Thursday, May 31, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman

Movie Review                                                                                                             1/6/12


Starring: Kristen Stewart, Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Claflin
Directed by: Rupert Sanders

            This must be a pretty twisted world, where Kristen Stewart is fairer than Charlize Theron. Okay, there’s that joke out of the way. Snow White, one of the Western world’s best-known fairy tales, gets another go-round and is given the “Grimm” treatment and takes place in a fairly twisted world– fitting, as it did all begin with a Grimm Brothers story. At the hands of first-time feature filmmaker Rupert Sanders, who has done commercials for the likes of Axe, Nike and Guinness, Snow White (Stewart) becomes a Joan of Arc-like warrior figure who charges into battle to avenge the death of her father at the hands of a wicked queen.

            Said wicked queen Ravenna (Theron) tricks her way into becoming the wife of King Magnus (Noah Huntley), after his wife dies of an illness. Ravenna kills the king and usurps his throne, locking his daughter Snow White in a castle tower and proceeds with a reign of terror, with her brother Finn (Sam Spruell) by her side. When Snow White escapes into the dark forest, she forcefully hires the drunken Huntsman (Hemsworth) to capture her. However, he decides to aid the fugitive princess, and the two run into the seven dwarves and Snow’s childhood sweetheart Prince William (Claflin) along the way. They assemble a revolution to storm the castle and take Ravenna down.

            It’s most appropriate to draw a comparison not with the other Snow White film released this year, but with last year’s Water for Elephants. Both movies feature sweeping period settings and gorgeous art direction, wonderful costumes, evocative musical scores by James Newton Howard, an Academy-Award winner as the villain (Christoph Waltz in Elephants and Charlize Theron here) and, most notably, an out-of-place Twilight star who is incapable of shouldering lead player responsibilities (Robert Pattinson in Elephants and Kristen Stewart here).

            The film goes to a great deal of effort to establish an atmosphere, and in that regard it succeeds. It goes for a quasi-medieval, fantasy-peppered feel – you could call it “Game of Therons”. Once Ravenna takes over as queen, the kingdom is engulfed in a certain bleakness and all life is quenched. The dark forest is all noxious gas, insect swarms, snakelike vines and thorns. In contrast, “Sanctuary”, the abode of the fairies, is a beautifully whimsical enchanted forest that stops short of singing birds and dancing squirrels. The final charge along the beach looks suitably epic, and the actual location of the Marloes Sands beach in Pembrokeshire, UK enhances that war movie effect.

            Colleen Atwood, oft-collaborator of Tim Burton, handles costume design responsibilities and the outfits created for Ravenna are of note. They perfectly convey the deadly mix of treacherous danger and beauty by incorporating feathers, bones and other darker motifs with fitted couture. It’s far less silly than the stuff Julia Roberts wears in Mirror Mirror, that’s for sure. James Newton Howard’s score absolutely lifts the movie and brings to mind romantic-era opuses.

            Charlize Theron is, as expected, a marvellous evil queen. Her performance drips with menace and she clearly enjoys the chance to chew the beautiful scenery for all it’s worth. She shouts orders, sucks the life force from defenseless girls, bathes in a milky rejuvenating liquid and even paces the castle floor. One could argue that her Machiavellian portrayal teeters very close to being ridiculous and at times it would not be out of place in a He-Man cartoon, but then again it does fit the approach taken with the material. Ravenna needs to be scary, and damned if Theron isn’t. Sam Spruell as the Queen’s brother is probably creepiness incarnate and matches Theron in gritted-teeth evil and makes for a memorable henchman.  

            It may seem like the easy route for a critic to take, but once again, everything is Kristen Stewart’s fault. The actress is infamous for failing to summon any emotion in her performances, which may have worked in the Twilight films as her character was pretty much a blank canvas on which young female audiences could project their fantasies, but here threatens to discredit the hard work everyone else has put in. Snow White is meant to possess other-worldly beauty and an inextinguishable life force, but the forest itself is less wooden than her. Her acting against Charlize Theron  is something like fighting a towering inferno with a spray bottle. The girl just cannot carry a movie, let alone put on a suit of armour and charge into battle astride a noble steed.
            How about the other half of the title, the Huntsman? It’s pretty hard to think of Hemsworth as anybody else than Thor, but the Huntsman isn’t all that different from that role. He’s a tough, alcoholic bruiser with a tortured past who takes on the role of mentor to Snow White, with something of a Scottish accent. He does look a wee bit too clean, but is masculine enough to pull it off anyway. Sam Claflin, last seen in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, seems to be stuck playing the love interest in period movies. He doesn’t share very much chemistry with K-Stew, which is probably more her fault than is. The director has said that he wanted to make a British gangster film and had his ideal cast for that film play the seven dwarves. Somehow, it really works – there’s a bit of a kick to be had seeing usually intimidating character actors shrunk down and singing round a bonfire.

            This movie purports itself as the Snow White we haven’t seen before, but it fits comfortably into the medieval fantasy genre and is a competent example of that kind of film. It tries to be a dark and sweeping epic, and for the most part achieves that goal, helped along by some great art direction and Charlize Theron at her fairy tale villainess best. Thankfully, Kristen Stewart in all her blandness, despite failing to fit into the setting at all and playing a title character to boot, doesn’t ruin all of this. Phew.

SUMMARY: You’d be right to doubt Kristen Stewart’s ability to pull the part off, but be wrong to completely write this serviceable movie off.


Jedd Jong

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Men In Black 3

For F*** Movie Magazine Singapore

Movie Review                                                                                                             21/5/12

Starring: Will Smith, Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones
Directed by: Barry Sonnenfeld

            Everyone knows it’s sexy to wear black. This summer, Nick Fury is decked out in a flowing black trenchcoat. Black Widow and Catwoman squeeze into black catsuits. Batman dons his black armour as usual. And of course, the titular government operatives of this film have returned to suit up. Ten years is a long time to be gone, but truth be told, Will Smith as Agent J hasn’t seemed to age a day.

            That’s less that can be said for his curmudgeon of a partner, Agent K (Jones). He’s more dour than ever, and Agent J seems frustrated that he can’t connect with the older gentleman as a friend. A dangerous alien criminal from K’s past, Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) has escaped from a maximum security jail, his prison break forming the opening sequence.

Boris causes a rift in the space-time continuum, and when J goes to work at MIB headquarters the next day, his new boss Agent O (Emma Thompson) informs him that Agent K died 60 years ago. A gobsmacked J travels back in time, where he meets the younger K (Brolin) and the two go about trying the prevent the former’s death and returning things to the way they should be, as two versions of Boris stand in the duo’s way.

Will Smith suggested the story to director Barry Sonnenfeld while they were filming the second Men In Black film, as a way to explore K’s backstory. So it’s a little puzzling that while the idea started incubating so long ago, the movie infamously began shooting without a completed script. This definitely hurt the end product, especially since the plot is somewhat complex. While time travel is a convenient plot device, the mechanics of time travel are equally inconvenient to convey onscreen, and the portrayal is iffy to say the least – cue some clunky bits of exposition.

But audiences don’t go to a Men In Black movie for a discourse in quantum physics – they go to see neuralysers, gross-out aliens, laser gunfights and madcap chases. Men In Black 3 contains all of these, but there’s a spark missing. While a marked improvement on the second instalment, this can’t help but feel a little tired and a little old, a sequel ten years too late to care very much about. There are also recognizable bits of other shows floating around – the 60’s setting seems to cash in on the Mad Men craze, the gyro-cycles that J and K ride are very reminiscent of the wheelbike General Greivous used in Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and the “jetpacks” look quite a bit like Doctor Who’s Daleks.

The biggest success of the first Men In Black movie was the buddy cop pairing of Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones, who couldn’t be more different. Their chemistry and dynamic brings to mind such successful teams as Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon movies and even Roy Scheider and Gene Hackman in The French Connection. Thankfully, Smith seems to work well with Josh Brolin too, and the latter’s two-hour-long Tommy Lee Jones impression is uncanny and entertaining.

Jemaine Clement’s one-armed Boris is essentially a pirate, prone to baring his teeth, growling and shooting up his victims with bony spikes courtesy of an insectoid organism living in his hand – something like a demonic shoulder-parrot. The character is sort of the alien equivalent of Ian McShane as Blackbeard in last year’s Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. While he’s certainly menacing, there isn’t much that makes him a standout villain.

Once again, Academy Award-winning makeup artist Rick Baker uses his talents to create a menagerie of extraterrestrial critters, but the copious amounts of CGI don’t quite match up to that standard and appear a little plasticky, particularly during the climax set during the Apollo 11 rocket launch at Cape Canaveral. The 3D conversion is half-decent and adds somewhat to scenes that take place at dizzying heights. The action sequences on the whole aren’t anything very special, and the unique possibilities presented by the 60s setting seem to go unnoticed to the filmmakers.

On the humour front, there are several amusing gags, the best of which is how Agent J travels back in time – as he leaps off the Empire State Building, he flies back in time, through the great depression (a suicidal stock broker is seen falling behind him) and the victory parade marking the end of World War II. As is MIB tradition, more celebrities are “outed” as aliens, including Lady Gaga and Mick Jagger, and Andy Warhol (Bill Hader) is revealed to be an MIB agent sick of his disguise as the pretentious artist. However, there are also moments where Will Smith, quintessential cool nice guy though he may be, borders on grating.

            Is Men In Black 3 an entertaining diversion? Yes. Does it offer up a crowd-pleasing blend of sci-fi, comedy and action? Mostly yes. Is it anything groundbreaking? Not really. Will it stand up against this summer’s heavy-hitting blockbusters? Most likely not.


SUMMARY: Men In Black 3 is less a spiffy suit and more a nice, worn pair of Bermudas: it won’t impress anyone, the colour’s faded a little, they don’t fit as well as they used to, but you like wearing them anyway.

 Jedd Jong

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


Movie Review                                                                                                              4/5/12
(2011 Release)

Starring: Jason Statham, Catherine Chan, James Hong
Directed by: Boaz Yakin

            Jason Statham is at it again, earning his keep the only way he knows how: punching and kicking his way through the Chinese and Russian mobs and the New York Police Department. As ex-cop Luke Wright, he is reduced to cage fighting and sleeping in shelters after he snitches on his corrupt colleagues. It’s just his luck that he comes across Mei (Chan), a 12-year-old Chinese girl with superhuman memory who carries in her head a complex series of numbers. It’s also just his luck that Mei is a pawn of Chinese mob boss Han Jiao (Hong), and police captain Wolf (Robert Burke) is playing both the Chinese and the Russians as all three parties hunt down Luke and his new charge.

            A YouTube comment on the trailer for the film said it best – “I liked it better when it was called “Mercury Rising”. Indeed, the earlier Bruce Willis film was more entertaining, and Miko Hughes, who played the kid with special abilities in it, was a far better child actor than Catherine Chan is. Safe is not so much outright bad as it is painfully derivative and almost profoundly generic. As usual, Jason Statham is playing the only character he ever plays, the gruff and street smart guy who also happens to be a skilled martial artist and sharpshooter. 

            The brutal action sequences in the movie are so-so – like most of the movie, they’re not awful, it’s just that we’ve seen the like many times before. There are some shootouts in gambling dens and hotels, a subway train brawl and a car chase with Statham driving against NYC traffic – normal action movie fare. As far as the plot is concerned, it’s just all too straightforward. There are no real surprises or curveballs – it’s just as well that everything unfolds quickly enough.

The crooked cops that make up one third of the movie’s villains and the mayor whom they answer to are as flat and one-note as they come. So are the Russian bad guys – poor Igor Jijikine, most famous as Col. Dovchenko in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, is probably stuck playing Russian mob henchmen for the rest of his career. Also, James Hong’s Mandarin Chinese is pretty bad, probably due to all the years he’s spent in the States. And let’s not forget the stereotypical portrayal of Chinese people as maths geniuses, mobsters or convenience store owners. It was rather bold of the filmmakers to demonize the entire NYPD, though.

            “I’ve seen him fight. Bad business for you,” deadpans Mei. Altogether, this was pretty bad business for Statham and company – at its worst; it seems almost like a throwaway direct-to-video action thriller. Here’s hoping Statham redeems himself come The Expendables 2 a little later this year.

SUMMARY: A paint-by-numbers action thriller that doesn’t stand out in any way, this would be right at home as a movie you might watch on HBO in a hotel room to pass the time.


Jedd Jong

Friday, May 4, 2012

Dark Shadows

For F*** Movie Magazine Singapore

Movie Review                                                                                                                    25/4/12

Starring: Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green
Directed by: Tim Burton

            Tim Burton seems to have found his magic formula for success: slap pale makeup onto Johnny Depp, dress him in Colleen Atwood-designed costumes and have Danny Elfman playing in the background. Here, Burton and his muse take on Dark Shadows, the ‘60s supernatural soap opera created by Dan Curtis. There have been several attempts to revive the series, all falling flat. Do Burton and Depp fare any better?

            Depp plays Barnabas Collins, the wealthy heir to a fishery empire, whose family had relocated from Liverpool to Maine in the 18th Century. Servant girl Angelique (Green) has fallen for him, but Barnabas spurns her love for Josette (Bella Heathcote). Angelique, secretly a witch, kills Barnabas’ parents, his true love and curses Barnabas to become a vampire. The angry townspeople lock him in a steel coffin and bury him alive.

            200 years later, a construction crew unearths Barnabas’ coffin, and the awoken vampire returns home to Collinswood, the crumbling family mansion. It is now inhabited by Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Pfeiffer) and her nuclear family, including brother Roger (Jonny Lee Miller), rebellious daughter Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), nephew David (Gulliver McGarth), drunken housekeeper Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) and live-in psychiatrist Dr Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) and new arrival governess Victoria Winters (Heathcote) – seemingly a reincarnation of Josette. Barnabas goes about trying to rebuild the family name and fortune, while thwarting the machinations of Angelique – still alive and running the rival Angelbay Seafood business.

            When the trailer for the film was released, many criticised the apparently comedic tone of the film, especially when compared to the deadly serious source material. In the hands of Johnny Depp, Barnabas has become his usual quirky, fish-out-of-water (fitting given the fishery town setting) eccentric. Much of the film plays on his unfamiliarity with 70’s-era America, and while some moments are amusing, other gags are about as old as Barnabas himself.

            The main thing going for Dark Shadows is its 70s setting, as reinterpreted by Tim Burton. His gothic sensibilities and the age of hippies and bad haircuts may seem odd bedfellows, but the collision of these two worlds is visually arresting and undoubtedly stylish, and there’s plenty of nostalgia to be had between the lava lamps, the Carpenters and Alice Cooper as himself (whom Barnabas dubs “the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen”).

The cast is also fairly impressive and generally well-chosen.  Femme fatale Eva Green clearly enjoys vamping (heh) it up and Chloe Moretz gives her a run for her money, which wouldn’t be so unsettling if the actress wasn’t 15 years old. Michelle Pfeiffer makes for a good lady-of-the-house, and Helena Bonham Carter is typically, entertainingly nuts. Bella Heathcote lends a wide-eyed, other-worldly appeal to Josette/Victoria, but is otherwise weaker than her cast mates. There’s also a cameo from another famous cinematic vampire, who has previously played Depp’s father in another Burton film.

            Beyond that however, the cracks start to show, just as they do on Angelique’s face. The film struggles to find a cohesive tone, and the horror and comedy elements don’t blend as well as they should. Burton’s fascination with the grotesque overwhelms other components of the film, and there consequently isn’t much room for meaningful character development. Sometimes the campy approach works for the movie, but just as many times it works against it, diminishing any semblance of weight.

            Another point of contention is that Burton seems to be cribbing from another famous gothic TV family, as evidenced by the film’s tagline “strange is relative” being uncannily similar to “weird is relative”. Truth be told, Morticia, Wednesday, Lurch and Uncle Fester are generally more interesting to watch than the Collins-Stoddards.

            Long-time fans of Burton, Depp and especially the two together are likely to enjoy this, but it’s really more of the same from both, and is nowhere near as inventive or clever as it imagines itself to be. Still, if it’s a vampire having a chat with hippies you’re after, you won’t be too disappointed.

SUMMARY: Aimed squarely at those who speak Burton-ese, but unlikely to make converts of those who don’t, leaving them in the shadows.


Jedd Jong

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Marvel's The Avengers

For F*** Magazine

Movie Review                                                                                                              1/5/12


Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo
Directed by: Joss Whedon
Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures/Walt Disney Pictures

            Ah, it feels like 2008 all over again. This summer’s crop of blockbusters seems to be a bountiful harvest, the likes of which have not been seen since that glorious year. In addition to traditional action movie fare, we’re getting two Marvel movies and a Batman sequel – just like in 2008! Thing is, since Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk, Marvel has given us the likes of Iron Man 2, Thor and Captain America, carefully constructing their movie universe – and DC has given us, uh, Green Lantern.

            The capstone to Marvel’s movie pyramid is this, The Avengers, the long-awaited mother of all team-ups first hinted at by S.H.I.E.L.D spymaster Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) in the post-credits sequence for Iron Man. Here, Fury wrangles up Iron Man/Tony Stark (Downey Jr), Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Ruffalo), Captain America/Steve Rogers (Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye/Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner). Their opponent: Thor’s vengeful half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who brings with him the alien Chitauri army to wreak havoc on earth. However, the in-fighting and ego clashes within the team itself threaten to break the heroes apart before the villains do.

           “Big man in a suit of amour,” Thor challenges Tony. “Take that away and what are you?” The movie's “suit of armour” would have to be its lavish production design, visual effects that are as high in quality as they are quantity and all the hype and marketing (Avengers cologne? Seriously?) However, take that away and the audience is left fleshed-out characters, a well-constructed mesh of a story, firecracker dialogue and solid performances across-the-board. This is something of a feat considering the immense scale, heavyweight ensemble and various other factors.

            Writer-director Joss Whedon is a self-professed comics super-fanboy and a veteran of cult-favourite TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, and knows a thing or two about character development. Here, he has managed to make a team-up movie that is more than the sum of its parts and that doesn’t collapse under its own weight. Everyone gets their time to shine, which could have well been a problem with all the comic book personalities jostling for the spotlight. His agile screenplay is also quick with the quips, including such gems as Iron Man’s ribbing of Thor (“doth mother know you weareth her drapes?”), S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and Captain America fanboy Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) telling his hero “I watched you while you slept”, and Captain America instructing “Hulk? Smash.”

            The film is fine as a stand-alone piece, although it does help to have watched the earlier Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. It’s actually a good thing that almost everyone has played their characters before, and return to the roles with much ease. Robert Downey Jr is all snarky machismo as usual, Chris Evans ably portrays the old-fashion hero flung into a chaotic modern world, Chris Hemsworth channels a slightly more matured demigod that is still prone to brashness and Scarlett Johansson kicks more butt, though she faces competition from Cobie Smulders as S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Maria Hill, who frankly looks better in a catsuit. Mark Ruffalo is the newcomer, filling in for Edward Norton. Ruffalo possesses a scruffy, mild-mannered charm, and while his Banner is a close second to Norton’s (tied with Eric Bana’s), it works better for the team movie than his predecessor’s does. Oh, and there’s Jeremy Renner as the least interesting character – he does what he can, which is mostly looking cool with a bow and arrow.

            Tom Hiddleston is back as Loki, who was also the main villain of Thor. He portrays Thor’s adopted brother as something of a maniacal old-fashioned supervillain, prone to cackling, commanding people to kneel before him and launching into the occasional “puny earthlings” speech. Problem is, Loki’s vendetta is more with Thor himself than with the whole gang, and the Chitauri amount to nothing more than backup singers. It makes one wonder who might have been a better candidate for the villain of the piece. A mid-credits bonus scene promises that things will get worse for the Avengers in the sequel, though.

            Lest this review make the movie sound like an intimate character drama (it was codenamed “Group Hug” during production), rest assured that there is spectacle galore. There is a clever mix of big-scale action sequences and smaller hand-to-hand brawls, and the sets – which include the helicarrier, the airborne headquarters of the team, a crumbling Russian warehouse where Black Widow fights would-be interrogators, a Stuttgart opera house and the climactic battle against the alien invaders in New York, are all excellent playing fields for things to unfold. However, this sometimes borders on visual overkill, with so much happening so fast. The use of post-converted 3D is among the most effective ever though.

Marvel has been pretty consistent with the movies that make up their Cinematic Universe and produced by their own studio, and continue the trend with their biggest yet. All the components that make a successful comic book movie blockbuster have been welded together, spray-painted with nice glossy colours and packaged in a pretty box. To follow through with the analogy, it would fly off the shelves just like the actual Avengers action figures probably will.

SUMMARY: The crown jewel of the Marvel movie crown is a big, sparkly rock that was worth every penny it took to get it made.


Jedd Jong