At The Movies: Courting greatness in King Richard; Ah Girls Go Army fires blanks

Still from the film King Richard starring Will Smith as Richard Williams. PHOTO: WARNER BROS SINGAPORE

King Richard (PG13)

144 minutes, opens on Jan 27
4 stars

One day, there will be a biopic of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams. Until then, here is the story of their father.

Through his daughters, Richard Williams achieved the American Dream - and in so doing, embodies everything uplifting and depressing about it.

As portrayed by Will Smith, an actor who specialises in making cockiness charismatic - see Muhammad Ali biopic Ali (2001) - Williams is the wary, prickly man glimpsed in YouTube interviews.

That bellicose energy, through the magic of Smith's interpretation, segues into a salesman's jocular persistence when he has to persuade coaches and agents to put their faith in as-yet-untested Venus and Serena.

Credit goes to director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin for resisting the urge to make Williams an emotionally nurturing modern dad. He is an old-school authoritarian, a man who shows love by letting his children buy sweets or giving a hearty cheer from courtside.

Structured as a sports underdog story that begins with the family living in the crime-riddled neighbourhood of Compton, California, it shows Williams and his wife Brandy (Aunjanue Ellis) going to extraordinary lengths to keep their five children productively occupied and safe from gang violence.

Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) possess the raw talent that will make true his dream of being the father of champions - a dream he has held since he discovered the kind of prize money on offer at major tournaments.

If the film had ended at the point where he laughs at his doubters as he cradles his daughters' cash winnings, it would have been perfectly fine.

Instead, it does that slightly irksome thing - it tries to ennoble his journey. The story hints at buried trauma and a desire to keep his family safe fuelling his need for achievement. It strikes a false note and, inadvertently, reminds viewers about how, for some, the American Dream is safety, found inside a gated community.

Ah Girls Go Army (rating TBC)

Still from the movie Ah Girls Go Army. PHOTO: MM2 ENTERTAINMENT

120 minutes, opens on Feb 1
2 stars

There are a few things this military comedy gets right, but what it gets wrong, it gets terribly wrong, cancelling out any goodwill it earns.

Being harsh with a Jack Neo Chinese New Year comedy, especially one centred on national service, feels like a Grinch-like thing to do, especially when his comedies are genres unto themselves. They are skits stitched together with dad jokes and low-effort puns, punctuated with cameos and call-outs.

They ask that viewers surrender to its knowing awfulness and pantomimed theatrics. There is only so much that can be said about the absence of wit or structure before it becomes the flogging of a dead horse.

What can be talked about, however, is Neo's genuine love of military life, perhaps because army camps provide the perfect workplace comedy set-up. Characters who would never otherwise be friends are forced to interact.

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In a move that makes concessions to realism, the dialogue is almost completely in English, making this the first fully English-language Singapore feature film to appear in some time. If this movie does well at the box office, Neo, the king of local Mandarin cinema, could wear the crown for local English films as well.

Set in the near future when low birth rates have made the conscription of women necessary, the story opens with the first all-female intake in basic training.

Under the eye of trainers Lieutenant Tan (Apple Chan) and Sergeant Chow (Glenn Yong), the recruits are knocked into shape.

In between jokes about fat women, delusional K-drama fans, pampered daughters and tattooed gangster types, there is "life was better in the old days" commentary (and intrusive sponsor inserts for health supplements and massage chairs, among others) and bits about the complaint-happy nature of today's recruits.

While there is a welcome absence of scenes that objectify women and just one mild sex joke (about the army hand signal for "hurry up"), a character's suicide attempt is treated as both overwrought drama and slapstick comedy. Intentional gallows humour or par for the course in a chaotic movie? Take a guess.

New Kung Fu Cult Master (rating to be confirmed)

Still from the movie New Kung Fu Cult Master starring Donnie Yen. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

90 minutes, opens on Jan 28, not reviewed

Donnie Yen stars in this martial arts fantasy about clans competing for the possession of two legendary weapons.

I Am What I Am (PG)

Still from the film I Am What I Am. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

105 minutes, opens on Jan 27, not reviewed

In this Chinese New Year-themed animation feature from China, a group of outcast teens find a purpose after joining a lion dance troupe.

Only Fools Rush In (rating TBC)

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129 minutes, opens on Feb 1, not reviewed

A group of young persons face up to the idea of leaving their idyllic Chinese coastal town for better prospects in a major metropolis in this romantic drama starring Liu Haoran, Liu Haocun and Shen Teng.

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