Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker review

For F*** Magazine

STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER

Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast : Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 h 22 mins
Opens : 19 December 2019
Rating : PG13

42 years after the original Star Wars movie redefined cinema and started an enduring worldwide phenomenon, J.J. Abrams rings the curtain down on the Skywalker Saga with this film. While this certainly will not be the last piece of Star Wars media or indeed the last Star Wars movie ever, it’s still momentous that this marks the conclusion of the overarching core story of a galaxy far, far away.

Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega), the heroes of the Resistance, are flung together for a high-stakes mission with the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance, as it always seems to. Under the leadership of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), the Resistance continues its fight against the First Order, led by her son, Supreme Leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The resurgence of the ancient evil known as the Sith, locked in a never-ending conflict with the Jedi, unearths long-buried secrets as foes and allies both old and new are drawn into the fray. Rey’s struggle to find her place in the galaxy and Kylo Ren’s own long-standing inner conflict take both characters to places they never imagined they would go.

You know the Aesop’s Fable about the man, the young boy and the donkey? The one about how you can’t please everyone? One imagines director/co-writer J.J. Abrams as the man in that story. There is no denying that making The Rise of Skywalker was a daunting undertaking, overwhelming in breadth (if perhaps not depth) as a story that must function as the conclusion to not just one trilogy, but three. Taking this into consideration, there is a lot in this film to enjoy.

From the word ‘go’, The Rise of Skywalker is unrelenting, and it is this propulsive kinetic energy that keeps the movie going and going and going, making its 142-minute runtime zip by. Our characters jump from set-piece to set-piece, planet to planet, taking the audience along with them. There are several involving action sequences and the lightsaber battle between Rey and Kylo Ren on a barge in a roiling sea is among the best in the whole series.

Rey, Finn and Poe spent most of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi apart, and The Rise of Skywalker makes it a point to have these three characters share multiple scenes. We see how each of these characters has grown and evolved and how the events of the past two films have shaped them. The interplay between them, especially between Finn and Poe, is often entertaining. The resolution of the struggle between Rey and Kylo Ren will not please everyone, but there is an elegance in its execution, and it winds up being satisfying while also being unsatisfying, which seems like the intention.

There is a palpa…ble affection for the movies that came before, and as a result one can sense how hard Abrams, co-writer Chris Terrio and crew were trying to create something that honours the films of the past while also not directly contradicting what has been established earlier, which is easier said than done. This is, if nothing else, a big “points for trying” scenario.

The aforementioned Aesop’s Fable ends with the man and his son, carrying the donkey suspended by a pole on their shoulders, falling off a bridge into the river below and drowning. It sometimes feels like The Rise of Skywalker is doing just this. In nostalgia-driven franchises, fans are especially wary of “fan-service” – moments geared to elicit a positive reaction simply by reminding said fans of something they like. The Rise of Skywalker is stuffed with these moments. As a Star Wars fan, this reviewer did enjoy many of them, but after a while, it can get a bit tiresome when one realises this might be getting in the way of the storytelling. It’s like eating dessert for dinner: it’s fun at first, but by the end it’s too much of a good thing.

Much was made about how The Rise of Skywalker would apparently ‘retcon’ the events of The Last Jedi. While on the surface it seems like nothing here contradicts the events and the revelations of that film, one can tell that the vocal backlash against it did affect this movie – one would argue negatively. For all The Last Jedi’s perceived flaws, it was at the very least interesting. It was challenging in the way The Rise of Skywalker never is. Whatever was interesting about The Last Jedi feels flattened here.

Perhaps The Rise of Skywalker just doesn’t need to be challenging and people actually prefer it this way, but as the Skywalker Saga bounds to the finish line, it feels like narratively, the series as a whole has taken a step backwards. The film was originally set to be directed by Colin Trevorrow, and Trevorrow still receives a “story by” credit alongside Derek Connolly, Abrams and Terrio. Perhaps it was in the reworking of Trevorrow and Connolly’s original script that things got messy.

The breakneck pacing means that the movie is never boring, but there sometimes is the sense that it serves to paper over the cracks and stop audiences from pausing to look around them. The film’s haste also means that several important revelations and developments just whiz by without a chance to meaningfully explore them.

There is a sentimentality to The Rise of Skywalker, but it can be argued that the stories that have endured through the ages are often sentimental. Much of that sentimentality arises from seeing familiar faces, including C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), on new adventures that contextualise their relationships to the other characters. The two main new characters introduced here, the warrior Jannah (Naomi Ackie) and the helmeted spice runner Zorii Bliss (Keri Russell), both feel very Star Wars-y.

Considering how poorly a section of Star Wars fans have conducted themselves and how they have expressed their vitriol over certain instalments of the series, making hating something a core part of their personality, there is a comfort in seeing the characters embrace and express their affection for each other. Many elements of The Rise of Skywalker might seem overly engineered, but the positivity and the message of people uniting to defend what they hold dear is sincere.

The film’s greatest accomplishment is in bringing Carrie Fisher’s Leia to the screen one last time. Through an ingenious and nigh-seamless combination of unused footage from The Force Awakens, body doubles, compositing and possibly a soundalike voice actor, the late Fisher delivers a stirring, dignified and supremely moving final performance. This is, after all, the conclusion to the Skywalker saga and this movie does place the family, the surviving members of whom are Leia and Kylo Ren, front and centre. There is a reverence which makes The Rise of Skywalker sometimes trip over itself, but the Skywalkers are given their due and then some here.

The Rise of Skywalker has myriad flaws, but it closes out the nine-film cycle in grand fashion. In straining to please fans, the film will probably end up divisive, just in a different way from The Last Jedi. Regardless, The Rise of Skywalker is still an achievement and it might not be the conclusion to the saga that this reviewer was hoping for, but we’re not quite sure how else we would have done this.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Kitchen review

For inSing

THE KITCHEN

Director: Andrea Berloff
Cast : Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish, Elisabeth Moss, Domhnall Gleeson, Bill Camp, Margo Martindale, Common, Brian d’Arcy James, James Badge Dale, Jeremy Bobb
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 8 August 2019
Rating : NC16

It is 1978, and the New York underworld will come to know and fear three women.

Kathy Brennan (Melissa McCarthy), Ruby O’Caroll (Tiffany Haddish) and Claire Walsh (Elisabeth Moss) are the wives of three Irish mobsters who get caught by the FBI and are shipped off to prison. Seeing an opening and left with little choice, they decide to step in, running their own protection racket. This causes them to run afoul of their husbands’ compatriots like Little Jackie (Myk Watford) and Ruby’s mother-in-law, the mob matriarch Helen O’Caroll (Margo Martindale).

Further complicating matters is the return of Gabriel O’Malley (Domhnall Gleeson), an enforcer who escaped to lie low and is now back in town. Claire finds herself falling for Gabriel, while Kathy and Ruby butt heads over how the business is to be run. The ladies eventually find themselves dealing with powerful Italian mafia don Alfonso Coretti (Bill Camp), based out of Brooklyn. While they find success with their burgeoning criminal empire, the bodies start piling up and the women realise they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

The Kitchen is based on the DC/Vertigo graphic novel of the same name, written by Ollie Masters and illustrated by Ming Doyle. The film marks the directorial debut of Andrea Berloff, who was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing Straight Outta Compton. The Kitchen is a brash, stylish film that plays on audiences’ familiarity with gritty gangster movies. The 70s New York portrayed in The Kitchen looks authentically grimy at first but leans into the “I’m walking here!” stereotypes and the movie is beholden to expectations of mob-centric media.

The film lulls viewers into a false sense of security in knowing where everything’s headed, before a final act packed with explosive twists. This is an appropriately bloody, violent movie, but there is some levity sprinkled throughout. The Kitchen seems to face the dilemma of wanting to give us three-dimensional characters while delivering as many recognisable mafia movie elements as possible.

