Tuesday, December 18, 2012

CZ12 Chinese Zodiac


Director:Jackie Chan
Cast:Jackie Chan, Zhang Lanxin, Yao Xingtong, Laura Weissbecker, Kwone Sang-Woo, Oliver Platt
Genre:Action, Comedy
Run Time:123 mins
Opens:20 December
Rating:PG – Some Violence

It’s the holiday season and the 12 days of Christmas are upon us, but Jackie Chan hopes to turn moviegoers’ eyes eastward to a different “12” – the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac. In this film, the third installment of Chan’s Armour of God series (though it isn’t marketed as such), he returns as mercenary and master thief JC.
The “Chinese Zodiac” (aka CZ12) of the title refers to 12 bronze animal heads, one of each animal, that were stolen when Anglo-French armies looted the Summer Palace in 1860. Six of them are missing, and JC has been hired to track them down and find them by the father-and-son-duo of Lawrence (Platt) and Michael (Vincent Sze) (adopted, perhaps?), who run the shady Max Profits Corporation. This quest brings JC and his crew – Simon (Kwone), Bonnie (Zhang) and David (Liao Fan) from the chateaux and vineyards of France to an island in the South Seas and beyond, as they meet a French heiress (Weissbecker), a Chinese archaeology student (Yao), and a ruthless rival mercenary named The Vulture (Alaa Safi). That, and the expected smorgasbord of action set pieces, which include outrunning Rottweillers in a garden maze, and a skydiving skirmish high above an active volcano.
Chinese Zodiac has been touted as possibly Jackie Chan’s last big headlining action film and a return to the Jackie Chan action-comedy of old. In that respect, it delivers, because this is classic, typical Jackie Chan. It really is reminiscent of the films earlier in his career, and since it’s been 21 years since Armour of God II: Operation Condor, it does tickle the nostalgia bone. The action sequences in this film are uniformly entertaining and while it seems Chan has learnt a fair bit from working on big Hollywood films, he hasn’t lost that essence entirely, so we have a romp that’s slicker and a fair bit more polished than his earlier efforts, yet still unmistakably Jackie Chan.
However, that’s not entirely a good thing. The story isn’t the most original, with shades of the Jackie Chan animated series amongst others, there are the usual plot contrivances (do random French heiresses really just invite you home to check out their antique collection?), and Chan’s penchant for slapstick is on full, brash display. While humour is a part of his brand of cinematic action, there’s a difference between being lighthearted and witty and being just plain silly; this is a line that Chinese Zodiac crosses all too often. Many of us haven’t completely outgrown Jackie Chan flicks, but we’ve definitely grown up, and this reviewer isn’t sure if the same can be said of the director/star as some of the antics showcased are rather juvenile. The most egregious example is an odd Pirates of the Caribbean pastiche that comes completely out of left field, when JC and his party are exploring a long-lost island and get ambushed by a multi-national band of pirates, including one made up to look like Jack Sparrow. Then there’s an attack by a hive of bees, complete with the pirates sporting cartoony swollen lesions. It’s scenes like that one that threaten to completely derail whatever little story the film had to begin with, and are frankly unnecessary.
The film has JC working with a team this time around, Mission: Impossible style, but let’s face it, this doesn’t make it any less of a Jackie Chan ego trip. There’s a supposedly lofty message of the preservation of cultural heritage by having all artifacts and national treasures returned to their countries of origin, and Chan includes a slightly obnoxious voiceover over the end credits, but at least his onscreen persona of the mercenary with a heart of gold is likeable as always.
However, what Jackie Chan excels in are undoubtedly cool stunts, and there’s no denying that there’s imagination on display in how said stunts are staged and shot, more than in your average Hollywood actioner, and that the 58-year-old multi-hyphenate is still spry and energetic. Chan one-ups the zorbing scene from Armour of God II in the “unique modes of transportation” department with the “Buggy Rollin Suit”, invented by French extreme sportsman and designer Jean Yves “Rollerman” Blondeau. It’s an exciting opening chase that wouldn’t be out of place in a more upbeat Bond movie, and is very tactile and physical. The major hand-to-hand combat sequence between JC and Alaa Safi’s Vulture (a cool character who’s a little underutilized) is exactly the kind of scene Jackie Chan fans would relish. And yes, while the climactic skydiving sequence was accomplished mostly with blue screen photography, it’s still pretty edge-of-your-seat stuff.
It’s good to see Jackie Chan back in his element in an archetypical “Jackie Chan movie”, warts and all, but this definitely is a movie where the enjoyment is contingent on how forgiving of its star one is willing to be. Good thing then, that the star is Jackie Chan.
SUMMARY: If you’re a Jackie Chan fan, you just might be able to overlook the wanton silliness and enjoy Jackie Chan’s signature stunts and action feats.
RATING: 3 out of 5 STARS
Jedd Jong

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises Blu-ray

Originally written for F*** Magazine, Singapore
The Dark Knight Rises was pretty much the movie event of the year, and, yes, now that people have seen it, it has its detractors and those who say it didn’t quite live up to the hype. However, it’s hard to deny just how big an achievement the film is, a blockbuster of truly gargantuan proportions and a grand send-off for the Dark Knight trilogy no matter how you slice it. The release of the film on home video can definitely be considered something of an event, and while there’s no better way to soak in a film of such proportions than on the big screen, reliving the big moments in the comfort of your home, with Bane’s gruff, muffled lilt coming over your sound system (and subtitles to help you out), is a very close second.

This reviewer has written about the film itself in an earlier piece, and loved it to bits. Seeing it again at home, his regard for it hasn’t slipped at all. Sure, it’s not quite as perfect as previously thought, but it’s still a darned good piece of filmmaking, and definitely the finale Christopher Nolan’s vision of Batman deserves. The sound and picture is, as expected, astounding. Most of the film was shot in the IMAX format for maximum impact, and the transfer is pretty much flawless. The aspect ratio changes slightly between scenes shot in IMAX and shot on regular 35 mm, but it’s not too distracting.

This is one of those films where it feels like an honor to watch it in your own home. The opening hijacking/infiltration sets the stage for an explosive ride, with the panoramic vistas, the dizzying heights, and the thumping Hans Zimmer score with the now-famous “deshi basara”  chant roaring in the background. In addition to its dense and engrossing plot, this is definitely very much a “sight-and-sound” movie. Every little detail is presented to be relished in all its glory, from punches landing to gunshots being fired,  the whirr of the Bat’s rotors and turbines, the falling water in both Batman and Bane’s lair, all of Wally Pfister’s remarkable cinematography and Richard King’s immersive sound, really…almost brings a tear to  one’s eye, it’s all so beautiful. It’s also easy to appreciate that Nolan gives the dialogue scenes as much weight as the action sequences, and it is very effective.

Christopher Nolan, youda man.
The 2-disc special edition comes with over three hours of special features, which should provide good feasting for voracious Batman fans. There’s a great retrospective documentary about the Batmobile, featuring all five of its cinematic incarnations in the same room together for the first time, like supermodels for a fashion photo shoot. Batman’s car has always been almost as iconic as the Caped Crusader himself, and there’s something about the Batmobile that brings out the five year-old boy in everyone. The documentary includes interviews with various designers, technicians, and artists responsible in bringing the Batmobile to life on the big screen in its various forms, from the retro cool of the Lincoln Futura-based model in the ’66 movie and TV show to the tough, aggressive matte-black Tumbler Batmobile in the Dark Knight trilogy. Various fans who turned up at San Diego Comic Con in costume are also featured in short interview segments. This is not merely a geeky look at the technical specifications and gadgets of Batman’s ride, though, and this documentary is remarkable in its examination of the iconography and symbolism of the Batmobile, how it’s akin to the noble steed a knight from Arthurian mythology would ride into battle, and the special place it occupies in the hearts of its creators and Batman fans everywhere alike.  Towards the end of the featurette, there’s a clip showing the Tumbler Batmobile being taken up to the Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, and it was quite a surprise for this reviewer to find himself actually tearing up during a celebration of the one of the toughest, coolest, most manly cars in pop culture history. And, of course, there’s a thrill to see all five cars, single file, roaring down the freeway.

As for features pertaining specifically to this film, there is a trailer archive and a print campaign art gallery, but the motherload is definitely “Ending the Knight,” a collection of 17 behind-the-scenes featurettes coming in at over two hours in length altogether, and split into three sections: “Production,” “Characters,” and “Reflections.”  The Dark Knight Rises is crammed full of moments that will make almost anyone wonder, “Now, how did they do that?” and these featurettes attempt to answer those questions.
Almost all of the fun stuff is covered under “Production.” “The Prologue: High-Altitude Hijacking” details the filming of the exhilarating and suspenseful mid-air heist that opens the film. This first behind-the-scenes look establishes that, unlike a growing number of filmmakers, Christopher Nolan is particular about getting as much in-camera as possible, and not relying overly on computer-generated visual effects work, resulting in sequences which are spectacular and awe-inspiring in their realism. There’s stuntmen hanging out of planes for real, sections of planes dropped from helicopters, a full-sized plane on a full-motion gimbal platform, stuntmen crawling along the sides of the fuselage of planes in mid-air… From the get-go, you can see that stunt coordinator Tom Struthers, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, and the rest of Nolan’s team had their work cut out for them.
“Return to the Batcave” and “Beneath Gotham” give viewers a look at the construction of the massive sets for the Batcave and Bane’s lair in the city sewer system, respectively, and “The Pit” grants us a look at the other major underground set, the prison from which Bruce Wayne must escape. “Armoury Accepted” shows how a combination of miniature model work, green screen photography, and dropping a full-sized Tumbler Batmobile right into the set came together to form the illusion of Bane blasting away the ceiling of his lair to drop Batman’s goodies stored upstairs right into his lap. “The Bat” highlights Batman’s sweet new ride, a flying vehicle that’s part-helicopter, part-tank, and part-lobster. A full-scale version of the vehicle was constructed, and since it couldn’t actually fly, a number of rigs were constructed to make it appear like it could, involving such contraptions as a setup of two cranes with wires strung between them, heavy-duty helicopters from which the Bat was suspended, and a ground vehicle on which The Bat “rode” that was painted out using visual effects work afterwards.
“Gameday Destruction” answers the question of how exactly the filmmakers blew up a football stadium to form one of the movie’s central action setpieces. Co-writer Jonathan Nolan reveals how he wanted to have Bane begin his takeover of Gotham City at a football stadium because it’s a place of “collective vulnerability,” and would have great psychological impact. Over 11,000 eager extras showed up at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to shoot the scene where Bane takes the arena under siege, and the featurette clues viewers in to just how much work went into that one sequence, with everything from special effects rigging to stunts, to even naming Gotham’s football team (“The Rouges,” after Batman’s comic book rogues gallery) and designing their uniforms. Executive producer Thomas Tull, one of the owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers, enlisted players past and present to cameo in the film as the Gotham Rogues, and the real-life mayor of Pittsburgh Luke Ravenstahl appeared as the kicker of the opposing team, the Rapid City Monuments. “War on Wall Street” is about the other major crowd scene, a massive brawl between scores of policemen and Bane’s thugs, filmed on Wall Street itself — which the production team turned into a giant war zone for a 1,100-strong clash.
For this Batman fanatic, the special features on this Blu-ray release can be summed up as “extensive but not exhaustive.” Sure, there is a wide array of behind-the-scenes material, and it is very educational and entertaining to watch how Christopher Nolan and Co. mounted “Operation TDKR.” However, one can’t help but feel that bits and pieces are missing. For example, the “Characters” section of “Ending the Knight” comprises profiles of Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, and Bane — but none on major new characters John Blake and Miranda Tate or stalwart allies Commissioner Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, and Lucius Fox. The extras are also curiously spoiler-free, so there isn’t a featurette that goes into the finale in detail. There is also an option to sync up the movie with the free downloadable The Dark Knight Rises app, though this reviewer would have also liked to see an in-movie interactive mode with trivia segments and so on accessible while watching the movie itself.
Still, it will be difficult for any Bat-fan to pass this up, and yes, this is a must-have.The Dark Knight Rises is a film that may be exhausting to watch, but exhausting in a good way, like after a morning run. It’s definitely very rewatchable in spite of its hefty running time, though if you’re feeling flush, a limited edition including a very cool-looking broken cowl replica display piece is also available. A trilogy boxset will also be out next year.
MOVIE: 4.5 out of 5 STARS
EXTRAS: 4 out of 5 STARS
Jedd Jong

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Life of Pi

For F*** Magazine


Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Run Time: 127 mins
Opens: 29 November 2012
Rating: PG - Some Frightening Scenes

There’s no undertaking quite like filming the “unfilmable”, and director Ang Lee and co. have bravely stepped up to the plate with this adaptation of Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi. Many deemed translating the much-loved story to the big screen an impossible task, and it has been a long road to fruition – but the glorious end result probably makes it all worthwhile.

As a framing device, we have an author (Rafe Spall) visiting Piscene Molitor “Pi” Patel (Khan), who sets the stage with some backstory, including his relationship with his parents, his encounters with various faiths and the origins of his peculiar name. Then, he recounts for the writer a life-changing event: his getting stranded at sea for 227 days on a lifeboat alongside a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. 16-year-old Pi (Sharma) must learn to survive not only the harshness of the open ocean, but a hungry big cat too, as he embarks on an adventure that is as much spiritual and emotional as it is physical.

Life of Pi has been described as a “spiritual odyssey”, a coming-of-age film of “magical realism” dealing with faith and philosophical themes. Now, all this makes it sound lofty and inaccessible and may turn off many a viewer. It’s a good thing then that Lee has succeeded in making a deep, complex film very accessible and appealing. The first part of the film, in which an adult Pi speaks about his past, draws the viewer into a somewhat heightened, fantastical world, preparing them for the adventure ahead.

While Life of Pi isn’t one of those head-scratchingly confusing arthouse films, it’s also as far from your typical blockbuster as you can get – it’s not a movie for the particularly impatient, and is one of those “experiential”-type films that you need to just soak in. One could also describe Life of Pi as sort of a surrealistic buddy road trip movie – like in every such film; there are two characters on a journey, whose relationship is essential to the plot. It’s just that instead of, say, two stoners in a beat-up old car; it’s a boy and a Bengal tiger in a lifeboat. Now, before you begin groaning, let it be known that Lee’s famous visual flair is in full force here: this is probably the most-gorgeous looking film of the year and a breathtaking technical achievement in every regard. From a harrowing shipwreck to a whale leaping out of plankton-illuminated waters, it’s practically a parade of one awe-inspiring image after the other.

The framing device of an adult Pi telling his story to the writer is similar to that used in Titanic, and Spall and Khan put in commendable supporting performances, their relatively mundane meeting providing contrast to the larger-than-life odyssey that forms most of the movie. For the bulk of the film however, Pi is played by first-time actor Sharma, who beat out 3,000 other hopefuls for the part. He very nearly missed out too, as he wasn’t initially interested in auditioning, having tagged along for his younger brother’s audition. He gamely takes on the Herculean task of carrying a huge film (almost) all by his lonesome, something which would be daunting to any actor, let alone one with no prior film experience. Furthermore, Sharma spends most of the film acting opposite nothing, which isn’t an easy thing to do.

You probably won’t realise he is acting against nothing though, because of how incredibly lifelike Richard Parker the tiger and the other animals in the film look. Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer of Rhythm and Hues Studios and his team have created a digital tiger that captures all the nuances of the real thing, every snarl, crouch and lunge feeling suitably animalistic and not plasticky or artificial as it well could have been. Extensive visual effects work was also used to make it look convincingly like Pi and Richard Parker were out on the open ocean, when in reality the film was shot in several water tanks in an abandoned airport in Taichung, Taiwan. Many films have come under fire for an overuse of computer-generated imagery, but along comes this film that serves as a perfect example for how the technology can be used as an effective storytelling tool.

3D has also been the target of similar accusations, and not without reason. However, Lee’s use of stereoscopic filmmaking is markedly artful and in many places adds to the otherworldly feel of Pi and Richard Parker’s sea voyage. There’s even a moment where the tiger lunges out of the screen – it could be seen as gimmicky, but is actually quite fun. Shooting the film in 3D was one of many elements that made Life of Pi a really difficult film to put together – animals, water, “unfilmable” source material and 3D on top of all of that?

Lee has admitted that this was the toughest film he’s had to work on, but he and the cast and crew of Life of Pi can rest assured that they’ve been amply rewarded with something of a masterpiece. If there’s any major thing this reviewer didn’t quite enjoy of the film, it would be the film’s attempt to incorporate the “twist ending” of the book, which seems to slightly undermine everything which came before. In the end, however, this is that rare movie which strikes a balance between the epic and the intimate, pure and refined in its storytelling – what movies are meant to be.

SUMMARY: It is, indeed, a wonderful Life – and certainly deserving of more than 3.142 stars.

RATING: 4 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

As published in F*** Magazine Issue #34

Movie review                                                                                                               10/10/12


Starring the voices of: Peter Weller, Ariel Winter, Gary Anthony Williams, David Selby
Directed by: Jay Oliva

Some Batman fans weren’t all too pleased that Christopher Nolan had chosen the title “The Dark Knight Rises” for the final instalment in his Batman film trilogy – because to them, the acronym “TDKR” referred to The Dark Knight Returns, and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ alone. ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, written and drawn by Frank Miller with inks by Klaus Janson and colours by Lynn Varley, was published in 1986 in four issues and is arguably one of the most important graphic novels ever created. Along with Miller’s other defining Batman work ‘Batman: Year One’ (which has also been adapted into an animated film), ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ was credited for making Batman truly grim and gritty again. No more pink aliens, colourful Batsuits or ridiculous one-liners folks: if you like your Batman dark and no-nonsense (as he should be), this graphic novel is to thank for that.

Fans got little tastes of what an animated version of this now-classic yarn would look like in an episode of ‘The New Batman Adventures’ entitled ‘Legends of the Dark Knight’, and in the ‘Artifacts’ episode from ‘The Batman’. Now, at long last, we have an actual, full-length animated version of the story with this two-part film, the latest in DC’s mostly stellar stable of direct-to-video animated movies.

The film is set some time after Batman’s (Weller) retirement; Gotham having become a dystopia terrorised by a gang of mutants. Commissioner James Gordon (Selby) is near retirement himself, and is now privy to Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne. Harvey Dent (Wade Williams), formerly Two-Face, has apparently been cured of his affliction, his face repaired by a plastic surgeon and his psyche supposedly mended by head psychiatrist Bartholomew Wolper (Michael McKean) of the ‘Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled’. The increasingly violent activity of the mutant gang, with the brutish mutant leader (Gary Anthony Williams) at the helm, brings Batman back out of retirement. He’s got a new Robin too: teenager Carrie Kelley, much to the disapproval of Bruce’s aging butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Jackson (no, not that one)). However, much as they need Batman, the people of Gotham are divided as to whether they’re willing to welcome him back, some viewing him as a fascist vigilante who is as much responsible for creating Gotham’s supervillains as he is fighting them.

Those still on a high from the release of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, and its impending arrival on home video formats, should definitely check this animated film out. Christopher Nolan has included more than a few nods to ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ in his films, including the tank-like appearance of the Batmobile and the small scene between the two cops (“boy, are you in for a show tonight, son”) in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. This film has, in turn, also been influenced by that trilogy, featuring a musical score from Christopher Drake that, with its low electronic drum beats and repetitive bass line, is quite Hans Zimmer-y, and the theme sounds suspiciously like it was plucked straight out of ‘Inception’.

Thing is, as iconic as the story is, it isn’t exactly accessible to the average reader, being pretty rough around the edges in its brutality, featuring a ‘Dirty Harry’-style take on Batman and drawn in Frank Miller’s decidedly grungy style. This film, while staying as faithful an adaptation as a PG-13 animated flick can, refines it a little, the character models cleaner while still recognisable as following Miller’s designs. The animation is of a better quality than that of the ‘Batman: Year One’ adaptation, and has something of an anime feel – if not in character design, then in backgrounds, lighting and ‘camera’ movement. This is quite a dramatic and dynamic looking film, the animators having done a very good job translating Miller’s story from the page to the screen, and including a decent amount of cool-looking action that’s still adequately brutal. The clash between Batman and the Mutant Leader in a mud pit is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the movie, and doesn’t disappoint.

Besides the visuals, it’s the voice work that’s crucial to completing the transition of ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ from page to screen, and the film shines in this regard too. Peter Weller makes for a great elderly Batman, his voice naturally deep and gravelly as opposed to sounding forced or silly as some think Christian Bale’s Batman voice did. Also, it’s RoboCop as Batman! Now that’s something to geek out over. The DC animated films have had a tradition of featuring television stars as voice actors and this one is no different, with Ariel Winter (Alex from ‘Modern Family’) as Carrie Kelley. It may be a little odd for the uninitiated to see a red-headed tomboy dressed in the Robin outfit, but Winter sells it, sounding every bit the plucky teen-turned-new-protégé. For this reviewer, David Selby as Commissioner Gordon is the standout. His performance is very reminiscent of that of Bob Hastings from ‘Batman the Animated Series’, albeit tuned to sound a little older.

The main difference between the book and the film is that most of Batman’s inner monologues have been excised, probably because these would be rather clumsy as voiceover bits. This could be seen as either a good or a bad thing: for many, Batman’s ‘narration’ of the comic was a big part of what made it so memorable, offering a good look into the emotional and physical toll being Batman has taken on him. However, it also showed that Frank Miller was developing signs of “early onset Miller-itis”, with lines that may sound silly if spoken out loud. The newscaster exposition sequences, on the other hand, are intact. While a useful narrative tool in the graphic novel, these ‘talking heads’ scenes are very static onscreen, and the weakest spots of this animated movie. Thankfully, there’s a great story to follow here, and there are bits and pieces which satisfyingly tie this back to the Batman we’re all familiar with, such as the inclusion of stalwart Batman allies Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, a flashback to the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and Jason Todd’s Robin costume standing in the Batcave as a memorial to the slain Robin.

Though it may annoy some that they have to wait for the conclusion, it was a relatively good decision to split this film into two parts, because with a ‘Part 2’ coming early next year, this one doesn’t have to cram the story into its 77-minute runtime. ‘Part 1’ ends on quite the cliffhanger that well and truly whets the appetite for the follow-up. It’s good to see the Dark Knight return, and if you’re still on a Batman kick from ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, this is sure to keep you on that high.


Jedd Jong 

Saturday, November 3, 2012


As published in Issue #34 of F*** Magazine, Singapore


Director: Ben Affleck
Cast:  Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 120 mins
Opens: 13 November 2012
Rating: PG13 – Coarse Language

Arnold Schwarzenegger recently released his autobiography, entitled ‘Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story’. Well Arnie, it seems you have some serious competition in that department; because Argo is as unbelievable as true stories come. Ben Affleck’s historical political thriller recounts the U.S.-Canadian joint covert rescue operation nicknamed ‘The Canadian Caper’, drawing on declassified documents and personal accounts, laying it all out in incredible fashion.

It is 1979, and Iranian militants have stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage. Six others manage to escape and seek refuge at the residence of the kindly Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). The CIA calls upon exfiltration and disguise expert Tony Mendez (Affleck), working with his boss Jack O’Donnell (Cranston) to devise a plan to rescue the six consulate workers. When his son watches Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV, Mendez is inspired and hatches a crazy plan: he will enter Iran under the pretence of doing location scouting for a science-fiction fantasy film. With the help of Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (Goodman) and Hollywood film producer Lester Siegel (Arkin), Mendez concocts the sham-movie Argo, and thus begins the harrowing mission to smuggle the six Americans out of Iran, having them pose as a Canadian film crew.

Producers George Clooney, David Klawans and Grant Heslov read an article in Wired magazine about the ‘Canadian Caper’ and thought it would make for a great movie. Guess what: they were absolutely right. Ben Affleck delivers a crackling thriller which hits all the right notes: it feels thoroughly authentic with meticulous details ensuring the audience is convinced of the '70s period setting; it’s taut and exciting with the very high stakes feeling very real and it’s leavened with a good helping of humour revolving around the fickle Hollywood machine.

When the trailer was released, some concerns arose that the tone of the film would be uneven, lurching from serious political drama to light-hearted movie business satire. Well, you can rest assured that director Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio have managed to weave both elements of the story together and very cleverly presented an interesting juxtaposition. In the film and, presumably, in real life too, nobody seemed convinced for a second that the idea would work, and just as Mendez had to sell the CIA on it, so Affleck has to sell the idea to the film-going public – and that, he does. Goodman and Arkin are welcome presences, their affability providing much-needed respite from the intense goings-on in Iran. Hollywood is presented as a place where nothing is meant to be taken seriously, vis-à-vis Washington D.C. and Langley Virginia, where everything is meant to be taken seriously, and we get to see just how much trouble Tony Mendez had to go to in order to assemble ‘The Hollywood Option’, and in how short an amount of time he had as well.

Ben Affleck seems to have regained all the credibility he lost following the likes of Gigli and Daredevil with his directing stints in recent years, and this film most definitely continues that winning streak. He presides over the picture with a sure hand, expertly ratcheting up the tension (though he sometimes appears overly dependent on 360 degree camera moves) and giving the film something of a retro feel (notice the old-school Warner Bros. logo at the beginning) without going overboard. The climactic airport tarmac pursuit is a bona fide edge-of-your-seat moment. He’s not too shabby in front of the camera either, putting in a low-key performance while conveying the quiet valour and determination of the Mendez character very well.

During the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, there were some murmurs from the Canadian crowd that the film unfairly overlooked the involvement of the Canadian government in the rescue operation – it’s called the ‘Canadian Caper’ after all. Ben Affleck agreed to augment the postscript text, noting that the CIA’s actions were performed in conjunction with Canadian intelligence. This reviewer can’t vouch for the veracity of the film’s portrayal of historical events, but he can say this: it really doesn’t feel like your average overly-embellished ‘loosely based on a true story’ Hollywood deal, and that’s something to be admired. Argo is an expertly-crafted tribute to the power of ingenuity, bravery and co-operation (cheesy though that may sound) and makes for engrossing, compelling and powerful entertainment.

SUMMARY: Ben Affleck has a monumental success on his hands with this intriguing, exciting and smart historical political thriller. Go see Argo now!

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

Thursday, November 1, 2012


For F*** Magazine, Singapore

2011 Release

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kristen Wiig, Seth Rogen (voice)
Director: Greg Mottola

            Ever since 1982’s E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, everyone has wanted to have an alien as a best friend – sometimes a friendly alien is more fun than a vicious invasion. 19 years later, British comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost give us “E.T.” for grown-ups. They star as two British nerds on a pilgrimage to the San Diego Comic Con, and who go on a road trip to fabled UFO hotspots. On the way, they pick up escapee alien Paul (voiced by Rogen), meet trailer park-owner Ruth (Wiig) and evade Man-in-black agent Zoil (Jason Bateman).

            This movie is first and foremost a celebration for nerds everyone, a joyous ode to geekdom. Nerds need not be ashamed of themselves, and this film shows that they have the capacity to be awesome. Loving references to science-fiction favourites are scattered throughout the movie, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek, The X-Files and more get nice nods. The best part is that there’s a real story, and good characters that go on a journey and finish the film changed people (and aliens).

            Pegg and Frost share an easy bromance that is carried over from their cult hits Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Their comic timing seems almost synchronised, but they wisely do not hog the limelight, allowing the supporting characters to shine as much as they do. They also prove themselves capable of serious acting during some dramatic moments. However, there are moments when there’s a rift between their style of humour and the more accessible, crasser material that Superbad director Mottola brings to the table.

Kristen Wiig makes for an interesting love interest as the one-eyed Ruth, but the film attempts to deal with the theme of science vs. religion and gets a little wobbly there. Jason Bateman is an interesting casting choice as the steely and no-nonsense Agent Zoil and Sigourney Weaver is actually quite scary as his boss, “The Big Man”. Watch out for the obligatory Aliens reference.

Seth Rogen’s laid back voice is a good fit for the foul-mouthed, pot-smoking Paul. The thing that’s interesting is that not only has Paul been influenced by our pop culture, he’s made his mark on it too, hence a scene where he advises Steven Spielberg via telephone about the special abilities he should give to E.T. The visual effects work is commendable, Paul seeming like a real character and possessing very expressive, liquid eyes.  

Even for those who aren’t sci-fi aficionados, Paul is a genuinely funny joyride packed with a good amount of belly-laughs. Of course, it helps a little if you know your pop culture references, but the enjoyment isn’t contingent on that.

SUMMARY: An ode to the joys of being a nerd, Paul is carried by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s chemistry. It’s a whooping good time and is one of the better comedies this year so far.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012


For F*** Magazine, Singapore


Starring: Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris

Directed by: Sam Mendes

Following MGM’s filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010, it seemed that the sky really was falling for Bond fans everywhere. The future of the film franchise was put in jeopardy, and, for a while, it was a very strong possibility that Quantum of Solace would be the last James Bond film ever — which, for many, would have been disappointing to say the least. Thank goodness that Bond’s future seems brighter than ever with this triumphant 50thanniversary celebration.

The film opens in Istanbul, where Bond (Craig) is thrust right into the frenzied pursuit of Patrice (Ola Rapace), a French mercenary who has stolen a hard drive containing a list of NATO undercover agents embedded in terrorist cells. Bond is assisted by field agent Eve (Harris), and the mission goes awry. The repercussions make themselves felt: the names are leaked in a YouTube video, M (Dench) comes under pressure from Gareth Mallory (Fiennes), chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee, to call it quits, and MI6 falls victim to a vicious cyberterror attack. Bond follows a lead and tracks Patrice down to Shanghai, where he tangles with the mercenary in a high-rise skirmish. He also glimpses the enigmatic and beautiful Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), whom he meets again at a lavish floating casino in Macau. Bond asks to be taken to the woman’s employer, thus encountering the villain of the piece, Raoul Silva (Bardem). Silva is a flamboyant, psychopathic figure who bears quite the grudge against M, and perpetrated the attack on MI6 headquarters. Bond realizes that this mission is far more personal than it first appears — and perhaps just as much for M as it is for him.

In Skyfall, Bond is asked what his hobby is. “Resurrection” is his reply — and this is resurrection of the most glorious kind. Skyfall sets right many perceived problems viewers had with the previous installment. This being the 23rd official Bond film, some might say he’s a little long in the tooth, but Skyfall examines and proves the character’s relevance. With Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes at the helm, this is a very stylish, good-looking film; nine-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins serves up startlingly gorgeous imagery. Adele’s theme song is many times better than the Jack White/Alicia Keys trainwreck “Another Way to Die,” and it plays over Daniel Kleinman-designed opening credits that make strong reference to plot points throughout the film, instead of serving as a mere light show. Many wrote off the first two Daniel Craig-starring Bond films, Quantum in particular, as vainly aping the Bourne movies. Well, that’s definitely no longer the case (even though Bourne alumnus Albert Finney is in this too), as Skyfall’s tone strikes a near-perfect balance between the tough and gritty and glamorous and smooth, with a strong emotional current running through it all.

Daniel Craig is back in the saddle, the days of fans crying foul over his casting as the iconic character well and truly behind him. There’s a moment in the opening action sequence that’s in the trailers: Bond uses an excavator to tear the roof of a train carriage open, climbs on the excavator’s arm, leaps into the train and adjusts his cufflinks after he lands. That pretty much sums up Bond’s characterization: he’s willing to get his hands dirty and is rather brash, but at the same time is growing into the slick, suave agent he should be. This film also does something traditionally considered rather taboo in Bond films — delving into the character’s past, and it does so pretty well.  Many Bond films struggle with fitting M into their stories. Well, one could go so far as to say Skyfall is really M’s story, with Bond happening to become embroiled in it. Judi Dench is better than ever as the character; a woman hardened by years in a particularly challenging line of work, and someone who has to reconcile personal sentiments with duty. Also at MI6 is Ben Whishaw as the new incarnation of Q, Bond’s quartermaster, and, traditionally, the curmudgeon who begrudgingly hands out his gadgets to him. While former Qs John Cleese and, before him, the late Desmond Llewelyn were slightly older gentlemen, Skyfall runs in the opposite direction with a rather young, “adorkable” Q, whom Bond almost immediately writes off because of his youth. Whishaw and Craig share remarkable chemistry, and it would be a sin not to have this Q continue to appear in future Bond movies. The ever-dependable Ralph Fiennes ties it all together as the meddling bureaucrat who might not be that big of a jerk after all. This film also does something traditionally considered rather taboo in Bond films, delving into the Bond character’s past — and it does so pretty well.

So, how about the Bond villain and the Bond girls? Oscar-winner Javier Bardem puts in a spine-chilling performance as Silva, the villain. He’s proven he can play unhinged in No Country for Old Men, but Silva is a psycho of a different stripe. Bardem’s over-the-top portrayal is sometimes comic and harks back to villains of old. Silva is something of an impetuous child, but behind the loudness and the posturing lays a bitter, broken soul. Not every actor can convincingly inhabit a character of this sort. Naomie Harris has a nicely playful chemistry with Daniel Craig; Eve and Bond’s mutual flirtation providing much respite from the rather intense proceedings. Bérénice Marlohe makes for a stunning, exotic Bond girl and gets to share a scintillating shower scene with 007 himself. However, this isn’t a Bond film that will be primarily remembered for its women.

What it will be remembered for is its ending, a showdown which I’ve been kindly told not to spoil. If there’s one “issue” with the film, one which is reinforced by the ending, it’s that this is clearly a movie best enjoyed by Bond aficionados. It’s less action-driven than one might expect a modern-day Bond film might to be, and is a love letter to Bond in commemoration of his 50 years onscreen. As such, more casual viewers might feel just a teeny bit left out. It doesn’t attempt to chuck out everything the older Bond movies are remembered for; instead teasing some of those elements and building upon them. The Aston Martin DB5 from Goldfinger appears, complete with the same license plate and all the frills from that film — a symbol of the healthy nostalgia Skyfall possesses. By the movie’s end, it seems as if the Daniel Craig-starring Bond movies have found their footing at last, having incorporated more classic motifs into their framework – and fans can toast their martinis to Bond’s sterling return.

SUMMARYSkyfall is a Bond film that’s worth the wait, one that’s worthy of marking Bond’s golden anniversary, and one that Bond devotees will welcome with open arms. Here’s to 50 more years at the movies, 007!

RATING: 4.5 out of STARS

Jedd Jong