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

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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

Cold Pursuit movie review

COLD PURSUIT

Director : Hans Petter Moland
Cast : Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, Tom Bateman, Emmy Rossum, William Forsythe, Julia Jones, Domenick Lombardozzi, Raoul Trujillo, Tom Jackson
Genre : Thriller/Crime/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 21 February 2019
Rating : M18

           When the 2014 Norwegian film In Order of Disappearance was released, comparisons to Taken were immediately made. It’s only fitting that Liam Neeson star in the American remake of that movie.

Neeson plays Nelson “Nels” Coxman, a snowplough driver in the ski resort town of Kehoe, Colorado. The death of his son Kyle (Micheál Richardson) leads to a rift between Nels and his wife Grace (Laura Dern). Nels grows suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his son’s death, soon convinced it was murder. Nels embarks upon a bloody path of vengeance that will eventually lead him to drug lord Viking (Tom Bateman). Nels calls upon his brother Brock (William Forsythe), who has previously had dealings with underworld figures. Local cop Kim (Emmy Rossum) begins investigating a string of violent occurrences, as Nels unwittingly incites a war between Viking and rival drug lord White Bull (Tom Jackson).

Cold Pursuit is directed by Hans Petter Moland, who also helmed In Order of Disappearance. This is a faithful remake that benefits from preserving the darkly comedic tone of the original. The film’s screenplay by Frank Baldwin also does a fine job of recontextualising the plot, substituting the rival Serbian gang from the Norwegian movie with a Native American one. There are also copious references to Colorado’s legalisation of marijuana and some the race-related humour is irreverent but not wildly offensive.

We’ve become accustomed to seeing Liam Neeson star in gritty revenge thrillers, so the snowy ski resort setting and the tongue-in-cheek tone help to switch things up. Not all the jokes land and the humour is sometimes a little too broad, especially compared with the original, but there’s an admiral tonal consistency. The grim violence is leavened with humour, not entirely unlike how the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino would handle it. While the film’s dark devil-may-care attitude brings a degree of unpredictability to the proceedings, the standard crime movie dealings and double-crosses can be a touch tedious. While the movie isn’t boring, it feels awkwardly-paced at times.

It’s hard to discuss this movie without Liam Neeson’s comments during a promotional interview overshadowing it. Whatever your take on the actor’s shocking admission, it’s fair to say that a promotional interview for a revenge comedy wasn’t the right time or place for that to be aired, but as hurtful as it is to hear those comments, this reviewer also feels the resulting aftermath needs to be viewed in context and not blown out of proportion.

Putting that aside for the moment, Neeson is a great choice for the lead, since he embodies the ‘everyman badass’ type like few other actors can. The movie riffs on his Taken reputation – while it is a black comedy, Neeson plays his role largely straight. There is more than a whiff of ridiculousness to the notion of a snowplough driver-turned avenging angel and nemesis of the criminal underbelly, which the film leans into just enough.

Tom Bateman scowls and sneers his way through the role of drug lord Viking, going the right amount of over-the-top. The supporting characters in Viking’s gang are given tiny bits of personality, Domenick Lombardozzi’s Mustang being the most likeable. Nicholas Holmes is endearing as Viking’s son Ryan, who has the misfortune of having a criminal father.

Emmy Rossum’s detective character isn’t too interesting, and Laura Dern is almost completely wasted in what is almost a non-existent role. Raoul Trujillio is equal parts funny and intimidating – one of the film’s funniest moments is when Thorpe threatens a hotel receptionist with a devastating review on Yelp.

Tom Jackson lends gravitas to White Bull. One of the film’s best scenes has White Bull silently walk through a hotel gift shop selling Native American souvenirs that are really made in China, observing how his culture has been commodified for tourists. The film does tread on somewhat uncomfortable territory with its afore-mentioned racial humour, but it never feels mean-spirited.

Cold Pursuit benefits from a wicked sense of humour and Liam Neeson’s finely-calibrated performance. There’s novelty factor of a director remaking his own foreign-language film in English, like Michael Haneke did with Funny Games or Takashi Shimizu with The Grudge. Audiences who are expecting a non-stop action-oriented movie like some of Neeson’s other late-career efforts might be disappointed, but there will be an audience for this movie’s blend of stark violence and bitter wit.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ralph Breaks the Internet movie review

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET

Director : Rich Moore, Phil Johnston
Cast : John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Gal Gadot, Jack McBrayer, Jane Lynch, Taraji P. Henson, Alfred Molina, Alan Tudyk, Flula Borg
Genre : Animation/Comedy/Family
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 22 November 2018
Rating : PG

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-posterWreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) and Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) may come from different arcade games, but after the events of the first Wreck-It Ralph film, they’ve become inseparable. In this sequel, the good-hearted oaf and the hyperactive princess get a lot more than they bargained for as they venture into the wild wild web.

It has been six years since Ralph and Vanellope became friends, and while Ralph finds comfort in the predictability of his daily routine as the designated villain  in the Fix-It Felix game, Vanellope has grown restless, the tracks of Sugar Rush no longer providing any excitement. When the steering wheel component of the Sugar Rush console breaks, Ralph and Vanellope use the arcade’s newly-installed connection to the internet to seek a replacement.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Vanellope-and-Ralph-overlooking-internet

In the cyber realm, our heroes meet all manner of colourful characters, including the badass driver Shank (Gal Gadot) from Slaughter Race, Yesss (Taraji P. Henson), head algorithm of video sharing site BuzzTube, search engine KnowsMore (Alan Tudyk) and all the Disney princesses. While the internet contains endless wonderment and awe, there is also a dark side that Ralph and Vanellope are exposed to. When a calamity that could possibly break the internet is accidentally unleashed, Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship (and the computing power of servers around the world) will be put to the ultimate test.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Ralph-and-Vanellope-travelling-1

2012’s Wreck-It Ralph is one of this reviewer’s favourite Disney animated films in recent memory. It’s an energetic, effervescent film that cannily plays with video game tropes while delivering a heartfelt story populated by loveable characters. The sequel turbo-charges this, taking place on a larger scale and crammed with pop culture references, wordplay jokes and visual gags. Amidst everything swirling about in the teeming metropolis that is the internet, Ralph Breaks the Internet holds together because of its focus on the friendship between Ralph and Vanellope.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Oh-My-Disney

It’s easy to be cynical about a movie like Ralph Breaks the Internet, given that much of the story and humour is fuelled by online culture. Co-director Rich Moore cut his teeth on such series as The Critic, The Simpsons and Futurama, bringing much of that self-aware reference-heavy comedy to bear. A Grand Theft Auto-like game is crucial to the plot, Vanellope hangs out with Disney princesses, and Ralph attempts makeup tutorial, hot pepper eating challenge and unboxing videos, among others, in the hopes of becoming a viral sensation. The jokes could’ve very easily been too obvious or cringe-worthy, but in the hands of directors Moore and Phil Johnston, this film never feels like it’s made by clueless adults pandering to kids they don’t understand.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Vanellope-and-Princesses-1

As is expected from Disney Animation, the visuals brim with detail and the character animation is just the right amount of cartoony, the degree to which their features and expressions are heightened varying from character to character. There is a high-octane car chase straight out of the Fast and Furious films, and the visual interpretations of sites like eBay, Instagram and Pinterest are well thought-out and amusing.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Vanellope-and-Princesses-slumber-party

The film’s signature sequence is the meeting between Vanellope and every official Disney Princess, including Snow White (Pamela Ribon), Cinderella (Jennifer Hale), Aurora (Kate Higgins), Ariel (Jodie Benson), Belle (Paige O’Hara), Jasmine (Linda Larkin), Pocahontas (Irene Bedard), Mulan (Ming-Na Wen), Tiana (Anika Noni Rose), Rapunzel (Mandy Moore), Merida (Kelly McDonald), Anna (Kristen Bell), Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Moana (Auli’i Cravalho). Ribon, a screenwriter who also worked on Moana, conceptualised the scene. The House of Mouse gamely and entertainingly takes the Mickey out of its own core sub-brand, commenting on common tropes seen in the Princess movies while providing the fantasy imagery of all one’s favourite characters just hanging out together. Vanellope also runs into Marvel and Star Wars characters, and there is a cameo that is wont to tug on the heartstrings given recent events.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Ralph-and-Vanellope-eBay

Both Reilly and Silverman continue to provide great humanity and heart to their characters. Ralph has never had a real friend before Vanellope, and is understandably distraught at the prospect that he might be replaced as her best friend. Meanwhile, Vanellope struggles with issues of identity and belonging, feeling like she is meant for something greater and perhaps a little less safe than Sugar Rush. While the misunderstandings that occur between Ralph and Vanellope feel a little like a re-tread of the conflicts in the first film, both characters continue to develop and continue to be endearing.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Shank

Gal Gadot plays a character who is pretty much exactly Gisele from the Fast and Furious series, which is a neat little nod. Taraji P. Henson voices the Yesss with effortless cool, with real-life YouTube personality Flula Borg as Yesss’ right-hand man Maybe. Alan Tudyk, Disney’s current lucky charm, voices KnowsMore; he voiced King Candy in the first film.

Ralph-Breaks-The-Internet-Ralph-Yesss-and-Vanellope

While Ralph Breaks the Internet’s pop culture reference jokes might lose some of the younger kids, its eye-catching design and heart-warming character interactions will hold their interest. The film doesn’t reach the surprising emotional heights of the first film, nor is it as creative and fresh, but it’s still plenty of fun and utterly hilarious. Stick around for a scene after the main-on-end titles and another at the very end of the credits.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Simple Favour movie review

A SIMPLE FAVOUR

Director : Paul Feig
Cast : Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend, Andrew Rannells, Bashir Salahuddin
Genre : Drama/Mystery/Comedy
Run Time : 117 mins
Opens : 13 September 2018
Rating : M18

Big secrets hide in a small town in this mystery thriller. Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a single mum who lives in the suburb of Warfield, Connecticut with her son Miles (Joshua Satine). She produces a mum-centric vlog, giving tutorials on cooking and craft projects. Her uncomplicated existence is upended when she befriends Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), whose son Nicky (Ian Ho) goes to school with Miles.

It seems like Emily has it all: a high-flying job as a PR executive for fashion mogul Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), an adorable son, and a dashing husband in the form of writer and lecturer Sean Townsend (Henry Golding). Emily asks a simple favour from Stephanie: to pick Nicky up after school and look after him. Two days go by without Stephanie hearing anything from Emily. Questions surrounding her disappearance begin to pile up, as Sean grows attracted to Emily and Emily is drawn into a web of sordid secrets and lies. What’s a regular mum vlogger to do?

A Simple Favour is based on the novel of the same name by Darcey Bell and is billed as a “stylish post-modern film noir”. The film rights to the book were snapped up even before its publishing. The film has been described as Gone Girl-esque, but there are many instances when it’s not quite clear what director Paul Feig was going for. Feig has helmed comedies like Bridesmaids, Spy and Ghostbusters (2016), so it’s natural to worry that his comedic instincts might intrude on the mystery thriller elements of the story. They do, and as a result, A Simple Favour is tonally quite weird.

The film’s weirdness does make it interesting – this reviewer spent most of the movie puzzling over how much of said weirdness was intentional, and how much was accidental. There are moments when the film obviously wants to be dark and dramatic, but it also comes dangerously close to a parody of the domestic mystery thriller subgenre. Theodore Shapiro’s score plays a big part in this: someone will utter a revelation, then there’ll be obvious low trembling strings to go with it.

To Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer’s credit, the mystery is engaging, but we want to keep watching to find out what happens the same way clickbait works – “I shouldn’t click on this, but I do want to find out why Hollywood stop casting Brendan Fraser”. By the time we’re invested, the story goes all-out, full-on ridiculous, trucking out the most melodramatic of ‘deep dark family secret’ plot twists. It’s hard to say if this would’ve worked any better played dead straight.

Both Kendrick and Lively play exactly to type. Kendrick is endearing and silly as an over-eager, over-earnest mum who finds herself way in over her head. The character is renamed ‘Stephanie Smothers’ when her surname was ‘Ward’ in the book – Stephanie Smothers sounds so much sillier, so much more on-the-nose, conjuring up an image of cloying sweetness. It’s mainly a comedic performance, and that seems to lead where the rest of the film goes tonally. She brings much of her signature ‘adorkable-ness’ to bear, and it seems like it is by design that the character is out of place in a dark, lurid mystery thriller.

Lively’s Emily is an aggressive, confident, icy go-getter, decked out in ensembles that might make even Serena van der Woodsen envious. The dynamic between Emily and Stephanie, with the former completely dominating the latter, is what the plot turns on. Emily and her husband seem like the picture-perfect couple, but of course there’s trouble in paradise. There are times when like Kendrick’s performance, Lively’s veers too close to caricature.

Henry Golding’s casting in this is a pretty big deal – the film went into production before the release of Crazy Rich Asians, meaning there was buzz about him in Hollywood before that film became the hot-button movie it is now. In movies like this, the husband character in movies like this is either in on it, or just really stupid. This might only be Golding’s second movie, but it seems he already has a type he’ll be cast in – namely, handsome, charming and a little bit aloof. He’s not entirely convincing in some of the more dramatic scenes, but he does fit alongside the attractive leads.

The supporting characters all feel like they walked out of a comedy – Andrew Rannells plays one of the ‘mums’ who makes catty comments at Stephanie from the side-lines, while Rupert Friend plays Emily’s boss, a flamboyant style maven. Linda Cardellini shows up as a goth-punk artist who wears a Slayer t-shirt as she wields and paints knives.

A Simple Favour might not work on the level it was intended to, but while its extremely uneasy mix of comedy and sex-and-secrets-soaked mystery thriller results in it being silly, it also prevents the movie from being bland. Perhaps this would’ve worked better in the hands of someone who’s sensibilities were a bit more British, who could have brought more wicked brand of acid-dipped wit to the proceedings. As it stands, A Simple Favour is a curiousity that audiences might not love but should find interesting.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Love, Simon review

For inSing

LOVE, SIMON

Director : Greg Berlanti
Cast : Nick Robinson, Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, Jorge Lendeborg, Miles Heizer, Keiynan Lonsdale, Logan Miller, Jennifer Garner, Josh Duhamel, Tony Hale
Genre : Comedy, Drama
Run Time : 1h 50m
Opens : 03 May 2018
Rating : R21 (Homosexual Themes)

On the surface, Love, Simon looks like your typical high school romance, a light-hearted throwback to John Hughes movies and other defining coming-of-age films from the 80s. However, the protagonist Simon Spiers (Nick Robinson) has a secret: he’s gay.

Simon is hesitant to come out, even though he has a supporting family comprising dad Jack (Josh Duhamel), mum Emily (Jennifer Garner) and sister Nora (Talitha Bateman). Simon also has close friends in school, including Leah (Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Ledenborg Jr.) and new student Abby (Alexandra Shipp).

Simon sees an anonymous post from a schoolmate online, in which the writer, whom he only knows as “Blue”, says that he’s gay but hasn’t come out yet. Simon begins a correspondence with Blue and finds himself falling for the mystery schoolmate. Simon finds himself in jeopardy when a would-be blackmailer discovers the emails and threatens to announce Simon’s secret to the whole school. Simon’s friendships are thrown into disarray as Simon figures out who he truly is, while trying to ascertain the identity of his mystery suitor.

Love, Simon is based on the novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. The film is directed by Greg Berlanti, the writer-producer behind Dawson’s Creek, Riverdale and the DCTV series including Arrow and The Flash.

This is a sweet, warm-hearted film that’s honest and often funny. Like many high school movies, it comes across as heightened and there are moments when Love, Simon is too convoluted for its own good. It’s not particularly in-depth in its exploration of coming out as gay and the mental toll that keeping a secret like that can take on a teenager, but it’s the closest thing to a mainstream gay rom-com we’ve seen.

Here in Singapore, films are almost automatically slapped with an R21 rating if LGBT characters and issues figure heavily into the plot. In the U.S., Love, Simon is rated PG-13. There still are large sections of moviegoers here who might be apprehensive about watching a film with a gay main character. Love, Simon seems almost as if it was made with those audiences in mind. It’s gentle and accessible, and the relationships are easy to relate to if a little over-the-top.

Nick Robinson feels like the right choice to play Simon. Robinson is a little sullen and isn’t really bursting with charm, but that fits a character who’s unsure of himself and is trying to lay low. The dynamics within the friend group are fun, and these are characters who are a delight to spend time with.

Katherine Langford of 13 Reasons Why fame is sweet and amiable as Leah, while Alexandra Shipp is bubbly and radiant as Abby. Logan Miller’s Martin Addison, the nominal antagonist of the movie, is more layered a character than he first appears. Sure, he’s annoying, but there are elements of him that are relatable too.

Clark Moore is a scene-stealer as Ethan, the only openly gay student at the school. Simon feels a little jealous at how comfortable Clark is in his own skin, and it seems a bit of a shame that the two characters do not interact more.

Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner play the stock parent characters who thread the line between embarrassing and cool. Gay characters in films are often portrayed as coming from fractured families or having endured abuse, so it is nice to see Simon’s family being so loving towards him.

Any high school movie must have authority figures, and Tony Hale displays wonderful comic timing as the awkward vice-principal Mr. Worth, who tries desperately to relate to his students but it hopeless at it. Natasha Rothwell’s Ms. Albright is this reviewer’s favourite character – she’s the exasperated, sarcastic drama teacher trying to wrangle less-than-talented students who are performing a production of the musical Cabaret.

The film emphasises how there is nothing wrong with Simon at all, and hopefully the film’s non-threatening presentation will help audiences who might be uncomfortable with LGBT subject matter gradually learn to see things from other points of view.

There have been many gay-themed coming-of-age films, including Mysterious Skin, Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name. However, these are often arthouse movies that might alienate casual viewers and tend to be deliberately uncomfortable. Love, Simon’s winning mass appeal makes it an important film, even if it abides by many teen romance tropes.

There’s an earnestness and likeability that make Love, Simon more than your average high school movie. It’s a movie about love and acceptance that is entertaining rather than overtly preachy. Regardless of sexual orientation, most audiences will find at least some elements of the film easily relatable.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Lady Bird movie review

For inSing

LADY BIRD

Director : Greta Gerwig
Cast : Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Beanie Feldstein, Odeya Rush, Lois Smith, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen Henderson, Jake McDorman
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 34m
Opens : 12 February 2018
Rating : M18

Lady Bird is one of the last big awards season contenders to arrive on our shores. After an excellent showing at the Golden Globes and five Oscar nominations, this little movie comes with big hype.

‘Lady Bird’ is what the title character, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), calls herself. It is 2002, and Lady Bird is a high school senior in Sacramento. She has a contentious relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and is constantly trying to assert her own identity. She also doesn’t quite get along with her adopted older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), whose girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) lives with Lady Bird and her family.

Lady Bird dreams of going to college in New York, but her mother insists on her going to one in California instead. The family is weathering financial difficulty, with Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) struggling to make ends meet. Lady Bird develops a crush on Danny (Lucas Hedges), her co-star in the school’s production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Go Along. She also has feelings for the cool musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet).

Lady Bird’s desire for the acceptance of Kyle’s friend, the wealthy and popular Jenna (Odeya Rush), drives a wedge between Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Lady Bird undergoes formative experiences as she figures out who she’ll become and works through her relationships with those who care about her and, though she won’t admit it, whom she cares for too.

The film has enjoyed an immensely positive reception, with a 99% approval rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps it’s not fair to expect Lady Bird to be the greatest movie ever made and a life-changing rapture, but it is excellent as what it is – a coming-of-age indie comedy-drama.

Writer-director Greta Gerwig has created a film that’s personal but not self-indulgent, executing a masterful balancing act. Indie darlings are often either quite dull or stuffed with histrionics. It’s challenging to keep the dial centred, and Gerwig has more than succeeded. Lady Bird is never boring, but its characters don’t feel like overblown caricatures. Some interactions between characters are perhaps a little more heightened than they’d be in real life, but the film remains easy to connect to throughout.

The film’s authenticity comes in part from how Gerwig draws on her own experiences: like Lady Bird, Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, her mother was a nurse, and she attended an all-girls Catholic high school. Gerwig has gone from being one of the more prominent stars of the ‘mumblecore’ indie film movement to only the fifth woman in history to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar. Perhaps her own experience as an actress has helped her draw out entertaining, sensitive and authentic performances from her cast.

The preternaturally talented Saoirse Ronan once again proves herself as among the finest young actors working. Lady Bird could easily have come off as obnoxious and insufferable, so it’s to Ronan’s credit that she is easy to root for – not despite, but because of her flaws. The character’s search for a direction in life, the tension between her and her parents, her sexual awakening and romantic relationships, and her angst towards her hometown – these are all things that teenagers have grappled with in one form or another. The balance of the universal and the specific is something that crystallises in Ronan’s portrayal of Lady Bird.

The testy bond between Lady Bird and her mother is something that has resonated strongly with audiences – Metcalf has said in interviews that people have told her that the film made them want to call their mothers afterwards. There is never any doubt that Marion loves her daughter, but even parents with the best intentions have difficult articulating their love for their children. The film makes it easy to see things from both Lady Bird’s and Marion’s sides, with Metcalf taking great care in giving the character enough layers.

Letts, who often plays imperious, unyielding authority figures, brings welcome warmth to the role of Lady Bird’s father Larry. Larry must often be the mediator, since his wife and daughter are so headstrong, and he gets caught in the middle. He also bears the burden of the family’s financial difficulties but internalises this to try and minimise the heartache for everyone else, something many fathers can relate to.

Both of Lady Bird’s love interests are sufficiently distinct: Hedges’ Danny is awkward and sweet, while Chalamet’s Kyle is the artsy rebel-philosopher. This is different from your typical love triangle, and Lady Bird always retains agency such that it never feels like the plot device of a requisite romance is the driving force of the narrative.

The film’s depiction of high school friendship dynamics rings true as well – the way Lady Bird and Julie grow apart when Lady Bird gets accepted by the popular kids is handled with a little too much drama, but Ronan and Feldstein share excellent chemistry.

 

The way the authority figures are portrayed demonstrates the film’s maturity – the nuns and priests who run the Catholic school aren’t monstrous or ridiculously strict, they’re just a little detached from their charges because of the generation gap. Some fun is had at the expense of religion, but it never registers as bald-faced mockery.

Lady Bird is better approached as a low-key indie gem than as a masterpiece that will change the face of cinema forever. That’s not to downplay the accomplishments of its cast and crew, but one might be better positioned to take in the film’s gentle humour and quiet wisdom without the awards season baggage attached. Lady Bird is just that little bit more relatable, more entertaining and more personal than your typical coming-of-age film, benefitting from its writer-director’s perspective and its leading lady’s significant skill.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Basmati Blues movie review

For inSing

BASMATI BLUES

Director : Danny Barron
Cast : Brie Larson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Scott Bakula, Saahil Sehgal, Donald Sutherland, Tyne Daly, Lakshmi Manchu
Genre : Musical/Comedy/Romance
Run Time : 1h 47mins
Opens : 8 Feb 2018
Rating : PG

Many famous actors have done movies they’d rather the filmgoing public forget about: Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger have Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Jennifer Aniston has Leprechaun, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire have Don’s Plum, and George Clooney has Batman and Robin.

Brie Larson has Basmati Blues.

In this musical romantic comedy, Larson plays Dr. Linda Watt, a scientist who, with her father Ben (Scott Bakula), has invented the genetically-engineered Rice 9. Linda is sent by her boss Gurgon (Donald Sutherland) to Bilari, India to sell the new strain of rice to local farmers.

In India, Linda meets Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an agriculture student who has returned to his village because he cannot afford his tuition. Linda is wooed by William Patel (Saahil Sehgal), the crooked agriculture ministry liaison. It turns out that Gurgon plans to exploit the farmers and is counting on them not reading the fine print in the contract. Linda must save the people she has befriended from the schemes of her boss.

Basmati Blues was made in 2013, before Larson hit the big time with her Best Actress Oscar win for Room. Larson is now an A-lister, set to play Captain Marvel in the MCU. This means it’s an opportune moment to release Basmati Blues, which really should’ve sat on a shelf forever.

Despite the producers’ protestations to the contrary, Basmati Blues is a white saviour movie. It trades in outmoded exoticism and retrograde stereotypes and is a fish-out-of-water love story in which a sheltered white woman learns to embrace life as she falls in love with a man in a foreign land. Basmati Blues attempts to address the western exploitation of India by way of having its villains be unscrupulous corporate overlords, but it takes a step forward and about ten back. The film was shot in the South Indian state of Kerala, but takes place in Uttar Pradesh in the North, with no effort made to ensure the authenticity of details like the languages used on signage.

Nearly every decision seems like the wrong one, and this is amateur hour in the extreme. Director Dan Baron makes his feature film debut with this film, which is ostensibly a love letter to Bollywood musicals. There are ways to do tasteful homages to the cinema of other countries – this is not the way. The production values seem cheap, the choreography is inept, and many of the songs are downright awful. We will admit to kind of enjoying the romantic duet “Foolish Heart”.

One of the primary tasks of any musical is to convince audiences that it’s perfectly normal for the characters to burst into song. Basmati Blues does not achieve this. Brie Larson dances around a lab, singing about how great it is to be a scientist, and things don’t get any less awkward from there.

None of this is Brie Larson’s fault, apart from that she should’ve known after reading the script not to have said yes to this. Her performance is sufficiently amiable, and she has a fine singing voice, but it’s hard not to feel waves of second-hand embarrassment washing over the audience whenever the Oscar winner is onscreen.

Utkarsh Ambudkar, best known for his role in The Mindy Project, is charming and earnest and, like Larson, trying to make the most out of terrible material. Saahil Sehgal is extremely handsome and believably slick, but the love triangle is tiresome. There are more misunderstandings between the main couple than in five rom-coms put together.

Respectable actors Sutherland and Daly are absolutely slumming it, but Daly does have the best voice in the whole cast. Bakula is barely in the film, but even so, he hasn’t lost his ‘aw shucks’ charm.

The Hanlon’s Razor principle states “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The filmmakers behind Basmati Blues likely never intended malice, and some might probably even be genuine fans of Bollywood cinema. However, stupidity is enough to do damage. This misbegotten travesty is a blight on Larson’s filmography, and is destined to become a so-bad-it’s-good cult classic. Prepare to cringe like you never have before.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Last Flag Flying movie review

For inSing

LAST FLAG FLYING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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