Serenity review

SERENITY

Director: Steven Knight
Cast: Mathew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, Diane Lane, Jeremy Strong, Rafael Sayegh
Genre: Drama/Thriller/Mystery
Run Time: 1 h 46 mins
Opens: 21 February 2019
Rating: M18

           Interstellar stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway reunite under extremely bizarre circumstances in this neo-noir thriller, which is already being called the worst film of 2019.

McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a fisherman on the idyllic Plymouth Island who takes tourists out to sea on his fishing boat, the Serenity. Baker’s ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives on the island, asking Baker to kill her current husband, the abusive Frank (Jason Clarke). The plan is to get Frank drunk during a fishing trip and throw him overboard. Baker is initially resistant to the plan, but eventually feels he owes it to his and Karen’s son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) to free Karen from Frank’s grip. A tale of murder, madness and vengeance unfolds in paradise as Baker soon finds himself in way over his head.

Within days of opening in the U.S., Serenity’s badness has become legendary: the movie was a box office bomb that marked the lowest openings in McConaughey and Hathaway’s careers. Distributor Aviron gave up on marketing the movie altogether, cancelling planned publicity events and talk show appearances for its stars.

Is Serenity as bad as everyone is saying? Short answer: it is. Writer-director Steven Knight set out to make a “sexy noir” thriller, and for the first hour or so of the movie, it comes across as awkward and slightly melodramatic but never offensively bad. Then, as things ramp up and the plot reaches a crescendo, the film builds to a baffling, staggering twist ending. It’s a twist that truly must be seen to be believed, the kind of reveal that nobody could have ever though was a good idea.

The movie feels like a hybrid of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and 90s erotic thrillers like Basic Instinct and The Colour of the Night. The film was shot in Mauritius and setting it on a remote island away from the madding crowd gives the movie an initial air of mystery, but everything is so over-the-top and ham-fisted that Serenity has no dramatic impact at all.

Matthew McConaughey may be an Oscar winner, having found redemption after years of floundering about in sub-par romantic comedies, but he still makes missteps in choosing his projects. As the tortured hero with a tragic past, McConaughey does a lot of yelling at the sky. There’s an extended skinny-dipping scene, which is perhaps the most worthwhile thing in the movie. The character is intended to be sympathetic but doesn’t come close to making audiences root for him.

Michael O’Sullivan of The Washington Post described Anne Hathaway’s performance as “kind of a live-action Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and we can’t come up with a better description than that. Everything is heightened and hard to believed, but Hathaway’s turn as a blonde femme fatale is the most heightened and hardest to believe part of Serenity.

Jason Clarke’s abusive husband character is just that, a one-dimensional villain. It looks like Clarke had fun playing him, but he has played despicable characters with more nuance to them and it’s just more interesting that way.

Diane Lane shows up as a woman whom Baker sleeps with for money. That’s about it as far as her character goes. Oh, Djimon Hounsou is in this movie too.

There’s a version of this movie which is a tongue-in-cheek stealth parody of erotic thriller conventions that might have worked, but this is just a failure on every level. There’s a novelty factor to two Oscar-winning movie stars headlining what promises to be a steamy thriller, but Serenity fizzles out in spectacular fashion. By the time the mind-boggling conclusion rolls around, the movie has done a slow-motion faceplant on the ground. It’s also a shame that Serenity tarnishes the good name of 2005’s Serenity, the movie continuation of Joss Whedon’s space western TV series Firefly.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Advertisements

The Mule review

THE MULE

Director : Clint Eastwood
Cast : Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Allison Eastwood, Taissa Farmiga, Dianne Wiest, Andy García, Clifton Collins Jr., Eugene Cordero, Noel Gugliemi
Genre : Crime/Drama/Mystery
Run Time : 1 h 56 mins
Opens : 10 January 2019
Rating : M18

Clint Eastwood is 88-years-old and has been working steadily since the 50s, so it makes sense that some of his recent films deal with aging. In this drama, his character’s old age is an asset, because it makes him less suspicious – as a drug mule.

Eastwood plays Earl Stone, a nonagenarian horticulturist and Vietnam War veteran who has fallen on hard times after his house and farm is foreclosed upon. Earl is estranged from his family, including his ex-wife Mary (Dianne Wiest), his daughter Iris (Alison Eastwood) and his granddaughter Ginny (Taissa Farmiga). Earl comes across what he thinks will be a one-off opportunity as a drug runner for a Mexican cartel. Because the work is easy and pays extremely well, Earl finds himself coming back, unexpectedly becoming one of the cartel’s top mules.

DEA Agents Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper) and Trevino (Michael Peña) learn through an informant about a mule the cartel refers to as “Tata”, Spanish for “grandfather”. The deliveries are being brought into Chicago, with the agents closing in on the elusive mule. Back in Mexico, cartel kingpin Laton (Andy García) is pleased with Earl’s performance, but his lieutenants are spooked by the increasing DEA activity, taking issue with Earl’s penchant for unscheduled stops. Earl knows his successful run working for the cartel cannot last forever and faces the inevitable: he will either be killed by cartel enforcers or captured by the DEA.

The Mule is based on an article in The New York Times by Sam Dolnick, entitled The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year-Old Drug Mule. Eastwood and screenwriter Nick Schenk, who got his big break penning Eastwood’s Gran Torino, have taken loose inspiration from the life of Leo Sharp, a World War II veteran who became a drug runner for the cartel run by El Chapo. Eastwood’s presence as director, producer and star means that it’s obvious that he has projected himself onto the Earl Stone character, who is drawn as a well-meaning, good-hearted man who just isn’t properly appreciated by his family and winds up doing bad things even though he is not a bad person.

Eastwood is too in love with the character, who functions as an avatar of himself, for the movie to accomplish very much. Having directed 34 movies, Eastwood more than knows what he’s doing on the technical front and draws out good performances from his talented cast. However, he is squarely the centre of attention. Earl berates younger people for constantly being on their smartphones and functions as a stubborn guardian of a bygone age, an old-fashioned stalwart who doesn’t get the respect he deserves. He also has at least two threesomes with prostitutes, scenes which one imagines Eastwood doing multiple takes of just to be sure.

Cooper and Peña are given underwritten roles, but Cooper does get one good scene set in a Waffle House in which he gets to do a bit more than chase after Clint Eastwood. Dianne Wiest is the standout in the cast as Earl’s ex-wife, who harbours less ill-will towards Earl than his daughter Iris (played by Eastwood’s real daughter Alison) but who still wishes things could’ve been different. The skill with which Wiest conveys quiet sadness ensures the relationship is not overly treacly.

The scenes in which Earl is friendly towards the cartel members lower on the ladder who warm to him are quite endearing. Both Andy García and Laurence Fishburne are on hand to lend additional gravitas in relatively small roles as a cartel boss and a senior DEA agent respectively.

The Mule is not an instant classic the way some of Eastwood’s films are, and it is more obviously a vanity project than several other late-period Eastwood movies. There are moments when it’s charming and the Earl Stone character is not the worst person to spend a couple of hours with, but the movie fundamentally lacks any urgency or drive. The moments of tension, when it feels like Earl’s Faustian bargain is catching up to him, are too few and far between. It is ultimately saved by the compelling nature of the true story and Eastwood’s unquestionable competence as a director but is not one of the more essential entries in his oeuvre.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Widows review

WIDOWS

Director : Steve McQueen
Cast : Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Garrett Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Lukas Haas, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Coburn Goss
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 129 mins
Opens : 6 December 2018
Rating : M18

This summer movie season brought us the glittery fun of Ocean’s Eight, but now it’s time for a much more serious take on the female-led heist movie concept in the form of Widows.

Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) is a thief who has never put a foot wrong, until one fateful night when he and his crew comprising Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss) are killed during a botched job. Harry and his team were stealing $2 million from crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is running for alderman of the 18th precinct of Chicago. Jamal’s opponent is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who hails from a political dynasty including his father, former alderman Tom (Robert Duvall), with whom he has a contentious relationship.

Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) is threatened by Jamal and his enforcer brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), who want Harry’s debt to them repaid. Veronica decides to undertake Harry’s next job, for which he kept detailed plans in his notebook. Veronica ropes in Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), leaving the fourth widow Amanda (Carrie Coon) out of the plan because she has a new-born child. Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairstylist and part-time babysitter hired by Linda, steps in. Together, the four women must pull off a high-stakes heist that finds them embroiled in a dicey conspiracy involving the city’s powerful politicians and mobsters.

Widows is based on the 1983 ITV miniseries of the same name, and marks Steve McQueen’s first film as director since 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. McQueen co-wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame. Widows has plenty of pedigree in front of and behind the camera and is a bit of an odd beast because at first glance, it sounds like the kind of plot one might find in a direct-to-DVD action movie. One could imagine a much cheaper, more sloppily-made version of Widows being something to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

For better and worse, Widows is not that movie. The story is layered with political commentary and does have the sometimes-odd feel of a crime thriller imbued with prestige movie filmmaking. There is a meticulousness to the world-building and how each character’s specific circumstances are established, but this is also a movie that seems to want to tell a story beyond the confines of the genre. That’s not to say that an action thriller can’t be deep or tackle topical issues, but Widows’ approach sometimes calls attention to itself, pulling the viewer out of what could’ve been an intensely engaging story. It’s not the most obvious comparison, but this reviewer was reminded of Ben Affleck’s The Town, also a crime thriller in which the protagonists are thieves, and also a movie about the desperation brought on by socioeconomic inequality in American cities.

The performances are strong across the board, with Viola Davis showcasing the strength and no-nonsense demeanour seen in many of her characters. We see Veronica in her vulnerable moments, but we also witness the full effect of her steely resolve. She is not out to befriend her co-conspirators and is business-like and harsh in her interactions with the other widows, who all need comfort and a listening ear to varying degrees.

Debicki is the standout among the rest of the cast, portraying a character who comes off as just a dumb blonde at first, but who is to be underestimated at one’s peril. A subplot involves Alice’s reluctant ‘sugar daddy’ arrangement with real estate developer David (Lukas Haas). There’s a lot more going on with the character than one realises at first, which gives Debicki quite a bit to play with.

Erivo is an entertaining badass and Rodriguez gets to play a few more notes than the typical ‘tough chick’ she gets typecast as. Colin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry play warring politicians, both crooked in their own ways. When the film wades into political thriller territory, it loses a bit of the intimacy and urgency that it has when we’re with the widows themselves.

Kaluuya is a brilliant actor, but cast against type as a heavy, he can’t quite muster up what it takes to be truly intimidating. The always-dependable Neeson is used judiciously, making the most of his limited screen time.

Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell make for an entertaining double act as father-and-son politicians at each other’s throats, but their subplots mostly feel like a distraction from the main plot.

There’s also the most adorable dog, a West Highland Terrier named Olivia whom moviegoers might recognise from Game Night. Olivia is up against Academy Award winners and nominees, but handily steals the show.

The violence depicted in the film has impact, and there are many moments that jolt the viewer out of sitting too comfortably in their cinema seat. There are smatterings of comedy which give the audience a reprieve from the overall seriousness of the film, but some of these moments are a little awkward. There is a strategy to how information and back-story details are parcelled out to the audience, and there is merit in McQueen’s approach of a crime movie that offers more than just mindless action. However, the film’s centre often threatens to buckle, and Widows adds up to slightly less than the sum of its parts.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Creed II review

CREED II

Director : Steven Caple Jr.
Cast : Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Russell Hornsby
Genre : Sports/Drama
Run Time : 130 mins
Opens : 29 November 2018
Rating : PG13

           As Killmonger in Black Panther, Michael B. Jordan may have lost the throne to Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, but in this sequel to Creed, he’s trying to hold on to that championship belt.

It is three years after the events of the first film, and Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has enjoyed a string of victories, becoming the newly-crowned WBC World Heavyweight Champion. However, Adonis’ reign is threatened by the formidable Viktor Dragon (Florian Munteanu). There is a personal reason Adonis accepts Viktor’s challenge: Viktor’s father Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) killed Adonis’ father Apollo some 33 years ago.

Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), Adonis’ coach, warns against taking on Viktor, fearful of history repeating itself. In the meantime, Adonis’ girlfriend-turned-fiancé Bianca (Tessa Thompson) has given birth to their daughter Amara. Tony “Little Duke” Evers (Wood Harris), whose father trained Apollo Creed, helps Rocky prepare Adonis to face off against Viktor. Adonis’ mother Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) must brace herself for the possibility that just as she lost her husband to Ivan, she will lose her son to another Drago. The stage is set for an epic confrontation with everything on the line.

2015’s Creed established both star Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler as bona fide stars; both went on to further earn this status with this year’s Black Panther. Director Steven Caple Jr., also a young, promising filmmaker, has big shoes to fill. He directs Creed II with an eye for drama, focusing on the relationships between the characters more than the spectacle. While this means that the story has room to breathe and the performers have space to make an impact, it also means that the film is not as propulsive or exciting as some might have hoped.

Creed II emerges as a less personal work than its predecessor, but there’s quite a bit here for long-time Rocky fans to sink their teeth into. A bout between Adonis Creed and the progeny of the icily unyielding Ivan Drago is almost too obvious a sequel plot, but it works. If Creed was built upon formula, then Creed II follows established sports drama tropes even closer, meaning that while there is some satisfaction to be had in the way the story turns out, there are few surprises.

Both Jordan and Stallone anchor this film as they did the previous one, and there is conflict in the relationship between Adonis and Rocky, but there is also great warmth. Adonis has let success get to his head, and rejects the wisdom Rocky has to offer, but cannot go too long without Rocky in his corner. Jordan’s physique continues to be impressive and swoon-worthy, living up to his character’s namesake Greek god. Jordan tempers the intensity he brings to the fight scenes with a playful boyishness, keeping Adonis likeable even when he’s too headstrong for his own good.

Stallone co-wrote the film with Juel Taylor, with Sascha Penn and Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker getting a ‘story by’ credit. Stallone had to be convinced by Coogler to sign off on the first Creed, so now that Stallone has a greater involvement in crafting the sequel, it’s good that the film doesn’t seem like a vanity project, with the movie dedicating just the right amount of screen time to Rocky.

Tessa Thompson’s Bianca did feel a little too much like the designated love interest the first time around, and while the character is mostly there to give Adonis that much more to fight for, she does have agency in the proceedings. Bianca becomes a mother but is also moving forward in her music career. In showing the warmth and support that surrounds Adonis in the form of Rocky, Bianca and Adonis’ mother Mary Anne, the film contrasts this with the stark coldness that Viktor grows up in.

Creed II outshines the first movie when it comes to the villains. Real-life Romanian-born, German-raised boxer Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu looks every inch the giant bruiser that has us afraid for Adonis’ safety. The harshness that characterises Ivan’s relationship with his son is not overly cartoony and engenders sympathy for both characters even as they threaten our heroes.

Lundgren has some of the film’s best moments, showcasing genuine acting chops and conveying the personal ruin that was the aftermath of Ivan’s humiliating defeat at Rocky’s hands in Rocky IV. The confrontation between Ivan and Rocky in Rocky’s restaurant is one of the film’s standout moments, and Lundgren gets the chance to shade Ivan with the depth he didn’t quite have as the villain of Rocky IV.

Creed II is a solidly built film, sticking closely with the characters rather than getting carried away with overblown spectacle. While it delivers in terms of giving weight to its links to the earlier Rocky films instead of those connections feeling like mere fanservice, the movie demands its audience’s patience, and because it is so predictable, doesn’t quite pay that off. It’s not bad by any means, but we don’t quite see the need for a Creed III after this.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald review

FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDELWALD

Director : David Yates
Cast : Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Zoë Kravitz, Callum Turner, Claudia Kim, Jude Law, Johnny Depp, Brontis Jodorowsky
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy/Drama
Run Time : 134 mins
Opens : 15 November 2018
Rating : PG

The Wizarding World gains a new wrinkle as writer J.K. Rowling takes us deeper into the happenings that far preceded young Harry Potter’s enrolment at Hogwarts. It is 1927 and leaving off the events of the first Fantastic Beasts film, magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is still being reprimanded by the Ministry of Magic for his involvement in the chaos in New York the previous year. Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law), Newt’s former Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher at Hogwarts, entrusts him with a special mission: find and defeat the treacherous wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp), with whom Dumbledore has a shared past.

Grindelwald’s agenda of Pureblood wizard supremacy and complete control over the non-magical population requires one special ingredient: Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is off in search of his identity. Newt, reuniting with MACUSA Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson), Tina’s sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Queenie’s boyfriend Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), must get to Credence before Grindelwald does, as Grindelwald amasses more support for his dangerous ideology.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald takes the flaws of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and amplifies them. While the first Fantastic Beasts movie was ostensibly a whimsical monster movie about a tweedy textbook author who is flung into a larger-than-life adventure, The Crimes of Grindelwald is on its way to almost entirely dropping that pretence, pushing this line of films further into the tangled back-story of the original Harry Potter series. Director David Yates and screenwriter JK Rowling return, and The Crimes of Grindelwald does feel like a part of the larger Wizarding World, but it also seems designed to frustrate and annoy the Potterhead faithful and casual viewers alike.

While Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them was far enough removed from the main line of Potter lore for neophytes to hop on to, The Crimes of Grindelwald dives head-first into reams of back-story, such that characters are trying to catch their breath while delivering exposition. Many issues with the storytelling can be traced to how this is movie #2 in a planned series of five films, meaning the usual frustration that comes with watching the second movie in a trilogy is multiplied. There aren’t just a few loose ends left untied, this is a two-for-one loose end sale.

The film’s glaring faults aside, fans of the Wizarding World will find plenty that’s charming about this movie, and it will be hard to not be moved by the film’s brief sojourn back to the Hogwarts grounds, a stop by the Great Hall included. Production designer Stuart Craig’s sets are beautiful creations, the French Ministry of Magic a particularly elegant locale. Colleen Atwood’s costumes for the earlier film nabbed the designer her fourth Oscar win, and Tina gets to sport a particularly sleek leather coat this time around. James Newton Howard’s sumptuous score conjures up memories of John Williams’ work on the series, while stopping short of feeling like a copycat. Alas, much of the visual effects work, especially on the creatures, continues to feel synthetic, making us pine for that animatronic Basilisk from the end of Chamber of Secrets.

While the first film planted the seeds of Grindelwald’s looming presence in the magical world, the sequel places him front and centre. No longer a shadowy threat, Johnny Depp is all over this movie, his casting having led to much uproar. Even leaving aside the domestic abuse allegations that make Depp’s presence in this film cast a dark pall on the rest of it, his Grindelwald just isn’t magnetic or menacing enough. The character is meant to be a seductive populist who cleverly veils his hateful creed in shrewd warnings of Muggle arrogance and self-destructiveness. Depp may have residual star power, but he falls dramatically short when he’s supposed to carry this film.

It is comforting to see Newt, Tina, Jacob and Queenie again, but the returning characters must make a little room for new ones. Zoë Kravitz’s Leta Lestrange, a former flame of Newt’s and now involved with Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner), is an enigmatic character who has lots of dramatic potential but gets short shrift. Similarly, Ezra Miller’s conflicted Credence, who proved one of the most interesting parts of the first film, shows glimmers of power, but his story is purposefully incomplete.

Jude Law’s appearance as a dashing young Dumbledore is one of the film’s big selling points, but his screen time is necessarily brief. The crucial relationship and later falling out between Dumbledore and Grindelwald is hinted at but not expounded upon. Callum Turner is bound to become Tumblr’s new boyfriend and the sibling rivalry between Newt and Theseus is fun, but borders on feeling extraneous.

One of the other controversial aspects of the film, casting South Korean actress Claudia Kim as the human form of the snake Nagini, proves to be more fuss than it’s worth. The problematic implications are there, but the inclusion of Nagini contributes practically nothing to the story.

There is another review with the headline “with The Crimes of Grindelwald, J.K. Rowling has hit peak George Lucas”. While that is a bit hyperbolic, the comparison isn’t without merit. There is obviously plenty of care taken in further crafting the look and feel of the Wizarding World, but as the film piles on the reveals and gets lost in doling out fan-service, the movie clearly buckles under its own weight. Now to wait for three more of these and it all might make sense then.

 

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Bohemian Rhapsody review

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

Director : Bryan Singer, Dexter Fletcher
Cast : Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joseph Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Tom Hollander, Allen Leech, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Ace Bhatti, Meneka Das
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 136 mins
Opens : 1 November 2018
Rating : M18

            Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? The story of Freddie Mercury and the band Queen comes to the big screen in a biopic that’s somewhere in the middle, but perhaps a little closer to the fantasy end of the spectrum.

It is 1970 in England. Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek), born Farrokh Bulsara to parents Bomi (Ace Bhatti) and Jer (Meneka Das), is a young singer-songwriter with dreams of stardom. Freddie goes to see the band Smile perform, and after the departure of their lead singer/bassist Tim Staffell (Jack Roth), Freddie petitions guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) to join Smile. With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello), Freddie rebrands the band Queen. When they rent a recording studio to record an album, the fledgling band is discovered and is signed to record label EMI.

So begins a meteoric rise into the stratosphere for Queen, who break into the Billboard charts in the USA and become a worldwide phenomenon. However, there is trouble behind the scenes. Freddie’s fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) quickly realises he is gay, and Freddie’s personal manager and lover Paul Prenter (Allen Leech) drives a wedge between Freddie and the other members of Queen. In 1985, the band is given the chance to perform at the massive benefit concert Live Aid, but with Freddie succumbing to AIDS, it will take everything he has to return to the stage.

Bohemian Rhapsody has had a notoriously rocky journey to the big screen. The film was announced in 2010, with Sacha Baron Cohen attached to the Freddie Mercury role. Following disagreements with May and Taylor, Cohen departed the project. Ben Whishaw was briefly set to replace Cohen, then Dexter Fletcher came onboard to direct, before leaving over creative differences with producer Graham King. Rami Malek was sought to star. Bryan Singer then joined as director, but about two-thirds through production, was let go, reportedly due to absences from the set and clashes with Malek. Fletcher was then brought back to replace Singer.

The resulting film is far from a mess but does leave a bit to be desired. This reviewer got chills multiple times, and the music of Queen does a lot of the heavy lifting. There are many moments in the film that border on saccharine, but against all odds, are effectively emotional. There are also enjoyable bits when Freddie, Brian, Roger and John are all just being silly and goofing about. However, the film feels less like an insightful peek behind the curtain and more like a highlight reel of all the important moments in the band’s history.

It is this feeling of flitting from moment to moment that robs the film of its authenticity, but that also lends it some charm. When Freddie plays the opening bars of “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the piano, asking Mary if there’s any potential in the tune, or when Brian stomps his feet and claps to form the start of “We Will Rock You”, or when John spontaneously generates the bassline for “Another One Bites the Dust”, audience members are supposed to nudge their friends in recognition.

There is a bombastic cheesiness to the whole affair that is perhaps fitting for the subject matter, but these moments also firmly make Bohemian Rhapsody feel like the ‘Hollywood version’ of the Queen story. There are times when the film is in danger of feeling like a Saturday Night Live sketch, especially when Mike Myers makes a cameo appearance as (fictional) EMI executive Ray Foster. One can almost picture Blue Öyster Cult waiting outside the studio, with Christopher Walken ready to demand more cowbell.

Rami Malek’s performance is a big part of why the movie ends up as an engaging, affecting work despite its shortcomings. One can sense that Malek is aware of the responsibility of portraying such an iconic and beloved musical icon, but he does not crumble under the weight of said responsibility. He’s more than just a great pretender: there’s the flamboyance, flair and prosthetic teeth, but Malek is careful not to let his portrayal of Freddie slide into caricature, even as other aspects of the movie do. The flashes of vulnerability and lostness behind his eye register as genuine. All the vocals are lip-synced to original recordings of Queen, with Marc Martel providing additional vocals.

Boynton, star of the underrated musical Sing Street, is destined for superstardom. Her portrayal of Mary Austin is heart-rending even though the film doesn’t quite flesh her character out. There’s a sweetness but also a toughness to Boynton’s Mary, such that the audience sympathises with both her and Freddie.

Some questionable wig work aside, Lee, Hardy and Mazzello are all quite believable as May, Taylor and Deacon. The real-life May and Taylor are still involved with Queen and had a significant say in what went into this movie. As a result, May especially comes off as a saint. Deacon, who retired from music in 1997, is portrayed as the butt of the joke, but each member has moments when they’re endearing and it’s clear that they all cared for each other even through Freddie’s personal tumult.

Ace Bhatti and Meneka Das make small but impactful appearances as Freddie’s parents Bomi and Jer respectively. Tom Hollander’s Jim Beach is genial and supportive – Beach is a co-producer on the film. Allen Leech’s Paul Prenter grows slimier as the film progresses, while Aaron McCusker brings a warmth and twinkle in the eye to Jim Hutton, Freddie’s boyfriend during his final days.

The film’s re-enactment of the Live Aid concert is a sweeping triumph, capturing the epic scale of the event with a depiction of Queen’s entire set beginning to end. Bohemian Rhapsody will likely be a crowd-pleaser with a middling, bordering on negative critical reception. While its gloss makes it seem like the film skims the surface, the everlasting music produced by the band and strong, committed performances make it not quite the champion, but at the very least the bronze.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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

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