A Star Is Born (2018) review

A STAR IS BORN

Director : Bradley Cooper
Cast : Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos, Rafi Gavron, Greg Grunberg, Michael Hanley
Genre : Drama/Romance/Musical
Run Time : 135 mins
Opens : 4 October 2018
Rating : M18

It’s a tale of love, loss and rock and roll: A familiar story is given a new lease of life by star/director Bradley Cooper and his leading lady Lady Gaga in this musical romantic drama.

Cooper plays hard-drinking rock star Jackson Maine, whose years on the road and life of excess have left him numb. Jackson finds new meaning in life when he chances upon Ally (Lady Gaga), a young singer performing at a dive bar. Jackson decides to take Ally under his wing and invites her onstage to sing a song she wrote with him at his concert. Jackson and Ally fall madly in love, but Jackson’s demons haunt their relationship, as prominent producer and Ally’s new manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) tussles with Jackson for control of the rising talent’s career.

A Star is Born is the third remake of the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. The film was subsequently remade in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. A third remake of the classic film has been in the works for a while, with actors including Christian Bale, Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio variously linked to the project. Clint Eastwood was going to make the film with Beyoncé. Considering the previous well-known iterations of the story and the somewhat bumpy production process, one would be forgiven for fearing a messy result.

Those fears are firmly assuaged with a film that has a linear, uncomplicated plot, but is inhabited by characters who feel like real people and whom audiences will care about. Praise has been heaped onto both Cooper and Gaga, who prove deserving of said praise. This does not feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker, and Cooper directs with a clear-eyed confidence. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique, oft-collaborator of Darren Aronofsky, contributes to the balance of the dreamlike and gritty, real atmospheres which entwine hypnotically.

This a movie about music, so it lives or dies by the soundtrack. Thankfully, the songs are great and do help in moving the story along. Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, and his band The Promise of the Real appear as Jackson Maine’s band. Nelson also served as Cooper’s ‘authenticity consultant’ and co-wrote the song Black Eyes. Lady Gaga co-wrote many of the film’s songs, including the signature track Shallow, a passionate, soaring duet.

Gaga’s hordes of little monsters across the world already know she’s talented, and while she has appeared in movies and on TV before, Gaga displays a side of herself we haven’t yet seen in this revelatory performance. While Lady Gaga has been an established pop star for a decade, she convincingly portrays a fresh-faced ingenue who undergoes a whirlwind transformation into a musical sensation. It’s an incandescent performance refreshingly free of vanity that lets Gaga showcase the full range of her artistry without coming off as self-indulgent.

Cooper’s performance as a shambling rock star who is a shadow of his former self is eminently sympathetic. We gradually learn bits of Jackson’s tragic back-story and through his heated interactions with manager/older brother Bobby, see how Jackson’s self-destructive tendencies wear on those around him. The character is constantly burning bridges and trying to put out the resulting fires. Cooper draws on his own struggles with substance abuse earlier in his career, making this a personal, raw performance. Cooper also has a lovely singing voice that’s very apt for the type of character he’s playing. Cooper cast his own (absolutely adorable) dog Charlie in the film.

The supporting cast, including comedian Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father Lorenzo and Dave Chappelle as Jackson’s friend Noodle, all bring authentic, endearing performances to the fore. Musical theatre star Anthony Ramos is a joyous presence as Ally’s friend and co-worker Ramon but doesn’t get to sing. Rafi Gavron’s Rez comes off as a little flat by comparison, the manager character being the most one-note.

While the palpable chemistry between the leads carries this a long way, A Star is Born does demand a level of suspension of disbelief. Ally’s meteoric rise through the industry is almost too good to be true, and we rarely see Jackson and Ally’s relationship from the outside – in real life, gossip and speculation from fans and the media is sure to weigh at least a little on the romance.

There are many moments when the movie veers too close to all-out melodrama – it seems like Gaga is willing to go there, while Cooper reins things in. Co-writer Will Fetters’ credits include the syrupy Nicholas Sparks adaptations or Sparks-esque romances Remember Me, The Lucky One and The Best of Me, and some vestiges of that remain. Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Cooper rewrote Fetters’ initial draft. The movie’s ending plunges head-first into schmaltz, but by then, A Star is Born has earned the right to be shamelessly manipulative.