Another dilemma is that the film is presented as being empowering and is fronted by three women, but at the end of the day, they are committing crimes and it can be a bit uncomfortable to find oneself cheering as bodies get sawn up.  It is possible to say “it was a different time” and go along with that, to a point. Perhaps it is a way of reclaiming how movies like The Godfather, Scarface or Goodfellas seemed to model masculinity, but The Kitchen does not dig into its moral greyness as deeply as it could’ve.

A big part of what makes this work as well as it does is the cast, led by Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy’s Kathy is likeable, non-violent and innately decent, but is also ambitious and resourceful. Even though the characters are engaging in criminal activity, McCarthy’s sympathetic performance is often just enough to keep audiences in the protagonists’ corner. She knows there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed, but the women keep barrelling towards – and past – said line.

One of the major changes from the source material is the Ruby O’Carroll character, who is depicted here as a black woman who has married into an Irish mob family and resents her status as an outsider. Haddish brings a fire to the role but can’t quite evince the same depths that McCarthy can and seems ever so slightly more limited as a performer.

Elisabeth Moss’ Claire has the arc of going from the victim of domestic abuse to revelling in practicing violence on anyone who stands in her way. Moss is entertaining when Claire is unhinged, but the character is overall less interesting than the other two, who also have more control of the narrative.

Domhnall Gleeson’s quietly, disconcertingly detached Vietnam veteran hitman character provides some of the film’s more memorable moments, but Gabriel’s romance with Claire seems played more for laughs than for drama.

The film’s supporting cast includes excellent character actors like Margo Martindale and Bill Camp doing fine work, with Common getting not a lot to do as an FBI agent who watches things go down from afar.

If you don’t watch many mob movies, there’s enough to like about The Kitchen, with director Berloff showing plenty of panache. The cast seem to enjoy making the film, and McCarthy is especially outstanding. However, the film doesn’t attain the level of complexity it seems to be shooting for and is sometimes torn between serving up visceral thrills and shocks and being a compelling character study. Still, it is a good change of pace from the typically male-driven 70s mob movie.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Star Wars: The Last Jedi movie review

For inSing

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Director : Rian Johnson
Cast : Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Kelly Marie Tran, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro, Lupita Nyong’o
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 32m
Opens : 14 December 2017
Rating : PG

(The following review contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

In 2015, under the auspices of Disney, Star Wars came back in a big way. The Force Awakens launched a new trilogy, and sparked fevered speculation about where the story would go next. In The Last Jedi, questions are answered, expectations are subverted, and yet more questions are generated – all in engrossing, spectacular fashion.

We pick up where The Force Awakens left off: Rey (Daisy Ridley) has arrived on Ahch-To in search of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has been in self-imposed exile. Luke blames himself for the creation of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the dark warrior who was once Luke’s Jedi apprentice, then known as Ben Solo.

Kylo’s mother General Leia Organa (Carrier Fisher) leads the increasingly battered Resistance against the First Order, headed up by Kylo’s master, the enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Ace pilot Poe Dameron’s (Oscar Isaac) recklessness puts him in conflict with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), Leia’s long-time friend and subordinate. Meanwhile, former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and Resistance engineer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) hatch a plan to infiltrate the Supremacy, Snoke’s Mega-Class Star Destroyer. The battle for the galaxy heats up as our heroes and villains inch ever closer to fulfilling their destinies.

The Force Awakens was criticised for being too much of a retread of A New Hope, but it can be argued that audiences needed to be reminded of what it was about Star Wars that hooked them in the first place. With writer-director Rian Johnson at the helm, The Last Jedi does what every great sequel should: build upon its predecessor while taking the story in bold new directions. There are some elements that echo The Empire Strikes Back, but it is not a beat-for-beat do-over of that film. There is a consistency to how the characters we know and love from The Force Awakens and the original trilogy are further developed, and the surprises that lie in store do not feel contradictory to what has been laid out before.

On the level of sheer spectacle, The Last Jedi delivers amply. Key creatives including production designer Rick Heinrichs and costume designer Michael Kaplan return from The Force Awakens, but Johnson brings his regular cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who has worked with the director since Brick, on board.

The opulent casino on the planet Canto Bight has a bit of a latter-day Doctor Who vibe to it, while the mineral-rich planet Crait is blanketed by salt flats that cover crimson clay – the clay is kicked up by the Resistance ski speeders as they hurtle towards the First Order’s walkers. Snoke’s throne room, surrounded by a seamless blood-red curtain, is the ideal locale for one of the film’s most dramatic scenes to unfold in. Hearing those John Williams-composed leitmotifs accompanying the appearance of each character just completes the experience in the best way.

The Last Jedi is also a masterclass in tone: this is an intense movie, but it’s also a funny one, and humour is employed in just the right doses. The levity never undermines the tremendous, galaxy-shattering stakes at hand. Johnson has achieved something which many Marvel Cinematic Universe movies have struggled at getting right.

While many might decry the Porgs, cuddly little avian/mammalian critters, as obviously created just to make Disney mountains of cash in plush toy sales, this reviewer found them irresistibly charming. They pop up at just the right points in the story, and are nowhere near as annoying as some find the Ewoks and many find Jar Jar Binks to be. BB-8 gets more screen time and is straight-up heroic, actively aiding our heroes during conflict.

Hamill gets top billing, after making a silent cameo at the very end of The Force Awakens. Luke is characterised as disillusioned and bitter – Rey clearly wants him to mentor her, but given his past failings, Luke is reluctant to take on another apprentice. Hamill’s performance is unexpectedly abrasive, yet moving and deeply sincere.

Rey and Kylo Ren are pitted against each other in a compelling way, the film highlighting their parallels and the danger that Rey could go down the same dark path trodden by Luke’s old student. Ridley’s youthful energy is in full force, while the physical demands of the role are increased. The dynamic between Rey and Luke and between Rey and Kylo sparks with life and keeps the viewer invested.

The film delves further into Kylo’s fractured psyche. The character is ultimately a child playing pretend, trying to fill a void within by chasing the legacy of the grandfather he idolises. He’s destructive and impulsive, and is thus easily manipulated by Snoke. While Andy Serkis does a fine sneery performance, Snoke is saddled with some of the more cliched lines in the film, which veer dangerously close to Bond villain speechifying.

The late Fisher gets many moments to shine as the regal, wise Leia, who keeps her composure under the most stressful situations as she shepherds the Resistance. It is a quietly stirring performance and we can’t think of a better send-off for the actress.

While Isaac’s Poe Dameron was merely the roguish hero archetype in The Force Awakens, this movie deconstructs that trope, and floats the idea that sometimes being brash and anti-authoritarian, as cool as it looks, is self-serving rather than furthering the cause.

Tran’s Rose Tico is a fantastic character, and a great way to shine a light on the Resistance members who aren’t fighting on the frontlines. She’s a bit of a fangirl and is thrilled to meet Finn, the Stomtrooper-turned-hero. Rose also gives the film a chance to comment on social stratification, since her family was exploited by the rich and powerful.

While Dern and del Toro are both reliable, the role of ‘slicer’ DJ, a hacker and thief for hire, seems like a waste of del Toro’s distinctive talents. Dern doesn’t get too much to do, but Holdo is memorable as she is at the centre of a particularly dramatic moment.

If one has become fixated on and overly attached to specific fan theories, The Last Jedi will disappoint for not realising said theories – but then again, it never had an obligation to. Johnson has a bit of fun at the fanbase’s expense, toying with expectations while staying faithful yet not slavish to the Star Wars films that have come before.

The Last Jedi is as exhilarating as it is moving. The Last Jedi feels like a whole movie rather than a placeholder or a mere trailer for the next film to come. While it clearly functions as a middle instalment in the trilogy, it’s also a beginning and an end.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

For inSing

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN 

Director : Simon Curtis
Cast : Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly MacDonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther
Genre : Biopic/Drama
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 26 October 2017
Rating : PG

The Winnie-the-Pooh stories have been beloved by children all around the world for decades, spawning numerous animated TV shows and films. This historical drama peels back the curtain on the surprisingly tragic true story behind the creation of Pooh and his friends who live in Hundred-Acre Wood.

It is just after World War I, and playwright Alan Alexander ‘A. A.’ Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who fought at the Battle of the Somme, is haunted by memories of the war. Seeking some peace and quiet, Alan and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) move from London to a countryside home in East Sussex. Daphne gives birth to Christopher Robin (Will Tilston and Alex Lawther at different ages), who is nicknamed “Billy Moon” by his parents. The couple hires a live-in nanny named Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to look after Christopher, and the boy soon grows attached to her.

Alan is inspired by seeing Christopher play with his stuffed toys in the woods, including teddy bear which he first names ‘Edward’ and later ‘Winnie’. This serves as the basis for children’s stories that soon become immensely popular. With the whole world clamouring to know the ‘real’ Christopher Robin, the young boy becomes subject to fame that he struggles to handle. What began as a creative expression of a father’s love for his son grows into a worldwide phenomenon, changing the Milne family’s lives forever.

Goodbye Christopher Robin might well ruin Winnie-the-Pooh for many viewers, but in the process, the film has interesting things to say about childhood, fame and creative expression. Director Simon Curtis, who also helmed the fact-based My Week with Marilyn and The Woman in Gold, has made a respectable period piece. However, like many awards season period pieces, Goodbye Christopher Robin sometimes comes off as too mannered and not sufficiently authentic. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, the film resorts to shameless emotional manipulation at times, but also offers fascinating, heart-rending insight into the relationship dynamics within the Milne family.

The film runs up against the challenge of striking a tonal balance. The events in the film span from just after the First World War to the midst of the Second. Alan is reeling from the trauma of fighting as a soldier in the First World War, but eventually writes delightful, whimsical stories. Goodbye Christopher Robin makes a valiant attempt at showing the range of moods any one person can experience, depicting a journey from sorrow, to joy, back to sorrow again. There’s profundity here, but Goodbye Christopher Robin sometimes feels like it’s skimming the surface.

Gleeson is an actor who’s mostly flown under the radar, but has consistently turned in solid work. In Goodbye Christopher Robin, Gleeson fleshes out the layers to the character of A. A. Milne. Gleeson sells both the frustration that creative types experience when they’re stuck in a rut, and the joy that they feel when inspiration presents itself. The emotional heart of the film is the relationship between Alan and his son, a relationship that is initially enriched but eventually complicated by the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Young actor Tilston is plenty adorable, and lights up the screen with his natural joy and the right degree of precociousness, such that the performance never registers as cloying or obnoxious. Alex Lawther plays Christopher Robin at age 18; he’s best known for playing young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Lawther’s performance as a young man trying to regain his identity, having shared his childhood with the world, is deeply affecting.

Kelly Macdonald’s turn as Olive, the nanny whom Christopher affectionally called “Nou”, brims with genuine warmth. Olive is depicted as being more of a maternal figure to Christopher than his actual mother Daphne who, as portrayed here by Margot Robbie, seems like an awful person. There’s a tug-of-war between the three parental figures in Christopher’s life, with a young boy for whom it’s all too much to process at the centre.

Goodbye Christopher Robin does not convey the passage of time as well as it should – the makeup used to age up Gleeson and Robbie is a little too subtle – so it doesn’t feel like as much time elapses in the story as it did in real life.

Despite being uneven, coming off as a little too packaged and artificial at times and being less than subtle in going for the tear ducts, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a largely moving story. It explores worthwhile themes and its revelatory nature will shock audiences who love Winnie-the-Pooh but did not know the details behind how the stories came to be.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Mother!

For inSing

MOTHER!

Director : Darren Aronofsky
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 2h 2m
Opens : 14 September 2017
Rating : NC16 (Horror/Violence)

Jennifer Lawrence gets in touch with her maternal side – and an infernal side – in this psychological horror film from Darren Aronofsky. Lawrence’s character, the otherwise-unnamed Mother, is the wife of an author, the otherwise-unnamed Him (Bardem). Mother and Him have moved into a remote house, which Mother is attempting to fix up while Him struggles with writer’s block. Out of the blue, the couple is visited by an Orthopaedic surgeon, Man (Harris), and Man’s wife Woman (Pfeiffer). Man professes to be a fan of Him’s writing, and Him appreciates the attention, but Mother becomes wary of their new guests. This opens the gateway to more surprise visits, as Mother and Him grapple with issues within their marriage that are made manifest by the strangers who have come to their house.

Mother! is a film that is difficult to review because the filmmakers want us to know as little about it as possible. The marketing has had to be creative, because it’s such a challenging film to sell – a deejay friend of this reviewer’s received an actual pig’s heart in a box as a gift from the movie’s distributor. This is very much an arthouse film, and audiences going to see it because of Jennifer Lawrence will be thrown for a loop. Mother! is packed with potent imagery and thought-provoking ideas, but it feels like a film that was made with the intent to alienate the audience. Aronofsky does a fine job of establishing mounting dread, and there is a pervasive uneasiness to the affair, but because Mother! is so mannered and arch, there’s a barrier separating the viewer from the movie. This makes it difficult to get into, and no matter how intense and visceral the movie becomes, it engenders a certain detachedness.

As with many arthouse films, there is plenty to pick apart and muse over, and there are several themes that root the movie. Mother! reflects the power to create and to destroy inherent in every person. Mother! touches upon the culture of celebrity worship, and how cult-like it can become. Mother! is about the relationship between artists and their audience. Mother! is about the anxiety of, well, motherhood, the joy and hardships of bringing another human being into the world. Mother! is about how women can be side-lined, about how wives are sometimes forced to alter their lives to orbit around their husbands. One could write a paper, nay, several papers about Mother!, but perhaps a film should be more than something to dissect.

There’s a purity to Lawrence’s presence in this film, and she emanates an almost ethereal radiance. This is different from other projects she’s undertaken, clearly pushing the actress outside her comfort zone. While the character seems to be victimised for most of the film, she does bring a quiet strength to the role. Audiences know Bardem is capable of being creepy, and to his credit, he doesn’t come across as overtly evil – but we’re plenty suspicious of him all the same. Lawrence and Bardem are mismatched, but that seems to be the point, with the age gap between them being repeatedly pointed out by other characters.

The story is focused tightly on the dynamic between Mother and Him, but the supporting players do make an impact. Pfeiffer is especially fun to watch as someone who’s passive-aggressive and calculative, but outwardly pleasant. Of all the performers, Pfeiffer appears to be having the most fun. There is a certain Saturday Night Live who shows up later in the film – if you don’t who this is yet, it’s a fun surprise, but also comes off as deliberately gimmicky.

Mother! has attracted its share of controversy – you might have seen headlines online along the lines of “Mother! could be the most hated film of 2017” or “Has Darren Aronofsky gone too far?” After a near-excruciating slow burn, Mother! does build to a chaotic, gory frenzy. There are moments of raw, searing power here, and it is immensely thought-provoking. However, because of how much attention the film draws to its own construction, and how desperately it seems to want to be seen as a piece of art, Mother! is more a bubbled-over cauldron of allegory and metaphor than an absorbing story.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

American Made

For F*** Magazine

AMERICAN MADE 

Director : Doug Liman
Cast : Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright Olsen, Domhnall Gleeson, Jayma Mays, Jesse Plemons, Lola Kirke, Lara Grice, Jed Rees, Caleb Landry Jones
Genre : Biopic/Comedy/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 31 August 2017
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scene And Coarse Language)

As the star of the Mission: Impossible franchise, Tom Cruise has performed many daring stunts. In American Made, he plays someone who, by his own admission, leaps before he looks. It is 1978, and TWA pilot Barry Seal (Cruise) is recruited by CIA operative Schaefer (Gleeson) to take surveillance photos of communist rebels in South America. Soon, Seal is tasked with supplying the Nicaraguan Contras with American-supplied arms. Seal is also hired by the Medellín Cartel, transporting shipments of cocaine from Colombia and Panama to the United States. Seal’s wife Lucy (Wright Olsen) and their young children relocate from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Mena, Arkansas. Mena Intermountain Municipal Airport becomes the base of operations for Seal’s burgeoning concern, as Seal rakes in the cash and evades the long arm of the law by becoming a DEA informant and operative. As a player in a game with dizzyingly high stakes, it will take all of Seal’s wits to keep him from crashing and burning.

American Made reteams Cruise with his Edge of Tomorrow director Doug Liman, who crafts a free-wheeling retro comedy thriller which is as engaging as it is entertaining. This is based on a true story, and you might know the name ‘Barry Seal’ from films and TV shows like Doublecrossed, The Infiltrator and Narcos. American Made certainly feels like the ‘Hollywood version’ of Seal’s story: despite the twists and turns, the narrative is so straightforward as to feel simplified and streamlined to keep things moving along. This is to say nothing of the fact that Cruise doesn’t resemble the real-life Barry Seal, who was pudgy and balding, in the slightest.

However, the way the film is assembled and the way screenwriter Gary Spinelli structures the plot, it’s easy to get swept up in the proceedings. Much of the comedy is derived from the inherent absurdity of the situations that Seal gets caught up in, and the film open acknowledges how crazy everything is without coming off as too flippant. It’s comparable in tone to 1990’s Air America, which starred Robert Downey Jr. and Mel Gibson as unwitting drug smuggling pilots during the Vietnam War.

Liman has considerable fun with the film’s style: the opening Universal Studios logo is interrupted by the old-school logo from the 70s, and the other production companies get retro-fied logos too. Uruguayan cinematographer César Charlone of City of God fame provides a mix of slick sweeping aerial shots and 70s-style handheld closeups, with the heat of the South American jungles radiating off the screen. The plane pursuit sequences are realistic and hair-raising, but came at a cost. Tragically, stunt pilot Alan D. Purwin and his Venezuelan co-pilot, Carlos Berl, died in a crash caused by foggy weather near Medellin, Colombia.

Barry Seal was a cog in a much larger machine, but this film places him front and centre and the film is Cruise’s to carry the whole way. The embarrassing dud that was this year’s reboot of The Mummy made some feel that Cruise’s star power was starting to wane, but American Made sees him back in top form. As the morally ambiguous charming rogue who’s in over his head but loving it, the Seal character is right in Cruise’s wheelhouse.

Cruise eclipses everyone else in the movie, such that the supporting players barely make an impact. Gleeson affects a convincing American accent as CIA operative Schaefer, who registers as a cipher and a composite character of some kind. Wright Olsen is, as expected from films of this type, relegated to the role of ‘the wife’, fretting over her husband’s questionable activities but eager to enjoy the lifestyle that said activities fund. Caleb Landry Jones visibly enjoys playing Lucy’s troublemaking, ne’er-do-well brother, whose sloppiness puts Seal in danger of being found out. It all revolves around Cruise and the other characters seem incidental, reinforcing the ideal of Seal as a mythic antihero around whom other forces revolve. It’s fine because Cruise’s performance more than anchors the film, but it does remind us that we’re watching a movie, detracting some authenticity from the real story.

American Made is a movie that’s powered by Cruise’s megawatt grin. Because it’s pitched as a comedy, the murky morality never becomes something audiences will think too deeply about. We’re invited to join the antihero on the ride of his life, and Liman spins an engrossing, invigorating yarn. With Cruise in the cockpit, this ride is an eminently enjoyable one.

Summary: A high-spirited biopic that packs in the laughs and thrills, American Made doesn’t delve deeply enough into the political intrigue to be very substantive, but it’s an entertaining, well-made Tom Cruise vehicle all the same.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Revenant

For F*** Magazine

THE REVENANT 

Director : Alejandro González Iñárritu
Cast : Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck
Genre : Adventure/Thriller
Run Time : 2 hrs 36 mins
Opens : 4 February 2016
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scene and Violence)

The untamed wilderness has never been wilder and more untamed than in this survival epic. It is 1823 in the uncharted Louisiana Purchase and a party of fur trappers led by Andrew Henry (Gleeson) is hunting for pelts. The group is ambushed by the Arikara Native Americans and many of their number are killed. Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a hunter familiar with the terrain of the area, recommends a path through the forest for the survivors to take. John Fitzgerald (Hardy) is antagonistic towards Glass and his half-Pawnee Native American son Hawk (Goodluck). Angry about having to abandon the valuable pelts, Fitzgerald betrays Glass and leaves him for dead after Glass is severely mauled by a bear. Fitzgerald tricks the young trapper Jim Bridger (Poulter), who has volunteered to stay behind and tend to Glass, into going along with his plan. Glass claws his way out of a shallow grave, navigating the harsh landscape in search of shelter and vengeance against Fitzgerald.

            The Revenant is based on Michael Punke’s 2002 historical novel of the same name, which in turn drew on the true story of Hugh Glass. The Revenant will go down in film history has having one of the most arduous shoots ever, with the crew deeming the production process a “living hell”. They had to contend with below-freezing temperatures, director Iñárritu’s preference for shooting the film in chronological order and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s insistence on only using natural light, be it from the sun or a campfire. In addition, the lack of snow in the Canadian locations resulted in the whole crew picking up sticks and relocating to Argentina. The shoot went over schedule and Hardy had to drop out of Suicide Squad because of it. Defending his decisions and saying he “has nothing to hide,” Iñárritu told the Hollywood Reporter “If we ended up in greenscreen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of s***.”

            So, was all of that worth it? Short answer: yes. The Revenant is not a story with particularly inventive twists and turns, but even though most audiences would have a general idea of how the story will progress even without prior knowledge of Hugh Glass, it’s very easy to get invested in this yarn. Iñárritu reels the audience in and doesn’t let go, one can almost feel the film’s grip tighten. Wide panoramas of mountain ridges and roaring rivers are contrasted with extreme tight close-ups of bloodied and bruised characters gritting their teeth. Lubezki serves ups beauty without a hint of artificial polish, uncompromising, raw and majestic. Much has been made of the brutal scenarios depicted in the film, but Iñárritu uses the violence such that the audience doesn’t get too comfortable in their plush multiplex seats, and he never gleefully revels in the gore the way Tarantino does. The wince-inducing moments are numerous, as impactful as they are bracing.

            DiCaprio has yet to win an Oscar. That’s the meme that has been run deep into the ground. With all that he’s put himself through to play Glass, The Revenant might finally be his shot at that coveted golden statuette. He calls it the “hardest performance of his career”, and it’s easy to see why: the vegetarian actor had to devour a slab of raw bison liver, learn to fire a musket and build a fire and study the Native American languages of Pawnee and Arikara. We’ve seen heroes who cling to bitter determination against all odds before, but DiCaprio does hammer home the extent of Glass’ ordeal.

Hardy is just as good, even stealing the show from DiCaprio on occasion, as Fitzgerald. This reviewer is of the opinion that Hardy is at his best when playing aggressive, villainous characters and his portrayal of the avaricious Fitzgerald is thoroughly authentic. Gleeson is just the right pitch of noble and Poulter looks appropriately out of his element as the greenhorn Bridger. Goodluck and DiCaprio share just enough of a father-son bond, though the relationship isn’t as believable as it should be. Arthur RedCloud delivers a truly moving performance as a good Samaritan Pawnee man named Hikuc who aids Glass.

            In order to compete with the ready availability of films to watch in various formats at home, movie theatres truck out gimmicks such as 3D, IMAX, Dolby Atmos sound and D-Box motion seats, promising “immersion”. While this reviewer is often a sucker for such gimmicks, few cinematic experiences come close to offering the immersion that The Revenant does. The film certainly has its shortcomings: at 156 minutes, it is too long, though not egregiously so. It is also ultimately more gruelling than rewarding to sit through and doesn’t say anything particularly poignant about the dynamic between Native Americans and the frontiersman who came to mine North America for its natural resources. Taken as a harrowing survival odyssey, The Revenant is quite the achievement.



Summary: A primal, riveting tale of nigh-superhuman perseverance, you’ll be rooting for Leonardo DiCaprio and against Tom Hardy while taking in the splendour of the untamed wilderness and wincing at the effectively gory moments.

RATING: 4out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong