The Last Duel review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Ridley Scott
Cast : Matt Damon, Adam Driver, Jodie Comer, Ben Affleck, Harriet Walter, Alex Lawther, Nathaniel Parker, Sam Hazeldine, Željko Ivanek, Marton Csokas
Genre: Historical/Drama
Run Time : 153 min
Opens : 14 October
Rating : R21

Content warning: sexual assault

In 1977, Ridley Scott made his feature film debut with The Duellists, set during the Napoleonic Wars. 44 years and 24 films later, Scott visits another era of French history with The Last Duel, set during the Hundred Years War and telling the story of the last trial by combat permitted by the Parliament of Paris.

It is 1386. Knight Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and squire Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver) are former best friends. They have grown apart because Le Gris has earned the favour of the wealthy and powerful Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck), who has a personal distaste for Carrouges. Carrouges, whose wife and son died in a plague, marries Marguerite (Jodie Comer), the daughter of disgraced Lord Robert de Thibouville (Nathaniel Parker). Marguerite claims that while Carrouges was away in battle, Le Gris raped her. Sanctioned by King Charles VI (Alex Lawther) and the Parliament of Paris, Carrouges challenges Le Gris to a duel to the death. If he wins, Carrouges’ name and honour – and that of his wife – remain intact. If he loses, then Le Gris will be proven innocent in the eyes of God, and Marguerite will be burned at the stake.

Scott is a seasoned veteran behind the camera. Not all his films wind up being great, but almost all of them are technically competent, and The Last Duel is no exception. At once grand and grimy, The Last Duel sees Scott in historical epic mode, bringing the likes of Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven to mind. Alongside frequent collaborators like cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, production designer Arthur Max and costume designer Janty Yates, Scott assembles a serious, big-budget movie aimed squarely at grown-ups. Various historical locations in Ireland and France lend the movie its scale, even if experts are bound to find myriad inaccuracies in the costuming and other details.

The story is a fascinating and important one, and even if the movie falls short in certain areas, there is a serious attempt to do the historical subject matter justice. The movie takes its time and is divided into three chapters before getting to the duel, telling the story from Carrouges’, Le Gris’ and Marguerite’s points of view, ensuring that we get to know each of the players well before the climactic, grisly and intense titular sequence. Adapted from The Last Duel: A True Story of Trial by Combat in Medieval France by medieval literature expert Eric Jager, the script is credited to Nicole Holofcener, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Damon and Affleck wrote the perspectives of the men, while Holofcener wrote the perspective of the woman.

This is a movie about the repercussions in the wake of a woman’s sexual assault – more specifically, a woman who decides that in the wake of her sexual assault, she cannot stay silent. It must be noted that the film contains graphic depictions of sexual assault, and how necessary such depictions are in films specifically about the topic is something that’s often debated. The tagline declares this is “the true story of the woman who defied a nation and made history”. However, the actress playing said woman is third-billed. While the movie certainly devotes time and attention to Marguerite and to her interiority, she mostly takes a backseat to Carrouges and Le Gris, and by the time we get to the section of the movie telling her side of the story, it is more than halfway into the 153-minute runtime. There is also a perhaps unavoidable silliness in a movie of this nature, in which haircuts and accents are inevitably distracting. Scott prevents the proceedings from ever getting too jarring, but there are moments that come off as stilted and unnatural. The downside of Scott’s professionalism is his movies sometimes feel dispassionate, and while there is an intensity to The Last Duel that draws viewers in, it also feels like he isn’t as personally invested in the material as he could be.

Damon and Affleck are oft-collaborators and long-time friends. The last time they co-wrote a screenplay, it was for the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting. As such, there was some anticipation over their first collaboration as writers in 24 years. Unfortunately, Damon comes off as miscast, often feeling like he doesn’t fit the period – especially in comparison to Adam Driver, who carries himself much better in the costumes and surroundings. Affleck’s character, essentially a rich, hard-partying frat boy, seems deliberately anachronistic and he is having fun with it. Their involvement in this film is simultaneously distracting and somewhat novel. While they cannot be directly blamed for it, it is worth remembering that Affleck and Damon owe much of Good Will Hunting’s success to producer Harvey Weinstein, so perhaps it is not a coincidence that they are making a film about a survivor of sexual assault, even if theirs are far from the most pertinent voices on the matter.

Jodie Comer is far and away the best part of the movie. With Free Guy and The Last Duel in the same year, Comer is poised for big screen superstardom. In the section scripted by Holofcener, Comer shines. Her Marguerite is an intelligent, hardworking person who challenges the conventions of the time. She deals with not just being raped, but also with the constant pressure of needing to bear her husband a son. In one particularly wrenching scene, Marguerite’s mother-in-law chastises her for speaking out about the rape, saying she herself was raped but stayed silent so as not to cause trouble. The Last Duel is the most effective when it highlights how much has changed, but depressingly, much has not.

Summary: While there probably are better candidates than Matt Damon and Ben Affleck to tell this historical story, The Last Duel benefits from Ridley Scott’s assured direction and a transcendent turn from Jodie Comer. It’s far from the best statement movie made about sexual assault and the challenges that women face in speaking out about their experiences, but it proves an engrossing epic all the same.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ford v Ferrari review

For F*** Magazine

FORD V FERRARI

Director: James Mangold
Cast : Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Caitriona Balfe, Jon Bernthal, Tracy Letts, Josh Lucas, Noah Jupe, Remo Jirone, Ray McKinnon, JJ Feild
Genre : Drama/Biography/Action
Run Time : 2 h 32 mins
Opens : 14 November 2019
Rating : PG13

The story of Ford’s battle to win the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans is the stuff of auto racing legend and has all the makings of a compelling Hollywood movie: clashing egos, a period setting, boardroom machinations and of course very fast cars. Director James Mangold (Logan, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma) chronicles the ingenuity, adversity, triumph and heartbreak that figured in the historical event.

After Enzo Ferrari (Remo Jirone) flatly rejects a buyout of Ferrari by the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) resolves not to take this lying down. Lee Iacocca (Jon Bernthal), the vice-president of Ford, goes to famed car designer and former racer Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon) with an audacious proposal: build a car for Ford to beat Ferrari at Le Mans.

Shelby is convinced that only one man, English race car driver and former WWII tank commander Ken Miles (Christian Bale), can help him and Ford achieve this goal. Miles is a genius behind the wheel with unrivalled intuition, but he is notoriously ornery and earns the ire of Ford executive Leo Beebe (Josh Lucas). Beebe tries to block Miles from joining the Ford team, but Shelby knows they don’t stand a chance against Ferrari without Miles. Together, Shelby and Miles come up with the Ford GT40, a high-performance endurance racing car to take on Ferrari at Le Mans.

Ford v Ferrari is a robust film, an old-fashioned historical drama that will make some smile, sigh and say, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to.” However, it is never stodgy the way some films that try to emulate the movies of a bygone era are, and director Mangold infuses the proceedings with dynamism to spare.

Damon and Bale are superb in the lead roles and act as excellent foils for each other. Damon essays Southern charm as the Texan Shelby while also conveying the frustration of a man who knows what he’s doing but is thwarted by suits who think they know better at every turn.

Bale is intense as the fiery Miles, prone to yelling “bloody ‘ell!” and throwing wrenches at people. As is typical for the actor, Bale underwent a drastic physical transformation, shedding the 31 kg he had gained to play Dick Cheney in Vice. At first, it seems like the movie will excuse Miles’ behaviour by saying that he’s so brilliant that it doesn’t matter how he treats anyone, but the film gives him plenty of layers.

Some of the best moments in the film are the interactions between Miles and his wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and his racing enthusiast son Peter (Noah Jupe). There aren’t many women in the film at all, as can be expected for a movie about auto racing in the 1960s, but Balfe makes an impression as Mollie and there is an effort to make her more than just “the wife”.

There are three main components to the plot of Ford v Ferrari: the racing, the boardroom goings-on at Ford and Ken Miles’ home life. Besides stars Bale and Damon, the racing scenes are what everyone’s here for. As mentioned above, the scenes featuring Miles’ wife and son add a much-needed humanity to the proceedings. It’s the boardroom stuff that makes the movie drag. Yes, it’s important context and we do need to see events like Iacocca’s failed trip to Italy to convince Enzo Ferrari to sell part of the company to Ford, but it can get tedious after a while. There are long stretches of the movie that are edge of your seat material, but it feels like we need to trudge through.

This is at its heart a sports movie with all the hallmarks of one, chief of which being the maverick who’s “the only man for the job” and the one other guy who is convinced of his genius and does everything to keep him on the team. Ford v Ferrari is formulaic, but it is formulaic in a satisfying way, with quite a lot added to the formula to make it more than just that.

The racing scenes are some of the best ever committed to film. They all feel tactile and the visual effects work is seamless. A large team of talented stunt drivers worked on the film: stunt coordinator Robert Nagle’s credits also include Baby Driver, John Wick: Chapter 2, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation and several Fast and Furious films. The racing scenes are thrilling and cinematic in a way that makes the spectacle more resonant than that of many big visual effects-driven blockbuster movies. The attention to period detail is also worth noting – in order to recreate the Le Mans Circuit as it was in the 1960s, the crew shot in five different locations that were stitched together using visual effects. Yes, there are several inaccuracies that will be glaring to auto racing devotees (Enzo Ferrari was not personally in attendance at Le Mans 1966, for example), but the layperson will find this all quite convincing, especially by Hollywood standards.

A movie about the 1966 Le Mans race has been in development for a while: in 2011, it was announced that director Michael Mann would sign on to make the movie, then titled Go Like Hell. In 2013, both Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt were circling the project, with Cruise set to play Shelby alongside Pitt as Miles.

Auto racing enthusiasts will enjoy the meticulous (if never 100% accurate) recreation of the 1966 Le Mans race and the events leading up to that, while the excellent lead performances and action scenes that are exciting no matter how much you like cars ensure everyone else in the audience isn’t left out.

Summary: Matt Damon and Christian Bale deliver entertaining performances in a movie that brings a true story to pulse-pounding life. Audiences will be rewarded for sitting through the background information that serves as set-up with spectacular racing scenes and credible human drama.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

First Man review

FIRST MAN

Director : Damien Chazelle
Cast : Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Corey Stoll, Pablo Schreiber, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Christopher Abbott, Patrick Fugit, Lukas Haas, Shea Whigham, Brian D’Arcy James, Cory Michael Smith, Ciarán Hinds
Genre : Drama/Biography
Run Time : 143 mins
Opens : 18 October 2018
Rating : PG13

Call it ‘La La Moon Landing’: Damien Chazelle, the youngest winner of the Best Director Oscar, trains his sights on NASA’s quest to put the first man on the moon in this biopic.

It is 1961 and civillian test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is accepted into NASA Astronaut Group 2. Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), NASA’s first Chief of the Astronaut Office, emphasises how the Soviet Union has beaten the US to every major milestone in the Space Race. This batch of astronauts, which also includes Ed White (Jason Clarke), David Scott (Christopher Abbott), Elliott See (Patrick Fugit), Michael Collins (Lukas Haas) and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Corey Stoll), among others, will take part in the Gemini Program. Gemini is NASA’s second human spaceflight program, and the tests conducted during the Gemini missions will lead to the Apollo Program, which aims to put a man on the moon.

The training is physically and mentally demanding, and the risk is high – several of the astronauts whom Neil becomes close to die in failed missions. This takes a toll on Neil’s wife Janet (Claire Foy), who fears that their children Rick (Gavin Warren and Luke Winters at different ages) and Mark (Paul Haney and Connor Blodgett at different ages) will be left without a father. NASA faces scrutiny and pressure in the aftermath of their high-profile failures, as many across the nation question the cost of the Space Race in dollars and in lives. This culminates in Neil, Buzz and Michael forming the crew of Apollo 11, with Neil becoming the first man to step foot on the lunar surface.

Following in the grand tradition of historical dramas about the Space Program like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, First Man is an awards contender that hopes to also thrill audiences. Chazelle works from a script by Spotlight and The Post co-writer Josh Singer, who adapted history professor James R. Hansen’s book First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong. First Man combines a documentary-like feel marked by lots of grainy verité handheld shots with grand cinematic spectacle, and it’s a balance that mostly works.

There are bits of First Man that do feel a bit dry, but the film does a fine job of covering the history and an even better job of putting audiences inside the spacecraft alongside the astronauts. Before the Gemini 8 mission takes off, we get close-up shots of all the rivets and bolts inside the capsule as it creaks on the launchpad – if just one tiny thing fails, it all goes up in smoke. First Man contains some of the most realistic depictions of spaceflight ever put on screen, and endeavours to shed light on the people who made the achievements of the Space Program possible.

Chazelle reunites with several collaborators from La La Land, including cinematographer Linus Sandgren and composer Justin Hurwitz, who also scored Whiplash. The 16 mm and 35 mm film stock give the film an authentic period feel, while the moon landing sequence is presented in all its 70 mm IMAX glory. There is careful attention to detail in capturing the specifics of the ‘60s NASA setting, and production designer Nathan Crowley’s reproductions of the spacecraft and facilities is entirely convincing.

The backlash against the film for omitting the moment in which the American flag is planted on the moon seems like a mountain out of a lunar molehill. The decision to leave this well-known part of the moon landing out seems to stem from a desire to pare back the iconography of this historical moment and focus the story into something personal, giving the movie an honesty and a rawness.

Gosling anchors the film with a quiet, well-considered performance. The film characterises Neil Armstrong as someone who’s intelligent and earnest, but who is not especially well-equipped to process the grief that befalls him and those he cares about all too often. He is consumed by his work and driven to succeed, while it looks like everything around him is in danger of crumbling away. There’s an earnestness and intensity that Gosling dials to just the right level.

Foy’s Janet Armstrong is stern but caring, and her take on the role is a lot more than “worried wife back home”. Her relationship with Neil underscores how the astronauts are people with their own lives, and that serving the higher call of the Space Program comes at the expense of those lives.

The film’s supporting cast, including Clarke, Chandler and Ciarán Hinds, all give serious, unassuming ‘character actor’-type performances. Stoll’s Buzz Aldrin is characterised as someone who’s not exactly likeable, and this is something Stoll visibly enjoys playing.

First Man is a finely crafted serious awards season drama, but watching it still feels a little bit like homework. The attempts to juxtapose the US’ involvement in the Space Race against the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights struggle are commendable but a little clumsy. In taking a matter-of-fact approach, the film loses some of the wonderment and awe associated with mankind “slipping the surly bonds of earth”. However, Chazelle and co. largely succeed in crafting a credible account of Neil Armstrong’s journey from the earth to the moon.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Phantom Thread movie review

For inSing

PHANTOM THREAD

Director : Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast : Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville, Richard Graham, Camilla Rutherford, Harriet Sansom Harris, Brian Gleeson, Julia Davis
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 2 h 10 min
Opens : 25 January 2018
Rating : NC16

In any year when Daniel Day-Lewis stars in a film, every other actor nominated for acting awards alongside him must be quaking in their boots. Those days might be over, since Gary Oldman is the hot favourite to win the Best Actor Oscar for Darkest Hour, and more so, since this film is purportedly Day-Lewis’ final movie.

It is the 1950s, and Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) is a highly sought-after London dressmaker, whose clientele includes socialites and European royalty. Reynolds’ singular brilliance is coupled with particularity and imperiousness, making him difficult to be around. Reynolds’ sister Cyril (Lesley Manville) manages the day-to-day operations of his fashion house.

While eating at a restaurant in the countryside, Reynolds meets young Belgian waitress Alma (Krieps) and is immediately taken by her. Alma becomes Reynolds’ muse, and is by his side constantly. Cyril is initially suspicious of Alma, since she disrupts Reynolds’ working rhythm. A rift soon develops between Reynolds and Alma, as she struggles to get out from under his controlling grip. Reynolds must decide what is more important to him: the love of a woman, or his chosen craft.

Phantom Thread is written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, often hailed as one of the finest directors working. His filmography includes There Will Be Blood, The Master, Boogie Nights and Magnolia – this is a filmmaker’s filmmaker, an auteur’s auteur, widely admired by his peers. Anderson just picked up his seventh Oscar nomination, but has yet to win one. His work is meticulous, but also sometimes difficult to get into. Phantom Thread is an arthouse film through and through, and more impatient audiences might find it challenging to engage with.

The film succeeds as a layered exploration of what it’s like to fall in love with an obsessive artist, and the power struggle that results in such a relationship. Reynolds is, in many ways, an absurd man. He is exacting, temperamental and inconsiderate, but this is viewed as the price of his genius as a fashion designer. While Phantom Thread does get intense, it’s also surprisingly funny. While 1950s London high society is depicted as a rarefied world that audiences get to peek into, the film also acknowledges the inherent silliness of how the fabulously wealthy act.

Day-Lewis is, it goes without saying, superb. While he doesn’t undergo a drastic physical transformation as he did for earlier films including My Left Foot and Lincoln, Day-Lewis still constructs a fascinating, magnetic character. Day-Lewis is famous for being a method actor, never breaking character the entire time he works on a given movie. There’s a degree of mystique to him, and as such, it seems apt that he plays an artist who sets only the highest standards for his own work. Reynolds has obvious unresolved mommy issues, but Day-Lewis’ performance and Anderson’s writing ensure that the character is more than your stock ‘tortured misunderstood genius’ type.