The rapturous reviews and deafening Oscar buzz are in danger of over-hyping A Star is Born by a little, but there is still plenty to admire. This is a film that will make audiences hungrily expect Cooper’s next directorial effort and Gaga’s next starring role. It’s a story that’s been told before, but this heady, emotional, heartfelt take on it proves that in the right hands, stars can indeed be reborn.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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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

Peppermint movie review

PEPPERMINT

Director : Pierre Morel
Cast : Jennifer Garner, John Gallagher Jr., John Ortiz, Richard Cabral, Annie Ilonzeh, Jeff Hephner, Cailey Fleming
Genre : Action/Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 6 September 2018
Rating : NC16

In the regrettable Daredevil and the even more regrettable spin-off Elektra, Jennifer Garner played an assassin with vengeance on the mind. Is this action thriller, Garner is once again out to give those who have wronged her what’s coming to them, as kind of a gender-flipped Punisher.

Garner plays Riley North, a banker who lives in suburban L.A. with her husband Chris (Jeff Hephner) and young daughter Carly (Cailey Fleming). Riley’s life is brutally upended when her husband and daughter are murdered in a drive-by shooting. She identifies the shooters as drug cartel members, but the cartel has paid off officials in the courts and law enforcement; those responsible walk free. Riley is enraged, and sets about remaking herself into a one-woman army, hunting down and killing those who murdered her family and those who helped them get away with it. With LAPD officers Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) and Moises (John Ortiz) and FBI Agent Inman (Annie Ilonzeh) hot on her trail, Riley must evade the long arm of the law as she deals out her own fiery brand of justice.

Peppermint follows in a long line of revenge thrillers, and shares much in common with Death Wish, often thought of as the codifier of the subgenre. The poor reception garnered by the Bruce Willis-starring Death Wish remake earlier this year showed that as straightforward as movies like this might seem on paper, it takes finesse and savvy to execute them well. Peppermint wants to be a hard-boiled revenge movie like those Hollywood made in the 70s, but times have changed, and movies like this are expected to be more sophisticated in their handling of the themes. The Jodie Foster starrer The Brave One, also about a woman who survives a traumatic event and becomes a vigilante, attempted this but left a lot to be desired in its take on the morality of vigilante justice.

In most vigilante thrillers, we’re meant to root for the protagonist as they take matters into their own hands. To get us there, Peppermint employs emotionally manipulative tactics. The protagonist’s husband and daughter, leaving a carnival with peppermint ice cream in her hand, are gunned down in painful slow-motion, and all the family bonding scenes they share preceding that fateful moment are just set up for the death. We’re supposed to cheer Riley on as she blazes her path of vengeance, even as she acts sadistically. It’s too unpleasant to be much fun, and it seems like it wasn’t meant to be fun at all.

There’s a version of Peppermint that could have been an all-out bloody exploitation movie, enjoyable on a trashy level. Instead, director Pierre Morel, who also helmed Taken, seems intent on making it work on a dramatic level, which he struggles with. As such, while the action in Peppermint is sometimes intense, the movie is altogether grave and joyless, taking itself far too seriously. In both its premise and execution, Peppermint seems to be a movie that wants to be treated like a serious drama, instead of violent entertainment.

Much of the film hinges on Jennifer Garner’s performance, and it is nice to see her back in an action role, years after Alias, the afore-mentioned Daredevil and Elektra, and The Kingdom. Garner has mostly been in family movies as of late, so there’s a degree of satisfaction in seeing her go the full Sarah Connor. We’ve got to buy Riley as someone who transforms from regular career woman and mum to a hardened badass, and Garner puts effort into making that metamorphosis convincing. However, the movie still demands plenty of suspension of disbelief, and Garner’s central performance, strong as it is, is not enough to hold the whole thing together.

The other characters fall neatly into boxes: cop, gang member, husband, daughter, et. al. The movie isn’t too interested in fleshing anyone out, and while the villains of the film are shown committing despicable acts, they’re too nondescript to be compellingly threatening. Ortiz overacts a little as the harried cop, while John Gallagher Jr.’s performance as the cop who’s sympathetic to Riley is at least a little interesting.

Peppermint is an uncomplicated movie about a complicated topic. It wants to give the appearance of considering the implications of what it depicts but doesn’t really. Perhaps the current political climate in the U.S. mirrors that of the 70s to a certain degree, resulting in resentment of the status quo and frustration at the injustices that are a by-product of corruption and complacency. However, if we’re supposed to take a vigilante thriller seriously and really consider the questions it raises, it’s got to be more nuanced and less heavy-handed than Peppermint.

RATING: 2.5 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

A Quiet Place movie review

For inSing

A QUIET PLACE

Director : John Krasinski
Cast : Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, Cade Woodward
Genre : Horror/Drama
Run Time : 1h 30m
Opens : 5 April 2018
Rating : PG13

In this horror thriller, silence is not only golden, but it’s the one thing that will keep what remains of humanity alive.

Vicious creatures that hunt by hearing have wiped out much of the earth’s population. The Abbott family, consisting of Lee (John Krasinski), his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and their children Regan (Millicent Simmonds), Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Beau (Cade Woodward), are among the few people that remain. Living in a farmhouse, they have adopted a life of silence, as any sound they make could be their last. Grappling with loss and fear, the family that stays quiet together survives together.

A Quiet Place is directed by John Krasinski, who also rewrote a spec script by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck. Krasinski’s previous directorial efforts Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and The Hollars were indie comedy-dramas, the kind of films you’d expect from an actor making his foray into directing. With A Quiet Place, Krasinski boldly steps into genre territory with a film that seems like the work of a seasoned horror filmmaker.

Krasinski wastes no time in reeling the audience into the world he creates, and once the movie gets a hold of us, it never lets go. The set-up is elegant, and the movie doesn’t get bogged down with too much exposition. The threat is firmly established, and we get to know the characters and the world they’re living in without it ever feeling boring. There is minimal gore, rendering the little explicit blood and violence that we see even more effective.

The set pieces are simple but staged with great finesse, and the sense of dread is all-encompassing. The grain silo scene is a nail-biter of the highest order. The film falls back on more than a few jump scares, but these are earned because of the effort with which the world is drawn, and because the premise justifies them.

Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s cinematography conveys the family’s melancholy, and the manipulation of light and shadow during the creature attack sequences is right up there with the similar scenes from Alien. A film like this lives or dies by the sound design, which is executed meticulously and ramps up the tension.

Beyond the atmospherics, A Quiet Place does something many horror films struggle with: it makes the audience care deeply about its characters. We get invested in the plight of this family and want to see them make it through their ordeal. The cast is small, the scope is intimate, and while we’re curious as to what happened to the rest of the world, our focus is trained on the Abbotts.

All the performances are affecting, and the film benefits from real-life husband and wife Krasinski and Blunt playing off each other. The couple visibly draws on their own experiences as parents to portray people who go to great lengths to protect their children. At no point does this seem self-indulgent, even with Krasinski starring, directing and co-writing. Both Krasinski and Blunt convey great warmth and sadness. While there are moments when the characters are deathly afraid, these performances don’t feel like what one would typically find in a horror film, further elevating the material. Blunt in a farmhouse toting a shotgun also brings Looper to mind, and Looper coming to mind is rarely a bad thing.

Millicent Simmonds is outstanding as Regan. The character has agency and her personal frustrations, regret and tension with her parents are given considerable attention. Simmonds is deaf in real life and lends the film great authenticity. Krasinski stated that he cast Simmonds so she could teach the cast what it’s like to live in a silent world. Most of the ‘dialogue’ in the film is delivered via American Sign Language, which Simmonds taught the cast.

Jupe’s Marcus is sensitive and frightened – his father is gently trying to teach him the survival skills he needs. The interaction between the parents and their children is thoroughly convincing, and this helps immensely in selling the premise.

While rival horror-centric studio Blumhouse has critically acclaimed successes like Get Out, Platinum Dunes, founded by Michael Bay, Andrew Form and Brad Fuller, has been mostly pumping out poorly-received remakes of classic horror franchises. Ouija: The Origin of Evil was the closest a Platinum Dunes horror movie came to be excellent. A Quiet Place is the studio’s finest offering yet.

As hard as it would’ve been to believe ten years ago, Jim from The Office has made one of the finest suspense horror movies in recent memory. Krasinski demonstrates precise control and heart, giving the film a sense of novelty as he makes it into so much more than just its gimmick.

RATING: 4.5 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

 

Wakanda Awaits: meet the characters of Black Panther

For inSing

Wakanda Awaits: meet the characters of Black Panther

Get to know the heroes and villains of this Marvel adventure

By Jedd Jong

Filmgoing audiences were introduced to Prince T’Challa/the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War. The Black Panther movie, directed by Ryan Coogler, takes us to T’Challa’s  home country of Wakanda. The technologically-advanced African nation has harnessed the rare mineral Vibranium, derived from a meteorite that crashed there millions of years ago.

Black Panther is the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and kicks off its tenth anniversary – the first MCU film, Iron Man, was released in 2008.

The character is the first superhero of African descent to appear in mainstream American comics. Black Panther debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966, and was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. Writers including Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates and artists including John Romita Jr., Brian Stelfreeze and Denys Cowan have worked on the Black Panther title.

The Black Panther film is already receiving rave reviews, with some calling it the best film in the MCU so far. The first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast, Black Panther is making an impact on the landscape of comic book films in a similar way that Wonder Woman did last year.

Before the movie whisks you off to Wakanda, here’s a primer on the characters you will meet there.

#1: T’CHALLA/BLACK PANTHER (Chadwick Boseman)

Chadwick Boseman has portrayed pioneering figures in African-American history in several biopics: baseball legend Jackie Robinson in 42, the godfather of soul James Brown in Get On Up and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. “The projects that I end up doing…have always been projects that will be impactful, for the most part, to my people — to black people,” Boseman said.  “To see black people in ways which you have not seen them before. So Black Panther was on my radar, and in my dreams.”

Boseman studied with a dialect coach to perfect a South African accent, and underwent an intense physical training regimen with martial artist Marrese Crump to perform the fight scenes. The film sees T’Challa struggle with the loss of his father, as he tries to keep the growing civil unrest in Wakanda under control – and face a challenger to his claim for the throne.

#2: ERIK STEVENS/KILLMONGER (Michael B. Jordan)

While Michael B. Jordan was in the critically-savaged Fantastic Four reboot, that did not scare him off taking on another role in a comic book movie. Like Chris Evans before him, who also played the Human Torch in two earlier Fantastic Four films, Jordan gets a second chance with a different Marvel character.

Jordan starred in Coogler’s earlier films Fruitvale Station and Creed, reuniting with the director as the main villain Killmonger. Killmonger is a Wakandan exile who became an American black-ops soldier, and believes that the Wakandan throne is rightfully his. Jordan described the character as “somebody you guys can root for,” calling him “a revolutionary.” Jordan repeated the adage that the villain believes he’s the hero of his own story. “If you can kind of get [the audience] to see that other point of view, I think the battle’s won,” Jordan remarked. Having already played a boxer in Creed, Jordan brought some of that physicality to Killmonger, saying that Coogler’s action scenes “tell a story with each punch”. Jordan also had to learn how to be handy with guns – “the weapons training is a totally different muscle,” he said.

#3: NAKIA (Lupita Nyong’o)

Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, a Wakandan intelligence operative and the ex-girlfriend of T’Challa. As a ‘war dog’, Nakia goes undercover on foreign soil, risking her life for the safety of her country. Nakia is one of several memorable female characters featured in the film. Nyong’o describes Nakia, who hails from Wakanda’s River Tribe, as “determined and methodical” and having “a quiet power”. Nyong’o asserts that Nakia is “she’s not your average love interest,” and that she and T’Challa have “a complicated past.”

“Wakanda is where we could be, where women are occupying their space in the future of a nation, they’re contributing equally and they’re allowed to realize their full potential and a woman’s power does not diminish a man’s,” Nyong’o observed. Nyong’o signed on without even reading the script, having admired Coogler’s previous work. After reading the script, she said she “couldn’t even believe it was a Marvel film, because it was so poignant, so politically and socially awake and aware.” The character’s fighting style is informed by judo, jiu-jitsu, silat and Filipino martial arts. She also learnt Korean for a scene set in Busan.

#4: OKOYE (Danai Gurira)

Danai Gurira, best known as silent badass Michonne on The Walking Dead, plays yet another commanding character: Okoye, the leader of the elite Dora Milaje bodyguard corps. Gurira was drawn to “the idea of protecting the leadership of this nation, the sovereignty of this nation, even if you don’t like what’s happening,” of putting country before personal politics – a dilemma that Okoye finds herself in.

Gurira describes Okoye as a traditionalist, saying “She has a pride and a patriotism about her nation. It goes beyond patriotism; it’s something even deeper.” Gurira spoke about travelling to Zimbabwe and seeing how excited the people there were about Black Panther. Musing on the impact the film will have on children of African descent all over the world, Gurira said “they’re in the centre of the screen, their faces are what you’re seeing. Their perspectives, their struggles, their stories, their characters, their destinies. That’s what we’re focused on, and their heroism.”

#5: SHURI (Letitia Wright)

Many reviews have noted Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister, as the scene-stealer of the film. Shuri is a 16-year-old genius scientist and inventor, who has devised cutting-edge technology to aid her brother’s crime-fighting efforts. Chief of these is a new suit which can harness and redistribute kinetic energy from strikes, and which fits into a necklace. In the comics, Shuri assumes the mantle of the Black Panther after her brother is grievously wounded in combat. Coogler says that Shuri’s genius is “on par with Tony Stark”.

Letitia Wright, who is being called the film’s breakout star, was recently seen in the fourth season of Black Mirror and will next be seen in Ready Player One. Wright was inspired to become an actress after watching the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee. While she describes herself as being “obsessed” with acting, faith was ultimately where she found her centre. “I don’t really consider myself religious. I view it more as a relationship,” she said, adding that she doesn’t mind if anyone finds that “weird”.  Wright says Shuri has “an innovative spirit and an innovative mind,” and as the embodiment of the future of Wakanda, “wants to take Wakanda to a new place”.

#6: RAMONDA (Angela Bassett)

The regal Ramonda, Queen Mother of Wakanda, is played by Angela Bassett. She too is reeling from the death of T’Chaka, her husband, but always appears calm and composed. In addition to being his mother, Ramonda is also one of T’Challa’s most trusted advisors. “It’s a lot of strength and balance and beauty and I’m just thrilled by getting to work with Danai and Lupita and actresses and brand new faces across the diaspora, it was beautifully cast,” Bassett said, adding that “it’s going to be quite a sight and I think it’s going to be magnetic.” Bassett played Amanda Waller in Green Lantern, and turned down the role of Storm in X-Men. This knowledge is wont to make one feel a little weird, since Storm and T’Challa ended up getting married in the comics.

#7: ULYSSES KLAUE (Andy Serkis)

Andy Serkis reprises his role from Avengers: Age of Ultron as the cutthroat South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. Serkis’ company The Imaginarium was working with James Spader and Mark Ruffalo for the motion capture work, when director Joss Whedon invited Serkis to play the role of Klaue.

When we last saw him, Klaue had his arm cut off by Ultron, and it’s now been replaced with a Vibranium cannon. “He’s got a humorous side to him, he’s got a sense of humour. But he’s equally very deadly and he’s quite mercurial and transitions emotionally very quickly,” Serkis said. Audiences are more used to seeing Serkis portray characters via performance capture, so this is the rare blockbuster in which he gets to show his real face.

#8: EVERETT K. ROSS (Martin Freeman)

CIA agent Everett K. Ross first appeared in Captain America: Civil War, helping to capture the film’s villain Zemo. Martin Freeman reprises the role here. Ross crosses path with T’Challa in Korea, and winds up travelling to Wakanda himself, where he finds himself in the thick of the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. Freeman and Serkis are the only two white actors in the main cast. “Making the film, it’s not lost on you. You think, ‘right, this is what black actors feel like all the time.’ And Andy wasn’t there often, so I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the white guy. And I’m the English white guy’,” Freeman recalled. Freeman reunited with Serkis, whom he worked with on the Hobbit movies in which Freeman played Bilbo opposite Serkis’ Gollum/Smeagol.

 

 

Black Panther movie review

For inSing

BLACK PANTHER

Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast : Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Sterling K. Brown
Genre : Action / Drama / Science Fiction
Run Time : 2h 14mins
Opens : 14 Feb 2018
Rating : PG

After making his debut on the big screen in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. His ascension to the throne will not go too smoothly, otherwise this wouldn’t be a very interesting movie.

After the death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa arrives home for his coronation. It is a bittersweet affair for T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). T’Challa is welcomed by elder statesman and spiritual leader Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the leader of the Dora Milaje bodyguard corps General Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his ex-girlfriend and undercover Wakandan intelligence operative Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

T’Challa’s claim to the crown is challenged by Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a hardened American black-ops soldier with an enigmatic link back to Wakandan royalty. Erik has allied himself with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the arms dealer who pillaged Wakanda’s valuable supply of Vibranium some 20 years ago. While tracking down Klaue, T’Challa runs into CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who finds himself along for the ride as Wakanda wages a battle for the nation’s very soul.

“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved,” Shuri tells her brother. Black Panther takes these words to heart, taking something that works – the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and improving on it. The MCU is now in its 10th year, and while it’s generated far more hits than misses, one still hears murmurs about ‘superhero movie fatigue’. The MCU movies have found an effective formula, but we want something different, something more.

Director Ryan Coogler, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, delivers that. The world-building in Black Panther is dazzling, with wonders waiting around every corner in Wakanda. The politics of the country are portrayed in an engaging manner, and Shakespearean palace intrigue is melded with the whiz-bang Afrofuturism of hovering vehicles and suits of armour that emanate from necklaces. Hannah Beachler’s production design and Ruth E. Carter’s costume design contribute to a visually captivating world brimming with texture.

Said world is populated by beautifully-realised characters – this is yet another MCU movie which boasts a cast stacked with talent. Boseman made an impression in Civil War with the stern dignity and undercurrent of vulnerability so crucial to T’Challa. The character continues to be noble but never boring, idealistic and principled without being naïve. T’Challa treats the throne with awe and respect as he mourns his father’s death. Boseman is thoroughly convincing as a steadfast leader.

Michael B. Jordan, who starred in director Coogler’s two previous films Creed and Fruitvale Station, brings swagger and contemptuous arrogance to the role of Erik. Erik’s Golden Jaguar suit means this is yet another solo MCU movie in which the hero fights an ‘evil inversion’ of himself – see Iron Man vs. Iron Monger or Ant-Man vs. Yellowjacket.

However, there’s more to Erik than your bog-standard MCU villain. Erik has one of the best motivations for an MCU villain yet, and while his tragic back-story has hints of melodrama to it, it’s also compelling and it’s easy for the audience to see his point of view. His rage and hunger for power make us root against him, but his righteous indignation and inner turmoil come from a genuine place.

Black Panther introduces some of the MCU’s best female characters yet. Danai Gurira, best known as Michonne on The Walking Dead, is a kickass right-hand woman to T’Challa who’s handy with a spear and doesn’t suffer fools. Nyong’o, who always exudes warmth and quiet intelligence, serves as a foil to Okoye while being formidable in her own right.

Letitia Wright steals the show as Shuri. Anyone who’s ever had a little sister will recognise the sometimes-annoying, sometimes-endearing traits the character displays. It’s also fun to see Shuri’s eyes light up when she talks effusively about her various mind-boggling inventions, including a new suit of armour for her brother. Executive producer Nate Moore has said that Shuri is even smarter than Tony Stark, and Wright seems to be having as much fun in the role as Robert Downey Jr. has with his.

Andy Serkis, probably grateful that audiences are getting to see his actual face instead of a computer-generated character with his expressions, reprises the role of Klaue from Avengers: Age of Ultron. He bites into the South African accent with relish and is wild, ruthless and entertaining.

Angela Bassett is suitably regal as the Queen Mother Ramonda – we wish she had more to do, but there’s already so much going on in the story. Whitaker’s Zuri is pretty much the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the film – Whitaker himself has said as much. Cleverly enough, Freeman’s Everett Ross plays an important role without overshadowing any of the leads.

Black Panther makes a further case for the cinematic universe as a sandbox for the vision of a talented filmmaker. It never feels like Coogler was curtailed or hampered by corporate higher-ups, and yet this feels of a piece with the existing MCU canon.

Black Panther boldly steps into territory that the MCU hasn’t quite trodden before. While there are the expected superhero origin story tropes, the film’s rich tapestry of culture, technology and action spectacle gives it a welcome freshness. The world of Wakanda is one you’ll want to dive into, and there’s potential for its further exploration in sequels to come.

Hang around for a mid-credits scene, and a second post-credits stinger.

RATING: 4.5 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

The Shape of Water movie review

For inSing

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Director : Guillermo del Toro
Cast : Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Genre : Drama, Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 4m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes And Nudity)

       In The Godfather, the Corleone family received a threatening message, telling them that the enforcer Luca Brasi “sleeps with the fishes”.

This fantasy romance film puts an entirely different spin on that phrase.

It is 1962, and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor working at a secret government facility in Baltimore. Elsa lives alone, and her two best friends are her neighbour, illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the severe head of security, arrives at the facility with precious cargo in tow – a humanoid amphibian creature dubbed ‘the Asset’ (Doug Jones). Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is studying the Asset, takes issue with Strickland’s harsh treatment towards the creature.

Elisa gradually begins to bond with the creature, bringing him eggs and playing music on a gramophone in his presence. As unlikely as it seems, Elisa begins to fall in love with the Asset. When she discovers his life is in danger, Elisa sets about rescuing the Asset from the facility, making her a target of Strickland’s wrath.

Director Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the film with Vanessa Taylor, has always been a genre filmmaker. All his films can be classified as fantasy, horror, science fiction, or some combination of the above. However, this has never restricted him – rather, working within these genres has freed del Toro as a storyteller. General audiences often view genre films through a somewhat narrow lens, but del Toro broadens said lens, and The Shape of Water is an excellent example of this approach. The film has garnered 13 Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director – it’s not every day that the Academy recognises fantasy romance monster movies this way.

This is a weird, beautiful, enchanting movie. On the surface, there’s the oddness of a woman falling in love and entering a physical relationship with a humanoid fish creature. Originally, del Toro wanted to remake Creature from the Black Lagoon, but from Gill-man’s perspective, recasting the classic movie monster as a romantic lead.

Naturally, cheesy romance novels in which women fall in love with supernatural creatures of various stripes, including but not limited to vampires, werewolves, angels and immortals, come to mind. However, The Shape of Water is far more poetic and less literal than that. Its bizarreness is intertwined with enveloping warmth. This is a movie about outsiders finding solace and understanding in each other, and past the genre trappings, there’s something pure and resonant about that.

The film treats 60s America with a degree of romanticism, but is also keenly aware of the societal tensions at the time and how those attitudes continue to manifest themselves today. This is a fantasy, but the world in which it unfolds is eminently believable.

Like all del Toro’s movies, The Shape of Water is deliberately designed. All the little details vividly evoke the period, and the atmospherics, from the colour palette to Alexandre Desplat’s harp-driven score, sell the film as a meticulously crafted whole. As envisioned by production designer Paul D. Austerberry and shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, there’s a cold dankness to the research facility. However, this proves to be the right setting for the romance between Elisa and the Asset to blossom, the unromantic surrounds throwing their bond into sharper relief.

The Elisa character gives Hawkins the opportunity to deliver a sensitive yet electrifying performance. The character is mute, and has always felt like she’s been regarded as missing something everyone else does, but she is a whole person, with dreams and desires of her own. The character’s sexuality is portrayed with a refreshing frankness, and Hawkins brings no vanity to the part at all.

Hawkins’ physicality complements the physicality displayed by Doug Jones, an oft-collaborator of Guillermo del Toro’s. Like classic movie monster portrayers Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, there’s more to Doug Jones than the fact that he’s in special effects makeup in most of his roles. In The Shape of Water, he gives a legitimately masterful performance, overcoming the constraints of what must’ve been a very uncomfortable suit, especially since Jones was in water for most of the film.

With his luminous skin and limpid eyes, The Asset is beautifully designed, and has become something of an unlikely sex symbol. Legacy Effects developed the special effects suit and makeup, and it’s easy to buy the Asset as a living, breathing entity. However, he looks so much like Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies – also directed by del Toro – that this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine the Asset was Abe Sapien, even though del Toro has said they’re different characters.

Michael Shannon is in maximum creep mode, playing a truly despicable antagonist. Strickland is inherently cruel, racist and exacting, but has also bought in to the consumerist message of the ‘American dream’, coveting a fancy new Cadillac. There’s a bit of a supervillain air to Strickland, but Shannon never goes the full moustache-twirling hog. There’s the religious zealot angle, with Strickland referencing Bible stories and saying that the Asset is an aberration for not being made ‘in God’s image’. Shannon can always be counted on to play a scary villain, and Strickland is plenty scary.

Jenkins’ Giles is a loveable character, someone who’s harbouring a secret and whom, like Elisa, knows what it’s like to be an outcast. The friendship shared by Elisa and Giles is sweet, and Jenkins and Hawkins play off each other to create an unconventional, lightly comedic double act.

Spencer plays to type as Zelda, sassy and chatty and always an understanding friend and co-worker to Elisa. Stuhlbarg’s character seems like the stock sci-fi movie scientist, but we see a few layers to him as the film progresses.

The Shape of Water is an exquisite creation that brims with humanity. It’s not afraid to expose some of the ugliness of humanity, but it counteracts that with indescribable beauty. This is a fairy tale for grown-ups, with plenty to say beyond its central conceit of ‘woman falls in love with humanoid fish monster’. There will be audiences who might be put off by its superficial weirdness, but most viewers will find it easy to surrender to the film’s embrace, however cold and slimy it might seem at first.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong