Monday, July 14, 2014

On Guard! Guardians of the Galaxy in Singapore

For F*** Magazine

ON GUARD! THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY IN SINGAPORE
By Jedd Jong for F*** Magazine 11/7/14
Photos by Tedd and Jedd Jong



Here in Singapore, we’re hooked on a feeling and high on believing after director James Gunn and stars Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista journeyed from the furthest reaches of the cosmos to our sunny shores. The Guardians of the Galaxy Southeast Asia press conference was held on Thursday, 10 July at the Marina Bay Sands convention centre. Before that, we were treated to a tantalising 17 minute preview of the film in IMAX 3D. The sequence showcased the titular team after they had just been formed and flung into a space prison called The Kyln. Packed with humour, action and attitude, it was an exciting way to whet the appetite for what Marvel Studios head honcho Kevin Feige has called “the riskiest movie I have made since Iron Man.”

The titular team consists of a thief, an assassin, two thugs and a blade-wielding psycho. “I’m going to be arrested for inviting such company to peaceful Singapore,” host Glenn Ong remarked. Gunn, Saldana and Bautista took to the stage at the press conference to the strains of Blue Swede’s Hooked on a Feeling, one of the songs on Star-Lord’s “awesome mix tape”.


Right off the bat, director Gunn took charge, opening with “look how pretty Zoe Saldana looks…and look how pretty Dave Bautista looks too!” The director, known for his background in edgy, low-budget cult horror flicks, let his eccentric side show when he commented that Marc Quinn’s giant baby sculpture, residing in the Gardens by the Bay, as his “favourite thing I’ve ever seen in (his) entire life”. When asked about the humorous tone of the film, Gunn said “I think that really Guardians of the Galaxy is about characters. I think that these characters are in and of themselves funny, so it wasn’t so much a matter of me trying to pack in the comedy, it was just letting these characters and these actors here fully express themselves so that the humour was able to come out in a natural way.”

When Ong reminded all present not to broach personal questions, Gunn sportingly leapt in with “You can ask personal questions of me – ask about my personal life, my love life, my cat, I’m an open book, ask away! I’ll give you all the gory details,” to uproarious laughter.


Turning to pro wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista, Ong jokingly said to the 1.98 m tall man, “thank you so much for increasing the average height of people in Singapore, for this week at least”.
Bautista said he still finds his fame and recognition “weird”. “I don’t know man, I think inside I feel like such a normal guy and also somewhat of an introvert too,” he said softly.
“Yes, he’s very shy,” co-star Saldana confirmed.

Commenting on playing a physical brute, Bautista observed “that’s always been the easy part for me. I’m a physical guy, working out is kind of my thing, it’s my release and my therapy, so physically it wasn’t as tough as it was as just stretching myself as an actor. It’s all kind of new to me, it’s such a large role, stepping on stage with some of the best and most talented people in the world, actors and directors, it was challenging.”
Elaborating on the character of Drax, Bautista said “he’s always described as this warrior who’s hell-bent on rage, I always say ‘no, at the core of Drax, Drax is heartbroken over the murder of his family and he’s just this very vulnerable guy.’ Very literal, and there’s that insane side, that sociopath side – I don’t think Drax knows it’s wrong to kill people,” he laughed. “Actually, he’s got a heart that’s bigger than he’s brain, he’s a very noble character and his core is his heart.”

It became very clear that Bautista was a surprisingly sweet, shy person behind his musclebound exterior. When a reporter asked if he shed a few tears upon receiving the news that he would play Drax, Bautista replied “It was true. I literally broke down, it wasn’t a few tears! I was driving…I literally just broke down, I drove home, I was a mess…It was a big deal to me, I can never explain how big it was to me, it was a life-changing moment.” He confessed that the transition from wrestling to acting was far from an easy one. "My first acting gig, I did as a favour for a friend and I realised two things: one of was how hard it was and two was that I loved it, I wanted to pursue it. There’s just not a lot of similarities, the only similarity is that cameras are pointed at you and that’s all it is. Wrestling is so broad, so conversational and acting is so much more intimate and intimidating!”



He continued, “It was hard for me to leave behind wrestling, and I worked and struggle, worked and struggled and auditioned I finally got the dream role of a lifetime, it was like make or break, I pretty lost everything I gained while wrestling, I lost it all because I took a chance on myself because I was passionate to pursue it. So it was worth a few tears, I broke down. It meant that much to me.”

Gunn was moved by Bautista’s earnestness. “From the beginning, sometimes you meet actors that you really like as people and you really want to get them the role but they aren’t right for the role, you give the role to the person who deserves the role and from the moment I met Dave, he and I have a sort of connection. Within minutes of talking, I kind of liked Dave and I liked him so much as a person that I was rooting for him to come through, through a series of screen tests and a lot of different things he had to go through to try and get the role, and when he proved himself to be by far, the only person we ever thought of for the role was Dave Bautista despite some stuff that the press might have said, Dave was the only person we offered the role to because he was the best. Dave actually was that good, it was touching for me and I say this of all the cast: they’re people whom I really like as people, but they’re also the best people for the role.”


Zoe Saldana said she had stayed up all night to watch the World Cup semi-finals game and was overjoyed that Argentina emerged victorious. In spite of this, she looked alert and radiant. Even though she was contacted directly by Gunn for the part instead of having to go through multiple auditions, she still found it a nerve-wracking experience. “The first thing you feel is flattered, super-blessed, your ego gets a little peaked a lot, but the second thought is absolute panic because if you say ‘yes’, there’s a lot of expectations lying on your shoulders because work that you’ve done before has (been) brought (to) the attention of this awesome director and he’s relying on you delivering what he’s seen you deliver before, which he thought was so cool.”

Saldana was hesitant given the demanding nature of the role, but decided to leap right into it. “ I was a little nervous when they said yes, and then they told me about the 5.5 hours of makeup every day, and then they told me about the shooting it for five months and we were going to be shooting it for six day weeks, and there was going to be a lot of action and fighting and rehearsals and then I said ‘okay, yes’. I kind of went ‘okay, I’ll do it, I’ll do it!’ because I didn’t want to realise what I was getting myself into but it ended up being a great experience, because it had everything that I grew up wanting movies to have: it had action, it had comedy, it had a lot of imagination and the story was really complete and all the characters had such a beautiful journey from beginning to the end individually, but also as a collective, and I thought ‘this is a great ensemble picture to be part of’.”



On being the only female member of the Guardians, Saldana said “It feels great, it’s empowering because I know that it delivers a very strong message to young women that besides being beautiful and delicate flowers, that you can also channel your strength and not be afraid of it. It’s very rewarding when you know you can climb a tree, or you can grab a weapon, even though we’re in the world of make-believe, you can see yourself kind of doing all these things and you feel very empowered.” She was grateful that she was not alone – Gamora has a fearsome adopted sister whom she clashes with. “I’m actually very happy to say that I’m not the only female in this cast and Karen Gillan, who plays Nebula, did an amazing job and it’s really great to know that I was sharing screen time with not only amazing male actors, but also with another female actress because sometimes being the only female actress can be a little lonely.”


Gunn chimed in with “Karen and Zoe were a lot of fun to watch on set because they had a huge fight scene, with these two super-powered females fighting each other, and it was like two female Clint Eastwoods battling it out and duelling and all of a sudden I would yell ‘cut!’ and they would go ‘tee-hee hee hee! Hee hee hee hee!’”

Gunn was given the job of taking the wild and woolly Guardians and making them movie stars to stand alongside their better-known Marvel counterparts. “I feel like because Guardians of the Galaxy in the comics, they are not quite as well-known as say Captain America, Iron Man or the Avengers, I felt like that gave us a lot of freedom to really create the cinematic version of Guardians of the Galaxy. And I think that Guardians of the Galaxy is more at home on screen than in the comic books, and it is first and foremost a cinematic property, so I felt like it really gave me a lot of freedom to do something interesting with it and create loveable characters.”

Ong did a double take. “Did you just say ‘loveable’?”

“Yeah, they’re ‘a bunch of a-holes’ but they’re still loveable characters, even Drax!” Gunn affirmed.
Marvel movie fans have wanted to know the extent of Avengers director Joss Whedon’s involvement with Guardians, and Gunn confirmed “Joss and I have been friends for a long time, he read the script and gave me notes on the script, and the biggest note he gave was to make it ‘more James Gunn’. And I said ‘it’s your funeral’.” The character of Thanos, who first appeared in the mid-credits stinger scene in The Avengers and who is a major player in Guardians (played by Josh Brolin) is a figure who will link the earth-based Marvel movies and the “Marvel Cosmic” ones. “I pretty much had free rein and it wasn’t so much about making this movie lead somewhere but it was about creating a great foundation so that it could lead somewhere, you don’t want to just have ‘fill in the dots’, we want to create something that has substance that we can believe in it, that’s really exciting and real and true. Then it gives a lot of the fans some of the answers (that) we leave unanswered so that there are places to go, for the Guardians to go in future,” said Gunn.



Gunn maintained that he was given a satisfactory degree of freedom from the Marvel Studios higher-ups. “I pretty much do what I believe (in) and I don’t approach a small movie like Slither or Super any differently than I approach a big movie like Guardians of the Galaxy. I do everything I can with my heart, as true as I possibly can, and I’ve been very fortunate in my career thus far to have producers like (at) Marvel to let me have free rein and do something really creative and excellent even though it’s for such a large budget.”
Guardians is really about a group of outcasts, a group of people who feel like they don’t belong, coming together, finding something within themselves that they didn’t know was there – something heroic, something wonderful and very simply something good,” Gunn said pithily. “And I think what the movie is about includes all of us, no matter what country you’re from, no matter what part of the world you’re from, the love of ourselves and each other and finding the good within ourselves. And if there’s anything that makes this movie worthwhile and worth spending two years of our lives doing nothing else but this film, is for people to be able to walk out of the theatre feeling a little better about themselves, feeling a little better about the person they were sitting next to in the theatre and feeling a little better about the world in general.”

James Gunn couched Guardians of the Galaxy as a movie made by outcasts, about outcasts and for outcasts. “I think one of the things about Guardians of the Galaxy is it’s about this group of oddballs, outcasts who are plucked from obscurity in Marvel Comics and turned into these big movie stars, and I think that we’ve talked about this a lot, that we all feel like that. My last movie cost $3 million, it was an independent film, Dave is a wrestler whom people didn’t think of as a real actor, Zoe has been pushed to the sidelines for her whole life because she’s a person of colour from a place that not everybody is from in this industry, Chris Pratt was a chubby guy when he got this role, Vin Diesel’s a weirdo, Benicio del Toro’s a weirdo and the biggest weirdo of all was Michael Rooker. We were just a group of oddballs and outcasts and came together to make this movie and made something we all feel really good about. The parallels are very interesting to me all the time and I think we all feel this way, that through the process we’ve come to love each other. You’ll hear us all talk about how much we love each other and you hear this on all movies. The thing is, usually they’re lying but this time, it’s true,” he concluded to applause. 



Saldana said what was on everyone’s minds: “part 2, everybody!”

We definitely like the Guardians enough to want to see more – like the Jackson 5, we want them back!

Guardians of the Galaxy opens in Singapore on 31 July 2014.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

For F*** Magazine

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES

Director : Matt Reeves
Cast : Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Toby Kebbell, Judy Greer, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirk Acevedo, Nick Thurston, Terry Notary
Genre : Sci-Fi, Action
Opens : 10 July 2014
Rating : TBA 
Running time: 132 mins

Three years on from the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this reviewer is still impressed with how effective, intelligent, innovative and just plain good that reboot was. In this sequel, set ten years after the events of Rise, earth’s human population has dwindled at an alarming rate in the wake of a devastating “Simian flu” pandemic. Caesar the chimpanzee (Serkis) leads a flourishing shrewdness of apes, including his son Blue Eyes (Thurston) and his aggressive advisor Koba (Kebbell). The human remnant sequestered in what remains of San Francisco is headed by military man Dreyfus (Oldman). Malcolm (Clarke), one of the survivors in Dreyfus’ camp, forges a fragile alliance with Caesar in order to gain access to a hydroelectric dam to generate power for the human settlement. Caesar grows to accept Malcolm, his wife Ellie (Russell) and their son Alexander (Smit-McPhee). However, having been severely mistreated by humans while in captivity, Koba strongly disapproves of this arrangement and incites an explosive conflict between the apes and the humans.


            Dawn of the Planet of the Apes sees Matt Reeves of Cloverfield fame taking over the director’s chair from Rupert Wyatt, working from a screenplay by Rise scribes Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, with Mark Bomback. This is everything a good sequel should be, furthering the plot in a logical and intriguing direction without slavishly re-treading the story beats of its predecessor and without trying to be superficially “bigger and better” in terms of bombastic spectacle. Equal storytelling attention is given to the apes and the humans and the audience is fully able to buy into this world and accept each player in this story, be they human or computer-generated ape, as legitimate, well-formed characters. There’s a whole lot of meaningful character development going on and admirably enough, much of the conflict is derived from the characters’ individual nature instead of contrived circumstances. Despite the ten year time skip, there is still very strong connective tissue linking Dawn to Rise, building on the emotions generated from Caesar’s early years as depicted in the previous film.  


            Of course, credit has to be given to visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri of Weta Digital. The many artists and technicians involved give vivid life to the performance capture work of actors like Andy Serkis and Toby Kebbell, applying their expressions and physicality to intricately-crafted CGI apes. The interaction between the apes amongst themselves, the apes and the environment and the apes and the live-action human actors is seamless. As impressive as the animation in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was, it is stepped up here, to the point that the film’s opening shot is a tight close-up of Caesar’s eyes – those eyes lifelike and actually acting. Serkis, Kebbell, Thurston and the other actors portraying the key apes all deserve praise for essaying these figures with such nuanced physicality, but the visual effects wizards carrying that baton to the finish line should be duly recognised as well. In Dawn, great acting and great effects go hand-in-paw to create not just creatures, but honest-to-goodness characters.


            The human cast is our way in, and Jason Clarke, Keri Russell and Kodi Smit-McPhee are all convincing as the members of the family central to the story. The terseness between Malcolm and Caesar that eventually gives way to mutual respect and understanding but is always threatened by both apes and humans is played exceedingly well by both Clarke and Serkis. Gary Oldman’s role is not as big as the promotional material would have you believe, but he brings a heart-wrenching humanity to Dreyfus in addition to his signature explosive scenery-chewing (delivered in just the right amounts).


            1968’s Planet of the Apes was a landmark achievement for being an entertaining film that also pushed the boundaries of filmmaking technique (particularly in terms of special effects makeup) and was very thought-provoking. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is commendably similar in all those regards. There’s always been a silliness inherent in the premise, but following Rise, Dawn continues to effectively mitigate that. The film is unflinchingly brutal, even disturbing when it has to be but also articulates genuine emotion. It can be construed as anti-gun, interesting considering that the star of the original Planet of the Apes, the late Charlton Heston, was the president of the National Rifle Association. However, that is not where the focus lies – Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, like Rise before it, is a true character piece. Many summer blockbusters are touted as “character pieces” and that fools no one, but here is a film that intelligently and compellingly comments on prejudice and war while delivering the action flick goods and visual effects spectacle. A fine antidote to Transformers: Age of Extinction.


Summary: A new day is dawning, as the revitalised Planet of the Apes franchise marches onwards in just the right direction.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Friday, July 4, 2014

We Ship This: Top 10 Movie Spaceships

As published in Issue #54 F*** Magazine






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Text:

WE SHIP THIS

Top 10 Movie Spaceships

By Jedd Jong


In Guardians of the Galaxy, Star-Lord’s ride is a spiffy spacecraft named The Milano, which in addition to sporting a yellow and blue paint job has somehow given us a craving for Pepperidge Farm cookies. Anyway, there has long been a sci-fi movie tradition of cool, cool spacecraft, ranging from the spectacularly outlandish to the intriguingly plausible. Raise your shields and join F*** for a look at 10 of the most awesome ships to blaze through the cosmos!

SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO from SPACE BATTLESHIP YAMATO


Nothing quite says “national pride” like dredging up a sunken battleship, retro-fitting it with a Wave Motion Engine and a Wave Motion Gun created with alien technology and sending it into battle with alien invaders. Such was the premise of the 1974 anime Space Battleship Yamato, which was re-packaged into the English-language Star Blazers. In 2010, fans of the anime finally got to see their beloved space battleship in full live-action glory, in the feature film directed by Takashi Yamazaki. Star Takuya Kimura voluntarily took a pay cut so that the CGI space battle sequences in the film could be improved. Though many fans were somewhat disappointed, the end result was visually impressive given the film’s $23.9 million budget, small in comparison to that of most Hollywood sci-fi extravaganzas. Sing it with us, in your best Steven Tyler wail, “loves lives” – and so does the resurrected Yamato.

GUNSTAR ONE from THE LAST STARFIGHTER


1984’s The Last Starfighter, directed by Nick Castle, is a fondly-remembered nostalgic classic yet one that’s not often mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Ghostbusters or Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Regardless, the film tapped into the dreams of many a gamer with its premise of the Rylan Star League recruiting a teenager named Alex to fight the Ko Dan Empire on the basis of his arcade game high score. Alex co-pilots the Gunstar One, an untested experimental prototype equipped with the wonderfully-named Death Blossom laser volley weapons system. The Last Starfighter was revolutionary for being one of the first major films (alongside Tron from two years earlier) to heavily utilise computer-generated imagery. The Gunstar and the other vehicles in the film were designed by Ron Cobb, who has also worked on the likes of Star Wars, Alien and Conan the Barbarian.

TRIMAXION DRONE SHIP from FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR


At first glance, most of the ships featured on this list do look kinda similar and, well, spaceship-y. The Trimaxion Drone Ship came from another beloved 80s kids’ film, The 1986 Disney flick Flight of the Navigator. In the movie, 12 year old David accidentally comes into contact with a crashed alien ship and enters into an eight-year-long coma. Scientists performing tests on him discover that schematics and instructions on how to fly a spaceship have been uploaded into his brain. The ship itself contacts David, who has taken on the role of “navigator”, needing his help to return home. The on-board artificial intelligence, nicknamed “Max”, was voiced by Paul Reubens a.k.a. Pee Wee Herman. Creating the chrome outer surface of the Trimaxion Drone Ship was a challenge back in the day and the filmmakers employed ground-breaking reflection mapping software. And hey, because of its shell-like appearance, it seems appropriate that the ship could also travel underwater.

DISCOVERY ONE from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY


Stanley Kubrick’s dazzling vision of a future 13 years ago was still 33 years away when 2001: A Space Odyssey was released. The third of four sections in the epic was “The Jupiter Mission”. On board the Discovery One spacecraft bound for the fifth planet from the sun were astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole with three others in hibernation – as well as the ship’s somewhat untrustworthy artificial intelligence system HAL 9000. The Discovery One was powered by Cavradyne Plasma Propulsion Engines and featured a centrifuge to generate artificial gravity, hence the famous scene of David jogging around the circular interior of the crew’s quarters. The ship also held three extra-vehicular activity (EVA) pods, akin to mini-submersibles. Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist and hired spacecraft consultants Frederick Ordway and Harry Lange to work alongside production designer Anthony Masters and art director Ernest Archer to devise the designs in the movie. Legend has it that NASA administrator George Mueller and astronaut Deke Slayton nicknamed the studio “NASA East” because of the filmmakers’ level of technical accuracy.

CITY DESTROYERS from INDEPENDENCE DAY


Quite possibly above any other director working today, Roland Emmerich personifies the maxim “go big or go home”. After all, this is the man who basically wiped the surface of the earth clean in 2012 and made a movie with the tagline “size does matter”. In 1996, Emmerich unleashed Independence Day, a movie about aliens unleashing their forces on the world, on the world. Independence Day homages classic sci-fi flicks like Earth vs. The Flying Saucers and the 1953 take on War of the Worlds – except this time, the ships were truly colossal, their shadows hanging ominously over whole cities. “The size of the craft relates to the amount of aliens coming (to Earth) and basically, all their world is moving together, that's why it had to be so big,” explained production designer Patrick Tatopoulos. 36 of these craft were deployed by the alien mother ship, each one with a diameter of 25 km. The Destroyers would in turn release hundreds of small, agile fighter craft called Attackers. The Mothership floating in space was a whopping 800 km long along its longest axis. These dimensions are truly impressive, the ships’ weakness to computer viruses notwithstanding.

U.S.S. SULACO from ALIENS


Just look at the thing: doesn’t it seem like an assault rifle poised and ready to fire? The tagline for James Cameron’s sequel Aliens was “this time, it’s war” and the design of the U.S.S. Sulaco certainly reflected that. While the Nostromo from the first Alien film was essentially an interplanetary big rig truck, the Sulaco was more akin to a naval destroyer. According to designer and “visual futurist” Syd Mead, the Sulaco was not intentionally designed to look like the pulse rifles in the film. “I envisioned the Sulaco as a heavily armed, interplanetary/intergalactic freighter with loading doors along the side, a crane track and generally, an overlay of military hardware look onto a functional configuration for the drive element and the main body,” he said. “The massive 'guns' on each side may have generated that theory.” Mead’s initial designs were more spherical, but Cameron’s script called for “'forest of antennae coming into frame from the left,” something which would not require variable focus. What we ended up with was a ship as badass as its cargo of hardened Colonial Marines – and one Ellen Ripley.

THE MOTHERSHIP from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND


Not all aliens want to destroy us, some just want to play us a neat five-note tune. In Steven Spielberg’s modern classic, probably the “benevolent alien” movie other than that other Spielberg benevolent alien movie, a suburban electrical lineman develops a peculiar obsession with UFOs. This culminates in scientists and the military gathering at the Devils Tower structure in Wyoming; the Mothership hovering just above. Designed by Star Wars artist Ralph McQuarrie and constructed by model maker Greg Jein, the look of the Mothership was inspired by an oil refinery rig Spielberg had come across in India. The ship’s interior was never meant to be shown, but the studio pressured Spielberg into filming a sequence showing it for a re-release. This scene was removed in Spielberg’s final cut years later. Tiny random bits stuck onto Mothership by model builders as inside jokes include a Volkswagen bus, a submarine, R2-D2, a U.S. mailbox, and a small cemetery plot. Should you ever be in Washington, D.C., you can check out the model of the Mothership on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum.

SERENITY from SERENITY


Ask any geek worth their salt to name an excellent TV show that got cancelled after one series and they’ll all forlornly answer “Firefly”. Joss Whedon’s sci-fi Western series that got unceremoniously canned by Fox received a second lease of life in the 2005 feature film Serenity, which Whedon directed. The film opened with a tour through the titular ship by way of a tracking shot, cleverly re-establishing the characters and the different areas of the vessel itself. A rinky-dink Firefly-class freighter that always seemed in danger of falling apart, the Serenity was nevertheless a trusty ship for Captain Mal Reynolds and his ragtag crew. The Serenity was equipped with decoy buoys called “crybabies” that could be jettisoned to distract pursuing enemies. The Serenity was designed by director Joss Whedon, production designer Carey Meyer and visual effects supervisor Loni Peristere. Whedon was keen to establish the limited amount of space inside the ship. ''One of the first things I thought was, I'm gonna have a ship with a toilet,'' he said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. ''I wanted a ship that felt lived-in.''

USS ENTERPRISE from STAR TREK


Throughout the various Star Trek series and films, there have been many incarnations of the ship that’s central to the franchise, the USS Enterprise. The classic Enterprise from the Original Series era captained by James T. Kirk was a Constitution-class starship with the designation NCC-1701. A re-fitted version of this ship appears in the films Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, being destroyed in that last one. Following that, the rebuilt NCC-1701-A served as the setting for the remaining movies featuring the Original Series crew. For the Next Generation-era movies, Captain Jean-Luc Picard sat at the helm of the Sovereign-class NCC-1701-E. The art director on the Original Series, Matt Jeffries, was the primary designer of the original Enterprise, taking inspiration from the look of electric stove coils. With its warp drive, deflector shields, photon torpedoes and phasers, the Enterprise quickly became one of the most iconic spaceships in all of sci-fi, and with the re-imagined movie series, continues to fly across the silver screen (and be worshipped by primitive alien species).

MILLENNIUM FALCON from STAR WARS



Like Star Trek, several ships from Star Wars have become ingrained in popular culture but when push came to shove, we picked the loveable hunk of junk herself, the Millennium Falcon. The modified YT-1300 light freighter was the vessel of choice of smuggler Han Solo; the rogue having won the ship in a game of sabaac from his friend Lando Calrissian. Solo and his co-pilot Chewbacca made multiple modifications to the ship, including quad laser cannons and sensor jammers. The Falcon embodied the “used future” aesthetic seen in the original Star Wars trilogy; at a time when most sci-fi films featured sleek, clean environments dominated by white and chrome, it was novel to see a ship that had trouble starting up. Like its pilot, the ship is imperfect but has plenty of personality. The original design for the ship was too similar to that of the Eagle transporter in Space: 1999, so the Falcon was revised, its new look leading the staff at visual effects house ILM to nickname it the “Porkburger”. While it was George Lucas who had the burger brainwave, various designers including Ralph McQuarrie, Colin Cantwell, Joe Johnston, effects technician John Dykstra and production designer John Barry contributed to the design. The afore-mentioned Serenity can be seen as a direct descendant concept-wise of the Millennium Falcon. The Falcon will once again make its hyperspace jump in J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII. Abrams jokingly posted a photo of a note claiming the Falcon would not be in the film – the note itself was resting on the famous Dejarik holochess board seen in the Falcon’s lounge. 

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Begin Again

For F*** Magazine

BEGIN AGAIN

Director : John Carney
Cast : Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld, Mos Def, James Corden, CeeLo Green, Catherine Keener
Genre : Drama, Romance
Opens : 3 July 2014
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language) 
Running time: 104 mins

Lovin’ a music man ain’t always what it’s supposed to be, and that goes for the music men behind the scenes as well. In this musical romantic comedy, Mark Ruffalo plays Dan Mulligan, the down-and-out exec of music label Distressed Records, who has an estranged wife (Keener) and daughter (Steinfeld). While drowning his sorrows at a bar one night, British singer-songwriter Gretta (Knightley) catches his attention and he immediately sets about getting a hold of her so they can collaborate on a record. It turns out that Gretta’s long-time boyfriend and songwriting partner Dave Kohl (Levine) has strayed after letting stardom get to his head. Gretta tries to leave Dave behind as she, Dan, her best friend Steve (Corden) and a motley crew of session musicians embark on recording an album on the streets of New York, guerrilla-style.

            Begin Again, formerly titled Can a Song Save Your Life?, is written and directed by John Carney of Once fame. The micro-budget Irish indie flick became a cult favourite after netting a Best Original Song Oscar for Falling Slowly and was adapted into an acclaimed musical running on Broadway and the West End. Begin Again can be seen as Carney “going Hollywood”, trading in a cheap video camera for a fancy Red Digital and having Hollywood names and pop stars in the cast. While Begin Again is certainly a glossier, slicker affair, it still retains a good measure of earnestness and sweetness and is sure to appeal to fans of music movies. In what might be somewhat meta commentary, the theme of “indie vs. big record label” crops up. There’s also a rather surprising bit of anti-product placement: Dan takes a sip of Pepsi and wonders aloud “God damn, how do people drink that?!”


            Many of the elements in Begin Again can be described as “formulaic” – there’s the maverick music producer who has been reduced to an unkempt mess but who gets a second wind upon discovering an ingénue, the disapproving ex-wife and the rebellious daughter and the ingénue’s unfaithful rock star boyfriend. An early scene has a frustrated Dan tossing demo CDs out of his car window, fed up with inane pop and in search of “real music”. However, the film does possess enough self-awareness such that it doesn’t drown in a morass of clichés and that there’s a still a soul to it. Carney also has a little fun with the structure of the first half of the film, starting in medias res before rewinding to the start of that day, telling the story from Dan’s point of view – and then rewinding further and telling it from Gretta’s. There’s also a wonderfully whimsical moment of visual invention, when upon first hearing Gretta sing, Dan begins to imagine possible arrangements for the song; the piano, drums, cello and violin sitting on stage suddenly playing by themselves in his imagination.


            Mark Ruffalo is pretty much scruffy-sexy incarnate. Once again, he looks like he badly needs a shower and a shave, but perhaps that is part of his charm. He convincingly essays a man who has fallen on hard times but who clearly once had drive and inspiration, and when that returns to him he comes alive again. Keira Knightley’s role was originally intended for Scarlett Johansson – while we don’t get the Hulk and Black Widow making sweet music together, Knightley is a perfectly acceptable substitute. Her singing voice is very pleasant and she consciously avoids turning Gretta into an idealised “manic pixie dream girl” type. When she says “I’m not Judy Garland off the greyhound bus looking for stardom”, this reviewer believes her – but wants to see her make it in the music biz all the same.


            When it comes to the casting of established singers like Adam Levine and his fellow The Voice coach CeeLo Green, it’s a Catch-22 situation: on one hand, having actual musicians in your music movie gives it credibility but on the other, it can be distracting enough to pull one out of the experience. Green’s appearance in the film is more tolerable because as hip-hop star and old pal of Dan’s nicknamed Troublegum, he could well be playing himself. However, Levine is not a brilliant actor and this reviewer happens to find his high-pitched whine of a singing voice somewhat grating. We’re also 90% sure that the name “Dave Kohl” is some kind of a dig at the similarly-named Foo Fighters frontman.



            Begin Again is a great date movie because it isn’t yet another a production line rom com and it never becomes unbearably cheesy and sappy. It won’t redefine the music flick genre, but it does have its share of sweet moments. The songs, co-written by New Radicals frontman Gregg Alexander with Danielle Brisebois, Nick Lashley, Rick Nowels and Nick Southwood, Once star Glen Hansard and Carney himself, are all very listenable if not especially memorable or catchy. And this is quite possibly the first movie to make splitter cables seem like very romantic objects.

SUMMARY: Begin Again’s formulaic elements are offset by its measured sweetness and charm.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction

For F*** Magazine

TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION

Director : Michael Bay
Cast : Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Nicola Peltz, Jack Reynor, Kelsey Grammer, Li Bingbing, Sophia Myles, Titus Welliver, T. J. Miller and the voices of: Peter Cullen, Robert Foxworth, John Goodman, John DiMaggio, Ken Watanabe, Frank Welker
Genre : Action, Sci-Fi
Opens : 26 June 2014
Running time: 165 mins

Lord Bay of House Boom has returned locked and loaded for the fourth live-action Transformers film despite saying he would quit the franchise, this time with a new human cast. It has been four years since Chicago was decimated in the battle between Autobots and Decepticons and the U. S. government has decided to end their partnership with the Autobots, declaring them enemies. CIA official Harold Attinger (Grammer) is in charge of hunting them down, engaging the services of mercenary Savoy (Welliver) and ruthless Decepticon bounty hunter Lockdown (Ryan). Joshua Joyce (Tucci), owner of tech giant KSI, has a lucrative government contract to manufacture man-made facsimiles of the Transformers by reverse-engineering captured and dismantled Autobots and Decepticons. Meanwhile, Texan inventor Cade Yeager (Wahlberg), his best friend Lucas (Miller), his daughter Tessa (Peltz) and Tessa’s boyfriend Shane (Reynor) get drawn into the conflict when they unwittingly come into the possession of a beat-up old truck that just happens to be Optimus Prime (Cullen) himself. With the extinction of humanity imminent, Optimus and the remaining Autobots must defeat Attinger and the Decepticons in pursuit.


            Tennis champ Boris Becker said “you get used to eating caviar and at some point it tastes as ordinary as everything else.” In the context of action movies, explosions are akin to caviar. More doesn’t necessarily mean better, but director Michael Bay has wilfully rejected this notion and continues to stuff his films with more and more. He promised a “less goofy” outing but as this reviewer has learnt the hard way, a Michael Bay cannot change his spots. The elements in the second and third films that led to them being critically panned are still here, just in slightly more controlled doses. There’s still juvenile humour, there’s still racism and sexism, there’s still obnoxious product placement, the action scenes are still overwhelming flurries of whirling, clanging metal, it’s just reined in a bit and therefore slightly more tolerable than before. Bumblebee still talks using voice clips. Instead of an annoying actual dog, there’s an annoying homemade robot dog. Instead of Linkin Park, there’s Imagine Dragons. The film’s stabs at self-aware winking at the audience (an elderly movie theatre proprietor bemoans how all major releases are remakes and sequels) are more awkward and on the nose than anything else.


            Apologists of this film series have often used the “this is not Citizen Kane” argument. Well, even Citizen Kane had a running time of 119 minutes. This bad boy clocks in at 165 minutes, the longest Transformers movie yet. It’s overkill. Were this around 100 minutes long, we might’ve been really entertained. Still, there are definitely parts of the movie to commend. Bay and screenwriter Ehren Kruger have decided to make the human villain a CIA official, which combined with the decreased role of the military, makes this less of a jingoism party than the earlier films in the series. Having human scientists attempting to create their own Transformers without comprehending the danger and complexity of the technology is a perfectly viable angle to come at the story from, if somewhat Terminator-esque. And best of all, our protagonist is no longer the useless, unbearably annoying Sam Witwicky.



            Mark Wahlberg is certainly an upgrade from Shia LaBeouf, even if Marky Mech doesn’t break into an off-key rendition of the Transformers theme song “The Touch” like in Boogie Nights. Cade Yeager is a bundle of clichés: All-American everyman turned hero, amateur inventor whose workshop is filled with knick-knacks plus he’s an over-protective single dad who utterly disapproves of his daughter’s boyfriend just on principle. But Wahlberg being significantly less punch-worthy than LaBeouf makes a difference. Nicola Peltz of The Last Airbender infamy fulfils the pre-requisites of being the female lead in this series: she can’t act and she rocks the Daisy Dukes. Reynor is a typical modern Hollywood imported pretty-boy; some kind of attempt made at explaining away the Irish actor’s accent - Cade ends up disparagingly referring to his would-be son-in-law as “Lucky Charms”. Once again, at least he’s significantly less annoying than Shia LaBeouf.


            While Stanley Tucci is subjected to a good deal of embarrassment as a send-up of tech icons like Steve Jobs, he is spared the depths of indignity that the likes of John Turturro and John Malkovich suffered in the previous movies. Kelsey Grammer takes his role as primary human antagonist surprisingly seriously and his frighteningly pragmatic Attinger is a bright spot in the film, so many steps up from Patrick Dempsey in Dark of the Moon. Titus Welliver is also quite imposing and the sequence in which he pursues Cade as they cling to the exterior of a Hong Kong apartment building is plenty of fun. As the head of KSI in China, Li Bingbing is the stock boss lady and without Sally Cahill to dub over her like in Resident Evil: Retribution, she valiantly battles the English language. The voice acting is good as well, not only is definitive Optimus Prime performer Peter Cullen back, but the legendary Frank Welker reprises his role as Galvatron from the various animated series. Thankfully, Ken Watanabe and John Goodman’s distinct voices are still recognizable even after being treated with that robot voice filter. Watanabe also gets to deliver the film’s funniest line, Drift’s reaction upon first seeing the Dinobots transform.


            One thing has been true about this series: no matter how bad the rest of the film gets, the visual effects work certainly can’t be faulted and we’d like to salute visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar and the armies of artists and technicians who brought the Autobots, Decepticons and those fan-favourite Dinobots to life. Amidst the bombast, we also get genuinely beautiful shots, like those of the Autobots convening in Monument Valley and a shot in which Lockdown’s ship is reflected in Chicago’s Cloud Gate sculpture. We saw this in IMAX 3D and even though it is often pretty to look at, the constantly shifting aspect ratios can be very distracting. Transformers: Age of Extinction is more bearable than Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon, albeit certainly not the paradigm shift in quality it is touted to be. But hey, this is a movie with a humanoid robot semi-truck astride a giant robot T-rex charging into battle, so it’s not like anything we say matters too much anyway.


SUMMARY: While relatively better than its predecessors thanks to more likeable leads and less superfluous subplots, many of the problems that plagued the earlier Transformers movies are still very present throughout the 165 minute duration.

Mark Wahlberg, Jack Reynor and Nicola Peltz do not love the smell of napalm any time of the day.



RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Trials of Cate McCall

For F*** Magazine

THE TRIALS OF CATE MCCALL 

Director : Karen Moncrieff
Cast : Kate Beckinsale, Nick Nolte, James Cromwell, David Lyons, Clancy Brown, Mark Pellegrino, Taye Diggs, Isaiah Washington, Dale Dickey, Kathy Baker
Genre : Drama
Opens : 19 June 2014
Rating : NC16 – Some Coarse Language / 93 mins

It’s a case of the almost-Danza with Kate as Cate. Beckinsale plays Cate McCall, a high-flying L.A. legal eagle whose promising career is threatened by alcoholism and a custody battle, ex-husband Josh (Lyons) planning on moving to Seattle with their young daughter Augie (Ava Kolker). Cate is assigned to defend Lacey Stubbs (Anissimova), a young woman put on death row who claims that she was wrongly accused of first degree murder. With her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor Bridges (Nolte) by her side, Cate takes on what many deem an impossible case. Among the obstacles that stand in her way are possibly-crooked police detective Welch (Pellegrino), womanising judge Sumpter (Cromwell), a man she prosecuted and who was proven innocent and released from jail (Washington) plus the army of protestors camped outside the courthouse, convinced of Lacey’s guilt.



            The thought running through this reviewer’s mind for the duration of this film was “gee, this looks like it belongs on TV”. It turns out that The Trials of Cate McCall was not granted a U.S. or U.K. theatrical run, bypassing a video release and airing on the Lifetime Channel as a movie of the week, a death knell if ever there was one. As a courtroom drama, The Trials of Cate McCall is pretty much par for the course, offering nothing one wouldn’t find in any law procedural television show. The central mystery is moderately interesting rather than downright riveting; several plot developments questionable if not preposterous. More than a handful of artistic license is taken and law students will be crying “objection!” but for the layperson, it all makes just enough sense.



            In some circles, Kate Beckinsale is thought of as merely a pretty face and little else, but the truth is that she is a capable actress and makes for a believable lawyer here, somewhat reminiscent of her turn in the under-seen Nothing but the Truth. She projects confidence and brokenness equally well and makes the title character into someone the audience does very much want to see succeed. We see Cate dishevelled and crying but also taking control of the courtroom and it’s certainly not a bad performance from Beckinsale. Nick Nolte has pretty much been out of it for the last 20 years but still has gotten steady work as a dependable supporting player and, as his Academy Award nomination for Warrior proves, can still do good work. Not too much is required of him in The Trials of Cate McCall but he’s got the “gruff but kind” mentor figure thing down pat. James Cromwell makes full use of his hawkish mien as Justice Sumpter; he may be best remembered for playing a kindly farmer in Babe but prepare to throw up in your mouth a little when he pervs on Kate Beckinsale. Who’s the pig now?


            The Trials of Cate McCall features a capable Kate Beckinsale leading the charge but it really is nothing that hasn’t been done before, rote rather than sensational. The need for an emotional subplot involving Cate’s inability to connect with her young daughter is there to show how Cate struggles with her demanding job and with being a mother (hence the plural “trials” in the title), but it seems unnecessary at times. Writer-director Karen Moncrieff, like her lead actress, is competent, but every so often we get lines like “I’m f**king good at what I do and I intend to win this!” It’s bland, but not quite as ham-fisted a mess as it could’ve been.

Summary:  Kate Beckinsale is a strong lead and the supporting cast of somewhat-familiar faces backs her up well, but that’s not enough to pull this also-rans courtroom drama up from the doldrums.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong