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

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

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

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

For inSing

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN 

Director : Simon Curtis
Cast : Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly MacDonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther
Genre : Biopic/Drama
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 26 October 2017
Rating : PG

The Winnie-the-Pooh stories have been beloved by children all around the world for decades, spawning numerous animated TV shows and films. This historical drama peels back the curtain on the surprisingly tragic true story behind the creation of Pooh and his friends who live in Hundred-Acre Wood.

It is just after World War I, and playwright Alan Alexander ‘A. A.’ Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who fought at the Battle of the Somme, is haunted by memories of the war. Seeking some peace and quiet, Alan and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) move from London to a countryside home in East Sussex. Daphne gives birth to Christopher Robin (Will Tilston and Alex Lawther at different ages), who is nicknamed “Billy Moon” by his parents. The couple hires a live-in nanny named Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to look after Christopher, and the boy soon grows attached to her.

Alan is inspired by seeing Christopher play with his stuffed toys in the woods, including teddy bear which he first names ‘Edward’ and later ‘Winnie’. This serves as the basis for children’s stories that soon become immensely popular. With the whole world clamouring to know the ‘real’ Christopher Robin, the young boy becomes subject to fame that he struggles to handle. What began as a creative expression of a father’s love for his son grows into a worldwide phenomenon, changing the Milne family’s lives forever.

Goodbye Christopher Robin might well ruin Winnie-the-Pooh for many viewers, but in the process, the film has interesting things to say about childhood, fame and creative expression. Director Simon Curtis, who also helmed the fact-based My Week with Marilyn and The Woman in Gold, has made a respectable period piece. However, like many awards season period pieces, Goodbye Christopher Robin sometimes comes off as too mannered and not sufficiently authentic. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, the film resorts to shameless emotional manipulation at times, but also offers fascinating, heart-rending insight into the relationship dynamics within the Milne family.

The film runs up against the challenge of striking a tonal balance. The events in the film span from just after the First World War to the midst of the Second. Alan is reeling from the trauma of fighting as a soldier in the First World War, but eventually writes delightful, whimsical stories. Goodbye Christopher Robin makes a valiant attempt at showing the range of moods any one person can experience, depicting a journey from sorrow, to joy, back to sorrow again. There’s profundity here, but Goodbye Christopher Robin sometimes feels like it’s skimming the surface.

Gleeson is an actor who’s mostly flown under the radar, but has consistently turned in solid work. In Goodbye Christopher Robin, Gleeson fleshes out the layers to the character of A. A. Milne. Gleeson sells both the frustration that creative types experience when they’re stuck in a rut, and the joy that they feel when inspiration presents itself. The emotional heart of the film is the relationship between Alan and his son, a relationship that is initially enriched but eventually complicated by the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Young actor Tilston is plenty adorable, and lights up the screen with his natural joy and the right degree of precociousness, such that the performance never registers as cloying or obnoxious. Alex Lawther plays Christopher Robin at age 18; he’s best known for playing young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Lawther’s performance as a young man trying to regain his identity, having shared his childhood with the world, is deeply affecting.

Kelly Macdonald’s turn as Olive, the nanny whom Christopher affectionally called “Nou”, brims with genuine warmth. Olive is depicted as being more of a maternal figure to Christopher than his actual mother Daphne who, as portrayed here by Margot Robbie, seems like an awful person. There’s a tug-of-war between the three parental figures in Christopher’s life, with a young boy for whom it’s all too much to process at the centre.

Goodbye Christopher Robin does not convey the passage of time as well as it should – the makeup used to age up Gleeson and Robbie is a little too subtle – so it doesn’t feel like as much time elapses in the story as it did in real life.

Despite being uneven, coming off as a little too packaged and artificial at times and being less than subtle in going for the tear ducts, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a largely moving story. It explores worthwhile themes and its revelatory nature will shock audiences who love Winnie-the-Pooh but did not know the details behind how the stories came to be.

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

Viceroy’s House

For F*** Magazine

VICEROY’S HOUSE 

Director : Gurinder Chadha
Cast : Hugh Bonneville, Gillian Anderson, Manish Dayal, Huma Qureshi, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow, Lily Travers, Om Puri, Tanveer Ghani, Denzil Smith, Neeraj Kabi
Genre : Drama/History
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 8 June 2017
Rating : PG

Director Gurinder Chadha takes us inside the Viceroy’s House amidst the tumult of the Partition of India. It is 1947, and Lord Mountbatten (Bonneville), the last Viceroy of India, has arrived in New Delhi with his wife Lady Edwina Mountbatten (Anderson) and their daughter Pamela (Travers). Mountbatten is tasked with overseeing the English withdrawal from India, after a 300-year presence in the country. As unrest among the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims erupts across the nation, Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Smith) of the All-India Muslim League champions the formation of Pakistan, a nation-state for the Muslim minority to call home. Mountbatten meets with Jinnah, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Gandhi (Kabi), as the schedule for Independence is moved up.

In the meantime, Jeet Kumar (Dayal), a new arrival on the staff of the Viceroy’s House, falls in love with Aalia Noor (Qureshi), an assistant to Pamela. Jeet was a prison guard who was sympathetic towards Aalia’s blind father Ali Rahim Noor (Puri) when he was imprisoned. However, their love is forbidden because Jeet is Hindu and Aalia is Muslim. Furthermore, Aalia is promised to Asif (Arunoday Singh), who has just returned from combat overseas. With the tension manifesting itself within the over 500-strong staff of the residence, Mountbatten finds himself in a house, and a nation, divided.

The Partition is a historical event that has repercussions to this day, and this year marks its 70th anniversary. It is understandable that Viceroy’s House would be controversial, with some accusing the film of being revisionist history. Pakistani poet and member of the Bhutto political dynasty Fatima Bhutto decried Viceroy’s House as a “servile pantomime”. Director Chadha, who co-wrote the screenplay with her husband Paul Mayeda Berges, and Moira Buffini, took inspiration from the non-fiction books The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition by Narendra Singh Sarila and Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. This reviewer will admit to knowing very little about the Partition of India, and is frantically researching as he types. What we’re sure of is that as with every historical occurrence, there are a great many sides to the story. Chadha is cognisant of this, opening the film with the quote “history is written by the victors”. However, there’s a niggling lack of authenticity, a sense that this is a skewed point of view.

Viceroy’s House is an ambitious undertaking, because it attempts to neatly package deeply complicated politics and tragedy on a vast scale into a Merchant Ivory-style period piece. It’s clear that Chadha did not set out to misrepresent or offend anyone – in 2005, Chadha visited her grandfather’s home in Pakistan for the documentary series Who Do You Think You Are? This was the home he was forced to vacate when he was displaced during Partition. While Chadha’s personal connection to the story cannot be denied, there are times when it seems she has bitten off more than she can chew. Perhaps this story would be more suited to a miniseries format, as there so many players and moving parts.

While actual historical figures play an important role in the plot of Viceroy’s House, the romance between Jeet and Aalia is the audience’s way in. Both Dayal and Qureshi are lively, watchable performers and they lend this love story its sweet and moving moments, but it’s obvious that this fictional subplot was tacked on to add accessibility. There’s every chance that a relationship like Jeet and Aalia’s could have developed in the actual Viceroy’s House, but this is a device that’s recognisable from many earlier historical films. It’s not the best comparison, but think Jack and Rose in Titanic, or the recent film Bitter Harvest about the Holodomor genocide-famine in Soviet Ukraine. Instead of adding humanity, this sometimes-clumsily executed romance adds artifice.

The cast makes one wish this were a six episode-long TV event, because then we’d get more time to see the character dynamics play out. Mountbatten is depicted as a man of noble intentions, and that everything that went awry during the Partition was a result of him being kept in the dark. It seems most historians beg to differ. Bonneville is refined and respectable, but not terribly interesting. Anderson’s Lady Mountbatten is shown as striving to be inclusive and to understand the plight of everyday Indian people, eager to go beyond the walls of the House. Travers’ Penelope is a little bit of a spoiled princess, but ends up being pleasant to watch.

Smith is a charismatic presence as Jinnah, the film taking the effort to flesh out his arguments. Kabi is convincing as Gandhi, having also played the role in the television series Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India. Viceroy’s House marks one of the final film appearances of the late Om Puri, a towering figure in Indian cinema. As Ali Rahim Noor, Puri exudes good natured wisdom.

Throughout Viceroy’s House, one can sense the filmmakers tiptoeing through history, afraid to make any bold statements. The film is lovely to look at, with location filming in Rajasthan, India lending it high production values. However, it also feels distant and rigid. Even though this is a subject close to Chadha’s heart, it’s one that’s difficult to explore – let alone in the relatively brief 106-minute running time of the film. It’s a film about a fraught period in history which, any way one looks at is, is challenging to portray objectively and coherently.

Summary: Viceroy’s House appears to simplify and sanitize the complex conflict that precipitated the Partition of India, but it functions competently as a period drama.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Silence

For F*** Magazine

SILENCE 

Director : Martin Scorsese
Cast : Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Issei Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Yosuke Kubozuka
Genre : Drama/History
Run Time : 161 mins
Opens : 9 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence)

silence-posterMartin Scorsese’s 26-year-long odyssey to adapt Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence has finally come to fruition. It is the 17th Century, and Italian Jesuit priest Alessandro Valignano (Hinds) receives word that Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Neeson), a Portuguese Jesuit priest sent to Japan, has renounced his faith after withstanding years of torture. Ferreira’s young pupils Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Driver) journey to Japan in search of Ferreira, unconvinced by this report of Ferreira’s apostasy. Rodrigues and Garupe are surprised to be eagerly welcomed by the village of Tomogi, comprised of Japanese Christians who have been practising their faith in secret. The two priests and their followers find themselves hunted by Inoue Masashige (Ogata), a samurai whom the villagers call “the Inquisitor”. Rodrigues and Garupe become targets of the Tokugawa shogunate’s persecution, while still searching for their teacher Ferreira.

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Endō’s 1966 novel is considered to be among the most important pieces of 20th Century Japanese literature, and was adapted into film in 1971 by director Masahiro Shinoda. Scorsese bought the rights to the novel in 1988 and had been trying to get the project off the ground since 1990. Scorsese wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks, who co-wrote Scorsese’s films The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York. Scorsese and Cocks continuously revised the screenplay over 15 years. It’s evident that Silence is a labour of love for the director – to prevent the budget from ballooning, Scorsese and many of the cast and crew, including actors Driver and Neeson, worked for minimum pay. Filmed near Taipei in Taiwan, Silence’s period setting is painstakingly realised. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography conveys a sense of foreboding, while also giving the landscape a beguiling beauty.

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Many reviews have described Silence as “punishing”, and we’d be hard-pressed to find a better adjective. The film is filled with uncompromising scenes of torture and at 160 minutes long, is anything but a breezy Sunday afternoon watch. The plight of the Kakure Kirishitan, or “hidden Christians”, is a piece of history that’s not widely known. Stories of devotees suffering in the name of their faith are inherently compelling, but where involvement in the story is concerned, one’s personal beliefs do play a part. While Silence has its powerful moments, and is, from a technical standpoint, masterfully crafted, there are long stretches of the film that are soporific and unengaging. Those unfamiliar with the tenets of Catholicism in general and the Jesuits in particular might struggle to find an emotional foothold, even given the depths of pain experienced by the characters in the film.

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Garfield and Driver deliver tangibly committed performances, Rodrigues’ journey being an especially harrowing one. Rodrigues is the more patient of the pair, while Garupe is more impulsive, and the first act gives Garfield and Driver several opportunities to play off each other. Later on, most of Garfield’s interactions are with Tadanobu Asano, who plays the unnamed translator to Inoue Masashige. Rodrigues makes a spirited defence of his faith and Garfield sells the emotional and physical torment he undergoes. Despite all this, it is sometimes difficult to relate to the character because he seems to be defined solely by his faith, and his denial of self makes Rodrigues, purely in storytelling terms, less human.

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Veteran actor Ogata, known for playing Emperor Hirohito in Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, makes for a memorable villain. Like several of the characters in Silence, Inoue Masashige was an actual historical figure. There is never doubt about Inoue’s cruelty, even when the character sometimes comes across as comic. Neeson can always be depended on to lend gravitas. While we’ve seen him play the role of mentor before, the role of Ferreira presents Neeson with more of an acting challenge than the action hero parts with which he’s become associated in his later career.

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While there is much in Silence for cineastes to savour and while it’s almost automatically become canonised as an “important film”, it’s easy to see why Silence failed to find much of an audience. Faith-based films tend to be pitched as inspirational, and Silence is near-relentlessly bleak. It is interesting that Scorsese, whose Last Temptation of the Christ was hotly controversial and widely deemed to be blasphemous, approaches the Catholic faith with such reverence here. Scorsese has said of his own faith, “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic; there’s no way out of it.” The filmmaker has sunk his heart and soul into Silence, but it’s obvious that not everyone will be convicted by its meditation on faith.

Summary: Meticulously crafted and intense but plodding and somewhat arduous to sit through, cinephiles and the faithful will find Silence thought-provoking, while others will simply find it boring.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ben-Hur (2016)

For F*** Magazine

Director : Timur Bekmambetov
Cast : Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi, Rodrigo Santoro, Sofia Black D’Elia, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbæk
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 5 mins
Opens : 18 August 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Ben-Hur posterThe epic tale of Ben-Hur is told yet again in this, the fifth film adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel. Judah Ben-Hur (Huston) is a Jewish prince residing in Roman-occupied Jerusalem during the 1st Century A.D. Judah’s adoptive brother Messala (Kebbell) becomes an officer in the Roman army, and after Judah is falsely accused of an assassination attempt, the brothers become enemies. All that Judah holds dear, including his mother Naomi (Zurer), sister Tirzah (D’Elia) and Esther (Boniadi), a servant with whom he has fallen in love, is taken from him. After being arrested by the Romans, Judah encounters Jesus (Santoro), a carpenter who preaches compassion and love. Judah becomes a slave in the galley of a Roman vessel, and years later, has his chance for revenge against Messala. Judah trains under the wealthy Sheik Ilderim (Freeman) to become a charioteer, facing off against Messala in the arena.

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The 1959 Ben-Hur film, directed by William Wyler and starring Charlton Heston, is widely venerated as a classic of American cinema, and remaking it seems to be a fool’s errand. Sequels and remakes have proven profitable, and nothing’s off-limits, so here we are with another big-screen version of Ben-Hur. Director Timur Bekmambetov is known for favouring style over substance, coming into prominence with the Russian horror fantasy blockbusters Night Watch and Day Watch, and following that up with Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. There are still plenty of dramatic scenes, but they tend to carry little emotional weight, one getting the impression that Bekmambetov is spinning his wheels until the next big set-piece.

Ben-Hur Toby Kebbell and Jack Huston chariot racing

The action sequences in Ben-Hur are meant to be its selling point, with Bekmambetov reining in (pun intended) the indulgences he’s displayed in his other films. Alas, it seems chariot races in cinema have forever been ruined by The Phantom Menace, and this reviewer couldn’t help but be reminded of that infamous sequence, which was itself inspired by the 1959 Ben-Hur. Go-Pro camera shots, reminiscent of those that show up in modern car racing movies, detract from the sequence’s authenticity rather than enhancing it. Bekmambetov insists that he tried to shoot as much in-camera as possible, but there’s no denying the phoniness of the computer-generated effects. This is evident in the ship battles even more than in the chariot race. Despite its $100 million budget and location shooting in the historical Italian city of Matera, Ben-Hur often looks cheap.

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There’s definitely an attempt made at fleshing out the title character. Judah’s arc, which begins with him as an entitled nobleman ambivalent to the struggles of his countrymen, sees him put through the wringer as a slave, and concludes with him questioning his drive for vengeance at the foot of Jesus’ cross, does have its impactful moments. Huston gives it his best shot, but there’s just something about the actor which makes it difficult to buy him as a truly heroic character – it’s as if his face is always a moment or two away from scrunching up into a snarl. It makes sense that Huston was originally considered for the role of Messala. The heart-warming plot point of Judah saving and eventually being adopted by Roman warship commander Quintus Arrius is excised here.

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Thankfully, Messala is not characterised as a moustache-twirling villain, with the possibility for reconciliation between him and Judah never entirely out of the question. The film strains too hard in trying to convince audiences that the two really started out as best buds, with a friendly chariot race between the two early on that’s pretty much ripped from The Prince of Egypt. Santoro is fine as Jesus, who is given a slightly larger role here than in the 1959 film. Alas, it seems Jesus had more impact when there was an air of mystery to Him – the famous scene in which Jesus offers a parched Judah some water had considerably more impact in the 1959 version, when we only saw Jesus from behind and He didn’t say a word. In this film, Jesus’ mini-sermons seem tacked on.

Ben-Hur Rodrigo Santoro and Jack Huston

The emphasis is placed on the bond and eventual rift between Judah and Messala, leaving the rest of Judah’s relationships somewhat under-developed. There isn’t enough to the women in Judah’s life for us to care about him, with Huston and Boniadi in particular sharing little chemistry. The film’s inability to convey the passage of time is also a factor. Chyrons reading “3 years later” or “5 years later” pop up, but even when Judah sports a scraggly beard and scars from repeated flogging, it doesn’t seem like more than a few months have elapsed. As such, it’s hard to buy the desperate longing Judah has for his beloved Esther.

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Freeman can always be counted on to lend some gravitas, but those dreadlocks do undercut his screen presence. While we don’t miss the brownface sported by Hugh Griffiths to play Ilderim in the 1959 version, we do miss the effusive warmth and light-heartedness he brought to the part, which is entirely absent from Freeman’s stern, serious Ilderim.

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Ben-Hur isn’t a travesty, but it’s every bit as unnecessary as anyone thought the moment this remake was announced. This reviewer feared that any and all character development would be jettisoned for stylistically overblown action, and while the story of Judah Ben-Hur is abridged, it’s mostly intact. The film is pervaded by the feeling of going through the motions, and it’s not long before the wheels come off this chariot.

Summary: This remake is occasionally sincere but generally uninspired, its dramatic moments cheesy rather than potent and its spectacle underwhelming rather than awe-inspiring.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Witch

For F*** Magazine

THE WITCH

Director : Robert Eggers
Cast : Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Bathsheba Garnett
Genre : Horror
Opens : 5 May 2016 (exclusively at The Projector)
Rating : M18 (Some Nudity)

Gather the children, board up the windows and shut the doors because the witching hour is upon us. In this historical horror drama, one 17th century New England family finds themselves tormented by demonic phenomena. William (Ineson), his wife Katherine (Dickie) and their children Thomasin (Taylor-Joy), Caleb (Scrimshaw), twins Mercy (Grainger) and Jonas (Dawson), and baby Samuel are excommunicated from a Puritan plantation and have to make a living on the outskirts of a New England settlement. The sudden disappearance of baby Samuel sets off a series of eerie happenings, with the possibility that a witch living in the woods beyond the family farm has abducted Samuel. The devoutly religious family attempts to make sense of these occurrences – is Thomasin herself a witch? Is the black goat Phillip being used as a vessel for Satan? When Caleb is struck with a mysterious ailment, is the illness the work of witches? And perhaps most importantly, where exactly is God in this family’s time of crisis?

            The Witch is the feature film debut of writer-director Robert Eggers, who drew on actual historical documents such as court transcripts and diaries to assemble the dialogue of the film. It’s become a festival darling, with Eggers netting the Best Directing in a U.S. Drama award at Sundance in 2015. There are several pitfalls associated with low-budget indie debuts: the film can be too indulgent and appeal only to its makers, production values might look cheap, the acting might be stilted or attempts to play around with structure might come off as clumsy. The Witch avoids practically all of these. Eggers displays a meticulous eye for detail and the cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, using mostly available light, is sumptuous in its gloominess. Going against the old Hollywood adage, Eggers had to work extensively with children and animals on this project. Additionally, he could not afford to shoot the film in New England, where the story is set, and had to settle for the remote location of Kiosk, Ontario in Canada, where he eventually found suitable forests in which to shoot. The Witch is dripping with ominous atmosphere, yet not in a distracting manner.

            There was a bit of a stir when the Satanic Temple offered its hearty endorsement of The Witch. So, this means the Satanists in the film are the good guys, right? It’s definitely not so cut and dried. The Witch is a remarkably compelling portrait of how someone’s strongly-held religious beliefs can define their way of life and their attitudes towards their loved ones. The tenets of the Puritan Calvinist faith, which are generally viewed today as repressive, govern the family at the centre of The Witch. The fear of God’s judgement hanging over their heads leads to everyone keeping secrets from each other – William wishes to keep his family together as a pious head of the household, but various factors drive them apart, with no heavenly solace in sight. While the old-timey speech and the 1600s setting might seem like an obstacle in getting invested in the story, this reviewer found himself gradually reeled in. There’s also some verisimilitude in the things that never change – the young twin siblings Mercy and Jonas can get pretty annoying, and younger siblings getting on one’s nerves seems like a universal constant.



            Young actress Taylor-Joy has to do a great deal of dramatic heavy lifting, and is supported by character actors Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie, who were both on Game of Thrones. Taylor-Joy reminded this reviewer of a young Scarlett Johansson – Thomasin projects a sense of obedience and innocence, but there’s adolescent rebellion bubbling beneath the surface. There’s the danger that child actors can pull one out of a period film, but Scrimshaw is excellent in the role of Thomasin’s younger brother Caleb. Caleb is tempted by lust, and growing up in a Puritanical household, most certainly hasn’t had the ‘sex talk’. This could come off as very awkward, but is just provocative enough without being distasteful. Ineson’s hangdog demeanour and Dickie’s severity serve their respective characters well; these are parents who are desperately trying to hold the fort as other-worldly forces threaten to rend their family asunder.



            It’s easy to see why The Witch isn’t for everyone. It’s a slow burn, and those in search of more conventional horror movie elements might be turned off by the ponderous drama and grappling with religious themes present throughout. It’s also played so seriously that certain moments can carry the slightest hint of unintentional humour. Mark Korven’s soundtrack, heavy on the waterphones, is probably the most formulaic horror movie component of The Witch. However, this reviewer did find more than enough to sink his teeth into. Genres like horror and sci-fi can be utilised as vehicles for powerful allegories; such is the case with The Witch. It’s a masterclass in creepiness that serves as a fine antidote to the production line teen-aimed horror flicks which flood cineplexes these days.


Summary: An assured directorial debut from Robert Eggers, The Witch is thought-provoking, unsettling and richly foreboding.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Please visit this link to find out more: http://theprojector.sg/filmsandevents/the-witch/