Reminiscence review

Director: Lisa Joy
Cast : Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Ferguson, Thandiwe Newton, Cliff Curtis, Daniel Wu, Marina de Tavira, Brett Cullen, Mojean Aria, Angela Sarafyan, Natalie Martinez
Genre: Sci-fi/Thriller
Run Time : 116 min
Opens : 18 August
Rating : NC16

Writer-director Lisa Joy goes from Westworld to Waterworld with this sci-fi noir set in a partially submerged city. Joy, who co-created the HBO series with her husband Jonathan Nolan, makes her feature directorial debut here.

It is the near future and most of Miami is underwater. Military veteran Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) runs a business offering “reminiscences” – clients undergo a procedure that helps them relive memories of their choice. Nick operates the business with fellow veteran Watts (Thandiwe Newton) and is sometimes called upon by the District Attorney’s office to use the reminiscence device for depositions. The technology was originally developed as an interrogation implement, but now, people use it to find solace in the happiness of their past. A mysterious nightclub singer named Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) visits Nick and Watts, ostensibly wanting to find her missing keys. This upends Nick’s existence, sparking an obsession with Mae that finds him embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy involving such unsavoury characters as crime lord Saint Joe (Daniel Wu), Joe’s hired muscle Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis) and land baron Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen).

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Reminiscence marries its noir influences with a sci-fi aesthetic and central plot device to create a moody, atmospheric film. While it is hampered by certain elements, which we will get to in a bit, it’s often interesting to look at and is generally cast very well. The Greatest Showman co-stars Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson are called upon to play noir archetypes – he the trench coat-clad haunted private detective, she the sultry femme fatale chanteuse. Both actors fit these types perfectly, and convincingly inhabit the world that Joy has created. Joy brings many key crew members from Westworld along, including cinematographer Paul Cameron, production designer Howard Cummings and composer Ramin Djawadi. The world that Reminiscence takes place in feels expansive and well-realised. The result of climate disasters and rife with inequality and unrest, it is not as dramatic as other sci-fi dystopias, but feels quite plausible.  

Also from Westworld are actors Thandiwe Newton and Angela Sarafyan. Newton provides an excellent foil to Jackman, playing a survivor who is sardonic as a defence mechanism. Cliff Curtis turns in a supremely scuzzy performance, playing a crooked cop-turned mob enforcer.

A big problem with many neo-noir films is that they are too self-conscious about their influences, which is eminently evident here. You may have heard the phrase “this movie has watched a lot of movies” – Reminiscence is one of those. A lot of the dialogue is arch and unnatural, with the actors trying their best to make lines like “memories are like perfume. They work best in small doses.”

In trying to evoke the noir genre, Reminiscence can sometimes hold the audience at arm’s length. Joy is very conscientious about the world-building, but that means it’s not just the flooded Miami streets but also exposition that the characters must wade through. The first half of the film is sometimes slow, such that when there are two action sequences later, they almost feel as if they belong in a different film.  

The performance that sticks out as being particularly bad is Daniel Wu’s. His character is meant to be a dangerous, sexy crime boss, but his swagger feels affected and the character’s code-switching between English and Mandarin Chinese is sometimes stilted.

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The central device of accessing one’s memories via technology isn’t a new thing in sci-fi, but the way it is realised in Reminiscence is visually compelling. Subjects are partially submerged before the process can begin, further reinforcing the film’s water motif – perhaps a metaphor for how remembering past events is like looking at something through water. The memories are then projected onto a circular platform, like theatre in the round, which creates 3D holographic images via crystalline strings of bulbs. The resulting image feels slightly intangible – it’s right in front of the characters, but they can’t quite touch it. It’s the most elegant visual in the film.

Summary: Drawing on the expertise she gained as the co-showrunner of Westworld, Lisa Joy makes her feature film directorial debut with a movie that is ambitious if rough around the edges. Reminiscence is sometimes murky and, like its futuristic setting, can feel waterlogged. However, Hugh Jackman and Rebecca Ferguson’s bona fide movie star performances make the film more convincing than it would be otherwise. The sci-fi trappings are visually captivating and the world that the movie takes place in is well constructed.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Doctor Sleep review

For F*** Magazine

DOCTOR SLEEP

Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Rebecca Ferguson, Kyliegh Curran, Carl Lumbly, Zahn McClarnon, Emily Alyn Lind, Bruce Greenwood, Jocelin Donahue, Alex Essoe, Cliff Curtis, Henry Thomas
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 2 h 32 mins
Opens : 7 November 2019
Rating : NC16

After nearly 40 years asleep, the Overlook Hotel reawakens. Doctor Sleep is based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Stephen King, which is in turn a sequel to King’s 1977 novel The Shining. That novel was famously adapted into a film directed by Stanley Kubrick, which is often considered one of the finest horror films of all time. Writer-director Mike Flanagan ushers audiences back into the cavernous lobby of the Overlook Hotel and into King’s world.

Dan Torrance (Ewan McGregor) was five years old when his father Jack was driven insane during the family’s stay at the Overlook Hotel. Dan has become an alcoholic and has never fully gotten closure or come to terms with what he experienced as a child. Dan’s psychic ability, called ‘the Shining’ by the Overlook Hotel’s head chef Dick Hallorann (Carl Lumbly), has never gone away. There are others who possess the Shining, and yet others who feed upon those who do.

Abra Stone (Kyliegh Curran) is a young girl with unfathomable powers. She is pursued by Rose the Hat (Rebecca Ferguson), the leader of the True Knot cult. Rose and her followers subsist on the “steam” of those who possess the Shining, particularly children. Dan wants nothing more than to forget about the past and never have to use his powers again, but when Abra reaches out to him, Dan is drawn back into the world he so wants to escape. Dan and Abra must face off against Rose, and their quest to bring her down takes them to the one place Dan never wanted to revisit: the Overlook Hotel.

Making a sequel to The Shining is a daunting task, so it is admirable that writer-director Mike Flanagan even tried. Flanagan has a good track record as a horror filmmaker – his body of work includes Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, Gerald’s Game and the Netflix series The Haunting of Hill House. His knack for exploring the inner emotional lives of characters rather than focusing merely on set-pieces and scares makes him the ideal candidate to make a movie about a character who confronts deep-seated childhood trauma and deals with addiction.

Doctor Sleep takes its time, making audiences eagerly anticipate the return to the Overlook Hotel and the horrors that lie in wait there. Even though the imagery of The Shining has featured heavily in the promotional material, this is not a movie about the Overlook Hotel. It’s a movie about Dan, how he has struggled in the intervening decades, and what happens when he is drawn back into the fray. Ewan McGregor is compelling and sympathetic in the role, convincingly portraying a man who has been through the wringer and is trying to outrun his past. Dan is always the centre of the story, and even when the movie gets carried away with callbacks to its predecessor, Dan’s journey is an important emotional anchor.

Once we get to the hotel (and in one scene before that), the movie goes full-bore fanservice. It becomes a seemingly endless parade of “look, here’s that thing you remember!” which might overstay its welcome. There’s a thrill in seeing locations and scenes from The Shining recreated again for the big screen, but especially given how remakes and belated sequels pile on the nostalgia, more cynical audiences might be unmoved by these scenes.

While Doctor Sleep is often effectively scary and includes some genuinely harrowing and disturbing scenes, some of the scares are unintentionally funny. The visual effects work is strong, especially in the dream/fantasy sequences, but several CGI-driven moments are not quite as creepy as intended. It isn’t nearly as noticeable as in IT Chapter 2, another Stephen King adaptation, but it still sticks out.

In Singapore, the film is rated NC16. In order to achieve this and avoid an M18 rating, some scenes featured a section of the screen censored with a blurry box. This is wont to pull many viewers out of the proceedings, but at least none of the scenes were cut.

Beyond McGregor, all the performances are good. Kyliegh Curran has a large amount of heavy lifting to do and is more than up to the task. Abra is powerful and eager, but also underestimates the immense danger she is up against. The mentor-mentee relationship between Dan and Abra adds even more heart to the film.

Rebecca Ferguson is clearly enjoying herself as the wicked Rose. She’s hamming it up just enough such that she’s still sinister and is surrounded by capable actors like Zahn McClarnon and Emily Alyn Lind as the True Knot devotees. The character is a villain out of a fairy tale, a wicked witch who preys on children, eating them to sustain her power. There is a poignancy to a fairy tale villainess being the person whom our heroes, one who survived trauma as a child and another who still is a child, must defeat.

Cliff Curtis is a warm, reassuring presence as Billy, a kind man who befriends Dan and helps him get back on his feet. The actors who play the characters from the previous film are all good matches, but Carl Lumbly is especially outstanding, uncannily echoing Scatman Crothers’ indelible turn as Hallorann in the first film.

While many hold Kubrick’s The Shining as the pinnacle of cinematic horror, the movie had its detractors, chief of which was King himself. Flanagan has tried to appease King by drawing on more elements of the Shining novel, while also including the iconography of Kubrick’s movie, striving to let the best of both worlds shine. This is very ambitious, and he is mostly successful.

The movie certainly works better if one has seen The Shining but does a fine job of explaining who Dan is and what he has gone through such that newcomers will not be lost and might be motivated to seek out the original film and book.

Summary: Making a sequel to a film that has an almost mythic status is a nigh-insurmountable task, one that writer-director Mike Flanagan is mostly up to. Doctor Sleep might lean just a bit too heavily on the imagery of The Shining but said imagery would be missed if it weren’t included in the film. This is an absorbing, intense and well-crafted exploration of confronting trauma and breaking free of substance abuse, and against all odds, a worthy follow-up to The Shining.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Men in Black: International review

MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Rebecca Ferguson, Kumail Nanjiani, Emma Thompson, Rafe Spall, Les Twins
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 55 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : PG13

          They’ve been absent from the big screen for seven years, but the shadowy organisation that polices and conceals alien activity on earth has resurfaced in Men in Black: International, the spin-off of the Men in Black series.

Agent M (Tessa Thompson) is a newly instated member of the agency, still on probation. After witnessing Men in Black operatives in action as a child, she has long harboured a fascination with the agency and finally gets her dream job. Agent O (Emma Thompson), head of the New York branch, dispatches Agent M to MIB’s London headquarters, overseen by High T (Liam Neeson). There, she meets Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), a hotshot hailed for defeating an alien species called the Hive in Paris alongside High T.

When a shape-shifting alien duo (Les Twins) corners Agent M and Agent H, they learn that the Hive may have been resurfaced, with the predatory invaders after a powerful alien artefact. Their battle against the Twins sends Agent M and Agent H to Morocco, where they befriend Pawny (Kumail Nanjiani), a diminutive alien. Agent H must confront Riza (Rebecca Ferguson), a powerful, dangerous figure from his past, as he and Agent M discover there just might be a mole within the organisation. The MIB can always be counted on to save the world, but what happens when a threat arises from within?

The Men in Black films are loosely based on the Malibu comics series by Lowell Cunningham. The urban legend of shadowy government agents has existed among UFO-enthusiast circles for decades, but it was the Men in Black movies that cemented the idea in the public consciousness. Being released the year after Independence Day, the first Men in Black movie also further launched Will Smith up the A-list. He and co-star Tommy Lee Jones have become closely linked with the franchise, with the third movie featuring Josh Brolin as a younger version of Jones’ character.

After the third Men in Black movie in 2012, the first we heard of a new Men in Black movie was that it would be a crossover with the 21 Jump Street films called MIB 23, which sounds like such a crazy idea that it just might have worked. Instead, we got Men in Black: International, which is pleasant and harmless if often formulaic and bland, because it takes the format of the first movie and slots new stars into it. Director F. Gary Gray of Straight Outta Compton and The Fate of the Furious fame knows how to handle a big Hollywood production, but it feels like he is directing to the brief, with no personal touches discernible. The film trundles along efficiently enough, but nothing in the movie will stick in viewers’ minds afterwards. It’s almost as if the movie was constructed to be watched on an airplane.

          Men in Black: International does what the James Bond movies often do, throwing in a bunch of exotic locales to up the production value. There’s a chase through the streets of Marrakech on a hover bike and one character is based out of Aragonese Castle on the Italian island of Ischia. The movie might have the scale expected of a summer blockbuster, but it doesn’t quite have the quirky soul of the first movie, especially because a lot more of the aliens are created with computer-generated effects. Special effects makeup legend Rick Baker, who oversaw the aliens in the first three films, was not involved with this one.

The logic behind the casting of Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson in the lead roles seems to have been to look at whatever actors from the most successful ongoing movie franchise were available. Hemsworth has a knack for comedy and shifts effortlessly between dashing and goofy, playing a sometimes-bumbling, always-charming action hero with ease.

Thompson’s Agent M is capable, headstrong and determined and is in some ways the audience surrogate character, with this movie acting as her origin story. However, some of the beats in her arc echo those of Agent J’s in the first movie a little too strongly. Thompson brings some personality to the part, but Agent M feels like a textbook “strong female character” with not much that is inherently compelling about her on paper.

Liam Neeson is there to lend gravitas to the proceedings and pace purposefully around High T’s office and not do too much else. Emma Thompson is dryly amusing as Agent O, reprising her role from the third film. Respectable British actors appearing in Hollywood blockbusters for a paycheck is a time-honoured tradition and one that Neeson and Thompson continue here.

Kumail Nanjiani voices Pawny, who as the funny alien sidekick, is designed as the successor to Frank the Pug (who makes a cameo). This reviewer was afraid that the character would come off as annoying, but Nanjiani’s delivery keeps Pawny generally more amusing than grating. The computer animation used to create Pawny and integrate him with the live-action footage is excellent.

French dancers Les Twins, who will next be seen in the Cats movie, enliven the proceedings with their new-style hip-hop moves. However, their characters’ schtick seems to be lifted wholesale from the Twins in The Matrix Reloaded.

The previous films have playfully ‘outed’ celebrities like Sylvester Stallone, Bill Gates, George Lucas and Lady Gaga as being aliens. In this film, a social media influencer (presumably a different one for the different markets the film will be released in) gets a cameo. This is one of the most worrying elements about Men in Black: International, indicating that future blockbusters will pander to audiences by shoehorning in people who are famous from YouTube or Instagram.

Men in Black: International is not a poorly made film, but in extending the MIB franchise, it fails to add anything substantial to the world-building or the mythos. Big franchise movies can often feel like products and none this year feels more like a product than Men in Black: International, but its dependable cast and high production value keep things from feeling like too much of a drag.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Mission: Impossible – Fallout movie review

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT

Director : Christopher McQuarrie
Cast : Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Michelle Monaghan, Angela Bassett, Alec Baldwin, Vanessa Kirby, Wes Bentley
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 147 mins
Opens : 26 July 2018
Rating : PG-13

Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise), the Impossible Missions Force’s (IMF) greatest agent, heeds the call of duty again. He’ll do whatever it takes – be it jumping out of a plane, hanging off sheer cliff-faces, tearing through Paris on a motorbike, leaping across rooftops in London or hijacking a helicopter – to get the job done.

After the events of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the shadowy network of former spies known as the Syndicate is left without its leader Solomon Lane (Sean Harris). The IMF discovers that the remnants of the Syndicate, known as the Apostles, are now working for hire and plan to acquire plutonium to build three nuclear bombs. The Apostles also plan to break Lane out of prison.

It’s up to Hunt and his team to stop the Apostles and prevent worldwide devastation, but it will be an uphill task. Ethan, Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames), Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and their boss Hunley (Alec Baldwin) also face opposition from within: CIA director Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) distrusts the IMF and its methods, and assigns her top agent, August Walker (Henry Cavill), to keep an eye on Hunt and company. To complicate matters, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), an MI6 agent who went deep undercover as a Syndicate operative and who has a personal grudge against Lane, re-enters the fray. Threatened on all sides, Hunt and company have their work cut out for them, as the stakes reach stratospheric levels.

The Mission: Impossible film series, based on the 60s TV show of the same name, is interesting in that until now, each film has been helmed by a different director: Brian DePalma directed the first one, John Woo the regrettable second entry, J.J. Abrams made his feature film directorial debut with the third, Brad Bird his live-action debut with the fourth, and Christopher McQuarrie directed the fifth. McQuarrie, who also penned the screenplay for this film, is the franchise’s first returning director, and he hits it way out of the park.

Fallout is a muscular yet nimble film, a bravura showcase of stunning set-pieces that are strung together by a credible, propulsive plot. McQuarrie achieves a masterful tone – this is a serious film in which Hunt faces grave professional and personal consequences, but it’s never a dour or overbearing one. It runs for 147 minutes but is remarkably light on its feet. The action set pieces can stretch for 15 minutes or longer at a time, but the audience is glued to the screen throughout.

Credit must be given to second unit director/stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood, who helps McQuarrie stage some of the most impressive stunts in the franchise’s storied history. Just when we thought this film couldn’t top Tom Cruise hanging off the facade of the Burj Khalifa or clinging for dear life onto the side of an Airbus A400M, this film gives us Cruise using the skids of an out-of-control helicopter as a jungle gym and performing an actual High-Altitude Low-Opening (HALO) skydive.

The motorcycle chase that criss-crosses through Paris and sees Hunt ride against traffic in the infamous Arc de Triomphe Roundabout pulls out all the stops and throws every trick in the book at the screen. The helicopter chase feels like two kids holding toys chasing each other around a room, made vivid, utterly convincing reality. Many sequences in this film are utterly insane but have a distinctly different feel to the joyously over-the-top set-pieces in something like the Fast and Furious franchise.

The plot manages to be familiar yet unpredictable and intelligent. There are the expected double-crosses and questioned allegiances, but the film stays compelling by striking an admirable balance between the end-of-the-world stakes and the personal stakes. McQuarrie takes sheer delight in teasing audiences with near-miss after near-miss. While nothing in the franchise has superseded the tension of the cable drop close call scene in the first film, several bits in Fallout come very close.

Tom Cruise might stumble here and there (*ahem*The Mummy*ahem*), as any actor is wont to, but in the recent Mission: Impossible films, he can always be counted on to be on top action hero form. This is not a man who half-asses anything, and the 56-year-old is consistently impressive, pushing himself to the absolute limit in the name of our entertainment. Cruise broke his ankle jumping across buildings in London, and that take remains in the film. Hunt displays nigh-superhuman strength and stamina that does stretch suspension of disbelief, but Cruise gives such an engaging performance that we just go along with it.

Cavill is enjoyable as Walker, an arrogant, lethal CIA agent, meant to serve as Ethan’s foil. An early sequence in which Walker’s presumptuousness nearly costs him and Ethan the entire mission establishes Walker as a risk-taker, but not one as canny as Hunt. Cavill is an actor who can sometimes be a bit boring, but he’s got enough charisma here to go toe-to-toe with Cruise.

The film succeeds in parcelling out stuff for everyone to do, meaning that both Benji and Luther do not feel side-lined – Rhames even gets to deliver one of the film’s most emotional moments. Pegg gets far more physical than in the preceding films, while still being the resident loveable goofball.

Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust felt like the ideal Bond girl, and the character continues to be capable and mesmerising. Even after all she and Hunt’s team went through in Rogue Nation, we’re questioning where her allegiance lies.

Vanessa Kirby is entertaining as the seductive black-market broker known only as the ‘White Widow’, effortlessly sexy with a dangerous gleam in her eye. Hunt’s wife Julia (Michelle Monaghan) is back, and how the film works her into the plot feels at once contrived and brilliant.

Alas, Angela Bassett doesn’t get much to do, glowering condescendingly and ordering Cavill about. This reviewer was afraid Baldwin would be distracting, given his high-profile Saturday Night Live role over the last one-and-a-half years, but he still is credible and handles the character’s dramatic scenes with ease, reminding us that he’s still a serious actor too.

Pound for pound, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is this summer’s best action extravaganza so far. A breathless thrill ride with just enough on its mind, incredible feats unfold with precision and finesse. It’s spectacle that will set pulses racing, and have audiences exiting the theatre thinking “yeah, this is what going to the movies should feel like every time”.

RATING: 4.5 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

Life (2017)

For F*** Magazine

LIFE (2017) 

Director : Daniel Espinosa
Cast : Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ryan Reynolds
Genre : Sci-Fi/Horror
Run Time : 1h 44min
Opens : 23 March 2017
Rating : NC-16 (Disturbing Scenes and Coarse Language)

Not all aliens in movies want to kill us. Some just want to have a jam session, or study earth’s vegetation and befriend some kids, or teach us a cool new language.

Those are the exceptions to the rule. Most aliens in movies want to kill us. The alien in Life certainly does.

The first confirmation of extra-terrestrial life has arrived, in the form of a microscopic organism found on Mars. A team of astronauts aboard the International Space Station are tasked with studying the sample in a controlled environment. An elementary school wins a contest to name the organism, choosing the moniker ‘Calvin’. Miranda North (Ferguson) from the Centre of Disease Control religiously follows protocol to ensure that everyone on the station and on earth is kept safe. Microbiologist Hugh Derry (Bakare) has the most interaction with Calvin, attempting to determine its composition and nature. Flight engineer Rory Adams (Reynolds) is more than a little disturbed by the creature. Medical officer David Gordon (Gyllenhaal) has come to enjoy life in space, breaking a record for the most consecutive days in orbit. Commander Katerina Golovkin (Dihovichnaya) is in charge overall, and systems engineer Sho Kendo (Sanada) keeps things running smoothly. Things go horribly awry, as they must, with Calvin acting unpredictably, displaying an alarming intelligence. It soon becomes clear that Calvin will stop at nothing to survive, with the mission’s crew in grave danger from a threat they do not fully understand.

The first instinct many viewers had upon seeing the trailer for Life was “this looks like a rip-off of Alien”. This is completely understandable, seeing as Life is a sci-fi horror film about an extra-terrestrial creature who menaces the occupants of a spacecraft. Life also draws on The Thing, since its protagonists are scientists and researchers. The Thing is based on the earlier film The Thing from Another World, itself based on the novella Who Goes There? The point we’re trying to make is that just because something is inspired by existing material, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically worthless. Life is part of a lineage of sci-fi horror films and builds upon the tradition, but stands well enough on its own as a good example of this subgenre.

 Life is written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, of Deadpool and Zombieland fame. As such, one might expect the film to be an irreverent deconstruction of movies like Alien and The Thing. Life plays things surprisingly straight, and strikes a fine balance of taking itself seriously while also being entertaining. It plays by its own established rules, and no leaps of logic are demanded of the viewer to buy its sequence of events.

Director Daniel Espinosa stages the tension in Life with a master’s touch. Sure, characters make questionable decisions in the heat of the moment, as characters in horror movies are wont to do. However, the urgency and pressure that Espinosa establishes helps justify some not-quite-awesome judgement calls made by our heroes. Each set piece is staged with finesse, and even jaded genre aficionados who feel they’ve seen everything might find themselves subconsciously gripping the armrests during several intense moments.

The visual effects by vendors ILM, Double Negative, One of Us, Nvizible and Lola is convincing – Calvin seems like a tangible entity, the weightlessness in the space station is seamlessly done, and the exteriors of the space station itself look realistic. Nigel Phelps’ production design makes the space station an exciting location for the events to unfold in, and even we though we spend practically the entirety of the film in its confines, it never feels visually monotonous. Jon Ekstrand’s orchestral/choral score invokes Also Sprach Zarathustra, famously used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music gives Life, mostly set in a single location, a sense of grandeur and scale.

The characters are largely likeable and their individual foibles are neatly established. Ferguson was in the running for the lead role in Alien: Covenant, which eventually went to Katherine Waterston. Some might see her role in Life as a consolation prize, but after her breakout turn in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Ferguson does continue to prove she has leading lady chops. Miranda is level-headed and does things by the book, but isn’t boring and cares for the well-being of her crewmates.

Gyllenhaal makes full use of the sensitivity that’s a large part of his charm, making the audience feel somewhat protective over him. After the fate that befell his character in Sunshine, you’d think Sanada would be wary of joining another sci-fi space mission, but he provides a steadfastness and reliability. Sanada also gets a marvellous scene in which he’s locked in a sleeping pod while Calvin lurks outside.

Bakare is the stock geeky scientist, but it is an interesting touch to have him develop something of an attachment to Calvin while studying him, unaware of the monster the seemingly-benign organism will become. Dihovichnaya doesn’t get too much to do, but she is the rare Russian character in a Hollywood film who isn’t villainous in the slightest. Reynolds is playing himself, the motor-mouth class clown, and is used judiciously. He was up for the lead role, but scheduling conflicts necessitated him taking a supporting one instead, which we think worked out for the better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life’s influences might be more than a little obvious, but thanks to energetic direction, a strong cast and convincing visual effects work, it becomes more than the sum of its parts. We also think there’s a market for Calvin plushies, if any toy manufacturers want to jump on that.

Summary: A thrilling sci-fi horror film that’s well-paced and scary, Life does its illustrious genre forebears justice.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Florence Foster Jenkins

For F*** Magazine

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Christian McKay, John Kavanagh, Nina Ariadna
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 1 hr 51 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG

florence-foster-jenkins-poster“Follow your dreams, pursue your passion” – we’ve all heard it before, and while it sounds nice, sometimes it might not be the most practical advice. What if you’re passionate about something you’re demonstrably terrible at?

Such was the case with Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep), a wealthy New York socialite with dreams of singing opera at Carnegie Hall. Florence’s husband St. Clair Bayfield (Grant) arranges private concerts to which only vetted audience members are admitted, so as to shield Florence from any possible ridicule she might incur. St. Clair hires pianist Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) to be Florence’s accompanist, and while Cosmé is taken aback by Florence’s complete ineptitude, he accepts the job. When Florence gives her friends a recording of her singing as a gift, it’s not long before she becomes a sensation, with listeners across the country tickled by her tone-deaf performances. While he seems every bit the loving, supportive husband, St. Clair has secrets of his own, secrets in danger of being discovered by Florence.

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There is a whole subculture dedicated to the ironic appreciation of films that are “so bad they’re good” – movies like The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror and Troll 2. Florence’s appeal as an amateur soprano was very much in the same vein. Multiple plays about Florence have been written and performed, with the 2015 French comedy-drama Marguerite drawing inspiration from her story. This material is right up director Stephen Frears’ alley. Having directed The Queen, Philomena and Mrs. Henderson Presents, Frears is a dab hand at helming both biopics and comedy-dramas. As expected, Florence Foster Jenkins is a light-hearted, silly film. There is an undercurrent of sorrow, but the film comes off more as a celebration of Florence’s own self-delusion and the gargantuan efforts taken to enable her than anything else.

The 1940s New York high society setting is sumptuously dazzling, and Florence’s penchant for over-the-top costumes means that her outfits are never dull to look at. The film has many laughs at Florence’s expense, but also endeavours to make her endearing. There’s no malice behind what she does, and she is kind to those around her. However, it is frustrating that someone so unskilled at her chosen art form was given the platform to showcase her ‘talents’ just because she was wealthy and well-connected. Florence is a sympathetic figure in no small part because of her chronic illness, but as a critic, this reviewer can’t stand 100% behind the reinforcement of an artist’s self-delusion in lieu of self-improvement.

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Most of Streep’s recent high-profile roles have had a degree of silliness to them, and this is obviously no exception. She is having plenty of fun rocking those ridiculous costumes and yelping as if she were a Chihuahua who has stubbed its toe, but perhaps this wanton goofiness isn’t the best use of her abilities. To draw a comparison to previous leading lady in a Frears film, Helen Mirren seems to have a healthy mix of lighter fare and serious dramatic roles in her recent résumé. Even then, Streep remains a commanding presence and her performance is supremely entertaining, while also heart-rending when required. It’s pretty hard to sing badly on purpose and not damage one’s vocal cords, so Streep deserves credit in mastering that particular skill.

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Here, we have Hugh Grant playing a typical Hugh Grant role – the charming, ever so slightly awkward English gentleman. A subplot revolving around St. Clair and Rebecca Ferguson’s character Kathleen brings many of St. Clair’s foibles to the fore, so there’s more to him than just “supportive spouse”. Helberg steals the show on multiple occasions as the beleaguered, long-suffering accompanist who is bewildered that no one in her circle is objecting to Florence’s singing. Half of this movie comprises priceless reaction shots: shock, incredulousness, uncontrollable laughter. Helberg’s reactions, particularly when Cosmé first hears Florence sing and is absolutely mortified, further prove that the Big Bang Theory star has considerable comedic chops. Helberg did the piano-playing for real too.

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While Florence Foster Jenkins plays it broad for the most part, there are scenes that pack considerable emotional impact. This is a film that’s put together by people who know what they’re doing, with a veteran director leading the charge. However, Florence Foster Jenkins shies away from challenging the idea that behaviour like this should be challenged. Towards the film’s conclusion, St. Clair scrambles to conceal a negative review of Florence’s performance from her, for fear that it would be too much to handle. If it is your nature to have that thin a skin, perhaps the performing arts just aren’t for you.

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Summary: It’s entertaining and funny, but Florence Foster Jenkins passes up the chance to examine the implications of blindly enabling someone who’s bad at something instead of helping them actually improve.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

For F*** Magazine

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – ROGUE NATION

Director : Christopher McQuarrie
Cast : Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Alec Baldwin, Zhang Jingchu
Run Time : 132 mins
Opens : 30 July 2015
Rating : PG13 (Violence And Brief Nudity)

These days, it seems that every year is the “year of the superhero” at the multiplex. From Kingsman: The Secret Service to Spy to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Spectre – not forgetting the fifth instalment in the Mission: Impossible film series – 2015 is well and truly the “year of the spy”. 

Here, we find CIA director Hunley (Baldwin) disbanding the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), leaving our heroes Ethan Hunt (Cruise), William Brandt (Renner), Benji Dunn (Pegg) and Luther Stickell (Rhames) in the lurch. Ethan crosses paths with the enigmatic Ilsa Faust (Ferguson), supposedly an MI6 agent deep undercover. Ethan uncovers evidence of the Syndicate, a “rogue nation” comprised of secret agents thought to be dead, the dirty underbelly of the dirty underbelly. With the treacherous Solomon Lane (Harris) in charge, The Syndicate’s tendrils reach far and deep. Pressed on all sides and with dangerous enemies in pursuit, Ethan and his associates embark on their most crucial mission yet.

In an age where hype counts a great deal, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation has not been hyped as much as other summer blockbusters. It also faces heady competition at the cinemas this year – Paramount shifted the film up from a Christmas release date to late July to avoid facing Bond film Spectre head-on. Helmed by Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie, Rogue Nation proves the franchise has wind in its sails yet. This film series is unique in that there have been five different directors over five films, counting this one. McQuarrie manages to quickly find his footing, acknowledging the events of the previous film, tying it all together quite nicely (though there’s curiously no mention of Ethan’s wife). This is an exhilarating, superbly constructed action thriller, a palpable affection for and understanding of the genre evident throughout. 


          Structurally, perhaps it is a misstep to pile all the action set-pieces on to the front end of the picture, meaning the pace lags a little as the film nears its conclusion. That said, the set-pieces are uniformly marvelous, so credit to stunt coordinator Wade Eastwood and second unit director Gregg Smrz is due. Right out the gate, McQuarrie and star/producer Cruise show they mean business with an opening sequence in which Ethan clings precariously to the exterior of an Airbus A400 M, a stunt Cruise performed for real. The film doesn’t feature globetrotting so much as “globe-galloping” – From Belarus to Austria to Morocco in addition to the United Kingdom and the United States, the exotic locations and the scale of the film lend it a very appealing throwback quality to the heyday of spy-fi. The scene in which Ethan grapples with a Syndicate operative in the rafters of the Vienna Opera House while Puccini’s Turandot is in progress on the stage below is pure class. A white-knuckle sequence with Ethan swimming into an underwater data storage facility called the “Taurus” while holding his breath the whole time is strikingly unique, adding a futuristic touch that makes it seem as if Cruise has temporarily stepped back into Minority Report. There’s also the motorcycle chase that’s far less silly than the one in M:I II. All this is wrapped in Joe Kraemer’s electrifying musical score, which weaves in both the iconic Lalo Schiffrin M:I theme and Nessun Dorma

           His peculiar personal proclivities notwithstanding, Cruise has held his own as a megastar for decades while others have come and gone. From the moment he enters the movie – sprinting, of course – the 53-year-old shows no signs of slowing down whatsoever. The charisma, intensity, spry athleticism, it’s all intact. Cruise has had several duds in recent years (the baffling sub-Mission: Impossible flick Knight and Day comes to mind) but with Rogue Nation, his trademark star vehicle franchise remains right on track. 

The Mission: Impossible television series from the 60s had an emphasis on teamwork. The movies have certainly been all about Cruise, but it is great to see the returning IMF members back in the field. This film gives Simon Pegg’s Benji in particular a meatier role – since the character’s introduction in the third movie, he’s gotten a nice upgrade from the designated techie comic relief, an evolution which continues ahead in this film. Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell, this team’s original techie, is back as well. While Jeremy Renner has a little less to do, spending the first half of the film duking it out with Alec Baldwin in front of a senate oversight committee, he gets his moments to shine too. Speaking of Baldwin, it was a little difficult for this reviewer to see him as anything but Jack Donaghy in some spy movie-inspired fever dream of Liz Lemon’s on 30 Rock. In future movies, it would be great to see some of the female IMF agents return – Maggie Q and Paula Patton on the same team would be awesome! 

Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson, best known for her leading role in period series The White Queen but otherwise not a big-name star just yet, was apparently hand-picked by Cruise to star in Rogue Nation. Her Ilsa Faust is meant to remain an enigma throughout, ostensibly an ally yet someone we are never sure whether or not to fully trust. There’s a femme fatale element she doesn’t overplay, as well as a sophistication and intelligence that Ferguson balances out the requisite sex appeal with. Still, she doesn’t quite stand out as strikingly as, say, Eva Green did in Casino Royale. We’ve seen villains like Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane many, many times in this genre – he’s the quietly menacing guy pulling the strings, playing everyone from a distance. It’s not an outstanding character, but he’s functional and his part in the grand scheme of things makes sense.

McQuarrie, who co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce, weaves an intricate plot of gambits and double-crosses which the audience has to make a conscious effort to follow, but which stops a safe distance from being pointlessly convoluted. It harks back to a bygone era of stylish spy movies, but is also a straight-ahead contemporary thriller rather than self-reflexively playing with the tropes of the genre the way Kingsman and Spy do. The chases, shootouts, fisticuffs, daredevil Houdini escapes, ticking bomb suspense and Cruise’s unwavering star power – Rogue Nation has it all.

Summary: Carried by a propulsive momentum and packed with meticulously-assembled thrills, going Rogue has never been this entertaining.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong