Brad’s Status movie review

For inSing

BRAD’S STATUS 

Director : Mike White
Cast : Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Shazi Raja, Luisa Lee, Mike White
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 2 November 2017
Rating : M18

           It’s a familiar, painful feeling: the sense that everyone else has overtaken you, that your peers have gone on to bigger and better things, and you’re left wondering what you’ve done with your life. This might sound depressing, but it’s the basis for a comedy. Well, a comedy-drama.

Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) is 47, married to Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and runs a non-profit organisation. Every day, he seems reminded of how successful his college classmates are: Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen) went from a job at the White House to being a bestselling author and sought-after speaker, Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson) is a wealthy hedge fund manager, Billy Wearsiter (Jemaine Clement) sold off his tech company and has retired to Hawaii, and Nick Pasquale (Mike White) is a Hollywood filmmaker who lives in a mansion in Malibu.

Brad takes his 17-year-old son Troy (Austin Abrams) on a tour of potential colleges. Troy, an aspiring musician and composer, hopes to get into Harvard. As Brad attempts to reconnect with his old friends to call in a favour for Troy, he is forced to re-evaluate his disillusionment, discovering that perhaps the grass really isn’t greener on the other side.

Writer-director Mike White makes many pithy observations about the anxiety of feeling one doesn’t measure up. This is not the first movie about a man navigating a midlife crisis, but it’s done in a largely down-to-earth, relatable manner. The debilitating practice of comparing oneself to one’s peers isn’t particularly healthy, but it’s something everyone catches themselves doing. Brad’s Status punctuates the mundanity with dream sequences and flights of fancy, in which Brad imagines how glamorous and exciting his friends’ lives must be, as well as imagining how his own son might end up.

The film makes heavy use of voiceovers, but these sequences feel organic. Hearing Brad’s internal monologue makes audiences feel like they’re in the protagonist’s headspace, understanding how he ticks and becoming intimately familiar with his crippling insecurities. This is a role that fits Stiller to a tee – he isn’t do any forced, over-the-top mugging here, but is tapping on his appeal as a beleaguered everyman. Brad openly wallows in self-pity, and yet, he’s sympathetic because we’ve all been there. There’s a point in the film when Brad is told point blank that the world doesn’t revolve around him, and that his obsessing over his perceived shortcomings is a sign of self-centredness. There are no drastic leaps in his belated journey of self-discovery, and it’s easy for viewers to go along with him on this ride.

Abrams comes off as an ordinary kid, delivering an understated, amusing performance that parents of teenagers are sure to find thoroughly authentic. The relationship between father and son is convincingly developed, and the tensions that arise between the two during the college tour seem natural. Brad is at once anxious that his son achieve greatness, and simultaneously afraid that his Troy will eventually end up more successful than he is. There’s enough awkwardness and sincerity in the relationship for it to work as the film’s emotional core, without things coming off as overly saccharine.

The supporting cast is smartly selected, with Michael Sheen being the standout. Sheen grins his way through the performance, coming across as glib and self-satisfied, but not necessarily a bad person. Brad does a lot of projecting onto his friends, fantasising about how much better their lives are than his, when he has plenty to be thankful for. Shazi Raja is memorable as Troy’s friend Ananya, who winds up challenging Brad’s worldview. Luisa Lee, a violinist whom you might have seen on YouTube, also appears.

Brad’s Status doesn’t make any grand statements, but it is poignant and thought-provoking. It highlights the exhausting pointlessness of feeling like one never has enough and that everyone else has it so much better, without taking time to be grateful and to assess one’s priorities and maintain the personal relationships that truly matter. As a gentle takedown of entitlement, Brad’s Status might sting those who feel indicted by it, but it’s funny and heartfelt.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Moana

For F*** Magazine

MOANA 

Director : Ron Clements, John Musker
Cast : Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Temuera Morrison, Rachel House, Nicole Scherzinger, Jemaine Clement, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1h 54min
Opens : 24 November 2016
Rating : PG

moana-posterDisney heeds the call of the ocean with the studio’s 56th animated feature film. Young Moana (Cravalho), the daughter of chief Tui (Morrison) and Shira (Scherzinger), lives on the Polynesian island of Motonui. Tui insists that his daughter remain on the island to eventually take over the duties of chief, but Moana is unable to resist the beckoning of the sea. Moana’s grandmother Tala (House) encourages the girl’s instincts, much to Tui’s chagrin. When the Motnonui islanders find their livelihoods threatened as coconut trees fail to bear fruit and no fish can be caught, Moana sets out to find the one person who can fix the situation. This is the demigod Maui (Johnson), who can shape-shift into various animals. Accompanied by the none-too-bright rooster Hei Hei (Tudyk), Moana and Maui embark on a journey to return a mystical artefact known as the Heart of Te Fiti. Neither is too fond of the other, but they will need to work together to survive the arduous voyage and defeat the deadly lava goddess Te Kā.

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Moana is directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, Disney animation mainstays whose first film for the studio was 1986’s The Great Mouse Detective. Clements and Musker kick-started the studio’s ‘Renaissance’ period with The Little Mermaid three years later, following that with Aladdin, Hercules, Treasure Planet and The Princess and the Frog. The duo undertook extensive research trips to Polynesian islands, and the effort put into authentically capturing and portraying that rich culture is evident in Moana. The animation is detailed and vibrant, with some of the finest computer-generated water we’ve ever seen playing an important role. The ocean is personified as a living entity, with globules of water reminiscent of The Abyss extending from the surface to greet Moana.

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Moana has been billed as being vastly different from all the other Disney Princess films in the studio’s canon, but for the most part, it sticks to a tried and true Hero’s Journey formula. There’s a MacGuffin in the form of the Heart of Te Fiti jewel, there’s a quest to go on and hurdles to overcome. While there’s a big reveal during the film’s climax, there isn’t too much here that’s very surprising. Moana and Maui’s adventures take on an episodic nature. A thrilling action sequence in which the pair is ambushed by a horde of pygmy pirates called the Kakamora brings Mad Max: Fury Road to mind. There isn’t really an overarching villain, with Te Kā only really making her presence felt during the film’s final battle.

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There are plenty of visual gags that work great, including a moment in which Maui hits a snag with his shape-shifting superpowers. Hei Hei, whom Clements describes as “the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation,” is endlessly amusing. However, several stabs at self-referential humour seem a little jarring. Maui tacitly comments on Moana’s status as a Disney Princess, and there’s a particularly on-the-nose reference to The Little Mermaid. There’s also a joke about Twitter that seems Dreamworks-y.

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One of the film’s biggest selling points is that, as with Brave, there isn’t a love interest in sight. Moana has great agency and isn’t defined solely by her relationships to any of the other characters.15-year-old Cravalho was the last of hundreds of Polynesian women to audition. She makes her feature film acting debut here, bringing an appropriate blend of plucky adventurer and 21st Century teenager to her performance. While Moana is a great character, there are familiar elements to her – she wants adventure in a great wide somewhere, and longs to get out from under the thumb of her overprotective father. It is nice that the character is given a noticeably different body type from the standard svelte Disney princess, and the character’s beauty is showcased in beautifully-lit magic hour scenes.

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Johnson’s trademark charm and charisma is on display as Maui, a self-centred demigod who craves adulation. Maui’s facial expressions appear to be modelled directly on Johnson’s, with the signature ‘people’s eyebrow’ look getting the spotlight. The character isn’t intended to be wholly likeable, and while the relationship between Maui and Moana does get satisfactory development, it can be tedious at times. Musker and Clements have cleverly worked some 2D animation into the film, in the form of Maui’s tattoos. ‘Mini Maui’, who acts as the demigod’s conscience, is a clever way of giving Maui his own sidekick.

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We’re not sure why Alan Tudyk was needed solely to make clucking sound effects, but in any case, we’re glad that Hei Hei and Pua the pig don’t talk. Bit of a shame that the adorable Pua was left behind on Motonui and didn’t join Moana, Maui and Hei Hei on their voyage. House’s Gramma Tala is the stock ‘wise grandmother’ archetype through and through, but her interactions with Moana do provide some of the film’s most emotional moments. Jemaine Clement pops up voicing a colossal crab monster named Tamatoa, in what is probably the film’s low point. It seems like such a calculation, that this is the designated scene-stealing supporting villain. Clement’s Tim Curry-type delivery is all too similar to his performance in the Rio films.

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The aspect of Moana that most disappointed this reviewer is the music. Please put away your pitchforks. Oceanic music group Te Vaka, Mark Mancina and vaunted Broadway impresario Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the film’s music, with Miranda writing the lyrics. They’re all fine, but aren’t as hummable as one would expect. Maui may have his magical fish hook, but these songs seem to lack hooks of their own. The Disney animated canon has produced such memorable tunes as Part of Your World, A Whole New World, Beauty and the Beast and, yes, Let It Go. Alas, nothing in Moana is that instantly catchy and memorable. This reviewer is sure the songs will grow on him, but we were hoping for songs that cling to you immediately.

While Moana delivers grand adventure and meticulously-animated spectacle, it doesn’t hit the heights of sublime poignancy which Disney has proven capable of. It’s a fine quest movie with a few lulls and songs that are okay at best, but lots of kids are bound to gravitate to the spirited heroine.

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Inner Workings, the short film preceding the feature, is delightful and infectiously silly. Stick around for a post-credits gag.

Summary: Splendid animation and a sincerity in putting Polynesian culture on the big screen offset Moana’s formulaic elements and somewhat unmemorable songs.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The BFG

For F*** Magazine

THE BFG

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Bill Hader, Rafe Spall, Rebecca Hall
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1 hr 57 mins
Opens : 18 August 2016
Rating : PG

The BFG posterDuring the 90s, Wall Street securities analyst Joe Tinker stated “there are only two brand names in the business: Disney and Spielberg.” Now, these two juggernaut childhood-shapers have joined forces with The BFG. Sophie (Barnhill) is a young orphan who is spirited away to Giant Country by the Big Friendly Giant, or BFG (Rylance). The BFG catches and distributes dreams to the children of London in the dead of night. Sophie is initially fearful of the BFG, but is soon convinced that he is benign. The other giants who call Giant Country home however, are not. The man-eating giants, led by the towering Fleshlumpeater (Clement) and his sidekick Bloodbottler (Hader), bully the BFG and suspect that he might be harbouring a tasty “human bean”. Sophie decides to set up an audience for the BFG with none other than Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II (Wilton), so the other nasty giants can be dealt with once and for all.

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The BFG is adapted from Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book of the same name. Steven Spielberg was once strongly associated with heart-warming escapist tales, but over the last two decades or so has turned most of his attention to prestige pictures like Lincoln and Bridge of Spies – though there’s still the occasional The Adventures of Tintin or Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The BFG re-teams Spielberg with the late screenwriter Melissa Mathison, who penned E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial; the film is dedicated to her memory. The BFG has plenty of charm, but lacks a narrative impetus, and is thus difficult to get into. Not every movie has to feature life-and-death stakes, but surely Spielberg of all people knows that a little peril can go a long way. For most of the film, Sophie is pretty much just hanging out with the BFG, and even when she’s threatened by the supposedly fearsome giants, the sense of danger just doesn’t take hold.

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The BFG is very agreeable family entertainment, and in keeping in the “sweetness tinged with rudeness” spirit of Dahl’s writing, features what is likely the first-ever fart joke in a Spielberg movie. The performance capture work and the visual effects that integrate Sophie with the computer-generated giants are of excellent quality. Visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, whose credits include the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films, Avatar, and Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is a four-time Oscar winner, after all. There is, however, a noticeable trade-off: the giants, the villainous ones in particular, can sometimes come off as cartoony, because making them too realistic would result in falling headlong into the dreaded uncanny valley. As it stands, some audience members might find the BFG creepy rather than endearing, but this reviewer isn’t among them.

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Rylance, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn in Bridge of Spies, seems to have become Spielberg’s new favourite person: he’s already secured roles in the director’s next two films, Ready Player One and The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The design of the BFG himself retains the defining features as drawn by Dahl’s regular illustrator Quentin Blake, and the performance capture approach allows for all of Rylance’s subtle expressions to shine through. The malapropisms and neologisms that pepper the BFG’s speech, as delivered by Rylance, give the character a folksy charm. He’s the absent-minded but well-meaning doddering grandfather, having taken on a larger-than-life form. The BFG also has a surprisingly tragic backstory that isn’t in the book, and as a tool for character development, it does work.

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Barnhill makes for a spirited Sophie, with a dash of another Dahl protagonist, Matilda, evident in this incarnation. The interaction between Sophie and the BFG is wonderfully acted by both performers, and Barnhill’s turn is all the more impressive when one remembers there wasn’t actually a giant there for her to act against. In some ways, its reminiscent of Neel Sethi’s Mowgli from The Jungle Book earlier this year. Barnhill certainly deserves a place in the pantheon of memorable child actors from Spielberg films.

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While a semblance of Rylance’s features is evident in the BFG’s digitally animated face, Fleshlumpeater, Bloodbottler and the other markedly less friendly giants do not resemble their respective voice/performance capture actors, meaning that less of the performers’ personality comes through. Wilton moves from Downton Abbey to Buckingham Palace, and her portrayal of the Queen is amusing and affectionate without becoming too much of a caricature. As the Queen’s butler Tibbs, Rafe Spall is on fine comic form. Rebecca Hall, Spall’s co-star from the Wide Sargasso Sea TV movie, is the picture of class as the Queen’s maid Mary.

The BFG Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Penelope Wilton and Ruby Barnhill

The scenes in which the BFG carefully crafts the dreams could be seen as a metaphor for filmmaking, and Spielberg is a consummate crafter of dreams. It’s pretty to look at and composer John Williams is in full Harry Potter mode here – unfortunately, the music is pleasant but nowhere as memorable. Alas, The BFG is far from his most magical work, and we’re not sure that the typical kid’s attention span would be able to withstand its unhurried pace.

Summary: The BFG features delightful performances from its two leads, but the lack of narrative drive means it’s only intermittently engaging.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong