Raya and the Last Dragon review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Don Hall, Carlos López Estrada
Cast : Kelly Marie Tran, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Daniel Dae Kim, Sandra Oh, Benedict Wong, Izaac Wang, Alan Tudyk
Genre: Animation/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 114 min
Opens : 5 March 2021
Rating : PG

Disney Animation has drawn on stories from various regions as the basis for their films. With Raya and the Last Dragon, the House of Mouse goes a little mousedeer, telling a story inspired by the mythology of Southeast Asia.  

Dragons were the protectors of the mythical land of Kumandra, sacrificing themselves to save humanity when monsters called the Druun attacked, petrifying all in their path. Kumandra is divided into Heart, Talon, Fang, Spine and Tail, each land named for a different part of the dragon.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is a warrior princess from the Heart kingdom, whose father Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) is training her to become the guardian of the Dragon Gem. Chief Benja attempts to broker peace between the disparate lands, but the Druun return and the conflict continues. As an adult, Raya finds and revives Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon. Raya and Sisu must unite the fractured pieces of the Dragon Gem to bring back all who were lost to the Druun. Along the way, Raya must face off with a figure from her past: the equally formidable Namaari (Gemma Chan), princess of the Fang Kingdom.  

Raya and the Last Dragon is gorgeously animated and the world of Kumandra is a visually captivating one. The details in the costumes and architecture are plentiful, and the effects animation, especially on the angry black mist that is the Druun, is exceptional. The hand-to-hand fight sequences are well choreographed and there is a genuine sense of thrilling adventure to the story.

The voice cast is also excellent, with Kelly Marie Tran bringing both steeliness and warmth to the part of Raya. Awkwafina’s rasp works well as the voice of an animated character and she plays the fish-out-of-water aspect of Sisu entertainingly. Daniel Dae Kim effortlessly essays calm authority, while Benedict Wong seems to be having the best time as Tong, a boisterous gentle (?) giant type. Boun (Izaac Wang), a kid entrepreneur who runs a shrimp congee restaurant out of a boat, is also a fun, likeable road movie side character.

The most interesting part of the film is the rivalry between Raya and Namaari, and the possibility that they might still find common ground with each other. Namaari is sufficiently different from your standard snarling Disney villain, and this reviewer feels not enough of the movie is about this relationship.

While watching Raya and the Last Dragon, it’s evident that there is a tension between making this something fresh and innovative, while also honouring the storied legacy of Disney animation, and fulfilling expectations associated with its most successful films. As such, Raya and the Last Dragon can sometimes feel tied down to Disney animated movie formula. There’s a plucky princess raised by a single father, and she goes on a quest accompanied by a comic relief sidekick (or two or three). Sticking to a formula isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Raya breaks from formula in certain significant ways, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the movie is still constrained by certain expectations associated with Disney animated movies.   

Tonally, there are moments that don’t quite work. This is a movie about a world and its inhabitants dealing with trauma and loss. However, it also wants to be light-hearted and appealing to children – hence characters like an adorable half-armadillo-half-pillbug named Tuk-Tuk (Alan Tudyk) who clearly exists to sell toys – not that we don’t want a Tuk-Tuk plushie.

Like the Dragon Gem, the story sometimes seems fragmented, and feels episodic the way many movies with a road trip structure do. Some of the dialogue is clunky, and several of the anachronistic jokes don’t work, including a moment when Raya proclaims, “bling’s my thing”. Several of Sisu’s jokes sound like improvisational riffs that Awkwafina came up with in the booth, and can be a little grating, but Sisu is generally likeable. Unfortunately, Sisu’s character design sticks out – typically, East Asian and Southeast Asian dragons are depicted with a maned head and a scaly body, but Sisu is entirely furry and doesn’t seem like she belongs stylistically.

Kumandra incorporates facets of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Laos. For Raya and the Last Dragon, Disney assembled the Southeast Asia Story Trust comprised of experts in various fields, including an Indonesian linguist, a textile expert from the USC Pacific Asia Museum and a visual anthropologist. Head of Story Fawn Veerasunthorn is an artist of Thai descent, while co-writers Qui Nguyen and Adele Lim are of Vietnamese and Malaysian Chinese descent, respectively.

There is a desire here to tell a story that has a degree of authenticity, but “authenticity” is something that’s hard to measure empirically. As Moana did with Polynesian countries, Raya and the Last Dragon amalgamates and mashes up Southeast Asian countries to create the fictional Kumandra. While there is an overlap in the cultural traditions and mythologies of many Southeast Asian countries, residents of said countries would also generally prefer for others not to get one country confused with the other, and that creates a kind of paradox in telling a story that is inspired by a blend of cultures.

Watching Raya, it’s also hard not to think of the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and the follow-up The Legend of Korra, which have thus far been western animation’s most successful attempts at creating fantasy worlds inspired by disparate Asian cultures. The world-building of Avatar seems more thought out than it is in Raya, but then of course the animated series had a lot more time to spend on that.

Summary: Raya and the Last Dragon sometimes struggles with telling a story that is authentic to the region from which it draws inspiration while also delivering what audiences expect from a Disney animated adventure, but it mostly succeeds in pulling off this balance. It may not be as revolutionary as Disney had hoped, but it is still a largely entertaining adventure that draws on rich storytelling traditions. Hopefully, filmmakers from varied backgrounds will continue getting the support they need in Hollywood to tell more stories from more places.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Captain Marvel review

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Cast : Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Algenis Pérez Soto, Rune Temte, Akira Akbar
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 2 h 4 mins
Opens : 7 March 2019
Rating : PG13

            The Marvel Cinematic Universe is mostly set in the present day, but has taken detours to the past: Captain America: The First Avenger was set during World War II, Agent Carter was set just after World War II, flashbacks in the Ant-Man films were set in the 60s and the prologue of Guardians of the Galaxy was set in the 80s. Captain Marvel now takes us to the 90s to meet a hero who’ll be a key player in the MCU going forward.

Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is a former US Air Force fighter pilot who has been imbued with superpowers and is a part of Starforce, an elite Kree military unit. Serving under the leadership of Yonn-Rog (Jude Law), Carol, known by the Kree as “Vers”, fends off the threat of the shape-shifting Skrulls. When Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of the Skrulls, sets his sights on earth, Carol finds herself defending the planet she once called home, and confronts the former existence she has forgotten.

On earth, Carol meets Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), an agent of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.). Fury’s worldview is upended by the knowledge of an impending alien invasion. In attempting to trace her past, Carol reconnects with her Air Force colleague and best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), whose daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) was especially close to Carol. A series of events leads Carol to re-evaluate where her allegiances as she realises the full potential of her cosmic powers.

Captain Marvel is the last MCU film before Avengers: Endgame arrives in a month and a half. In the post-credits stinger of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, Nick Fury pages Captain Marvel just before he disintegrates, alongside half of all life on earth. This film builds hype for Endgame and adds to the speculation of what role Captain Marvel will play in the fight against Thanos but setting it in the 90s also gives it enough distance from the other MCU films, such that it can also be its own thing.

The directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who helmed Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind, is the latest example of how the MCU has shepherded filmmakers known for making smaller films, such that they acquit themselves well given the large canvas of the MCU. The Russo Brothers, James Gunn, Jon Watts and Taika Waititi achieved similar success with their MCU films.

             Captain Marvel is part space opera, part fish-out-of-water comedy, all hero’s journey. The MCU films can feel samey-samey and while this sticks to the formula in parts, there are still surprises to be had, and the film’s status as a prequel doesn’t mean that audiences are entirely ahead of the plot.

There’s a variety to the action sequences, with the space opera stuff contrasted with a car chase and a fight on an LA Metro Rail train. There are also mid-air chases and space dogfights. While the cosmic action in Captain Marvel isn’t quite as exciting or inventive as in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, it’s still executed with enough flair. The 90s nostalgia is not as pandering as some audiences might have feared, and manifests in some very sly ways. The Stan Lee cameo, one of the last ones the late Marvel Comics writer filmed, is particularly clever.

While the movie is a big piece of positive PR for the U.S. Air Force, it doesn’t come off as propagandistic. Captain Marvel handles the themes of militarism and war with admirable nuance: the Kree have been locked in a protracted conflict with the Skrulls, and it turns out things are not as black and white as they first appear. It’s not the most insightful message, but it fits the story that’s being told here.

The film is character-driven, and Carol is always at its centre. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, who served as a consultant on this film and makes a cameo appearance, said “Carol falls down all the time, but she always gets back up. We say that about Captain America as well, but Captain America gets back up because it’s the right thing to do. Carol gets back up because ‘F*** you.’” Brie Larson captures this defiance, but also lends the character a sense of humour and great vulnerability. Sure, Captain Marvel eventually ends up as one of the most powerful characters in the MCU, but this movie is about her journey to that point, and she falls and gets back up again plenty of times throughout said journey.

The film has been pre-emptively smeared as a screeching screed pushing a scary agenda. It’s much ado about nothing. The sexism that Carol faces in the film is common in the real world: she gets told she’s too emotional and that she needs to smile more. The character isn’t going around bashing men in the head because men are inherently evil. There’s a roundedness to the character and the film also emphasises her friendship with Lynch’s Monica.

Goose the cat, known as Chewie in the comics, is a scene-stealer who’s allocated just enough screen time such that its presence never feels gimmicky.

We meet Nick Fury when he’s less experienced and more naïve than how we know him. This reviewer thinks Samuel L. Jackson is always more interesting to watch when he isn’t playing into the myth of him being an untouchable badass. He gets to bring a good deal of humanity and heart to Fury.

The de-aging visual effects used on Jackson work seamlessly. They’re perhaps a little more noticeable on Clark Gregg as a younger Phil Coulson, but it is good to see that character back in an MCU movie regardless.

Ben Mendelsohn has great fun with the role of Talos, a character who seems at first like yet another generic MCU villain, but who winds up being a lot more than that. Mendelsohn brings a surprising depth to the character.

Jude Law is fine as the tough mentor character Yon-Rogg, but the movie seems aware that he’s not as compelling as some of the other characters. Gemma Chan gives Minn-Erva a dangerously sexy edge, making a bit part interesting. As the corporeal manifestation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, Annette Bening gets to play wise, funny and maybe even a bit menacing.

While Captain Marvel doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it has enough surprises up its sleeve and is built upon a solid, engaging character arc. Its combination of space opera and 90s action-comedy works. Larson says that Carol “doesn’t have anything to prove,” but Captain Marvel has proven that the titular character more than deserves a prime spot in the MCU pantheon. Stick around for two post-credits scene, one that sets up things to come, and another that’s purely comedic.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

1995: A Space Odyssey – Captain Marvel stars and directors in Singapore

By Jedd Jong

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2018 was a banner year for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, delivering the one-two punch of Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Ant-Man and the Wasp served as a palate cleanser that still teased 2019’s big event – Avengers: Endgame.

The MCU movie that immediately precedes Endgame is Captain Marvel, which introduces one of Marvel’s most powerful heroes to the cinematic canon. The post-credits stinger of Infinity War depicted Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) activating a pager and calling for Captain Marvel’s help before he demateralised alongside Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).

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Captain Marvel will depict the first meeting between Fury and the titular hero. The movie takes place largely in 1995 and centres on Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), a U.S. Air Force pilot who transforms into a super-powered intergalactic peacekeeper. When earth is threatened by the shape-shifting Skrull invaders, Captain Marvel returns to her home planet to fight them and to rediscover the past existence she has long forgotten.

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Stars Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Gemma Chan and directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck were in Singapore to promote the movie at Marina Bay Sands. On the agenda was a press junket, interviews and a massive fan event in the evening.

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Boden and Fleck are the latest indie directors to move from the world of smaller-scale dramas and comedies onto the largest stage imaginable, the MCU. “When you saw Half Nelson, it was just obvious we would be doing a superhero movie next,” Fleck joked, referring to their breakout film starring Ryan Gosling. The duo is also known for directing Mississippi Grind starring Ryan Reynolds and Ben Mendelsohn, and for directing episodes of TV shows including Billions and The Affair.

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Boden has become the first woman to direct an MCU movie – the only other female director to have helmed a Marvel movie so far was Lexi Alexander, who made 2008’s Punisher: War Zone. “This is a movie I really wanted to be part of. This is a character that so many people care so much about,” Boden said, adding “it’s 2019 and I think that everybody here looks forward to the day that it’s not news-worthy that a woman is directing this type of movie.” Boden is in good company, with Patty Jenkins having directed Wonder Woman and directing its sequel, Cathy Yan helming Birds of Prey and Cate Shortland directing the upcoming Black Widow solo movie.

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Fleck recounted the process of pitching the movie to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. “When we went in there to talk to Kevin and the team at Marvel, and Brie as well, we were on the same page to make this character as complex and messy and human as possible, funny and tough and also vulnerable at the same time,” Fleck recalled. “They were like ‘yeah, that’s the movie we want to make,’ and here we are.”

Speaking about the production support built into the MCU machine, Boden added “[Marvel] said ‘We know how to make the big explosions, we need people to focus on the stories and the characters.'”

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The film chronicles Carol Danvers’ transformation into Captain Marvel, and behind the scenes, Oscar winner Brie Larson also underwent a staggering transformation to play the role. She embraced the physical challenge of portraying one of the most powerful superheroes in existence, saying “There’s something about pushing yourself beyond the threshold of what’s comfortable and then going even further than that…it means sometimes that you end up on the floor crying, begging for it to stop.” Larson surmised that those moments of breakthrough in the midst of pushing oneself to the limit embodied the spirit of Carol Danvers.

The arduous training paid off: Larson can dead-lift an impressive 102 kg and pushed a jeep up a hill for 30 seconds. Larson became fond of sending co-star Samuel L. Jackson videos of her workout progress, “just to brag”.

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Larson found the process of learning and executing action sequences rewarding, because there was a level of satisfaction in completing the task. Compared with typical acting which is up to interpretation, Larson found working on fight scenes more clear-cut. “There’s a right and a wrong way to punch an alien and that’s how it goes,” she stated.

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Larson also spent time flying in actual fighter jets, going onto Nellis Air Force Base and meeting with U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt, the first female fighter squadron commander in the Air Force’s history.

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Costumes are an integral part of any comic book movie, and the costumes in Captain Marvel are no exception. Carol’s default costume is a red, blue and gold variation of the green Starforce uniform she wears at the beginning of the film. The costumes were designed by Sanja Milkovic Hays, whose credits include Star Trek Beyond and the recent Fast and Furious films. Larson described the costume as a “restrictive rubber suit,” comparing moving around in it to “treading water all day”. She described shooting an action sequence in which Carol hangs off the side of a train, saying “It wasn’t until we got there that it was like ‘oh, I can’t lift my arms.'”

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Larson has a particularly adorable co-star in the film: a cat named Goose, based on the character Chewie from the comics. The name ‘Goose’ is a nod to Top Gun. The cat may be more significant to the plot than it first appears, so much so that it got its own character poster. “We had four cats playing our lead cat Goose,” Boden said. “Reggie is really the face, the star, the heart and the soul of the character.” Reggie shared the role with Archie, Rizzo and Gonzo. Orders came from on high to increase the cat’s screen time: Boden related that “very early on in the development process, Kevin Feige looked at one of our outlines and said ‘we need 100% more of that cat in there.’ And he got it and so did you!”

Here’s the video of me asking about the cat.

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The very slightly less adorable Samuel L. Jackson is no stranger to the MCU. In this movie, he plays a younger version of Nick Fury with the help of de-aging technology, previously used on actors including Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kurt Russell and Robert Downey Jr. in other MCU movies. This is a Fury before he lost sight in one eye and before he became the director of spy agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Instead of putting on a prosthetic scar and eyepatch like he normally would, Jackson wore motion capture dots on his face, so his expressions could be transferred to a more youthful visage.

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“Along with having two eyes, I have a lot less instinct than older Nick Fury has,” Jackson reflected. “I learn a lot from [Carol] over the course of the film and it helps a lot.” Jackson glanced at Larson, before exclaiming “She’s my first alien!”

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One of the members of Carol’s Starforce team is Minn-erva, played by Gemma Chan. Chan was recently seen in Crazy Rich Asians and is also known for her role in the sci-fi TV series Humans. Minn-erva is a deadly sniper with a penchant for sarcastic asides and a bit of a mean streak. “She’s pretty badass,” Chan said. “She’s not so nice, she’s got a bit of an edge, and there’s definitely a physical challenge as well.”

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Part of that physical challenge was in trying not to get bested by her own props. “The main thing during Captain Marvel that I had to be concerned about was trying not to hit myself in my face with my own rifle. The one that I practised with was a bit shorter than the one I used in the film, so I had to adjust for that,” Chan said to laughter.

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When asked who she might want to team up with in a future Marvel film, Larson mentioned Ms. Marvel. The current Ms. Marvel in the comics is Kamala Khan, a young Muslim woman hailed as a positive role model. Feige has cryptically said that he “has plans” for her inclusion in the MCU, so Larson might get her wish yet.

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One journalist bravely attempted to broach the topic of Captain Marvel’s role in fighting Thanos in Endgame. “That is a really great question that I absolutely cannot answer, but more power to you for asking and very good try,” Larson said.

Someone had to give it a go.

 

 

 

 

Crazy Rich Asians movie review

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

Director : Jon M. Chu
Cast : Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Koh Chieng Mun, Chris Pang, Sonoya Mizuno, Pierre Png, Selena Tan, Nico Santos, Janice Koh, Remy Hii, Harry Shum Jr., Fiona Xie, Carmen Soo, Jimmy O. Yang
Genre : Comedy/Drama/Romance
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 22 August 2018
Rating : PG-13

Crazy Rich Asians, the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel of the same name, has arrived on the big screen. There are many hopes pinned on this film, which has generated its share of controversy and backlash from its earliest stages of development. Let’s head to sunny Singapore and break all this down.

The film centres on Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), a Chinese-American economics professor at NYU who has found the love of her life: the dashing Nicholas Young (Henry Golding). Nick is heading back home to Singapore for the wedding of his best friend Colin (Chris Pang) to his fiancé Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno). Nick suggests that Rachel come along and meet the family. What could possibly go wrong?

What Nick’s been hiding from Rachel all this time is that he is the heir to the wealthiest family in Singapore. Naturally, Rachel earns the ire and extreme jealousy of all the eligible society bachelorettes who thought they stood a chance with Nick. Rachel faces the condescension and rejection of Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh). Rachel seems attacked on all sides, getting way in over her head. In her corner is her college friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina), who hails from a wealthy Singaporean family too. Rachel also has her loving mother Kerry (Tan Kheng Hua), who immigrated to the U.S. from China, supporting her. Rachel navigates the treacherous waters of Singaporean high society, as she faces questions of identity, self-worth, and whether Nick is worth all this trouble.

On the surface, Crazy Rich Asians is a frothy romantic comedy of manners. It’s a fish out of water story and is naturally being sold on its depictions of decadence, opulence, indulgence, and other things ending in -ence. There’s a lot more to Crazy Rich Asians than first appears – the story means to examine status, the true value of material wealth, the classification of people as ‘outsiders’ or ‘insiders’ – themes that have been explored before, but not in the context of Singapore’s sphere of affluence in a major Hollywood studio film.

There’s a lot of baggage that has been piled onto this movie, whether it deserves that or not. Hollywood is looking for more representation – or more cynically, to get credit for representation. Being the first Hollywood movie with a predominantly Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club back in 1993, many are looking to Crazy Rich Asians as a triumph for representation and diversity in mainstream Hollywood movies.

This is a film that will mean different things to different people – it’s important to note that the film’s protagonist is Chinese-American, and we see things from her perspective. The questions of her identity are framed by her encountering her boyfriend’s Singaporean family. The film has been decried by several Singaporeans for being an inaccurate portrayal of the island nation. Ethnic minorities like Malays and Indians are nowhere to be found, and nearly everyone speaks in posh English or brash New York-ish accents.

This reviewer would argue that Crazy Rich Asians does not have a responsibility to depict all of Singapore, nor should it be taken as a film about Singapore. Its focus on a tiny slice of Singapore society may come across as narrow, but the circumstances specified by the story justify this depiction. This reviewer would love to see Singapore depicted in all its facets in a Hollywood film – that’s not the goal of Crazy Rich Asians, nor does it mean to be, but the frustration at a skewed version of Singapore being presented for consumption worldwide is understandable.

Crazy Rich Asians falls victim somewhat to ‘have your cake and eat it too’ syndrome. This is going to be a weird example but bear with us: the 2009 sci-fi action film Gamer wanted to be an indictment of the mass-consumption of overly violent, crass media, while being an example of the very thing it is attempting to satirise. Crazy Rich Asians does this for the lifestyles of the uber-wealthy. We’re meant to question the ultimate intangible worth of having a lot of stuff and having every whim catered to, just as we’re meant to gaze upon tableaus of ridiculous luxury with voyeuristic pleasure. There is an undeniable novelty factor, however slight, at the thought that audiences in Des Moines, Iowa might walk into the multiplex and see Newton Hawker Centre and Gardens by the Bay on the big screen.

Director Jon M. Chu, who has a background in dance movies, stages the proceedings with visual panache to spare. As with any adaptation of a novel, things are whittled down, and there’s a lot of plot to get through. The movie barrels along like a freight train – there’s nary a dull moment, but there isn’t enough room for the story to breathe. Better that than things being boring, we figure.

This is a soap opera, and there are altogether too many characters to keep track of, but the film trains its focus on Rachel. Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu makes for an intelligent, lively, likeable and vulnerable lead. The scenes in which she matches wits with Michelle Yeoh’s Eleanor are a hoot, and a scene she shares with her mother, played by Tan Kheng Hua, brought this reviewer to tears.

Much ink has been spilled about Golding’s mixed heritage. It’s hard to talk about this without sounding like characters in Harry Potter throwing around phrases like “pureblood” and “half-blood”, so we won’t. He’s handsome and earnest and just bland enough in the way male leads in modern rom-coms often are. Nick is a decent person, while most of the people in his social circle aren’t, making us root for Rachel and Nick to end up together.

Michelle Yeoh gives the stock type of the glowering prospective mother-in-law just enough depth, and Eleanor articulates exactly why she’s so wary of Rachel. Yeoh’s performance is a savvy one, lending the proceedings gravitas. There’s a sly bit of commentary in seeing Eleanor lead a Bible study group comprised of her rich friends – the implication is that these are people who prize material gain over all else hiding behind the veneer of religious virtue.

The rest of the cast is comprised of a lot of attractive people doing attractive people things, and sometimes they can blend together a little. The camera lingers on Pierre Png’s bare torso as he exits the shower, and much is made of how physically beautiful the characters played by Gemma Chan and Sonoya Mizuno are. There are also many characters who are outwardly attractive but are awful on the inside.

Peik Lin and her family stand out by design – they’re outlandish, brash, and they’re rich but not pretentious. Awkwafina is utterly enjoyable, delivering a giddily infectious performance. Ken Jeong and Koh Chieng Mun are plenty of fun as Peik Lin’s parents. Nico Santos hams it up as Oliver, who calls himself the ‘rainbow sheep’ of the family. Oliver does fall a little too neatly into the ‘gay best friend’ role, but Santos gives the character welcome personality.

There are times when Crazy Rich Asians is a touch too ridiculous for its own good – there’s an Apocalypse Now homage (think helicopters and “Ride of the Valkyries”) that seems a little too on the nose. However, there are others when performers showcase excellent comic timing, and the film hits a pleasantly silly pitch.

Crazy Rich Asians is a lot of things, and there will be a wide range of reactions to it. There will be more social media comments hung up on the accents, and there will be thoughtful socio-political treatises deconstructing the film and what its existence means in the current film industry landscape. As a frothy, sometimes-clumsy, almost-emotional rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians works.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Transformers: The Last Knight

For F*** Magazine

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT 

Director : Michael Bay
Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Josh Duhamel, Laura Haddock, Anthony Hopkins, Stanley Tucci, Isabela Moner, Laura Haddock, Jerrod Carmichael, Liam Garrigan, Glenn Morshower. And the voices of: Peter Cullen, Frank Welker, Gemma Chan, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Ken Watanabe, Omar Sy, Jim Carter
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 29min
Opens : 22 June 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

It might be hard to believe, but it’s been a whole decade since the first live-action Transformers movie clanged its way into theatres. In this fifth go-round, the Transformers have been declared enemy combatants and are hunted by the Transformers Reaction Force (TRF). Cade Yeager (Wahlberg) is a wanted fugitive for aiding and abetting the Autobots, including Bumblebee. He rescues young orphan Izabella (Moner) from a firefight, and in the process, is gifted a talisman by an alien knight whose ship crash-lands on earth. Cade is summoned by Sir Edmund Burton (Hopkins), the guardian of a sect sworn to protect the Transformers’ secret history on earth. It turns out that the wizard Merlin (Tucci) was bequeathed a magical staff by alien robots; the mythical object long vanished. Cybertronian sorceress Quintessa (Chan) sends Optimus Prime (Cullen) in search of the staff, turning him against his long-time allies. With the help of Oxford literature and history professor Viviane Wembly (Haddock) and reluctant TRF soldier William Lennox (Duhamel), Cade and Burton must unravel an ancient conspiracy to prevent the destruction of earth.

No other franchise in recent memory has been more critic-proof than the Transformers films. This summer alone, we’ve witnessed King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and The Mummy feebly attempt to kickstart would-be franchises, while this juggernaut based on Hasbro action figures trundles along. The Transformers movies have long been easy targets for critics, and this entry is particularly frustrating for us. The Last Knight does what this reviewer has always wanted from this series: it explores the alternate history built around the Transformers’ secret presence on earth – though it’s hard to imagine how giant alien robots can stay secret for too long. However, this ends up being expectedly ludicrous, with plot contrivances that beggar belief scattered throughout the film. It turns out that there is a Da Vinci Code-esque secret society entrusted with guarding said history, its members including William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, the Wright Brothers, Harriet Tubman, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. How giant alien robots traipsing around are kept secret is anybody’s guess.

This film strikes us as a spectacular waste of resources – with its $260 million budget, it’s the most expensive Transformers movie yet. In a way, every big blockbuster is, but some are better at justifying that waste than others. The Last Knight unfolds on a spectacular scale, and like Age of Extinction, its story spans continents and millennia. The visual effects supervised by Scott Farrar are extensive and commendable, and the action set pieces are marginally easier to follow than in previous instalments. However, there are only so many ways one can depict giant robots punching each other, and there are only so many variations on a car chase. While rival car-based franchise Fast and Furious has been continuously inventive, the action in Transformers is concussive and numbing. There’s so much going on that it’s easy to tune out instead of staying focused on the mayhem onscreen.

We held out hope that this might be an improvement because screenwriter Ehren Kruger has been jettisoned, replaced by Iron Man and Punisher: War Zone scribes Art Marcum and Matt Holloway, and Black Hawk Down writer Ken Nolan. Alas, narrative coherence is in short supply and director Michael Bay’s oppressively juvenile sense of humour smothers anything resembling wit.

There’s a scene in which Megatron (Welker) negotiates the release of his Decepticon compatriots with lawyers seated at folding tables in the middle of the desert. We also find General Morshower poring over battle plans in the Pentagon basement, declaring “this is where I deal with the dark s***”. And yes, there are racial stereotypes aplenty – Bay is endlessly amused at those stuffy Brits, Hot Rod (Sy) has a thick French accent, gold chain-wearing Decepticon Nitro Zeus (DiMaggio) paraphrases Martin Luther King Jr. while being released from prison, and Decepticon Mohawk (Reno Wilson) is characterised as a violent street thug. Any accusations that critics are “reading into things” are rendered moot by Bay’s insouciant rejection of subtlety in any form.

Wahlberg may be a better fit as the franchise’s leading man than Shia LaBeouf was, but even then, Wahlberg’s getting annoying. It’s a relief, then, that this is supposedly his last Transformers film. By making the female lead an Oxford professor, the film goes down the predictable route of having Cade and Viviane bicker endlessly while being set up as a couple. Haddock is by far the best actress to have played the female lead in this series, but that’s a low bar. She’s also the least overtly sexualised and has the most agency of all the female leads in the series – but that’s also a low bar, seeing as Viviane struts around in tight dresses and stilettos for the first half of the film.

With Izabella and her sidekick, transforming Vespa Sqweeks, Bay appears to steer the film back to the “a kid and their X” roots, as embodied by Sam Witwicky’s friendship with Bumblebee in the first movie. This feels like an afterthought, and Izabella is one of several characters who feel like hangers-on.

After starring in HBO’s Westworld, Sir Anthony Hopkins hangs out with far bigger robots here. He looks to be having a grand old time, playing the eccentric earl with a twinkle in his eye. A lot of his dialogue is incredibly stupid, but it helps that it’s being uttered by Hopkins. Burton is given a sidekick in the form of an idiosyncratic robot butler named Cogman (Carter), who is frequently annoying and is pretty much a more annoying version of Rogue One’s K2-SO.

Duhamel, Morshower, Turturro and others return from the earlier movies, begging the question of why LaBeouf isn’t in this, at least for a little. Not that we want to see him in this at all, but given that Sam is Bumblebee’s best friend, it stands to reason that Bumblebee should seek him out over the course of this film.

To its credit, The Last Knight does feel shorter than its 150-minute runtime, and features a novel submarine chase that’s different enough from the standard action sequences we’ve seen from this franchise. It’s fine for blockbusters to be silly, but when nothing less than the end of the world is at hand, The Last Knight should be more impactful and less superfluous than it is.

Summary: Bombastic and bloated, The Last Knight’s convoluted mythos and tedious action is enlivened by the joyous presence of Sir Anthony Hopkins. Audiences with the fortitude to surrender to its thunderous stupidity might get a modicum of enjoyment out of this.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong