Crazy Rich Asians

Genre: Romance, Comedy

Director: Jon M. Chu

Screenplay: Peter Chiarelli, Adele Lim, based on the novel by Kevin Kwan

Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Carmen Soo, Pierre Png, Fiona Xie

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: Crazy Rich Asians follows native New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she accompanies her longtime boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Excited about visiting Asia for the first time but nervous about meeting Nick’s family, Rachel is unprepared to learn that Nick has neglected to mention a few key details about his life. It turns out that he is not only the scion of one of the country’s wealthiest families but also one of its most sought-after bachelors. Being on Nick’s arm puts a target on Rachel’s back, with jealous socialites and, worse, Nick’s own disapproving mother (Michelle Yeoh) taking aim. And it soon becomes clear that while money can’t buy love, it can definitely complicate things.

Review: Easily the most talked-about movie to hit local theatres in months, Crazy Rich Asians comes with a lot of additional baggage for its Singapore release. After all, Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel is set in Singapore, and this movie adaptation features not only many glamour shots of Singapore, but also a whole slew of Singaporean actors. One cannot deny the initial thrill of seeing this many familiar faces and places in a true-blue Hollywood production, but once the rush fades, is Crazy Rich Asians actually a good movie? The answer is… kind of.

At its heart, Crazy Rich Asians is simply a good old-fashioned fish-out-of-water romantic comedy, containing almost every trope that a film of the genre would (or should) have, which makes the film quite enjoyable at its most basic level. It helps that Golding and Wu share a good onscreen chemistry, and in particular Wu’s engaging performance would make audiences root for her from very early on in the proceedings. However, it’s Michelle Yeoh that truly impresses as Eleanor, and she’s transformed the stern matriarch from a rather one-dimensional villain into a complex, believable character who values family above all else.

Kevin Kwan’s novel was a sprawling book with many characters, and while Chiarelli and Lim’s screenplay tries its best to corral the narrative, the film is an uneven one, especially whenever the central couple spends time apart and the film gets caught up with one of the many underdeveloped subplots. Particularly under-baked is the troubled relationship of Astrid and Michael, which is a pity because both Gemma Chan and Pierre Png seem to have so much more to offer. And while there are many recognizable faces for most Singaporean audiences, none of the other supporting cast members leave much of an impression apart from Awkwafina (effortlessly stealing the limelight just like in Ocean’s 8) as Rachel’s college friend Peik Lin and Nico Santos as Nick’s gay cousin Oliver.

There has been some blowback amongst locals regarding the underrepresentation of minorities in Singapore in the film, but the fact of the matter is that this is after all a Hollywood production of a novel that didn’t make any minority representation in the first place. It’s a film that’s made with American sensibilities in mind, and any illusions that this is a “true” Asian film should have been cast aside from the beginning. There are plenty of Asian filmmakers making Asian films with Asian casts, so why would we even look to this Hollywood film to make this kind of representation for us? It’s an unnecessary criticism of a show that’s not designed to be anything more than a romantic comedy that appeals to the masses.

And mass appeal is what Crazy Rich Asians has in spades. It is a film that has something for almost everyone while not really excelling in any one aspect – it has some luxury and food porn, a somewhat engaging central romance, occasionally entertaining comedic sequences, and familial moments that would resonate with some Asian audiences. It’s great that the film has performed well in the US domestic market (and I foresee it doing well in Singapore as well), which importantly keeps the door open for future shows with stronger Asian American representation. This is no Black Panther or Get Out, to be sure, but it’s legitimately entertaining fluff as long as one goes in with the right expectations.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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Jason Bourne

Genre: Action

Director: Paul Greengrass

Screenplay: Paul Greengrass & Christopher Rouse, based on characters created by Robert Ludlum

Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp, Vinzenz Kiefer, Stephen Kunken, Gregg Henry

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: Matt Damon returns to his most iconic role in Jason Bourne. Paul Greengrass, the director of The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, once again joins Damon for the next chapter of Universal Pictures’ Bourne franchise, which finds the CIA’s most lethal former operative drawn out of the shadows.

Review: I’ve never enjoyed films that overemployed the use of shakycams, because I firmly believe that cinema verite can be achieved without having to nauseate your audience. While shakycams can be used to good effect in found footage films, an action movie like Jason Bourne shouldn’t have to resort to such a measure. Those familiar with the two prior Paul Greengrass-helmed Bourne movies would probably have come prepared (as did I), but the film not only left me feeling mildly ill, it also left me feeling dissatisfied despite Greengrass’ and Damon’s return to the franchise.

While there has been an additional Bourne movie (The Bourne Legacy in 2012, starring Jeremy Renner), most Bourne fans would really only recognize the Bourne Ultimatum as canon – this means that the “real” Bourne has not appeared on the big screen for almost a decade. The formula remains largely the same, but something seems to have been lost in the nine years. Greengrass has added too much bluster to the proceedings, and in the midst of car crash after car crash after car crash, the script seems to have forgotten to give Damon’s Bourne any room for performance or introspection, diluting what was one of the strongest aspects of the original trilogy.

While the action sequences are well-choreographed, the dizzying camerawork and rapid-fire editing leaves much to be desired. The Athens chase scene near the start is the highlight of the film, but by the time the near 40-minute long chase sequence in Las Vegas takes place in the final reels, exhaustion has set in, and no matter how grand each successive crash is, it simply doesn’t feel rousing anymore. The only bright spot was an impressive hand-to-hand combat sequence between Damon and Cassel that brings to mind similar visceral, hard-hitting scenes in the previous installments.

Coupled with a weak, suspense-less plot, there’s this general sense that Jason Bourne is an unnecessary sequel to a trilogy that had more or less given closure to the protagonist’s story. The denouement leaves the door open for another sequel, but there is very little compelling reason, based on what is seen here, to warrant yet another outing with the cast and crew.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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Ghostbusters

Genre: Comedy

Director: Paul Feig

Screenplay: Paul Feig, Katie Dippold, based on the 1984 film written by Day Aykroyd, Harold Ramis

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones, Kate McKinnon, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams, Chris Hemsworth, Neil Casey, Cecily Strong, Matt Walsh, Ed Begley Jr., Andy Garcia, Bill Murray, Day Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Sigourney Weaver

Running Length: 117 minutes

Synopsis: Thirty years after the original film took the world by storm, Ghostbusters is back and fully rebooted for a new generation.  Director Paul Feig combines all the paranormal fighting elements that made the original franchise so beloved with a cast of new characters, played by the funniest actors working today.

Review: Paul Feig has had a pretty good track record so far of crossing genres with comedy with female-centric films (The Heat, Spy), and while Ghostbusters follows in the same vein, it isn’t quite as successful a venture as his previous outings. The fault doesn’t lie on the female leads however, but to the script trying too hard to reference the original film at every turn. It’s still a relatively entertaining Summer film, but ends up feeling somewhat like a missed opportunity.

While this is a reboot of the 32-year old Ghostbusters, the clear difference is that instead of a team of male comedy actors, Feig has decided to go with a team of female comedy actors. It has created a rather vicious backlash but in my opinion (and this is coming from someone who literally grew up watching Ghostbusters multiple times) it doesn’t hurt the movie at all. McCarthy and Wiig both seem a little muted in their performances here, however, and though their friendship is positioned as being central to the plot, it actually ends up being a non-starter. Leslie Jones is unfortunately playing a rather stereotyped black character, but she does the best she could within the confines of the role. The true gem in the cast, however, is Kate McKinnon, and her portrayal as the eccentric Holtzmann brings some of the best lines and big laughs in the film. The four women also share an affable chumminess onscreen, and in spots where the script starts to sputter, the movie survives purely on the goodwill generated by the quartet’s presence.

One of the biggest challenges that Feig and co-writer Dippold probably dealt with for the remake is the amount of baggage that comes with rebooting a much beloved franchise, and in this aspect they are only moderately successful. There seems to be an over-insistence on making unnecessary references to the original Ghostbusters (including walk-on roles for almost every surviving cast member of the 1984 film), and it really does needlessly encumber the film in many aspects, right down to the soundtrack. Of course, audiences that have not seen the film’s predecessors would probably not have the same response.

Visual effects have of course vastly improved over the past three decades, but Feig seems to have also relied a little too much on CGI, and the finale especially is lost amidst a literal swirling mass of CG imagery, failing to resonate on most levels. It is quite a pity, since what made the original great weren’t the visual effects but the collective comedic strength of a bunch of very talented comedians. While it would have been an extremely tall order to surpass the original, this 2016 iteration of Ghostbusters could certainly have done better than it did. While the relatively entertaining end credits sequence and coda seems to leave the door open for a sequel, one wonders if the film would do well enough to justify one.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Angry Birds Movie

Genre: Animation

Directors: Fergal Reilly, Clay Kaytis

Screenplay: Jon Vitti, from a story by Mikko Polla, Mikael Hed, John Cohen

Voice Cast: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Peter Dinklage, Bill Hader, Maya Rudolph, Keegan-Michael Key, Sean Penn, Titus Burgess, Kate McKinnon, Ike Barinholtz, Hannibal Buress, Billy Eichner, Danielle Brooks, Tony Hale, Blake Shelton

Running Length: 97 minutes

Synopsis:  In The Angry Birds Movie, we finally find out why the birds are so angry. The movie takes us to an island populated entirely by happy, flightless birds – or almost entirely. In this paradise, Red (Jason Sudeikis), a bird with a temper problem, speedy Chuck (Josh Gad), and the volatile Bomb (Danny McBride) have always been outsiders. But when the island is visited by mysterious green piggies, it’s up to these unlikely outcasts to figure out what the pigs are up to.

Review: I could never have envisioned that a game like Angry Birds would be able to evolve into a somewhat engaging movie, but here we are with that exact result. While it’s not pushing any envelope or boundary in any meaningful way, The Angry Birds Movie is a pleasant enough distraction, certainly more suited for the younger audiences but not entirely without value for older audience members. It is obvious that the Angry Birds game and brand is past its prime, but the bright, colorful animation and a “leave no pun behind” script filled to the brim with terrible groaners (wordplay is something I personally always appreciate in any film) translates to quite an enjoyable if mindless cinematic experience.

The Angry Birds Movie features quite a number of A-listers in its voice cast, and everyone does a decent job at it, including an… interesting performance by Sean Penn consisting mostly of menacing grunts and odd noises. Narratively, the movie starts out pretty strong with its introduction of the various inhabitants on Bird Island, but loses steam rather quickly and has virtually flatlined by the time the pigs show up on the island. Fortunately, there’s a relatively interesting diversion where a number of birds go in search for the Mighty Eagle, which gives the proceedings a much needed boost in the film’s second half.

The movie also does a decent job in translating the gameplay mechanics into elements in the film, and the final reel’s mayhem and destruction truly mirror what goes on in the game. This is more than can be said of many videogame adaptations. Coupled with the manic script by The Simpsons alum Jon Vitti, and it’s certainly not difficult to find the movie an amusing one regardless of whether one is familiar with the Angry Birds franchise. It probably wouldn’t be enough to spawn a sequel (and in all honesty it shouldn’t), and offers no deep viewer experience akin to Inside Out and its Pixar alums, but it’s actually one of the more decent videogame adaptations I have seen in years.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Joy

Joy

 

Genre: Drama

Director: David O. Russell

Screenplay: David O. Russell, based on a story by Annie Mumolo and David O. Russell

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Rohm, Edgar Ramirez, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Diane Ladd, Dascha Polanco

Running Length:  124 minutes

Synopsis: Joy is the wild story of a family across four generations centered on Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence), the girl who becomes the woman who founds a business dynasty and becomes a matriarch in her own right. Betrayal, treachery, the loss of innocence and the scars of love, pave the road in this intense emotional and human comedy about becoming a true boss of family and enterprise facing a world of unforgiving commerce.

Review: If not for the interesting (true but heavily fictionalized) story of Joy Mangano and a riveting central performance by Jennifer Lawrence as the rags-to-riches businesswoman, Joy would have been a much more joyless affair to watch. This is David O. Russell’s first movie centred entirely on a female character, but Erin Brockovich this is not. It’s almost as though O. Russell is unable to make up his mind about how to go about making this “biopic” and the wild tonal and narrative shifts actually detract quite a bit from the cinematic experience.

The ensemble sequences and sprawling narrative in Joy don’t work as well as in O. Russell’s previous films, and his tendency of putting everyone in an enclosed space, shouting at one another really grates after a while. There are also odd surrealist moments that are absolutely unnecessary, jarring viewers out of the moment and probably scratching their heads in puzzlement. Even though many of O. Russell’s alumni make a return in the film, the sparks simply fail to fly in many of the interactions, because the characters are basically reduced to plot-forwarding caricatures this time round.

There is a glorious 30 minutes in Joy in which everything actually comes together, and that is the sequence which traces her first interaction with TV studio exec Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) to when she makes her first live pitch on QVC. Lawrence’s transformation from unsure inventor to QVC pitchwoman is indeed magical, and her performance really sells it very well. Jennifer Lawrence has established herself as one of the best young actresses around, and her credible and sympathetic turn as Joy Mangano is yet another feather in her cap, though it’s not her best performance thus far.

Unfortunately, after the high of the QVC sequence, the film never finds a sure footing again, with the denouement feeling uncharacteristically rushed (case in point – a haircut is the sole visual shorthand O. Russell employs to signify the change and growth of Joy in a pivotal scene) and somehow inconsequential. While still a sporadically entertaining film, Joy doesn’t measure up to the previous efforts of O. Russell and feels like a rare misstep for the director.

Rating: ** ½ (out of four stars)

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Burnt

Genre: Drama

Director: John Wells

Screenplay: Steven Knight

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Omar Sy, Daniel Bruhl, Riccardo Scamarcio, Sam Keeley, Alicia Vikander, Matthew Rhys, Uma Thurman, Emma Thompson, Lily James, Sarah Greene

Running Length: 100 minutes

Synopsis: Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) is a chef who destroyed his career with drugs and rock star behavior. He cleans up and returns to London, determined to redeem himself by spearheading a top restaurant that can earn him his third Michelin star.

Review: There’s a scene in Burnt where Bradley Cooper’s Adam expounds on why fast food is not given the credit he claims it deserves – and the answer is because they produce food that’s too consistent, and consistency is boring. The same, unfortunately, can be said of Burnt itself, as it comes across as a film that’s a little too generic and unmemorable as a whole.

It’s kind of a pity, especially since Bradley Cooper puts in a (by now) reliably solid performance, able to portray both the swaggering a-hole and the introspective, insecure ex-addict with aplomb and believability. However, his performance is let down by the middling script – the entire redemptive arc of Adam runs along an extremely predictable path, and anyone who’s seen a movie in the same mould (i.e. everyone) will not be surprised in any way, save for a single unexpected plot twist near the end of the film.

Also, for a film that deals in the rarefied world of haute cuisine, there’s surprisingly little attention paid to the food. While there are some aesthetically pleasing close-up shots of the dishes, the editing and montages generally feel too harried, with the camera rarely resting on any food shot for more than a second. This frenetic pace works better in a film like Chef, and ironically Chef actually pays more loving, measured attention to the food truck-style dishes than what Burnt does with its Michelin-star gourmet dishes.

While there are a good number of name actors in the film, they are generally given very little to do, with the only bright spark being Sienna Miller’s Helene, whose charming performance is a credible foil to Cooper. Other well-known faces like Emma Thompson and Uma Thurman feel criminally underused, serving more like props to help propel the plot along rather than actual characters. In the end, Burnt feels like a facsimile of a gourmet meal, one that will undoubtedly leave you feeling full, yet unsatisfied.   

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Our Sister Mambo

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Director: Ho Wi Ding

Screenplay: Michael Chiang

Cast: Moses Lim, Michelle Chong, Audrey Luo, Ethel Yap, Oon Shu An, Joey Leong

Running Length: 93 minutes

Synopsis: Set against the backdrop of modern Singapore, Our Sister Mambo follows the well-meaning efforts of the spritely second daughter, Mambo (Michelle Chong) to get her sisters – big sister Grace (Ethel Yap), third sister Rose (Oon Shu An) and baby sister June (Joey Leong) hitched, with hiccups and misunderstandings along the way. 

Review: Although it’s somewhat of a corporate vanity project, being Cathay Organisation’s celebratory film marking its 80th anniversary, Our Sister Mambo is a watchable film with relatively few awkward moments, though it does comes across as being too safe a filmmaking venture at times. 

Based loosely on two movies from Cathay’s stable of classic films, Our Sister Hedy and The Greatest Civil War of Our Time, Our Sister Mambo has a slew of plotlines, all revolving around the (mis)adventures of the Wong family, consisting of a genial patriarch (Moses Lim), a Korea-obsessed matriarch (Audrey Luo) and their four daughters. Mambo (Michelle Chong) is the narrator and ostensibly the core of the movie, but unfortunately her lawyer-to-chef storyline is the least interesting of the six family members. That’s not to say that the rest of the plotlines are necessarily that much more interesting – while Michael Chiang does his darnedest to weave the thin story threads together, there are literally no surprises to be had here. In fact, Our Sister Mambo frequently feels like an extended episode of an 80s or 90s TV sitcom, especially so since Moses Lim was, for many Singaporeans, part of essential TV viewing in the mid-90s as the head of the Tan family in Under One Roof. 

While there are multiple familial conflicts that unfold in Our Sister Mambo, there’s never the sense that anything is at stake, and the script is too eager to resolve each plotline and move on to the next, as though there’s an invisible checklist that Wi Ding and Chiang are marking off. There’s also a lot of wasted comedic talent in the film – while Moses Lim, Michelle Chong and even Siti Khalijah are rather heavyweight comedians, almost none of it is on display here, with all three playing their characters on the straight and narrow. 

What does manage to save the show are a slew of great performances from the cast, none more so than Audrey Luo. Although believability is a bit stretched with her being cast opposite Moses Lim despite being literally half his age, the duo shares a great chemistry. Audrey further ups the game with excellent comic timing, and is the main source of the laughs in the show. The four actresses playing the Wong daughters all do a relatively decent job, and it’s only Moses who is, surprisingly, the weak link, with nothing much to do in the show at all. 

Constrained by the need to shoehorn the film into Cathay’s 80th anniversary, the association does at times sit uncomfortably with the rest of the proceedings, but the awkwardness is kept to a minimum, and we are even treated to appearances by Cathay heavyweights Grace Chang and Maria Menado – though I must contest the indignity of the decision to cut away repeatedly from Grace Chang’s recorded video message to focus on a very inconsequential element of the plot. 

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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