Vicky Krieps is a Luxembourgian actress who will be unfamiliar to most English-speaking filmgoers, but who is poised to become a sought after in Hollywood after her stunning turn in this film. It mustn’t be easy to hold one’s own opposite Day-Lewis, which Krieps does. Alma is something of a faux-naif, and seems like she’s less than Reynolds in every way: social standing, education and refinement. It is a joy to see Alma gain the upper hand and take him on when she is tired of living solely on his terms. The relationship ends up being unpredictable, and the interplay between Day-Lewis and Krieps gives the movie its spark.

Manville scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her turn as Cyril. The almost symbiotic relationship between brother and sister has an intriguing dynamic – it can be interpreted that Reynolds sees his sister as a substitute for his late mother. Cyril’s omnipresence also makes Alma feel like she can’t have Reynolds to herself. In some ways, it’s a love triangle, but not in the traditional romantic sense – it’s more like a power triangle.

There are bound to be viewers who will decry Phantom Thread as pretentious, or others who might find it unintentionally funny because it is so mannered. However, cinephiles will likely appreciate the care with which Anderson has crafted this film, and the work of his collaborators, from Mark Bridges’ costumes to Jonny Greenwood’s piano-driven score. If this is indeed Day-Lewis’ swansong, it is an excellent performance to remember him by – but there was never any doubt it would be.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

All the Money in the World movie review

For inSing

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Michelle Williams, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Charlie Plummer, Romain Duris, Marco Leonardi, Andrew Buchan, Timothy Hutton
Genre : Crime/Historical/Drama
Run Time : 2 h 12 min
Opens : 25 January 2018
Rating : NC16

The grandson of the richest man in the world is kidnapped by an Italian crime organisation and as he refuses to pay the ransom, the boy’s mother goes to great lengths to free her son. It’s a story that almost too dramatic, too sensational to be true, and yet, it is.

It is 1973, and J.P. “Paul” Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is abducted on the streets of Rome. Paul’s parents are divorced: his father John Paul Getty Jr. (Andrew Buchan) is the son of the oil tycoon J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer). Paul’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) tries desperately to free her son, but her ex-father-in-law refuses to pay the $17 million ransom – despite being worth over $2 billion himself.

In the meantime, one of Paul’s kidnappers, Cinquanta (Romain Duris), develops sympathy for the teenager, and cannot fathom why Paul’s family refuses to pay for his freedom. The eldest Getty assigns Fletcher Case (Mark Wahlberg), a negotiator and former CIA operative, to investigate and secure Paul’s freedom, for as little money as possible. Despite being at odds, Gail works together with Fletcher to ensure her son gets out alive, as every passing hour puts Paul in greater danger.

All the Money in the World could have been just another awards season prestige flick based on a true story, but the behind-the-scenes drama has almost overshadowed the plot of the film itself. Kevin Spacey was originally cast as J. Paul Getty, but in the light of sexual assault allegations levelled against Spacey that came to light last October, director Ridley Scott elected to excise Spacey from the film. Christopher Plummer was cast at the last minute, and Scott scrambled to reshoot the movie with just over a month until its planned release date.

The results are seamless, with Plummer slotted into the film in a manner that’s barely noticeable. All the Money in the World is a slickly-made film – Scott is a seasoned filmmaker and several key crew members, including cinematographer Dariusz Wolsk, costume designer Janty Yates and production designer Arthur Max, are frequent collaborators of his. However, its efficiency means it feels like a less-than-personal work.

The film is based on the nonfiction book Painfully Rich: The Outrageous Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Heirs of J. Paul Getty, by John Pearson. The film is a little heavy-handed in its approach, and David Scarpa’s screenplay contains multiple pithy lines musing on the meaning (or meaninglessness) of money and other possessions. “Everything has a price,” the eldest Getty proclaims. “The great struggle in life is coming to grips with what the price is.” There are more than a few moments in which All the Money in the World is a little too on-the-nose.

Williams does the most legwork, delivering a fine, moving performance. Gail is someone who has lived on the fringes of great wealth, but cannot count herself as rich. She embodies a mother’s love: Williams never over-plays Gail’s anguish at the prospect of never seeing her son again, and in addition to the expected desperation, there’s temerity and resolve. Gail is pressed on all sides, constantly thronged by the paparazzi, drawn into a spectacle she wants no part of. Placing Gail front and centre and emphasising her prominent role in fighting for her son’s release was the right narrative approach.

The 88-year-old Plummer continues to be a class act. Getty is not a likeable character, since he is wholly consumed by his fortune and has dedicated his existence to maintaining, growing and protecting said fortune. However, Plummer has a knowing twinkle in his eye, and brings considerable charm to the part. He paints a portrait of a shrewd, quietly megalomaniacal tycoon, delivering a commanding performance without exerting much effort. While some of Getty’s lines are clunkers, Plummer makes the dialogue work.

Wahlberg is far and away the film’s weak link. Fletcher Case is presented as Getty’s go-to fixer, a smooth-talking man of mystery with a covert past. It’s difficult to take Wahlberg seriously, as he can sometimes lapse into whininess. Late in the film, when Fletcher has a heated confrontation with Getty, Wahlberg struggles to hold his own opposite Plummer.

The news that Wahlberg demanded a $1.5 million fee for reshoots and held up the production until he got paid that amount doesn’t help. It’s a consolation that since this was exposed, Wahlberg donated his reshoot pay to the Time’s Up Initiative in co-star Williams’ name.

The dynamic that develops between Paul and his captor Cinquanta is an interesting element of the story, since Cinquanta winds up being sympathetic to Paul, almost caring towards his prisoner. Duris imbues Cinquanta with a believable level of humanity, while Charlie Plummer (no relation to Christopher) is serviceable as a scared, somewhat spoiled teenager. Paul does display unexpected resourcefulness when he needs to, making for some of the film’s most thrilling sequences.

All the Money in the World is a little too manicured and workmanlike to be truly affecting, save for one genuinely wince-inducing, gory scene. However, it is well-paced and there’s an urgency to the proceedings, with enough tension to keep audiences engaged. Williams carries the show, with Plummer stealing it at key points. Shame that Wahlberg had to be there too.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Post movie review

For inSing

THE POST

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Bruce Greenwood, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys, Allison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Zach Woods
Genre : Biography/Drama/Historical
Run Time : 1h 56 min
Opens : 18 January 2018
Rating : PG13

         Every awards season, there are bound to be at least a few ‘big important movies’ – films based on true events that have a timely relevance, boasting pedigree in front of and behind the camera. The Post ticks all those boxes.

It is 1971. The New York Times runs a story about how the U.S. government has been lying about the Vietnam War to the public, based on leaked clandestine reports which document the ongoing war, going back over 20 years. These reports were compiled on the instructions of Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), the former Secretary of Defence, for academic study.

Katherine “Kay” Graham (Meryl Streep), the first female owner of The Washington Post, is about to publicly list the paper. While the Initial Public Offering will broaden the Post’s reach, Graham also fears losing the control entrusted to her by her late husband, who succeeded Graham’s father as the owner of the paper.

President Nixon and the Attorney General file an injunction against The New York Times, taking the paper to court over the story. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) sees the opportunity to dig further into the story. Assistant Editor Ben Bagdikan (Bob Odenkirk) tracks down the source, former analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys), and procures more than 4000 pages of the Pentagon Papers. Graham must choose whether to publish, at the risk of her and Bradlee being imprisoned, and with the paper at stake.

The sitting President of the United States has made no secret of his disdain for the press, branding any outlet which runs stories unfavourable to him as “fake news”. This climate prompted Steven Spielberg to rush The Post into production, and he made this film while his next movie Ready Player One was in post-production. The Post makes a statement about the importance of the freedom of the press, but perhaps it makes that statement a little too obviously. “We have to be the check on their power. If we don’t hold them accountable — my god, who will?” Bradlee exclaims, in one of several lines that spell out what the film is about.

Because The Post is made by people who more than know what they’re doing, it gets a lot right. Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn (with additional editing by Sarah Broshar) do their usual fine work. The movie looks and sounds like how one would expect a 70s-set political thriller to look, and the setting feels authentic – complete with a multitude of unfortunate hairdos. While the first half of the film can be somewhat dry, things get genuinely thrilling as the movie heads towards an exciting conclusion. The stakes are clearly established, and it’s clear that the decisions the characters must make are consequential ones.

Behind the scenes, there’s the success story of Liz Hannah, for whom every aspiring screenwriter’s dream came true: her first screenplay was made into a film by Steven Spielberg. Josh Singer, who won an Oscar for co-writing Spotlight, rewrote Hannah’s script. Hannah had long been fascinated with Graham, and the writer’s boyfriend encouraged her to pen a screenplay about the newspaper heiress.

The Post wants to be a personal story in addition to being a historical account, but struggles with the balance. A scene between Graham and her daughter Lally (Allison Brie) comes off as a slightly awkward attempt to generate emotion while also supplying some backstory.

The Post is at its best when its talented actors are turned loose. Putting Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks in a scene together, regardless of context, is bound to produce electrifying results. The role of Kay Graham is comfortably in Streep’s wheelhouse: a powerful woman grappling with a monumental dilemma. Graham must make her way in a man’s world, facing doubt at every turn. She remains warm and personable even in the face of adversity, and is at once a magnetic and comforting presence.

Hanks has fun, biting into the role with relish. Bradlee is a dogged, persistent editor, who is described at one point as a “pirate”. Bradlee is a little more abrasive than your standard charming, affable Hanks part, and he spars with Graham and other characters throughout the film. Hanks and Streep visibly enjoy playing off each other, and Spielberg brings out the best in his stars.

The supporting cast is first-rate too: Paulson is especially likeable as Bradlee’s wife Antoinette, and gets an excellent scene in which she lays out why she admires Graham as Bradlee seems to dismiss his boss’ predicament. Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk is funny and down-to-earth as assistant editor Ben Bagdikan, who flies back to Washington with the Papers safely buckled into the airplane seat next to him.

There’s no denying that The Post is timely and well-made, but perhaps it’s a little too aware of its status as a big important movie. It takes audiences from Point A to B with enough clarity, but perhaps not enough nuance, and it will be hard for some viewers to see past how obviously The Post is calibrated for awards season appeal.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Darkest Hour movie review

For inSing

DARKEST HOUR

Director : Joe Wright
Cast : Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Richard Lumsden, Jeremy Child, Samuel West
Genre : Drama/Historical/War
Run Time : 2h 6m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : PG

Having directed Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright is no stranger to prestige films. After taking a perhaps ill-advised detour into the realm of fantasy adventure with Pan, Wright is back in awards season territory with this historical drama. His subject: one of the most iconic Britons in recent history – Winston Churchill.

It is May 1940, and Nazi forces are advancing across western Europe. In the United Kingdom, the Opposition Labour Party demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who is deemed ill-suited to lead Britain in war. Chamberlain’s first choice to succeed him is the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), but Halifax declines. Chamberlain then appoints the one man whom the Opposition party would support: Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman).

Churchill is dogged by military failures in his earlier career, including the Gallipoli Campaign during WWI. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is not the biggest fan of Churchill, since Churchill supported the abdication of George’s brother Edward VIII. Churchill’s wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his new secretary Elizabeth (Lily James) bear the brunt of his irritability – Clementine is used to it, Elizabeth less so.

Churchill is immediately faced with a barrage of tough decisions: Halifax and Chamberlain place pressure on Churchill to consider negotiating with Hitler, just as the British Expeditionary Forces are trapped at Dunkirk and Calais in France. The War Cabinet Crisis is brewing, with Chamberlain and Halifax hoping to engineer a Vote of No Confidence in Churchill to force his removal from office. As the British Empire is plunged headlong into war, can Churchill lead them to victory? (Spoiler alert: he does)

Darkest Hour is written by New Zealander novelist and playwright Anthony McCarten, who received an Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything. On the surface, Darkest Hour seems like standard awards season fare, and yet another example of “Englishness = prestige”. While this political drama could have turned out stodgy, director Wright and writer McCarten ensure it is anything but.

There’s an invigorating forcefulness to the film, a momentum and urgency which other similar movies, including 2017’s Churchill starring Brian Cox, lack. There’s a propulsive energy to Darkest Hour, such that things are never standing still, even when two characters are having a quiet conversation. The writing bubbles over with wit, and the grave stakes are firmly established while leaving room for some much-needed humour.

The film’s atmospherics reel the viewer in as much as the performances, which we’ll get to in a bit, do. Darkest Hour is cinematic in that it feels deliberately constructed and staged, but this never pulls one out of it. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel employs lighting boldly and exquisitely – Churchill is revealed by way of his face being illuminated by a lit match. The sound design and editing is given precedence over the score, and it creates a uniquely immersive effect. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is authentic, with the subterranean military citadels beneath Whitehall where the War Cabinet is huddled being an especially realistic set. One can almost smell the cigar smoke wafting off the screen.

Said cigars are typically held between the stubby fingers of Oldman’s Churchill. This is an audacious bit of casting which has more than paid off. Oldman takes on this daunting role with unbridled brio, carefully crafting an entertaining, astounding performance. The special effects makeup required to transform Oldman into Churchill was designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji, and took four hours to put on each day. Oldman captures Churchill’s distinctive physicality in ways obvious and subtle. This is an actor long overdue for an Oscar, and it’s hard to argue that this performance doesn’t deserve that honour.

Because Oldman’s presence in the film is so forceful, and because the film’s focus is trained so squarely on Churchill, the supporting players don’t get too much of the spotlight. However, they ideally complement the film’s star.

Mendelsohn conveys King George VI’s awkwardness and hints at his temper. While Colin Firth’s portrayal of “Bertie” might have won hearts (and an Oscar), Mendelsohn does bear more of a physical resemblance to the historical figure. The evolution of the working relationship between the King and the new Prime Minister, which starts out quite testy indeed, is sensitively portrayed.

Kristin Scott Thomas is the picture of refined grace as Clementine. Nobody quite knows Churchill like his beloved wife does, and Thomas’ twinkle-in-the-eye performance is appealing.

James’ Elizabeth is based on a real-life figure, but the real Elizabeth Layton didn’t become Churchill’s secretary until around a year after the events depicted in the film. James is proper and charming as always, and Elizabeth serves as a fine audience identification character. One of this reviewer’s favourite moments in the film is when Elizabeth manages to momentarily break her boss’s unyielding exterior and they share a hearty laugh over a silly mistake Churchill has made.

Halifax and Chamberlain are depicted as being in opposition to Churchill, but the film makes sure to articulate their point of view. To them, Churchill’s insistence on fighting on at all costs and his stubborn refusal to even entertain the thought of peace talks is foolhardy. That’s not an entirely unjustified point of view, given the circumstances. The late John Hurt was slated to play Chamberlain, but was replaced by Ronald Pickup after Hurt died in early 2017.

There are a few moments in Darkest Hour that ring false, most notably an impromptu meet-the-people session in an unusual locale. As in any historical drama, there are moments that have been embellished for dramatic effect. However, an impressive, bravura performance from a masterful actor and some confident stylistic flourishes keep Darkest Hour thrilling and compelling.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Greatest Showman movie review

For inSing

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

Director : Michael Gracey
Cast : Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Paul Sparks
Genre : Musical/Drama
Run Time : 1h 45m
Opens : 28 December 2017
Rating : PG

For years, Hugh Jackman has been saying “let’s put on a show” – specifically, a movie musical based on the life of showbiz pioneer P.T. Barnum. The project was announced in 2009, and with The Greatest Showman, Jackman’s dream has come true – but just how much was this endeavour worth the actor’s blood, sweat and tears?

Phineas Taylor ‘P.T.’ Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is an enterprising showman who, after being fired from his job as a shipping company clerk, takes the biggest risk of his life: he sinks whatever money he has left into a museum of oddities. Barnum came from nothing, but married far above his station to Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams), his childhood sweetheart. The couple have two daughters: Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely).

When wax figures and stuffed animals alone fail to draw crowds, Barnum puts out the call for human oddities and persons with unique acts to join his museum, which soon gets rebranded as a ‘circus’. These include bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), dwarf Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey) who takes on the stage name ‘General Tom Thumb’, sibling trapeze artists Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) Wheeler, conjoined twins Chang (Yusaku Komori) and Eng (Danial Son) Bunker, and Prince Constantine (Shannon Holtzappfel), whose whole body is covered in tattoos.

Barnum ropes in playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to be his partner. The aristocratic young man is initially hesitant to throw in with Barnum, but eventually does. Carlyle falls in love with Anne, but because of racial prejudices, both fear they will be ostracised if they enter a relationship. James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks), theatre critic for the New York Herald, decries Barnum’s show as vile and debasing, while angry hordes protest the show because they do not want the ‘freaks’ to be seen out in public.

As Barnum’s success grows despite ever-increasing odds, so does his hubris. Barnum becomes besotted with opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), dubbed the ‘Swedish Nightingale’. He forsakes his crew of circus oddities and his own family to advance Jenny’s career in the United States. As Barnum chases fame and fortune, he must re-evaluate his priorities and decide how much is enough.

The Greatest Showman very much wants to be a great time for the whole family: uplifting, joyous, inspirational and bursting with dazzling visual spectacle. This is a movie that works better if you know nothing about P.T. Barnum. This movie dearly hopes you know nothing about P.T. Barnum. This won’t be the first review to state that perhaps the historical figure is not the best match for a tolerance-driven story about embracing one’s differences. There’s a site called History vs. Hollywood that handily compares fact-based movies with actual events, and the page for The Greatest Showman might as well just say “yeah, no”.

This is a man who got his big break exhibiting a slave woman named Joice Heth, billing her as being 161-years-old and having been George Washington’s nursemaid. After Heth died, Barnum held a live autopsy in a Broadway theatre, attended by 1500 paying audience members. And that’s just the beginning of his career in showbusiness.

Looking past that – which is a lot to look past – there is plenty in The Greatest Showman to appreciate. This is an adoring tribute to the glory days of the movie musical. Movie musicals must often hide that they are musicals, since a big section of filmgoers dislike the genre. In The Greatest Showman, there are eleven original songs, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – the duo who won an Oscar for La La Land and a Tony for Dear Evan Hansen. This film was in development before Pasek and Paul made it big.

The film’s songs all have a radio-friendly Top 40 sound – Jackman has said that he wanted the music to be something his youngest daughter would want to listen to. This is a bit of a double-edged sword – the anachronistic-sounding songs make it feel like the movie is so close to a full-on throwback, but took one crucial step back. Some of the pop instrumentation is distracting, and the movie’s low point is when the opera singer performs what is decidedly not opera.

The big signature number “This Is Me”, an ecstatic celebration of being different that is performed with gusto and sincerity by Settle, is anthemic and has a wonderful message. “Rewrite the Stars” is meant to be a sweeping romantic duet, but is instead entirely cheesy. “You know I want you/ It’s not a secret I try to hide/ But I can’t have you” are actual lyrics in the song.

The film’s group numbers are uniformly excellent. There is such dynamism to the staging, and the choreography by Ashley Wallen is a technical achievement, given the synchronisation involved, not to mention groups of dancers navigating various obstacles and special effects going off. “The Other Side”, a duet between Barnum and Carlyle in which the former talks the latter into joining him, features a fiendishly clever bit in which shot glasses are moved across a bar counter to the beat of the music.

Jackman gives this his all, and it is invigorating to see a performer who is so in his element. He’s a song and dance man as much as he is a claw-baring action hero, and he’s right at home in this movie.

Williams puts in a quietly moving performance, and her solo number, the wistful “Tightrope”, is this reviewer’s favourite song of the film. Efron is slick and charming – he’s kind of floundered about choosing many bad projects, but The Greatest Showman fits his skill set to a tee.

Zendaya is captivating, effortlessly poised and glamorous, yet also evincing the sadness beneath Anne’s surface. The forbidden romance between Anne and Phillip is clumsily executed, but has its moments. Both characters are fictional.

Unfortunately, the circus oddities do not get sufficient development. Tom Thumb and Lettie read as individuals, but the group is often relegated to providing background texture. It seems like there’s so much to each character, each of their struggles growing up different from everyone else, that doesn’t get explored.

Then there’s the strawman critic played by Sparks, who feels like a built-in defence against the film’s would-be negative reviews – but The Greatest Showman is hardly the first movie to use this device.

If you long for the heyday of big-budget, glitzy movie musicals, The Greatest Showman is as close as Hollywood has come in a while. The ambition behind the movie, especially since this is director Michael Gracey’s feature film debut, is commendable. However, it is, at the very least, troubling that a figure as monstrous as P.T. Barnum has been fashioned into a vehicle for the film’s very worthwhile positive messaging.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Victoria and Abdul movie review

For inSing

VICTORIA AND ABDUL 

Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Judi Dench, Ali Faizal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith
Genre : Drama/Historical
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 9 November 2017
Rating : PG

Victoria-and-Abdul-poster20 years ago, Dame Judi Dench played Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. That film was about the controversial relationship between Victoria and her servant John Brown, and now, Dench returns to the role in a film about another controversial relationship between Victoria and a servant, but one of a different stripe.

It is 1887, the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Abdul Karim (Ali Faizal) and Mohammed Buksh (Adeel Akhtar) are chosen to travel from India to England to present Victoria with a ceremonial coin known as a mohur. Abdul catches Victoria’s attention, and she hires him as an attendant. Abdul begins to teach Victoria Urdu, and becomes Victoria’s ‘munshi’, or teacher. Victoria’s affinity for Abdul, an Indian Muslim, earns the ire of the royal household and the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon). Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the future King Edward VII, develops a hatred for and jealousy of Abdul. As the royal household plots to have Abdul removed, the relationship between Victoria and Abdul transcends that of a Queen and her servant. The former prison clerk finds himself becoming a confidant to Victoria, the Empress of India, in her waning years.

Victoria and Abdul is directed by Stephen Frears, who has helmed awards season prestige films including The QueenPhilomena and Florence Foster JenkinsBilly Elliot writer Lee Hall adapted the screenplay from Shrabani Basu’s book, also titled Victoria and Abdul. The film opens with a tongue-in-cheek declaration that it is “based on a true story…mostly”. The film endeavours to be funny and heart-warming, and it often is, but many have taken issue with its depiction of historical events, which have been termed revisionist.

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The film wants to be a character piece that is anchored by the unlikely bond shared between the Queen and a servant, but it is impossible to detach the story from the surrounding political and historical context. Victoria is made out to be progressive and tolerant, with the royal household and staff treating Abdul with utmost prejudice. The film seems to exaggerate and simplify events for the sake of coherence, as historical films often do, and it is unlikely that the real Victoria was an activist who denounced Islamophobia. The film also sanitizes the atrocities committed by the British Raj during the Empire’s rule of India, a painful period in history which has left scars that are still evident today.

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However, these flaws in the film’s approach are significantly papered over by Dench’s remarkable performance. She plays Victoria as a lonely, curmudgeonly elderly woman, who has never quite recovered from the loss of her husband Albert. There’s tender vulnerability in the portrayal, which is tempered with formidable power. Even if this particular portrayal of Victoria might not be the most historically accurate, Dench is consistently riveting. As if there were ever any doubt about it, she once again proves to be a national treasure of the highest order.

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The dashing Faizal is immensely likeable as Abdul, playing the part with a genuine warmth and having a certain glow about him. Unfortunately, Abdul feels under-written, and the film takes on undertones of Orientalism by depicting Abdul as overly servile, sagely, gentle and enlightened. It seems the real Abdul was more aggressively ambitious than the benign film version. That said, the chemistry between Dench and Faizal does work, and both actors play off each other well.

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The supporting characters are largely one-note caricatures, with the various members of the royal household tut-tutting about Osbourne House. Izzard’s Bertie is drawn as an especially despicable villain who’s easy to hate, and while Izzard bites into the role with relish, the character is difficult to buy as an actual person. Akhtar is funny as Buksh, who is constantly playing second fiddle to the taller, more handsome Abdul. He also gets an excellent dramatic scene.

Victoria and Abdul boasts pedigree behind the camera beyond the director and writer – costume designer Consolata Boyle’s re-creations of Victorian fashions are lavish and eye-catching, while Thomas Newman’s score incorporates Indian instruments like the sitar, tabla and santur hammered dulcimer into his usual new age orchestral style. Cinematographer Danny Cohen presents the English and Indian locations in all their grandeur, with Victoria’s Glassalt Shiel retreat in Scotland looking especially gorgeous.

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The film starts out as a comedy and is often amusing, but as it journeys into more dramatic territory, one might get distracted attempting to parse the implications of the film and the liberties it takes with historical events in service of emotional beats. It’s a good thing then that Victoria and Abdul has Dench’s peerless skill as an actress to count on.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Churchill

For F*** Magazine

CHURCHILL 

Director : Jonathan Teplitzky
Cast : Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, James Purefoy, Julian Wadham, Danny Webb, Richard Durden, Ella Purnell
Genre : Drama/Biography
Run Time : 1h 45min
Opens : 6 July 2017
Rating : PG

Sir Winston Churchill just might be the most iconic Briton in recent history. The wartime Prime Minister has become a nigh-mythic figure, and it’s easy to see why filmmakers are drawn to telling his story. This historical drama focuses on the leadup to D-Day as the Second World War rages on. Churchill (Cox) prepares for the beach landing of allied forces in France, meeting with American general Dwight D. Eisenhower (Slattery), Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Wadham) and other high-ranking personnel in the allied command. Churchill fears a repeat of the horrifically botched beach landing he oversaw during the First World War, and he takes his anxieties and frustrations out on his wife Clementine (Richardson), who becomes increasingly concerned about Churchill’s ability to deal with the pressure of leading the country through the war. Depending on a multitude of factors, D-Day could turn the tide for the allies or lead to tragic consequences. Churchill must call on his fortitude and decisiveness, when the troops and civillians need it the most.

Churchill is directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, who told a markedly different World War II story with The Railway Man. Teplitzky works from a screenplay by British historian Alex von Tunzelmann. Going into Churchill, one knows what to expect: a reverential, respectable historical drama, but one that might be a chore to sit through. While there is an attempt to humanise the titular historical figure, Churchill ends up as a stodgy and inaccessible work. The official synopsis for the film describes it as a “ticking-clock thriller”, but despite the incredibly high stakes in play, Churchill lacks urgency or momentum. As a result, the audience feels like they’re watching events unfold from a distance, rather than engaging with them.

Many great actors have played the steadfast British Bulldog, and Cox proves himself to be up to the task, having already accumulated a respectable body of work. Because a particular image of Churchill is so ingrained in the public consciousness, actors have to work extra hard to push past the caricature of an unyielding, principled curmudgeon. While Cox does what he can with the material, his portrayal of Churchill isn’t as indelible as John Lithgow’s recent turn in the Netflix series The Crown. Granted, Lithgow played Churchill at a slightly later stage in his life, but he evinced the inner conflicts roiling beneath the brickwork exterior better than Cox does.

In addition to being a historical drama, Churchill wants to be an unconventional romance. Richardson’s Clementine is often the only one in the room who can stand up to Churchill or even try to talk him down – after all, as his wife, Clementine has had years of experience. Richardson achieves a lot with just a glance, and we wish she were in more of the film. Unfortunately, the dramatic moments between the couple seem contrived and predictable, and while Churchill’s outbursts are violent and dramatic, there isn’t enough emotional heft behind them.

The supporting cast is fine, with Slattery a standout as a dashing, serious and commanding Eisenhower. Purefoy is an appropriately sweet, if slightly bland, King George VI. Ella Purnell plays the requisite audience identification character, the fictional secretary Helen Garrett. Churchill harshly berates her when she makes a spacing error in typing up a document, but one knows it’s going to build up to Churchill eventually treating the young woman with kindness, as she wells up with admiration for the great man. It’s a forgivable cliché, but a cliché all the same.

The best historical dramas transcend the niggling feeling that one is fidgeting in the back of the classroom during history period. Alas, Churchill does not overcome this. While there are snatches of clever repartee between the characters, and a smattering of powerful imagery, Churchill feels circuitous and unnecessary instead of illuminating or compelling.

Summary: A bog-standard historical biopic, Churchill features Cox giving it his best shot to play the iconic Briton, but it fails to drum up much urgency or strike an emotional chord.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong