Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

For F*** Magazine


Director: Alan Taylor
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Eccleston, Idris Elba, Ray Stevenson, Jaimie Alexander, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Renee Russo, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Run Time: 112 mins
Opens: 31 October 2013
Rating: PG13 (Some Violence)

     The Marvel Cinematic Universe train has been chugging along at a steady pace and with the release of Iron Man 3 earlier this year, Phase II has begun. Now, that film proved divisive, to say the least - it earned an impressive box office take but there was an outcry from fans over some surprise liberties it took with the source material. The thunder meister’s second outing probably will soothe some of those ruffled feathers.

            An ancient evil, the dark elf Malekith the Accursed (Eccelston), has awoken after 5000 years and re-embarks on his mission to send all of the nine realms in existence into utter darkness, using the volatile substance aether. Meanwhile, Loki (Hiddleston) is brought back to Asgard and imprisoned by his father Odin (Hopkins). His mother Frigga (Russo) is understandably saddened by Loki’s actions and Odin is keen for Thor (Hemsworth) to take his rightful place on the throne of Asgard. However, Thor is preoccupied with thoughts of his beloved Jane Foster (Portman), his father disapproving of his interest in the “meagre human”. When she comes into contact with the aether, Thor brings her back to Asgard in order to find a way to extract the deadly entity. As the convergence of the nine realms nears, Malekith is ever closer to his goal, Thor eventually having to work with his disgraced brother to prevent the destruction the dark elf has planned.

           It is worth noting that Thor: The Dark World has a different creative team from the first film – different writers, editors, a different costume designer, director of cinematography, production designer and a different director. Taking over from Kenneth Branagh is Alan Taylor, best known for his work directing episodes of Game of Thrones. Patty Jenkins was set to direct the film before leaving the project and it seems Taylor didn’t have the best time working as a part of the big Marvel machine. Still, he has delivered a solid film, drawing on his experience with the fantasy genre. The film is slightly more serious and heavy than its predecessor, but it is justifiably so and the drama of it all is punctuated with well-judged moments of humour, including the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.

            It has been said that sequels are all about the villains; that after establishing the characters and the world is out of the way, the spotlight can shift to a truly spectacular bad guy. Think Heath Ledger’s Joker or Benedict Cumberbatch’s recent turn as “John Harrison”. Well, that’s not the case here. Malekith is a two-dimensional foe whose ultimate goal is as straightforward as they come. He is threatening but never truly compelling – however, this isn’t a bad thing. It seems that the filmmakers’ intention was not to have an antagonist come and steal the show, but to further the dynamic between Thor and Loki against the backdrop of a new threat, a decision that pays off.
            Tom Hiddleston has gained recognition, acclaim and much fan love (all of tumblr squeals in delight at the mere mention of his name) for his portrayal of Loki, the god of mischief and Thor’s adoptive brother. After being the main antagonist in both Thor and The Avengers, Hiddleston gets to visit the role a third time – which, if one thinks about it, is a rare privilege for an actor playing a “baddie”. Loki is a figure who is sympathetic in addition to being duplicitous and sometimes nasty, but what really works in this film is the angle of the character as a trickster being played up, that the audience is never sure where he’s headed with whatever he’s doing and whether it is a fatal error or an unexpected boon when Thor has to rely on him.

            It’s evident by the above paragraph that Hiddleston steals the show and there was never any doubt as to whether he would, but the rest of the cast, many returning from the first Thor film, is good as well. Chris Hemsworth has truly settled into Thor’s boots, putting that famous godlike physique on display again. This a Thor who’s less of a fish out of water than in the first film, though he still gets a couple of such moments. Natalie Portman is a talented actress but, as was the case with the first film, doesn’t get a whole lot to do as the love interest. It is nice that Jane gets to visit Asgard and see her big ole boyfriend in his natural habitat. We spend less time on earth, which is good, and Kat Dennings, Stellan Skarsgård and newcomer Jonathan Howard are efficient comic relief elements while moving the plot forwards.

            Mads Mikkelsen was initially cast as Malekith, but had to drop out due to commitments to his TV show Hannibal. Christopher Eccleston is a fine replacement, covered in prosthetic makeup and doing a lot of scowling. The Warriors Three – well, two, since Hogun (Asano) isn’t in most of this – along with Lady Sif (Alexander) and Heimdall (Elba) do get their chances to shine. This reviewer was particularly entertained by Zachary Levi, nigh unrecognisable with that blonde ‘do, as Fandral the Dashing, replacing Josh Dallas from the first film. There’s also a bit more of Anthony Hopkins and Renee Russo, though Hopkins does seem a little bored at times.

            “Dark” is a word that is getting overused in movie titles and subtitles, but though Thor: The Dark World has its downer moments it doesn’t try to be unnecessarily grim and gritty. The film does focus on character relationships and development and isn’t stuffed to the brim with hyperactive action beats and too much large-scale destruction. It does lapse into “conventional fantasy flick” mode with its use of tried and true genre elements but still feels like it fits into the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Fans of the character will welcome being thunderstruck once more. And yes, stay during the end credits for two stinger scenes.

SUMMARY: Thor: The Dark World isn’t as upbeat as the first go-round but it does satisfyingly expand on the relationship between Thor and Loki, as well as doling out the requisite fantasy-action spectacle.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Escape Plan

For F*** Magazine


Director: Mikael Håfström
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caviezel, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vinnie Jones, Sam Neill, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Amy Ryan
Genre: Action, Thriller
Run Time: 116 mins
Opens: 24 October 2013
Rating: NC16 (Coarse Language and Some Violence)

        Sometimes, a movie’s biggest selling point is what two names are next to each other on the poster. Think Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Now, how long have action movie junkies been hankering for the names “Sylvester Stallone” and “Arnold Schwarzenegger” to sit side by side on a stylish one sheet? Yes, they’ve rubbed shoulders on screen in the Expendables movies, but they didn’t get the limelight all to themselves there. Escape Plan offers up the team-up everyone has been waiting for, but was the years of anticipation worth it?

            Ray Breslin (Stallone) breaks out of prisons for a living as the co-owner of Breslin-Clark Security, helping federal prisons identify and tighten weaknesses in their security. He does this with external help in the form of Abigail Ross (Ryan) and “techno-thug” Hush (Jackson). Lester Clark (D’Onofrio), the “Clark” in the company’s name, sends Breslin on a mysterious assignment to test the strength of a top-secret, off-the-books, human rights-violating prison. Unfortunately for him, he ends up double crossed with seemingly no chance of getting out. Smartly-dressed evil warden Hobbs (Caviezel) keeps a firm thumb over everyone in the facility, nicknamed “the Tomb”. Breslin’s only bid for escape is a partnership with fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), though even then freedom seems far out of reach.

            Escape Plan has an effective, high-concept premise and what seems like a great set-up for an action hero union between the Italian Stallion and the Austrian Oak. It does take on something of a throwback tone, attempting to emulate the action thrillers of the 80s and 90s which the target audience of this film would be dyed in the wool fans of. Production designer Barry Chusid’s sets have a tinge of dystopian science fiction flavour to them and the scary expressionless masks the prison guards wear bring to mind the android police in THX: 1138.

            Unfortunately, the pay-off here is kinda disappointing. For a team-up with such build-up attached to it, the film doesn’t live up to the expectations associated with “Sly and Ahnold, together (for real) at last”. The plot holes begin to stack up after a while and the middle of the film is very much a procedural with Breslin going around piecing together the plan of the title. The greatest action films have at least two or three memorable action set pieces – this doesn’t really have any, most of the action scenes are pretty much brawls in the mess hall. Even the climactic escape attempt doesn’t have the creativity or innovation that a sequence with Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the thick of battle deserves.

            All that said, it truly is nice to see the two living legends working in tandem for the duration of the movie. The two have had a well-documented rivalry that began almost the moment they met, which has eventually turned into something of a friendship and they do share quite the bromance here. Both characters seem to get along pretty well from the get-go, so they aren’t played against each other though they do have a staged fistfight. Ray Breslin is depicted as a genius, putting his deductive and observational prowess and MacGyver-ing skills on display. Arnold’s actually even better here than he was in his post-politics comeback flick The Last Stand earlier this year, clearly having a ball. If you’ve always wanted to see him recite The Lord’s Prayer in German for some reason, this is the movie for you.

            Naturally, he recites said prayer in the presence of Jim Caviezel, best known as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. Movies of this type require villains you’ll love to hate, and Caviezel could well be the best thing about Escape Plan. Any prison movie needs a sadistic warden and Caviezel does a fine job as a truly despicable character and he is just theatrical enough. Caviezel is known for generally giving one-note performances but he gamely chews up the scenery and spits it out with entertaining relish. Vinnie Jones is a serviceable brawny henchman though we don’t really see a lot of him and Sam Neill plays it straight as the prison doctor whom Breslin has to get on his side, lending a touch of humanity to the overblown macho proceedings even though the characterisation doesn’t make a lot of sense. This reviewer was concerned that there’d be too much 50 Cent in this; thank goodness there isn’t. There isn’t a lot of room for the development of any other inmates besides Breslin and Rottmayer really, though Faran Tahir is good as Javed, a pious Muslim inmate who eventually assists in the breakout.

            If you’re a genre fan, there are things in this film to like and it is adequately entertaining, but at the same time there seem to be buckets full of missed opportunity. Taking these two guys and locking them up seems to restrict what they’re able to do; the nature of the “prison escape” plot prohibiting a truly extravagant, eye-catching stunt or chase. The reveal of the reason Breslin is locked in the Tomb in the first place didn’t sit too well with this reviewer. In the end there’s a degree of escapism and if you lock your disbelief in a cold dark place, you could have a good time with it – and it helps that Stallone and Schwarzenegger do seem to be having a good time too.

SUMMARY: We expected more from the proper teaming up of Rambo and the T-800, but don’t lock this one up and throw away the key – parts of it are fun and Jim Caviezel darn near steals the show.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

The Butler

For F*** Magazine


Director: Lee Daniels

Cast: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams, David Banner
Genre: Biography, Drama
Run Time: 132 mins
Opens: 24 October 2013
Rating: NC-16 (Some Coarse Language)

Through literature, comic books, film and television, we’ve become acquainted with the likes of Alfred Pennyworth from the Batman stories, P.G. Wodehouse’s creation Jeeves, Iron Man’s butler and later artificially intelligent assistant Jarvis, The Addams Family’s butler Lurch and Green Hornet’s chauffer-sidekick Kato. As butlers, valets and the like, these characters are privy to the most intimate details of their employer’s lives and are granted full access to the houses of prestige in which they live and work. In The Butler, audiences are introduced to Cecil Gaines (Whitaker), a character based on the real-life figure Eugene Allen, who was butler to eight United States presidents over 34 years.

Cecil grew up on a cotton plantation where his parents (Carey and Banner) were often brutally mistreated by the farm’s owner Thomas Westfall (Pettyfer). A teenaged Cecil escaped to start anew, breaking into a pastry shop, desperate for food and shelter. He is taken in by Maynard (Williams III), a master servant who shows Cecil the ropes. Eventually, his efforts are recognized and Cecil is employed as member of the White House butler staff. Cecil juggles his home life with wife Gloria (Winfrey), sons Louis (Oyelowo) and Charlie (Kelley) with his important occupation, keeping order in the corridors of power. He fosters a working relationship with his colleagues Carter (Gooding, Jr.), James (Kravitz) and his boss Freddie (Domingo) while rubbing shoulders with those who have taken on the position of leader of the free world. At the same time, the African-American Civil Rights Movement unfolds around Cecil, many of his loved ones right in the thick of it.

The Butler is a film that undeniably stems from a noble desire to put a historically and culturally important story up on the big screen, something that required the effort of a whopping 41 producers and executive producers. Depicting this swathe of American history through the eyes of a butler allows the audience an “in”, a point of view through which all this is made accessible. The film is almost overwhelmingly earnest and heartfelt, but at times, this is to its detriment.

Much has been made of the historical inaccuracies The Butler packs in. “Cecil Gaines” is a fictionalization of Eugene Allen: the fate of Cecil’s parents is a gross exaggeration and did not befall Eugene’s parents, Eugene didn’t get his start in the butler biz by breaking and entering, Eugene only had one son, not two, and that son was not as entrenched in radical activism as Louis Gaines was in the story, Ronald Reagan’s own son has come forward to oppose the depiction of the president’s attitudes towards race in the story, the list does go on. There are times when these embellishments feel contrived and blatant; the “drama dial” turned up to 11 and resulting in histrionics. The film comes off as something of a CliffsNotes version of the Civil Rights Movement, touching on the milestones and turning points and fitting them into the story with varying degrees of success.

The film boasts a truly impressive roster of stars, led by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker. He lends a down-to-earth, laconic charm to Cecil and easily embodies the character’s solid work ethic and makes it very believable that the butler would be a well-liked personality in the White House. Oprah Winfrey resists the urge to turn the film into a vanity project as Cecil’s chain-smoking, sometimes-brusque but ultimately well-meaning wife. The duo of Lenny Kravitz and Cuba Gooding, Jr., as the staffers Cecil spends the most time with on the job and who soon become personal friends of his, are excellent as friendly, comforting faces in the midst of the volatility and uncertainty depicted.

The casting of the presidents is a double-edged sword: on one hand, there’s the novelty factor and on the other, it really can pull one out of the movie and there will be viewers fighting with every fibre of their being not to yell “President Cyclops! President Snape! President Sabretooth!” at the screen. Liev Schreiber is entertaining as Lyndon B. Johnson, bringing some of his eccentricities (getting his daily security briefing while on the loo, for one) to the screen. James Marsden is a passable JFK, but John Cusack makes for a terrible Nixon. Alan Rickman is caked under unconvincing prosthetics to play Ronald Reagan, and the casting of Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan has ruffled some feathers. David Oyelowo is fiery as Cecil’s older son who heeds the clarion call of activism, becoming a “freedom rider” and eventually a member of the Black Panthers. The scene in which the freedom bus is ambushed by Klansmen is genuinely suspenseful.

In spite of all its shortcomings, the film comes together as a surprisingly cohesive whole and does manage to be genuinely moving and compelling at times. This is a story of great import, but the heavy-handedness and melodrama do weigh it down and threaten to drown out and not enhance its message. Danny Strong’s screenplay is competently written, but does feel burdened by the socio-political message worked into the fabric of the film. Does The Butler smack of Oprah Winfrey-backed Oscar bait? If you’re feeling cynical, certainly. But there is a significance and gravity to the film that demands respect, and the story it endeavours to tell is worth our time.

SUMMARY: Cecil Gaines’ odyssey is ungainly at times and the film does have its moments of over-embellished bombast, but there are inspirational and engaging aspects to The Butler that lift it above that.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Machete Kills

For F*** Magazine


Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast:  Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara, Amber Heard, Carlos Estevez/Charlie Sheen, Lady Gaga, Antonio Banderas, Jessica Alba, Demián Bichir, Alexa Vega, Vanessa Hudgens, Cuba Gooding, Jr., William Sadler, Marko Zaror, Mel Gibson
Genre: Action, Thriller
Run Time: 132 mins
Opens: 17 October 2013
Rating: M18 (Violence and Coarse Language)

Dog goes woof, cat goes meow, bird goes tweet, the mouse goes squeak – and Machete? Why, Machete kills, of course. Everyone’s favourite grizzled ex-Federale - matted hair, perma-frown, moustache, tattoos, signature bladed weapon and all – has returned. Following his appearance in the fake trailer attached to Grindhouse and the 2010 feature film Machete, the character is back – as “Trailer Voiceover Guy” (Corey Burton) might put it – with a vengeance.

Machete (Trejo) and his love interest/partner from the first film, Agent Sartana Rivera (Alba) take on a gang of corrupt U.S. soldiers selling weapons to a drug cartel. The mission goes wrong and Machete is framed for a crime he’d never imagine committing. His chance at redemption? Accepting a mission to take down crazed revolutionary Marcos Mendez (Bichir), on executive command of President Rathcock (Sheen). Machete runs into a colourful rogues gallery, including master of disguise El Cameleón (Goggins, Gaga, Gooding Jr. and Banderas), trigger-happy madame Desdemona (Vergara) and her girls, and Mendez’s towering henchman Zaror (Marko Zaror). Naturally, there’s a mastermind Machete will have to contend with – megalomaniac weapons and aerospace magnate Luther Voz (Gibson). It’s a good thing our knife-wielding hero has allies like Luz (Rodriguez) to count on.

You probably know right off the bat if this movie is for you or if it isn’t. It’s exactly what it says on the tin: an egregiously violent, goofy, gleefully tasteless action exploitation flick, heavy on the CGI blood splatter and low on that pesky sense-making. Nobody can accuse multi-hyphenate director Robert Rodríguez and gang of false advertising. Early in his career, Rodríguez envisioned perennial tough guy (and second cousin of his) Danny Trejo as the Mexican equivalent of an action hero like Charles Bronson or Jean-Claude Van Damme, though apparently he had to pay his dues in Rodriguez’s Spy Kids films first before finally headlining the 2010 flick.

“Sequel escalation” is something moviegoers have come to expect: a follow-up that tries to be bigger, better and more over the top than the first. For better or for worse, Machete Kills is consistent in carrying over the style of the first movie but does try to stretch the scope. For example, while the baddies in the first film were a corrupt senator, his aide and a notorious drug kingpin, the villains here are pretty much old-school Bond bad guys: a supervillain bent on establishing his new world order, a warlord with a split personality, an uber-femme fatale armed with a Gatling gun bustier and a villain remarkably similar to Spider-Man foe Chameleon, right down to the name. It might as well be this way, the levels of incredulity turned up to eleven, since nobody was interested in making a “realistic” film in the first place. If anything’s really out of place, it’s a scene in which Madame Desdemona talks about suffering sexual abuse at the hands of her father. This is particularly squirm-inducing amidst the wanton silliness of the rest of the film.

A top-drawer cast partaking in this veritable orgy of base, pulpy genre hijinks is arguably the biggest reason to check this out. To call this ensemble “eclectic” would be an understatement. Leading the charge is Trejo, who is one of those actors whose aura of badass transcends screen roles and into real life; he probably is pretty much playing himself. The beauty of Trejo’s performance is that he plays it straight as an arrow. Considering how everyone else is given carte blanche to cartwheel all over the place, Trejo’s method is more effective than if he played Machete yelling every line and spouting endless one-liners. Most of his one-liners in the film are some variation on “Machete don’t ____”, taking off the unexpected popularity of the “Machete don’t text” line from the first one.

It might be easy to think that the Academy Award winners and nominees in Machete Kills are doing nothing short of slumming it but gosh darn if they don’t look like they’re having a grand old time. Demián Bichir’s Mendez – noble freedom fighter one minute and genocidal lunatic the next – is fun, but the show does belong to Mel Gibson. It seems he has decided that taking on villainous parts in movies like this and the upcoming The Expendables 3 are a way of paying penance for past indiscretions; Mad Mel putting those crazy eyes to excellent use as a cross between Richard Branson and Moonraker villain Hugo Drax. One of the character’s entertaining eccentricities is a fondness for Star Wars; we’re willing to bet you won’t see Mel Gibson and Danny Trejo sitting in a landspeeder in any other movie.

For everyone who thought Jamie Foxx wasn’t sufficiently believable as leader of the free world in White House Down, take a gander at Charlie Sheen (gamely choosing to be credited by his birth name, Carlos Estévez) as the Prez. There’s the added bonus that his dad Martin Sheen memorably portrayed a U.S. President in The West Wing – insert “George H.W. and George W. Bush” joke here. Where Sheen is, a bevy of beauties is never too far away – Amber Heard, Michelle Rodriguez, Sofia Vergara and Alexa Vega all contributing to the shameless eye candy quotient. Slightly creepy if you realize Rodríguez directed a pre-pubescent Vega in the Spy Kids flicks, and here she is in assless chaps. We are obligated to point out that in spite of adhering to the grindhouse ethos in all other areas, this film lacks the gratuitous nudity of its predecessor. Lady Gaga’s involvement is a piece of stunt casting that doesn’t misfire; she probably is even more outrageous in everyday life than her character in this is anyway.

Machete Kills is so lowbrow that the brows might be mistaken for a moustache. There are those who will view this as worthless trash and others who will go along with the elaborate joke, choose to humour Rodríguez and company and try to have a good time. We can’t say either reaction is totally unwarranted. Oh, and the fake trailer for Machete Kills Again – In Space, with Michelle Rodriguez yelling “eat photons, bitches!” is genuinely funny.

SUMMARY: A second helping of a cheesy, greasy glop of a quesadilla – hold the salad. With Machete Kills, everything depends on if you’re willing to risk indigestion for a guilty pleasure.

RATING: 3 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Special ID

For F*** Magazine


Director: Clarence Fok
Cast: Donnie Yen, Collin Chou, Andy On, Tian Jing, Zhang Hanyu, Ronald Cheng
Genre: Action, Crime
Run Time: 99 mins
Opens: 18 October 2013
Rating: NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)

In recent years, martial artist and action star Donnie Yen has become best-known for playing Ip Man, the nigh legendary Wing Chun master and mentor to Bruce Lee. However, Yen has expressed a desire to star in action flicks with a more contemporary setting such as SPL and this latest rather regrettable flick.

Yen plays Chen Zilong, an undercover Hong Kong police officer who has spent the last eight years of his career embedded deep within the murky criminal underworld. Xiong (Chou), the head of the gang, has made it clear that any traitors in the midst will pay dearly. Concerned for the safety of his beloved mother Amy (Paw Hee-ching), Zilong wants out. However, the resurgence of former disciple Sunny (On), now a feared gangster after spending the last three years in the States, throws a spanner in that plan. Zilong must reluctantly travel to Nanhai and partner up with Chinese policewoman Fang Jing (Tian) to confront Sunny and put a stop to a vicious gang war.

There really isn’t anything special about the premise. At all. Alright, there’s that joke out of the way. The film was plagued by myriad production troubles, including the storming off the project of Zhao Wenzhuo, who was replaced by Andy On. It’s hard to tell if all the problems with the movie were a result of this or were inherent since Special ID’s inception as Ultimate Codebreak (we can’t decide which title is sillier).

The film is something of a mess, its threadbare plot serving only to string together a series of action set pieces. Many recent Hong Kong films have suffered from tonal discrepancies. While it isn’t as bad here as in something like Blind Detective, the film’s lack of a commitment to the gritty tone the poster and some of the fights imply is crippling. There are comedic interludes and laughable would-be moments of pathos, the latter accompanied by a sappy piano score. It’s as if the movie has no idea what to do when someone isn’t punching someone else, flailing as the next stunt is being set up.

Donnie Yen fans, forgive us: the guy is a martial artist first and an actor second. Sure, he’s an all-around badass and we certainly wouldn’t want to get on the guy’s bad side. Plus, his proficiency with mixing elements from the likes of Wing Chun and Brazillian Jiu-jitsu make for some pretty exciting brawls. And there’s the added bonus of not having to edit around a stunt double. However, whenever he has to emote, especially during dialogue scenes with leading lady Tian Jing, the result is more awkward than Michael Cera giving a speech during school assembly in his underwear. The through-the-roof cringe-worthy levels in those parts of the film are jarring given the ferocity of the hand-to-hand melees.

Andy On plays antagonist Sunny with posturing bravado and sports a perpetually half-unbuttoned shirt. For no apparent reason, the Rhode Island native breaks into bursts of English dialogue to show off his American accent. He’s relatively charismatic and handsome, but the relationship between Sunny and Zilong, the man who’s taught him all he knows, is undeveloped and unmined.

Tian Jing, with her doe eyes and heart-shaped face, attempts to strike a balance between a capable cop who can hold her own in a fight with scary gangland types or hang off the door of a speeding SUV with no problem, and a vulnerable woman who seems psychologically ill-prepared for the job. Her only defining character trait seems to be that she’s a Hello Kitty fan (cue Sanrio product placement). Most of the time, the dynamic between Fang Jing and Zilong is pretty much that of two third graders. “Teacher, he’s being a bully!” “She started it!” It gets annoying.

The only way Special ID might be able to pass muster is if one took all the action sequences out of context and just put them together as a stunt choreography highlight reel. Clarence Fok, director of trashy cult classic Naked Killer, isn’t known for his subtlety and true to form, Special ID is filled with characters yelling every other line. And when it tries to be sensitive, it falls flat on its face, in stark contrast with the control and agility put on display in its martial arts fights.

SUMMARY: If Special ID were to be personified as a real undercover cop, it would have broken cover at the first possible moment. A disappointment despite some cool fisticuffs.

RATING: 2 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


For F*** Magazine


Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Genre: Drama, Thriller, Space,
Run Time: 91 mins
Opens: 10 October 2013
Rating: PG13 (Brief Coarse Language And Some Disturbing Images)

Have you ever been to a museum and watched an IMAX 3D documentary such as Space Station 3D or Hubble 3D and wondered “gee, what would happen if something went horribly wrong on one of these missions?” There’s no reason to feel guilty, since an environment as treacherous and as unfamiliar as outer space does lend itself to some rather macabre fascinations. This film is, very thankfully, probably the closest most of us will get to being first-hand witnesses to a catastrophe in orbit.

Medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is on her first space shuttle mission, STS-157, supervising the installation of technology that she has developed into the Hubble Space Telescope. The mission is commanded by seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney), who is on his last shuttle expedition. While on a spacewalk and working on the telescope, a wave of debris from a destroyed satellite hits the shuttle, leaving Stone and Kowalski stranded. With no way to contact mission control and with oxygen quickly running out of their spacesuits, the scientist and the astronaut must figure out a method of survival, floating in the vast, silent vacuum of space.

Gravity is very much a technical marvel. The film was four years in the making and is Alfonso Cuarón’s first directorial credit since 2006’s Children of Men. The film opens with a dazzling, 17 minute-long unbroken shot, cementing its place as a Best Visual Effects Oscar frontrunner within those few beginning minutes. Gravity seduces the audience with gorgeous, jaw-dropping vistas, before setting them on a thrill ride; this method making it comparable to Jurassic Park. It plays on simultaneous feelings of claustrophobia and agoraphobia; the characters almost trapped within their spacesuits while drifting through the expanse of outer space. We’ve often pointed out certain films that aren’t worth seeing in 3D; this definitely isn’t one of them. The stereoscopy contributes tremendously to that feeling of all-encompassing immersion. We’d also recommend seeing this on as big a screen as possible.

The term “visionary” is used a lot in movie marketing to describe directors – Cuarón once again proves that he is wholly worthy of the adjective. This was a labour of love for the Mexican helmer and the grandiloquent technical aptitude put on display is staggering. Credit must also go to multiple Oscar-nominated cinematographer and Cuarón’s oft-collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, who makes use of the revolutionary Bot & Dolly IRIS motion-control camera rig to accomplish some breathtaking shots. Cuarón, who co-edited the film with Mark Sanger, has crafted a motion picture packed with suspense and peril without relying on frenetic hyper-editing or shaky cam.

While Gravity may be considered a film that “stars visual effects”, we do need to care for the human beings caught in the predicament, and that’s where Sandra Bullock and George Clooney come in. He’s the veteran and she’s the rookie; Clooney playing Kowalski as a charming, cool-headed consummate professional. He coaches and coaxes Stone along, gently guiding her through a very alarming, sudden situation. He regales mission control with funny stories and describes himself as just “the bus driver”. He has to put Stone at ease and, by extension, the audience too.

This is very much Sandra Bullock’s movie to carry though, and talk is already swirling of a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her turn as the mission specialist. The character is a fantastic female protagonist; we don’t get a whole lot of those in science fiction and shades of the Alien franchise’s Ellen Ripley are indeed evident. Bullock gives the part her all, though this reviewer couldn’t help but wonder if any of the actresses considered before she got the part (Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Marion Cotillard among them) might have been a better fit. In addition to traipsing across space station exteriors, Dr. Ryan Stone has vulnerable moments where it seems she’s given up all hope, and while Bullock appears to struggle with portraying that raw, desperate emotion, her performance is still very commendable. Sci-fi is often seen as clinical, but Dr. Ryan Stone’s quest to simply find her way home is told with a deft, personal touch, even as it unfolds against the majestic, high production value backdrop.

“Atmospheric” is a pretty apt way to describe Gravity, even though it takes place outside of our atmosphere. The film is a masterful exercise in contrasts, with calm, peaceful moments juxtaposed against white-knuckle ones and silence immediately following frantic sections of Steven Price’s score. Even though it’s high-gloss, the film doesn’t feel artificial or inauthentic and is without that pesky “phony green screen” feel these pictures sometimes have. There aren’t any mind-bending plot complexities, but Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonás’ screenplay forms the ideal blueprint for a lean (at just 90 minutes), well-paced and visually sumptuous journey.

SUMMARY: Alfonso Cuarón delivers a science fiction thriller that is at once sweeping and intimate and showcases the catalogue of filmmaking skills the director possesses, in addition to good performances from its cast of two.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2

For F*** Magazine


Director: Kris Pearn, Cody Cameron
Cast:  Bill Hader, Anna Faris, James Caan, Will Forte, Andy Samberg, Benjamin Bratt, Neil Patrick Harris, Terry Crews, Kristen Schaal
Genre: Animation, Comedy, Family
Run Time: 95 mins
Opens: 10 October 2013
Rating: G

Cheeseburger in paradise (paradise)
Heaven on earth with an onion slice (paradise)
Not too particular not too precise (paradise)
I’m just a cheeseburger in paradise

So sang the aptly-named Jimmy Buffett, who may have well been crooning about Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2. The first film, released in 2009, was inspired by Ron and Judi Barrett’s classic children’s book, changing the premise from food whimsically raining from the sky to the delicious weather phenomenon being a side effect of a maverick scientist’s revolutionary invention.

In the sequel, we return to Swallow Falls, which has become a cheeseburger (among other food items) paradise, populated by a menagerie of “food animals”, all of which have punny names (think flamango, shrimpanzee, hippotatomus and tacodile – supreme!). The human residents of Swallow Falls have been relocated; iconic innovator and television presenter Chester V (Forte) of Live Corp stepping in to clean up. Flint Lockwood (Hader), responsible for the gastronomic precipitation in the first place, is thrilled as he has idolized Chester for years. Together with his pals – meteorologist Sam (Faris), his father Tim (Caan), man-child former bully Brent (Samberg), monkey sidekick Steve (Harris), neighbourhood cop Earl (Crews) and Sam’s cameraman Manny (Bratt), Flint ventures back to his now-transformed hometown. However, Chester V’s hidden intentions might pose some danger to the idealistic inventor, his friends and the food animals.

The best way to describe Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is “cynicism-proof”. It’s one of those films that, even to the jaded movie critic likes of us, is irresistibly charming and smile-inducing. The first film was lovably goofy, an earnest, highly visual comedy that didn’t seem like the result of a series of audience surveys, pie (heh) charts and test screening statistics the way some animated films turn out. Sure, it was heavy on the gags and certainly geared towards a younger audience, but there was plenty of stuff for grown-ups and older kids to enjoy, including a heartwarming father-son story and the spoofing of disaster movie conventions.

This entry takes on the form of an adventure flick, taking place mostly on an edible Mysterious Island, if you will. There are a few neat little homages to Jurassic Park, including a spoof of the patented Spielbergian “looking in awe shot”, the ripples in the glass of water, and Sam’s Ellie Sattler-esque attire on the island. The designs for the food animals and food people (these apparently are more sentient and sapient) are imaginative and amusing, not to mention mostly very adorable. You’ll most likely have problems eating strawberries for a while yet thanks to anthropomorphic strawberry Barry (voiced by co-director Cody Cameron). And you’ll definitely not be roasting marshmallows any time soon, either. Most food-related films make one hungry; this makes one feel warm and fuzzy instead.

The voice cast, including Saturday Night Live alums Bill Hader, Andy Samberg and Will Forte, are audibly having a (meat)ball, delivering high-energy performances to match the lively, colourful animation. Veteran actor James Caan reprises the role of Flint’s old-fashioned, well-intentioned dad with a laconic warmth and gets a cute moment in which he sings the line “teaching pickles to fish, that’s my crazy world”. Of the returning characters, the only absent cast member is Mr. T, who is replaced by Terry Crews. Crews tries his best, but never quite matches his predecessor’s iconic voice.

The film does fall into formula on several occasions. For example, this certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen the childhood hero of our protagonist become something of a fallen idol. In spite of this, Chester V, something of a cross between Steve Jobs and Deepak Chopra, does have an interesting look to him. The character also has incredibly expressive arms that bring to mind Terry Jones’ character in the “Find the Fish” segment of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (“I wonder where the fish did go?”). This being a kids’ film, plot points are often spelled out in block letters are there are chunks of exposition here and there, but things do keep moving enough to prevent this from becoming an issue.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 is a sequel that doesn’t dutifully dole out more of the same in a rote fashion, but takes the characters on an engaging adventure in a vibrant world populated with endearing critters. Furthermore, the watermelophants, wildabeets and the “just a tomato” are a whole bunch more likeable than the Smurfs and the Naughties from Sony Pictures Animation’s earlier effort this year.

SUMMARY: A delightful second helping that doesn’t feel second rate.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong