47 Meters Down: Uncaged review

For inSing

47 METERS DOWN: UNCAGED

Director: Johannes Roberts
Cast : Sophie Nélisse, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, Sistine Stallone, John Corbett, Nia Long
Genre : Adventure/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 30 mins
Opens : 29 August 2019
Rating : PG13

            In 2017, 47 Meters Down chronicled the misadventures of two sisters who got into a shark cage while on vacation in Mexico. As the title suggests, this sequel dispenses with the cage, following four friends into caves where sharks are waiting.

Mia (Sophie Nélisse) is having a hard time at school where she is constantly bullied, and has trouble getting along with her stepsister Sasha (Corinne Foxx). Their dad Grant (John Corbett) is a commercial diver who is mapping a sunken Mayan city, preparing for visiting archaeologists.

Sasha’s friend Alexa (Brianne Tju), who has followed Grant’s employee Ben (Davi Santos) into the caves, convinces Mia, Sasha and Nicole (Sistine Stallone) to go exploring in the caves. The plan is to swim into the first chamber and then return, but naturally, things go wrong. Sharks which have adapted to the low-light conditions of the underwater caverns terrorise the girls, who are trapped with a fast-depleting oxygen supply. The four girls must help each other survive and escape.

Director Johannes Roberts returns for the sequel, which has no characters in common with its predecessor. In a way, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged seems like a typical direct-to-DVD sequel, with a different cast but a similar premise to the first. However, Uncaged has a noticeably bigger budget than the first movie. Roberts is more ambitious with this film, staging several exciting sequences that are more elaborate than what we saw in 47 Meters Down, which was by its nature quite spare.

Shooting any movie underwater is no small logistical undertaking, especially given the film’s limited budget. The film’s set design and explosive finale sequence contribute to a slightly bigger feel than its predecessor.

With its all-female main cast, 47 Meters Down: Uncaged is kind of like a less-gnarly version of The Descent. Roberts cowrote the screenplay with Ernest Riera; it appears neither knows how teenage girls talk to each other. The movie struggles to parcel out enough information about our protagonists before the action begins such that we care about them when they’re in peril. As such, the characters are all thinly drawn.

Sophie Nélisse, who put in an excellent performance in The Book Thief, is the awkward, level-headed protagonist. Succumbing to peer pressure, she is coaxed into doing something silly and dangerous by her stepsister and her friends. Giving off slight Saoirse Ronan vibes, Nélisse is the best actress of the four, in part because there is just that little bit more to her character than to the others

Corrine Foxx, daughter of Jamie, plays a character who’s a bit stuck up. Naturally, the two stepsisters will bond over the course of their harrowing ordeal. Sistine Stallone, daughter of Sylvester, is there to be the party animal friend who in horror movie terms is almost begging to be the first to die.

Brianne Tju’s Alexa is confident without being annoying, and next to Mia, is the one who knows what’s she doing.

John Corbett puts in some dependable character actor work, playing what amounts to a textbook supporting role.

The visual effects work, mainly created by Outpost VFX, is mostly good. The sharks have evolved to survive in the submerged caves, making them register more as movie monsters than regular sharks. The film ends with a disclaimer message stating that around 10 people die in shark attacks each year, vs 100 million sharks that get killed by humans. There is a valid fear that movies like 47 Meters Down: Uncaged perpetuate a disproportionate fear of sharks, so that might be why Roberts has played up the movie monster attributes of the animals in this film.

47 Meters Down: Uncaged is often trapped between being all-out campy fun and being a legitimately scary thriller. Despite weak writing and a somewhat dull middle stretch, the film is mostly entertaining, so much so that one could almost forgive it ripping off Deep Blue Sea’s most memorable scene.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Crawl review

CRAWL

Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast :  Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Anson Boon, Jose Palma
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1 h 27 mins
Opens : 11 July 2019
Rating : NC16

        Mother Nature’s fury manifests in twofold terrors in Crawl, with our heroine battling a vicious storm and a congregation of alligators.

A Category 5 hurricane bears down on the small Florida town of Coral Lake, with the residents ordered to evacuate. Haley Keller (Kaya Scodelario) goes against the order to rescue her father Dave (Barry Pepper), who is trapped inside their rapidly-flooding house. With the fierce weather conditions making a rescue impossible, it’s up to Haley to get her father to safety. The storm has brought with it toothy, hungry alligators, who have converged on Coral Lake. Haley and Dave must draw on every bit of their survival instincts to make it out alive.

