Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Focus

For F*** Magazine

FOCUS

Director : Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Cast : Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, BD Wong, Robert Taylor, Adrian Martinez
Genre : Romance/Drama
Run Time : 105 mins
Opens : 26 February 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Scene of Intimacy and Coarse Language)

In Batman Begins, Henri Ducard had this piece of advice for Bruce Wayne – “always mind your surroundings”. In Focus, Will Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, someone whose stock in trade is preying on those who don’t mind their surroundings. A seasoned, talented conman, Nicky is skilled in the art of persuasion and deception. He’s prepared for everything – everything except Jess Barrett (Robbie), an attractive young woman eager to learn the tricks of the trade and become a grifter herself. Nicky has never let down his guard and let his feelings get the better of him, but Jess gets closer than anyone else does. While Nicky is in the employ of billionaire racing team owner Garriga (Santoro), Jess’ presence threatens to throw him off his finely-honed game.



            Escapism is a large part of what makes going to the movies appealing and there’s an undeniable allure to movies that offer a peek into worlds only the privileged few have access to. Focus very effectively seduces the audience, beckoning them into a dizzying, dazzling world of lies and shiny objects. There are certain dangers associated with the subgenre of conman movies – the audience should feel like they’ve been taken on a ride, but not for a ride, the difference almost imperceptible. Nobody likes the feeling of being invested in a film for two hours only to feel played out by the big reveal. Writing-directing duo Glenn Ficarra and John Requa manage to quite masterfully negotiate that, having a firm grasp on the film’s tone throughout. It’s funny and playfully sexy, but there are stakes and the thrills click right into the proceedings where they could have easily felt out of place.


            The other danger of conman movies is that they can often come off as smug, as if the filmmakers are taking particular delight in feeling smarter than the audience. There is a little bit of that in Focus, to be sure, but that’s definitely better than if it were an altogether dumb affair. Real-life sleight-of-hand artist and “deception specialist” Apollo Robbins serves as the consultant on the film, choreographing the elaborate pickpocketing sequences which are very exciting to watch. While most of the jokes do work, there are a few too many at the expense of overweight comic relief sidekick Farhad, played by Adrian Martinez. The character also supplies more crass sexual innuendo than is strictly necessary.


            Remember how Will Smith tried to play against type as a stern, emotionless father in After Earth, to disastrous results? Focus is far more in his wheelhouse and absolutely plays to his strength as an actor. Three parts charming, one part goofy, it’s very easy to buy Smith as the shark with a heart of gold. He’s also the kind of guy who could go out with a woman 22 years his junior and it really isn’t that creepy because he’s that likeable. Margot Robbie, who impressed in The Wolf of Wall Street, is excellent here as well. Jess is simultaneously an ingénue and a femme fatale, Robbie nailing both aspects of the character. We can’t wait to see them together onscreen in next year’s Suicide Squad. At one point, Ben Affleck and Kristen Stewart were attached to star – I think we can all agree that would have had, uh, markedly different results. The devilishly handsome Rodrigo Santoro makes for a sufficiently formidable romantic rival to Smith. B.D. Wong threatens to steal the show in his one scene as an overly-excited high roller.  


            Ficarra and Requa’s previous film was the romantic comedy Crazy, Stupid, Love, which is considered one of the better examples of the genre in recent memory. With Focus, they have crafted what is almost the ideal date movie. Romantic comedies that crowbar in elements intended to appeal to men have often fallen flat on their faces - This Means War or Killers, anyone? Focus does more than serve up a shirtless Will Smith and Margot Robbie in a bikini, it attains an admirable balance of sexiness, laughs and intelligence and features a central romantic pairing that is unique and happens to really work.


Summary: Focus is sharp, slick and sexy, gliding along on the chemistry of its leads.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 


Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Tracers

For F*** Magazine

TRACERS

Director : Daniel Benmayor
Cast : Taylor Lautner, Marie Avgeropoulos, Adam Rayner, Rafi Gavron, Sam Medina, Josh Yadon, Luciano Acuna Jr.
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 94 mins
Opens : 26 February 2015
Rating : PG13 (Brief Coarse Language and Violence)

There’s a track from Eric Serra’s musical score for GoldenEye called “Run, Shoot and Jump”. Taylor Lautner takes this advice to heart in Tracers, an action thriller focusing on the sport of Parkour – the practitioners of which are called “traceurs”. Lautner plays Cam, a New York bike messenger who is down on his luck and heavily in debt to Chinese mob loan sharks. After a chance encounter with traceur Nikki (Avegeropoulos), Cam becomes curious about the sport he sees her practice. He eventually earns his stripes to be a part of Nikki’s clique, which is led by the mysterious Miller (Rayner) and also includes Nikki’s brother Dylan (Gavron). Naturally, Cam begins to fall hard for Nikki as he finds himself in over his head in the seedy organized crime underbelly – while trying to keep that same head from going “splat” all over the pavement.


            In the 90s and early 2000s, there was no shortage of “XTREME!” sports movies, in which the plots were mere clotheslines on which to hang action set-pieces showcasing everything from snowboarding to surfing to mountain climbing. Tracers feels like one of those films, almost embarrassingly dated in its attempts to come off as cool. The film was shot in 2013 and it is now 2015. The novelty factor of Parkour has more or less worn off. By the time the Punisher blasted henchmen traceurs out of the air with the utmost insouciance in 2008’s Punisher: War Zone, parkour was already passé. Granted, it is a difficult, dangerous sport that requires plenty of skill and effort to master; stunt choreographers Gary Powell and Lee Morrison of the recent Bond films assembling some impressive feats of physical prowess here. However, the technical aspects of the film are unable to keep up with the athleticism of the performers – apparently, director Daniel Benmayor thinks shots of someone’s shoe about to accidentally smash into the camera lens are exciting.


            If you get a kick out of seeing traceurs negotiating concrete jungles with ease and agility, there are demo reels of various Parkour teams doing their thing all over YouTube, and those aren’t saddled with a melodramatic romance. Taylor Lautner’s attempt at headlining an action movie, Abduction, was laughable and he fares little better here, proving you need more than just athleticism to become a bona fide action hero. He handles all the stunt work competently and his background as a martial arts champion comes in handy but it’s impossible to buy him as a bad boy. Lautner’s appeal has always been that he’s more like a puppy than a guard dog and in Tracers, the tattoos and scruffy facial hair he sports feel very much like merely superficial traits.


            Marie Avgeropoulos from TV’s The 100 is the stock tough girl who reluctantly shows the rookie guy the ropes and finds herself falling for him even though she told herself she wouldn’t. We’ve seen this in everything from Point Break to Avatar and at one point, Nikki actually turns to Cam and goes “try to keep up”. They first encounter each other by means of a meet cute – she literally falls on his bike. Taking further pages from the Point Break playbook, there’s a gruff mentor figure who waxes faux-philosophical about the extreme sport in question. Thing is, Adam Rayner is far from remotely a match for Patrick Swayze, who was magnetic and commanding where Rayner is dull and unconvincingly tough. The organized crime elements, including Chinese, Vietnamese and Russian gangs, are all stereotypes through and through. No matter how many musclebound heavies Tracers tosses in, the threat just never takes hold.


            Every other review of this film will probably use the exact same line, but we’ll follow the movie’s lead and be unoriginal: Tracers is aptly named because it traces over so many movies that have come before. There is a glimmer of excitement to the Parkour sequences, but when surrounded by a trite crime story and led by an incapable leading man, Tracers often ends up doing a faceplant on the New York asphalt. If you're a teenage Team Jacob fangirl who's too young to remember Point Break, this is for you.


Summary: Skip – or rather, vault over – this disposable extreme sports flick.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stas

Jedd Jong 

Monday, February 23, 2015

87th Academy Awards: A Birdman In the Hand is Worth Two In The Bush

For F*** Magazine

THE 87TH ACADEMY AWARDS: A BIRDMAN IN THE HAND IS WORTH TWO IN THE BUSH

By Jedd Jong


The 87th Academy Awards took place on February 22nd 2015 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Birdman (Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) and The Grand Budapest Hotel bagged four wins each, with Whiplash clinching three. Both Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel were the most-nominated films of the evening, with 9 nods each.

Neil Patrick Harris hosted the ceremony for the first time. Having been the master of ceremonies at the Tony Awards four times and at the Primetime Emmys twice, NPH is no stranger to strutting his stuff in front of showbiz A-listers. His opening number, titled “Moving Pictures”, was a joyous tribute to cinema, the lyrics weaving in references to everything from The Godfather Part II to Basic Instinct to Back to the Future as well as all the Best Picture nominees that night. The song was penned by Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the pair behind the songs in Disney's Frozen. Anna Kendrick, clad in her Cinderella gown from Into The Woods, joined Harris for a duet, working in a spoilerific jab at his role in Gone Girl. The two were interrupted by Jack Black in full Tenacious D mode, Black giving voice to critics of the Oscars and the current state of movies in Hollywood.


For most of the show, Harris’ joke delivery style was that he knew the lines were silly and revelled in it. A notably painful pun was his introduction of presenter and Best Actress nominee Reese Witherspoon: “This next presenter is so lovely you could eat her up with a spoon.” Hur hur. The claws did come out for a few more digs – after the Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour clinched the Best Documentary Feature prize, Harris mentioned that the subject of the film “could not be here for some treason”. “American Sniper focuses on a soldier with 160 kills, or as Harvey Weinstein calls it, a slow morning,” Harris quipped, referring to the notorious producer.

For a parody of Birdman, Harris pretended to be locked outside his dressing room, running onstage wearing only his underwear before declaring “acting is a noble profession”. The bit paid homage to the jazz drums soundtrack of Birdman as well as Whiplash, with Whiplash star Miles Teller drumming backstage, Harris jokingly interrupting him with “not my tempo”. An extended bit in which Harris drew attention to his Oscar predictions being kept in a locked box, repeatedly reminding Octavia Spencer to have her eye on said box, was not so successful. The pay-off was that the envelope contained humorous recaps of the happenings at the ceremony which couldn’t have been written before the ceremony began, allowing Harris to show off a spot of magic. Harris also drew flak for cracking a joke about the “balls” that decorated Best Documentary Short Subject winner Dana Perry’s dress – right after Perry dedicated her win to her teenage son who had committed suicide.


There was no shortage of emotional moments during the acceptance speeches. J.K. Simmons, winner of the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as a hellish music teacher in Whiplash, showed a much softer side than he did in the film, exhorting “if you’re lucky enough to have a parent or two alive, call them. Don’t text, don’t email. Call them. Listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you.”


“I’ve heard it said that winning an Oscar means you live five years longer. If that’s true I want to thank the Academy because my husband is younger than me,” Julianne Moore quipped after winning the Best Actress Oscar for her role as a professor fighting early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice. Many feel this is a long-overdue victory for the prolific actress, who also paid tribute to Still Alice directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer. The co-directors are married and Glatzer is battling ALS, which likely inspired the honest, moving depiction of illness in Still Alice.  


Eddie Redmayne took home the Best Actor statue for his turn as physicist Stephen Hawking in the biopic The Theory of Everything. The English actor was visibly and quite endearingly flabbergasted. “I’m fully aware that I am a lucky, lucky man,” he said, dedicating his Oscar to ALS sufferers around the world. “It belongs to one exceptional family, and I will be its custodian and I promise you that I will polish him, and wait on him hand and foot,” he said of the shiny statuette. For many who had pegged Michael Keaton to win for what is being called the role of his lifetime, Redmayne’s triumph was something of an upset, though not completely unexpected.


John Legend and Common, taking home the Best Original Song award for “Glory” from Selma, spoke on racial harmony in the United States. “Once a landmark of a divided nation, the spirit of this bridge now for all people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or social status. This bridge was built on hope and welded with compassion,” Common said, recounting his experience performing the song on that same bridge in Selma, Alabama on which Martin Luther King Jr. marched. When Legend stated the United States was the most incarcerated country in the world, an awkward cheer came from an unidentified member of the audience.


Patricia Arquette, named Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mason’s mother Olivia in Boyhood, brought attention to wage equality for women. She proclaimed, “To every woman who gave birth, to every citizen and taxpayer, it’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women of the United States of America!” Meryl Streep reacted by pumping her fist in the air. Arquette also mentioned the ecological sanitation charity project she is involved with.


Alejandro González Iñárritu, named Best Director for Birdman, tempered the serious with the funny in his acceptance speech. “Maybe next year the government might impose some immigration rules on the academy. Two Mexicans in a row is suspicious,” he quipped, in reference to good friend and fellow Mexican Alfonso Cuarón’s Best Director win for Gravity at last year’s ceremony. Speaking about Mexican immigrants in the US, Iñárritu added ”I hope they can be treated with respect of the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.” Commenting on the competitive nature of awards ceremonies like the Oscars, he said true art and individual expression “can’t be compared or labelled or defeated because they exist, and our work will only be judged by time.”


Of course, the ceremony had its moments of outright, unabashed fun. The LEGO Movie may have been shut out of the Best Animated Feature category and it lost Best Original Song to “Glory”, but the flick based on those colourful construction toys made its presence felt with an exuberant live performance of “Everything is Awesome”. The immensely catchy ditty was sung by indie pop duo Tegan and Sara with musical comedy group The Lonely Island. They were joined by break-dancers dressed as construction workers, while dancers dressed as cowboys and spacemen handed out Oscar statuettes made out of LEGO to audience members - including a particularly thrilled Oprah Winfrey. Composer Mark Mothersbaugh had a keyboard solo, Questlove of The Roots was on drums and Will Arnett put the cherry on top by performing as Batman, complete with the Bat-symbol on his costume built out of LEGO bricks.


The other notable musical performance of the night was a tribute to The Sound Of Music, performed by Lady Gaga and a string ensemble. Julie Andrews took to the stage afterwards to thank Gaga and speak about the tremendous legacy of the film, which commemorates its 50th anniversary this year. John Travolta’s flub, in which he infamously mispronounced Idina Menzel’s name as “Adele Dazeem”, remains one of the most memorable moments of the 86th Academy Awards. This year, Travolta presented alongside Menzel as the two poked fun at the gaffe. We’re also pretty sure that this is the first time anyone has thanked their dog in an Oscars acceptance speech – Birdman co-writer Nicolás Giacobone expressed his gratitude to his canine pal, Larry.





The full list of winners and nominees follows:

BEST PICTURE
Birdman WINNER
American Sniper
Boyhood
The Imitation Game
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash

BEST DIRECTOR
Alejandro González Iñárritu - BirdmanWINNER
Richard Linklater – Boyhood
Bennett Miller – Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson - The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum - The Imitation Game

BEST ACTOR
Eddie Redmayne - The Theory of EverythingWINNER
Steve Carell – Foxcatcher
Benedict Cumberbatch - The Imitation Game
Bradley Cooper - American Sniper
Michael Keaton - Birdman

BEST ACTRESS
Julianne Moore - Still AliceWINNER
Marion Cotillard - Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones - The Theory of Everything
Rosamund Pike - Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon - Wild

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
JK Simmons – WhiplashWINNER
Robert Duvall - The Judge
Ethan Hawke - Boyhood
Edward Norton - Birdman
Mark Ruffalo - Foxcatcher

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Patricia Arquette – Boyhood – WINNER
Laura Dern – Wild
Keira Knightley - The Imitation Game
Emma Stone – Birdman
Meryl Streep - Into the Woods

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Birdman - Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo – WINNER
Boyhood - Richard Linklater
Foxcatcher – E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel - Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
The Imitation Game – Graham Moore – WINNER
American Sniper – Jason Hall
Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson
The Theory of Everything - Anthony McCarten
Whiplash - Damien Chazelle

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Big Hero 6WINNER
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM
Ida (Poland) – Paweł Pawlikowski – WINNER
Tangerines (Estonia) – Zaza Urushadze
Leviathan (Russia) – Andrey Zvyagintsev
Wild Tales (Argentina)– Damián Szifrón
Timbuktu (Mauritania)– Abderrahmane Sissako

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Citizenfour – Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy, Dirk Wilutzky – WINNER
Finding Vivian Maier – John Maloof, Charlie Siskel
Last Days in Vietnam – Rory Kennedy, Keven McAlester
The Salt of the Earth – Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, David Rosier
Virunga – Orlando von Einsiedel, Joanna Natasegara

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 – Ellen Goosenberg Kent, Dana Perry – WINNER
Joanna – Aneta Kopacz
Our Curse – Tomasz Sliwinski, Maciej Slesicki
The Reaper – Gabriel Serra
White Earth – Christian Jensen

BEST LIVE-ACTION SHORT FILM
The Phone Call – Mat Kirkby, James Lucas – WINNER
Aya – Oded Binnun, Mihal Brezis
Boogaloo and Graham – Michael Lennox, Ronan Blaney
Butter Lamp – Wei Hu, Julien Féret
Parvaneh – Talkhon Hamzavi, Stefan Eichenberger

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM
Feast – Patrick Osborne, Kristina Reed – WINNER
The Bigger Picture – Daisy Jacobs, Chris Hees
The Dam Keeper – Robert Kondo, Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi
Me and My Moulton – Torill Kove
A Single Life – Joris Oprins

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Alexandre Desplat – The Grand Budapest HotelWINNER
Alexandre Desplat – The Imitation Game
Hans Zimmer – Interstellar
Jóhann Jóhannsson – The Theory of Everything
Gary Yershon – Mr. Turner

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Glory” from Selma – Lonnie “Common” Lynn, John Legend – WINNER
“Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie – Shawn Patterson
“Grateful” from Beyond the Lights – Diane Warren
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me – Glen Campbell, Julian Raymond
“Lost Stars” from Begin Again – Gregg Alexander, Danielle Brisebois

ACHIEVEMENT IN SOUND EDITING
American Sniper – Alan Robert Murray, Bub Asman – WINNER
Birdman – Aaron Glascock, Martín Hernández
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – Brent Burge, Jason Canovas
Interstellar – Richard King
Unbroken – Becky Sullivan, Andrew DeCristofaro

ACHIEVEMENT IN SOUND MIXING
Whiplash – Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins, Thomas Curley – WINNER
American Sniper – John T Reitz, Gregg Rudloff, Walt Martin
Birdman – Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, Thomas Varga
Interstellar – Gary Rizzo, Gregg Landaker, Mark Weingarten
Unbroken – Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño, David Lee

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
The Grand Budapest Hotel - Adam Stockhausen, Anna Pinnock – WINNER
The Imitation Game - Maria Djurkovic, Tatiana Macdonald
Interstellar - Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
Into the Woods - Dennis Gassner, Anna Pinnock
Mr. Turner - Suzie Davies, Charlotte Watts

ACHIEVEMENT IN CINEMATOGRAPHY
Birdman - Emmanuel Lubezki – WINNER
The Grand Budapest Hotel - Robert D. Yeoman
Ida - Lukasz Zal, Ryszard Lenczewski
Mr. Turner - Dick Pope
Unbroken - Roger Deakins

ACHIEVEMENT IN HAIR AND MAKEUP
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Frances Hannon, Mark Coulier – WINNER
Foxcatcher – Bill Corso, Dennis Liddiard
Guardians of the Galaxy – Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou, David White

ACHIEVEMENT IN COSTUME DESIGN
The Grand Budapest Hotel - Milena Canonero– WINNER
Inherent Vice - Mark Bridges
Into the Woods – Colleen Atwood
Maleficent - Anna B. Sheppard
Mr. Turner – Jacqueline Durran

ACHIEVEMENT IN FILM EDITING
Whiplash – Tom Cross – WINNER
Boyhood – Sandra Adair
The Imitation Game – William Goldenberg
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Barney Pilling
American Sniper – Joel Cox, Gary Roach

ACHIEVEMENT IN VISUAL EFFECTS
Interstellar – Paul J Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, Scott R Fisher – WINNER
Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Dan Deleeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill, Daniel Sudick
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Erik Winquist
Guardians of the Galaxy – Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner, Paul Corbould
X-Men: Days of Future Past – Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie, Cameron Waldbauer


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dragon Blade (天将雄师)

For F*** Magazine

DRAGON BLADE (天将雄师)

Director : Daniel Lee
Cast : Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Choi Siwon, Wang Ruoxin, Lin Peng, Jozef Waite
Genre : Action/Martial Arts
Run Time : 127 mins
Opens : 19 February 2015
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

     
      Chinese New Year movie season is here again and to usher in the Year of the Goat, Jackie Chan takes us on a cross-cultural journey down the Silk Road. In this historical action epic, Chan plays Huo An, commander of the Protection Squad of the Western Regions – a Han Dynasty CHiPs of sorts. Framed for treason, he is sent to a labour camp on the outskirts of China, where he crosses paths with Roman general Lucius (Cusack). Lucius is being pursued by the cruel Tiberius (Brody) who, having killed his father and poisoned his young brother Publius (Waite), wants the 36 districts around the Silk Road to bow to him. Huo An and Lucius form an unlikely alliance against the tyrant, choosing unity over discord as numerous armies gather in the desert to face off.



            Dragon Blade begins with a proclamation that it is based on a true story – it’s based more on fanciful conjecture than anything else. The premise requires heaps of suspension of disbelief to swallow but over the course of the film, most anyone would find it hard to suspend their disbelief. Many viewers might in fact become best friends with their disbelief. Writer-director Daniel Lee has delivered an uproarious celebration of unintentional hilarity. With a USD $65 million budget, the most expensive film production in the history of Chinese cinema is a lavish, ill-conceived mess. While the costumes designed by Thomas Chong are meticulously crafted and shooting on location in the vast expanses of the Gobi Desert lends the picture sufficient production value, this does little to give weight to the hokey story and generally terrible performances. A 15 minute stretch of the film in which Lucius’ and Huo An’s men put aside their differences to collaborate on an ambitious construction project feels like the plot is being put on hold, until one realises that is supposed to be the plot.


            Upon first meeting Lucius, Huo An asks “is there any way no fight?” Let’s break this down: the Romans all speak English – fine, it’s hardly the first movie to do that. Huo An is supposed to have somehow learned English and his halting command of the language is meant to establish a communication barrier. That’s iffy. Finally, the Romans are all shown singing in Latin. Then again, would Jackie Chan mangling Latin dialogue be any better? Because the proceedings are so melodramatic and possess no real tension or weight, this reviewer decided it was more fulfilling to decipher the logic behind why anyone in this movie speaks the way they do. Later on, Huo An gets to deliver the gem of a line “you look down on human”, as if extra-terrestrial invaders have entered the fray – which might as well be the case, given how ridiculous the plot already is anyway.


            Judging from interviews, career choices and his philantrophy, Jackie Chan views himself as a beacon of understanding between cultures and indeed, most of his movies can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of cultural background, the controversy surrounding Chan’s personal politics notwithstanding. Here, this translates into an awkward preachiness, the film’s heavy-handed message of joining hands and singing “kumbaya” around the campfire coming off as equal parts simplistic and pretentious. Huo An is a stoic leader with a tragic past – while Jackie Chan has excelled at more serious roles before, that is clearly not his forte. Points for trying something different and while he still excels at the sword-fighting sequences, he seems ill-suited to the part and his signature childlike playfulness and unique approach to screen fighting is sorely missed.


            After decades of Asian actors struggling to cross over into the American film market, it seems high time we get more Hollywood actors floundering about in Asian movies. John Cusack truly looks like he doesn’t want to be there – he famously divides the projects he chooses into “one for them” and “one for me” and it’s plenty obvious which category Dragon Blade falls into. Adrien Brody doesn’t do much for most of the film, snarling and issuing threats in menacing tones. While Brody has done some good work in smaller films as of late, he still very much is the “Oscar Curse” incarnate. Here’s it’s painfully clear that playing a scary Ancient Roman villain, ala Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator, isn’t for everyone. As the young prince Publius, Jozef Waite delivers one of the most awkward, stilted performances we’ve seen from a child actor in recent memory.


            Bad movies are a denarius a dozen. Movies that are bad in as fascinating and novel a way as this one is are rarer. Sitting through Dragon Blade was the most fun this reviewer has had in a theatre in ages, many moments sure to elicit howls from audiences. From the superfluous framing story featuring Vanness Wu as an archaeologist to the United Colours of Benetton moral to the most eclectic cast of the year (which manages to fit in a Korean pop idol, a French singer, a China-based British child star and an Oscar winner), Dragon Blade is nothing if not entertainingly bizarre. It may only be February, but we’re calling this the funniest comedy of 2015.


Summary: A “so bad it’s good” novelty in the extreme, Dragon Blade is a baffling cross-cultural mishmash that has to be seen to be believed. Highly recommended in the most ironic sense.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Black Sea

For F*** Magazine

BLACK SEA 

Director : Kevin Macdonald
Cast : Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Tobias Menzies, Ben Mendelsohn, Bobby Schofield, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Michael Smiley, Karl Davies
Genre : Thriller/Drama
Run Time : 115 mins
Opens : 12 February 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Coarse Language and Some Violence)

What motivates anyone who goes on a treasure hunt? Is it as simple as “fortune and glory, kid”, the answer famously given by Indiana Jones? In this adventure thriller, we learn glamour has no part in the equation. Former naval submarine captain Robinson (Law) falls on hard times after he is laid off by a marine salvage company. When he hears about a WWII German U-boat lying at the bottom of the Black Sea, supposedly laden with gold, Robinson jumps at the chance to find this treasure. Leading a team of British and Russian roughnecks, including 18-year-old rookie Tobin (Schofield), Robinson heads out to sea in an old fixer-upper of a Russian submarine. Lone American Daniels (McNairy) is sent by the expedition’s mysterious, wealthy backer to keep an eye on the proceedings. Over the course of the journey, everyone on board realises that as cruel as the sea may be, human nature might just be even crueller.


            Black Sea is directed by Kevin Macdonald of The Last King of Scotland fame and this seems far more in the director’s wheelhouse than his previous film, the young adult romance adaptation How I Live Now. Macdonald and screenwriter Dennis Kelly have assembled an old-fashioned adventure flick the likes of which we don’t quite see any more these days. The dialogue is expectedly salty, but naturally so and it doesn’t feel like the script is straining to sound tough. There’s a believable griminess to the lived-in environs of the submarine and while several story elements are far-fetched, there’s an air of well-researched authenticity throughout. Sure, there are the expected clichés at play: the hero whose job has kept him away from his estranged wife and child, the greenhorn who gets picked on by the seasoned veterans, the “company man” akin to Paul Reiser’s character from Aliens, the one unstable guy who’s nevertheless excellent at his job and that old adventure movie hallmark, lost Nazi gold. However, the stakes are kept high and it’s far less predictable than this reviewer thought it would be, Macdonald masterfully sustaining nail-biting tension throughout.


            Adding to the film’s believability is the meticulous production design work by Nick Palmer, who re-created the submarine interior on soundstages when it proved impractical to shoot the entire movie in an actual vintage Russian submarine. There are a few instances when the computer-generated exterior shots can feel a tiny bit dodgy, but it’s nowhere as egregious as in recent submarine movie Phantom. The scenes in which the divers leave the confines of the submarine and trek through the silt of the sea floor, being careful not to fall into underwater ravines, are thrillingly realistic.


            Black Sea is superbly cast, Russian actors including Grigoriy Dobrygin and Konstantin Khabenskiy lending personality and dimensions to the Russian crew members who in most other movies would blur together as peripheral characters. Slick, charming, handsome Jude Law’s transformation into the gruff submarine captain from Aberdeen, Scotland is thoroughly convincing. Here’s a leader you’ll want to root for, but who is flawed in the most human of ways, his judgement called into question since greed factors so heavily into the mission. Ben Mendelsohn is entertainingly mercurial as the unbalanced, knife-wielding Fraser. Scoot McNairy is every bit the fish out of water the “company man” always is in films of this type. Bobby Schofield lends the film a degree of heart and is able to become more than just “the kid”, so much so that audiences will feel protective over him.


            A tough, exciting adventure flick, Black Sea balances its old-fashioned genre elements with well-drawn characters and packs in a healthy amount of thrills and spills. Director Macdonald makes full use of the claustrophobic environment, a sealed tin can deep underwater in which testosterone bubbles over and one small mistake could jeopardise everyone on board. Sure, the logic isn’t 100% waterproof, but on the whole, this is a sturdy, well-built vessel.



Summary: Take the plunge into the Black Sea with this grizzled, supremely thrilling submarine flick.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

From Vegas to Macau II (赌城风云II)

For F*** Magazine

FROM VEGAS TO MACAU II (赌城风云II)

Director : Wong Jing
Cast : Chow Yun Fat, Carina Lau, Nick Cheung, Shawn Yue, Kimmy Tong, David Chiang, Angela, Jin Qiaoqiao, Yuan Qiao
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 110 mins
Opens : 19 February 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

This Chinese New Year, the God of Gamblers has returned to grace us mere mortals with his presence in this follow-up to last year’s From Vegas to Macau. Just when he thought he was home free, Master Ken (Chow) continues to be the victim of criminal syndicate D.O.A.’s dogged pursuit. Master Ken’s estranged son Cool (Yue) is on the case, tracking down D.O.A. accountaint Mark (Cheung). It turns out that Mark was an old associate of Ken’s, Ken travelling to Bangkok to rescue Mark and Mark’s young daughter from the clutches of his evil employers. In the meantime, Ken attempts to rekindle his romance with former flame Molly (Lau), the love of his life who has eluded him for years.


            As a Chinese New Year action comedy, a large amount of light silliness is to be expected from From Vegas To Macau II. The film packs in wanton amounts of slapstick tomfoolery – thankfully, Chapman To’s grating comic relief sidekick does not return from the earlier film. That said, director Wong Jing still finds new, stupefying ways to lower the bar. Master Ken has a robot butler who provides stock “malfunctioning A.I.” hijinks, there is a Muay Thai boxing sequence in which Chow Yun Fat does pencil rolls on the boxing ring floor, an attempt at repelling deadly crocodiles by blowing bubbles underwater…we’re barely scratching the surface of the profound idiocy here. Let it not be said that Chow Yun Fat only gets humiliated in Hollywood films like Dragonball Evolution, because this is more embarrassment than he’s ever had to endure in a film. One can only imagine how anyone whose mental image of the superstar is as the suave charmer from The Man in the Net or the badass cop from Hard Boiled will be able to accept Chow subjecting himself to the myriad indignities in From Vegas to Macau II.


            This reviewer has a relatively high threshold for action comedy hijinks – after all, he was one of very few critics to give the recent Mortdecai a positive notice. The gags in Mortdecai were juvenile, but there was an inner consistency to it. Here, Wong Jing takes an “anything goes” approach. Perhaps it is too much to ask for some method to this mo lei tau (nonsense talk) madness. The tonal shifts are jarring to say the least – there are goofy comedy sound effects within minutes of a brutal paramilitary assault on an Interpol safe house involving several head shots. Audiences are apparently meant to be moved by tender scenes between Mark and his young daughter, with maudlin piano and strings playing in the background. The film’s climactic scene is shockingly tragic and melodramatic, set to a weepy torch song, leading into the end credits. Then, there’s a mid-credits scene featuring a goofy surprise star cameo.


            Carina Lau, who starred alongside Chow Yun Fat in Let the Bullets Fly and Tragic Hero, plays the “one true love” of Master Ken’s life. Compared to all the other nonsense in the movie, it’s relatively convincing that these two characters shared a past. Naturally, the chemistry Chow and Lau share is undermined by a plot twist later on. Nick Cheung is decent sidekick material but he is subjected to nearly as much humiliation as Chow is. Shawn Yue replaces Nicholas Tse from the previous film, who was unable to return because of scheduling conflicts. It’s a non-descript cop role, there’s supposed to be some kind of deep rift between Ken and Cool, but that’s forgotten quickly enough.


            Wong Jing further cements his reputation as China’s answer to Michael Bay by packing From Vegas to Macau II with big explosions and leery scenes of scantily-clad women. As if the film itself wasn’t already obnoxious, the director appears in a cameo early on, during a game of strip mahjong. And yet again, we see nothing of Las Vegas itself in a film titled From Vegas to Macau II. We’re thinking “From Bangkok to Macau” might’ve worked a fair bit better.



Summary: Audiences will likely eat up this flailing, tone-deaf, madcap comedy, reminding us that there’s no accounting for taste when it comes to Chinese New Year cash-grab releases.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars


Jedd Jong 

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Blade Runners: Dragon Blade Singapore Press Conference

For F*** Magazine

BLADE RUNNERS
F*** meets Jackie Chan and the stars of Dragon Blade in Singapore
By Jedd Jong

From left: Choi Siwon, Mika Wang, John Cusack, Jackie Chan, Lin Peng, Adrien Brody

                A week ahead of the Chinese New Year release date of Dragon Blade, the film’s cast arrives in Singapore to meet fans, grace the red carpet premiere and speak to the press. It is a Tuesday morning and F*** is at the Pan Pacific Hotel Singapore as Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Choi Siwon, Lin Peng and Mika Wang enter the ballroom for the press conference. Surely one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled, it’s not every day that an Asian action star sits alongside an Oscar winner and a K-pop singer to field questions from reporters.


                Photographers go into frenzy, jostling each other as they crowd around the stage to snap a shot of the actors. “Please, sit down. Let’s have some order, thank you,” Jackie exhorts in Mandarin. They obey. “Ah, now, much, much better!” he says, satisfied. Used to wearing many hats, Jackie is the producer, star and action director on Dragon Blade. Jackie plays the protagonist Huo An, a general of the Silk Road Protection Squad who is framed for treason and forced to work in a slave labour camp on the outskirts of China. He explains that he spent seven years preparing the film, which was filmed in the harsh climes of the Gobi Desert. Jackie rattles off some staggering figures: 350 crew members, 800 extras and 200 horses were required to pull the movie off. “It doesn’t matter how difficult the filming process was, if the audience enjoys the film, all the sweat, blood and tears are worth it,” he says.



                The involvement of Hollywood actors Cusack and Brody is unprecedented in the history of Chinese cinema. For both of them, it was a thrill to participate in a martial arts movie, seeing as they grew up on classic Golden Harvest Hong Kong movies. “We were great Jackie Chan fans, Bruce Lee fans, and saw all the martial arts movies so to be able to work with Jackie as an actor but also a visionary choreographer of actions and stunts, all the standards he puts in his movies, it was quite a thrill,” Cusack says. He portrays Lucius, a Roman general in exile who meets Jackie Chan’s character Huo An in the desert. Though initially wary of each other, Lucius and Huo An put aside their differences to concentrate on rebuilding the outpost of Wild Geese Gate.

                Brody agrees, saying “this is my childhood and adolescent fantasy, not only do we get to collaborate in a deeper dramatic capacity, in a creative way, but in a martial arts sense, it is such a thrill, it is beyond a thrill to learn from Jackie and to be able to play together, it was really very exciting.” Brody plays the villain of the piece, the tyrannical, power-hungry Tiberius, who has pursued Lucius across the desert.

                Jackie says that having worked in movies for 54 years, he has gotten used to the pressure of making a movie and that he believes that the old ways are often the best. “These days, audiences enjoy films like the Transformers movies and Spider-Man, as well as wire-fu action movies,” he says, saying he is adamant about retaining traditional ways of performing stunts, which he jokingly calls “stupid methods”. “Today, in Hollywood movies, there would be a piece of green cloth wrapped around the sword so it would look like the sword is slicing in real close without hurting anybody. Our method is really stupid – we did it for real. I feel that it’s a miracle that I can still be making action films at my age.” Jackie reveals that Cusack hit him twice in the hand by accident while filming a sword fight scene.


                “Well, we had a very long fight in the middle of the desert and sooner or later, you hit each other!” Cusack says sheepishly. Cusack and Brody were able to offer their input on the English segments of the script to ensure the dialogue sounded natural.

                Jackie may not feel the pressure, but actress Lin Peng certainly does. “Working with this director and cast, the pressure was immense. In this film, I’m playing a fierce warrior woman, so it was very demanding in terms of the martial arts. Jackie has very high standards for martial arts, so the pressure was on,” she says.



                Lin Peng has a scene where she is seen nude from behind. Jackie explains that he gave her the option of using a body double, but the actress decided to go the full Monty for real. Emphasising that he didn’t intend on leering at her, Jackie says “only I could see her naked body, but I assured her, ‘I’m not a pervert, I’m not looking at you in a sexual manner’.”

When Lin suggests that this is probably the most challenging entry in Jackie Chan’s recent filmography, Jackie admonishes her, saying all his movies are challenging to make. “Every film I make is challenging, it’s just that you don’t know it,” he counters. He elaborates on coordinating the casting of all the extras, including the actors playing Roman soldiers and the multi-ethnic schoolchildren. “They would say ‘it’s because of you, Jackie, that we’re here’. We had to teach them all the basics of acting. We needed to take care of these extras and create a friendly atmosphere for them. I’d make sure to eat with them and chat with them, because I didn’t want their first experience on the set of a Chinese film to be a negative one,” he says.

                Jackie emphasises that no matter how physically strenuous the shoot was for the actors, the crew had it worse. “I always say, actors have to be considerate of and grateful to all the crew members on set. Actors have it the easiest! They come to set late and leave early. Anywhere I go, I say the crew has it the hardest and we all have to recognise the contributions of those working behind the scenes.”

                Relative newcomer Mika Wang plays the other lead female character, a schoolteacher who is married to Huo An. “This is my first time working with Jackie and I feel very lucky to have the opportunity. Jackie has taught us so much, both in terms of filmmaking and in life,” she says. When she describes the finished movie as “awesome”, Jackie interjects with a rebuke again.
                “Never call your own movies ‘awesome’.” Jackie says in a finger-wagging tone. “Say they’re ‘okay’. You have to be humble always, that’s what I’ve taught you!”

         
       K-pop star Choi Siwon of Super Junior fame plays Huo An’s right-hand man in the film, Yin Po. Jackie had requested that he be cast in the film after positive experiences working on charity shows with the singer, who is hugely popular across Asia. Most of the fans at the mall appearance and red carpet premiere later that night are there for Choi Siwon alone. Choi likens learning fight choreography to learning dancing, and hopes he will get to showcase his moves by actually dancing in a future film project. “I love Singapore”, he says at one point.

                “That sounds like insincere flattery,” Jackie remarks.

                East-meets-west films haven’t exactly had a sterling track record – 47 Ronin, anybody? On what gives Dragon Blade its, well, edge in this subgenre, Cusack says it’s that “the quality control standards of Jackie and [director] Daniel Lee are incredibly high so this a very top-of-the-line movie.” He states that the production value was on par with that of the Hollywood blockbuster 2012, which “played here in China.” Perhaps he’s just a little jet-lagged, we’ll forgive the one-off geo-confusion – after all, Singaporeans are pretty used to having their country mistakenly thought of as a part of China.


                Jackie has lofty ambitions for this film and is particularly enamoured with its message. He says the one phrase that jumped out at him in the screenplay for Dragon Blade was “live for peace, turn foes into friends”. “Today’s world is in such dire need of peace that I felt I had to make this movie,” Jackie proclaims. “I felt that I had a mission with this film. With Chinese Zodiac, it was about the conservation of antiques. In Dragon Blade, it’s all about peace. I think everyone must have a sense of responsibility to create peace. My hope is that everyone can watch this movie and be touched by its message – Al Qaeda, the Middle East, the United States, my hope is that everyone can watch this movie and learn the value of peace.” Terrorists being compelled to put down their arms after watching a Jackie Chan film? You never know.