Friday, May 27, 2016

Taking Disciplinary Action: Interview with Gurmit Singh of Young & Fabulous

For F*** Magazine

TAKING DISCIPLINARY ACTION
Gurmit Singh talks to F*** about going from funny to fierce
By Jedd Jong


As an actor, comedian and host, Gurmit Singh is an extremely face to Singaporeans everywhere. His signature contractor character Phua Chu Kang, who originated from Singh’s sketch show Gurmit’s World and went on to have his own television show, movie and even a musical, is a Singaporean cultural icon.

Most audiences are used to seeing Singh as an over-the-top goofball, so his role in Young & Fabulous is something of a departure. In the comedy-drama film, Singh plays Mr. Boo, the Discipline Master at Solaris College. The central trio of characters, Royston (Aloysius Pang), Hao Ren (Joshua Tan) and Violet (Joyce Chu) are his charges and the recipients of his disapproval. The film is set in the Singaporean cosplay scene and touches on the themes of chasing one’s dreams in the face of a society that prizes practicality over creativity.

Singh spoke to F*** at Raffles Convention Centre ahead of the film’s premiere that night. It turns out that in real life, Singh is a far cry from the manic persona he is most associated with. Sure, he definitely still has a sense of humour, but he’s clearly a very separate person from Phua Chu Kang. He spoke about the role that parents and teachers play in a child’s development, his own encouragement of his children’s creative endeavours and how the entertainment industry has evolved over time.

What is it like getting into character to play a strict Discipline Master?

I think it’s actually easier to get into the serious side of things because in real life, I’m quiet, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch or a challenge to play the role. I think it will be more challenging for viewers to watch me this way because people are used to me being larger-than-life, funny and comedic all the time, and this is not like that. It has its funny moments, but I’m not being funny.

You have said in interviews that you would support your children’s pursuit of their passion. Do you also feel it’s important that they get good grades and earn university degrees?

I think if they are good at studies, then by all means, go ahead. I’m not saying “stop studying”. I’m just saying that many times, parents try to relive their failed dreams through their children, and I think that’s very sad. I am a walking testimony of how I didn’t get a degree, I wasn’t smart enough to go to NUS (National University of Singapore) - twice I tried and my A-Levels weren’t good enough. Anybody in my position would have said “okay, I’m stuck with A-Levels now and my future doesn’t look good, I’m going to be stuck with a certain level of job and a certain level of pay.” But as it turned out, it wasn’t like that at all. I’ve always told my children that as long as it’s legal and they’re happy, it’s fine. But as parents, we have to guide them. They might think “this is good!” but we have to tell them “here are the consequences and here are the challenges going forward”, because we know better than them. Then if you still want to go with it, by all means, go with it.

I have parents who come to me and say “my child wants to be a superstar, he wants to be a celebrity.” That’s fine! If he can dance or sing or act, then that’s fine. But the child also has to know that it’s a lot of hard work. A lot of children out there who are not guided think they can just come in, sit in front of the camera, sing, dance, act, host, done! Tomorrow I’m a celebrity. It’s not like that at all! Sometimes it happens overnight, sometimes it takes more than that, sometimes you don’t get the show that really is that vehicle to take you to that fame status and the child has to be guided and told about such things. Whether it’s for the entertainment industry or whether it’s to become a doctor or a lawyer or a fireman, as a parent, you have to say “if this is what you really want, let’s research about this, let’s see what this career path entails.” Then you draw up all the challenges and put it in front of the child and say “do you still want this?” If they say yes, go for it then.

If your daughter says she wants to be an actor or a host, you’d be in favour of that?

It’s fine! I’ll be a hypocrite if I said “no, you cannot be [an actress]! It’s not very good.” When my elder daughter was about 8 years old, she said “Dad, when I grow up, I want to be a celebrity.” I said, “oh, that’s…cool?” And she said “I want to be a different kind of celebrity. The kind that nobody knows about. I have the money, I have a lot of projects, but nobody takes photos with me and I’m free to do whatever I want.” That was 8 years old, let her dream.

In Singaporean society today, what do you feel the balance is between the role a parent plays in the development of a child and the role a teacher plays?

I’ve always been a strong advocate of how parents are the main people in terms of guidance for the child. The teachers are coming in in terms of education, academics and all. But in real life, social skills and all that, I think the parents have bigger roles. I’m sad to say in the past few years, I’ve seen more of that being transferred to the teacher, instead of the parents taking what is supposedly theirs. Now, I feel that we are in a new phase now.

I’m a council member in the Families For Life council. We sit down every three months, talk about, plan and execute events and strategies where we hope more and more families get together. Not just the mother and the child, but even the father, so that they can grow stronger together in terms of the bonding time. For the longest time, I know it’s a cliché, “spending quality time” has been around. That phrase “quality time” has been used as an excuse. “I’ll spend two minutes with you, that’s so ‘quality’. And now, I’m going away to play golf for the next three hours.” That’s screwed up for me. I think it should be the other way around, you play golf for two minutes and spend three hours with your child. As a council member, we are allowing more and more platforms for the family to get together and have that time together. It’s one thing to have quality time, but you must have “quantity time” as well. The more time you spend with your child, the most opportunity you have to exercise your responsibility in their lives.

Did you have any pre-conceived notions about the hobby of cosplay before taking on this film?

Not at all. For me, it’s just another version of a Halloween party. At the bottom-line, that’s what it is. I have no ill feelings towards kids who cosplay. I didn’t find anything new because I’m already a collector of comics, I’m a Superman fan. I’m into comics, I’m into all this stuff, so it wasn’t a huge revelation of “what is this? I haven’t seen this before!” Not at all.

I’ve read all but two issues of my Superman comics collection. I first bought them in 1994 to 1996, and then I had chicken pox, so I started reading through every one. Recently, I picked up two copies.

What preparation did you do to take on this role?

I think nobody has to research it because everyone has grown up with a Discipline Master in their school. It was easy to draw on past experiences – I’m not saying that I was a bad kid in school, but I had a Discipline Master in primary and secondary school and they were all very fierce! They had this sour face, it was like they hadn’t had enough food to eat and somebody kicked them in the face every morning when they got up. Very grouchy and moody, and even the best jokes don’t make them laugh, so it wasn’t difficult to get into that role, I just thought back to it.

What message did you want to convey through your character?

It’s a positive message, isn’t it? Through my character, I actually show everybody that not everything is as it seems. When you see a Discipline Master in school, you’d think one way “a Discipline Master is heartless, he probably has no family, even if he had a family he’s probably chased them away because he’s so grouchy.” This film addresses that. Maybe not everybody is like that, if you take the time and effort to get to know someone, you’ll find out that there are other facets to the person. For example, whenever people see me, they think that I’m a comedian, I’m always larger than life, in your face, “don’t pray pray” and all that – but when they sit down and talk to me or have dinner with me, they realise there are other facets of Gurmit Singh that we didn’t know about, and I think that’s what the movie does as well.

What is the most important factor when you pick your projects?

That it’s got some message, good values, and that it’s a role that I want to play. If this is a movie that is just glorifying some…evil, bad, vulgar concepts, I’m not interested in that. For me, it’s about the whole concept and it’s about the role that I’m playing, whether it’s going to be something that I enjoy playing. If it’s not something you enjoy, if it’s passé, it will show on screen.

Having been a pillar of the entertainment industry…

Pillar? No lah, please lah, hello! It’s too much man! I was more like a corner tile at the side there.

Having been a part of the Singapore entertainment industry for some time, how do you feel it has evolved and developed over time?

I would think that now, the entertainment scene is really flourishing because there are so many platforms out there. In the past, it was very hard to get known, to be heard, to be seen, to be even slightly noticed, because you had to know somebody in the industry to even get your foot in the door. But now, with the social media platform, anybody can be a producer, a writer, a singer, an actor, a host, whatever! Put it out there and you never know, depending on the number of hits on your site, you could be the next big thing.

I think that’s great. But it’s also a double-edged sword, because on one hand, it allows the person who could not have been found through the old traditional means can now have that instant success and accessibility – but it also means that those who really don’t have the talent are just irritating everybody. It’s good entertainment for a while, but they’re also deluded. They think that just because they’re out there, that because in they’re in the media, it means they’re very good. But it’s not isn’t it? Ist all comes down to whether or not you’re talented.

Young & Fabulous opens in Singapore on 26 May 2016.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Angry Birds Movie

For F*** Magazine

THE ANGRY BIRDS MOVIE 

Director : Fergal Reilly, Clay Kaytis
Cast : Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage, Kate McKinnon, Sean Penn, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Blake Shelton
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 97 mins
Opens : 26 May 2016
Rating : PG

Red feathers at morning, pigs take warning. In this animated comedy, we become acquainted with Red (Sudeikis), a resident of Bird Island who has trouble keeping his temper in check. After a particularly bad flare-up, Judge Peckinpah (Key) sentences Red to anger management classes. The classes are conducted by Matilda (Rudolph), and Red eventually befriends the jittery Chuck (Gad), Bomb (McBride), prone to literally exploding when he gets upset, and the gigantic, constantly growling Terence (Penn). Out of the blue, Bird Island receives visitors in the form of green pigs, led by Leonard (Hader). Claiming to be peaceful explorers, the newcomers are received with open arms by all of Bird Island’s residents – apart from Red, who harbours his suspicions. Red is proven right when it turns out that the pigs intend to steal and eat all of the birds’ eggs. Red, Chuck and Bomb seek the advice of the Mighty Eagle (Dinklage), a mythical hero whose glory days are far behind him. In retaliation, the denizens of Bird Island stage an attack on Piggy Island to rescue their unborn offspring.

            The Angry Birds Movie is an adaptation of the mobile game developed by Rovio, which became a cultural phenomenon around 5-6 years ago. Beyond the point that this might be flapping its way into theatres a tad late, there is another elephant bird in the room. Large swathes of the internet are convinced that the film is a thinly-veiled anti-immigration screed. It seems far-fetched that a kids’ movie based on a puzzle game might be politicised, but it’s not absurd on its face. The villains are insidious foreigners with a hidden agenda, their leader is sporting a curly beard, they arrive bearing gifts and the promise of peace, and our hero is the one guy who suspects all is not as it seems. Alternatively, it’s an anti-colonialist message, with the pigs as the conquistadors who have arrived to bamboozle the locals and make off with their resources. Naturally, the makers of the film won’t confirm or deny the hypotheses outright. It slingshots right over the heads of the young target audience, but it’s something to mull over – or just chuckle about – all the same.


            Past the possible political commentary, Angry Birds is very much a serviceable, run-of-the-mill animated comedy. There are reasonably well-known comic actors in the voice cast, cloyingly cutesy baby characters, getting-crap-past-the-radar jokes to make the adults snicker, and the inclusion of pop songs aplenty. The birds might be flightless, but a surprisingly high number of the jokes land. Amidst the more questionable gags, like a Fifty Shades of Grey reference and scatological humour, there’s a litany of groan-inducing puns – think “Kevin Bacon in Hamlet”, “Calvin Swine underwear” and “The Birds and the Bees Fertility Clinic”. Screenwriter Jon Vitti is a Simpsons alum who also penned the first two Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, so one kind of knows what to expect jokes-wise. There is a niggling sense that a lot of the jokes were cooked up by a writer’s room of stand-up comics roped in to do a last-minute punch-up. It’s also not terribly original: one scene borrows the “most annoying sound” joke from Dumb and Dumber, while another lifts the Quicksilver kitchen sequence from X-Men: Days of Future Past wholesale.


            Angry Birds may be markedly unsophisticated, but its protagonist does go a good way to making it work. Red is flawed, a bitterly anti-social loner whose deep-seated issues stem from a childhood of neglect (he was orphaned) and bullying. Sudeikis doesn’t phone it in and ends up being pretty engaging as Red, allowing the viewer to sympathise with his myriad frustrations. Gad essentially reprises Olaf from Frozen, while McBride is reasonably cuddly as the gentle giant who just can’t help his outbursts. Dinklage is an absolute hoot as the Mighty Eagle, a widely-admired Wizard of Oz type who turns out to be out of shape and comically ineffectual – wait, the Bald Eagle is the national bird of which country, again?


            Hader could stand to be a little – yes, we’re going there – hammier in his role as the big bad of the piece. Leonard and his fellow pigs want to consume unborn children – it would’ve been interesting to see the movie acknowledge just how dark this is. And hiring Oscar winner Penn to grunt and growl seems even more puzzling than having Vin Diesel’s only lines be “I am Groot”. Penn taped all his, uh, “dialogue” in one recording session and co-director Clay Kaytis openly admits it was stunt-casting. Apparently, the film’s executive producer David Maisel is a friend of Penn’s and reached out to him. Penn, enjoying an early cut of the film (and probably not wanting to pass up the incredibly easy pay cheque), signed on.


            Angry Birds is sufficiently colourful, fast-paced and funny, such that parents won’t be tearing out their hair - though it’s likely they won’t genuinely enjoy it. It is what it is, a franchise-ready animated movie made by committee, and it really could’ve turned out significantly worse.



Summary: It’s an animated movie as ordered via corporate mandate, but The Angry Birds Movie does pack in the jokes and some lively animation. Have meaningful post-movie discussions with your kids about the supposed anti-immigration sentiment in the movie at your own risk.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars


Jedd Jong 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Young & Fabulous (最佳伙扮)

For F*** Magazine

YOUNG AND FABULOUS (最佳伙扮)

Director : Joyce Lee, Michael WooCast : Aloysius Pang, Joshua Tan, Joyce Chu, Jeffrey Xu, Gurmit Singh, Henry Thia, Quan Yi Fong, Jordan Ng, The Sam Willows
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1 hr 47 mins
Opens : 26 May 2016
Rating : PG (Some Coarse Language)


This comedy plunges us into the world of sewing machines, oversized foam swords, flowing robes and lots of makeup: the local cosplay scene. Royston (Pang) is a shy, top-scoring student with social anxiety. His mother Mei Feng (Quan) intends for him to become a doctor, but Royston dreams of being a fashion designer with his own label in Japan. Royston tailors costumes for the local cosplay community. His friend and client Chen Jun (Xu), who cross-dresses as female characters, eventually convinces Royston to try cosplaying himself. Royston secretly nurses a crush on his classmate Violet (Chu), a conceited social media darling from an affluent family. Royston’s best friend Hao Ren (Tan), an enterprising smooth-talker, encourages Royston’s pursuit of his hobby. Royston, Violet and Hao Ren eventually form a cosplaying team, while facing opposition from all sides. Mr. Boo (Singh), the school’s stern Discipline Master, is none too pleased that his students are diverting their attention away from their studies. Will passion conquer all, or will reality stomp on their dreams?


            It’s perfectly understandable that actual cosplayers would be wary of Young & Fabulous. After all, the hobby has often been misunderstood and thus misrepresented by those on the outside. As with any circle of enthusiasts, there are figures in the local cosplay who are admired for their craftsmanship and others who have gained notoriety for some reason or another, with a surprising amount of politicking in between. Anyway, it’s most helpful to think of Young & Fabulous not as a movie about cosplay, but as a comedy-drama which uses the hobby as a textural element. The themes in the film are not explored with great depth, but they are readily relatable. Most any Singaporean with artistic inclinations knows what it’s like to be reminded by their parents that one won’t be able to make a stable income outside of being a doctor/lawyer/accountant.


            As with many commercial Singaporean films, Young & Fabulous is sorely lacking in subtlety. The stylistic flourishes that include daydream sequences filled with deliberately cheesy visual effects, or comedy sound effects and on-screen graphics reminiscent of those one would see in an anime, tend to be a little too silly. However, barring one extremely jarring tonal shift, the balance between the comedy and drama tends to work. This reviewer was moved by several scenes, and there’s also a reveal in the final act that’s a real gut-punch. While it’s far from a nuanced portrayal of the cosplay scene, a great many actual cosplayers were involved in the making of the film, and if you’re in that community, you’ll recognise at least a couple of familiar faces in the crowd scenes. In addition to the standard blooper reel, the end credits also feature short interviews with actual cosplayers, including a pilot, a lawyer and an engineer, who explain what drew them to the hobby.

            Pang, one of local Chinese-language television’s “Eight Dukes”, is eminently endearing and easy to root for as the shy, stuttering underdog who eventually comes into his own. There are several moments when he dials the awkwardness up to 11 and it feels like an affectation, but that can be probably chalked up to a directorial choice as well. Nevertheless, there’s a depth of sincerity to his performance here. When Royston breaks down in tears, it is genuinely heart-rending. Ah Boys to Men star Tan is immensely likeable, charming when the character could’ve been plenty obnoxious. Hao Ren is an experienced huckster who’s opportunistic, but never at the expense of looking out for his friends, and seems like a pretty awesome wingman to have around.


            Malaysian singer Chu makes her acting debut in this film. Unfortunately, she has to bury her innate sweetness beneath layers of a princess complex. As far as female leads go, Violet is surprisingly catty and unkind, which brings us to the conclusion that Royston is really only drawn to her looks. There is an attempt to justify Violet’s behaviour by way of her snooty parents, played by Constance Song and Bernard Tan, but there’s far from enough character development if we’re expected to view Violet as a decent human being by the end of the movie.


            Singh makes a departure from his typically over-the-top comedic roles as the no-nonsense Mr. Boo, who seems the be the only teacher in the school. He gets to shine in a scene opposite Henry Thia, who plays Hao Ren’s father Hao Lian (a homonym for the Mandarin term for ‘boastful’), with Hao Ren translating for the two. Quan’s character, with her heart set on crushing her children’s dreams and who is prone to labelling her younger son Jordan (Jordan Ng) as “dumb”, is easy to dislike. However, it turns out that the film offers very compelling reasons for her actions and attitude, and while it’s exploration of parent-child tendencies may be very on-the-nose, it’s a relationship that this reviewer did get invested in. Quan also has a gem of a comedic scene in which she gives a speech to a sausage. We will not provide the context for this lest we ruin the joke.


            Xu, fellow ‘Duke’ to Pang, steals the show as the flamboyant Chen Jun, the de facto gay best friend whose sexual orientation is strongly hinted at but never referred to directly. Xu is having a ball of a time, and quite hearteningly, the film does not mock the character’s crossdressing outright. Sure, more than a few laughs are had at his expense, but he’s also made out to be confident and talented at his chosen hobby. Also look out for the members of indie band The Sam Willows, who cameo as school bullies.


            Young & Fabulous is surprisingly bereft of conspicuous product placement, a pitfall that affects many Singaporean films. There is a bottle of chicken essence with its label actually obscured. Co-directors Lee and Woo may not have portrayed the cosplay scene with utmost accuracy, but their intentions to depict the passion and craftsmanship that goes into the hobby cannot be faulted. Similarly, the difficulties faced by any young Singaporean in realising their artistic endeavours do make for adequately dramatic material.

Summary: Dressed to the sixes and sevens, rather than to the nines – what it lacks in subtlety, it somewhat makes up for in humour and heart.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars


Jedd Jong 


Thursday, May 19, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE

Director : Bryan Singer
Cast : James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Olivia Munn, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Lucas Till, Josh Helman, Lana Condor, Ben Hardy
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 25 mins
Opens : 19 May 2016
Rating : PG13 (Violence & Brief Coarse Language)

The end is the beginning is the end for our ever-expanding cast of mutant heroes as they face their most insurmountable foe yet. The year is 1983 and after a millennia-long slumber, En-Sabah-Nur/Apocalypse (Isaac), the first and most powerful mutant in history, has awoken. Apocalypse goes about recruiting mutants to be his new Four Horsemen: the still-bitter Erik Lensherr/Magneto (Fassbender) is “War”, the telekinetic swordswoman Elizabeth Braddock/Psylocke (Munn) is “Pestilence”, weather-controlling Ororo Munroe/Storm (Shipp) is “Famine” and the winged Warren Worthington III/Angel (Hardy) is “Death”.





In the meantime, Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Lawrence) has become an icon to mutants everywhere following her actions in Washington D.C. ten years earlier. In her mission to free oppressed mutants, she rescues Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Smit-McPhee), a circus performer with the ability to teleport. Among the new students in Professor Xavier’s (McAvoy) school are Scott Summers/Cyclops (Sheridan), Jean Grey/Phoenix (Turner) and Jubilation Lee/Jubilee (Condor). These young, inexperienced X-Men must look up to mentors like Professor X and Hank McCoy/Beast (Hoult) for guidance, with speedster Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Peters) returning to the fray as well. Everyone will be caught in Apocalypse’s unrelenting thirst for absolute power, as the X-Men have to fight for their lives and their future.


 X-Men: Apocalypse is the ninth film in the X-Men series, counting Deadpool from earlier this year. With the successes of both Days of Future Past and Deadpool, expectations for Apocalypse were understandably high. While there is a surfeit of wink-and-nod references for fans of the source material to lap up, Apocalypse does suffer from ‘sequelitis’ – it’s not an incurable case, but the symptoms are there. The 144-minute run time does mean this is bursting at the seams – if you thought there were too many characters in the earlier films, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The pacing, particularly in the front half, suffers, then the latter half of the movie almost drowns in frenetic, overwrought action sequences. The film’s reach tends to exceed its grasp, and there are so many complicated visual effects-heavy scenes that the large-scale destruction tends to feel synthetic and bereft of weight.


The central tempestuous and compelling relationship between Charles and Erik was the driving force of First Class. While this plot thread had to share screen time with many others in Days of Future Past, it was still given enough play. Here, it gets pushed to the sidelines, but director Bryan Singer seems eager to assure us that he hasn’t forgotten about it. As good as McAvoy and Fassbender are in their respective roles, most of the interaction between the two characters here seems like a re-tread, with Magneto’s character development going around in circles. Even more obvious here than in the previous film is the sense that Mystique has been pushed to the forefront to capitalise on Lawrence’s current stardom. There’s also an excuse written into the plot for why we see so little of Mystique in her scaly blue true form. Lawrence seems the tiniest bit checked out, as if she’s glad that she’s still part of a juggernaut franchise after the conclusion of the Hunger Games series, but would rather move on to something else.


When the first images of Apocalypse as depicted in this film were revealed, the comparisons to Ivan Ooze started flooding the internet. For this reviewer, the problem is not so much that the supervillain physically resembles a Power Rangers baddie, but that he acts like one. The original omnipotent mutant should be a force to be reckoned with, but Isaac’s hammy performance and some clunky snatches of dialogue prevent Apocalypse from actually being intimidating at all. It’s a shame that this unstoppable, ancient entity comes across as petulant and unintentionally funny.


Quicksilver stole the show with the slow-mo kitchen sequence in Days of Future Past, and there’s a generally decent attempt to recreate that here with a set-piece set to Sweet Dreams Are Made of This. It’s too bad that it can’t help but feel like a desperate attempt to bump a breakout character up the roster. The younger versions of Cyclops, Phoenix and Nightcrawler are generally fine – this reviewer particularly enjoyed McPhee’s turn as the sensitive, easily-startled and good-hearted Kurt. Fans of the X-Men: Evolution animated series will probably enjoy what is the closest we’ve come to a live-action version of that show, in the moments when the recruits are hanging out. And yes, the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) cameo is a hoot.


In between all of this, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg find the time to make a particularly nasty dig at X-Men: The Last Stand, in a line of dialogue uttered by Jean as she, Scott and Jubilation are leaving the theatre after watching Return of the Jedi. Sure, The Last Stand’s flaws have been consistently acknowledged and Days of Future Past exists predominantly to wipe it off the slate, but perhaps Singer and company shouldn’t be so smug. There’s less room for the character dynamics to breathe, the action is more generic and less inventive, and at times the large ensemble comes across like the Rockettes performing a kick line at Radio City Music Hall. On top of all that, a major supervillain whose live-action debut has been highly anticipated is disappointingly realised. Here’s hoping this is a momentary stumble, because if the post-credits scene is anything to go by, there’s more to come.



Summary: X-Men: Apocalypse has its entertaining moments and there’s no shortage of things for eagle-eyed fans to catch, but these are generally drowned out by loud, generic action and an overstuffed cast.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Faith Of Anna Waters (a.k.a The Offering)

For F*** Magazine

THE FAITH OF ANNA WATERS

Director : Kelvin Tong
Cast : Elizabeth Rice, Matthew Settle, Adina Herz, Colin Borgonon, Adrian Pang, Jaymee Ong, Pamelyn Chee, Paul Lucas, Victoria Mintey, Gus Donald
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 95 mins
Opens : 12 May 2016
Rating : NC16 (Horror)

Singaporean filmmaker Kelvin Tong takes a dip in the waters of Hollywood with this horror thriller. Chicagoan journalist Jamie Waters (Rice) travels to Singapore when she learns that her sister Anna (Condy) has died in an apparent suicide. Sam Harris (Settle), Anna’s ex-husband, is staying in an old bungalow inherited from his parents. Sam and Anna’s daughter Katie (Herz) insists that her mother is not really dead and senses ghostly activity that indicates so. Jamie discovers a mysterious symbol, and her research points towards an ancient demonic entity linking a spate of seemingly unrelated suicides in Singapore. Meanwhile, Father Matthew Goh (Pang) is tracking down the source of cyber-attacks on multiple church websites. He brings this to the attention of Father James De Silva (Borgonon), a priest haunted by a failed exorcism years ago. Rather than a mere hacker, Father Goh believes the same ancient evil linking the suicides is perpetrating the cyber-attacks. Jamie, Sam and the two priests must face a powerful other-worldly force to stop this cycle of death.




            The Faith of Anna Waters is touted as “Singapore’s first Hollywood horror movie”. What that actually means is this is a Singaporean film that managed to secure financial backing from American investors, with a couple of American actors leading the cast. An English-language genre piece has the potential to travel, and the producers of the film hope The Faith of Anna Waters will find an audience in the States and elsewhere beyond Singapore.


Director Tong also wrote the screenplay and the film is something of a mashup of the supernatural horror and techno-thriller subgenres. The premise of a tech-savvy demon can easily become ridiculous and certain aspects of this story seem a little dated. The project was originally entitled “Email”, and haunted email movies are past their sell-by date by about 15 years. There are so many disparate ingredients flung into the pot, from cyber threats to incurable diseases to allusions to the Biblical Tower of Babel to a family mystery rooted in Singapore’s colonial past, that this reviewer was less spooked by the film and more curious to see where it all leads. Unfortunately, Tong fails to satisfyingly tie these plot threads together, with the film often falling back on genre clichés and cribbing liberally from The Exorcist and supernatural horror movies of that ilk.  



Twilight’s Nikki Reed was originally attached to star, but was replaced by Mad Men’s Elizabeth Rice due to scheduling conflicts. Jamie Waters is the stock “intrepid journalist” character through and through, snooping around abandoned basements and thumbing through archival newspaper clippings in search of the truth. As proactive a protagonist as Jamie is, she’s just not a terribly interesting character. Similarly, Band of Brothers and Gossip Girls actor Settle is bland and unremarkable as Jamie’s former brother in law. Nothing really dynamic comes of the conflict between the two, with Jamie blaming Sam for leaving her sister and niece.


Herz, formerly a contestant on The Voice Kids Australia, makes her acting debut in the film. Unfortunately, her inexperience shows through, as she turns in an awkward and stiff performance. Australian actor Borgonon brings enough dignity to bear as Father De Silva in a performance that’s clearly patterned after Max von Sydow’s role in the afore-mentioned The Exorcist. Pang turns the earnestness up to eleven as priest/cyber-sleuth Father Goh, but there’s the sense that a considerably younger actor might be better-suited to the role as written.

The film’s production values are decent, with cinematographer Wade Muller establishing an appropriately spooky mood. The film employs digital visual effects sparingly, Tong wisely avoiding an overuse of CGI. There are also some effectively-staged gory moments showcasing competent special effects makeup work by Thai studio QFX Workshop. The film does rely too heavily on Joe Ng and Ting Si Hao’s score to announce to the audience that they should be afraid. Music and sound effects should enhance or accompany an inherently scary moment instead of merely serving to startle viewers. There are some potentially fascinating ideas at work in The Faith of Anna Waters, but these are muddled in an unnecessarily convoluted story with a lack of focus.



Summary: The bubbling cauldron of ideas in The Faith of Anna Waters hides a fairly conventional supernatural horror film, the intriguing fragments failing to cohere into an engrossing whole.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars


Jedd Jong 

The Family Fang

For F*** Magazine

THE FAMILY FANG

Director : Jason Bateman
Cast : Jason Bateman, Nicole Kidman, Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett, Marin Ireland, Harris Yulin, Linda Emond
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 1 hr 45 mins
Opens : 12 May 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

The family that creates art together stays together. Well, maybe that’s not a hard and fast rule. Baxter Fang (Bateman) is a novelist struggling with writer’s block while his sister Annie (Kidman) is a Hollywood actress and frequent tabloid target. As children, Annie was ‘Child A’ and Baxter was ‘Child B’, accomplices in their parents’ elaborate performance art pieces. Caleb (Walken) and Camille (Plunkett) garnered attention throughout the art world, staging various stunts in public with the aid of their children. The now-grown Fang siblings are affected by their past in different ways, and have become estranged from their parents. When Caleb and Camille suddenly vanish, Baxter and Annie immediately assume it’s just another stunt, since their parents have often cried wolf in the name of art. As the mystery surrounding Caleb and Camille’s disappearance thickens, Baxter and Annie are forced to confront some painful, uncomfortable memories, making sense of their roles in their parents’ lives and art.


The Family Fang is based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Kevin Wilson, adapted for the screen by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. Star Bateman also directs, marking his second outing behind the camera after Bad Words. It is extremely easy for films that are couched as being ‘quirky’ to come off as self-consciously pretentious. The Family Fang revolves around some pretty eccentric characters, but it has one foot firmly planted in a world that is grounded and relatable. In its commentary on modern art, The Family Fang expectedly tends towards the cynical, but Bateman tempers this with surprisingly heartfelt, sincere scenes.

Modern performance art has long been the subject of scoffing and scorn, and many hold the opinion that its practitioners get off on shocking the public and that there’s little value in their work otherwise. Figures like Chris Burden and Marina Abramović are some of the more obvious influences here, with the former being name-dropped in the film itself. While much of the film’s humour is derived from the outlandish nature of the pieces that Caleb and Camille create, Bateman seems careful not to mock them outright. This is a character study, with the central sibling team untangling the enigma of their parents; people who raised them but whom they’ve never quite understood.


Footage of the Fangs’ exploits is spliced in throughout the film, parcelling out the information so we see the evolution of how it all started out as something frivolous and fun, and see how the children began to feel like they were being used as pawns in service of their parents’ egos. Jack McCarthy and Kyle Donnery portray young Baxter at different ages, with Mackenzie Smith and Taylor Rose playing young Annie. Kathryn Hahn plays a younger Camille. Because Walken is so distinctive, Jason Butler Harner’s portrayal of a younger Caleb isn’t wholly convincing. These segments effectively convey two childhoods consumed by misguided passion and give us plenty of reasons why Baxter and Annie are unwilling to re-enter the world they’ve left behind.

Bateman is as reliable a straight man as they come, a master of the ‘uncertain sideways glance’. Baxter is a bit of a schlub, writing a fantasy novel about a brother and sister that draws on his own relationship with his sister. Bateman’s performance never calls attention to itself, which works great since Baxter is the one nominally normal character in a sea of peculiarity. Kidman has a reputation for being somewhat frigid, so it is wonderful to see her let her guard down and embrace the role of someone who’s flawed but full of life. The scene in which a sleazy director tries to convince Annie that she needs to go topless for a scene in his movie is a solid establishing character moment. Kidman’s natural Australian accent is more than a little distracting, but on the whole, she and Bateman sell their bond as siblings, very quickly getting the audience in their corner.



If you need someone to play eccentric, there’s no question that Walken is your guy. The actor is known for needing very little screen time to steal a movie, and he does make his presence felt in The Family Fang. Caleb is very clearly the ringleader, stringing Camille and their children along in his schemes. His wife goes along with the plans out of love and their kids have no say in it. There are some tough questions in there, chief of which being, “Can what Caleb and Camille did be strictly considered child abuse?” Caleb does not become an over-the-top caricature in Walken’s hands, and his fiery brashness is complemented by Plunkett’s maternal warmth.

Bateman’s sophomore directorial effort displays some sharp instincts for storytelling. While the central mystery is resolved a little too easily, the story is sufficiently intriguing to draw the viewer in. Any statements the film attempts to make about the art world do not overshadow the emotional journey of its sibling protagonists. It is ultimately quite a marvel that The Family Fang is bereft of the smart-alecky indulgence that tends to afflict films trading mostly on their quirk factor.

Summary: Witty yet far from obnoxious, this dark family comedy-drama is assured in tone and digs into the themes of family relationships while also voicing sound opinions on the world of performance art.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars


Jedd Jong

I Am Wrath

For F*** Magazine

I AM WRATH

Director : Chuck Russell
Cast : John Travolta, Christopher Meloni, Amanda Schull, Rebecca De Mornay, Sam Trammell, Luis Da Silva, Patrick St. Esprit
Genre : Action/Crime/Drama
Run Time : 90 mins
Opens : 12 May 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence)

John Travolta is very angry, and you won’t like him when he’s angry. In this action thriller, Travolta plays Stanley Hill, a mild-mannered auto manufacturing plant manager whose wife Vivian (De Mornay) is murdered in cold blood by some thugs right in front of his eyes. Frustrated by the inefficiency of the justice system, Stanley decides to take matters into his own hands in his quest for vengeance. He turns to his old friend Dennis (Meloni), who runs a barbershop but who used to work alongside Stanley in the distant, shadowy past. As Stanley and Dennis cut a swath through the city’s criminal element and uncover a conspiracy involving state officials, Stanley’s daughter Abbie (Schull) finds herself in the thugs’ crosshairs too.



If you’re thinking, “Gee, this sounds like the kind of thing Nicolas Cage would sleepwalk through,” you’re absolutely right. Cage was apparently slated to star in I Am Wrath, with legendary director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) attached, but that incarnation fell through. Instead, we get the man with whom Cage once swapped faces. It’s no secret that every actor wants to be Liam Neeson in Taken, but not every actor has what it takes. Here, John Travolta is one of the least convincing action heroes in recent memory, complete with a paunch and a ghastly hairpiece. It seems odd that Dennis is a barber by trade, and doesn’t mention a word about how odd his pal’s hair looks.


This is a movie that takes itself very seriously, taking its title from Jeremiah 6:11 in the Bible, which begins, “But I am full of the wrath of the LORD, and I cannot hold it in”. Because it is so very difficult to take Travolta seriously as a badass, I Am Wrath flits between being unintentionally funny and just dreadfully dull. His co-star Meloni would make a much better lead – now there’s a believable middle-aged guy who could throw down with gun-toting, knife-wielding no-goodniks. To go earlier than Taken, I Am Wrath clearly wants to be Death Wish. Now, Charles Bronson was a grizzled guy nobody wanted to mess with. Travolta looks like he’s midway through a transformation into a wax statue of himself.


From the stock ‘dead wife motivation’ to the non-descript gangster villains to the corrupt authority figures, I Am Wrath has not a single original bone in its body. The decision to set the movie in Columbus, Ohio seems like an odd one, to say the least. We have nothing against Columbus, Ohio – we’ve never been to Columbus, Ohio – but as filmed by director Chuck Russell and cinematographer Andrzej Sekuła, it looks extremely boring. Incidentally, Sekuła was the Director of Photography on Pulp Fiction, which starred Travolta. I Am Wrath’s tagline is, “I lay my vengeance upon them,” obviously meant to evoke Ezekiel 25:17, the Bible verse famously paraphrased by Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction. Let this be a lesson for every mediocre to terrible movie out there: do not remind the audience of far superior work.

Summary: John Travolta is as unconvincing an action hero as they come in this lazy, wholly forgettable sub-Taken dreck.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong