Ghostbusters: Afterlife review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Jason Reitman
Cast : McKenna Grace, Finn Wolfhard, Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor
Genre: Action/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 124 min
Opens : 18 November
Rating : PG13

When it comes to long-dormant franchises, there’s usually one of two approaches to take: either a remake/reboot, or what’s come to be known as a ‘legacy sequel’. Both approaches have their risks, but fans generally seem more amenable to legacy sequels. These usually involve a new set of characters who have some connection to the characters of the original movie, with at least some of the older characters showing up in a supporting capacity. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the latest example.

Single mother Callie (Carrie Coon) and her children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace) move to a rural town in Summerville, Oklahoma, after Callie’s father dies. He had come to be known as the ‘dirt farmer’ by locals and was apparently conducting strange experiments out of fear of a coming apocalypse. Phoebe has a keen interest in science and discovers artifacts in the basement of her grandfather’s house. Together with her classmate Podcast (Logan Kim) and summer school teacher Mr Grooberson (Paul Rudd), Phoebe uncovers the mystery of her grandfather’s experiments. Meanwhile, Trevor discovers an old Cadillac ambulance in the garage. Phoebe, Podcast, Mr Grooberson, Trevor and Trevor’s colleague/crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) eventually discover a conspiracy involving Ivo Shandor, the founder of Summerville, and come face to face with the apocalypse that Callie’s father was trying to prevent.

In an age of often-bloated franchise blockbusters, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is almost refreshingly low-key. Its relatively modest scale is a double-edged sword, as we’ll get to in a bit, but for the most part, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is surprisingly charming. With its rural setting, main characters who are kids, light comedy and supernatural/sci-fi adventure elements, this movie is very reminiscent of Amblin’s heyday. It’s no coincidence that Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard is in this, since Ghostbusters: Afterlife is mostly operating in that same mode. Much as director/co-writer Jason Reitman is paying tribute to his father Ivan, who directed and co-wrote the original film, this is also a Spielberg homage. Much of the humour in the original Ghostbusters came via Bill Murray’s smug, glib performance as Peter Venkman. The tone here seems a lot more earnest and sincere, more wide-eyed and less cynical.

One of the major pitfalls of legacy sequels is that they can devolve into a collapsing pile of Easter Eggs. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is mostly judicious with the fan-service, and most references to events of the first film make sense within the plot. However, there also is a lot of “look, there’s that thing that you like!” Ghostbusters: Afterlife can often feel too reverential, which is understandable given that it’s literally directed by the original filmmaker’s son. There’s meant to be a sense of awe around what this movie has in store for die-hard fans, most evident in how the identity of Callie’s father is apparently some huge secret, when everyone had already figured it out from the first trailer. It takes Ghostbusters: Afterlife almost an hour before the non-mystery is ‘solved’ and the grandfather’s name is confirmed aloud. As is common in legacy sequels, the characters come off more as links to the franchise’s past than as actual characters. This emphasis on ‘respect’ seems to primarily be a reaction to the 2016 reboot, to which there was an outsized, vitriolic ‘culture war’ backlash. That reverential fear sometimes holds Ghostbusters: Afterlife back, and it’s consequentially afraid to cut loose and be too funny, when the original film was primarily a comedy.

There’s also the matter of Ghostbusters: Afterlife’s status as an ‘event movie’. It wants to mostly be small and intimate, but also feels the pressure to provide big action set-pieces, and by the conclusion, turns into something akin to the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The younger Reitman infamously stated in 2007 that he did not want to make a Ghostbusters film, saying “Ghostbusters is iconic, but it’s my dad’s, and I don’t think I can touch that,” adding “It would be the most boring Ghostbusters movie of all time. There would be no ghost busting.” A lot can change in 14 years and Ghostbusters: Afterlife does have ghost busting in it, but there is slight conflict between the big-budget spectacle and the character drama.

One of the movie’s greatest strengths is its approach to the special/visual effects. The terror dogs are mostly executed with animatronic effects when they’re standing still, that then switches to CGI when they’re moving. The look of the proton streams is unmistakably 80s, evoking classic optical effects while not looking too dated. The Muncher ghost, this movie’s riff on Slimer, also looks sufficiently tactile, almost like he’s made of play-doh. The movie will often have something digital happen, then a practical explosion or spark as the pay-off, which works great. The effect that feels the most out of place is the ‘mini-pufts’, tiny Stay-Puft Marshmallow men who are completely digital and sometimes feel a bit synthetic compared to the other effects.

Summary: Often charming and amiable, Ghostbusters: Afterlife stands out amongst the landscape of big-budget franchise blockbusters by being a more intimate, lower-key affair. There is plenty here for long-time fans to latch on to, and while that means the movie is often in danger of becoming just an Easter Egg hunt, it also reflects the richness of the Ghostbusters mythology. Yes, there’s a lot of “here’s that thing that you like!” but it’s also offset by a genuine earnestness and sincerity. The mix of practical and digital effects to evoke the look of an 80s movie while not feeling too dated also largely works. Stay back for one mid-credits scene and one post-credits scene.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Annabelle Comes Home review

For inSing

ANNABELLE COMES HOME

Director: Gary Dauberman
Cast : Mckenna Grace, Madison Iseman, Katie Sarife, Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Michael Cimino
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1 h 46 mins
Opens : 26 June 2019
Rating : PG13

            The third film in the Annabelle series and the seventh film in the Conjuring franchise overall welcomes audiences back to the Warren Occult Museum, where things go bump in the night.

After the events of the first Annabelle movie, paranormal investigators and demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga) Warren bring the cursed doll Annabelle back to their home for safekeeping. Annabelle is not haunted per se but is a beacon that attracts and awakens other ghosts. Blessed by a priest and kept behind a glass case made from a church window, Annabelle can do no more harm – or at least, that’s the plan.

The Warrens hire teenager Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) to babysit their daughter Judy (Mckenna Grace) while they’re away. Curious about the Warrens, Mary Ellen’s friend Daniela (Katie Sarife) comes to the house and breaks into the secret room containing Annabelle and other objects that are either cursed, possessed or were used in occult rituals. This unleashes a litany of horrors which the three girls must outrun.

In the wake of the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, every studio wants a ‘universe’ of their own. The Conjuring Universe is the rare example that has worked, with the seven films making almost $1.7 billion collectively worldwide. Annabelle Comes Home demonstrates one of the reasons why the franchise is successful: the real-life Warrens conducted so many investigations that there’s a rich well to draw from. Every object in the Warrens’ museum has a story behind it, and Annabelle Comes Home shows us what happens if everything in that room came alive at once. As a result, Annabelle herself is more a supporting character, sharing the limelight with various other unearthly entities.

Annabelle Comes Home is the directorial debut of Gary Dauberman, who wrote the earlier two Annabelle films, The Nun and the two It films. Dauberman creates delightfully tense scenarios, constructed for audiences to point at the screen and yell “behind you!” This is a movie that is best watched with a crowd because it is designed as a theme park attraction, a haunted house combined with a roller coaster. There are shades of Night at the Museum and Disneyland’s classic Haunted Mansion, in which each ghost has a rich backstory.

There are jump scares aplenty, but the film retains the audience’s goodwill by being just self-aware enough without being overly cynical. Annabelle Comes Home has a sense of humour about it but always wants to be genuinely scary. The early 1970s setting also provides the movie with a good deal of texture, with one particularly inspired set-piece involving the board game Feeley Meeley.

This movie is geared towards a younger audience than the other Conjuring films are – in Singapore, it has a PG-13 rating despite having an R rating in the US. The characters still sometimes do extremely stupid things, but are overall much more likeable than in typical horror movies geared towards teens.

13-year-old Mckenna Grace has amassed an impressive résumé, with film and television credits including I, Tonya, Captain Marvel, Designated Survivor and The Haunting of Hill House. Having been raised by paranormal investigators, Judy knows a thing or two about the supernatural, so she isn’t just the typical horror movie kid in peril. Judy isn’t afraid of many things, but is especially afraid of Annabelle, which conditions the audience to fear the doll too.

Madison Iseman plays the sweet, caring babysitter, with Katie Sarife as her more rebellious, troublemaking friend. Sarife’s character is deliberately annoying, and it’s only later that we learn there’s a bit more to her, even if the emotional beats centred around her character don’t really work. Between the three characters, there’s a lot of screaming to go around, but the movie has fun with the dynamic of the younger girl protecting the older girls when it’s expected to be the other way around.

Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga show up in what amounts to an extended cameo, but their appearance in this film means it has a much stronger connection to the mainline Conjuring series than the other spinoffs do. However, their appearance also reminds us that some of the ideas in this movie were probably rejected from the upcoming The Conjuring 3 – one Warren investigation which producer James Wan earlier said could be the basis of The Conjuring 3 is briefly covered in this movie.

The breakout character is Bob (Michael Cimino), an earnest awkward boy with a crush on Mary Ellen who inadvertently gets caught in the chaos.

Annabelle Comes Home is not a particularly haunting movie and won’t linger in the dark corners of one’s mind the way the best horror movies do. It is entertaining and thrilling and will elicit its share of shrieks and nervous laughter. Go with a bunch of friends and try not to grab their arms too hard.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

I, Tonya movie review

For inSing

I, TONYA

Director : Craig Gillespie
Cast : Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Paul Walter Hauser, Julianne Nicholson, Mckenna Grace
Genre : Biography, Drama, Sports
Run Time : 1h 19m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language and Sexual Scenes)

Every awards season, we get at least a few inspirational sports biopics about resilient athletes who overcome insurmountable odds, becoming heroes to people everywhere.

I, Tonya is not that movie.

Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was the first U.S. female figure skater to pull off the extremely tricky triple axel move. If you were around during the 90s, you might have a vague recollection of the rivalry between Tonya and fellow Olympic skater Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver). This culminated in Harding’s ex-husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and Jeff’s friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser) planning an attack against Nancy. After a hired hand breaks Nancy’s knee with a retractable baton, it isn’t long before suspicion falls on Tonya and Jeff.

The film follows the lead-up to and aftermath of this incident. Tonya’s mother LaVona Fay Golden (Allison Janney) mercilessly pushes her daughter, and Tonya’s life revolves around abusive relationships. Facing numerous setbacks and eventually cast as a villain by the media, Tonya pursues her dream of being the #1 figure skater in the world.

I, Tonya is an acerbic subversion of your bog-standard awards bait sports biopic. It’s sometimes unpleasant, and intentionally so. Director Craig Gillespie, who previously helmed the more traditional sports movie Million Dollar Arm, takes a black comedy approach to Tonya Harding’s life story. He directs from a screenplay by Steven Rogers – this is easily the Love the Coopers screenwriter’s edgiest work.

Tonally, I, Tonya is tricky. It wants the audience to laugh at the ‘white trash’ characters that populate the story, while also empathising with them. It wants to be cynical and snarky, yet sincere. There are moments when the cracks begin to show, but given the ambitiousness of this juggling of moods, I, Tonya works far better than it might have in different hands.

The film is framed with interview sequences in which the characters, a gallery of unreliable narrators, speak directly to camera. Outside these interview scenes, we also get fourth wall breaks. Everything is caustic, everyone is varying degrees of broken, and yet, it’s funny. The ice skating sequences are also absolutely mesmerising and thrilling, pinpricks of gracefulness in the blackness of awful people being awful.

Robbie, who is also the co-producer through her Lucky Chap Productions label, holds this all together. She throws every ounce of herself into a performance that is impossible to look away from and which has deservedly netted her an Oscar nomination. Piercing through the public perception of Tonya, Robbie paints the portrait of someone who has been knocked about her whole life, Tonya’s unsportsmanlike behaviour and overall demeanour a result of that. Robbie is flashy, sincere, wild and showcases impressive physicality, under the tutelage of coach Sarah Kawahara. This is the ‘sink-your-teeth-into-it’ role actors live for, and Robbie makes quite the meal of it.

Even with that highly unflattering moustache, Stan is still quite loveable. The Jeff character isn’t meant to be – he’s a dope, and he’s abusive, but is he malicious? Is he even smart enough to be capable of malice? The relationship between Tonya and Jeff rivals that of Harley Quinn and the Joker in the ‘toxic and unhealthy’ stakes. The film’s depiction of domestic abuse is harrowing, but doesn’t quite fit in with the devil-may-care glibness established earlier.

Janney handily steals the show as the abrasive, cruel, yet oddly endearing LaVona. Janney undergoes a complete transformation, and while we’ve seen the cigarette-smoking stage mom archetype before, she unearths several layers to the character. LaVona’s abusiveness towards Tonya contributes to Tonya’s acceptance of Jeff’s abuse after they are married. Janney is hotly tipped to take home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this performance.

The film also works to dispel the myth that parents who push their children past their breaking point in the pursuit of excellence are helping their children, and that’s what their children need. LaVona thinks that Tonya performs best when she is enraged, so she engineers situations to throw her child off balance – it’s psychological abuse.

As Tonya’s long-suffering coach Diane Rawlinson, Julianne Nicholson is the sole source of purity, comfort and level-headedness in this sea of scuzziness. Her presence offers a respite from the overwhelming unpleasantness of everything else.

Paul Walter Hauser has a good deal of fun with the role of Shawn, the schlubby friend with delusions of grandeur who ‘masterminds’ a criminal plot with consequences far beyond what Jeff or Tonya could have imagined. This section of the movie plays a bit like a Coen Brothers caper, with bumbling characters who are not very good at being up to no good.

I, Tonya is challenging in that it leaves the audience laughing but uncomfortable as they’re doing so. The film is sympathetic to its title character, but also leans into the tabloid perception of her as it attempts to dig beyond that surface. Mostly, I, Tonya is a terrific showcase for Margot Robbie’s increasingly stunning talents as a leading lady.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Gifted

For F*** Magazine

GIFTED 

Director : Marc Webb
Cast : Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer, Keir O’Donnell, Elizabeth Marvel
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 41min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)

       Being a genius must be awesome. If we’ve learnt anything from watching TV, it means you can solve crimes with a single glance, shaming the stubborn cops who ever doubted you in the first place. But those same TV shows have also taught us that being a genius can be as much a curse as a gift, as is evident in this drama.

Mary Adler (Grace) is an exceptionally gifted 7-year-old with a keen acumen for mathematics. She lives in a central Florida town and is cared for by her uncle Frank (Evans), after her mother Diane died when Mary was a baby. Mary’s only friend is her neighbour Roberta Taylor (Spencer), who helps Frank look after her. On Mary’s first day at school, her teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Slate) quickly realises that Mary’s capabilities far outstrip those of her peers. Frank rejects a scholarship for Mary to attend a school that caters for gifted children, saying that his sister wanted Mary to lead a normal childhood. Frank’s estranged mother Evelyn (Duncan) sues for custody of her granddaughter, believing that Mary’s potential will not be realised if she remains under Frank’s care. A battle to determine what is best for Mary ensues.

Gifted is directed by Marc Webb of (500) Days of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man fame. It’s an intimate drama with comedic elements and while one would expect it to be saccharine and sentimental given the above synopsis, the film refrains from heavy-handed emotional manipulation. Hardened cynics are still advised to give this a wide berth, though.

Tom Flynn’s screenplay is witty and the film progresses at a steady pace. Gifted could’ve easily been overwrought, but Webb demonstrates sufficient restraint. This has the double-edged sword of rendering the story more believable, but also less memorable. Since it revolves around a preternaturally intelligent child and her ‘dad’ who has trouble keeping up, there are moments when Gifted feels like a sitcom. However, this is mitigated by how cinematic the film looks, thanks to cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s postcard-ready frames, and location filming on Tybee Island, Georgia, doubling for Florida.

Evans may be best known as Marvel’s star-spangled man, but it seems that he gravitates towards smaller projects, having indicated that the pomp and circumstance that come with promoting the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies aren’t exactly his bag. Both he and child actress Grace work well off each other, creating a compelling bond. While Frank’s heart is in the right place, he makes questionable judgement calls, but the film does a fine job of cluing us in to where he’s coming from.

Mary is the linchpin of the plot, and as such, must be more than a mere plot device. Thankfully, Grace is up for the task. Her performance is mostly in line with the stock ‘precocious kids’ we’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows. However, Grace gets to showcase her acting chops in several dramatic scenes, proving she’s more than just a cute moppet. That said, she is plenty adorable, and when she knits her brows and furrows intensely, it’s hard not to go “aww”.

Evans and Slate share palpable chemistry, and even though the romance between Frank and Bonnie is the most formulaic ingredient in a film made of them, the two performers are enjoyable to watch. It’s no surprise that the relationship carried over into real life, and though the couple has broken up, they apparently remain good friends. Duncan is the right degree of icy as Frank’s supercilious mother. We’re meant to root against her, but she’s not an outright villain either, Duncan fully able to parse those nuances. Unfortunately, Spencer doesn’t get too much to do as the kind neighbour who’s become invested in Mary’s upbringing.

While Gifted doesn’t pack enough of an emotional punch, nor does it delve deep enough into the myriad challenges of raising a child like Mary, is watchable and engaging. Even though it’s comprised of familiar narrative elements, director Webb and writer Flynn still demonstrate skill in telling the story, particularly in parcelling out details about Mary’s mother as the film progresses. Even if it isn’t spectacularly complex or profound, Gifted has significantly more on its mind than the average family drama tearjerker.

Summary: Gifted is a slickly packaged heartstring-plucker that features sincere performances and moving moments, even if it falls short of brilliance.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong