Review: Ip Man 4: The Finale (2019) A Rousing Finale Befitting a Kungfu Master

Back in 2015, I sat beside a Malay lady in a darkened cinema anticipating for Ip Man 3 to begin and I was curious to find out if she had wandered into the wrong cinema. I remember asking: “You like Ip Man?” Her reply was an animated affirmative. When the movie ended, she was sniffling away, tears glistening in her eyes. In that moment I felt proud to be a Chinese. I looked up and noticed something – there was even an Indian couple among the audience. That was when I realised that there is a universality to Ip Man and in him we see the embodiment of the best of Asian values.

12 years a martial arts exponent, 4 movies, 3 spin-offs and it all comes to a rousing end. No, there’s no coda suggesting a forced extension of a successful franchise; there’s no passing of the mantle. Instead, there’s a finality to everything. There’s no more dignified way for a hero’s exit than this. Leaving the cinema, teary-eyed, I realised 12 years have whizzed by.

Ip Man 4 finds our eponymous Wing Chun hero receiving some bad news, which set up a chain of events that will make Ip Man (Donnie Yen)  journey to San Francisco (in real life it never happened). There, he will hook up with his disciple Bruce Lee (Kwok-Kwan Chan) and look for a school for his wayward son, Ip Ching. He will need a recommendation letter from Chinese Benevolent Association chairman Wan Zonghua (Wu Yue) who is a Taichi master. Ip doesn’t look for trouble, but trouble will find him in the form of the Taichi master and white racists who detest Chinese martial arts but somehow are alright with Japanese karate.

Ip Man 4 reunites director Wilson Yip Wai-shun with action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, and tells a rather unnecessary and contrived story. You know when a martial arts franchise is running out of ideas when the action centres on caucasians, worse when you see the foreigners try to speak mandarin.Thankfully, the appearance of caucasians don’t feel out of place here and no one tries to speak mandarin, but they do get the short end of the stick with convenient heavy-handed racist white-wash. 

But seriously, nobody goes to see a Ip Man movie looking for a compelling story. From the previous movie in which Donnie Yen fought Mike Tyson, you know a plausible plot is no longer important. One goes to a Ip Man movie to see Donnie Yen, with a mien of pacificism, wipe the floor with arrogant martial arts exponents who think Wing Chun is a joke. In this aspect, the movie hits a home run. The fights are gorgeously choreographed. Every entry has a few memorable fights and I am sure at this point you are already visualising the “I want to fight ten” dojo fight, the round table top fight with Sammo Hung, the 3-minute Mike Tyson one and for me, the staircase fight with the Muay Thai fighter. This final film has some memorable fights with a Taichi master, a karate master and a crazy drill sergeant played by Scott Adkins who seems to be channeling the one in Full Metal Jacket. It is a memorable final fight that juxtaposes brute strength with graceful agility. One already knows who will come up tops, but it is still a thrill to see it.

The franchise knows Donnie Yen, cutting a figure of humility and superhuman fighting ability, is the main focus, so much so that Bruce Lee is relegated to one pedestrian street brawl, a demonstration of the one-inch punch and the two-finger push-up. The role fits Donnie Yen to a T and it made him a global superstar. Quiet and understated in nature, Ip Man doesn’t scream jingoistic slogans, but when there is a need to educate the masses in Chinese pride, he is the perfect teacher.

Not counting the TV series, there are three actors who have played the Wing Chun grandmaster, but the role belongs to Donnie Yen. Ip Man 4 may feel unnecessary, but just to be given a chance to see Ip go mano a mano against other kungfu masters, I totally embraced it. The story here may be contrived, the plot predictable and the characters crudely drawn, but when the camera is on the titular hero, he fills the frame with his quiet humility and resolute spirit. He will be sorely missed.

Rating: 3,5 / 5

Written by Daniel Chiam.

The Best Films of 2019

We all live in our little self-important worlds with the internet making us feel our world is much bigger than it actually is. IMHO, movies are windows, giving us a unique empathetic view of the outside world. As a movie begins in a darkened cinema hall, we see the world through the eyes of another person, living vicariously through him or her. We can float in space, know how a serial killer thinks, understand why freedom is worth dying for. If a film is good, it is an out-of-body experience like no other and they have the power to make you want to become a better person.

