Anna (2019) movie review

ANNA

Director: Luc Besson
Cast : Sasha Luss, Helen Mirren, Luke Evans, Cillian Murphy, Lera Abova, Eric Godon
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 59 mins
Opens : 20 June 2019
Rating : M18

            Luc Besson has always been drawn to lead female characters who make quite the impact, from Mathilda to Joan of Arc and Leeloo to Lucy. Anna now enters the fray, attempting to prove she can take her place in the pantheon of women who have defined Besson’s films.

It is 1990 and Anna Poliatova has become a successful fashion model in Paris and Milan. Anna has a secret double life as an assassin working for the KGB. She reports to Olga (Helen Mirren), who sends her to eliminate whomever the Russian intelligence apparatus deems as a threat. Anna begins a relationship with fellow model Maud (Lera Abova), while having dalliances with Russian intelligence officer Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans) and CIA agent Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy). The game of international espionage is one with extremely high stakes, but it’s a game that Anna knows her way around.

Anna sees Besson revisiting old territory, in that the film is very much a re-tread of La Femme Nikita, with elements of The Professional incorporated into it. This movie is of a smaller scale than recent Besson projects like 2017’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – there are times when it feels more like something that was made by one of Besson’s stable of apprentices who have gone on to direct their own films, directors like Louis Leterrier, Olivier Megaton and Pierre Morel.

There is nothing wrong with Anna being lower-key than the average James Bond style-spy action movie, but the film is remarkably stupid while thinking it is quite clever. One’s enjoyment of Anna is very much contingent on the threshold of one’s suspension of disbelief. The film’s structure is deliberately annoying, flashing back to earlier points in the film and reframing the events to reveal a new twist multiple times. The spy games depicted in the film feel rudimentary rather than sophisticated, and the dialogue is often terrible. If Besson had gone just a bit further, Anna would’ve become a parody akin to the Austin Powers movies.

Besson is known as a director with an eye for detail, but the period setting of Anna never seems convincing. The film is largely set in 1990, and there are pagers and black-and-white surveillance monitors, but characters transfer data to and from laptops using USB sticks. One character leaves a message for another that looks like it’s been recorded with a remarkably high-resolution webcam. Although Besson’s regular cinematographer Thierry Arbogast ensures Anna never looks cheap, it just feels like something that Besson hasn’t put a lot of effort into at all. It’s also harder to watch a typically male gaze-heavy Besson movie given the recent allegations of sexual misconduct against him (allegations which he has categorically denied and which were dismissed by a Paris prosecutor).

Sasha Luss is a Russian supermodel who previously appeared as an alien princess in the afore-mentioned Valerian. She looks like a supermodel, but is devoid of charisma in a fascinating way, such that she almost seems like an inanimate object that the rest of the film is arranged around. Her line delivery is stilted and her performance in the action scenes makes it difficult to buy her as a highly trained secret agent. It’s still early days for Luss and it’s unfair to say she’ll never make a good leading lady, but especially given the mediocre material, she struggles to hold her own in a role that calls for a bona fide badass.

Luke Evans seems like a standard choice for one of Anna’s love interests, but casting Cillian Murphy as his opposite number seems baffling.

Murphy is known for indie projects and apart from the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, rarely appears in a mainstream action movie. The part doesn’t make full use of his mystique and seems like one that could’ve been given to any number of American actors.

Of all the supporting players, it’s Helen Mirren who knows what’s up. Her severe, curmudgeonly spymaster character seems to be modelled after characters from the earlier Bond movies like Rosa Klebb and Irma Bunt, forbidding and authoritative Russian intelligence officials with a nasty streak. The Oscar-winner has fun with what she knows is a silly role, chain-smoking and swearing angrily at video monitors.

Model Lera Abova lends a bit of brightness to the proceedings as the radiant Maud, but her character seems to exist solely for Anna to lie to, and so the camera can leer at Anna and Maud being intimate with each other.

Anna benefits from its supporting cast and the director’s experience making slick action movies, but it often feels like a throwaway direct-to-video movie one would catch a glimpse of on a hotel TV. The plot feels like someone half-remembered a season of Alias and tried to write it all down. It’s too ridiculous to be taken seriously as a thriller, but also not ridiculous enough to be an all-out, over the top parody.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dracula Untold

For F*** Magazine

DRACULA UNTOLD

Director : Gary Shore
Cast : Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Diarmaid Murtagh, Charles Dance, Charlie Cox, Art Parkinson
Genre : Horror/Fantasy/Thriller
Opens : 2 October 2014
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Disturbing Scenes) 
Run time: 93 mins
The title character of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel Dracula has reared his fanged head in popular culture, the vampire of vampires a perennially popular subject in every entertainment medium. This origin story takes us back to 1462, when Dracula preferred the taste of coffee to that of blood and was still known as Vlad Tepes III (Evans). The peace that Prince Vlad’s domain of Wallachia, south of Transylvania, has enjoyed for a decade is under threat. The Ottoman Sultan Mehmed III (Cooper) demands 1000 boys to serve in his army – including Vlad’s young son Ingeras (Parkinson). Driven by a love for his son, his wife Mirena (Gadon) and a dedication to his people, Vlad makes the proverbial deal with the devil. In this case, that devil is the Master Vampire (Dance) who has waited centuries for someone worthy enough to inherit his powers. Of course, there’s a price: with the superhuman strength, speed and the ability to transform into a colony of bats comes an insatiable thirst for human blood and various specific weaknesses, including to sunlight and silver. Will Dracula bear this curse for all eternity to save his people?

            Your willingness to accept this incarnation of Dracula will be contingent on which version of the character, if any, you hold dear. Distancing itself from Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman’s famous performances, Dracula Untold recasts its protagonist as a tortured antihero not unlike the Crow, Spawn or the Punisher. The character is handled similarly to in the Castlevaniavideogame series and the “perspective flip” is perhaps reminiscent of Maleficent. The medieval fantasy action feel the film is striving for is also clearly influenced by Game of Thrones, with actor Charles Dance and composer Ramin Djawadi involved in both. Unfortunately, this approach makes the film come off as generic. Largely dreary and self-serious, Dracula Untold would have benefitted from just a dash of theatricality and operatic grandeur, elements often associated with Dracula. The film’s production values are decent, the costumes designed by Ngila Dickson (co-designer and Oscar-winner for the Lord of the Rings films) especially praiseworthy – that dragon relief detail on Dracula’s armour sure is cool. Blurry CGI used for set extensions and to create landscapes does let it down somewhat.

            Luke Evans is solid if unremarkable in the lead role. In terms of presence, his Dracula (im)pales in comparison to those of the afore-mentioned three actors, whom every actor to play the role will be measured against. Evans’ Vlad is stoic and strong and there is an attempt on the part of screenwriters Matt Sazama and Buck Sharpless to give him character development. You might be left wondering “how can someone who loves his wife and child so much be okay with impaling thousands of villagers?” The morality and inner dilemma of the character is touched upon, sure, but it isn’t given the depth required to be truly compelling. The line “sometimes the world no longer needs a hero. Sometimes what it needs is a monster”, in addition to being something that probably applies more to Hellboy than to Dracula, just isn’t enough.

            Dominic Cooper, who had a brush with vampires in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and who’s memorably portrayed real-life villain Uday Hussein in The Devil’s Doubleand who was the bad guy earlier this year in Need For Speed, is the adversary here as well. In this story, Mehmed III grew up alongside Vlad, when Vlad was forcibly conscripted into the Ottoman army as a child. Cooper does look evil-cool in that ornate gold chest plate and guyliner but doesn’t get a lot to do, the story not playing up the angle of “blood brothers-turned-enemies”. As Mirena, Sarah Gadon is little more than “the wife” and could have done with even just one ass-kicking scene to herself. As the being who turns Vlad into a vampire, Veteran actor Charles Dance steals the show, his naturally menacing mug covered in makeup designed to echo Count Orlok from Nosferatu.

            Dracula Untold is intended to launch a new Universal Monsters cinematic universe. The Marvel Cinematic Universe got its start with Iron Man, and Iron Man this ain’t – even with Howard Stark in it. That said, Dracula Untoldisn’t the mess it could’ve been, considering that this is director Gary Shore’s first feature film. While horror aficionados might thumb their noses at the PG-13 rating, there are still some brutal moments in the film – these vampires don’t sparkle in the sun, they burn, as it should be. There are a few moments of unintentional silliness – when Vlad hurls Ottoman soldiers into the air, they look like they’re victims of a trampoline accident and when he commands swarming bats, it brings to mind Mickey Mouse in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice segment of Fantasia. As a period fantasy action film, Dracula Untold is a passable diversion, but as a reimagining of one of the most iconic characters in all of fiction, it leaves a good deal to be desired.
Summary: This “untold” story is a familiar one and in place of elegance and mystique we get humdrum fantasy action, but we’ll take these vampires over those from Twilight any day of the week.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong