Friday, April 24, 2015

Danny Collins

For F*** Magazine

DANNY COLLINS

Director : Dan Fogelman
Cast : Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Plummer, Katarina Čas
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 23 April 2015
Rating : NC16 (Some Drug Use and Nudity)

“Rock and roll dreams come through” – so sang Meat Loaf all those years ago. What comes after that? Danny Collins (Pacino) is an aging rock star, a fading shadow of his former self. With a trophy fiancé (Čas) on his arm, a touring show mostly attended by senior citizens and a third Greatest Hits album on the way, Danny is feeling unfulfilled. Danny’s manager Frank Grubman (Plummer) gives him a life-changing birthday present – a handwritten letter from John Lennon that Danny was meant to receive 40 years ago. This gives Danny a second wind as he cancels his tour, checks into a hotel near a New Jersey suburb and tries writing music again. Danny tries to mend bridges with his adult son Tom (Cannavale), attempting to win over Tom’s wife (Samantha) and young daughter Hope (Giselle Eisenberg) and do right by the family he’s only now getting to know. In the meantime, he strikes up a possible romance with Mary Sinclair (Bening), the manager at the hotel.

            The film beings with the text “the following is kind of based on a true story a little bit”, a winking, honest admission. The true story in question is that of Steve Tilston, a folk singer from Bristol who discovered that after reading an interview Tilston did with a music magazine, John Lennon had written him a letter that Tilston only received 34 years after the fact. Writer-director Dan Fogelman takes that starting point and spins into a rock star redemption story, its protagonist part-Rod Stewart, part-Tom Jones, with a dash of Barry Manilow for good measure. With its message of “staying true to yourself”, Danny Collins is mostly predictable and it’s clear that Fogelman is valiantly straining to temper the sentimentality with some edginess in the form of swearing, drugs and nudity. The material is still mawkish, most noticeably when Danny bonds with his granddaughter, a stock hyperactive, precocious moppet. At times, the film reminded this reviewer of the Hannah Montana movie, of all things. Annette Bening’s Mary keeps encouraging Danny to write that one song that means something to him, just as Travis did with Miley, the result in that film being “The Climb”.  


            Al Pacino isn’t an actor one would expect to deliver a nuanced performance – this is Mr. “HOO-AH!” we’re talking about, after all. As a rock star desperately trying to recapture his glory days, Pacino does get to be a little flamboyant but thankfully reins it in for the most part. Danny’s pre-show ritual consists of snorting cocaine, downing whiskey and dabbing his face with self-tanner. The casting seems apt, since Pacino himself is past his prime, and it’s actually okay that his singing voice is terrible, since it adds to the washed-up quotient. He probably is miscast, but Pacino makes the most of it. It’s not quite a glorious comeback for the actor, but it’s definitely better than slumming it in something like Jack and Jill.


            Pacino is backed up by an accomplished supporting cast. Annette Bening channels Diane Keaton adequately, it’s the stock type of the no-nonsense boss lady set on resisting the charms of our protagonist but Bening is nonetheless endearing and strikes up good chemistry with Pacino. Bobby Cannavale and Jennifer Garner make for a convincing upper-middle class couple at the end of their rope and trying not to let it show for the sake of their kids. The conflict between father and son, however fierce, still lacks bite because we know how it’ll all end up. It is Christopher Plummer who steals the show as Danny’s blunt, level-headed and reliable manager/best friend. Plummer has gone on record saying that though it’s the thing everyone remembers him from, The Sound of Music was too saccharine for his tastes. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Captain Von Trapp drop more than a few F-bombs and utter the words “sore-tittied African ladies”, this is the movie for you.  

  
          The biggest coup here is that Fogelman was able to secure Yoko Ono’s permission to insert nine John Lennon songs into the film’s soundtrack, a rarity in the music licensing world. Unfortunately, the use of some of these tracks is heavy handed – “Beautiful Boy” plays just after Danny first meets his son, because of course. The theme of artistic integrity vs. commercial appeal was addressed with more panache in Birdman – come to think of it, the handwritten letter from John Lennon here could be compared to the handwritten note from Raymond Carver in that movie. Still, it counts for something that Fogelman demonstrates an awareness that jaded audience members are not that easy to win over, instead of diving head-first into the schmaltz.



Summary: Acknowledging his status as a washed-up star, Al Pacino is on fine form here and is backed up by a great supporting cast, but the rock star redemption story is still too formulaic to soar.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

For F*** Magazine

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON

Director : Joss Whedon
Cast : Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Samuel L. Jackson
Genre : Comics/Action/Adventure
Run Time : 141 mins
Opens : 23 April 2015

(The following review is spoiler-free)

Earth’s mightiest heroes boldly step forth into a new age in the closing chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s second phase. The Avengers, comprising Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey Jr.), Thor (Hemsworth), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Evans), Bruce Banner/Hulk (Ruffalo), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Johansson) and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Renner) have unfinished business to attend to. Loki’s sceptre is being held in a Hydra stronghold, and in the process of retrieving the otherworldly weapon, the team confronts the twins Pietro (Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Olsen) Maximoff, the products of Hydra genetic enhancement experiments. Stark and Banner have an experiment of their own, the artificial intelligence system Ultron (Spader), intended as a security net for the world. However, the sentient robot has nefarious plans of its own, violently rebelling against its creators. The Avengers’ only hope may lie in Vision (Bettany), an old friend in a new form. 


            2012’s The Avengers was a monumental event, the glorious apex of Marvel Studios’ diligent world-building. Now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has truly earned the right to call itself a “universe”, Age of Ultron uniting a multitude of familiar faces while introducing new players. There’s the welcome feeling that the gang’s all here, but not just for the sake of it. This is a significant achievement on multiple levels; writer-director Joss Whedon taking on the Herculean challenge of topping the first Avengers film while charting a course forward for all of these characters. Once again, Whedon demonstrates a remarkable command of the tone, peppering the screenplay with delightfully zippy witticisms (Stark references playwright Eugene O’Neill and the practice of Prima Nocta) yet establishing the stakes and delivering genuine drama when it is required. 


What stands out as the most impressive element of this blockbuster isn’t the wham-bam spectacle, it’s the character development. While many action movies are marketed as being “character-driven”, more often than not, the plot seems like a minor inconvenience at best, fiddly bits of story standing in the way of stuff blowing up. This isn’t the case here. Whedon cleverly builds upon the relationships established in the previous films, including the “science bros” bond between Stark and Banner and the dysfunctional family dynamic within the team as a whole. Whedon is unafraid to have sizeable stretches of the film driven solely by drama or comedy in between the action, without the movie feeling like it’s spinning its wheels until Hulk next smashes something or Cap tosses his shield. The conflict has its place, there is angst but not moping and the bristling tension that arises from disagreements within the team is balanced with the sheer satisfaction of seeing our heroes work in conjunction with each other.


This is not to say that the spectacle is in short supply – far from it. This is a major tentpole release that was guaranteed to do gangbusters even before a single word of the screenplay was written, but if Avengers: Age of Ultron is anything to go by, producer Kevin Feige and the folks at Marvel Studios are not about to rest on their laurels or just let these movies “make themselves”. The film’s opening, which involves the Avengers storming Baron Von Strucker’s (Thomas Kretschmann) mountain fortress, reintroduces viewers to our heroes in the thick of it with a slick, unbroken long take. There’s also a fair bit of globe-trotting, the story taking the team from their home base in New York to the fictional Eastern European city of Sokovia, South Africa and South Korea.


The movie’s signature set piece is the battle between Iron Man in his heavy-duty Hulkbuster armour and the Hulk. Stark is reluctant to fight Banner, shading the knock-down drag-out brawl with more emotional hues than a typical beat ‘em up. The climactic showdown, while familiar in the sense that it’s the plucky good guys against a horde of bad guys while trying to get innocent citizens to safety, is sufficiently different from the “big fight in a big city” finales that have become the norm in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.


After defeating Loki, the Avengers’ primary adversary in this sequel is the titular Ultron, voiced by James Spader, who also performed some motion capture work to play the 8 foot tall robot. Ultron is both a physical and intellectual challenge to the Avengers and his motivations are set up quickly and efficiently. Malevolent artificial intelligence is something of a hoary sci-fi trope and one could argue that 2001: A Space Odyssey’s HAL 9000 still stands at the top of the heap, but Ultron certainly fulfils all the big bad pre-requisites. Spader is a casting coup; his sonorous, supercilious line delivery both threatening and entertaining. There’s also the appeal of the “I’ve got no strings” motif, even more amusing given that Robert Downey Jr. is rumoured to be playing both Geppetto and Pinocchio in an upcoming live-action version of the story.


Whedon has put admirable effort into improving the characterisations we were presented with in the first film. Hawkeye in particular gets his moment in the sun; Renner having voiced his disappointment that the character spent most of the first Avengers under Loki’s mind control. Paul Bettany finally steps out of the recording booth to play cyber-butler JARVIS’ corporeal form, Vision, lending the character an elegant combination of strength and serenity.


The character of Scarlet Witch, with her ability to play dangerous mind games as she enters into the memories and feelings of those under her thrall, presents the audience with an opportunity to explore the deepest, darkest fears of our heroes. Elizabeth Olsen is a haunted, ethereal presence as Wanda, her powers taking their own toll on her psyche. The hallucinatory scenes also shed light on Black Widow’s past, these unsettling sequences feeling straight out of a horror movie.


Much was made about how Fox’s X-Men: Days of Future Past beat Marvel Studios to the punch when it came to putting speedster Quicksilver on the big screen. While Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Pietro doesn’t quite have a bit as memorable as the “Time in a Bottle” kitchen run from DoFP, his Quicksilver is still pretty cool. The bond between the twins is conveyed convincingly by both Taylor-Johnson and Olsen. Mark Ruffalo continues to be an excellent Bruce Banner, this film showing how the character is at once Dr. Frankenstein and Frankenstein’s Monster and the inner turmoil that results from this dichotomy. There’s also a romance between Banner and Romanoff which can feel a little forced at times but is for the most part really quite sweet. A scene early on in which Black Widow tries to calm the savage beast reminded this reviewer of the interaction between King Kong and Ann Darrow.


It pains us a little to say this and we don’t want to come off as dismissive of the efforts of the army of visual effects artists who slaved away on this film, but the CGI does border on the excessive. It’s not sloppily done and there are a mind-boggling number of visual effects shots, but at times during the Hulkbuster vs. Hulk fight, the two computer-generated characters going at it seem like just that, as if one were playing a video-game. Still, this is a minor quibble and if the film were nothing but pixel-heavy battles, then we’d have a problem. Instead, we have a compelling, dramatic story, characters that are fleshed-out and easy to get invested in, plenty of morsels for hard-core fans and lots of quotable lines and some imagery courtesy of cinematographer Ben Davis that’s destined to become iconic. While there is no post-credits stinger, there is a tag after the main-on-end titles sequence that’s as tantalising as ever. Bring on Phase 3!

Summary: Avengers: Age of Ultron can boast that it’s about the Avengers as characters and Joss Whedon’s ability to deliver excellent dialogue and moving storytelling in addition to earth-shattering spectacle remains unparalleled.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Hulkbuster Unveiling at Ion Orchard

On the evening of Saturday, 18 April, the life-sized Hulkbuster statue created by Hot Toys was unveiled in front of Ion Orchard shopping mall in Singapore. I was there with a bunch of friends, many of whom were cosplaying characters from the Avengers films. Photo mega-post begins...now!


It begins.



Smoke! Confetti!











A sight to behold.










All-American cheer!


Shaun made this IN A CAVE! WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!


Thrice bitten four times shy.

The craftsmanship on that costume is in. Sane.


The famously muscley Drefan as Thor!

Put the hammer down now!



Clintasha!

Bewitched, bothered and bewildered


Agent Hill! 



Captain Photobomb

Never-miss on the left, Miss Marvel on the right.

Draw back your bow






Science bros come to blows


Shiny!


Like, ohmigawd, twinsies!


Nothing says "thug life" like a Black Widow action figure in your belt.


pre-requisite "ASSEMBLE!"











Fellow blogger and Singapore's premiere geeky lady, Red Dot Diva!

CIVIL WAR









ION Man 
Confetti release in 3...

2...

Yay! 







That's the face of geek joy right there.