Last Christmas review

For F*** Magazine

LAST CHRISTMAS

Director: Paul Feig
Cast : Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic, Peter Serafinowicz, Rob Delaney, Patti LuPone
Genre : Drama, Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 43 mins
Opens : 28 November 2019
Rating: NC16

Wham!’s “Last Christmas” is an infectiously inescapable ditty during the Holiday Season. This comedy directed by Paul Feig of Bridesmaids and Spy fame and co-written by Emma Thompson is inspired by the song. What plot can be mined from the lyrics of this beloved Christmas song/breakup anthem?

Kate (Emilia Clarke) has been plagued by a string of bad luck. She works in a shop selling Christmas decorations and is constantly berated by her boss “Santa” (Michelle Yeoh). She has had several one-night stands end disastrously, unsuccessfully auditioned for various shows on the West End and is a burden on all her friends. Kate doesn’t have the best relationship with her family who immigrated to the UK from former Yugoslavia and is always being nagged at by her mother Adelia (Emma Thompson). Kate’s luck seems to change when she meets Tom (Henry Golding), a cheerful young man who is always telling her to “look up”. However, she can’t quite figure Tom out or pin him down. Tom guides Kate on a journey of self-discovery as she attempts to put her life back together.

Last Christmas is sometimes charming thanks to a role that fits Emilia Clarke well and because of its Christmastime London setting. Londoners will be the first to tell you that it isn’t the most romantic city in the world, but when dressed up in fairy lights and shot by John Schwartzman, it is very pretty. The Yuletide store where Kate works is in Covent Garden, and Last Christmas depicts London in full-on fairy tale winter wonderland mode.

In addition to Clarke, the cast is good. Michelle Yeoh has a knack for playing characters who are outwardly stern but ultimately good-hearted, as her “Santa” character is here. Henry Golding is every inch the dashing, sweet and confident rom-com leading man. Emma Thompson’s role is largely comedic, but there’s also some sadness and unarticulated frustration there that she plays well.

Musical theatre fans will also enjoy the random cameo by Broadway superstar Patti LuPone, which she likely filmed while doing Company on the West End in 2018.

Last Christmas utterly overdoses on twee. It is trying to be reminiscent of Love Actually, but the story is all over the place and the movie seems to think it is much cleverer than it really is.

Clarke may be trying her best and she may suit the part well, but Kate as a character often borders on annoying. The by-now tired “manic pixie dream girl” archetype seems to apply to both Kate and Tom here. Kate is klutzy and dysfunctional, while Tom opens her eyes to the magic that is all around her and that she’s just never noticed. Sharing the cliché between two characters doesn’t make it any less of a cliché.

If you go back to look at the comments sections for this film’s early trailers, you can see people call the big reveal even back then. The movie’s twist has been done before and been done much better, such that when we’re told what has really been happening, it’s more likely to induce eye-rolls than gasps.

The screenplay was written by Thompson and Bryrony Kimmings, with Thompson and her husband Greg Wise receiving screen story credit. There are several ideas in the script that barely get explored, including that of the immigrant experience in the UK, especially in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, as well as how the homeless and less fortunate spend their holidays. Kimmings is an artist known for her socially conscious work and one can tell that there is an attempt to make Last Christmas more meaningful than your average romantic comedy, but none of this really gels together.

In addition to “Last Christmas”, various other George Michael songs appear in the movie. The Kate character is a huge George Michael fan, and the film begins with a young Kate singing “Heal the Pain” with a church choir. The film also includes a previously unreleased track, “This Is How (We Want You To Get High)”. While the filmmakers’ affection for Michael’s music is palpable, it isn’t integrated into the storytelling that well. A key plot point is inspired by a horrifyingly literal reading of one George Michael lyric which is far more morbid than sweet.

If you love George Michael and have romantic fantasies about Covent Garden in the winter, maybe you’ll get something out of this, but otherwise this is an incredibly muddled romantic comedy that is a strange and discordant mishmash.

Summary: Last Christmas attempts to turn the romcom formula on its head, but by introducing various other elements into the mix, we end up with a Christmas pudding that leaves an odd aftertaste.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Simple Favour movie review

A SIMPLE FAVOUR

Director : Paul Feig
Cast : Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Ian Ho, Joshua Satine, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend, Andrew Rannells, Bashir Salahuddin
Genre : Drama/Mystery/Comedy
Run Time : 117 mins
Opens : 13 September 2018
Rating : M18

Big secrets hide in a small town in this mystery thriller. Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a single mum who lives in the suburb of Warfield, Connecticut with her son Miles (Joshua Satine). She produces a mum-centric vlog, giving tutorials on cooking and craft projects. Her uncomplicated existence is upended when she befriends Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), whose son Nicky (Ian Ho) goes to school with Miles.

It seems like Emily has it all: a high-flying job as a PR executive for fashion mogul Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), an adorable son, and a dashing husband in the form of writer and lecturer Sean Townsend (Henry Golding). Emily asks a simple favour from Stephanie: to pick Nicky up after school and look after him. Two days go by without Stephanie hearing anything from Emily. Questions surrounding her disappearance begin to pile up, as Sean grows attracted to Emily and Emily is drawn into a web of sordid secrets and lies. What’s a regular mum vlogger to do?

A Simple Favour is based on the novel of the same name by Darcey Bell and is billed as a “stylish post-modern film noir”. The film rights to the book were snapped up even before its publishing. The film has been described as Gone Girl-esque, but there are many instances when it’s not quite clear what director Paul Feig was going for. Feig has helmed comedies like Bridesmaids, Spy and Ghostbusters (2016), so it’s natural to worry that his comedic instincts might intrude on the mystery thriller elements of the story. They do, and as a result, A Simple Favour is tonally quite weird.

The film’s weirdness does make it interesting – this reviewer spent most of the movie puzzling over how much of said weirdness was intentional, and how much was accidental. There are moments when the film obviously wants to be dark and dramatic, but it also comes dangerously close to a parody of the domestic mystery thriller subgenre. Theodore Shapiro’s score plays a big part in this: someone will utter a revelation, then there’ll be obvious low trembling strings to go with it.

To Feig and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer’s credit, the mystery is engaging, but we want to keep watching to find out what happens the same way clickbait works – “I shouldn’t click on this, but I do want to find out why Hollywood stop casting Brendan Fraser”. By the time we’re invested, the story goes all-out, full-on ridiculous, trucking out the most melodramatic of ‘deep dark family secret’ plot twists. It’s hard to say if this would’ve worked any better played dead straight.

Both Kendrick and Lively play exactly to type. Kendrick is endearing and silly as an over-eager, over-earnest mum who finds herself way in over her head. The character is renamed ‘Stephanie Smothers’ when her surname was ‘Ward’ in the book – Stephanie Smothers sounds so much sillier, so much more on-the-nose, conjuring up an image of cloying sweetness. It’s mainly a comedic performance, and that seems to lead where the rest of the film goes tonally. She brings much of her signature ‘adorkable-ness’ to bear, and it seems like it is by design that the character is out of place in a dark, lurid mystery thriller.

Lively’s Emily is an aggressive, confident, icy go-getter, decked out in ensembles that might make even Serena van der Woodsen envious. The dynamic between Emily and Stephanie, with the former completely dominating the latter, is what the plot turns on. Emily and her husband seem like the picture-perfect couple, but of course there’s trouble in paradise. There are times when like Kendrick’s performance, Lively’s veers too close to caricature.

Henry Golding’s casting in this is a pretty big deal – the film went into production before the release of Crazy Rich Asians, meaning there was buzz about him in Hollywood before that film became the hot-button movie it is now. In movies like this, the husband character in movies like this is either in on it, or just really stupid. This might only be Golding’s second movie, but it seems he already has a type he’ll be cast in – namely, handsome, charming and a little bit aloof. He’s not entirely convincing in some of the more dramatic scenes, but he does fit alongside the attractive leads.

The supporting characters all feel like they walked out of a comedy – Andrew Rannells plays one of the ‘mums’ who makes catty comments at Stephanie from the side-lines, while Rupert Friend plays Emily’s boss, a flamboyant style maven. Linda Cardellini shows up as a goth-punk artist who wears a Slayer t-shirt as she wields and paints knives.

A Simple Favour might not work on the level it was intended to, but while its extremely uneasy mix of comedy and sex-and-secrets-soaked mystery thriller results in it being silly, it also prevents the movie from being bland. Perhaps this would’ve worked better in the hands of someone who’s sensibilities were a bit more British, who could have brought more wicked brand of acid-dipped wit to the proceedings. As it stands, A Simple Favour is a curiousity that audiences might not love but should find interesting.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ghostbusters

For F*** Magazine

GHOSTBUSTERS (2016)

Director : Paul Feig
Cast : Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Andy García, Charles Dance
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 1 hr 56 mins
Opens : 14 July 2016
Rating : PG (Some Frightening Scenes)

Ghostbusters posterA new gang dons the jumpsuits and the proton packs in this reboot of the Ghostbusters franchise. Dr. Erin Gilbert (Wiig) is a particle physics professor at Columbia University who had a falling out with Abby Yates (McCarthy), a paranormal researcher who co-authored a book with Erin. Abby is now working with nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), and an unexplained occurrence at New York’s historical Aldridge Mansion forces Erin and Abby to make amends. After witnessing a ghost on the train tracks, Metropolitan Transportation Authority worker Patty Tolan (Jones) volunteers to join the trio, rendering in-depth knowledge of New York’s history and geography. The dim-witted but handsome Kevin Beckman (Hemsworth) is hired as the crew’s receptionist, and they come to be known as the ‘Ghostbusters’. The team traces the recent spate of paranormal activity back to Rowan (Casey), an unhinged hotel bellhop bent on unleashing hell on earth. The Ghostbusters take on both malevolent spectres and repeated attempts to discredit them as the city is brought to its knees by the ghastly apparitions.

Ghostbusters Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Leslie Jones

It’s impossible to talk about the Ghostbusters reboot without bringing up the spectre of negativity that has clung to it from the moment the idea was mooted. Across the internet, there were innumerable cries of childhoods being ruined, and dismay that the four members of the classic team had been replaced by women. Vitriol including death threats was spewed at all involved. The cast and filmmakers hit back, with McCarthy opining that all opposed to the Ghostbusters remake were man-children living in their mothers’ basements. It just kept getting uglier, on all sides. The original cast endorsed the reboot and several of them have cameos, but leaked emails revealed that Sony was threatening “aggressive litigation” against Bill Murray if he didn’t promote the film. Murray was famously reticent to appear in 1989’s Ghostbusters II and his refusal to co-operate with Dan Aykroyd was what put the nail in the coffin of a third film in the original series.

Ghostbusters Chris Hemsworth, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy

Sure, some of the arguments against the Ghostbusters reboot have merit, and this is yet another demonstration of how heavily Hollywood banks on recognisable, marketable franchises. It’s not so much that there are no new ideas, but that studio executives largely refuse to put faith in said ideas because they aren’t proven. There’s a lot to strip away, but when one gets down to it, this can’t help but feel like a storm in a teacup – or an ectoplasmic vortex in a ghost trap, if you will. Stop the presses: Ghostbusters ’16 is nowhere near as disastrous as its detractors have been hoping it would be.

Ghostbusters Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon suited up

Director Feig and his cast have a proven track record of bringing the funny, which they do in spades here. The style of humour is brash and in-your-face compared to the more sardonic jokes in the original Ghostbusters films, but a good amount of jokes land. Not all of them, to be sure, but enough of them. Abby, Erin, Jillian and Patty are not merely gender-swapped versions of Ray, Peter, Egon and Winston. An adequate balance has been struck between respectful tips of the hat to Ghostbusters movies past and comedic stylings that are unmistakably Feig’s, with Feig’s and co-writer Katie Dippold’s affection for the source material readily apparent. As such, it is a bit of an ironic shame that so many die-hard fans have long decided to boycott this reboot when more than a few morsels of fan-service are tossed their way. The cameos are generally pretty fun and had this reviewer wanting to see more, but they’re brief enough so as not to be wholly gratuitous.

Ghostbusters Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones on the train tracks

This reviewer thinks McCarthy is funnier when she’s more understated, so it’s great to see her ably take on the position of team leader. This is a cast that absolutely clicks, and we never thought we’d say it, but their camaraderie does rival that of Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis and Hudson in places. Jones’ Patty is plenty loud and sassy and might come off as a racist stereotype, but her character actually feels more like she’s a part of the team than Hudson’s Winston Zeddemore did. And hey, a regular everywoman who’s not a scientist is a Ghostbuster; that’s absolutely fine. It is McKinnon who handily steals the show, getting some of the best lines as the team’s resident wacky wild card. McKinnon’s spot-on impressions of Ellen DeGeneres, Hillary Clinton and Justin Bieber amongst others on Saturday Night Live have garnered her considerable attention, but Ghostbusters just might be what rockets her up the comedy actor A-list, where she belongs.

Ghostbusters Chris Hemsworth

Hemsworth is game and entertaining as the receptionist who’s practically too dumb to function, slightly reminiscent of Jason Statham’s sendup of his action hero persona in Feig’s previous film Spy. The characterisation does seem like it comes from some place of resentment though, seeing as Annie Potts’ memorable Janine from the original films wasn’t an airhead at all. The film’s villain is obviously not where the focus lies, but while Casey’s Rowan is creepy, he doesn’t cross over into being legitimately threatening and amounts to a regrettably forgettable foe. It’s also less than ideal that the film’s climax is pretty much a bog-standard big ole CGI-infused melee in Times Square, the likes of which we’ve seen many times before. It doesn’t hold a candle to the iconic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man rampage of the first film, or even the Statue of Liberty marching through New York in the second.

Ghostbusters climactic battle

Is the Ghostbusters reboot the best idea to come out of Hollywood? No. But thanks to the efforts of Feig and his talented, watchable cast, it succeeds where many reboots haven’t, as just enough of its own thing. Feig, Dippold and the other filmmakers have been given enough free rein such that this doesn’t come off as just a studio-mandated cash grab. There’s also no indication that there was any desire to supplant the original films or deny their legacy exists. Stick around for extra clips interspersed through the end credits, plus a post-credits stinger to cap it all off.

Summary: It’s not too hot to handle nor is it too cold to hold, but Ghostbusters is largely funny and well-made. Despite being stuck in the shadow of the towering original, it’s pretty enjoyable.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong