Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

For F*** Magazine

SIN CITY: A DAME TO KILL FOR 

Director : Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez
Cast : Jessica Alba, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Josh Brolin, Eva Green, Mickey Rourke, Rosario Dawson, Juno Temple, Jaime King, Bruce Willis, Jamie Chung, Lady Gaga, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven
Genre : Action/Thriller
Opens : 8 August 2014
Rating : R21 (Violence, Nudity & Sexual Scenes) 
Running time: 102 mins

SC2_1sh_FINALBasin CITY. A cesspool dripping with BLOOD and ALCOHOL and SEX and GRIME. A grimy CESSPOOL. NINE years after the FIRST movie, we RETURN. FOUR interlocking stories. “Just ANOTHER Saturday NIGHT” – Marv (Rourke) BEATS up PUNKS and hangs off the side of POLICE CARS. “The Long BAD Night” – Johnny (Gordon-Levitt), a self-assured young gambler, beats Senator Roark (Boothe) in a GAME of POKER. Big MISTAKE. “A DAME to Kill For” – Ava Lord (Green), sly WICKEDNESS taken the form of a WOMAN. She CASTS her SPELL upon former flame Dwight (Brolin) once more. Can he ESCAPE this enchantress’ GRASP? “Nancy’s Last DANCE” – stripper Nancy (Alba) is victim no MORE. She seeks to AVENGE the death of Hartigan (Willis), her PROTECTOR. AVENGING his DEATH. Her crosshairs are SET on Roark.
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            This reviewer had planned to write the whole thing in the style of Frank Miller but gave up after that paragraph. The first Sin City film broke its share of ground by hewing closely to the stylisation Miller had drawn into his graphic novels, using visual effects and cinematography to replicate the striking aesthetic of the Sin City books. Black and white with occasional violent bursts of selective colour, often lapsing into animated silhouettes. Miller was initially reluctant to allow an adaptation to be filmed, but Robert Rodriguez won him over and they became co-directors on both movies. It’s nine years later and it’s not quite so novel anymore. In-between then and now we’ve had the likes of 300 and the dismal The Spirit, the latter directed by Miller himself. It’s still a great gimmick and we bet this movie is stunning in 3D (we saw the 2D version). However, any gimmick can only carry a film so far.

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            The movie is clearly striving for a noir feel but so much of the Frank Miller dialogue, in reaching for a hard-boiled attitude, comes off as laughably silly. “It’s another hot night. The kind of night that makes people do sweaty, secret things,” Dwight says in voiceover. When he gets kicked in the crotch, he describes it as “an atom bomb go(ing) off between my legs.” The intensity of all the brutal, wince-inducing violence in the film ends up being undercut by the writing. “A Dame to Kill For” has as its central character an evil, manipulative, often-naked seductress. Eva Green vamps it up entertainingly as is her speciality, but there’s not much more to Ava Lord than that – she’s a textbook femme fatale. The character’s speech about the nature of insanity and evil from the graphic novel, which would have added a layer or two, is cut. “Nancy’s Last Dance”, an original story written for this film, also undoes everything the character went through in the first film. Nancy, that narrow beam of light that was able to escape the darkness of Sin City, is now just another avenging angel. “The Long Bad Night”, the other original story, is carried by Gordon-Levitt playing against Boothe but is never wholly compelling.

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            The film’s ensemble cast gets to play it up in ways few other movies would let them, to mostly entertaining results. Josh Brolin, playing Dwight before the character had plastic surgery to look like Clive Owen, is convincingly tough and grizzled. Powers Boothe is a hoot as a “love to hate” villain of the most extreme variety. Gordon-Levitt sinks his teeth into playing Johnny in his transition from cocksure and feeling untouchable to wounded and seething. The afore-mentioned Green, taking the role long-linked to Angelina Jolie, does look like she’s having a ball and seems extremely comfortable with the nigh-gratuitous nudity. Speaking of showing skin, Jessica Alba famously has a no-nudity clause but given Nancy’s get-ups in this film, she might as well be naked. Her attempts at playing an angry Nancy galvanised into taking up arms against Roark are ropey at best. Bruce Willis plays a ghost. Odd sense of déjà vu there.


            In 2005, before the full-on boom of movies based on comic books and graphic novels that we’re experiencing now, Sin City was unlike anything else out there. It was striking, bold and impactful. Now, the cool factor of the film being shot on a digital back-lot with everything but the actors and key props computer-generated has subsided. As over the top as A Dame to Kill For is, it falls short of the visceral oomph the first film had. Comic book fans know Frank Miller as a writer and artist who helped define the medium with the likes of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, but who seems to have lost his mind, judging from the atrocious likes of Holy Terror and All Star Batman and Robin. His misogynistic attitudes and obsession with dark faux-poetry are on full display in Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Robert Rodriguez serving as little more than his errand boy.

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Summary: There’s no kill like overkill –Sin City: A Dame to Kill For brims with eye-catching imagery and uncompromising depictions of violence and sex, but there is little beneath its glossy, lurid surface.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

The November Man

For F*** Magazine

THE NOVEMBER MAN

Director : Roger Donaldson
Cast : Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Eliza Taylor, Catherine Scorsone, Bill Smitrovich, Will Patton, Lazar Ristovski, Patrick Kennedy
Genre : Action/Thriller
Opens : 28 August 2014
Rating : NC-16 (Sexual Scenes and Violence)
Running time: 108 mins


           In The Tailor of Panama and Matador, Pierce Brosnan played on his persona as the world’s most famous fictional spy. He does it again but in a markedly more serious manner here, as retired CIA agent Peter Devereaux. Devereaux violently barges out of his quiet retirement in picturesque Lausanne, Switzerland to embark on a very personal mission. Social worker Alice Fournier (Kurylenko) has valuable evidence that could topple the political career of Federov (Ristovski), poised to become the next Russian president. Devereaux must protect her to uncover the far-reaching conspiracy but this brings in him conflict with David Mason (Bracey), his former pupil at the CIA. The further Devereaux digs, the more danger he puts him and the few he keeps close to him in, especially when it transpires that a CIA official may have been in cahoots with Federov.


            Based on Bill Granger’s novel There Are No Spies, the seventh in the November Man book series but the first to be adapted, this is a film that is competently made but is filled with elements that aficionados of the espionage thriller genre are likely all too familiar with. The film is built upon the theme of spies entering relationships and having families, only for those they hold dear to become casualties in wars that are not theirs to fight. Veteran director Roger Donaldson has tackled the genre before with No Way Out and The Recruit, now turning out a post-Bourne spy movie that is tough and gritty without being self-consciously so. In the States, this is rated R. The blood, swearing and requisite gratuitous scene set in a strip club go some way to separate it from the PG-13 action thriller pack, if only superficially.


            Brosnan is actually even more convincing as a spy here than in his Bond films over a decade ago. Eschewing the wink-and-a-smile charm he is so famous for, Brosnan plays Devereaux as grizzled and lethal. If he’s planning a Liam Neeson-style “man of geri-action” career ahead, he’s going about it better than, say, Kevin Costner is. He plays the heated confrontations with a surprising amount of intensity, especially given that his Bond was never known for being particularly tough. It’s a pity then that Luke Bracey is bland as Mason, the Australian actor never rising above “standard issue imported Hollywood pretty boy”. A better actor could have made the strained mentor-mentee relationship between Devereaux and Mason more compelling.


            Let’s face it, former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko is known more her exotic, striking appearance than her acting chops. However, she brings a good deal of vulnerability and is also able to bring out the canniness beneath the surface of the Alice Fournier character, offering hints that there is more to her than she is letting on. Lazar Ristovski is also a sufficiently slimy and unlikeable as Federov without overplaying the stereotype.


            While many spy thrillers fall apart as they head into their conclusions, The November Man actually becomes a good deal more interesting in its last act, the twists and reveals effective and somewhat plausible. This doesn’t change that it follows many conventions of the genre and that it is poorly paced, the action sequences few and far between. Some visual clichés are employed too – there’s actually a scene of someone jumping sideways through a door into a room, firing a gun in slow motion. Ultimately, it is Brosnan who makes this worthwhile, kicking ass and taking names far more his wheelhouse than struggling through Abba songs.



Summary: A conventional espionage thriller that mitigates its sense of “been there, done that” by ramping up the tension in the third act. Brosnan’s late-career action hero resurgence also makes this worth a look.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars


Jedd Jong 


Monday, August 18, 2014

Lucy

For F*** Magazine

LUCY


Director : Luc Besson
Cast : Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Analeigh Tipton, Choi Min-sik, Amr Waked
Genre : Action/Thriller
Opens : 21 August 2014
Rating : NC-16 (Some Drug References and Violence)
Running time: 90 mins

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Scarlett Johansson kicks a lot of ass as Black Widow but doesn’t have any actual superpowers to speak of. As the eponymous Lucy, she has all the superpowers. Just your average girl abroad, Lucy gets mixed up with the wrong crowd in Taipei and is made an unwilling drug mule for Korean crime lord Mr. Jang (Choi). Inserted into her abdomen is a packet of blue crystals known as CPH4. When the drugs enter her system following an encounter with some thugs, Lucy begins to tap into the unmined potential of her brain. She contacts Professor Samuel Norman (Freeman), the leading expert in this area. According to Prof Norman, humans use only 10% of their cerebral capacity. As the drug’s effects strengthen, Lucy inches towards optimizing 100% of her mind, giving her the power over her own body, the bodies of others and matter itself. As she heads towards omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence, what’s next?


            From The Messenger: the Story of Joan of Arc to La Femme Nikita to The Fifth Element and to a different extent The Lady, writer-director Luc Besson’s forte is making extraordinarily skilled, powerful women look awesome. He’s at it again in Lucy, with Scarlett Johansson stepping in the shoes once filled by a young Natalie Portman and Milla Jovovich.  We’ll give Lucy this: it’s ambitious and it’s different. Besson could’ve been content with churning out a run-of-the-mill actioner and apparently, he isn’t. This strange beast of a sci-fi action fantasy flick has been only semi-facetiously compared to Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Mixed in with the requisite gunplay and car chases through Paris are scenes of an Australopithecus drinking from a prehistoric lake. This touch also imbues the name “Lucy” with extra significance.


            Unfortunately, it is very often evident that Besson has bitten off more than he can chew. “Humans are concerned more with having than being,” Professor Norman says during an expository lecture. This sort of faux-portentous philosophising is served with a side of heavy-handed symbolism: Lucy being recruited for the delivery job in the beginning of the film is intercut with footage of a mouse approaching a mousetrap and of a cheetah hunting gazelles. Cue the eye-rolling. Sometimes, it’s hard to discern if Besson truly thinks this is a deep, contemplative masterpiece or if he is aware that Lucy is simply a gleefully silly romp. The answer to “life, the universe and everything” makes even less sense than “42”, the answer famously put forth in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. And let’s not forget that the “10% of the brain” myth is discredited, misleading pseudo-science.


            Johansson zones in as the superhuman Lucy and plays the transition from scared, naïve girl in over her head to single most powerful being in the world with entertaining élan. Lucy engages in more than a few morally dubious acts, but Johansson makes us cheer the character along regardless. Morgan Freeman once again does that thing he’s been doing lately: showing up in a movie to lend authority without doing any real acting. But hey, when you’ve got Morgan Freeman spouting all that techno-babble, it probably subconsciously lends it some credence. Choi Min-sik, Oldboy himself, is a suitably commanding presence as a downright scary career criminal who, after slaughtering a room full of innocent hotel guests, washes his hands with a bottle of Evian. Amr Waked is good as Captain Del Rio, the hapless cop dragged through Paris by Lucy as a “reminder” of her humanity. Fans of British TV will also get a kick of Julian Rhind-Tutt hamming it up as he forces the drug mules’ mission upon them.


            While a lot of it can be seen as wrongheaded and embarrassing, Lucy is very entertaining once the CPH4 is in her system and the plot gets into gear. There’s also lots of trippy imagery (strands of light over Paris! Shapeshifting arms! Nebulae in deep space!), created by Industrial Light & Magic, Rodeo FX and other visual effects houses. A scene set in an airplane is quite intense. Luc Besson’s regular cinematographer Theirry Arbogast and composer Eric Serra make the film a rather sumptuous sensory feast, in a way different from the biggest, most explosive blockbusters out there.



Summary: It’s high-falutin’ and quite silly, but dazzling visuals, fun action and a commanding lead performance by Scarlett Johansson make Lucy a halfway-decent diversion.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Expendables 3

THE EXPENDABLES 3

Director : Patrick Hughes
Cast : Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Antonio Banderas, Jet Li, Wesley Snipes, Dolph Lundgren, Kelsey Grammer, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Glen Powell, Victor Ortiz, Robert Davi, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger
Genre : Action/Thriller
Opens : 14 August 2014
Rating : PG13 (Violence & Some Coarse Language)
Running time: 126 mins

 “If you’re looking to get the job done/ Be it murder or rescuing ladies/ You cannot do better than old guys/ Who were popular back in the 80s…” so go the lyrics to comedians Jon and Al Kaplan’s musical spoof of The Expendables. Those grizzled guys are back with some young blood to add to the crew. Barney Ross (Stallone), Gunner Jensen (Lundgren), Lee Christmas (Stallone), Toll Road (Couture) and Hail Caesar (Crews) break old team-member Doctor Death (Snipes) out of prison. In the ensuing mission, they encounter Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson), a former Expendable-turned weapons and dealer and war criminal, hitherto thought of as dead. Barney brings in a younger bunch of mercenaries (Lutz, Rousey, Powell, Ortiz), with Spanish Armed Forces veteran Galgo (Banderas) insistent on joining. He is also assisted by Trench (Schwarzenegger), Yin Yang (Li) and Major Max Drummer (Ford), going up against the army Stonebanks has in his pocket.


This entire film series exists as a loving ode to 80s action films, featuring those who starred in said films proving they’ve still got the right stuff. As such, there was something of an outcry over this movie’s PG-13 rating – as the Kaplans put it later on in their song, “PG-13 is for pussies”. This reviewer wasn’t too bothered by that – while bloodless, the body count in this one is still very high. Also, the one f-bomb is given to just the right actor. No, this movie’s problems lie elsewhere. Succeeding Stallone and Simon West at the helm is Australian director Patrick Hughes, known for his neo-Western Red Hill. His direction here is mostly rote and journeyman-like; while competent, the action sequences lack flair or drive. There is a curious dearth of urgency or intensity in this action-thriller, even when an actual ticking bomb is introduced. It’s not like there isn’t a lot of shooting, punching or stuff blowing up, but the film often feels like it’s spinning its wheels, going nowhere fast.


            Why do action film junkies go to the Expendables movies? To relive the glory days of their cinematic heroes. As such, anytime the “Young Expendables” are onscreen, this reviewer was counting the minutes to when the actual Expendables – you know, the guys we came to see – would return. Even without Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Glen Powell and Victor Ortiz, the roster is already pretty crowded. There’s no time for us to get to know anyone and in place of characterisation, there’s bickering, mutual ribbing and general macho bro-ey-ness. We’re not expecting Chekhov or Mamet but just give us something to hang on to! The action sequences are fine, they aren’t infested with shaky-cam as most contemporaneous action sequences tend to be, but the sub-par visual effects work is carried over from the last two films. If it’s meant to evoke the cheap look of 80s action movies, then that’s the wrong nostalgia bone to tickle.


            The film is at its best when it goes for nostalgia in the right way, with its stars winking and nodding at the audience via references to their past work. Snipes’ character loves blades and jokes about being jailed for tax evasion. Schwarzenegger gets to say “get to the choppa!” Kelsey Grammer’s character makes a crack about ex-wives. However, in-jokes alone do not a good movie make. In spite of the humour, this go-round just seems a whole lot less fun. Indeed, Stallone often looks as though he’s grimacing through a heavy, dead-serious thriller. Nothing in this one matches Chuck Norris spouting his own “Chuck Norris fact” in the second film. Also, Harrison Ford does not say “get off my plane”. That’s a missed opportunity right there.


Mel Gibson is apparently paying penance for his myriad indiscretions by appearing in genre schlock like this and last year’s Machete Kills. He does go crazy-eyed Mad Mel but fails to be as memorable a baddie as Jean-Claude Van Damme was. Somewhere between the writing and direction, the potential for Conrad Stonebanks to be a spectacular bad guy is lost. Jet Li doesn’t bust a single kung fu move. What’s up with that? And yes, Ronda Rousey is a badass UFC champion, but this film is yet another example of “The Smurfette principle”, with one lone woman among a bunch of guys. Where are Linda Hamilton, Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Yeoh?

            A good chunk of the film seems to exist as a rather petty raised middle finger to Bruce Willis, with whom Stallone had a falling out with over the former’s salary. It’s a good thing then that Harrison Ford is an upgrade and seeing him chew Stallone out earlier in the film is as exciting as the biggest action scenes are. “I haven’t had so much fun in years,” he says. We almost believe him. Antonio Banderas as the talkative comic relief – that’s an odd choice, but he’s still fairly entertaining. The Expendables 3 never amounts to more than the sum of its parts and even when Kellan Lutz’s stunt double jumps a motorcycle off the tail of a crashed helicopter, it falls short of effectively harkening back to the 80s action films it wants to homage.

Summary: There’s less vim and vigour in this third go-round for Stallone and co. and worse, they have to jostle for screen time with those meddling kids.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Shoutout from Lexi Alexander

When I was part of Zoe Saldana's round-table interview during the Guardians of the Galaxy Singapore press tour, Saldana spoke about the dearth of women in creative roles in Hollywood (you can read the article here). I brought up Lexi Alexander, director of Punisher: War Zone, Oscar-nominee for her short film Johnny Flynton and a World Point Fighting/Karate champion. In short, an all-around badass.

This piqued Saldana's interest and I was really thrilled that Ms. Alexander herself came across the article and mentioned it on Twitter. Here are some screenshots of her Twitter feed and the responses it received:



"Femme Malheureuse" is French for "Unhappy Woman". Thanks Ms. Alexander for considering me an #ally! 

Friday, August 8, 2014

San Diego Comic-Con 2014: The Booths/Exhibits

2014 marks the 75th anniversary of Batman, so the main draw on the convention floor for me was WB/DC's display of artifacts from the Batman film anthology, including all those Bat-cowls, Batarangs, the Joker thugs' masks, the memorial statue from The Dark Knight Rises and even Martha Wayne's necklace. Of course, there was an abundance of cool displays in addition to Caped Crusader-related paraphernalia - take a look!

Legendary is pretty happy about Godzilla's box office success.

The Hilton is not safe from the Kaiju's wrath!


A super-armoured storm chasing vehicle from Into The Storm.

Original muppets at the Profiles in History prop auction booth.

Keep punching, America!


Original Chaplin hats.

SNIKT!




The famous Patton helmet.

Om nom nom.

Oh yes, Mystique.

And from the back, because why not?
Hobbit feet for sale, get your Hobbit feet right here!








"Hello. I want to play a game."


Apparently, these costumes are Expendable as well.



Affleck's cape and cowl from the upcoming Batman v Sueprman: Dawn of Justice.





"no no no no, I shoot the bus driver."





Jungian archetypes, yay!


St-st-st-st-sticky bomb (gun)! 


"WHY DOES HE WEAR THE MASK?!" 











The Sonar Suit cowl that was scanned into the computer for the visual effects in Batman Forever.



Hey Selina!




Design by Brian Azzarrello, artists of Batman: Noel and Joker.

Sideshow's booth can always be counted upon to display some really gorgeous statues.





"I'm gonna need that guy's bandanna!"


More props for auction! Not the biggest fan of this Batmobile design but in person, this thing is gorgeous! 

The Joker and helicopters don't mix.

Sandworm! 






A Kaiju flesh mite! 






That's a piece of Threepio.


The door-knocker on Jabba's Palace, next to a cap with the fake production working title for Return of the Jedi, Blue Harvest.

Racist stereotype notwithstanding, Nute Gunray's mask is well-made.


The extras that come with Bond's cars.


Holy crossbow, Constantine!



Jaeger pilot suit from the back. 

Lord Business towering over the Con floor.



Her name was Lola...
...She was a showgirl...

The pod from GotG.


Hot Toys makes my wallet weep. 











Judge Death.

Batman takes a moment to pose in front of cardboard Gotham.

Clues! 

Clues! 

Clues!

Clues!

Ziplining! 
Whee!




Costumes from the upcoming Max Steel film.

NECA has, as usual, some great dioramas.





A Ripley figure?! Finally, finally, finally! 




Apes now.

Apes then. 


You know the only thing anyone who buys this is going to do is painting it to be movie-accurate.








Because there's always a thick crowd around the Marvel booth, I snapped this picture of Loki's scepter from a distance.



Someone's gonna get a facehugging.

The Goliath, from Evolve. 


Catwoman ridin' her hog, design by Dustin Nguyen. 

Nope, nothing untoward is gonna happen to Cap in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Nothing untoward at all.






Look out for those stairs!





Signature of stop motion puppet artist and later visual effects supervisor Phil Tippett. Also famously the "Dinosaur Supervisor" on Jurassic Park (you had one job, Phil!) 

Keeping the peace.