After the explosive success of 1975’s Jaws, which all but invented the modern summer blockbuster, there was an influx of natural horror films which tried to capitalise on said success. These included Grizzly, Orca and yes, Alligator. Crawl feels like a throwback to that era of natural horror movies, and there’s a certain amount of knowing what you’re getting when one watches a movie like Crawl.

The film is directed by Alexandre Aja, who became famous for the French horror film Haute Tension and went on to make The Hills Have Eyes, Piranha 3D and Horns in Hollywood. Aja has a knack for suspense, and he brings plenty of that to Crawl. While there are many violent, gory moments, Crawl is superficially scary but never really affecting because of the silliness inherent in the premise. Alligators can be terrifying, but as rendered in Crawl, they’ve become slasher villains, feeling more like movie monsters than actual animals. Part of what made Jaws scary was the intelligence attributed to the shark, but too much of that can conversely make audiences aware that they’re watching monsters that were written to hunt down the heroes, rather than animals who behave like animals.

Crawl is a well-constructed theme park ride which, not entirely unlike the recent Annabelle Comes Home, is a good movie to go to with friends, scream at while grabbing each other’s arms, and then go home and forget about. The computer-generated animation on the alligators is mostly very good, but the backdrops, especially the storm cloud-filled skies, are patently unconvincing. The film is set in Florida but was shot in Belgrade, Serbia to benefit from tax rebates. It is a modestly budgeted horror movie which still mostly looks good and never feels too cheap.

Much of what makes Crawl work is the performances from Scodelario and Pepper. This reviewer’s friend has often said that Scodelario would be the ideal actress to play Ripley in a reboot of the Alien franchise, and Crawl is a good demo reel for that. She is trapped in damp, claustrophobic spaces, wielding a dynamo torch and fending off scaly critters. Scodelario convincingly essays someone who is skilled and resourceful, but is also justifiably scared out of her wits.

Pepper is the dude in distress for much of the movie, with Scodelario’s Haley doing much of the work, but we do get invested in his plight and want father and daughter to make it out alright. Both Scodelario and Pepper take things very seriously, such that tempting as it might be to laugh at the premise, it never becomes self-parody. It does get a bit wink-and-nod by imperilling a dog, paddling for its life as the alligators bear down on it.

Crawl is far from the most ground-breaking horror movie, but if anything, its throwback nature lends it a degree of charm. This is not a movie that’s trying to be the edgiest, most philosophical or most disturbing movie, it’s trying to be a thrill ride and with a master of suspense at the helm, it accomplishes its goal. Like many natural horror movies, it plays up the monstrousness of real animals and portrays them as especially vicious, but it is in service of an entertaining time.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Serenity review

SERENITY

Director: Steven Knight
Cast: Mathew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, Diane Lane, Jeremy Strong, Rafael Sayegh
Genre: Drama/Thriller/Mystery
Run Time: 1 h 46 mins
Opens: 21 February 2019
Rating: M18

           Interstellar stars Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway reunite under extremely bizarre circumstances in this neo-noir thriller, which is already being called the worst film of 2019.

McConaughey plays Baker Dill, a fisherman on the idyllic Plymouth Island who takes tourists out to sea on his fishing boat, the Serenity. Baker’s ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) arrives on the island, asking Baker to kill her current husband, the abusive Frank (Jason Clarke). The plan is to get Frank drunk during a fishing trip and throw him overboard. Baker is initially resistant to the plan, but eventually feels he owes it to his and Karen’s son Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) to free Karen from Frank’s grip. A tale of murder, madness and vengeance unfolds in paradise as Baker soon finds himself in way over his head.

Within days of opening in the U.S., Serenity’s badness has become legendary: the movie was a box office bomb that marked the lowest openings in McConaughey and Hathaway’s careers. Distributor Aviron gave up on marketing the movie altogether, cancelling planned publicity events and talk show appearances for its stars.

Is Serenity as bad as everyone is saying? Short answer: it is. Writer-director Steven Knight set out to make a “sexy noir” thriller, and for the first hour or so of the movie, it comes across as awkward and slightly melodramatic but never offensively bad. Then, as things ramp up and the plot reaches a crescendo, the film builds to a baffling, staggering twist ending. It’s a twist that truly must be seen to be believed, the kind of reveal that nobody could have ever though was a good idea.

The movie feels like a hybrid of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and 90s erotic thrillers like Basic Instinct and The Colour of the Night. The film was shot in Mauritius and setting it on a remote island away from the madding crowd gives the movie an initial air of mystery, but everything is so over-the-top and ham-fisted that Serenity has no dramatic impact at all.

Matthew McConaughey may be an Oscar winner, having found redemption after years of floundering about in sub-par romantic comedies, but he still makes missteps in choosing his projects. As the tortured hero with a tragic past, McConaughey does a lot of yelling at the sky. There’s an extended skinny-dipping scene, which is perhaps the most worthwhile thing in the movie. The character is intended to be sympathetic but doesn’t come close to making audiences root for him.

Michael O’Sullivan of The Washington Post described Anne Hathaway’s performance as “kind of a live-action Jessica Rabbit from Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and we can’t come up with a better description than that. Everything is heightened and hard to believed, but Hathaway’s turn as a blonde femme fatale is the most heightened and hardest to believe part of Serenity.

Jason Clarke’s abusive husband character is just that, a one-dimensional villain. It looks like Clarke had fun playing him, but he has played despicable characters with more nuance to them and it’s just more interesting that way.

Diane Lane shows up as a woman whom Baker sleeps with for money. That’s about it as far as her character goes. Oh, Djimon Hounsou is in this movie too.

There’s a version of this movie which is a tongue-in-cheek stealth parody of erotic thriller conventions that might have worked, but this is just a failure on every level. There’s a novelty factor to two Oscar-winning movie stars headlining what promises to be a steamy thriller, but Serenity fizzles out in spectacular fashion. By the time the mind-boggling conclusion rolls around, the movie has done a slow-motion faceplant on the ground. It’s also a shame that Serenity tarnishes the good name of 2005’s Serenity, the movie continuation of Joss Whedon’s space western TV series Firefly.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Glass review

GLASS

Director : M. Night Shyamalan
Cast : James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard
Genre : Thriller/ horror
Run Time : 2 h 9 mins
Opens : 17 January 2019
Rating : PG13

Every studio wants a cinematic universe. M. Night Shyamalan sprung a surprise on viewers, as is his wont, with the reveal at the end of 2017’s Split that the film took place in the same shared universe as 2000’s Unbreakable. The ‘Eastrail #177 trilogy’ culminates with Glass.

Kevin Crumb/The Horde (James McAvoy), a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder who harbours 24 distinct personalities including the animalistic Beast, is still at large after the events of Split. When the vigilante David Dunn/The Overseer (Bruce Willis) attempts to capture Kevin, both are inadvertently caught and placed in Raven Hill Memorial Hospital. At the hospital, Dr Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), believing Kevin and David to have delusions of grandeur, attempts to rehabilitate them. She has a third patient: Elijah Price/Mr Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), a self-styled supervillain and former comic book gallery owner with brittle bone disease.

Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), a girl who was captured by Kevin but let go; David’s son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) and Elijah’s mother Mrs Price (Charlayne Woodard) band together to discover the truth behind what afflicts the three characters. Dr Staple is convinced that there are rational, non-fantastical explanations for the ‘powers’ manifested by Kevin, David and Elijah, despite appearances to the contrary. Elijah, who has been feigning catatonia the whole time, hatches a plan of escape, a plan that involves both Kevin and David. The stage for a showdown between two supervillains and a superhero is set.

At the time of Unbreakable’s release, the comic book movie boom was still around a decade away. General audiences were not yet as well-versed in the tropes of comic book storytelling as they are today, so now seems like a good time to release a follow-up to Unbreakable. Unfortunately, Glass squanders this opportunity, winding up as a colossal disappointment that seems to get in its own way at every conceivable turn.

It’s a shame because Glass isn’t a mess from the outset: we see the glimmers of potential, then watch as they are dulled, until the film seems like a big smear. The movie sets up a dynamic clash between three fascinating characters, but they feel like shadows of the people we met in earlier films. McAvoy is more annoying than unsettling as Kevin, Willis’ David is straight-up boring, and Jackson’s portrayal of a conniving mastermind is serviceable but nothing captivating.

Shyamalan gets a few pleasingly tense moments in but is unable to sustain the viewers’ attention. The film feels hemmed in by its mental hospital setting, promising a set-piece finale that winds up severely underwhelming. This undercuts the promise of a grand, explosive conclusion to the trilogy. The dialogue is unbearably clunky in spots, with Shyamalan struggling to weave in references to story arcs and devices commonly found in comic books. His trademark cameo is also entirely awkward.

Split deservedly drew flack for its use of mental illness to signal life-threatening villainy. This reviewer’s friend compared it to a Universal Monsters film, except Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy aren’t real and Dissociative Identity Disorder is a real thing. While McAvoy sinks his teeth into the challenging role, the hints of hammy over-acting in Split have all come to the surface. As a result, Kevin is never truly scary and is sometimes unintentionally funny, and it just blends into a mass of silly voices.

While it is nice to see Willis back as David Dunn and there’s also strong continuity in seeing Spencer Treat Clark reprise his role as David’s son Joseph, the character just isn’t that interesting. Perhaps it’s a side effect of how Willis has spent much of his recent career sleep-walking through many direct-to-DVD action movies. The sense of inner turmoil and the compelling nature of an ordinary man coming to terms with extraordinary gifts drew audiences to David in Unbreakable, but here, Willis just shuffles along.

Samuel L. Jackson was by no means an unknown in 2000, but now he’s just ubiquitous, and perhaps that takes away some of Elijah Price’s mystique. The character’s gimmick, that he was a self-styled supervillain, seemed novel when Unbreakable was released, but Glass does surprisingly little with it. While there’s an attempt to flesh out the relationship between Elijah and his mother, with Charlayne Woodard delivering a heartfelt performance, it seems rote rather than adding to the mythos.

Sarah Paulson is typically reliable, but seems unnatural and stiff, hamstrung by sub-par material. Anya Taylor-Joy puts her very emotive eyes to great use as Casey, but the character’s bond to Kevin feels forced, even coming off Split.

There was every opportunity for Glass to be an original, unorthodox, engaging exploration of what it means to be a hero or a villain, and of the implications of superpowers being real. Just when he seemed on the verge of a credible comeback, Shyamalan blows it with an excruciatingly clumsy movie that breaks every promise of a thrilling threequel hinted at before.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Escape Room review

ESCAPE ROOM

Director : Adam Robitel
Cast : Taylor Russell, Logan Miller, Deborah Ann Woll, Tyler Labine, Jay Ellis, Nik Dodani
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 99 mins
Opens : 10 January 2019
Rating : PG13

       Stress and panic are thing most people instinctively try to avoid, but there’s a long history of people inducing stress and panic in themselves in the name of entertainment. Horror movies and roller coasters serve this purpose, and so do escape rooms, in which participants are trapped until they can find a way out by solving puzzles, the clues to which are hidden in the room. A little bit of pressure under controlled circumstances can be invigorating. In this horror thriller, the participants of an escape room find those circumstances going terrifyingly out of control.

College student Zoey (Taylor Russell), grocery store stockist Ben (Logan Miller), military veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll), stock trader Jason (Jay Ellis), trucker Mike (Tyler Labine) and escape room enthusiast Danny (Nik Dodani) find themselves in the waiting room of the Minos Escape Room in Chicago. They were each given a puzzle box by someone they know, with the promise of a $10 000 cash prize if they solve the puzzles and escape the room.

However, as they undergo a literal trial by fire and brave a host of other deadly traps, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary escape room. Each stage contains specific references to the participants’ personal histories, indicating that a vast conspiracy lies behind their predicament. The five strangers must cooperate to find a way out or face their deaths at the hands of whatever sinister force has set up this twisted game.

           Escape Room takes on a bit of an eerie quality given the very recent tragedy in which five girls in Poland died in an escape room as the result of apparent arson. An escape room as a setting for a horror film seems like a natural idea, and two unrelated low-budget horror movie both also called ‘Escape Room’ were released in 2017.

There is appeal in the idea of a PG-13 take on Saw (specifically the second film onwards, when traps became more of a feature), a horror thriller that places an emphasis on puzzle-solving and trap design instead of excessive gore. In addition to Saw, there are shades of Cube, The Game and Final Destination, yet Escape Room is not as derivative as many other disposable horror flicks – or at least that’s how it starts.

Despite some extremely clunky dialogue and broadly-drawn characters, the film starts off engrossingly enough. Director Adam Robitel stages reasonably tense set-pieces within production designer Edward Thomas’ sets. Even without graphic violence, the stakes are established, and audiences begin to fear for the characters. There are little touches like the name ‘Minos’ being an allusion to the Greek myth of the Minotaur in the labyrinth. However, it’s not long before everything falls apart.

The actors dutifully occupy each of the stock types and there is some fun to be had in guessing the order in which the characters are killed off. Taylor Russell’s withdrawn genius student is a protagonist who’s easy to root for, while Logan Miller manages to give a little depth to the sullen, antisocial Ben. Deborah Ann Woll showcases some physicality as the ex-military Amanda, while Jay Ellis relishes playing a slime-ball finance guy.

Tyler Labine probably gets the least to do as the blue-collar guy who’s out of his depth, while Nik Dodani’s enthusiastic Danny is intentionally grating. It’s not the worst collection of six characters to show up in a horror movie, but it’s far from the most memorable.

Most negative reviews of Escape Room single out the ending, and with good reason. The conclusion of the film is equivalent to an escape room employee shuffling into the room mid-puzzle, telling the participants there never was a solution from the start, and then chasing everyone out before turning off the lights. Whatever riveting intensity the preceding scenes possessed is squandered by the extremely unsatisfying ending, which appears to set up a sequel and leaving nothing resolved.

With a better script, Escape Room seems like something that David Fincher could’ve made earlier in his career. Robitel, who also directed Insidious: The Last Key, is no David Fincher, but several set-pieces are executed with sufficient flair. Thanks to a competent cast, decent production values and passable amounts of invention in the traps and riddles, Escape Room is a safe distance from the bottom-of-the-barrel horror movies that typically get January releases, but the payoff leaves a lot to be desired.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Widows review

WIDOWS

Director : Steve McQueen
Cast : Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Garrett Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Lukas Haas, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Coburn Goss
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 129 mins
Opens : 6 December 2018
Rating : M18

This summer movie season brought us the glittery fun of Ocean’s Eight, but now it’s time for a much more serious take on the female-led heist movie concept in the form of Widows.

Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) is a thief who has never put a foot wrong, until one fateful night when he and his crew comprising Florek (Jon Bernthal), Carlos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and Jimmy (Coburn Goss) are killed during a botched job. Harry and his team were stealing $2 million from crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), who is running for alderman of the 18th precinct of Chicago. Jamal’s opponent is Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who hails from a political dynasty including his father, former alderman Tom (Robert Duvall), with whom he has a contentious relationship.

Harry’s widow Veronica (Viola Davis) is threatened by Jamal and his enforcer brother Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), who want Harry’s debt to them repaid. Veronica decides to undertake Harry’s next job, for which he kept detailed plans in his notebook. Veronica ropes in Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), leaving the fourth widow Amanda (Carrie Coon) out of the plan because she has a new-born child. Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a hairstylist and part-time babysitter hired by Linda, steps in. Together, the four women must pull off a high-stakes heist that finds them embroiled in a dicey conspiracy involving the city’s powerful politicians and mobsters.

Widows is based on the 1983 ITV miniseries of the same name, and marks Steve McQueen’s first film as director since 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. McQueen co-wrote the screenplay with Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl fame. Widows has plenty of pedigree in front of and behind the camera and is a bit of an odd beast because at first glance, it sounds like the kind of plot one might find in a direct-to-DVD action movie. One could imagine a much cheaper, more sloppily-made version of Widows being something to watch on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

For better and worse, Widows is not that movie. The story is layered with political commentary and does have the sometimes-odd feel of a crime thriller imbued with prestige movie filmmaking. There is a meticulousness to the world-building and how each character’s specific circumstances are established, but this is also a movie that seems to want to tell a story beyond the confines of the genre. That’s not to say that an action thriller can’t be deep or tackle topical issues, but Widows’ approach sometimes calls attention to itself, pulling the viewer out of what could’ve been an intensely engaging story. It’s not the most obvious comparison, but this reviewer was reminded of Ben Affleck’s The Town, also a crime thriller in which the protagonists are thieves, and also a movie about the desperation brought on by socioeconomic inequality in American cities.

The performances are strong across the board, with Viola Davis showcasing the strength and no-nonsense demeanour seen in many of her characters. We see Veronica in her vulnerable moments, but we also witness the full effect of her steely resolve. She is not out to befriend her co-conspirators and is business-like and harsh in her interactions with the other widows, who all need comfort and a listening ear to varying degrees.

Debicki is the standout among the rest of the cast, portraying a character who comes off as just a dumb blonde at first, but who is to be underestimated at one’s peril. A subplot involves Alice’s reluctant ‘sugar daddy’ arrangement with real estate developer David (Lukas Haas). There’s a lot more going on with the character than one realises at first, which gives Debicki quite a bit to play with.

Erivo is an entertaining badass and Rodriguez gets to play a few more notes than the typical ‘tough chick’ she gets typecast as. Colin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry play warring politicians, both crooked in their own ways. When the film wades into political thriller territory, it loses a bit of the intimacy and urgency that it has when we’re with the widows themselves.

Kaluuya is a brilliant actor, but cast against type as a heavy, he can’t quite muster up what it takes to be truly intimidating. The always-dependable Neeson is used judiciously, making the most of his limited screen time.

Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell make for an entertaining double act as father-and-son politicians at each other’s throats, but their subplots mostly feel like a distraction from the main plot.

There’s also the most adorable dog, a West Highland Terrier named Olivia whom moviegoers might recognise from Game Night. Olivia is up against Academy Award winners and nominees, but handily steals the show.

The violence depicted in the film has impact, and there are many moments that jolt the viewer out of sitting too comfortably in their cinema seat. There are smatterings of comedy which give the audience a reprieve from the overall seriousness of the film, but some of these moments are a little awkward. There is a strategy to how information and back-story details are parcelled out to the audience, and there is merit in McQueen’s approach of a crime movie that offers more than just mindless action. However, the film’s centre often threatens to buckle, and Widows adds up to slightly less than the sum of its parts.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Simple Favour movie review

A SIMPLE FAVOUR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Skyscraper movie review

SKYSCRAPER

Director : Rawson Marshall Thurber
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Møller, McKenna Roberts, Noah Cottrell, Noah Taylor, Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, Hannah Quinlivan, Adrian Holmes
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 103 mins
Opens : 12 July 2018
Rating : PG-13

The Rock gets acquainted with glass and steel in this action thriller set in – you guessed it – a skyscraper.

Dwayne Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former FBI Hostage Rescue Team leader who lost his leg during a mission gone wrong, and who now works as a building security assessor. Will’s family, including his wife Sarah (Neve Campbell) and twins Georgia (McKenna Roberts) and Henry (Noah Cottrell), are flown out to Hong Kong for his new assignment. The upper floors of the tallest building in the world, the Pearl, are about to open for business, pending Will’s assessment. The Pearl stands almost 1.07 km tall, dwarfing Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Will and his family are the guests of the Pearl’s billionaire owner, Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han), and they are the building’s first residents.

Naturally, things don’t go according to plan. Will finds himself on the run from the authorities as the building is broken into and set on fire. A team of dangerous mercenaries led by Kores Botha (Roland Møller) has infiltrated the Pearl and disabled its security and fire safety systems. Sarah, Georgia and Henry are trapped in the building, and Will must get to them before it’s too late. Botha will stop at nothing at nothing to get what he wants from Zhao, and a man who wants to save his family it’s all that’s standing in his way.

This summer movie season, Skyscraper is the only major tentpole studio release that is not a sequel. That said, it is the furthest thing from original possible – not to belabour the point, but this movie might as well be called ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not Die Hard’. There already exists a Die Hard knockoff named Skyscraper, starring the late Anna-Nicole Smith.

Skyscraper feels out of place amidst the giant franchise entries that have dominated and will continue to dominate the box office this summer, but that is key to its charm. It feels like a movie straight out of the 90s in a very welcome way. That’s due in part to the well-worn premise, but also to its star being the closest thing we have to the larger-than-life action heroes of the 80s and 90s.

This reviewer did not enjoy director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s previous Johnson-starring film, the buddy comedy Central Intelligence. As such, it’s surprising just how well Skyscraper is directed. The script, also written by Thurber, seems to have been reconstituted from a “just add water” action movie premix. However, the film moves with great finesse and Thurber leads audiences from one edge-of-your-seat action set-piece straight on to the next, generating breathless thrills despite the overwhelming silliness of the whole affair. Veteran production designer Jim Bissell gets to show off with the gleaming futurism of the Pearl – there’s even a high tech maze of mirrors of sorts.

What’s left to say about Johnson’s abilities as a leading man that hasn’t already been covered in countless other reviews? He’s not quite an everyman the way Bruce Willis’s John McClane started out, but he’s still got that disarming charm – Will quips about the magical properties of duct tape while stuck in the middle of a crisis. Will performs spectacular feats of implausibility, one after the other. The leap from a crane to the building has already been lampooned ever since it was made a central feature of the poster and has become a meme unto itself. Part of the joy of Skyscraper is accepting the ludicrousness and focusing on Johnson at the centre of said ludicrousness.

The script struggles to make Campbell’s Sarah more than the ‘designated wife’ so often seen in these movies, and mostly succeeds. Sarah is a Navy combat medic and can hold her own in some harrowing situations. There is a nigh-excessive degree of imperilling children in the film, but hey, these kids have the Rock as their dad. That’s a guarantee it’s going to work out all right.

Chin Han’s Zhao is perhaps a touch egotistical – you must be to build the tallest building in the world – and just might be hiding something. It’s the standard ‘rich guy you’re meant to suspect’ archetype and he does seem to enjoy strutting across the well-appointed penthouse set.

This movie’s villains were shipped in straight from Movie Bad Guys “R” Us. There are Euro-mercenaries sporting a variety of accents, led by Møller’s Kores Botha (what a great villain name). Then there are a bunch of local hires too, since this takes place in Hong Kong, including Hannah Quinlivan as a lethal leather-clad henchwoman. It’s all, to use that word again, quite ridiculous – but it’s never not entertaining.

Skyscraper genuinely reminds this reviewer of the action movies he enjoyed growing up. Sure, it’s stupid, but it’s hard to go too wrong with Johnson leading the charge. Surprisingly, it leans into its genre-ness more than Rampage, also starring Johnson, did earlier this year. As a Die Hard-style movie that could’ve easily gone straight-to-DVD but instead has a $125 million budget and stars the Rock, it works.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Red Sparrow movie review

For inSing

RED SPARROW

Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Ciaran Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Thekla Reuten, Joely Richardson, Sakina Jaffrey
Genre : Action, Crime, Drama
Run Time : 2h 20m
Opens : 1 March 2018
Rating : M18 (Violence and nudity)

The bird motif has followed Jennifer Lawrence in some of her biggest roles. As Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games series, she became the symbolic ‘Mockingjay’. In the X-Men films, Lawrence plays Mystique, whose given name is ‘Raven’. In this spy thriller, she becomes a ‘sparrow’.

Lawrence plays Dominika Egorova, a promising ballerina with the Bolshoi ballet. After a career-ending injury, Dominika is unable to provide for her ailing mother Nina (Joely Richardson). Dominika’s uncle Ivan (Matthias Schoenaerts) offers her a way out – he is the Deputy Director of the FSB, the Russian intelligence service, and sees spy potential in Dominika.

Dominika is eventually forced to enrol in ‘sparrow school’, where the unyielding Matron (Charlotte Rampling) trains her students in the art of seduction and psychological manipulation. Dominika’s first mission is to ingratiate herself with CIA agent Nathaniel Nash (Joel Edgerton), to learn the identity of Nash’s asset, a mole within the FSB. Diving head first into geopolitical power games, Dominika must stay one step ahead of everyone else, as she decides how far she will go to serve her country.

Red Sparrow is based on the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews, a former CIA agent. This film re-teams Jennifer Lawrence with director Francis Lawrence (no relation), who helmed the second to fourth Hunger Games films.

Thanks to location filming in Hungary, Slovakia, Austria and the U.K., as well as Jo Willems’ gorgeous cinematography, Red Sparrow is a stylish picture. This is a film that wants to be classy yet visceral, and there is plenty of graphic nudity and violence. While Red Sparrow is often engaging, dramatic and thrilling, there are times when it’s stuck in a no-man’s-land between all-out spy movie hijinks and sober realism.

Red Sparrow feels like a spy movie, and while its heightened style is part of what draws the viewer in, it also makes the viewer conscious they are watching a spy movie. There are times when it feels like the sex and violence exist to shock the audience, such that they’re distracted from the more formulaic elements of the film. We know there are going to be double-crosses and that characters will play others against each other. While Red Sparrow has a few surprises up its sleeve, it doesn’t reinvent the genre.

Because it is based on a book written by a former CIA agent, Red Sparrow purports to shed light on the techniques that modern-day Russian spies are trained in. The Russian characters tend to have an air of cartoony menace to them, and as such Red Sparrow loses a bit of credibility. Sebastian Hülk’s deadly, sadistic Matorin seems like he’s stepped straight out of a Bond film. There’s also a goofiness to some of the dialogue – addressing her class for the first time, the Matron gravely declares, “The Cold War did not end. It shattered into a thousand dangerous pieces”.

That said, Red Sparrow often works, and star Lawrence is a big part of why. There’s a lot to the character for her to play with. While Lawrence isn’t exactly convincing as a Russian woman (lots of not-great Russian accents in this movie), she gives the role her all, and marshals an intensity quite unlike what we’ve seen from her before.

Dominika is a character who is backed into a corner but masterfully turns power against those who would try to wield it over her. It is fascinating to watch Dominika exercise this jiu-jitsu-like ability, gradually taking back control after it has been completely wrested from her. Dominika’s arc is compelling and is resolved in an exciting, satisfying manner

Schoenaerts is suitably slimy as Dominika’s shifty uncle. While Edgerton is unremarkable as the heroic but flawed American agent, it seems that’s how the character was intended to come off. The dynamic between Dominika and Nate doesn’t go quite how one would expect it to, but standard spy movie tropes are mostly adhered to when all’s said and done.

Charlotte Rampling delivers a deliciously icy performance as the matron. The scenes set in the spy school, in which students are forced to strip and perform other demeaning tasks as commanded, are some of the film’s most uncomfortable and consequently, most interesting. Ciaran Hinds and Jeremy Irons stand around and provide gravitas, which they have no problems with. Mary Louise-Parker’s appearance as the secretary of state to a US senator seems to be a poorly-judged attempt at adding humour to the mix; her scene comes off as awkward and silly.

While Red Sparrow is not as complex and layered as it would like to be and doesn’t offer too much that fans of the spy movie genre haven’t seen before, Lawrence’s performance anchors it. It’s a little too long, but the injections of sex and violence will jolt audiences out of any lulls.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Happy Death Day movie review

For inSing

HAPPY DEATH DAY 

Director : Christopher Landon
Cast : Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Rachel Matthews, Charles Aitken, Rob Mello, Cariella Smith, Phi Vu
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 96 mins
Opens : 26 October 2017
Rating : PG-13

Live. Die. Repeat. Tom Cruise endured that ordeal in Edge of Tomorrow, and now, so must Jessica Rothe. In this horror thriller, Rothe plays Tree Gelbman, a college student and Kappa sorority girl at Bayfield University. On her birthday, she wakes up in the dorm room of Carter (Israel Broussard), a guy she met at a wild party the night before. That night, Rothe is killed by an assailant wearing a Bayfield Baby mask, the Bayfield Babies being the school’s football team. Tree awakes, gradually realising she is caught in a loop, reliving this same day over and over, repeatedly dying at the hands of the masked killer. Tree must solve her own murder and outsmart the killer to break the cycle and live another day.

Happy Death Day comes from Blumhouse, the production company which specialises in low-budget, high-return horror flicks. Director Christopher Landon has co-written five films in Blumhouse’s Paranormal Activity franchise and directed one. Happy Death Day isn’t very scary, but it’s plenty of fun. This teen-aimed horror flick is surprisingly funny, a hybrid of Scream, Mean Girls and, naturally, Groundhog Day which is efficiently constructed. The time loop time device is tried and tested, but Happy Death Day is sufficiently self-aware, toying with audience expectations and cleverly executing numerous plot twists.

The movie revels in its campiness without coming off as obnoxious, trading heavily on college movie archetypes. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel and has much in common with the teen slashers that were popular in the 90s-early 2000s, but it isn’t derivative in a dull way. Screenwriter Scott Lobdell is best known as a comic book writer, having worked on several X-Men books and Teen Titans. There’s a sly wit to the script and some of the dialogue is genuinely hilarious. It turns out that Happy Death Day has been floating around Hollywood for a while – back in 2007, when it was known as ‘Half to Death’, the project was set up at Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production house and set to star Megan Fox.

While the film doesn’t provide a satisfactory explanation for the time loop, it resorts to neither a howl-worthy cop-out or shameless sequel-begging. The set-pieces aren’t particularly inspired, and this reviewer would have preferred Tree’s deaths to be a little more elaborate and staged with more panache.

Rothe displays astute comic timing and is a fun leading lady to watch. Tree is not the nicest person in the world, and is self-centred and shallow. Much like Bill Murray’s Phil Connors character in Groundhog Day, Tree must gradually learn to be a better person. Unlike Phil Connors, getting brutally murdered is part of the deal. Many horror films suffer from unlikeable protagonists that are difficult to root for, but while Tree starts off that way, there’s a satisfying arc that her character undergoes.

Broussard plays the sweet guy who helps Tree parse her mind-bending situation, and is quite charming in the role. Rachel Matthews visibly enjoys playing the insufferable sorority president Danielle. It’s highly unlikely you’ll have heard of any of the actors in this film, but that’s part of what makes it cheap to make.

Like a birthday cake laced with a bit of booze, Happy Death Day is a delightful confection with a kick. It’s silly, but is carried by enough knowing wit that it’s easy to enjoy.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong