Directors' cuts

Some movies, usually big-budget ones, are studio projects. These are team-driven, audience-tested fare.

But the films this week are all directors' works, each one bearing the distinct fingerprint of the film-maker.

The most commercial one is the fourth instalment in the highly lucrative series of military comedies, each one the work of director and co-writer Jack Neo.

Ah Boys To Men 4 (PG13, 135 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5 stars) has all the usual Neo-isms: banter, brotherhood and bravery.

This is fine, but in this story of men in an armour unit, Neo's other less welcome traits are also here, such as the absence of anything that resembles long-form storytelling.

Every setup pays off in two minutes or less and characters do not grow or change, unless you count a couple of convenient attitude or behaviour flip-flops.

Most of this English-Singlish-Mandarin-Hokkien film is a series of loosely connected skits.

(Clockwise from top) Suburbicon feels recycled; Victoria & Abdul gets tired quickly and A Ghost Story is mersmerising and haunting.
Suburbicon feels recycled. PHOTO: PARAMOUNT PICTURES

Granted, there are a lot of them and a couple are funny.

(Clockwise from top) Suburbicon feels recycled; Victoria & Abdul gets tired quickly and A Ghost Story is mersmerising and haunting.
A Ghost Story is mersmerising and haunting. PHOTO: UIP

The jokes come from how the men, now lazy NSmen, butt heads with their more gung-ho commanders, such as Sergeant Ong (Tosh Zhang).

(Clockwise from top) Suburbicon feels recycled; Victoria & Abdul gets tired quickly and A Ghost Story is mersmerising and haunting.
Victoria & Abdul gets tired quickly. PHOTO: PETER MOUNTAIN

To Neo's credit, the story takes on the dilemmas that reservists face, such as the penalty that Ong pays for letting in-camp training disrupt his career and the problems males have with the command of a woman (Apple Chan).

This friction provides plenty of fodder for the drama and comedy mill, but aside from some yelling and disposable punchlines, there is not much in the way of real engagement with the issues.

The way the story tackles sexism is one step forward, two steps back: While Lieutenant Zhang (Chan) fights to win the respect of chauvinists, in other skits, women are reduced to bro-medy objects - cute babes in bikinis are lust-worthy, other women are nightmarish and inherently comic because they are mannish or plain in the face.

Suburbicon (NC16, 105 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5 stars) is another director-driven movie, except in this case, the director is not who you might think it is.

This satire on middle-class life set in the 1950s brims with ideas that film-makers Joel and Ethan Coen love - mockery of a community, bungling criminals, bleak humour and crushed dreams.

But George Clooney is the director here. He adapts one of the Coen brothers' older, back-of-the-drawer screenplays.

He does what he can with a story that feels blandly generic.

It is not a superior screenplay and worse, when there are Coen-esque visual jokes - such as in a corpse-dumping scene - it feels recycled from Fargo (1996).

Matt Damon is fine as salaryman Gardner, as is Julianne Moore, doubling as wife Rose and her twin sister Margaret, but there is too much here that is under-developed and forgettable.

The biopic Victoria & Abdul (PG, 112 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5 stars) comes from director Stephen Frears, working very much inside his Oscar-friendly comedy-drama comfort zone.

There is biographical colour, class hypocrisy, scandal and a woman in the middle, trying to be heard and understood while others manipulate her.

These are all in his past works, Florence Foster Jenkins (2016), The Queen (2006) and even Philomena (2013, and also starring Judi Dench).

But with this new movie, he seems to have run out of ideas, despite Dench's riveting turn as Queen Victoria, Empress of India.

Late in life, the queen takes a liking to an Indian-Muslim manservant, Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), elevating him to the role of Munshi, or teacher, to the horror of her household and son, Bertie (Eddie Izzard). They all see him as racially and culturally inferior.

This based-on-a-true-story show puts a focus on an interesting footnote on British colonial history, but the humour in seeing starchy upper-class Brits and their equally uptight servants repeatedly blow their tops fades quickly, especially when the character of Abdul is so thinly sketched.

Note: "Thinly sketched" and "lots of dialogue" are not the same, as shown in A Ghost Story (PG13, 92 minutes, opens tomorrow, showing exclusively at The Projector, 3.5 stars).

Writer-director David Lowery made the crime drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013) to festival acclaim and not much commercial success.

Likewise, this high-concept work starring the same two actors, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, is not exactly accessible.

Without much dialogue, but with plenty of slow-burn visuals, Lowery takes the point of view of a ghost, a being for whom decades pass in a blink.

Musician C (Affleck) dies, but instead of moving on, he haunts the home of his widow, M (Mara).

Lowery's goof is that Affleck spends most of the movie under a white sheet with two eyeholes, when he could have just shown Affleck as himself, as ghost movies do.

But that cartoon image of a spectre is Lowery's way of avoiding cliche by embracing the hokiest one possible and it works - the viewer forgets about the sheet quickly and C's inscrutable shroud becomes a white screen onto which the viewer's own thoughts are projected.

C becomes unstuck in time - the movie plays forward and rewinds, like a tape loop over which he has no control. Cycles of birth and death play out like a grand American pageant.

This might ultimately be not much more than an exercise in visual montage, but with the help of a powerful score from Daniel Hart, the effect is mesmerising and, yes, haunting.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2017, with the headline Directors' cuts. Subscribe