It’s the end of another year and it’s time to look back to come up with a list of best films. “Best Films” you say, I hear you proclaim through gritted teeth. What constitutes “best” vary from person to person, and cinephiles are the most opinionated folks. Before you start to say “what’s this sh*t” because your favourite movie isn’t on the list or it should be higher up on the list, remember this is just a list, my list. My best films of the year may not cater to the tastes of the mainstream and as far as possible I have explained why I like them and why they deserved to be on my top 10. 

10. One Cut of the Dead

How much you will enjoy this depends on whether you could sit through the first 37 minutes. This first act is still reasonably entertaining but it isn’t anything you have seen in other better zombie flicks. Pay attention to every madcap shenanigan and pat yourself on the back for thinking you can probably do better if you were the director. You will revisit the bad film and see it in a different light in the final act. The results are rip-roaringly hilarious. I laughed till my tears rolled down. Indie filmmaker Shinichiro Ueda has pulled off an amazing feat here. The movie subverts all my expectations, crosses the finishing line with finesse and lands up in a heartwarming embrace. Above all, One Cut of the Dead works as an ode to the art of genre filmmaking and the passion in making this film lingers in every frame, including the first 37 minutes.

9. Still Human

Anthony Wong plays a paralegic and he is so amazing he chews up the scenes he is in without breaking a sweat. The acting is so organic and authentic, you won’t feel he is reading from a script. It feels like he ad-libbed the scenes. Playing opposite him is a newcomer who plays the Filipino caregiver. She is equally convincing and in her I see the embodiment of all female foreign helpers who are living away from home to ply an honest living. It plays out like a comedy of manners as the two of them struggle to find a common ground. Still Human hits the funny bone and by golly… grab your emotional heart, filling it with so much human warmth that you burst out in tears. The movie shows you that even a paraplegic and a domestic helper have dreams. How they help each other to realise their dream and aspiration is a great life lesson.

8. Fagara

Fagara doesn’t rush out of the blocks to tell its heartfelt story. The director allows the newly-acquainted half-sisters to live and breathe, filling the scenes they are in with authenticity and authority. It is a well-crafted story of three half-sisters looking back into their painful pasts in order to venture forward into their futures with revitalised hope. These are not soft and malleable women; they are their own women, owing no explanations for the paths they have chosen in life, giving the movie a wonderful freshness, relevance and clarity. It is filled with many nuances and it allows you the time to tease out its narrative subtleties on your own. Instead of ramming into your solar plexus, it gracefully touches you with its strong flavours and deep reds and browns.

7. Guang

Guang is a semi-autobiographical piece of work and the director’s own high-functioning autistic brother appears during the end-credits. Movies like this can become cloying very fast, but Guang remains steadfast and never goes down the road of syrupy sentimentality for the first two acts. By the third act I already gave it a free pass to do the worst to me, and I have to say every tear was earned. There are many movies out there that thrill, make us laugh, scare us, turn us into softies, but you can count on the fingers of probably one hand the few movies in a year that make you understand the impaired person and make you want to become a better person. Guang is the first movie I have seen this year in this latter category.

6. So Long, My Son

The plot of So Long, My Son does not unfold in chronological order and characters’ motivations are not explained in clarity, but we are in the hands of a great storyteller who lets the scenes breathe and the characters flourish. In the end, the Chinese tight-lipped stoicism melts away, the why is explained and the rendering is cathartic. The themes of guilt, forgiveness and acceptance are prevalent in dramas, but in the hands of Wang Xiaoshuai they come like a tsunami of feels. “Less is more” is an axiom that is never easy to achieve without making a movie feel pretentious, So Long, My Son exemplifies it and makes it look easy.

5. Toy Story 4

If Toy Story 1 – 3 is about Andy’s story, Toy Story 4 is the culmination of Woody’s story. What a fitting ending for a character who lives for his kid. He has come full circle and he truly deserves his walk into the sunset with his love. If Toy Story 1- 3 is about the theme of letting go, then this is about moving on. Sometimes there comes a time you have to think about yourself. Toy Story 4 deeply encapsulates all these human feelings in an authenticity that hits the spot.

4. Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach has crafted a family drama that is masterful, giving us an intimate look at the destruction of a marriage, the legal minefield and the emotional devastation. The principal cast, down to even the supporting cast, lay down a high watermark. It is able to find nuances and dark humour in surprising places. Baumbach’s love for Charlie and Nicole shines like a lighthouse in a perilous stormy night, guiding us to the safety of the shore. Marriage Story is the work of a storyteller at the top of his game. 

3. The Irishman

Nobody makes mobster movies like Martin Scorsese. The Irishman is a class reunion of all the noteworthy actors who played gangsters in this century. For a movie that is over 3 hours, it doesn’t feel bloated. There is a lot of talk about trucking, steaks, punctuality, painting houses, fish, guns and f-bombs and the likes thrown around like punctuations. For over 3 hours I entered a nefarious world of wise guys, but it’s a fascinating world that has honour and betrayal. The canvas is huge and Scorsese paints like Michaelangelo. 

2. For Sama

For Sama is a love letter “written” by a mother for her baby daughter Sama (it means sky in Arabic). It documents her confessional hope for Syria and the battle-ravaged city of Aleppo. It is a 100-minute documentary of unflinching horror and the senselessness of war, made with the sheer passion of a rebel and the undying love of a mother, wanting her daughter to understand why she continued to live in a city when they could die at any moment. I have seen my fair share of war movies. In my humble opinion, For Sama dwarfs them all in terms of honesty and authenticity. No amount of gloss, sugarcoating and emotional manipulation can reproduce the fervid wallop the film sends to your very core. Sama may be too young to understand the film, but not us. This is essential viewing and a strong contender for Best Documentary of the Year.

1. Parasite

The gold standard of any satire is the ability to turn the camera inwards at the audience making them aware they have been essentially laughing at themselves for two hours. Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winner Parasite ticks all the boxes and it is a biting social satire of lurid lengths and vivid highs. Parasite is one wicked bridge linking two ends of the wealth divide. Bong successfully makes us see the issue from both sides and our sympathies continue to waver from end to end. Most directors will make us choose sides and elicit hate. Not here, Bong makes us pity them. He keeps the darkly comic perversities and desperate acts coming at such a brisk pace that you barely realise it has shifted gears. Bong has crafted a cynical treatise on the moral and ethical decline of a modern Korean society and a cautionary tale of the love for money.

Honorable Mention

Knives Out, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, Ad Astra, The Farewell, Border, Dragged Across Concrete, Midsommar, Pain and Glory, Us, Joker, Dolemite is My Name, Wet Season, Blinded by the Light, Ready or Not

On the TV series front, I have enjoyed these: 

Kingdom, Chernobyl, The World Between Us, The Boys, Hotel Del Luna. Out of all these the biggest stand-out is The World Between Us, a Taiwanese series.

The story of The World Between Us is inspired by “The Little Light Bulb” incident in 2016 where a man suffering from schizophrenia beheaded a young girl in broad daylight in Taiwan. The title in Chinese, 我们与恶的距离, literally translates to The Distance Between Us and Evil. A young man shot and killed unsuspecting cinema-goers while a movie is being screened.

The story picks up 2 years later when the man is waiting for the death sentence to be carried out, and the fates of his family, the victims’ families and the family of the defense lawyer intertwine into a perfect storm of catharsis and pathos. Over 10 episodes, the series offers no pat answers, instead it provides incisive observations on love, suffering and societal ills. It is full of subtle fluctuations and evolving graduations between characters caught in dire situations. Its power emanates from the absorbing performances of characters duelling between wanting to punish, wanting to seek redemption and everything in between. Filled with so many life lessons, vagaries of kind acts and the vastitude of love, The World Between Us is a must-see. There are no convenient broad strokes, no pat contrivances and no Hollywood-styled walk into the sunset, but yet all the characters experience their little victories in a heartbreaker of a coda that brought tears to our eyes. The idea that small acts make a difference is touching, especially in today’s irony-soaked global hamlets.

There are many TV series out there vying for your attention, but there are not many that will make you understand life and society more. The point of the game is not to watch all of them, but to watch the great ones. This is a great one. This one will give you new lenses to see the world and its inhabitants with. Don’t. Miss. This.

Written by Daniel Chiam.

Review: Parasite (2019) A Biting Social Satire

Social satires are tricky business. Their primary job is to skewer deeply seated social stigmas, but rarely are they funny. Most directors know only one way to get the message across: ram the idea into your head. It takes an informed storyteller to milk it differently. The gold standard of any satire is the ability to turn the camera inwards at the audience making them aware they have been essentially laughing at themselves for two hours. Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winner Parasite ticks all the boxes and it is a biting social satire of lurid lengths and vivid highs.

The Kims live in a dinghy sub-basement dwelling and work odd jobs to make ends meet. Then Ki-woo (Choi Woo-sik), the eldest son, is asked to fake his credentials to take over his friend’s job as a tuition teacher. His student Da-hye (Jung Ji-so) is the daughter of a wealthy man, Mr Park (Lee Sun-kyun). Soon, Ki-woo manages to hoodwink Mrs Park (Jo Yeo-jeong) into employing his sister Ki-jung (Park So-dam) as a child psychologist for Mrs Park’s hyperactive young son. Before long, the father Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) and mother Choong-sook (Jang Hye-jin) also come under the employ of the Parks without the Parks realising that they are all related. All this will set in motion a series of events that will change the fortunes of both families.

This is a return to form for Bong after his dalliance with Hollywood (Snowpiercer and Okja) which didn’t yield great results in my opinion. His Korean outputs fare far better. Bong’s movies defy easy pigeonholing. Saying The Host (2006) is a monster movie is conveniently forgetting it is a tragically funny study of a dysfunctional family and a fierce critique of society’s blatant environmental carelessness. Classifying Memories of Murder (2003) under the mystery tag is sweeping its searing tone of an entire nation’s ineptitude and apathy under the carpet. Parasite pulls off a high-wire act of balancing so many societal elements without diminishing the gravity of the situation.

When the movie opens, the two siblings of the Kim family are trying to access the wifi of their above neighbours who have finally set a password to stop the leech-ers. Yes, there are freeloaders in every sense of the word, but they are our freeloaders. The Kims are lovable grifters, thinking that society owes them one. They feel justified in doing shoddy work even if it’s an odd job like folding pizza boxes. A warped sense of justice and entitlement binds them and they feel they are totally justified to break the rules to survive.

Bong’s first grand feat here is making us laugh at them and in so doing at ourselves. I don’t know about you, but I am pretty sure we all know people like them albeit in a smidgen sort of way. The Kims aren’t portrayed as punching bags to be cut down at will. There is a certain likeable quality they possessed that you wish existed in your family. Just look at how the dad comment on Ki-jung’s photoshop forgery skills and feel the admiration course through the family members’ veins. Before long, you won’t be laughing at them; you will be laughing with them.

The tone is deftly handled throughout the first act and I found myself sinking comfortably into my seat laughing at the absurdity of it all. I thought I have finally figured out the track the movie is taking. Then with a doorbell in the dead of a rainy night, everything changes. I am going to do you a favour by keeping my mouth shut about the plot from this moment on.

Parasite is one wicked bridge linking two ends of the wealth divide. Bong successfully makes us see the issue from both sides and our sympathies continue to waver from end to end. Most directors will make us choose sides and elicit hate. Not here, Bong makes us pity them. He keeps the darkly comic perversities and desperate acts coming at such a brisk pace that you barely realise it has shifted gears.

The cinematography is stunning, bringing forth the stark juxtaposition of the level of both parties’ station. I have a feeling a huge amount of the budget went into the construction of the Parks’ mansion. The minimalistic magnificence is at once cold but arresting. The intruding camera weaves through the labyrinth like it was capturing the skeletal remains of a blue whale.

Everything culminates in a furious climax where you will start to ponder who deserves to live and die. Perhaps the only weak spot is the rushed falling action where Bong ties up all the loose ends in a brisk clip, but it’s a good thing Bong saves one more gut punch right in the end that brings everything to a lyrical closure. It is not quite a hopeful end which would be patronising, but more of a delusional bent on everything.

Bong has crafted a cynical treatise on the moral and ethical decline of a modern Korean society and a cautionary tale of the love for money. Heck! I think it is an exact mirror image of my Singaporean society who also takes no prisoners. These days working hard doesn’t necessarily equate to eventual success anymore. Parasite feels like the middle finger to our current state of affairs.

Rating: 5 / 5

Written by Daniel Chiam.

Review: Marriage Story (2019) A Devastating Break-up of the Poignant Kind

The thought that their marriage will crumble down the road never once invades the minds of any newly-weds. Every couple walks into a marriage with their hearts full and both eyes clear on the future. Among my close friends, I have seen three divorces. One friend was keeping a stack of receipts on the advice of his lawyer. Another has his wrapped up in a long-drawn tussle between the Lawyers that stretched for a few years. I notice the only winners are the lawyers. I myself have been through a couple of break-ups and I don’t think back on them fondly. Most times, I wished them to have a fun time rotting in their private hell. I am sure the feeling is mutual. Netflix’s Marriage Story is a keenly observed and incisive study on the breakdown of a marriage and it is a timely one. It’s this millennium’s Kramer vs Kramer (1979) without the schmaltz.

The movie opens with a heartfelt voice-over. An avant garde theatre director and soon-to-be ex-husband Charlie (Adam Driver) shares what is so unique about his soon-to-be ex-wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson):

“She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things. She really listens when somebody is talking. Sometimes she listens too much for too long. She’s a good citizen. She always knows the right thing to do when it comes to difficult family shit. I get stuck in my ways and she knows when to push me and when to leave me alone…..”

The table turns and we are privy to what Nicole notices about Charlie through another voice-over:

“Charlie is undaunted. He never lets other people’s opinions or any setbacks keep him from what he wants to do. Charlie eats like he’s trying to get it over with and like there won’t be enough food for everyone. A sandwich is to be strangled while devoured.  But he’s incredibly neat and I rely on him to keep things in order. He’s energy conscious. He doesn’t look in the mirror often. He cries easily in movies…”

Wait a minute! They can’t be getting a divorce. I can’t believe it because those are words that can only be written by two persons in love. Except that it’s true… they are separating and a mediator wants them to read their lists to one another in a bid to keep the divorce proceedings civil in the hope of reaching a settlement. However, Nicole refuses to participate.

Herein lies the magic of Marriage Story – Charlie and Nicole are made for each other. I came away with the knowledge that when a marriage is at its end, it may mean the end of their love for each other, but they can and should still have genuine care and concern for each other. It is lugubrious to see the story unfold because it couldn’t have happened to the nicest people. 

Divorce is like “a death without a body” as put forth by Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), a family lawyer engaged by Charlie. Noah Baumbach has crafted a deeply humane and compassionate study of the death of a marriage and a family trying to stay together. It would be so easy to have a villain and have us take obvious sides, but Baumbach takes a different route, allowing us to survey the devastating emotional battlefield. There are no winners in a divorce, except perhaps the lawyers. It may be a hugely pessimistic domestic drama, but it manages to find humour in the most unusual of places. 

This is a true actors’ movie, cast wrong and the message is lost, but cast right the movie is transcendent. Driver and Johansson gave the performances of their careers. It is hard to see any other actors in the roles after you have seen them here. They are so good I didn’t see Kylo Ren and Black Widow. Each of them is also given an individual scene to shine – Johansson in a speech to family lawyer Nora (a superb Laura Dern) and Charlie doing a Sondheim number in a bar. Then they both have a one-shot scene together that is definitely my second favourite Scene of the Year (the first goes to For Sama). It is the one where they spew out the stuff you never and shouldn’t say to a partner, but yet they do and from that moment on, nothing can ever go back to what it was. The aftermath is miraculously sublime – they both understand where those hurtful words come from, a no-holds-barred release from riled-up tension created by their lawyers who character-assassinated both of them. 

Baumbach has crafted a family drama that is masterful, giving us an intimate look at the destruction of a marriage, the legal minefield and the emotional devastation. The principal cast, down to even the supporting cast, lay down a high watermark. It is able to find nuances and dark humour in surprising places. Baumbach’s love for Charlie and Nicole shines like a lighthouse in a perilous stormy night, guiding us to the safety of the shore. This is the work of a storyteller at the top of his game. This is almost a blueprint on how to end a life partnership and suddenly I don’t wish the worst for CT, SL and Valerie anymore. Like Charlie and Nicole, I hope they have a bright future.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Written by Daniel Chiam.

Movie Review: Green Book, Infectious Chemistry Between The Leads Carries Movie

Every awards season will see a movie like this in the mix for the big prize. Green Book ticks all the usual boxes for social consciousness and racial oppression. The movie goes through the usual archetypal tropes and emotional beats, landing up in a place of social inclusivity and familial understanding. We typically get to see the narrative arc through the point of view of a white man. It’s the usual odd-couple movie where they start off as polar opposites, but by the end of the movie you know they will become true friends. It’s the air of familiarity that prevails and we have all seen hundreds of version of this particular narrative. But Green Book just worked marvelously and it put me in a spot of sublime bliss. It may be familiar, but the chemistry between the two superb leads is what sells a lesson we all need to learn again.

In 1962, Tony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a tough bouncer, is looking for work with his nightclub is closed for renovations. The most promising offer turns out to be the driver for the African-American classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) for a concert tour into the Deep South states. Although hardly enthused at working for a black man, Tony accepts the job and they begin their trek armed with The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide for safe travel through America’s racial segregation. Together, the snobbishly erudite pianist and the crudely practical bouncer can barely get along with their clashing attitudes to life and ideals. However, as the disparate pair witness and endure America’s appalling injustices on the road, they find a newfound respect for each other’s talents and heart to face them together. In doing so, they would nurture a friendship and understanding that would change both their lives.

The film just garnered 5 Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay and Film Editing. For this reviewer, it is well deserving of the nominations.

Writer-director Peter Farrelly’s work with his brother defined comedy that is distinctive theirs. It’s crude and fart comedy, but it is comedy that stems from a core of sweetness and life-affirmation, evident in movies like There’s Something About Mary (1998) and Dumb and Dumber (1994). So it’s not surprising that Farrelly knows how to reel in the boorish humour and goes for the heartstrings. Mahershala Ali even referred to him as “a first-time filmmaker with 25 years of experience”.

Green Book is old-fashioned classic storytelling from Hollywood that we don’t see often. Everything glides on a veneer of zip and gloss, it hits all the emotional bumps with aplomb, occasionally dipping just underneath the surface to show social ugliness. It doesn’t probe very deep and the likeability of the odd-couple shines like a beacon. Some may consider that its weakness for not having deep shades of grey, but for this reviewer it was its strength in conviction for staying its course on becoming a journey of two opposites coming together.

Tony Lip begins his arc as a casual racist, but as the journey takes him further south of the Mason-Dixon line his core belief is shaken. Don Shirley is a collection of eccentricities and ethical beliefs, but he gets to understand cruelly that genius is a title that can resemble a prison. It is their onscreen chemistry that forms the lifeline of the movie. Their spot-on banter and pathos with each other is spirited.

There’s a scene in the second act that had no meaningful dialogue but yet carried much potency. Their turquoise coloured 1962 Cadillac Sedan DeVilles has succumbed to heating problems and stops at the side of a plantation where black slaves are harvesting crops. Shirley and the nameless African Americans lock eyes and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the torrent of thoughts in both parties’ minds, the past sees the future and the future sees the past. The only minus for Green Book is that it didn’t have enough nuanced scenes like this.

Green Book is a crowd-pleaser, a feel-gooder and it wears its heart on its sleeve. You can probably see how their arcs will transpire, know all the turns before the narrative’s manoeuvre and see how everything will be jackknifed into a final cliché, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining to watch. I hardly felt the 2h 10min runtime and when it hit the poignant ending which is truly earned, I dare you to not feel warm and fuzzy inside.

Rating: 4 / 5

Written by Daniel Chiam.

Glass – Movie Review: James McAvoy’s Performance Is The Only Joy To Watch

Late in the third act, Sarah Paulson’s psychiatrist character Dr Ellie Staple let out a blood-curdling scream of frustration in the empty corridor of a mental institution. It was one cathartic holler because it summed up my frustration with Glass. All the excitement and goodwill generated in Unbreakable and Split, washed away in a limp and didactic exercise.

Synopsis: After the events of Unbreakable (2000) and Split (2016), the three protagonists are now imprisoned in a mental asylum under the care of Dr Staples (Sarah Paulson). She strongly believes that David “The Overseer” Dunn (Bruce Willis), Kevin “The Horde” Crumb (James McAvoy) and Elijah “Mr Glass” Price (Samuel L. Jackson) are suffering from delusions of grandeur and their superpowers are manifestations of psychological disorder.

If you wander into a cinema not knowing what movie is showing, you will always know it’s a M. Night Shyamalan film after a while. He has a certain modus operandi that is distinctively his. His movies always have a deliberate pace and they build towards a final twist which you will realise is the whole selling point. He will draw compelling characters and build a grounded story to encompass them. In his better films the twist is earned because you care about his characters, whereas in his weaker movies his storytelling is so heavy-handed that the twist becomes a meh experience. Glass, I am afraid falls in the second category.

One of the reasons why Glass is a hugely unsatisfying affair is that the audience lacks a central point-of-view character. We are dealing with three here and none is developed beyond what we have known about them from their story of origin in the first act. If that’s not the worse, the other three secondary characters, Casey (Anna Taylor-Joy), Joseph Dunn (Spencer Treat Clark) and Elijah’s mother (Charmaine Woodard), who played an important role in the previous films in making the major characters realise their true purpose play such one-note characters. When the third act finally arrives and requires us to see the entire blueprint of the story from their point of view it is a tall order.

For this reviewer, it was an effort staying awake in the second act which felt like a dry lecture. Every so often an expounder needs to give a soapbox spiel on the nature and structure of the superhero versus supervillain arc, and the deconstruction of comics. The pace was heavily bogged down by this aspect. Sometimes I feel Shyamalan is a victim of his own conceit.

For all his storytelling abilities, his weakness is also in staging action spectacles. We have already seen Dunn’s superhuman strength and The Beast’s ability to scale walls, but there is nothing else to see beyond that. The editing of the action scenes also feels lazy and nothing requires us to use our imagination. For all the foreshadowing that was done, the promised massive showdown turned out to be a humongous letdown.

The only joy for this reviewer is James McAvoy’s performance. His ability to switch to a different character using body language and a variance in his voice at a pendulum shift is simply staggering; some would consider that a superhuman ability.

For all that is worth, I just can’t fault Shyamalan for his ambition. His theme of superhuman ability exists in all of us is something I really wish to believe. It’s a pity about the story because somewhere underneath all the mumbo jumbo didactic exercise is a lean and mean meta-superhero story.

Prove it yourself by watching the movie. Perhaps you will have your own opinion.

Rating: 2.5 / 5

Written by Daniel Chiam.

Gully Boy Brims With Electrifying Energy

I am a firm believer that all great stories stem from an unpleasant episode. That is why during my lesson opener in a writing class, I tell kids never to sweep that sad memory – a failure, a chiding, an embarrassment, an accusation, a ridicule – under the carpet. Because “you can recall it, feel it consume you and give yourself that redemption arc you didn’t think of at that moment”. Gully Boy must have originated from a world of hurt and anger, and of an ineptitude against the social injustice of the protagonists’ world, and it brims with electrifying energy.

22-year-old Murad (Ranveer Singh) hails from a ghetto in Mumbai. The young man is a wannabe rapper, and this is the story of his journey from realising his love for rap, to chasing his dream, and to inadvertently transcending his class. Hip-hop in India is a recent phenomenon and like anywhere else in the world, is rising from the streets. It is the only true political space in music right now and it’s coming from people that have nothing to lose, the colonised poor.

Zoya Akhtar’s (Dil Dhadakne Do Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara) storytelling has gusto and Ranveer Singh anchors it superbly well. Singh’s Murad wears a permanent listless scowl, is quietly diffident and a wordsmith, but he still has to work on his tempo. The movie rests ably on his shoulders and he raps it to the finishing line with finesse. His arc is very satisfying and I nearly punched the air in victory for his emergence. Perhaps the best accolade I can give Singh’s acting is that I walked out of the cinema fully believing he is a rapper and he does it for a living.

On the other hand, Alia Bhatt who plays the love interest Safeena felt criminally under-used, but with all the scenes she is in she plays Safeena memorably. Her Safeena has spunk and she is the living embodiment of a feisty spirit. She can turn violent with jealousy but never makes the scene become trite. Heck! Any man should be proud of his woman who can fight tooth and nail for what belongs to her, and not sit there taking one for woman-kind. Watch out for Murad and Safeena’s “meet-cute” and you will understand why I put quotation marks around that when you see it.

Siddhant Chaturvedi who plays MC Sher deserves a huge mention too. I sincerely thought he is the real deal, an actual rapper from the streets added to the cast to bring authenticity to the story. A check on sources told me he is an actor. Wow!

Where the movie is strongest is with the music and rap battles, and Akhtar nails the scenes with aplomb. The scenes seethed with righteous anger and the music is infectious. Watch out for a MTV-styled vid shot in the slums that is toe-tappingly awesome.

The portrayal of the slums of Mumbai and all the injustice it brings is spot-on. I have seen these slums shot in numerous cinematographic styles, but I still get a shiver down my spine when a filmmaker can bring something different to the plate, and I got the shivers here. The slums might as well have been the prison of the poor, but occasionally we get a Phoenix rising that gives hope to everyone.

All said, Gully Boy played it too safe and it ran into cliché territory. Murad fails at his first attempt at the hurdle, he learns from a master and starts to experience success. He is constantly unhappy, not sure of what he truly wants but he knows it isn’t this crappy life. He may be not so good with love but has better luck with pals, and it all ends with him rising from the ashes of the slums. Tell me you have never seen that before. At 153 minutes, it could easily shaved off 30 minutes of the umpteenth detailing of society’s unfairness to make the story more compact.

But that said, Gully Boy has absolute conviction that keeps it from being too formulaic and it delivers as a superb entertainer that had this reviewer moving like a hip-hop rapper out of the cinema, I kid you not.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

PS – I punched this review out while Kanye West’s The College Dropout was blasting. The right music has to go with the writing process, yo!

Written by Daniel Chiam

Review: Downton Abbey (2019) This is the Season to Meet Old Friends

This review is going to write itself and I am going to save you the time and grief of reading. If you don’t know who the Earl of Grantham is, if you aren’t intrigued by servants Mr and Mrs Bates’ arduous journey of love, if you aren’t familiar by Lady Violet’s scintillating quips, your money is probably better spent elsewhere. Downton Abbey, the movie, is pure fan service, resoundingly rewarding fans of the TV series that ran for 6 years, from 2010 to 2015. It doesn’t even attempt to ease the unsuspecting cinema-goer who knows nothing about the TV series into the movie.

I was an ardent fan of the series. Every time a new season opens, my life would revolve around it. The upstairs (the high society) and the downstairs (the servants) narrative structure, the English stiff upper lip, the rigid posture, the back stabbings with a smile, the tender love stories, the witty sarcasm, all presented in resplendent Queen’s English is a joy to behold. What I never counted on were all the life lessons about duty, honour, ethics, kindness, honesty, love and marriage. It practically laid out a blueprint of how we should live our lives and that we are all capable of so much more.

The year is 1927, 18 months after the final Christmas episode which happened in 1925. We meet all our old friends once again and one and a half years breezed by in a wink of an eye. Robert Crawley is informed that King George V and Queen Mary will be staying at Downton Abbey for a night. The grand news sends our old friends, both upstairs and downstairs, into an excited frenzy. With the King and Queen’s eminent arrival, an old family saga unfolds with regards to Lady Violet’s estranged cousin, who is the Queen’s lady-in-waiting.

The movie opens with the stylings of a grand piano and before long the familiar music score will put a smile on your face. All the proceedings are played out in a super-sized TV episode, but you do know you are watching a movie because of all the gorgeous aerial shots and glorious golden hour lighting. It looks good enough to eat, with vivid colours, compositions, art direction, ravishing period costumes and cinematography. But the stylistics serve the content sublimely, and the continuity is lushly preserved. Julian Fellowes’ sharply written dialogue whizzes through the air and as usual Maggie Smith’s Lady Violet and Isobel Merton threaten to take over the movie with their scintillating lines.

Violet Crawley: Machiavelli is frequently underrated. He had so many qualities.

Isobel Merton: So did Caligula – not all of them charming.

This being a huge ensemble movie, writer Julian Fellowes and Director Michael Engler, try to give each character scenes to stand out, but some scenes do feel shoehorned in to give some characters a worthy arc. That said, my favourite characters Mr and Mrs Bates do get short shrift, especially Mr Bates.

Downton Abbey cruises along on the goodwill generated by the excellent TV series. If you are a fan, I will bet my bottom dollar you are going to enjoy it. If you aren’t, you will be wise to spend your money on another movie and won’t be poorer for it. For my wife and I, it felt like a great catch-up with old friends.

Rating: 3.5 / 5

Written by Daniel Chiam.