Thursday, April 25, 2013

Iron Man 3

Movie Review                                                                                                                  25/4/13



Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Guy Pearce, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Kingsley, Don Cheadle
Directed by: Shane Black

        In the interest of full disclosure, let it be known that this reviewer is more of a DC Comics fan than a Marvel one. That said, he hasn’t missed a single one of the films in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, established with 2008’s Iron Man. The time has sped by on rocket boots, and with the Phase I films all in the bag, Phase II begins where it all started, with Iron Man.

            Robert Downey Jr. (who else?) is back as Tony Stark, tinkering with new gadgets even as the events of The Avengers give him sleepless nights. His girl Friday Pepper Potts (Paltrow) has moved in with him, but Stark just won’t give her the time of day even as the holidays approach. Enter the enigmatic terrorist mastermind The Mandarin (Kingsley), perpetrator of a series of vicious bomb attacks, one of which critically wounds Tony’s ex-bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Tony swears revenge, and his home is assaulted by the Mandarin’s forces in return. Stranded in rural Tennessee, he enlists the help of a local kid (Ty Simpkins) to help patch his armour in anticipation of The Mandarin’s next strike. Tony also discovers links to Dr Aldrich Killian and Dr Maya Hansen, developers of the Extremis virus – a revolutionary piece of biotechnology that has turned dangerously unstable.

            Iron Man 3 is nothing short of a game-changer for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the film, Happy Hogan doesn’t work directly for Tony Stark anymore – a bit of leaning-against-the-fourth-wall winking, seeing as how Jon Favreau has passed on the director’s baton to Shane Black, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Drew Pearce. Once one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood, Black proves he’s still got the mojo he displayed with his screenplays for Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout in spades. Iron Man 3 has got his stamp all over it (notice the Christmas-time setting) and yet also delivers everything we’ve come to expect of a big-budget superhero blockbuster at the same time.

            The film is tightly-plotted and expertly paced; audiences certainly won’t be twiddling their thumbs waiting impatiently for the next action scene to roll around. Said action scenes are plenty inventive though – a daring mid-air rescue which Stark compares to playing “Barrel of Monkeys” and a dazzlingly-choreographed finale involving Stark hopping in and out of an array of Iron Man suits mid-combat being the prime examples. Black shows that he understands how important such displays are to the type of film he’s making, but never lets the story get drowned out by the din of high-octane bells and whistles.

            A section of viewers have taken Iron Man 2 to task for spending too much of its running time in setting up the big event, The Avengers. Iron Man 3 suffers no such problem. The focus is squarely back on Tony Stark, and by now it is impossible to imagine the character being played by anyone other than Robert Downey Jr. At this point in a franchise, the leading man is wont to display signs of weariness or that he’s only doing it for the paycheck – nope, not here. Downey Jr., armed with a new batch of one-liners and an even bigger new batch of armoured outfits, is having as much fun with the role as ever.

He doesn’t feel like he’s hogging the spotlight though, because both Don Cheadle and Gwyneth Paltrow get more to do here in their supporting parts. Col. James Rhodes’ “War Machine” has been given an image makeover and renamed “Iron Patriot”; the film doing a good job of showing how Rhodey is at his best fighting alongside Iron Man instead of merely playing errand boy for the US military. Pepper Potts finally gets to step out of her “beleaguered assistant” corner and throw some punches of her own, playing a pivotal part in the film’s climactic shipping dock battle. The subplot with Ty Simpkins’ character serving as Stark’s kid sidekick of sorts could have come off as twee, but it doesn’t eat into the meat of the proceedings and Stark’s interactions with the boy are amusing and heartfelt.

Also new to the series are Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce and Rebecca Hall. The Mandarin, the Fu-Manchu like archenemy of Iron Man in the comics, is reimagined as an unkempt, somewhat theatrical figure of the shadows – though there is of course more to him than that. Stalwart comic book fans might not like the way the character is ultimately handled, but it is clever enough and didn’t really bother this reviewer. Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian is a scientist who was ignored by Stark earlier in his career and doesn’t take too kindly to this, re-entering the fray with slicked-back hair and a spray tan. Pearce plays the “mousy to charismatic” angle well, when it could well have been overly cartoonish à la Jim Carrey’s Riddler in Batman Forever. The beautiful Rebecca Hall doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but is one of those actresses who plays “hot scientist” without a hitch.

It would seem that doing anything new within the confines of the wham-bam comic book blockbuster genre would be difficult, since every new entry seems to be measured against The Avengers or The Dark Knight trilogy. It is to the credit of Shane Black and the team behind Iron Man 3 then that the film is effortlessly invigorating, assured in its tone with a good sprinkling of humour mixed in with awe-inspiring, effects-heavy action sequences and well-written character moments. There probably isn’t a better way to kick off Phase II of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe than with this flick.

SUMMARY: Iron Man emerges tri-umphant under the direction of Shane Black with a three-quel that is anything but same-old same-old.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong 

Monday, April 15, 2013

I Give It a Year

For F*** Magazine, Singapore


Starring: Rafe Spall, Rose Byrne, Simon Baker, Anna Faris
Directed by: Dan Mazer

            Much as we’ve been told not to, it’s human nature to jump to conclusions. There’s just a lot of satisfaction in yelling out “called it!” when events unfold just as one has predicted. For example, it’s easy to look at a film and write it off based on its genre – and there have indeed been numerous stinkers from the chick flick bunch. Along comes I Give It a Year to stab the institution of marriage in its side.

            The film tells the story of corporate high-flyer Nat (Byrne) and struggling novelist Josh (Spall), who marry after a whirlwind seven-month-long courtship. Nat’s older sister Naomi (Minnie Driver), herself stuck in an unhappy marriage, reckons that Nat and Josh will stay married for a year at the longest – hence the title. The lead couple’s union is tested by Josh’s ex-girlfriend Chloe (Faris) and Nat’s business client Guy (Baker), both of whom seem to be better matches for Josh and Nat respectively. “If you can make it through the first year of marriage, you can make it through anything,” Josh’s father reassures him. But once they’re over that twelve month hurdle, it’s plain sailing. Right?

            I Give It a Year is writer-director Dan Mazer’s feature film directing debut. He’s best known for co-writing Ali G Indahouse, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and Brüno with Sacha Baron Cohen – as such, one can expect a romantic comedy with a fair bit more bite. The film isn’t aiming to be a feel-good date movie, but it is aiming at the funny bone and more often than not, hits a bull’s-eye. A film about marital trials and tribulations could have easily become a little heavy, but Mazer keeps the gags flying thick and fast.

            The film seems to exist in a world where nobody has much tact, and there is a fair bit of cringe comedy in store. Comedian Stephen Merchant, as Josh’s friend Dan, starts the ball rolling with a very inappropriate best man’s speech at the wedding. The movie goes on to offer up doves flying into ceiling fans, an awkward game of charades, an inept marriage counsellor preoccupied with her anatomically-correct dolls, a look at the myriad logistical challenges of having a threesome and arguments about misheard song lyrics. Not all the jokes work, but there are just so many of them and by the end, a good amount of laughs were generated. While several of the gags are indeed pretty raunchy, they’re never over-the-top vulgar or (too) tasteless.

            The film attempts to shirk rom-com conventions by presenting audiences with a central couple whose relationship is not meant to be really compelling, and that’s a gamble that doesn’t fully pay off. Rafe Spall and Rose Byrne don’t generate a lot of chemistry and aren’t all that likeable, but then again that might be the point. That’s not to say they don’t put in good performances – Spall in particular appears to relish the chance to goof off with some drunken dancing. Once Chloe and Guy enter the scene, it becomes harder to root for Nat and Josh to stay together, which means Anna Faris and Simon Baker do their jobs. The film’s third act takes a dip into more dramatic territory, but Mazer always keep an eye on the laughs, so there are no jarring tonal shifts. The film also gets a little cluttered with supporting characters and side gags at times.

            I Give It a Year’s biggest strength is that it manages to strike a decent balance between the cynical humour, relationship drama and big comedic set-pieces. It’s definitely on the acerbic side, but the British film manages to retain a small amount of charm and while it borders on mean, it’s never alienating. Above all, it does draw out the laughs.

SUMMARY: A contemporary look at early married life dosed with the comedic stylings of Borat’s partner in crime – it works for those who have been jaded by mawkish rom-coms and could do with a little edge in their “chick flick”.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong



Movie Review                                                                                                                 15/4/13


Starring: Tom Cruise, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Morgan Freeman
Directed by: Joseph Kosinski

            Joseph Kosinski was the man who took us back to the grid with 2010’s Tron: Legacy. While remaining in the sci-fi realm, he heads in another direction, bringing audiences a post-apocalyptic vision of Earth where the last man left is Tom Cruise.

            Cruise plays Jack Harper, a technician in charge of maintaining the drones that patrol Earth, the planet having been nearly destroyed by an alien invasion 60 years earlier. Jack lives and works with Victoria (Riseborough), but is mostly occupied with dreams of a mysterious woman he has never met but somehow remembers. In the wreck of a crash-landed spaceship, Harper discovers Julia Rusakova (Kurylenko), whom he identifies as the woman in his dreams. Jack also comes across a rag-tag gang of survivors led by Malcolm Beech (Freeman), who helps him realise that there’s a massive conspiracy afoot and that the life he and Victoria have been living isn’t all it seems.

            Oblivion is ostensibly an adaptation of a graphic novel Kosinksi and writer Arvid Nelson worked on that has been delayed and is yet to be published. The film is, first and foremost, quite the visual experience. Claudio Miranda, recent Oscar winner for Life of Pi, is the director of photography and manages to find the beautiful in the desolate. A lot of contemporary sci-fi films tend to be hyper-kinetic, stuffed to the gills with quick cuts and stylistic flourishes. Oblivion is thus very refreshing, possessing a rare, quiet grandeur and a look that combines sleek and shiny futuristic designs with the vastness of a ravaged earth. We do get some cool action sequences on top of that, most notably an intense dogfight in which Jack in his “bubbleship” craft is pursued by a pack of vicious drones.

            This is very much the Tom Cruise show, the Jack Harper character receiving the lion’s share of storytelling attention. Here, Cruise shows yet again why he’s managed to maintain considerable longevity as a big-name movie star – he’s an actor who can command attention. At the hands of a lesser performer, it’s likely that Jack Harper might blend into his bleak surroundings. Olga Kurylenko does the “mysterious exotic figure” thing well and Andrea Riseborough has a sexy/playful scene in which she takes a night swim all siren-like. What’s nice about the characterisation is that neither female lead is a guns-blazing Ellen Ripley-esque cliché. However, nobody really gets much development beyond Harper himself; this reviewer wishes that we learnt more about Beech and his gang of survivors, who tend to feel a bit Mad Max-ish at times.

            The film’s central plot twist is pretty much par for the course when it comes to science fiction storytelling devices and it also wraps up a little too neatly when a degree of ambiguity might have done it some good. There are a few interesting elements that spice up the ending and in the end, it doesn’t feel like a cop-out, nor does it undermine anything that went before (as twist endings often can).

            Oblivion is the sort of film that’s probably a lot less contemplative than it seems, and while it isn’t particularly engaging on a story or character level, the world that Kosinki and his team have constructed is a masterpiece (enhanced by M83’s atmospheric techno score) and it just pulls the viewer in. While it may not be as deep or thought-provoking as it could have been and might come off feeling too clinical for some, it is still far from superficial and empty and has a fair bit for genre fans to like.

SUMMARY: Wonderful to look at and soak in, Oblivion has a calmness about it that’s hard to find in mainstream sci-fi, but it’s bogged down a tad by narrative loopholes and a less-than-compelling human element.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen

For F*** Magazine, Singapore


Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast:         Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Rick Yune
Genre: Action, Drama
Run Time: 119 mins
Opens: 11 April 2013
Rating: NC16

Terrorists have overtaken the White House and held the President hostage?

“This is blasphemy! This is madness!”


Gerard Butler plays Mike Banning, formerly the head of the security detail for United States President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart). An incident in the film’s opening minutes forces Banning to leave the President’s side, but his more mundane existence working at the Treasury Department is rocked by a vicious surprise attack on 1600 Penn. The attack is spearheaded by the ruthless terrorist Kang Yeonsak (Yune), who has disguised himself as a member of the South Korean delegation to Washington. With the President and Vice-President indisposed, Speaker of the House Allan Trumbull (Freeman) takes on the mantle of acting Commander in Chief, and Banning is the only man he and the others in the Pentagon can trust. It’s Secret Service Agent Leonidas to the rescue.

It’s the general consensus among genre fans that action films aren’t quite what they used to be. Well, if you’re nostalgic for the likes of Under Siege, Executive Decision and of course Air Force One, Olympus Has Fallen will probably sate that appetite. Director Antoine Fuqua has delivered an old-school action thriller that isn’t restrained by a “PG-13” rating and can let loose with the gunfire, the bloodshed and some swearing for good measure. The “Die Hard on an X” formula seems to have fallen out of favour with the Hollywood powers that be – even the last three Die Hard films themselves didn’t have John McClane stuck in a confined space. But here, the trope is in full effect, with the one-man Special Forces team that is Mike Banning trapped in the besieged White House.

However, there’s probably good reason that filmmakers have edged away from such plotlines, mainly because we’ve seen it all before. Replace the North Korean villains with Middle-Eastern ones and you just might believe this was released in 1994. Unfortunately, the sub-par visual effects, especially in the opening aerial assault, make it look that way too, hurting that potentially harrowing sequence. The action flicks of the 90s may have been more subdued than those of the preceding decade, but they were often cliché-riddled and had their fair share of implausibilities to get around – as is the case here. Apparently, wanted terrorists can infiltrate the higher echelons of South Korean government, thus gaining access to one of the most-protected buildings in the world, evading every last background check along the way. There’s also a Secret Service agent who has turned traitor with the flimsiest excuse.

It is to Fuqua’s credit then that this reviewer was more often than not willing to overlook such contrivances. The director manages to keep the tension at a consistently high ebb, and in spite of the odd silly moment and the afore-mentioned bad visual effects work, the movie never falls into abject silliness. This is also thanks to Butler, in his element as the protagonist with a gun in his hand, a chip on his shoulder and clad in “plot armour” (enemy armies can fire endlessly at him but he’ll still live) like the action heroes of yore. He clearly should be doing more of this and less playing for keeps and dispensing ugly truths.

While there isn’t much in the way of characterisation to keep the action going, the supporting cast is top-notch. An action flick like this may not be the best use of their talents, but it benefits from their presence anyway. Freeman is not required to do much other than take charge and have terse conversations with Banning over the radio, but darn if he isn’t cool as always doing it. With his lantern jaw, gritted teeth and blue eyes, Eckhart embodies the archetypical “all-American Prez” image. As the supervillain, Rick Yune is nowhere near the likes of Gary Oldman or Tommy Lee Jones, but gets the job done as our two-dimensional force of evil.

Yes, Olympus Has Fallen is brutal, exciting and has its share of white-knuckle moments, but its old-school 90s action flick pedigree is often a double-edged sword, as audiences have come to expect something with perhaps a little more sophistication. Still, the film is enjoyably earnest, a throwback without the smart-alecky winks and nudges and there’s Gerard Butler taking names and kicking ass. Just not down bottomless wells.

SUMMARY: An action thriller right out the 90s. Straightforward, rough around the edges and it isn’t the pinnacle (or Mount Olympus, as it were) of action flicks, but it’s entertaining and intense where it counts.

RATING: 3 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness: All Hands on Holodeck

As published in F*** Magazine, Issue 39 (April 2013)




The key personnel of Star Trek Into Darkness report for duty
By Jedd Jong 14/3/13

What good is a ship without its crew? Not very much. Yes, even the sleek and shiny Constitution-class USS Enterprise NCC-1701 wouldn’t be able to get a lot done in the name of the Federation with an empty bridge (or an empty engineering section, transporter room, sickbay and so on, for that matter). F*** takes a glance at the men, women and aliens who get stuff done aboard the ship – plus the new villain they’re taking on, and the man at the helm behind the scenes.

Played by Chris Pine

One of the most iconic characters in science fiction history, the role was originated by the inimitable William Shatner, and as the younger iteration, Chris Pine had his work cut out for him. In Star Trek (2009), we witnessed Kirk’s beginnings, from his birth aboard a medical shuttle in the midst of a space battle (in which his own father bravely sacrifices his life) to his rebellious childhood and even more rebellious young adulthood, until the responsibility of captaining a starship was thrust upon him. Kirk is brash and headstrong, but is dedicated to his post and to his ship and will eventually become a father to his men.

On Kirk’s role in the new film, co-star Karl Urban comments, “in the first movie Kirk earns his captaincy, in this movie he has to own it”.  It looks like Kirk won’t be allowed to get too comfy in that nice big chair of his after all.

Pine explains that “Kirk really has to face his self-worth in this film. If he’s capable or not of leading, and from the first one at least, is a big, big transition and gives him a lot of different places to go, I think he experiences and sees absolute evil in this film and a lot of that is related to his deep fear and sense of vulnerability.”

Played by Benedict Cumberbatch

So, what is the “absolute evil” Pine refers to? Speculation is rife as to the true identity of “John Harrison”, the villain whom the crew of the Enterprise will be pitted against in Into Darkness. Is he Khan? Is he Gary Mitchell? A Klingon is disguise? Everyone is intent on keeping mum, but from the trailers we do know that this formidable foe is an ex-Starfleet member turned brilliant extremist hell-bent on revenge.  English actor Benedict Cumberbatch describes the character as having “a real Hannibal Lecter quality to him” and promises his portrayal will be “genuinely intense and scary”. The fact that he recorded his audition tape on a friend’s iPhone in his kitchen will probably do nothing to diminish that.

“In terms of Benedict, he’s an incredible actor if you’ve ever seen Sherlock, he’s unbelievable,” director JJ Abrams enthuses. “And he’s someone whom I think just brings an entirely new and intense energy and yes, he’s angry in certain moments, but he’s also remarkably rational and wildly, insidiously brilliant and part of the fun of this bad guy is he’s not just a raving lunatic, he’s someone who actually, you have conversations and can get seduced by.”

Sequels usually place the focus on their villains, and Eric Bana’s Nero in Star Trek (2009) was a more primal, rage-filled tyrant, it seems that John Harrison will be a cerebral, manipulative mastermind to be reckoned with. Pine sums it up like this: “he is just as intelligent and logical as Spock, but he is also one very bad mother***er.” Yikes.

Played by Zachary Quinto

The rational, cool-headed half-human half-Vulcan science officer of the Enterprise has always been the perfect foil to Captain Kirk. Spock was memorably portrayed by Leonard Nimoy – the actor was initially uncomfortable with the pop culture icon status the character had taken on and wanted to distance himself from it, but grew to embrace the character and appeared as the older Prime Universe counterpart of Spock alongside Quinto in Star Trek (2009).  Nimoy was impressed with Quinto’s take on Spock and the two have since become friends.

A key action sequence in Into Darkness will see Spock descending into a volcano to attempt to neutralize it before it ends up destroying a planet. Kirk and Spock’s relationship has been similarly volatile, with Spock taking an immediate dislike to the Captain who would eventually become his best friend, after Kirk cheated on the “unwinnable” Kobayashi Maru test Spock had programmed. According to Quinto, their bond will grow stronger in this film. “Kirk really earns his leadership; Spock really earns an understanding of friendship.”

A brief section of the Japanese trailer for the film has led fans to wonder if Spock might face a fate similar to the one in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. So, will Spock be able to live long and prosper past this one? On his Twitter account, Quinto says “simmer down kids. Rumours are rumours for a reason…Let’s let the second movie come out before we talk about a third...”

Played by Zoë Saldaña

As the Enterprise’s communications officer, Uhura is an expert in Xenolinguistics with a keen ear for alien languages. The part was originally played by Nichelle Nichols in what was considered a landmark for women of colour on television. Nichols was personally affirmed by Martin Luther King Jr., a big fan of the original Star Trek series who felt Uhura served as an important role model for African-American women and children across the United States. Nichols graciously said of Zoë Saldaña, “not only is she one of the most beautiful women on the planet, she’s an incredible actress. When I met her, it just clicked like that.”

Star Trek (2009) officially made a romantic pairing out of Uhura and Spock, something which fans either hated or decided to roll with. Saldaña hints that the relationship may not go all that smoothly, saying “whether they’re together or not in this movie, that will remain to be seen.”

Commenting on the dynamics between the two, JJ Abrams remarks, “it’s a challenge I think to be a modern, strong-willed intelligent woman dating a Vulcan who is, above all, logical and rational and so while he may be reliable and loyal and intelligent and true, he’s also someone for whom logic might get in the way of other things, and so many things are tested in this movie; so is their relationship.”

Saldaña adds that “there’s a lot of humanity that she provides to his character in this film, it warms it up more and there’s a lot of precision that Spock provides to Uhura. Kirk and I are in the same position where we learn the same lessons from Spock and we’re also able to teach him the same lessons, which is “loosen up man, loosen up a little bit!””

Played by Alice Eve

New to the team is English actress Alice Eve as Dr Carol Marcus. The character previously appeared in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, played by Bibi Besch. In that film, she was among the Federation’s foremost molecular biologists, working on the ambitious Project Genesis that was central to the film’s plot. Marcus was romantically involved with Kirk and bore his son, David.

“Kirk loves his blonde women,” Chris Pine observes.  However, it seems that not too much emphasis will be placed on the potential romance. “There’s much flirting and there’s definitely a connection there but what I would say is that this film is so big and the plot moves so fast and there’s such action to be had that there’s not really much time to explore (the relationship)”. According to him, Carol Marcus is “a hyper-intelligent doctor and it’s her scientific knowledge that really plays a key role in this film.”

Carol’s father Admiral Marcus will also appear in the film, played by Peter Weller (aka RoboCop).

The Director

Jeffrey Jacob Abrams returns to the director’s chair after resurrecting the Star Trek franchise with the 2009 film. Pretty much cementing his status as modern day geek god, he’ll also be taking on Star Wars Episode VII, which might force fans from both sides of the galaxy to sit around campfire and begrudgingly sing “Kumbaya”. It remains to be seen if it’s too much power for one Hollywood super-nerd – but odds are JJ will do just fine. After all, he has admitted to growing up a Star Wars fan, not a Star Trek one.

Speaking about reconciling the scope of the sequel with the smaller character dynamics, Abrams says “this movie is infinitely bigger than anything I’ve been involved (with), this feels like everything I’ve done before times ten, rolled into one. The biggest challenge in doing this movie was figuring out how to do it because the script was so big, but the thing that made me want to do it was how intimate it was, it was a simultaneously huge thing in scope and then a small thing in terms of emotionality and interactions and relationships.”

The director is not about to get on a high horse – far from it. “The original series…is still the platform we stand on and the shadow we stand under. We are respectful of it and see it as something to aspire to. But at the same time we don’t just want to be a great impersonation of what has gone before.” He also hints that audiences should expect the unexpected. “In the first film we find our own separate offshoot timeline and anything can happen here without ever affecting that (the Prime Universe), so the fate of these characters is much more in flux.”
While some Trek purists may turn up their noses at the reboot, there is no denying that under Abrams’ guidance, the franchise has become a lot more accessible to the public at large, and it can be said that he’s made Star Trek cool again. Maybe the needs of the many do outweigh the needs of the few after all.

Also returning are Karl Urban as Dr Leonard “Bones” McCoy, Simon Pegg as chief engineer Montgomery “Scotty” Scott, John Cho as helmsman Hikaru Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Ensign Pavel Chekov and Bruce Greenwood as former Captain of the Enterprise, Christopher Pike.

And yes, we know the Holodeck originated with Star Trek: The Next Generation.

A Song Sung Blue (and Green): The Plight of the Visual Effects Artist

As published in F*** Magazine issue 39




by Jedd Jong 

Oscar night has come and gone, and there was the usual buzz about the winners, the excited discussion over who took home the night’s biggest awards, chatter about the glamourous red carpet outfits, and debate over whether the host was funny or just plain offensive. As usual, those who emerged triumphant in categories deemed “minor” or “miscellaneous” by many went largely unnoticed. It’s certainly understandable, as audiences at large love the movies for that sheen of glitz and escapism, not for those who slave tirelessly behind the scenes.

However, some have begun to pay heed to a cry in the dark from those in the visual effects industry.

Bill Westenhofer, Guillaume Rocheron, Erik-Jan de Boer and Donald R. Elliott were honoured with the Best Achievement in Visual Effects Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, for Life of Pi. However, just two weeks before the ceremony, Rhythm & Hues Studios – the visual effects house that helped to create the lifelike Bengal tiger in the film, among many other effects – filed for bankruptcy and laid off over 250 employees. Just a few blocks away from the opulent Dolby Theatre where the ceremony was being held, hundreds of current and former Rhythm & Hues employees pounded the pavement in protest, wondering what happened to their “piece of the Pi”.

 Inside the Dolby Theatre, Westenhofer attempted to draw attention to the situation, saying “Sadly, Rhythm & Hues is suffering severe financial difficulties right now, and I urge you all to remember...” It was all he could manage before his microphone was cut off and he and the other recipients of the award were chased unceremoniously off the Oscar stage with John Williams’ ominous theme from Jaws. The Oscar producers claimed that the speech had run over time, at 44.5 seconds long. However, the next recipient (Life of Pi cinematographer Claudio Miranda) spoke for 60 seconds without being played off. Something was amiss.

It was a moment that was probably quickly forgotten by most in the theatre that night, but not by visual effects artists everywhere. Many turned their profile pictures on social media sites into a solid green square in a show of solidarity, as green (along with blue) is the colour most often used in digital chroma key compositing. Without the work of visual effects artists, most blockbusters would appear as a sea of green, instead of an alien landscape, a vast open ocean, a magical forest or 19th Century Paris.

Computer-generated effects are used in almost every film and television show these days, and many times the impact isn’t as noticeable as in films like Life of Pi, The Avengers or The Hobbit, but no less integral. Techniques like background replacement can seamlessly make a scene appear as it if was shot on location, instead of on a soundstage or the studio lot, cutting down on potential logistical issues for the production crew. The visual effects community feels under-appreciated at a time when the industry is becoming more and more centred around the work they produce, and it has become clear that visual effects have never been as important to Hollywood, as popular with the filmgoers, or as uncertain a business as they are today.

 “What I was trying to say up there is that it’s at a time when visual effects movies are dominating the box office, but that visual effects companies are struggling,” Westenhofer said later that night. "I wanted to point out that we aren't technicians. Visual effects is not just a commodity that’s being done by people pushing buttons. We're artists, and if we don't find a way to fix the business model, we start to lose the artistry. If anything, Life of Pi shows that we're artists and not just technicians."

The bankruptcy filing came after a prospective buyer, India-based Prime Focus, failed to come up with the financing required to purchase Rhythm & Hues. The budgets for visual effects in major movies are not as large as they appear - and the main place to put pressure on said budgets are the artists, who will regularly not be paid overtime, even when working 15 hour work days and weekends. There is also the notable absence of a visual effects union in Hollywood, when every other film trade has one – but it will be hard to establish one in the midst of the financial difficulties faced by the industry. It has also become easier and more cost-efficient for studios to outsource the production of visual effects to foreign countries.

Rhythm & Hues is far from the only casualty: major industry player Digital Domain filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in September 2012 and was acquired by a joint venture between China-based company Galloping Horse and India-based Reliance MediaWorks. Also, Asylum and Café FX number among the California-based visual effects companies that have shut down in the past few years. Eric Roth, director of the Visual Effects Society, said he hopes that “the understanding that something is wrong has potentially reached a critical mass” and warns that if a couple more VFX vendors like Rhythm & Hues find themselves in trouble in the next few years,  “that would make it difficult for the studios to get what they want.”

We at F*** Magazine tip our hats to the men and women working in visual effects, for without them Bruce Banner wouldn’t be able to Hulk out, the T-rex would be unable to pursue Dr Alan Grant and company through Jurassic Park, Optimus Prime would never transform, Neo and Agent Smith would never tangle in bullet time and yes, Richard Parker would never roar.

Please visit the tumblr Before VFX to have a look at what some of today's biggest films would look like without the work of armies of visual effects artists. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

G.I. Joe: Retaliation

For  F*** Magazine, Singapore

Movie Review                                                                                                                  26/3/13


Starring: Dwayne Johnson, DJ Cotrona, Adrianne Palicki, Jonathan Pryce, Bruce Willis
Directed by: Jon M. Chu

Don’t call them dolls. They may be made in China and primarily out of ABS plastic, but that won’t change the fact that G.I. Joes are real American heroes. For many, these action figures are articulated nostalgia incarnate, the cartoons and comics adding to the fond childhood memories. When that nostalgia was made flesh in 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, however, most fans weren’t pleased and there were the Razzie nominations to show for it. But that didn’t stop a sequel from being made.

                        At the end of the first film, it was revealed that the President of the United States (Pryce) had been replaced by the villainous impostor Zartan (Arnold Vosloo as his “default appearance”). In this one, the “President” orders that the G.I. Joes be wiped out. Roadblock (Johnson), Flint (Cotrona) and Lady Jaye (Palicki) manage to evade the attack, and must go about stopping the villainous machinations of Zartan’s superior, Cobra Commander (Luke Bracey, voiced by Robert Baker). Joining the three are silent ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park), his apprentice Jinx (Elodie Yung) and the original G.I. Joe, General Joe Colton (Willis). Cobra forces, including saboteur Firefly (Ray Stevenson) and Snake Eyes’ archnemesis Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun) stand in their way.

            This movie was meant to be released in June 2012, but was delayed owing to a 3D post-conversion job and reshoots to increase Channing Tatum’s screen time. Toys had already hit the shelves and the film earned the distinction of being the only movie to have been advertised during two consecutive Super Bowls. The decision drew much flak and probably killed a fair amount of interest for the sequel.

            It’s a good thing then that this isn’t all that bad – in fact, it’s probably better than the first one. The film is not a straight-up sequel to the first, and while there are continuity nods and several returning characters, the style has shifted noticeably from plasticky, cartoony bombast to slightly more straight-faced action. Case in point: instead of a vast subterranean base beneath the Sahara desert, the Joes in this film operate from a derelict gym. That’s not to say Retaliation is less fun. And while this one is still silly, it’s not as aggressively so.

           Replacing Stephen Sommers in the director’s chair is Jon M. Chu, who is probably best known as “that guy who did the Justin Bieber movie”. Chu proves he can film action sequences as competently as he films dance numbers; the movie’s signature set piece in which Snake Eyes and Jinx infiltrate a Cobra stronghold high on a mountaintop and take on scores of redshirts on a cliff face is something to behold and is almost balletic. The film’s scripting duties are handled by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, best-known for penning the horror-comedy Zombieland. The duo lends the film a self-aware edge without it ever plunging into self-parody, which is a laudable balancing act.

            Let’s address the two reasons the movie was pushed back. First, the 3D. It’s a surprisingly decent conversion and though this reviewer experienced a little eyestrain, there’s a good feeling of depth and it does enliven the action sequences, the afore-mentioned cliff face skirmish in particular. Second, the Channing Tatum – he was a dull protagonist in the first film and rest assured, even with his additional scenes, he doesn’t play a huge role in this one and shares better chemistry with Dwayne Johnson than he did with Marlon Wayans (we’re glad Ripcord isn’t back for this one).

            Speaking of Dwayne Johnson, the guy fits into the G.I. Joe universe perfectly. He’s quite possibly the closest thing this generation has to the larger-than-life action hero likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme and with his bulging biceps and towering frame, looks right at home in a movie based on a line of toys. DJ Cotrona and Adrianne Palicki aren’t particularly interesting as Flint and Lady Jaye respectively (coincidentally, Cotrona was set to play Superman in the Justice League film that never happened and Adrianne Palicki played Wonder Woman in the TV pilot that wasn’t picked up) – but they put in serviceable supporting performances. If there's anyone who sticks out like a sore thumb, it's rapper RZA, who puts in an utterly cringe-worthy turn as the Blind Master. 

            Bruce Willis’ appearance as the retired general whose main “GI” of concern is likely to be his glycaemic index is pretty fun if not very consequential; it might be an even better nod to his iconic action hero status than his role in the Expendables films was. In the villain’s corner, former Bond adversary Jonathan Pryce is clearly enjoying himself in dual roles as Zartan-as-the-president and the actual president held captive by Cobra troops. A scene that sets up the film’s climax, in which the impostor President gathers the leaders of the world and threatens them with Cobra’s orbital weapons system Zeus, is decidedly Dr Strangelove-esque. Cobra Commander is not given a large role in the film, and while he doesn’t have Chris Latta’s shrill, raspy voice, his design is a nice homage to the cartoon. In addition, the ladies dragged along to see this can enjoy more Lee Byung-hun with his shirt off.

            Even though it’s less cartoony than its predecessor, Retaliation’s plot isn’t believable for a second – but the movie knows it’s a fun piece of escapist entertainment, and it can get away with the jingoism and a degree of ridiculousness by dint of being a G.I. Joe movie. As far as sequels based on Hasbro films go, you can rest assured that this isn’t the G.I. Joe equivalent of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. And that’s worth a hearty “hooah!” 

SUMMARY: Despite getting its release date pushed back, this sequel’s thrills and sheer escapist entertainment value, plus the fact that it’s not as dumb as the first go-round, make it worth getting excited about.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong