Friday, May 30, 2014



Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey, Jr.
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Opens: 5 June 2014
Rating: NC16 (language) 

Jon Favreau goes from Iron Man to Iron Chef, writing, directing and starring in this comedy-drama. Favreau plays Carl Casper, the Miami-born head chef of a Los Angeles restaurant. Owner Riva (Hoffman) insists that Casper abide by the popular menu, but Casper argues that creatively, things have gone stale. An explosive incident involving food blogger Ramsey Michel (Platt) is the last straw. Casper leaves the restaurant behind as he accompanies his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) and son Percy (Anthony) back to Miami. There, he starts from scratch, getting a food truck up and running. Martin (Leguizamo), his friend and line cook from the restaurant, drops everything to come over to Miami to help. Soon, Casper, Percy and Martin are selling Cuban sandwiches out of the food truck, going back to basics, Casper re-evaluating his career and his relationships along the way.

            Fulfilling the roles of writer, director and star, it might seem to some like Jon Favreau has made himself a tidy little vanity project. Chef is nothing of the sort. Watching Chef is like listening to a friend talk enthusiastically about his interest, this friend phrasing it so eloquently and enticingly that before you realise it, you’re all wrapped up in it. Favreau’s passion for food bubbles over and is extremely infectious. Then there's the matter of just how lip-smackingly delicious everything – even the humble grilled cheese sandwich – looks. Every review has said this and mine is no different: don’t go into this hungry. I actually heard the audience at my screening crying out, almost in agony, at every lovingly-shot edible item. With acclaimed chef and food truck pioneer Roy Choi as consultant and overseer, Favreau does his own “stunts” in the film and is wholly convincing as a culinary wunderkind. It’s clear Favreau has done his due diligence, leading many professional chefs and food writers to sing the film’s praises.

            Chef is more than just a Food Network cooking show. There’s an earnestness and sincerity served alongside a heaping helping of wit and humour. Many films that are billed as “feel-good movies” can feel manufactured and contrived, but Chef flows organically, its relationships and characters largely believable and relatable. The emotional beats are genuine and even though there are over-the-top moments, this reviewer was sufficiently convinced that those were required to set events in motion; most of the film an entertainingly laid-back affair. Just as Casper trains his young son in the ways of the kitchen, Percy guides his father through the world of social media. There’s a clever visual gag in which tweets are represented as floating holographic text bubbles which are then compressed and carried away by a little blue digital bird. Favreau's most recent film as director before Chef, Cowboys & Aliens, was not very well received. However, Favreau wisely resists demonizing critics in this film and using Chef as an avenue to vent against those who didn't like his earlier work; the character of Ramsey Michel not portrayed as a sneering villain.

            Favreau is as adept in front of the camera slicing, dicing, sautéing, grilling et al as he is behind it. Chef Casper is utterly likeable but also flawed and most definitely human and prone to outbursts. Favreau’s Casper is a culinary force to be reckoned with, but not some kind of untouchable kitchen god the way the role could have been written and acted. He has a top-tier supporting cast as well, John Leguizamo especially fun as the faithful and capable sidekick/pal. Child actor Emjay Anthony is a revelation; his Percy isn’t your standard “smart-mouthed comedy mini-adult”, you buy that this is a real kid – in fact, he’s probably better-behaved than most real kids actually are. It’s fun and surprisingly not distracting to see Robert Downey, Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, both alumni of the Iron Man films, pop up. Sofia Vergara tones down her usual loud, fiery shtick and it winds up being a really nice performance from her. Oliver Platt and Dustin Hoffman as the food critic and the restraunter respectively are well cast, too. Look out for a pretty funny cameo from comedian Russell Peters.

            If there’s any relatively major gripe with Chef, it would be the R-rating. Now, I write for a magazine named F*** and I know foul language is a fact of life in real professional kitchens, but the swearing makes this unsuitable for younger moviegoers. It’s a shame because a large portion of the film is about a father-son relationship and involves a child actor. There’s also no violence or explicit sex, just mild sexual references. And kids should see this; it’s inspirational and empowering for anyone who has a passion about anything. Still, Chef is sweet, heartfelt and clearly prepared with love; Favreau on fine form as a true multi-hyphenate.

Summary: Can you smell what the Favs is cooking? Why, it’s quality, soulful cuisine! Bon Appétit!

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


For F*** Magazine


Director : Robert Stromberg
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville
Genre : Fantasy, Adventure
Rating : PG (Some Frightening Scenes)

So much happened before Aurora dropped in. In Maleficent, we learn the untold story of the title character, hitherto thought of as just the dastardly villain from Sleeping Beauty. In her youth, Maleficent (Jolie) befriended and later fell in love with Stefan (Copley). But the gulf between Maleficent’s home, the enchanted forest kingdom of the Moors, and Stefan’s, the human kingdom, proves to be too wide. Stefan eventually becomes the king and betrays Maleficent. When King Stefan’s daughter Aurora (Fanning) is born, a scorned and heartbroken Maleficent casts a spell on her: if Aurora pricks her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel before her 16th birthday, she will fall into a deep sleep and only true love’s kiss can wake her. As three fairies (Staunton, Temple, Manville) watch over Aurora, so does Maleficent – from a distance, and with the aid of her loyal raven Diaval (Riley). Slowly, Maleficent’s hate towards the child softens, just as King Stefan declares war.


            After one John Carter/Lone Ranger too many, one hopes that Disney will realise that this is the direction in which their live-action blockbusters should proceed. In telling a villain’s back-story, there’s always the danger of the mystique and menace of said villain being stripped away – just look at Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. It’s handled far better here and Maleficent makes the ideal candidate for a “perspective flip” retelling because Aurora is just about the most boring Disney princess of them all, and it was always Maleficent who was more fascinating. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton and an uncredited Paul Dini has an appealing fairy-tale logic to it; imps, fairies and enchanted forests existing in the same story as a protagonist who cannot be squarely categorised as either “hero” or “villain”. We live in a post-Loki world, and as a sympathetic character whose path towards the dark side makes sense, Maleficent is very much like Loki – right down to the trickster streak and those horns.

MALEFICENT_Movie Stills_26

            Robert Stromberg, production designer on Avatar, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Oz: The Great and Powerful makes his feature directorial debut with Maleficent. Many design touches from those three films are evident here and while the aesthetic may not be unique, it is undeniably beautiful. Yes, the film is heavily reliant on computer-generated imagery, but there’s still life and soul to the CGI (especially the character animation on Diaval the shape-shifting raven) and the backdrops do not dissolve into generic digital mucilage. Anna B. Sheppard’s costume design work is impeccable; the translation of Maleficent’s animated look into a live-action context particularly effective. It’s at once immediately recognisable and also inventive; how she has different coverings for her horns depending on the seasons is a nice touch. And of course, Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker’s work completes Angelina Jolie’s transformation into the character, horns, severe cheekbones and all.


            We don’t throw the word “perfect” around here too often, so believe us when we say Angelina Jolie is perfectly cast. She’s proven that she’s great at vamping it up, that she has the dramatic chops and that she can command the screen, all skills she calls upon for Maleficent. From the way she intones lines such as “a grand celebration, for a baby. How wonderful” to her calm, steely gaze to the way she tilts her head back at just the right angle, it proves to be quite the casting coup. The way the character is made sympathetic might not sit well with those who love Maleficent for being "the Mistress of All Evil" but this reviewer likes the layers Jolie brings to the part, in addition to how much she is enjoying herself as Maleficent. Elle Fanning doesn’t have to do much as Aurora because this really isn’t her story, but her wide-eyed naïveté is believable. Angelina Jolie’s real-life daughter Vivienne plays Young Aurora; the scene in which Maleficent interacts with her disdainfully is even cuter once you realise that’s just a toddler playing with her mother.


            South African actor Sharlto Copley is deservedly climbing the A-list, and he’s good here as well, playing a king who gradually descends into madness and who is consumed by an obsession with the menacing winged creature he once loved. Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville provide the comic relief as the three bickering guardian fairies – they’re amusing if not slightly grating and the CGI versions of them do teeter over the uncanny valley. Brenton Thwaite’s Prince Phillip is pretty much an afterthought but hey, he’s handsome. Sam Riley handily steals the show as mighty morphin’ bird Diaval (known as Diablo in the 1959 film). He may not look it, but Diaval is easily the most adorable an “evil minion” can get without being a yellow, overalls-clad, goggles-wearing capsule.

MALEFICENT_Movie Stills_21

            Hardcore Disney animation fans will be pleased to know that the late Marc Davis, one of the revered “nine old men” and the supervising animator for Maleficent, Aurora, Diablo and other characters in 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, is thanked in the credits. Darker, “Grimmified” takes on fairy tales have become something of an eye roll-inducing Hollywood trend, but Maleficent manages to soar above the pack thanks to a compelling turn from its wonderfully-cast lead. Sweeping classical imagery that includes Maleficent breaking through the clouds to bask in the sun’s glow and Diaval in horse mode rearing up on his hind legs as the sun sets behind the castle enriches the experience too. In many ways, the film is much like Lana Del Rey’s cover of “Once Upon a Dream” that plays over the end credits: an effective reinvention of something familiar but one that lovers of the old-fashioned approach might not necessarily enjoy completely.

MALEFICENT_Movie Stills_12

Summary: Those tired of blockbuster re-imaginings of time-worn fairy tales might not be won over by Maleficent, but Angelina Jolie’s stunning performance, in addition to some lush, awe-inspiring visuals, make this one worthwhile.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Grace of Monaco


Director : Olivier Dahan
Cast : Nicole Kidman, Tim Roth, Milo Ventimiglia, Parker Posey, Paz Vega, Frank Langella, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Derek Jacobi
Genre : Biography, Drama
Opens : 22 May 2014
Rating : PG

In his song “Grace Kelly”, Mika proclaimed “I’ve gone identity mad!” Grace of Monaco attempts to portray the crisis of identity the real Grace Kelly (Kidman) underwent. In marrying Prince Rainier III of Monaco (Roth), Kelly left her life as a Hollywood actress behind, but she was constantly reminded that the people of Monaco would not recognise the daughter of a Philadelphia bricklayer as one of their own. As France threatens to tax and possibly annex Monaco, resulting in a heated dispute between Rainier and France’s Charles de Gaulle (André Penvern), Kelly, now a wife, mother and princess, is tempted to return to acting.  Director Alfred Hitchcock (Ashton-Griffiths) comes calling with the script for his new film Marnie and with the whole world watching (and judging), the princess must decide what role she will play in the future of the principality.

            Many biopics have been criticised for taking a “cradle to the grave” approach, attempting to condense the entire lives of their subjects into two and half hours or so. Grace of Monaco instead focuses on a short, specific period in Grace Kelly’s life, which the actual royal family of Monaco claims has been highly fictionalised and is filled with factual inaccuracies. The film’s post-production process has also been turbulent, with director Olivier Dahan and distributor Harvey Weinstein feuding over the final cut and the release date being shuffled multiple times. The film ends up being overripe and uneven, hokey and melodramatic, if still watchable and somewhat palatable.

            Grace of Monaco is a pretty film to look at, cinematographer Eric Gautier dousing the movie in soft fill light. There are elegant costumes and sets galore, but one can’t help but feel a sense of artifice – at its worst, the movie evokes a movie-of-the-week affair, a pity given the marvellous La Vie En Rose, which Dahan also directed. The central conflict with its almost-intrigue and kinda-stakes just doesn’t feel as weighty as it needs to be, the film instead generating moments of overwrought emotion that despite Nicole Kidman’s best efforts, fail to ring altogether true. There’s even a montage that feels straight out of something like The Princess Diaries in which Grace Kelly takes elocution and history lessons in order to become a better princess.

            Nicole Kidman reportedly beat out the likes of Charlize Theron, Jessica Chastain, Amy Adams, Gwyneth Paltrow and January Jones amongst others for the coveted title role. She’s certainly not a terrible Grace Kelly, mustering up all of her glamour and, well, grace to play the part but there isn’t a lot of depth to the portrayal beyond “being a princess isn’t the fantasy it’s cracked up to be.” One would think that given the narrower scope of the film compared to a conventional biopic, we’d get more room for meaningful characterisation and Kidman tries, but ultimately doesn’t deliver a well-rounded depiction of Grace Kelly. We hear many frustrated exclamations, including “why must everything be so complicated?” and “Ah! So difficult!” At no point does “Nicole Kidman the actor” disappear for “Grace Kelly the person” to take her place. She does have her moments though, that climactic speech she delivers at the end is sufficiently moving. She’s also a good deal taller than her onscreen husband; something Kidman is probably used to.

Tim Roth is careful not to turn Prince Rainier into a stiff, stern caricature and while he doesn’t have much chemistry with Kidman, he is believable as the Prince pushed into a tight spot. Frank Langella is the requisite kindly father figure as Father Francis Tucker, one of Rainier III’s closest friends and most trusted advisors, warm and wise even when saddled with platitudes such as “at some point, every fairy tale must end”. Roger Ashton-Griffiths is a decent, convincing Alfred Hitchcock, playing the legendary director as a gruff but well-meaning uncle.

            Grace of Monaco is far from subtle – we get an ominous car/driving motif (of course) and some clumsy, on the nose cues in the score. It’s difficult to take the film entirely seriously, but perhaps there’s a charm in the kitsch and the silliness – it’s unlikely that it was what director Olivier Dahan intended, but for what it’s worth, Grace of Monaco is far from detestable or brazenly divisive. Sensationalised? Sure. More than a little awards-baity? You bet. But is it trash? Nah.

Summary: At one point, Princess Grace tells her husband “Rai, it’s just a movie”. Go into Grace of Monaco with that mindset and perhaps you might enjoy yourself. As a dramatic, insightful exploration of the life of the screen legend though, it mostly misses the mark.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past


Director : Bryan Singer
Cast : Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Evan Peters, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Josh Helman, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit
Genre : Action, Adventure
Opens: : 22 May 2014
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence & Brief Coarse Language)

            The “biggest X-Men film yet” has almost everybody from both the X-Men trilogy and 2011’s X-Men: First Class in attendance as part of this decades-spanning odyssey. In a post-apocalyptic future, mutants are at war with formidable, super-advanced Sentinel robots. Professor Xavier (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) hatch a plan to have Shadowcat (Page) project the consciousness of Wolverine (Jackman) into the body of his younger self; a sort of metaphysical time-travel. “Arriving” in 1973, Wolverine has to wrangle Xavier and Magneto’s younger selves (McAvoy and Fassbender respectively) in order to stop the war before it begins. A threat to mutants emerges in the form of Dr. Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), the inventor of the Sentinels. Mystique (Lawrence) is on a mission to hunt and kill Trask, but it is this action that will set the world on its dark path. The various mutants, too many to list in this paragraph, must band together to avert their horrific destiny.

            To say the X-Men film franchise has had its ups and downs is very much an understatement. As such, fans were understandably wary of X-Men: Days of Future Past, which takes its name and premise, if not every last detail, from the landmark 1981 comics story arc. The “everyone and their mother” cast (well, Mystique’s here but alas, Nightcrawler isn’t) led many to fear that this would be a bloated affair. We’re happy to report that director Bryan Singer has somehow managed to keep all the plates spinning. Because one metaphor isn’t enough to describe how masterful the balancing act here is, Days of Future Past is a football field-sized sheet of paper which has been folded into an intricate origami crane. X-Men: First Class is quite different in tone and style from the X-Men trilogy proper, so to marry those two into a cohesive universe is quite the achievement.

            Naturally, the plot is a complex one and neophytes might feel left out in the cold. For those who have stuck with the mutants’ cinematic outings through thick and thin however, X-Men: Days of Future Past will be rewarding and exhilarating. There’s character development aplenty and the interactions we’ve become familiar with, particularly the pivotal, rocky relationship between Xavier and Magneto, get a good deal of play. A section of the film is set against the real-life Paris Peace Accords (with Mark Camacho as a pretty darn good Nixon), lending the film historical context. In addition to all this, spectacle is not in short supply. We’re treated to a variety of combat scenes and action sequences in which the characters’ myriad abilities are showcased in full. There’s also just enough levity amidst the drama; Evan Peters’ kleptomaniac speedster Quicksilver in particular gets to steal the show with what might just be the single greatest slow-motion sequence ever put on film, set to Jim Croce’s ballad “Time in a Bottle”.

            Comic book fans have often joked of “Wolverine publicity”, that Marvel shamelessly coasts on the popularity of the clawed Canuck. In the comics, it was Shadowcat who did the time-travelling but here, everything rides on Logan. Jackman is as good in the role as always; ripped to shreds, baring his butt and playing mediator and guide, a role that’s unfamiliar for the short-tempered Wolverine. McAvoy’s turn is riveting, his lost, broken and argumentative Xavier in stark contrast to the signature tranquillity and wisdom of Patrick Stewart’s portrayal. Thankfully, screenwriter Simon Kinberg has preserved the in-flux relationship between Xavier and Magneto that Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman presumably wrote into their draft of the script. Fassbender is majestic, commanding, unwaveringly intense yet undeniably sexy, further proving that casting him as young Magneto was a stroke of genius.  

            Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is almost as big as Wolverine is on the poster and she does play a key role; her pursuit of Trask driving the 1973-set portion of the film alongside Wolverine’s quest. Lawrence and her stunt doubles break out some impressive acrobatic fight moves and Mystique’s shape-shifting power is used cleverly and surprisingly several times. The very sympathetic Mystique in X-Men: First Class differs greatly from the cold-blooded lackey in the X-Men trilogy and Lawrence strives to make the character’s transition believable. Dinklage delivers a captivating performance, confident, focused and just menacing enough. Trask is the designated antagonist but he’s certainly not made out to be a cackling, one-dimensional villain. Dinklage’s casting carries a hint of comic book psychology, that perhaps the invention of oversized giant robots is Trask’s way of compensating for his slight physical stature.

            If there’s something about the film that doesn’t completely succeed, perhaps it’s the aesthetics. For every dazzling visual effects flourish, there is a questionable design choice or a casting of a supporting character that doesn’t quite work. Twilight teen idol Booboo Stewart is far from convincingly tough as Warpath. Quicksilver does come off looking quite silly, but Evan Peters’ joyous portrayal overcomes that. Mystique’s makeup consists mostly of a skin-tight bodysuit here, which no doubt saves application time but also means the scales can look glued-on. The Future Sentinels’ resemblance to the Destroyers in Thor is sometimes distracting; especially the way their faces open up to unleash a burst of flame. Josh Helman also looks way too much like Seann William Scott to be taken seriously as Young Stryker, the character having previously been played by character actors Brian Cox and Danny Huston.

            That said, it’s hard to be bothered by perceived surface-level imperfections when everything else blends and melds so seamlessly. Sequels can have a difficult time justifying their existence, not least when they’re the seventh entry in a long-running franchise. Days of Future Past does more than justify its existence, it becomes a stunning, involving epic that matches awe-inspiring visuals (plus some good 3D effects) with ever-evolving character dynamics. Stick around past the end credits for an appetite-whetting taste of where the story’s headed next.

Summary: The biggest, most ambitious X-Men film yet is also the greatest.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Thursday, May 15, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past - Singapore Press Conference Photo Highlights

Singapore was among the seven cities chosen for the global premieres of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Stars Hugh Jackman, Peter Dinklage and Fan Bingbing graced the blue carpet on 14th May and held a press conference at the Ritz Carlton Hotel on the 15th. Here are some photo highlights from the press conference that day.

True gentlemen. 

Hot 91.3 deejay Joshua Simon asked to speak to Wolverine himself and wanted to know if Logan eats his steak with cutlery, or just stabs at the ribeye with his claws. Wolverine didn't take too kindly to the question and the matter was taken outside. I think it was a pretty clear fight. 

Note Peter Dinklage's Batman and Robin shirt. We have a DC sympathizer in our midst (yay!) 

Grand Piano

For F*** Magazine


Director : Eugenio Mira
Cast : Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishé, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, Don McManus, Alex Winter
Genre : Thriller, Suspense
Opens: : 15 May 2014
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

Elijah Wood trades in his fuzzy feet for dextrous fingers to play pianist Tom Selznick in this suspense thriller. Selznick, a prodigious young talent who crashed and burned after failing to complete an “unplayable” piece five years ago, reluctantly puts on a comeback performance at the behest of his wife, actress Emma (Bishé). Everything is in place, especially the customized Bösendorfer grand piano that belonged to Selznick’s late mentor. In the middle of his performance, Selznick finds a threatening message in the sheet music, and is warned by his would-be killer Clem (Cusack) that one wrong note will result in a bullet through the head. All eyes are on the pianist as he gives the most important performance of his career – and tries to keep it from being his last. 

From the opening titles in which the inner workings of the titular instrument are shot as if they were components of a trap from the Saw movies, audiences will know what they’re in for. Grand Piano is a pulpy thriller that is earnestly Hitchcockian; composer Victor Reyes channelling Bernard Herrmann in his soundtrack. Produced by Rodrigo Cortés, it bears a similar ominously theatrical feel to Red Lights, which he directed. That aesthetic is certainly more overt here, the colour palette predominantly blood red. While it is a look that draws one in, there’s also a degree of artifice exacerbated by the rather out-there premise. 

The film does have a pretty neat logline – “Speed with a grand piano”.  There are also shades of Phone Booth (Box Seat?). It’s one of those things that’s either completely ridiculous or utterly brilliant and, intriguingly enough, director Eugenio Mira bounces the movie between those two extremes with marvellous precision. Yes, there are moments that strain suspension of disbelief and the dialogue is oftentimes quite awkward (the conductor tells his orchestra to “ready (their) weapons”, for instance). It is also expertly paced and effectively taut. In spite of the smatterings of Grand Guignol bombast, there’s a credible sense of danger established and we feel trapped alongside Selznick, caught in the crosshairs and still having to focus on his craft. 

Elijah Wood has picked some quirky films over the last few years and his refusal to be pigeonholed after starring in a successful blockbuster franchise is admirable. Wood makes for an adequately convincing master pianist, his perpetual youthfulness upping the “child prodigy fallen from grace” quotient. Working with coach and hand double Héctor Eliel Márquez, Wood does actually look like he’s playing, and does actually look like he’s good. We wish that the trailer (and the poster) didn’t give away that John Cusack was the villain as it would’ve been a nice surprise reveal. He spends most of the film off screen, present in the form of a menacing voice in Selznick’s ear. While this is yet another case in which the revelation of the antagonist’s motive is at least a bit of a let-down, Cusack is still solid opposition to our heroic pianist. Shout-out to Alex Winter of Bill and Ted fame who shows up as a suspicious theatre usher. Excellent, dude! 

Grand Piano is an entertaining affair that isn’t afraid to dip into silliness and thanks to some assured direction, isn’t overcome by its preposterous premise, instead gamely running with it. While far from wholly satisfying, it’s a slickly-crafted, well-acted suspense thriller packed with pizzazz and flourish, Lang Lang-style. 
SUMMARY: Elijah Wood goes pedal to the metal in a slightly different way than Sandra Bullock did in this occasionally silly but consistently exhilarating flick.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars 

Jedd Jong