Joker

Genre: Drama

Director: Todd Phillips

Screenplay: Todd Phillips, Scott Silver

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp

Running Length:  122 minutes

Synopsis: Forever alone in a crowd, failed comedian Arthur Fleck seeks connection as he walks the streets of Gotham City. Arthur wears two masks – the one he paints for his day job as a clown, and the guise he projects in a futile attempt to feel like he’s part of the world around him. Isolated, bullied and disregarded by society, Fleck begins a slow descent into madness as he transforms into the criminal mastermind known as the Joker.

Review: It’s nearly impossible to really “enjoy” the viewing experience of Joker – Todd Philips’ origins story of the titular DC/Batman supervillain is unrelentingly grim and dark, and never eases up on the mood through its 2-hour running time. It’s a little too self-important for its own good (literally and ironically begging the iconic question from a previous iteration of the Joker: why so serious?), but remains an engrossing watch nonetheless, especially for Joaquin Phoenix’s very impressive performance as the Joker.

Heath Ledger’s menacing turn as the Joker stands as the defining portrayal of the murderous clown, but Joaquin Phoenix comes very close to supplanting that position. Given that there has never been a whole movie devoted to the Joker, Phoenix gets the upper hand in his ability to flesh out the character to a greater and deeper extent, though this is not always to his advantage.

It’s a very remarkable physical performance – Phoenix shed an enormous amount of weight for the role, and makes full use of his emaciated physicality, at times contorting himself into seemingly impossible positions. There’s a constant sense of his Arthur Fleck being slightly askew, both mentally and physically, and Phillips makes great use of this to present Fleck as an unreliable narrator going down an irreversible path. If one were to nitpick, however, it is too forceful a performance at times, when nuance and subtlety would have served the role better. Still, there is no doubt at this time that Phoenix will be one of the front runners come awards season early next year.

Joker also boasts excellent production design across the board. Set in 1981, the attention to “period” detail is immaculate, and the film is intentionally designed to have the look of early Scorsese films (particularly Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy, which Phillips borrows liberally from). I can unreservedly recommend watching Joker in IMAX, as the film fills the IMAX screen throughout, and is really the only format where one can appreciate the amazing cinematography by Lawrence Sher in its full glory.

Unfortunately, on the script front, Joker is somewhat more problematic. Ignoring the controversies that have arose prior to the film’s opening, where it was accused of glorifying violence (it doesn’t) and potentially leading to copycat behavior (highly unlikely outcome, honestly), Joker still has a rather lopsided script. While one can understand that the film needs to justify Fleck’s descent into depravity, there are times where the proceedings get a little too lopsided. The film veers dangerously close to parody at times, which is clearly an unintended effect. The entire subplot of Murray Franklin and his talk show doesn’t work for me – though it’s obviously an homage to De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, much of how this particular subplot unravels is an anachronistic “cheat”, allowing a video to “go viral” in the days where there is no such thing as the World Wide Web. That it eventually becomes one of the most important plot threads simply exacerbates matters.

Despite its flaws, Joker still warrants a trip to the cinema – it’s a visceral, uncompromising film with a very powerful central performance that may not necessarily be something easy to watch, but assuredly will be a movie experience that will stay with you for quite some time to come.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Genre: Drama

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning, Damon Herriman, Austin Butler, Emile Hirsch, Scoot McNairy, Luke Perry, Al Pacino, Nicholas Hammond, Spencer Garrett, Mike Moh, Lena Dunham, Damian Lewis, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Zoë Bell, James Marsden, Michael Madsen, James Remar, Brenda Vaccaro          

Running Length: 159 minutes

Synopsis: A faded TV actor and his stunt double embark on an odyssey to make a name for themselves in the film industry during the Helter Skelter reign of terror in 1969 Los Angeles.

Review: It’s been ten years (in my opinion at least) since the last truly great Quentin Tarantino movie (Inglorious Basterds), but with Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, QT is once again back on top with an excellent piece of filmmaking, particularly so for anyone who considers themselves movie lovers. Given Tarantino’s encyclopedic knowledge and passion of film, it’s little wonder why Once Upon a Time feels so passionate and intimate – this is Tarantino’s love letter to old Hollywood, a sprawling, highly enjoyable cinematic experience that ranks amongst the best in 2019.

It’s hard to actually define Once Upon A Time, because it’s so many things all at the same time. Much of the film is structured like a road movie, following fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double cum driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) over a weekend in February 1969. There are however quite a number of diversions, the most important ones being two subplots that focuses on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Cliff’s crossing of paths with the Manson family. For those who are unacquainted with the Manson family Tate murders, it will definitely serve you well to do a bit of reading up beforehand.

Both DiCaprio and Pitt are great in their roles as (essentially) losers, which is about as against type as possible for these two golden boys of Hollywood, but they are so eminently watchable that the at-times long and rambling nature of the film almost ceases to matter. I would say “almost”, because the film will wear thin the patience of any audience member that doesn’t appreciate the general lack of a narrative focus. However, there is usually enough going on at any one point in the movie, with a good number of comedic and surprising moments that it doesn’t ever feel like a slog. In fact, the film is easily one of the funniest this year, and while it defies easy categorization, it won’t be wrong to consider much of the two-plus hour movie to be a comedy. It also helps that the entire cast, from big star cameos to smaller bit roles, are consistently excellent and leave deep impressions regardless of the length of their presence in the film.

However, the true star of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino and his production crew. In an era where everything is digital, QT decided to shoot in film instead (sadly, Singapore will not be playing host to either the 35mm or 70mm film prints), and working with master cinematographer Robert Richardson and an excellent production design team, what unfolds onscreen is probably one of the most hyper-realistic depictions of 60’s Hollywood (apart from, of course, actual 60’s Hollywood). Attention has been lavished on every period detail, and the love that QT has for the era is clear and present in every frame.

We must end this review by touching on the final reel of Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood, even though it is something that’s best experienced without any prior spoilers. Suffice to say that it takes a lot to surprise a jaded cinemagoer like myself, but I was well and truly very (pleasantly) surprised by how the final act of the film unspooled. Kudos to Tarantino for having the audacity to execute such a bold denouement – I genuinely cannot think of any other director with both the vision and the ability to successfully pull it off, which pretty much explains why he obtained a six-minute standing ovation after the film’s premiere at Cannes earlier this year.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

 

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A Star Is Born

Genre: Drama

Director: Bradley Cooper

Screenplay: Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters, based on a story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos, Andrew Dice Clay, Michael Harney

Running Length:135 minutes

Synopsis: A Star is Born stars four-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper and multiple award-winning, Oscar-nominated music superstar Lady Gaga, in her first leading role in a major motion picture. Cooper helms the drama, marking his directorial debut.

In this new take on the tragic love story, he plays seasoned musician Jackson Maine, who discovers – and falls in love with – struggling artist Ally (Lady Gaga). She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer, until Jack coaxes her into the spotlight. But even as Ally’s career takes off, the personal side of their relationship is breaking down, as Jack fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons.

Review: It’s easy to see why the word “Oscar” is being bandied around in almost every review of A Star is Born. While this is the story’s third cinematic iteration, it is easily the best, far outclassing Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson’s take 42 (!) years ago. Retaining the music industry setting of the ’76 film but updating the content to reflect a much more current sensibility, A Star is Born is surprising in first-time director Bradley Cooper’s assured helming. Coupled with excellent chemistry between Cooper and Gaga and equally impressive performances from both, a relatable storyline, and some truly well-produced musical numbers, the film has transformed what seemed like a low-key romantic melodrama with a few familiar faces into a full-blown frontrunner for awards season.

Much of the charm of the film lies in the leads. Bradley Cooper disappears into the role, and while he plays the part of an alcoholic, the performance is restrained and authentic, with minimal theatrics and thus allows the audience to identify with his character easily. Lady Gaga also impresses in her acting debut, giving a heartfelt and believable performance (particularly pre-fame Ally), faring much better than many pop stars that attempt to cross over to the acting world. What’s more important is that the narrative requires the leads to have an almost instant chemistry and connection, and Cooper and Gaga have chemistry in spades.

This being Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, what he had achieved here is impressive. Not only does he deftly handle the varied elements in the film – big and small musical set-pieces, low key romantic sequences and melodramatic scenes – but not once does he lose control of the narrative, and the end result is a film that’s wistfully melodramatic without ever being over the top. It has also been many years since I’ve seen a film that deals with alcoholism so matter-of-factly, never shying away from the seedier, unsavory aspects that the addiction brings, almost reminiscent of the seminal Leaving Las Vegas.

Music will also make or break a film like this one, and again in this aspect A Star Is Born scores very highly. It’s a given that Lady Gaga would excel in her performances, but surprisingly Cooper can also hold a tune and totally looks the part of a rock star on the decline. There are some very catchy songs included in the soundtrack, which ranges from country-rock to pop, and should see extended airplay.

In some ways, A Star is Born is a movie that feels like a throwback to the older, grander days of cinema, where it doesn’t take much more than a heartfelt story and committed performances from the actors to deliver a film that actually makes one feel something. Little wonder that it has resonated well with audiences, and potentially will stand the test of time (at least, far better than Barbra’s version).

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

 

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Star Wars – The Last Jedi

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Rian Johnson

Screenplay: Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupit Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro          

Running Length: 152 minutes

Synopsis: Rey develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of Luke Skywalker, who is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares to do battle with the First Order.

Review: Now that we’re at the halfway mark of the six planned Star Wars movies, it’s time to put together a report card for the franchise, and take stock of both the new movie and the overarching Star Wars cinematic universe. It’s a mix of good and bad news – while it’s certain that The Last Jedi would be a winner at the box office, it also comes across as the most inconsequential film so far, surprisingly so especially considering that it follows last year’s Rogue One, a story that literally had a scorched earth denouement to ensure its characters would not “taint” the canonical Episodic installments. Although it aims high for its emotional impact, The Last Jedi ultimately comes across as being a bit hollow, despite the luxury of having the longest running time of any Star Wars movie so far.

While The Force Awakens understandably had to slavishly stick to the original trilogy’s canon, it was also the reason why the film felt like it didn’t manage to meet its full potential. Unfortunately, The Last Jedi continues this trend and feels like a reboot of The Empire Strikes Back, and while it will continue to please fans of the franchise, I am not sure that three movies in, audiences would be as forgiving of the flaws found in The Last Jedi. The three key plot threads are haphazardly woven together, and there’s so much padding in the middle of the film that I for one wished the film was cut down to a more manageable length, where digressions need not seem to go on interminably (particularly egregious is the entire sojourn onto the casino planet Canto Bight) before focus resumes on what truly matters.

All is almost forgiven in the final third of the film, where the plot thread involving Kylo Ren, Rey and Luke Skywalker comes to a head, and everything that makes Star Wars great is present and accounted for – rousing space battles, an amazing lightsaber confrontation, startling character revelations and plot twists – and enhanced further by truly breathtaking visuals and an excellent performance from Adam Driver (Daisy Ridley seems to be coasting on her far stronger turn in The Force Awakens). If only it didn’t take so long to get there.

Star Wars is so firmly ingrained in our culture that it is impossible to not feel the thrill when the opening title card crawls into the horizon, accompanied by John Williams’ iconic cinematic score. It is very hard to squander away the goodwill accumulated over 40 years (as evidenced by Episodes I to III), and The Last Jedi is still largely a triumph, ranking in the upper echelons of the Star Wars cinematic universe. Rian Johnson has crafted a technically excellent film in the franchise, but again it seems the collective financial expectations put on such an important film has made it impossible for him to stray too far from the tried and tested. While there is a chance that Episode IX would be able to take the story down a path less travelled, it does seem increasingly unlikely. The sequels now feel more like reboots of the original trilogy, and though that’s really not a bad thing, one wonders now if what George Lucas said is true – the reason why he didn’t move forward with Episodes VII to IX himself was because there were no stories left to tell.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Fifty Shades Darker

Genre: Drama

Director: James Foley

Screenplay: Niall Leonard, adapted from the novel by E. L. James

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, Marcia Gay Harden, Kim Basinger, Bella Heathcote, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Eloise Mumford, Max Martini, Victor Rasuk, Robinne Lee, Bruce Altman, Fay Masterson, Andrew Airlie

Running Length:  118 minutes

Synopsis: Daunted by the singular tastes and dark secrets of the handsome, tormented young entrepreneur Christian Grey, Anastasia Steele has broken off their relationship to start a new career with a Seattle Independent Publishing House (SIP); but desire for Christian still dominates her every waking thought, and when he proposes a new arrangement, Anastasia cannot resist. They rekindle their searing sexual affair, and Anastasia learns more about the harrowing past of her damaged, driven and demanding Fifty Shades.

Review: The biggest offense that Fifty Shades Darker commits isn’t that it’s a juvenile, teenage-girl fantasy of a film, or that the leads look great but seem to have virtually no thespian talent to speak of, or that the storyline is nothing short of ridiculous… It’s that the movie is terribly, terribly bland. It’s near impossible to feel vested in any of the characters because of how vanilla and uninteresting they are, and none of the plot’s few twists and turns are worth vesting more than a moment’s thought. It’s not like there was a depth to the source material that failed to make the translation to the silver screen, but it’s kind of surreal how completely lacking in edge a movie that’s supposed to be about S&M is.

Picking up right where Fifty Shades of Grey left off, we are reintroduced to the dewy-eyed Anastasia Steel (Dakota Johnson), who’s secretly still pining for, and eventually rejoined, with the dashing Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), despite his pervy predilections in the bedroom. And yet, the numerous sex scenes in Fifty Shades Darker barely quickens one’s pulse, much less come across as being an accurate portrayal of deviant sex. At least the actors seemed to enjoy the process, and Dakota Johnson can add “perfected O-face” to her resume.

The second film in a trilogy will almost always suffer from middle child syndrome, having no proper start and no proper ending, and this is of course the case in Fifty Shades Darker. There’s no resolution to the major plot points, and the limp attempt at creating a cliffhanger for Fifty Shades Freed does not impress either. Having not read the source novels in their entirety, it is hard to tell if the flaws in Fifty Shades Darker are merely literal translations from page to screen, or if it’s something that’s native to the film.

However, the film does boast a very ear-friendly soundtrack with a slew of famous performers attached to it, and even though the settings are wildly unrealistic (how Anastasia can afford such a huge apartment on an editorial assistant’s paycheck is a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes), it certainly is a rather aesthetically pleasing film to look at (lead actors included). Thankfully.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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Arrival

Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Screenplay: Eric Heisserer, based on the short story “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma

Running Length:  116 minutes

Synopsis: Taking place after alien crafts land around the world, an expert linguist is recruited by the military to determine whether they come in peace or are a threat.

Review: Arrival is a revelation in more ways than one – not only is it another feather in Denis Villeneuve’s increasingly crowded cap, it’s also Amy Adams’ best performance of her career so far, almost certain to score her another Academy Award nomination (and likely her first win), and one of the smartest sci-fi movies to hit the theatres in quite some time.

What’s truly refreshing about Arrival is how it bravely defies almost every single cliché of alien movies, and nothing will play out like what most audiences think they would. The trailers may seem to have given the plot away, but rest assured that there are plenty of surprises still to be had. To discuss more about the plot would be spoilerly, but trust that your mind will be thoroughly screwed (and possibly blown) by the time the credits roll.

Amy Adams has turned in solid work throughout her career, but this is certainly a defining moment for her. She is understated but nuanced, and manages to convey a complexity of emotions with minimal theatrics. In Arrival the lead performance is critical to the success of the film, and while supporting characters like Renner and Whitaker are perfectly fine, Adams is what turns the film into a superlative experience.

Denis Villeneuve has impressed time and again with his films, but Arrival manages to achieve the perfect balance of a cerebral film that still has mainstream appeal. While the pace might come across as ponderous to some, his patience in letting the audience slowly take to the engaging story of Arrival is why the film packs such a punch eventually. Add to the fact that the film is beautifully lensed by Bradford Young and accompanied by a spare, haunting score by Johann Johansson, and the result is hardly surprising – a film that is immediately one of the best of this new year, an instant classic, and warrants a repeat viewing on the big screen to take all its minutiae in.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)

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The Age of Shadows

Genre: Drama

Director: Kim Jee Woon

Screenplay: Lee Ji-min, Park Jong-dae

Cast: Song Kang-ho, Gong Yoo, Han Ji-min, Park Hee-soon, Um Tae-goo, Shin Sung-rok, Shingo Tsurumi, Park Hee-soon, Seo Young-joo, Han Soo-yeon, Yoo Jae-sang, Lee Soo-kwang, Kim Dong-young, Lee Byung-hun

Running Length:  141 minutes

Synopsis: Set in the late 1920s, The Age of Shadows follows the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds between a group of resistance fighters trying to bring in explosives from Shanghai to destroy key Japanese facilities in Seoul, and Japanese agents trying to stop them. A talented Korean-born Japanese police officer, who was previously in the independence movement himself, is thrown into a dilemma between the demands of his reality and the instinct to support a greater cause.

Review: After a three-year hiatus, director Kim Jee Woon makes a big budget return to the big screen with The Age of Shadows, a slick, stylish and somewhat overblown spy thriller set in the 1920s. While there are some top-notch set pieces, the story is almost impossible to make head or tail of, involving more twists and turns than one can shake two fists at, and additionally hampered if one needs to read the subtitles. However, it remains an engaging film throughout its 2-plus hour running time, and for fans of his recent work in Train to Busan, Gong Yoo turns in another decent performance, though Song Kang-ho is the true star here.

While the entire film is handsomely lensed, Kim Jee Woon manages to outdo himself in the setup of a number of set pieces, none more evident than the extended sequence on the train (zombie-free), in which Kang-ho’s Jung-chool traverses multiple times through the train, his loyalties seemingly being tested and changing constantly, the tension ratcheting up multiple times till an almost unbearable degree, finally culminating in an expected but still shockingly violent conclusion. The opening sequence comes a close second, in which an expertly choreographed chase resembles almost like a ballet more so than a squad of policemen chasing down their quarry. It’s all extremely impressive camera and editing work, further enhanced by an excellent soundtrack.

However, the dense plot threatens to derail (ahem) The Age of Shadows at times, and this is a movie that heavily punishes any lapse in attention – even without any distractions, one might find difficulty in following the labyrinthine plot. This does the film no favours, especially when one of the weakest characterizations is that of Japanese police chief Hashimoto, a one-dimensional villain that fails to convince, posing zero moral ambiguity and hence a certainty to Jung-chool’s character arc and his decisions along the way despite being the film’s main focus. While these do prevent the film from reaching greater heights, there’s no denying that The Age of Shadows is easily one of the best Korean films I’ve seen in a while, and certainly explains why South Korea chose this to be their entry for the Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards this year.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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