Last Christmas review

For F*** Magazine

LAST CHRISTMAS

Director: Paul Feig
Cast : Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic, Peter Serafinowicz, Rob Delaney, Patti LuPone
Genre : Drama, Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 28 November 2019
Rating: NC16

Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is an infectiously inescapable ditty during the Holiday Season. This comedy directed by Paul Feig of Bridesmaids and Spy fame and co-written by Emma Thompson is inspired by the song. What plot can be mined from the lyrics of this beloved Christmas song/breakup anthem?

Kate (Emilia Clarke) has been plagued by a string of bad luck. She works in a shop selling Christmas decorations and is constantly berated by her boss “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh). She has had several one-night stands end disastrously, unsuccessfully auditioned for various shows on the West End and is a burden on all her friends. Kate doesn’t have the best relationship with her family who immigrated to the UK from former Yugoslavia and is always being nagged at by her mother Adelia (Emma Thompson). Kate’s luck seems to change when she meets Tom (Henry Golding), a cheerful young man who is always telling her to “look up”. However, she can’t quite figure Tom out or pin him down. Tom guides Kate on a journey of self-discovery as she attempts to put her life back together.

Last Christmas is sometimes charming thanks to a role that fits Emilia Clarke well and because of its Christmastime London setting. Londoners will be the first to tell you that it isn’t the most romantic city in the world, but when dressed up in fairy lights and shot by John Schwartzman, it is very pretty. The Yuletide store where Kate works is in Covent Garden, and Last Christmas depicts London in full-on fairy tale winter wonderland mode.

In addition to Clarke, the cast is good. Michelle Yeoh has a knack for playing characters who are outwardly stern but ultimately good-hearted, as her “Santa” character is here. Henry Golding is every inch the dashing, sweet and confident rom-com leading man. Emma Thompson’s role is largely comedic, but there’s also some sadness and unarticulated frustration there that she plays well.

Musical theatre fans will also enjoy the random cameo by Broadway superstar Patti LuPone, which she likely filmed while doing Company on the West End in 2018.

Last Christmas utterly overdoses on twee. It is trying to be reminiscent of Love Actually, but the story is all over the place and the movie seems to think it is much cleverer than it really is.

Clarke may be trying her best and she may suit the part well, but Kate as a character often borders on annoying. The by-now tired “manic pixie dream girl” archetype seems to apply to both Kate and Tom here. Kate is klutzy and dysfunctional, while Tom opens her eyes to the magic that is all around her and that she’s just never noticed. Sharing the cliché between two characters doesn’t make it any less of a cliché.

If you go back to look at the comments sections for this film’s early trailers, you can see people call the big reveal even back then. The movie’s twist has been done before and been done much better, such that when we’re told what has really been happening, it’s more likely to induce eye-rolls than gasps.

The screenplay was written by Thompson and Bryrony Kimmings, with Thompson and her husband Greg Wise receiving screen story credit. There are several ideas in the script that barely get explored, including that of the immigrant experience in the UK, especially in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, as well as how the homeless and less fortunate spend their holidays. Kimmings is an artist known for her socially conscious work and one can tell that there is an attempt to make Last Christmas more meaningful than your average romantic comedy, but none of this really gels together.

In addition to “Last Christmas”, various other George Michael songs appear in the movie. The Kate character is a huge George Michael fan, and the film begins with a young Kate singing “Heal the Pain” with a church choir. The film also includes a previously unreleased track, “This Is How (We Want You To Get High)”. While the filmmakers’ affection for Michael’s music is palpable, it isn’t integrated into the storytelling that well. A key plot point is inspired by a horrifyingly literal reading of one George Michael lyric which is far more morbid than sweet.

If you love George Michael and have romantic fantasies about Covent Garden in the winter, maybe you’ll get something out of this, but otherwise this is an incredibly muddled romantic comedy that is a strange and discordant mishmash.

Summary: Last Christmas attempts to turn the romcom formula on its head, but by introducing various other elements into the mix, we end up with a Christmas pudding that leaves an odd aftertaste.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Men in Black: International review

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Emma Thompson, Rafe Spall, Les Twins
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 55 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : PG13

          They’ve been absent from the big screen for seven years, but the shadowy organisation that polices and conceals alien activity on earth has resurfaced in Men in Black: International, the spin-off of the Men in Black series.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) is a newly instated member of the agency, still on probation. After witnessing Men in Black operatives in action as a child, she has long harboured a fascination with the agency and finally gets her dream job. Agent O (Emma Thompson), head of the New York branch, dispatches Agent M to MIB’s London headquarters, overseen by High T (Liam Neeson). There, she meets Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a hotshot hailed for defeating an alien species called the Hive in Paris alongside High T.

When a shape-shifting alien duo (Les Twins) corners Agent M and Agent H, they learn that the Hive may have been resurfaced, with the predatory invaders after a powerful alien artefact. Their battle against the Twins sends Agent M and Agent H to Morocco, where they befriend Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a diminutive alien. Agent H must confront Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), a powerful, dangerous figure from his past, as he and Agent M discover there just might be a mole within the organisation. The MIB can always be counted on to save the world, but what happens when a threat arises from within?

The Men in Black films are loosely based on the Malibu comics series by Lowell Cunningham. The urban legend of shadowy government agents has existed among UFO-enthusiast circles for decades, but it was the Men in Black movies that cemented the idea in the public consciousness. Being released the year after Independence Day, the first Men in Black movie also further launched Will Smith up the A-list. He and co-star Tommy Lee Jones have become closely linked with the franchise, with the third movie featuring Josh Brolin as a younger version of Jones’ character.

After the third Men in Black movie in 2012, the first we heard of a new Men in Black movie was that it would be a crossover with the 21 Jump Street films called MIB 23, which sounds like such a crazy idea that it just might have worked. Instead, we got Men in Black: International, which is pleasant and harmless if often formulaic and bland, because it takes the format of the first movie and slots new stars into it. Director F. Gary Gray of Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious fame knows how to handle a big Hollywood production, but it feels like he is directing to the brief, with no personal touches discernible. The film trundles along efficiently enough, but nothing in the movie will stick in viewers’ minds afterwards. It’s almost as if the movie was constructed to be watched on an airplane.

          Men in Black: International does what the James Bond movies often do, throwing in a bunch of exotic locales to up the production value. There’s a chase through the streets of Marrakech on a hover bike and one character is based out of Aragonese Castle on the Italian island of Ischia. The movie might have the scale expected of a summer blockbuster, but it doesn’t quite have the quirky soul of the first movie, especially because a lot more of the aliens are created with computer-generated effects. Special effects makeup legend Rick Baker, who oversaw the aliens in the first three films, was not involved with this one.

The logic behind the casting of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the lead roles seems to have been to look at whatever actors from the most successful ongoing movie franchise were available. Hemsworth has a knack for comedy and shifts effortlessly between dashing and goofy, playing a sometimes-bumbling, always-charming action hero with ease.

Thompson’s Agent M is capable, headstrong and determined and is in some ways the audience surrogate character, with this movie acting as her origin story. However, some of the beats in her arc echo those of Agent J’s in the first movie a little too strongly. Thompson brings some personality to the part, but Agent M feels like a textbook “strong female character” with not much that is inherently compelling about her on paper.

Liam Neeson is there to lend gravitas to the proceedings and pace purposefully around High T’s office and not do too much else. Emma Thompson is dryly amusing as Agent O, reprising her role from the third film. Respectable British actors appearing in Hollywood blockbusters for a paycheck is a time-honoured tradition and one that Neeson and Thompson continue here.

Kumail Nanjiani voices Pawny, who as the funny alien sidekick, is designed as the successor to Frank the Pug (who makes a cameo). This reviewer was afraid that the character would come off as annoying, but Nanjiani’s delivery keeps Pawny generally more amusing than grating. The computer animation used to create Pawny and integrate him with the live-action footage is excellent.

French dancers Les Twins, who will next be seen in the Cats movie, enliven the proceedings with their new-style hip-hop moves. However, their characters’ schtick seems to be lifted wholesale from the Twins in The Matrix Reloaded.

The previous films have playfully ‘outed’ celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Bill Gates, George Lucas and Lady Gaga as being aliens. In this film, a social media influencer (presumably a different one for the different markets the film will be released in) gets a cameo. This is one of the most worrying elements about Men in Black: International, indicating that future blockbusters will pander to audiences by shoehorning in people who are famous from YouTube or Instagram.

Men in Black: International is not a poorly made film, but in extending the MIB franchise, it fails to add anything substantial to the world-building or the mythos. Big franchise movies can often feel like products and none this year feels more like a product than Men in Black: International, but its dependable cast and high production value keep things from feeling like too much of a drag.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

Director : Bill Condon
Cast : Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor
Genre : Musical/Fantasy/Romance
Run Time : 2h 9min
Opens : 16 March 2017
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)

You know how this story goes: Belle (Watson), who lives in a provincial French town with her father Maurice (Kline), is misunderstood by the townsfolk because she’s intellectually-inclined and doesn’t conform to the norms of the time. Belle catches the eye of the boorish Gaston (Evans), always accompanied by his sidekick Lefou (Gad), but Belle rebuffs Gaston’s advances. When Maurice loses his way in the woods and is held prisoner by a frightening Beast (Stevens), Belle volunteers to take her father’s place as the Beast’s captive. The Beast was formerly a handsome prince, who has been cursed by an Enchantress for his haughtiness and unkindness. The household staff of the castle were also cursed: the suave head butler Lumiere (McGregor) is a candelabra, fussbudget majordomo Cogsworth (McKellen) is a clock, and matronly head of the kitchen Mrs. Potts (Thompson) is a teapot. Belle must fall in love with the Beast to break the curse, but when Gaston learns of the Beast’s existence, he will stop at nothing to kill the Beast and take Belle for himself.

These days, the foundation stones of the House of Mouse are nostalgia. Beauty and the Beast is a remake of the landmark 1991 animated film, which was in turn based on the 18th Century French fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. It’s easy to be cynical about the practice of live-action remakes, a practice Disney is keen on continuing. While there are elements to this lushly designed, beautifully photographed live-action remake that are worthwhile, it does hew closely to the venerated 1991 version. Director Bill Condon, who earned his musical cred with Chicago and Dreamgirls, dutifully assembles a work of prefab nostalgia.

This is not to say Beauty and the Beast is not enjoyable. This reviewer had goosebumps through much of the film, and there’s a novelty in seeing flesh-and-blood actors (alongside multiple computer-generated characters) telling this tale. There is an effort to stick a little closer to the original story. For example, the Beast imprisons Maurice because Maurice plucked a rose from the castle gardens, Belle having requested her father bring a rose back from his travels. That’s in this version. Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos’ adaptation of Linda Woolverton’s screenplay includes flashes of rib-tickling wit.

The production design by four-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood is sumptuous, with lots of dizzying details to take in. Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are similarly beautiful, but the friend whom this reviewer saw the film with noticed that the gold leaf details were printed onto the dress rather than sewn on. It’s also fun to parse when exactly this is set, given clues like Gaston having fought in “the war”, Belle reading Shakespeare to the Beast, the powdered wigs worn by the aristocrats, and the mention of the black plague, historical markers that were absent from the 1991 version.

Much of the nostalgia factor is directly linked to the music. The songs from the 1991 film, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, have been etched into the collective consciousness. In this iteration, there are lush orchestral arrangements and some very pretty harpsichord parts.

However, this reviewer couldn’t suppress his disappointment that the songs from the stage musical adaptation, including If I Can’t Love Her, Home, Me and Human Again, are conspicuously absent. Instead, Menken has re-teamed with Tim Rice, the lyricist for the additional songs in the stage musical, to write a few new numbers. These include the Beast’s solo Evermore, which is a sweet torch song but is an also-ran replacement for If I Can’t Love Her, and Days in the Sun, a more melancholic take on the wistful Human Again. It seems odd that given how this started out as a direct movie adaptation of the stage musical, those songs are all gone. Menken and Rice are plenty talented, so the new songs are good – just not as good as what we had on Broadway.

Watson has stated that the character of Belle was a big influence on her when she was growing up, and as such she’s honoured to get to play her. While Watson is fully convincing as a feisty bookworm, since she spent around ten years playing one earlier in her career, there seems to be something missing. Perhaps it’s how iconic the animated Belle is, that it’s hard not to see Watson the actress/activist when looking at this Belle. Her singing voice has also been autotuned into oblivion, disappointing when compared to how lively and engaging voice actress Paige O’Hara’s performance was in the 1991 version.

Stevens sounds remarkably like the Beast’s original voice actor, Robby Benson. This version makes multiple attempts to render him as sympathetic as possible, to tamp down the icky Stockholm Syndrome connotations. As such, the Beast is never really fearsome, even when he’s locking up Maurice in the beginning. At times, his computer-generated visage seems suitably animalistic, and at others, it looks like hair has been digitally flocked onto Stevens’ face. He also looks more than a little awkward while singing.

Gaston steals the show, as Gaston is wont to do. Evans flings himself into the part with great aplomb, seemingly channelling Hugh Jackman, who played Gaston on stage in the Sydney production. Much has been made of how Lefou is “officially” gay, and it can’t help but seem like a marketing device to generate controversy more than anything else. Gad is ideal casting and a fine complement to Evans. Maurice is less of the clumsy, absent-minded elderly man he was in the animated film, Kline lending the character warmth and a degree of grounding.

The all-star cast extends into the actors voicing the enchanted objects. McGregor seems to be putting in the most work, affecting a French accent and having fun with the role. He shares great vocal chemistry with McKellen, whose voice sounds apt emanating from a stuffy, unyielding worrywart. Thompson does a full-on Angela Lansbury impression, which is quite charming. This also marks a reunion for Hermione and Prof. Trelawney. Stanley Tucci voices a new character, the court composer-turned harpsichord Cadenza. Broadway star Audra McDonald voices the wardrobe Mme. Garderobe, and gets to perform an aria that seems awfully like Prima Donna from The Phantom of the Opera. The enchanted objects must’ve been the biggest stumbling block in translating the animated film into live-action, and there are several moments which work much better in the 1991 film, Be Our Guest being chief among them.

Beauty and the Beast will charm and entrance large sections of moviegoers, but it seems preoccupied with hitting its marks, glancing down at the floor on occasion. Things get lost in translation, and Disney devotees will be locked into continuously comparing this with its animated forebear. Still, it will be largely futile to resist gasping when each petal falls off the rose, even though we know how it’s going to end.

Summary: While it’s largely bound by an enforced slavishness to the now-classic 1991 animated film, more than enough delights await within this refurbished castle.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Alone in Berlin

For F*** Magazine

ALONE IN BERLIN

Director : Vincent Perez
Cast : Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Brühl, Mikael Persbrandt, Katharina Schüttler, Louis Hofmann
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 43min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Brief Coarse Language)

alone-in-berlin-posterAdapted from Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone, Alone in Berlin tells of a small but spirited resistance from within the heart of Nazi Germany. It is 1940, and working-class Berliners Otto (Gleeson) and Anna (Thompson) Quangel receive news that their only son has died in combat. After witnessing the treatment of an old Jewish woman in their apartment block, Otto and Anna begin writing postcards containing short messages exhorting for the people to resist Hitler and the Nazis. Otto wants to leave his wife out of it for her protection, but Anna insists in standing alongside her husband. They leave the postcards in public places, and this soon attracts the attention of the police. Escherich (Brühl), the detective put in charge of hunting down the perpetrators, finds himself gaining respect for his elusive targets, while starting to question Nazi ideology.

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Every Man Dies Alone is a fictionalisation of the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, has been adapted for TV and film in German several times, and was also made into a Czech television miniseries. The English translation of the 1947 German novel was only published in 2009. While the story of ordinary German citizens who attempt to stand against the oppressive Nazi regime has the potential to be powerfully resonant, said potential is only glimpsed a few precious times in this film. The family of Swiss actor/director Perez, who also co-wrote the screenplay, experienced the horrors of World War II first-hand. Perez’s grandfather was shot by fascists in Spain, his great uncle was gassed by Nazis, and another uncle died in battle on the Russian front. As such, it’s curious that he seems to approach the material with a distinct lack of passion.

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Thanks to location filming in Berlin, Cologne and Görlitz, Alone in Berlin possesses decent production values. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to pull the viewer in. For a film about a time and place where there was danger on all sides, Alone in Berlin fails to generate any urgency or tension. We get an adequate sense of the oppression that the Nazis imposed on their subjects, but nothing leaps off the screen. It’s generic historical drama stuff, when the story of Otto and Elise Hampel deserves a more searing telling.

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Thompson and Gleeson are both fine actors. They don’t get too many notes to play beyond “downtrodden”, but are invested in the material. The varying strength of the German accents across the cast can be a little distracting. Mark Rylance was originally cast as Otto, and in part because Gleeson is still unmistakably Irish, we think he might have been a better choice. Brühl tries to give Escherich notes beyond that of the typical dogged inspector, but only makes an emotional impact in the film’s closing moments. The Gestapo agents are stereotypically, blandly evil.
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The perspective of the common man living in Nazi Germany coupled with the fact that it’s based on a true story should have made Alone in Berlin a powerful work. Instead, even with its strong lead performances, much of the film is mired in mediocrity. Offering not enough insight into the minds of dissidents in Nazi Germany, nor serving up any wartime cloak-and-dagger mystique, Alone in Berlin will leave most viewers cold.

Summary: Finely-acted but too sluggish and dour to be genuinely moving, Alone in Berlin is far from the full-bodied, stirring tale it should’ve been.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Burnt

For F*** Magazine

BURNT

Director : John Wells
Cast : Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Bruhl, Matthew Rhys, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson, Alicia Vikander, Lily James
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 100 mins
Opens : 29 October 2015
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language)

Can you smell what the Rock(et Raccoon) is cooking? Raccoons are known for foraging for food in the trash, but this drama takes place in the rarefied realm of haute cuisine. Bradley Cooper plays Adam Jones, a former rising star in the Paris culinary scene who crashed and burned due to his self-destructive tendencies. Now clean and sober, Adam is hoping to make a fresh start and earn his third Michelin star with a new restaurant in London. He coerces maître d’ and hotel heir Tony (Brühl) to help him manage the front of house, with his old colleague Michel (Sy) as his sous chef. Adam takes a shine to single mother Helene (Miller), whose talents he feels are not put to proper use. The opening of the Adam Jones at the Langham earns the ire of Adam’s fierce rival Montgomery Reece (Rhys), and Adam has to keep his demons at bay as he strives for that coveted third star. Matters are further complicated by drug dealers to whom Adam still owes a great debt, as well as the presence of his former flame Anne Marie (Vikander), the daughter of Adam’s late mentor Jean-Luc. 

The title ‘Burnt’ conjured up images in this reviewer’s head of an alternate-universe Disney animated film starring a pyrokinetic princess named Elsa. Burnt was earlier named ‘Adam Jones’ and before that ‘Chef’, but that title was taken by Jon Favreau’s 2014 film. Since Chef was the last major narrative feature centred on making it in the kitchens of restaurants, Burnt does invite comparisons with it. Sure, Chef was more than a little self-indulgent, but it did have warmth, soul and earnestness and was clearly a passion project of Favreau’s. Directed by John Wells, Burnt is cynical and formulaic, a rock star redemption tale set in the high-stakes world of choleric chefs smashing plates on the floor and yelling at their underlings. Adam Jones is established as being obnoxious and obsessed, and the underlying message seems to be that if you’re good at something, it doesn’t matter how awfully you treat everyone around you. 
Steven Knight’s screenplay packs in the contrivances and somewhat clumsily attempts to explain kitchen lingo to the layman. There is a joke in which a plastic sous vide pouch is derisively called a “fish condom”, and this joke is apparently funny enough to repeat. This is a slick, well-paced film which paints a tantalising picture of a glamorous world while also emphasising how challenging it is to become a star in said world. Cinematographer Adriano Goldman’s camera glides from one cook’s station to the next, capturing both the frenzied activity and the aesthetically-plated dishes that leave the kitchen. Michelin Guide reviewers are presented as secret agents and everyone is struck by awed panic when they think these critics have arrived. The food, plated by food stylist Nicole Herft, looks very tempting indeed, with celebrity chefs Marcus Wareing and Mario Batali serving as consultants. 
Cooper dons his chef whites again after starring in the short-lived TV show No Reservations, based on Anthony Bourdain’s autobiography, ten years ago. Both Bourdain and the fictional Adam Jones struggled with substance abuse in the past, with Burnt chronicling Adam’s quest to rise from the ashes. Cooper is charismatic as usual and gets to break out the French (both Français and swearing), but the character is aggressively unlikeable. The film doesn’t try to make his driven nature endearing, explaining it away with a tragic back-story and everyone around Adam makes concessions for him because he’s that talented a chef. The film’s attempts to humanise the character come across as treacly and manipulative. It’s a character who’s difficult to root for, and this is supposed to be charming in and of itself, when it isn’t at all. 
Cooper is backed up by a good supporting cast, though the characters aren’t drawn with too much depth. Brühl is an endearingly if cartoonishly prickly fussbudget as Tony. There’s an obvious homoerotic subtext between him and Adam that is acknowledged but of course, played very safe. Instead, Adam’s love interest is Miller’s Helene, marking a reunion for the American Sniper co-stars. The film goes the eye roll-inducing route of having Adam treat Helene condescendingly, even humiliating her in front of the other kitchen staff, but Helene eventually warms to him because he’s just that sexy. It seems that the main purpose Sy serves is as a volley partner for Cooper to bounce his French dialogue off of. Rhys’ portrayal of the chef whom Adam is at loggerheads with is stops a safe distance short of being the stereotypical bully, though it does lack nuance. Vikander may be one of this year’s breakout stars from her roles in Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., but she gets really little to do here as the one that got away. Emma Thompson is called upon to dispense gnomic advice as Adam’s therapist and Uma Thurman shows up in what is essentially a cameo as a food critic. 
After Gordon Ramsay’s fiery temperament has been ingrained into popular culture, at this point, it seems like a movie about a chef who’s quiet and calm and treats his co-workers politely would, ironically enough, be more interesting than a film about an unstable hair-trigger culinary wunderkind. Cooper is watchable, but no matter how strongly the movie wills it, it’s tough to get in his corner. It’s a “rise-fall-rise” narrative with few twists and additions to the formula, but if good-looking people and even better-looking food is what you’re after, Burnt has got you covered. 
Summary: We’ve gotten through the bulk of this review without any corny food metaphors, so allow us this indulgence: Burnt is lukewarm at best. 
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong