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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Minions

Genre: Animation

DirectorS: Pierre Coffin, Kyle Balda

Screenplay: Brian Lynch

Voice Cast: Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Pierre Coffin, Michael Keaton, Alison Janney, Steve Coogan, Geoffrey Rush

Running Length: 91 minutes

Synopsis: Minions Stuart, Kevin and Bob (Pierre Coffin) are recruited by Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock), a super-villain who, alongside her inventor husband Herb (Jon Hamm), hatches a plot to take over the world.

Review: With the widespread (and totally understandable) popularity of the Minions, it was only a matter of time before they broke away from the Despicable Me franchise and became a standalone film. And make no mistake, this movie is catered specifically for Minions fans, which means it will do well enough at the box office, but is unlikely to win over any moviegoer who isn’t already enamoured with the yellow creatures.

The best part of the movie is the first half hour, in which we see the Minions serving various “bad guys” from prehistoric times until they go into a self-imposed exile after a disastrous stint with Napoleon. Although most of the sight gags have already been featured in the film’s trailer, but the inventiveness of the various skits still proves humorous despite having been revealed beforehand.

However, the rambling plot starts to unravel once the film moves into the 60s, where the trio of Minions Stuart, Kevin and Bob (all voiced by director Pierre Coffin) behave almost like the Three Stooges, trying their best to please their new master Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock in a very uninspiring, blasé vocal performance). Though it can be quite entertaining to watch their antics, the entire last hour of the film feels like a string of loosely connected skits rather than a coherent whole, and the eventual denouement feels almost like writer Brian Lynch was high on hallucinatory drugs.

Unlike Despicable Me and its sequel which had a bit of heart, this prequel completely lacks any brains or heart, and is enjoyable solely on a very superficial level. The film is bright and colourful and will certainly appeal to the key audience group of under-10s, and the 60s setting does inject a good number of musical numbers that would add some appeal to adult viewers. While it isn’t a bad movie in any way, there’s nothing really good about it either, and is instantly forgettable once the credits roll (do keep your 3D glasses on during the entire credits sequence to make it really worth the additional 3D price of entry).

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Pitch Perfect 2

Genre: Musical/Comedy

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Screenplay: Kay Cannon

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Skylar Astin, Anna Camp, Brittany Snow, Rebel Wilson, Ester Dean, Alexis Knapp, Hana Mae Lee, Adam DeVine, Kelley Jakle, Chrissie Fit, Hailee Steinfeld, Katey Sagal, Elizabeth Banks

Running Length: 114 minutes

Synopsis: After a disastrous wardrobe malfunction while performing for the President, the Barden Bellas, who are now three-time national champions, have fallen from grace and lost their mojo. Their only hope for redemption is to clinch the top spot at the World A Capella Championships, but they face their toughest battle yet against the formidable German team, Das Sound Machine.

Review: Don’t be fooled by the title – just like the original film, Pitch Perfect is actually a rather pitchy attempt. While Elizabeth Banks’ directorial debut is a perfectly credible one, the seams do show whenever the singing stops. Fortunately, there is a LOT of singing to be found in Pitch Perfect 2, and the astute choice of Banks and screenwriter Cannon to lavish more attention on characters like Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy makes the proceedings much easier to bear despite the near two-hour running time.

One of the bigger changes from the first Pitch Perfect is that the sequel is much more female-empowered, with virtually every male cast member relegated to the sidelines. There are two romantic subplots (which arguably take up too much screen time despite their affable conclusions) but it’s really all about the girls – this is a movie that passes the Bechdel test with flying colours.

Kay Cannon’s script is filled with great one-liners, mostly given to Rebel Wilson, who is a blast to watch in her expanded role, and also Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, who return as colour commentators Gail and John, letting rip one sexual innuendo after another. However, Cannon can be accused of trying to include too much in the script – while there are a good number of other plot threads, including Beca’s (Anna Kendrick) internship at a record label, a lot of it feels like filler and doesn’t particularly engage on any level. Bellas newcomer Hailee Steinfeld boasts a lot of charisma, but honestly she isn’t given too much to do, though it can be assured that she will be given a meatier role in the (inevitable) next installment of the franchise.

Much like Glee, the strength of the Pitch Perfect franchise lies not in the drama, but in the musical numbers. In this aspect Banks has managed to do an excellent job. Not only are most of the songs great selections, but whenever she puts together a music set piece it is almost always note perfect. While the performances of Das Sound Machine are all great, nothing beats the finale performance by the Bellas, featuring the song Flashlight (which, among others, includes Sam Smith and Sia as co-writers) and virtually guaranteed to leave one with goosebumps, forgiving almost all the flaws that have come before it.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Rubbers

Genre: Comedy

Director: Han Yew Kwang

Screenplay: Han Yew Kwang

Cast: Yeo Yann Yann, Julian Hee, Lee Chau Min, Marcus Chin, Catherine Sng, Alaric Tay, Oon Shu Ann

Running Length: 85 minutes

Synopsis: Three different stories revolving around condoms unfold on Valentine’s Day: in Balloons, the elderly Hua (Catherine Sng) considers divorcing her husband Niu (Marcus Chin) for his acts of infidelity with a prostitute; in Plumber, journalist Bao Ling (Yeo Yann Yann) hallucinates about a durian-flavoured condom coming to life (Lee Chau Min) and encouraging her to hook up with any man, including a plumber (Julian Hee) whom Bao Ling contacts out of desperation; and finally in Nightmare, condom-hating womanizer Adam Kok’s (Alaric Tay) fantasy with a Japanese AV actress Kawaii Momoko (Ong Shu Ann) comes to life, but at the same time he finds a condom attached to his genitals that he simply can’t remove.

Review: In a society as straight-laced as Singapore, a homegrown sex comedy is almost unheard of, so kudos to Han Yew Kwang for successfully bringing Rubbers to fruition. Boasting three non-intersecting storylines, the film is perhaps a little too ambitious in scope, and really may have fared better if Yew Kwang did not attempt to inject the film with so many disparate tonal styles and plotlines. Simply put, the contrasting styles of the three segments – realism (Balloons), magical realism (Plumber) and absurdist (Nightmare) – do not mesh that well together, especially when intercut with each other.

The good thing about Rubbers is that it does deliver the goods as a sex comedy. There are a handful of laugh-out-loud moments, although some of it does feel a little juvenile (most of which coming from Nightmare). What’s more impressive is that there are actually some tender scenes in the film that manage to elevate it to more than just a crass sex comedy, particularly in Balloons and in the denouement of Plumber. Yew Kwang has also successfully replicated the look and feel of a number of different genres of film in Rubbers, and the one I was most impressed with was a note-perfect “Asian horror” sequence that stars the director himself.

While Yann Yann is definitely the most high-profile actor in the cast, her performance is somewhat of a mixed bag, as her portrayal of Bao Ling ends up feeling a bit too caricaturish and scenery-chewing at times, which is somewhat exacerbated by the virtual non-acting of Julian Hee and the extremely out-of-place performance of Chau Min as the durian condom (to be fair, anyone would have been out of place in that rather thankless role). The other two pairings fare much better – Shu Ann steals the limelight in almost every scene she is in, and shares a great chemistry with Alaric, while Catherine and Marcus both hold their own, especially in a pivotal scene near the end of their tale.

Despite the R21 rating that Rubbers has received, apart from a few suggestive sequences and a number of cuss words, the film is actually visually rather PG, with nary any nudity or even implied sexual activity. It’s also an extremely localized film, with a lot of colloquialisms and Singapore-specific humour that will likely limit the film’s accessibility outside of its home nation. Though Rubbers is a somewhat uneven attempt, it works well as a palate cleanser amidst the heavier-hitting action blockbusters that are currently populating the cinemas, especially for audiences who are looking for a more light-hearted cinematic experience.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Unbroken

Genre: Drama

Director: Angelina Jolie

Screenplay: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, John Magaro, Luke Treadaway, Alex Russell, John D’Leo, Vincenzo Amato, Ross Anderson, C.J. Valleroy, Maddalena Ischiale

Running Length: 137 minutes

Synopsis: Unbroken is an epic drama that follows the incredible life of Olympian and war hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) who, along with two other crewmen, survived in a raft for 47 days after a near-fatal plane crash in WWII – only to be caught by the Japanese Navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.

Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s popular book, Unbroken brings to the big screen Zamperini’s unbelievable and inspiring true story about the resilient power of the human spirit.

Review: Unbroken is a very, very well-made film, excelling in its technical aspects and honestly quite an achievement for second-time director Jolie, who had embarked on making a second war-related movie after her little-seen directorial debut (2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey). However, the film also feels sterile and perfunctory, lacking heart and a deeper emotionality, despite an excellent performance by newcomer Jack O’Connell. And even though it already runs over two hours, there’s this sense of incompleteness, that there’s a bigger story to be told of what happened to Zamperini after his traumatic ordeal, which deserves more than a few seconds worth of title cards before the end credit crawl.

Louie Zamperini’s life story is an incredible one – in a short span of years, he goes from Olympic athlete to an army officer surviving a plane crash, being stranded almost fifty days at sea on a life raft, followed by more than two years of torture and suffering in various POW camps. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of Zamperini, Unbroken tells a mostly straight tale, but Jolie chooses not to touch on the lighter aspects of his life. Zamperini was a born leader and apparently devised ways to make life more bearable for himself and his fellow inmates, but this is not covered in the film at all. Jolie instead focuses almost entire on the brutality that Zamperini endured, which makes the narrative more one-sided than it should be. There’s also no redemptive arc in the film, even though it is a significant portion of the biography, which mutes the impact of Unbroken further.

Performances of the ensemble cast are almost uniformly good, with the exception being Miyavi, who plays Zamperini’s sadistic tormentor Mutsushiro “The Bird” Watanabe, who hams it up a little too much and becomes more caricaturish than truly evil. Jack O’Campbell is a relatively fresh face, but manages to take on both the physical and emotional aspects of the role well. It is a difficult role to undertake, but he manages to give an excellent performance, not just in the big moments, but even in the small nuances of action and movement in the quiet scenes.

Jolie had assembled a highly proficient team of technicians for Unbroken, from the Coen Brothers being involved in the script, to Alexandre Desplat for the scoring and Roger Deakins in cinematography. It all works admirably well, especially so for the stunning cinematography by Deakins (which has been aptly rewarded with a nomination in the upcoming Academy Awards), accompanied by excellent production design by Jon Hutman. However, she may still have bitten off a bit more than she could chew with Unbroken as a sophomore effort, resulting in a somewhat lopsided movie that does not sufficiently engage.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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