabby Gabby’s clutches and bring Forky back to Bonnie, as his unexpected reunion with Bo Peep upends his existence.

The Toy Story trilogy comes extremely close to perfection, and the announcement of a fourth film was met with understandable scepticism. We should’ve known that Pixar would deliver – while it may not have the richness and complexity that Toy Story 3 did, Toy Story 4 is an excellent addition to the series. Josh Cooley, who started out at Pixar as a storyboard artist on The Incredibles, helms a film that is funny, thrilling and moving. It’s a road trip movie that hits all the right notes.

Thematically, Toy Story 4 is about purpose, and what happens when purpose goes unfulfilled. The purpose of a children’s toy is to be played with, and multiple characters in the film long to be loved by their owners but have instead been neglected. This has been a running theme in the series, but Toy Story 4 emphasises it by re-introducing Bo Peep. Through the Forky character, the film explores what exactly it means to be a toy.

The animation is, as expected, technically polished. The film places familiar characters in unfamiliar environments, with the main new locations being the bright, inviting travelling fairground and the shadowy, dusty antique store. Key to making the fantastical premises of toys that come alive work is in establishing the world as believable and tactile, which is accomplished here. Great attention is paid to the geometry of the set-pieces, in which potential dangers and obstacles are highlighted before the characters attempt to navigate them.

Many of the voice actors from the previous films return. Once again, it’s Woody who drives the story, with Tom Hanks’ performances helping to further flesh the character out. Woody’s insecurities were the catalyst of the conflict in the first Toy Story film, as he felt threatened by Buzz’s entrance onto the scene. In this film, Woody’s insecurities manifest in his fear of becoming a ‘lost toy’, and he projects some of these feelings onto Forky. It’s a satisfying arc that makes sense for the character.

Bo Peep has been turned into a resourceful action heroine, not entirely unlike Rey from the Star Wars sequel trilogy – they even both wield a staff. Bo Peep was absent from the third film, with Annie Potts returning to voice her. Her relationship with Woody and his reaction to how she has changed play a big part in the plot of this film, and the film attempts to give both parties closure.

Christina Hendricks’ Gabby Gabby is ostensibly the film’s antagonist, even if she’s not exactly a villain. There are superficial similarities between her and Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, the villain of Toy Story 3, but Gabby is a less interesting character. She still manages to be equally threatening and empathetic – the film’s horror movie-inspired sequences are entertaining but stop short of being legitimately traumatising.

Tony Hale charmingly captures the neuroses of Forky, who is caught in the throes of existential panic. The idea behind the character is a witty one, and the film manages to get more out of Forky than just the one joke that he’s a toy who’s freaking out because he was not meant to be a toy.

The duo of Key and Peele voice plush toys Ducky and Bunny and provide some of the biggest laughs in the film, with a standout sequence being their plan to acquire a set of keys from the elderly owner of the antique store. The movie uses them just enough, such that their presence doesn’t feel overly gimmicky.

Another standout character is Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves). Reeves is enjoying a surge in popularity following the release of John Wick: Chapter 3, Always Be My Maybe and the announcement that he will be in the videogame Cyberpunk 2077. An Evel Knievel-type daredevil stuntman Duke seems to have come straight out of Robot Chicken. Reeves bring enthusiasm, gruffness and a hint of a Canadian accent to the part.

Director Cooley was 15 when the first Toy Story movie came out, and it’s remarkable that the series has maintained such consistently high quality across four instalments released over 24 years. Toy Story 4 offers up a beautifully realised adventure and engaging character dynamics, bringing more to the table than mere nostalgia. Yes, a fourth Toy Story film is not strictly necessary, but the film radiates such warmth and good heartedness that it’s useless to resist its embrace.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Pokémon: Detective Pikachu review

POKÉMON: DETECTIVE PIKACHU

Director: Rob Letterman
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Omar Chaparro, Chris Geere, Ken Watanabe, Bill Nighy, Rita Ora
Genre : Adventure/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 h 45 mins
Opens : 9 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The hugely popular Pokémon multimedia franchise gets its first live-action movie in the form of Pokémon: Detective Pikachu, based on the 2016 spin-off video game.

The story follows Tim Goodman (Justice Smith), who has abandoned his childhood dreams of becoming a Pokémon trainer to work in an insurance firm. After the disappearance of his father, a police detective in Ryme City, Tim meets the Pikachu (Ryan Reynolds) who once belonged to his father. Together with Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), an intern at a news network, Tim and Detective Pikachu attempt to solve the mystery of Harry’s disappearance.

They uncover a conspiracy that seems to implicate the wealthy Clifford family – Howard Clifford (Bill Nighy) is the benevolent visionary who built Ryme City, while his son Roger (Chris Geere) has wrested control of Clifford Enterprises from his father. Also figuring into the mystery is a serum that turns normally-friendly Pokémon into savage monsters. Tim, Detective Pikachu, Lucy and her Psyduck must prevent the enactment of a dastardly scheme that endangers the human and Pokémon residents of Ryme City alike.

There’s a fair amount of risk in making a movie like Pokémon: Detective Pikachu – video game movies haven’t exactly had the best track record, and Pokémon is such a sprawling, beloved franchise that a poorly-received live-action movie would be a significant misstep. The momentum behind this movie getting made owes mostly to the Pokémon Go augmented reality mobile game, which held the world in its thrall.

It’s a clever move to make a live-action movie based on one of the more obscure entries in the Pokémon oeuvre as opposed to making a movie about the characters featured in the Pokémon anime series. There’s a bit more room to experiment, and while Detective Pikachu does have an experimental feel to it, it also can’t help but feel like a corporate product. Director Rob Letterman, whose background is in animation, and who also directed Goosebumps, handles the integration of live-action and animated characters well.

The film’s plot is straightforward, its underlying mystery not exactly involving, and it often feels derivative of many movies that came before it. However, it’s also a movie that’s clearly made by people who care about and love the Pokémon franchise. The movie brims with texture and seems designed for audiences to point excitedly at the screen as they recognise various types of Pokémon. The film’s design is its strong suit: Ryme City feels like a hybrid of London and Tokyo, with a dash of Blade Runner neon-noir to its aesthetic. Some of the Pokémon redesigns work better than others. While plenty are still cute, Mewtwo suffers from what seems like a lack of texture, thus feeling more like a video game character than the other Pokémon who populate the film.

There’s a delightful incongruity in hearing Ryan Reynolds’ voice emanate from an exceedingly cuddly Pikachu. The character animation on the titular character is marvellous, incorporating some motion capture performed by Reynolds. While the Detective Pikachu of the video game had a gruff voice, Ryan Reynolds sounds like Ryan Reynolds, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a mix of optimism and mischief that the character animation in combination with Reynolds’ voice work captures. There’s also the great device of giving Detective Pikachu an extreme fondness for coffee, as kind of a replacement for the cigarettes which detectives in noir movies would chain-smoke.

There is not very much to the human characters, but Justice Smith gives this his best shot. The character has left behind the dreams of his youth and has accepted a dreary existence, with the sudden entry of Detective Pikachu into his life reigniting his imagination. The Tim character is a cipher for viewers who grew up with Pokémon but may have moved on from the games, toys and cartoons as they’ve entered adulthood.

Kathryn Newton’s Lucy character is every bit the intrepid reporter archetype, combined with the giddy energy of a girlish anime protagonist. Her character is more heightened than Tim, and Newton and Smith don’t have great chemistry, but thankfully the film does not focus on a romantic subplot.

Ken Watanabe turns in a respectable supporting turn as Ryme City Police Lieutenant Hideo Yoshida, Harry’s boss, but the show is stolen by Bill Nighy. Nighy is a distinguished actor who has been in a fair number of silly movies but hearing him utter words like “Pokémon” and “Mewtwo” with a straight face is a thing of sheer joy.

Grading on the curve of video game movies, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is an achievement. It does sometimes feel like a corporate, impersonal product, made to further expand an already-big brand, but there’s also an earnestness to it and a level of craftsmanship behind it that keep it a safe distance from being wholly soulless. There’s a cheery nostalgia that underpins this and a welcome familiarity to the elements that hark back to 80s movies. It’s not the most ground-breaking example of what it could’ve been, but there’s still plenty to like about Pokémon: Detective Pikachu.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong