Thursday, December 18, 2014

Life Itself

As published in Issue #59 of F*** Magazine


LIFE ITSELF
(2014)

Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Marlene Iglitzen, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Ramin Bahrani, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese
Directed by: Steve James

            In 2013, filmmakers and moviegoers alike mourned the passing of the well-known, respected film critic Roger Ebert, a household name thanks to the At the Movies television program he co-presented. Documentary filmmaker Steve James brings us Life Itself, based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name. A fond, in-depth look at Ebert’s life and career, Life Itself tracks the film critic’s childhood in Urbana, Illinois, the beginnings of his journalistic career at his college newspaper The Daily Illini, his Pulitzer Prize win, co-hosting At the Movies with Gene Siskel and coping with his illness in the final months before his death.

            Life Itself also features interviews with a large array of Ebert’s friends and colleagues, which range from his fellow Chicagoan journalist William Nack to his wife Chaz to director Martin Scorsese, one of the executive producers on Life Itself. Watching the film, one gets the sense that this was a man who truly found fulfilment in his life’s work and was a cinephile through and through – the license plate of his car even spells “MOVIES”. We are regaled with accounts of the Cinema Interruptus event which Ebert would host each year at the Conference of World Affairs, in which he would spend hours dissecting a given film frame by frame. We see just how much he enjoyed covering the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and how he stuck by his ritual of staying at the same hotel and having breakfast at the same café each time he returned to the French Riviera.


            If you’re not a fan of Ebert, it would perhaps be easy to dismiss him as a snob. After all, what business does any critic have telling anyone what they think? The film makes it clear that beyond being more than qualified to do so, Ebert didn’t get his kicks from feeling he was above it all and those are footsteps this reviewer has tried to follow in. The film is far from afraid of presenting a very human look at its subject, including aspects of him that might be considered embarrassing. Ebert says of the Russ Meyer-directed exploitation film Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, “the posters displayed impossibly buxom women and I was inside the theatre in a flash.” Ebert ended up penning the screenplay of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for Meyer and in one of Life Itself’s funniest moments, film critic A.O. Scott gulps, takes a long pause and then talks about the “earthier” elements of cinema that Ebert was drawn to (i.e., boobs).



            A good portion of the film focuses on the fascinating frenemy-bromance between Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, with Siskel’s widow Marlene Iglitzen providing a good deal of insight. For starters, they were the film critics of rival newspapers – Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times and Siskel for the Chicago Tribune. They also had wildly different upbringings and backgrounds, Ebert having been a journalist since he was in school while Siskel was a personal friend of Hugh Hefner’s, cavorting with Playboy bunnies aboard the Bunnyjet. The film reveals the deep extent of the competition that went on between the two – for example, everything was decided by coin toss, and that’s how Siskel got top billing in the title of the show. Time magazine critic Richard Corliss amusingly describes Siskel and Ebert’s double act as “a sitcom about two guys who lived in a movie theatre”. In Life Itself, we get lots of clips of the two getting into really heated arguments, including outtakes from the show. However, it’s also made heartbreakingly clear how much Siskel meant to Ebert and how he was affected after Siskel’s death from a brain tumour. Oddly enough though, Siskel’s eventual replacement Richard Roeper is not interviewed or even mentioned in the film.



            Naturally, Siskel and Ebert’s brand of TV-friendly film criticism had its, well, critics. It was seen as advertising for a film instead of objective, thorough analysis. In an essay in Film Comment, Corliss wrote “movie criticism of the elevated sort is an endangered species. Once it flourished; soon it may perish, to be replaced by a consumer service that is no brains and all thumbs.” At one point in Life Itself, Corliss reads his essay in Film Comment from which that passage is taken aloud, before he chokes up, unable to continue.


            The film also illuminates the influence Ebert’s reviews had on the careers of filmmakers such as Ramin Bahrani, Ava DuVernay and Errol Morris, with Selma director DuVernay recounting how excited she was to have her photo taken with Ebert when she was a little girl standing outside the Shrine Auditorium with her aunt on the day of the Oscars. There’s also a love story here, the relationship between Ebert and his wife Chaz a truly beautiful one. Ebert weighed 300 pounds when they first met and Chaz tells how she found it sexy that Ebert was comfortable in his own skin. “She is the love of my life. She saved me from a life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading,” Ebert says. It also feels genuinely emotional rather than plainly manipulative when Chaz breaks down while discussing her husband’s deteriorating health.


            Sure, if you feel that Ebert is overrated as a film critic and that his writing lacks insight or that his recognition is ill-deserved, this film is unlikely to change your mind. If you’re sufficiently cynical, you might say scenes such as Ebert being fed via g-tube is awards-baiting. However, if you’re a fan of Ebert’s work, if you have even a passing interest in film criticism or if you’re just a cinephile in general, odds are you’ll find this documentary inspirational, uplifting, entertaining, funny and deeply moving.


Summary: Life Itself  paints a rich, compelling portrait of a man who loved movies, delighted in sharing his knowledge of and passion for movies and who continued living and working even in the face of dilapidating illness through to the end.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Exodus: Gods and Kings

For F*** Magazine

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Tuturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, María Valverde
Genre : Adventure/Action
Run Time : 150 mins
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

It could be said that Old Hollywood’s Biblical epics were the big-budget superhero blockbusters of their day, with their casts of thousands and lavish sets. Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments is the codifier of that genre and now director Ridley Scott offers up his retelling of the story of Moses.

            It is 1300 B.C. and Moses (Bale) is a general in the Egyptian army who has been raised alongside Prince Ramesses (Edgerton) by the Pharaoh Seti I (Tuturro). While on a routine survey at a work site, Moses is struck by how badly the Hebrew slaves are being treated. Nun (Kingsley) tells Moses the truth of his origins, that he was born a slave and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses is eventually exiled by Ramesses. He wanders the desert, becoming a shepherd and falling in love with the Midianite Zipporah (Valverde). After a dramatic spiritual encounter, Moses takes up the task of returning to Egypt to fight for the freedom of the Hebrew slaves. In the face of Ramesses’ stubbornness, God strikes Egypt with ten frightening plagues. Only after the most horrific of these calamities does Ramesses relent, but for Moses and the children of Israel, their journey has only just begun.


            The story of Moses is a familiar one, the best-known films inspired by it being the afore-mentioned The Ten Commandments and the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt. Director Ridley Scott, who as the promotional materials are quick to remind us helmed Gladiator, delivers a not-quite epic. While the departures from the Biblical source material are not as outrageous as in Noah, it seems that Scott’s approach was to make more of a gritty swords-and-sandals flick than a grand, majestic Old Hollywood-style extravaganza. Perhaps this is meant to appeal to more cynical moviegoers but this reviewer was particularly disappointed that after being promised large-scale 3D spectacle, in this version, the Red Sea does not so much part as recede – off-screen. In trying to differentiate itself from earlier takes on the Exodus story, Exodus: Gods and Kings ditches one of the most iconic images in favour of a more “plausible” underwater earthquake.


            Sure, this is a $140 million movie and there still is spectacle to be had. The film was mostly shot in the historic Spanish city of Almería and the Egpytian palace sets do look suitably imposing and sprawling. The highlight of the film is the sequence of the ten plagues, in which we get swarms of buzzing locusts in 3D. The first plague in Exodus: Gods and Kings, the rivers of blood, is brought about by a violent clash of a bask of monstrous crocodiles. There are also lots of flyovers of ancient Egypt and while the CGI does mostly look good and certainly took large amounts of effort to complete, it’s always clear that what we’re looking at is computer-generated, resulting in the nagging sense of a lack of authenticity.


            Much has been made of the “whitewashed” cast – suffice it to say that you wouldn’t find anyone who looked a lot like Christian Bale or Joel Edgerton in Ancient Egypt. Scott has defended this by saying the big-budget film would not get made without A-list stars in the leading roles. Fair enough, but for this reviewer at least, this further affects the authenticity of the film and pulls one out of it somewhat – not to the extent of the film adaptations of Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender, but still in that unfortunate vein.


            Christian Bale is now the second former Batman to play Moses, after Batman Forever’s Val Kilmer voiced the titular Prince of Egypt. More emphasis is placed on Moses as a warrior, the film opening with a battle sequence in which the Egyptian army storms a Hittite encampment. Through most of the film, Moses comes off as weary and confused, with the heavy implication that his encounters with God might merely be delusional episodes. However, he’s still plenty heroic and steadfast and there’s enough of an old-school leader in this interpretation despite the modern “flawed hero” approach. Joel Edgerton seems visibly unsure of how over the top to go with his portrayal of Ramesses, conflicted as to how much scenery he is allowed to chew without going all-out ridiculous. In the end, this pales in comparison to the clash of titans between Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. The “brothers-turned-enemies” relationship was also drawn more compellingly in The Prince of Egypt.


            The supporting cast barely registers, with Sigourney Weaver getting a total of around five minutes of screen time. Ben Mendelsohn’s campy turn as Hegep is entertaining but seems slightly out of place, even given the flamboyance associated with Ancient Egyptian royalty. As with most of Ridley Scott’s films, there will probably be an extended director’s cut released and perhaps we will get more characterisation in that version. At 154 minutes, this theatrical cut is still something of a drag. The “event film” of the holiday season has its awe-inspiring moments but alas, they are few and far between.


Summary: “Underwhelming epic” sounds like an oxymoron, but that is the best way to describe Exodus: Gods and Kings.  

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Monday, December 8, 2014

2014: The Year In Action

For F*** Magazine







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Text:

2014: THE YEAR IN ACTION
Top 10 action movies of 2014

By Jedd Jong

Action movies kind of get a bad rap in high-brow film criticism circles and there’s a perception that film critics will turn up their noses at any movie in which stuff blows up, dismissing an action film outright as “brainless”. Sure, as with every year, 2014 has had its mediocre franchise movies (Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t make the cut for this list). But we’ve also had a good number of high-quality action blockbusters too. At F***, we believe there’s definitely such a thing as a “good” action movie, and not just films that are so dumb they’re enjoyable – though there’s a place for that too. On this list, there are a few films that have scored a 90% approval rating or higher over on review aggregating site Rotten Tomatoes, so let it not be said that movie critics as a whole are unable to appreciate the explodier things in life. Let’s get rollin’!

JOHN WICK


During the holiday season of 2013, the Keanu Reeves-starring 47 Ronin opened to a largely negative response. It was a historical fantasy mishmash that never quite gelled and Reeves looked out of his element in it. In this year’s John Wick, Reeves gets his mojo back in a big way. 47 Ronin was the inauspicious feature directorial debut of Carl Rinsch. John Wick is the first feature film directed by stunt performers/choreographers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch but it’s a slick, well-constructed affair complete with a colourful mini-mythology built in. There’s a “hitman hotel” called The Continental which is neutral ground and there’s a hitman bar where they all hang out when they’re off the clock! Keanu may not have a ton of range as an actor, but was there anyone who thought the dude from Bill & Ted could pull off playing a highly-trained, cold, lethal assassin? There’s also a pretty badass supporting cast, with Michael Nyqvist as the head of the Russian mob, Willem Dafoe as Wick’s fellow hitman and old friend and Ian McShane as the owner of The Continental. Practically no shaky-cam is a plus as well.

GODZILLA



The King of All Monsters turned the big 6-0 this year and got a grand birthday bash in the form of his second proper Hollywood movie. Die-hard Godzilla fans have made no secret of their distaste for the 1998 Roland Emmerich-directed film, so there was a lot riding on this reboot. We at F*** love stories of “promoted fanboys” and Gareth Edwards, a monster movie fan as a kid and the director of the indie creature feature Monsters, landing the job of directing Godzilla ’14 is a great example of that. Sure, it isn’t exactly the best use of Bryan Cranston or Ken Watanabe (not to mention Oscar-calibre actresses Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins) but this one does get a good deal right. It manages to be respectful of the source material, taking the premise as seriously as possible while serving up lots of large-scale spectacle. Godzilla actually fighting other kaiju (the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, or MUTOs)? An Akula-class submarine regurgitated by a MUTO and stranded in the trees? An airport monorail action sequence? That glorious atomic-breath-down-the-MUTO’s-throat bit? Deserving of a celebratory roar in our book.

RUROUNI KENSHIN: TOKYO INERNO


This year, fans of the Rurouni Kenshin manga series were treated to the second and third instalments in the movie adaptation trilogy back-to-back, with Tokyo Inferno released in August and The Legend Ends in October. Live-action adaptations of manga and anime haven’t exactly had a sterling track record so the quality of the interpretation with this movie series did delight many fans of the source material. Our writer said “Kyoto Inferno is literally the best of both worlds: the stylised action and rousing storyline of a manga, and the star power and production values of a blockbuster movie.” The historically accurate period details and intricate, tightly-choreographed sword-fighting sequences created with minimal CGI assistance also added to the film’s appeal. Most adaptations of manga and anime are notorious for struggling to present their dense, complex plots to neophytes unfamiliar with the source material, but director Keishi Ohtomo was able to strike an adequate balance. If you’re not into the plot, there’s plenty of action to keep you entertained but if you’re a fan, it certainly caters to you too.

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST



While fans have generally been happy with how things are progressing at Marvel Studios, it’s a different story with the Marvel properties that still reside at other studios, like with Fox’s X-Men series. There’ve been highs (X2: X-Men United, X-Men: First Class) and lows (X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) so it is understandable that many were sceptical about X-Men: Days of Future Past. This era-spanning odyssey, taking place simultaneously in a post-apocalyptic future and in 1973, brings together much of the cast from the X-Men trilogy and their younger brethren from First Class. Adapted from the monumental 1981 comic book story arc of the same name, this is a “retroactive continuity” or “retcon” story, in effect wiping the slate clean so we can all move on from some of the spottier entries in the mutant filmography. However, this was a retcon done right, where it wasn’t too convenient or effortless to change everything. We also got Evan Peters’ as a gleefully scene-stealing Quicksilver, quelling fears of a poor portrayal based on the questionable character design.

SNOWPIERCER


Here’s a movie completely different from your run-of-the-mill action flick. This adaptation of Jacques Lob’s French graphic novel Le Transperceneige owes much of its unique feel to Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Kelly Masterson. A dystopian sci-fi fable, Snowpiercer is set aboard the eponymous train, perpetually circling an otherwise-uninhabited earth, stuck in a catastrophic ice age. Boasting a unique design sensibility, a talented cast, incisive, sometimes disturbing social commentary and intense, brutal action scenes, Snowpiercer was the “I’ve seen this really cool movie and you should too” flick of choice this summer. U.S. distributors The Weinstein Company insisted on cutting about 20 minutes of footage and adding voiceovers, but Bong refused to compromise. Bong was eventually successful in getting the original, uncut film released and even when the film was restricted to a limited release, the positive response was enough to win it a wider release. If there’s still anyone who thinks Chris Evans is nothing but a pretty boy, this is the movie to point them to.

EDGE OF TOMORROW


It’s a shame Edge of Tomorrow wasn’t a box office champ, because we sure were entertained. Adapted from the Japanese light novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the film meshes a Groundhog Day-style time loop with futuristic mech suits, an alien invasion and a D-Day-esque beachhead battle. It also gives us Tom Cruise putting aside some of his ego to amusing effect as a military PR guy with no combat experience plonked into the middle of battle, having to seek out a seasoned warrior played by Emily Blunt to guide him through his predicament and teach him the ropes. The action in this is truly exciting stuff, sufficiently different from the battles with alien invaders taking place in big cities we’ve seen in blockbusters past. It’s also always great to have a badass female character show the guy just how it’s done and while “Emily Blunt” isn’t the name that immediately comes to mind, she sure looked awesome in this movie be it slicing at Mimics with a giant sword forged from a helicopter blade or rising from a downward facing dog yoga position. Top all that off with a hilarious turn from Bill Paxton as a blowhard drill sergeant-type and you’ve got a howling good time.

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL


Action movie junkies went positively nuts over The Raid: Redemption, a badass film in which two SWAT officers face off against an apartment block full of deadly thugs. As such, there were high expectations associated with the sequel, expectations which The Raid 2: Berandal certainly met. It upped the ante when it came to the hyper-violent action spectacle when such a thing seemed impossible given all that happened in the first Raid. Iko Uwais returns as Rama, his opponents this time around including the trio of hired killers comprising “The Assassin”, “Hammer Girl” and her brother “Baseball Bat Man”. The film concludes with a virtuoso kitchen fight which took 10 days to film and comprises 196 shots. In order to shoot the car chase sequence, one of the cameramen was actually disguised as a car seat, passing the camera from the Director of Photography on one side of the car to a camera assistant on the other side to create a seamless shot through the car. Fans of this film are understandably weary of the upcoming Hollywood remake of The Raid, but apparently selling the rights for the remake was how director Gareth Evans was able to fund the sequel.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER



Marvel Studios has just announced their exciting Phase 3 line-up, but let’s take a moment to look back on just how amazing both entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2014 were. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is adapted from the story arc written by Ed Brubaker (who gets a cameo) in which a figure from Steve Rogers’ past returns in a new form to haunt him. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo set out to create a film which harkens back to the political conspiracy thrillers of the 70s, even managing to rope in Robert Redford. They definitely succeeded, creating a film which had just enough real-world resonance without compromising on the big-budget spectacle. It’s even more impressive considering this is the Russo Brothers’ first big studio action film, going from paintball battles in TV’s Community to super-soldiers duking it out as giant helicarriers fall out of the sky. The events in this film also upend the status-quo for the MCU at large and gave so-so TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the kick it needed. We also get introduced to Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, who is the current Captain America in the comics. The special features on the Blu-ray also teach us Mackie’s catchphrase, “Cut the check!” which we cannot stop saying.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY



It’s kind of funny to think of it as such seeing as it’s a $170 million movie from a major studio, but Guardians of the Galaxy has an appealing underdog quality to it. It’s based on more obscure source material than its counterparts in the MCU, its most famous names voice CGI creations, it’s weird and woolly and some feared inaccessible but as it turns out, everyone loves this. Young or old, male or female, tree or raccoon, audiences fell in love with this “bunch of a-holes” in a big way, and at the time of writing, this is the highest-grossing movie of 2014. Director James Gunn crafted a spectacularly entertaining film populated with loveable oddball characters and packed with cosmic adventure, comedy and a heady dose of nostalgia in the form of Star-Lord’s precious mix-tape. Also inspiring was the physical transformation actor Chris Pratt, known for being the schlubby dude from Parks and Recreation, who inspired swoons with his chiselled bod and Han Solo-style roguish charm. There’s also just how genuinely moving this turned out to be; we doubt there’s another film that had you misty-eyed over the bond between a gun-toting raccoon and his tree friend.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES


“Apes with guns” – sounds silly, doesn’t it? Well, director Matt Reeves and crew managed to take that and turn it into one of the most intelligent, riveting mainstream films of the year. 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes surprised many moviegoers by being a relevant, superbly-made reboot of the flagging Apes franchise, bringing it back from the misfire that was Tim Burton’s 2001 remake. The sequel skips ahead a decade, with Caesar leading a shrewdness of apes as the human population dwindles. Caesar forms a fragile alliance with the human Malcolm (Jason Clarke), but second-in-command Koba is none too happy about it. The clash of ideologies is presented compellingly, aided in no small measure by the impressive, hyper-realistic visual effects work by WETA Digital. Fox is pushing for Andy Serkis to be considered for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and if this awards bid is successful, history will be made. There’s no doubting the legitimacy of the performances Serkis, Toby Kebbell and the other performance capture actors turn in. And on top of all that, we get Gary Oldman as the leader of the human survivors! “Apes together strong!”


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Batman and Gotham City at Takashimaya

Pretty much the final event of the year commemorating Batman's 75th anniversary in Singapore took place at Ngee Ann City Takashimaya Shopping Centre. Presented by Pacific Licensing, there were mall appearances by Batman and Catwoman, a life-sized replica of the 1989 Batmobile on display and a cosplay competition organised by Movie Mania. This was a whole bunch of fun. The Batmobile is on display until 13 Dec so head on down and catch it before then!


















Fellow blogger Tina Gan aka Red Dot Diva

The judges for the contest: Bernard Ang from GnB Comics, Reno Tan from Movie Mania and Wallace Tay from Pacific Licensing Studios








Yay, there was a Steph! This cosplayer came all the way from Hong Kong.

Shaun cutting a badass figure as Red Hood












































Om nom nom!


























Third place winner


Second place winner



First place winner


























Batgirls love the Keaton.