Thursday, August 27, 2015

Inside Out

For F*** Magazine


Director : Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen
Cast : Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 27 August 2015
Rating : PG

Pixar takes viewers on the ultimate head trip in this animated comedy set in the mind of an 11 year-old-girl. Riley Andersen (Dias) is a typical kid, with loving parents and a penchant for ice hockey. She begins to experience mood swings when her family relocates from Minnesota to San Francisco, and we get an inside look at why things are going bumpier than usual. The personifications of five emotions – Joy (Poehler), Sadness (Smith), Fear (Hader), Disgust (Kaling) and Anger (Black) – live and work in Riley’s mind, operating out of “headquarters”. Joy runs a tight ship and comes into conflict with Sadness, whose purpose in Riley’s mind is not apparent. When Joy and Sadness get stranded outside headquarters, they must overcome their inherent differences and find their way home to ensure Riley can be well-adjusted and happy. 

Pixar has built a reputation as a studio with a particular knack for effective, moving storytelling, and Inside Out is their strongest effort in recent memory. Many have pointed out that the premise isn’t exactly original, with 90s sitcom Herman’s Head and animated adventure flick Osmosis Jones cited as having similar premises. However, directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen, along with the Pixar story crew they assembled, ensure Inside Out is anything but derivative. Many Hollywood animated films are made for the express purpose of selling toys. Pixar has set itself apart by prioritizing storytelling, with the toy sales following naturally. They’ve even made a series of films all about toys that packed a surprising amount of emotional resonance. Everything about Inside Out just works, from the concept up, and the effort and attention to detail invested at every step of the way is all onscreen. 

Docter has said the primary inspiration for Inside Out came from his pre-teen daughter Elie and wondered what it would be like if her emotions had personalities of their own. This starting point ensures the film is easy to relate to from the get-go, since everyone knows what it’s like to struggle with their feelings at some point or another. The film was made with the input of psychologists Paul Ekman and Dacher Keltner, and Inside Out strikes that vital balance of portraying the inner workings of the mind with sensitivity and deftness while retaining the accessibility and entertainment value the film requires. The screenwriters gamely tackle the unique challenge of creating fleshed-out characters who are explicitly defined by a singular trait, which must have taken a great deal of figuring out. The bulk of the story is reminiscent of a buddy road trip film, with Joy and Sadness traversing the labyrinth of Riley’s long-term memory, meeting various other characters in Riley’s mind along the way. The character dynamics all click right into place and there is a laudable amount of depth in these ostensible caricatures. 

Many animated films cast big-name movie stars to draw in the parents, the fact that they might not be competent voice actors be damned. Pixar has generally avoided this pitfall and Inside Out features one of the best voice casts they’ve ever wrangled. The ensemble comprises many established comedians, including several Saturday Night Live alums. Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith play off each other remarkably well – typically, voice actors record their parts separately with the tracks assembled later, but Poehler and Smith got to record together and their chemistry benefits the story immensely. Lewis Black, well-known for his grumpy stand-up comedy persona, is the logical choice for Anger. Naturally, it would have been easy to deliver a one-note performance, but all the voice actors are able to find wiggle room within their character’s defined personalities, not unlike how Scott Adsit was able to imbue Baymax with enough warmth while still sounding like a robot in last year’s Big Hero 6. Richard Kind, voicing Riley’s imaginary friend Bing Bong, brings whimsy and heart to the character who aids Joy and Sadness in their odyssey. 

Inside Out is also expectedly gorgeous to look at, presenting a dazzling array of landscapes for the story to unfold against. Headquarters is reminiscent of the bridge of the Starship Enterprise and there is an amusingly inventive sequence set in the realm of abstract thought. The character designs are obvious but apt and the colour-coding is visual storytelling at its simplest and most effective. The skin of each of the emotions is like an effervescent plush toy and it’s a tiny design flourish that goes a long way. 

One of the most cogent and evocative explorations of mental health ever committed to the screen, Inside Out is the ideal jumping-off point for many a meaningful post-movie family discussion. It will certainly prove very helpful to children and parents struggling to understand and cope with emotional changes and conditions like depression and anxiety. It’s also a film that bears revisiting; an 8-year-old will enjoy it on one level but discover totally new facets of the film at 13. Inside Out makes a compelling case for the necessity of sadness and other emotions that are generally perceived as negative, conveying this message through a visually-arresting adventure story. It’s also very humorous and while the term “emotional roller coaster” is thrown about a lot, it is as apt a description of Inside Out as any. Lava, the short film attached to the front of the feature presentation, has proved divisive, but this reviewer was quickly moved to tears by its charming volcano love story spanning millions of years. 

Summary: At once heart-rending and euphoric, Pixar’s odyssey of the mind is a triumph in every regard, from its story to its design to its excellent voice cast.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars 

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

No Escape

For F*** Magazine


Director : John Erick Dowdle
Cast : Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 103 mins
Opens : 27 August 2015
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

A government will be overthrown. Chaos will reign. Kids will be flung across rooftops. In this action thriller, Owen Wilson plays Jack Dwyer, a water treatment engineer from Austin, Texas. Together with his wife Annie (Bell) and young daughters Lucy (Jerins) and Beeze (Geare), Jack travels to Southeast Asia, where they will live as expatriates. On the flight there, they meet Hammond (Brosnan), a friendly but enigmatic man who might know more than he’s letting on. As a violent coup breaks out and their hotel is under siege, the American family is caught in the thick of the bloodbath and it will take every ounce of determination, every stroke of luck and all the help they can get if they want to make it out alive.

            No Escape is directed by John Erick Dowdle, who co-wrote the screenplay with his brother Drew. The Dowdle brothers are primarily known for found-footage horror films, including The Poughkeepsie Tapes, Quarantine and last year’s As Above, So Below. While this is a departure for them in that it’s a straight-ahead thriller, there’s still a very terrifying element to the story, which plays on the fears many of us have of being caught in a dangerous situation in an unfamiliar locale. The nation in which the story is set is never referred to by name and the characters nebulously say “Asia” pretty often. It’s intended to be ambiguous, with Thai-like script and Thai-sounding dialogue, plus the Vietnamese border being across a strait. To avoid offending any sensibilities, great pains are taken to not explicitly refer to the ostensibly fictional country by name, which reminded this reviewer of those seasons of 24 where the terrorists are from “the Middle East” and nowhere more specific than that. We’ll refer to the country as “Not!Thailand”.

            While this tiptoeing does take one out of the movie a little, this is actually a largely effective thriller. Straightforward and nothing ground-breaking, but effective. Dowdle manages to create an authentic and frightening sense of chaos with uncompromisingly brutal violence and this reviewer found himself sucked into the plight of the family at the centre of the story. Of course, it’s not supposed to matter so much if everyone else dies, as long as our protagonist, his wife and daughters makes it out alive, but that’s an exigency of films of this type. The film was shot on location in Chiang Mai and other regions of Thailand, which does an excellent job of doubling as Not!Thailand. In the first scene in which Jack realises something has gone terribly wrong, he is stuck in the middle of a clash between the riot police and rebels, and it is appropriately disorienting and scary. The film mostly relies on the atmosphere of the location to do the work, but while the action set pieces are not spectacular, they get the job done.

            There are several traps that are very easy to fall into with “family tries to survive ordeal”-type films. One is convenient ways out where it seems like a guardian angel is working overtime – there are a few such moments here, but it doesn’t neutralise the overall feeling of danger. The other is putting kids in jeopardy as a way to manipulate the audience into feeling something. Lucy and Beeze are caught in some pretty hairy predicaments, but it really helps that the way Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare play them and in the way they’re written, these feel like regular kids and not “movie kids”. Then there’s the predictability of the “get trapped, just barely escape and get trapped again” structure, but things move along quickly enough so that the tension doesn’t fizzle out.

            Owen Wilson isn’t an actor you’d expect to be headlining an action thriller, and he hasn’t done a role of the type since 2001’s Behind Enemy Lines. He’s actually excellent in this, mostly because he’s convincing as an everyman way out of his element. If it were a Tom Cruise (as in War of the Worlds) or a Brad Pitt (as in World War Z) instead, it wouldn’t have as much impact when the character has to draw on everything he has and become a badass to protect his family, because it’s something that would come easier for a Tom Cruise or a Brad Pitt than for an Owen Wilson.

            Lake Bell, replacing the initially-cast Michelle Monaghan, is also believable as a mother who has to be strong for her children in spite of being terrified herself. Annie gets to pull off some impressive physical feats while trying to evade the rebels and Bell, Wilson, Jerins and Geare are quite easy to buy as a family unit. The scenes in which the parents try to comfort and reassure their kids are well-written, which helps to balance out the slightly more outlandish moments in the story. Pierce Brosnan as the helpful, secretly badass stranger is excellent casting. He even gets to tip his hat to the Bond role and when he explains what’s going on, as he eventually must, it doesn’t sound like tedious exposition. Thai actor Sahajak Boonthanakit adds some texture and much-needed levity to the proceedings as the requisite “friendly local”, a driver with an amusing Kenny Rogers obsession.

            No Escape often looks like it was shot for TV, but what it lacks in polish, it makes up for in harrowing, mostly credible scenarios that will have audiences asking themselves “what would I do in a situation like this?” With Owen Wilson doing a really good job as the “everyday hero” dad, a palpable sense of danger present throughout and clever use of the already-existing environments and locations, No Escape is adequately riveting.

Summary: It doesn’t break the mould, but No Escape is a solid thriller with some edge-of-your-seats moments and a central family that’s easy to root for.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Hitman: Agent 47

For F*** Magazine


Director : Aleksander Bach
Cast : Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciaràn Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, Emilio Rivera, Dan Bakkedahl, Angelababy
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 97 mins
Opens : 20 August 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Violence And Brief Nudity)

Agent 47, the perfect assassin, failed to make a killing at the box office with his 2007 cinematic outing and is back for a second go-round in this reboot. Agent 47 (Friend) is the result of a top-secret genetic engineering program spearheaded by Dr. Litvenko (Hinds). Horrified at what he had created, Dr. Litvenko vanished and went into hiding, deserting his daughter Katia (Ware), who has spent the better part of her life searching for her father. In Berlin, it appears that Agent 47 is out to kill Katia, and a mysterious man known as “John Smith” (Quinto) arrives to protect her. However, all is not as it seems, and everything converges in Singapore, where the sinister corporation Syndicate International has its headquarters. Syndicate’s chairman Le Clerq (Kretschmann) is determined to restart the Agent program and create more killing machines for his own nefarious ends, and it is up to 47 and Katia to stop him from doing so. 

Fans of I/O Interactive’s Hitman video game franchise were understandably wary when it was announced that there would be a film reboot. The 2007 movie starring Timothy Olyphant was cheap, dull, incoherent and lacking in thrills, but Olyphant was convincingly tough and looked the part. Paul Walker was initially cast as 47 and was replaced by Rupert Friend after Walker’s untimely death. All the warning signs were there: first-time feature director Aleksander Bach, who has worked mainly in music videos, is at the helm and Skip Woods, who wrote the first film in addition to X-Men Origins: Wolverine and A Good Day to Die Hard, has a screenwriting credit. While the video game series is very much stealth-based, there is precious little sneaking around and a lot of shootouts in public places in this film. 

The movie is primarily set in two locales, Berlin and Singapore. This is the first major Hollywood production to shoot in the Southeast Asian nation and as is expected, it looks like a tourism commercial, with plenty of sweeping establishing shots of the city’s skyline, with the CGI Syndicate International building plonked into it. There is a novelty factor to seeing Singapore featured so prominently and hopefully this paves the way for more Hollywood films to shoot here, but it’s amply clear that an exotic location does little good if there isn’t a substantial story to back it up. Singapore is widely regarded as a pretty safe place to live and has one of the toughest gun control laws in the world. There are guns all over the place in Hitman: Agent 47’s version of Singapore, with 47 himself getting his arsenal into the country without a hitch. The filmmakers hope that audiences will suspend their disbelief instead of laughing at how ridiculous these scenarios are. Also, one of 47’s enhancements is apparently tolerance to warm weather, since he barely breaks a sweat while clad in those suits in the middle of the equatorial heat. 

Rupert Friend has endeared himself to many viewers as Peter Quinn, the special operative with a heart of gold, on TV’s Homeland. He is a good actor, but it is extremely difficult to buy him as an emotionless, stoic, single-minded assassin. In an effort to sound tough, he sometimes speaks in a silly hoarse whisper-mumble and struggles at coming across as intimidating or imposing. He isn’t phoning it in and he is competent at performing the fight choreography, but with a character whose appearance is as iconic and as striking as Agent 47’s, looks matter more than with other adaptations. Zachary Quinto knows he’s in a silly action movie and hams it up as the snarling villain – it’s intended to be ambiguous as to whose side he’s on, but it’s pretty obvious that he’s the bad guy, the moral landscape of this film nowhere near as grey as the producers imagine it to be. 

Hannah Ware’s Katia isn’t a particularly interesting character and Ware isn’t a particularly interesting actress, coming across as a generic English brunette. The character begins as somewhat of a damsel in distress but gets to do her share of ass-kicking later on in the film. Ware is never believable for a second in these scenes – far be it from us to criticise an actor’s physique, but she often looks like she’s in danger of snapping clean in half. Ciarán Hinds is probably happy to cash his paycheque and Thomas Kretschmann, no stranger to playing villains, does very little besides sitting behind a desk in a shiny high-rise office and barking orders to his minions. Hong Kong singer/actress Angela Yeung, better known as “Angelababy”, has what amounts to a cameo as 47’s boss Diana.  

The action sequences can be fun, if one overlooks the overuse of shaky-cam. It’s a shame that the camera never stays on the fights, because the action choreography is handled by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, directors of last year’s John Wick. It makes one wonder how much better this would have turned out under their control, even with the same sub-par script. The movie isn’t boring, moving along at a decent clip with an adequate collection of fisticuffs, shootouts and chases. Hitman: Agent 47 also benefits from its NC-16 (R in the U.S.) rating, meaning that it doesn’t have to pull its punches and can showcase a number of appropriately brutal kills. This is a movie about a hitman, after all. It’s too bad that a lot of the computer-generated imagery is unintentionally hilarious – any time a CGI stuntman went flying through the air, it took this reviewer out of the movie completely. 

If you’re a particularly undemanding action movie fan, Hitman: Agent 47 is certainly not the worst way to kill 108 minutes ever. It might be possible to overlook the thoroughly generic plot and enjoy the action and the locales, but this possesses a higher “leave your brain at the door” quotient than most “leave your brain at your door” movies. What is most entertaining is the thought that some Singaporean government official will have to pretend this is a good movie to justify its use of the country as a filming location. 

Summary: Cheesy and generic but bloody and fast-paced, Hitman: Agent 47 is reasonably fun to laugh at and is somewhat entertaining if one can embrace the dumbness wholeheartedly. 

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars 

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Harbinger Down

For F*** Magazine

HARBINGER DOWNDirector : Alec Gillis
Cast : Lance Henriksen, Camille Balsamo, Matt Winston, Giovonnie Samuels, Winston James Francis, Mick Ignis, Michael Estime, Jason Speer, Reid Collums
Genre : Sci-Fi/Horror
Run Time : 82 mins
Opens : 13 August 2015

Rating : NC-16 (Some Violence and Disturbing Scenes)

“There’s an organism on this ship” are not words you want to hear, especially in a horror movie. Sadie (Balsamo), is a university student working on her thesis, accompanied by her professor Stephen (Winston) and her classmate Ronelle (Samuels) on an expedition to study the impact of climate change on Beluga whale migratory behavior in the Bering Sea. They hitch a ride on the Harbinger, a crab fishing trawler captained by Sadie’s grandfather Graff (Henriksen). Chancing upon the wreckage of a Soviet spacecraft from the 80s frozen in the ice, Sadie and Graff decide to haul it onto the ship, a decision some of the other crew members question. The spacecraft harbours a deadly secret – mutant tardigrades, resilient microorganisms that have transformed into a fearsome creature intent on devouring all aboard the Harbinger

Harbinger Down comes from writer-director Alec Gillis and is produced by Tom Woodruff, Jr. Gillis and Woodruff are the founders of Amalgamated Dynamics Inc., a special effects studio that has furnished animatronic effects for films such as Starship Troopers, Alien vs. Predator and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. They worked on 2011’s The Thing, only to discover that their animatronic effects had been replaced by computer-generated imagery in the finished film. This was not the only film ADI had worked on to suffer that fate. Fed up with how Hollywood was treating their work and bolstered by the positive reaction their work had garnered from movie fans online, Gillis and Woodruff set out to make an independent creature feature that would contain only practical effects work, a monster movie made using lo-fi techniques including performers in suits, miniature photography, effects makeup and stop-motion animation. The result is Harbinger Down, partially funded via a Kickstarter campaign.

With all this background information in mind, it’s clear that the film’s purpose is to prove the point that practical effects are better than digital ones; a way for old-fashioned special effects creators to vindicate themselves. It’s very clear that the plot is merely a flimsy skeleton on which to hang the monster mayhem. This has all the hallmarks of cheaply-made science fiction horror: it all takes place in a single location, most of the actors deliver performances that deserved to be confined to a community theatre stage and the dialogue is clunky and laden with clichés. The crusty sea dogs have to unwillingly play host to a bunch of academics who are in way over their heads when a long-buried evil is loosed on their vessel. “Some things should stay frozen,” deckhand Atka (Edwin Bravo) intones with all the subtlety of a hammer to the face. The pitch that Gillis and Woodruff put on Kickstarter was that this is “in the spirit of two of the greatest sci-fi/horror films of all time, Alien and The Thing (1982)”. Harbinger Down is less “in the spirit” of those two modern classics and more “stuck in their shadow”.

 As mentioned earlier, the performances aren’t great – Matt Winston is particularly hammy as the obnoxious professor. Camille Balsamo’s Sadie is a protagonist we’ve seen hundreds of times in this genre, the adventurous, intelligent young woman who is plunged into a terrifying adventure. The character is competent and courageous, but also commits acts of stupidity as the plot demands. Black Sea from earlier this year presented us with a more believable crew of grizzled, bearded sailors manning a rickety vessel than we see here. Milla Bjorn’s Svet is the token tough chick, confrontational and quick to draw her trusty knife. The saving grace in the cast is Lance Henriksen, whom genre fans know best as the android Bishop in Aliens. He takes it seriously, is convincing as the veteran captain of a trawler and brings a much-needed dose of gravitas to the proceedings. The genre cred certainly doesn’t hurt either. 

With a film that exists primarily to showcase the monster effects, the big question is “how do they look?” There are several gross-out moments of body horror that recall old-school genre favourites and the film occasionally manages to drum up some thrills. For the most part, the effects are well-executed, though the opening sequence of the Russian spacecraft crashing back down to earth is pretty phony-looking. Tardigrades look like horror movie monsters as it is, so that’s a decent starting point, but there is no defining concept to the creature design - the most effective movie monsters such as the Xenomorphs from Alien and the Brundlefly from 1986’s The Fly have an underlying unifying logic to their design that makes them indelible. The mutant tardigrade creature in Harbinger Down looks as if someone threw a bag of standard “movie monster” traits into a pile: teeth, tentacles, spines, pulsating nodes, icky ooze et al – with blue LED lights on top for the hell of it. That the monster fails to even approach iconic is disappointing, considering the talent involved in bringing it to life is clearly skilled and passionate about their chosen brand of movie magic. 

When it comes down to it, Harbinger Down is little more than a SyFy original movie with considerably more effort put into the effects. It may be of interest to genre aficionados given the origins of the production and the fact that it originates from ADI, but if you’re walking into this not knowing who Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. are, you won’t leave caring about them. If this movie proves anything, it’s that it really doesn’t matter if the effects are practical or digital when they are not in service of a compelling story. 

Summary: Hardcore genre movie geeks may find this creature feature worth their while, but outside of that niche, Harbinger Down is too formulaic and forgettable to make much of an impact. 

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Crossing II (太平轮:惊涛挚爱)

For F*** Magazine

THE CROSSING II (太平轮:惊涛挚爱)
Director : John Woo
Cast : Zhang Ziyi, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Song Hye-Kyo, Huang Xiaoming, Tong Dawei, Masami Nagasawa, Amanda Qin, Yu Feihong, Tony Yang, Qianyuan Wang, Bowie Lam
Genre : Drama/Romance
Run Time : 126 mins
Opens : 13 August 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Disturbing Scenes)

The second and final part of John Woo’s historical disaster epic washes ashore. Picking up where the first film left off, we continue following the three central romances as all parties are swept up in the aftermath of the Chinese Revolution in 1949. Taiwanese Doctor Yan Zekun (Kaneshiro) is caught in a bind, his mother intending that he marry Meifang (Angeles Woo), the widow of his brother. Zekun’s heart still belongs to Masako (Nagasawa), who has been writing letters to him, letters that Mrs. Yan has burned in the hopes of putting an end to that relationship. Yuzhen (Ziyi) is desperate to get on a boat out of Shanghai, believing that her fiancé is waiting for her in Taiwan. At the hospital where she volunteers, she is briefly reunited with a severely wounded Tong Daqing (Tong). Yunfen (Song), the pregnant wife of General Lei Yifang (Huang), boards the steamer Taiping with her family. The Taiping, overladen with passengers and cargo, embarks on its fateful voyage for Taiwan, a voyage the vessel will not complete.

Just when we thought nothing could be more pointless that The Crossing: Part 1, Part 2 comes along. Essentially, audiences were being told “before you get to the big sinking, let’s spend some time with the characters and get to know them.” “Some time” turns out to be one and half movies, by which point most viewers will have to restrain themselves from yelling “just sink already!” at the screen. The first film was filled with languid romantic interludes of lovers gazing longingly into each other’s eyes, in between requisite battlefield carnage. Instead of getting right into the action, we are saddled with even more set-up, in which characters rattle off long passages of exposition establishing how the main characters are connected. It turns out that it’s coincidence and not love that holds the world together in the most tumultuous of times.

The Crossing has been called “the Chinese Titanic” and it seems director Woo doesn’t mind the comparison: after all, Titanic is the second highest-grossing film of all time. The similarities are apparent: both films aspire to be sweeping period romances that revolve around fictional characters and are set against a historical disaster at sea. While Titanic is often regarded as cheesy, The Crossing surpasses it in this regard by far. At every turn, the film is melodramatic rather than moving. While Titanic had one romantic relationship as its focus, The Crossing has to split its time between three romances that have to converge in a triumph of contrivance. The intention seems to be that the audience is equally invested in each of the three love stories presented, but that is ultimately too much to ask.

Huang Xiaoming and Tong Dawei take a backseat in this installment, with the bulk of the screen time going to Takeshi Kaneshiro and Zhang Ziyi. Kaneshiro is effective as a noble figure forced into a bind and it certainly helps that he’s very easy on the eye. Zhang Ziyi continues to essay Yuzhen’s tenacity, and one of the film’s few genuinely heart-breaking moments is when Yuzhen agrees to have sex with sleazy businessman Peter (Lam) for a boat ticket. In the midst of the unpleasant act, she peeks through a small crack in the wall, looking expectantly at the ferry moored in the harbor.

The actual sinking of the Taiping is an adequately spectacular sequence of unfolding chaos, even if the computer-generated effects lack polish. The sets and practical effects are well done and it does feel like our protagonists are in legitimate danger. However, after more than three hours of build-up over two films, it’s far from sufficient payoff. We are aware that we sound like heartless beasts, baying for more carnage and less interpersonal drama, but the film’s selling point is, after all, the sinking.

With the conclusion of the two-part movie, Woo has created something that’s not so much sweeping and epic as it is waterlogged. Thrill at people folding paper cranes, composing love songs and taking very long walks through the tall silvergrass! Often unbearably, painfully cheesy, it’s difficult to truly appreciate the authenticity of crowd scenes such as mass student protests being broken up by the military police, and indeed the climactic disaster itself. Treacly and sentimental rather than emotional and containing far from enough spectacle for the slow parts to be tolerable, The Crossing is stranded adrift at sea.

Summary: John Woo’s attempt at re-creating an Old Hollywood-style wartime disaster epic ends up drowning in its own cheesiness.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong


For F*** Magazine


Director : Chris Columbus
Cast : Adam Sandler, Michelle Monaghan, Josh Gad, Kevin James, Jane Krakowski, Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox, Ashley Benson, Sean Bean, James Preston Roger
Genre : Comedy/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 13 August 2015
Rating : PG

Beloved characters from days of gaming past are no longer confined to arcade cabinets, rampaging through the streets and tearing across the skies in this sci-fi action comedy. When aliens invade earth in the guise of classic arcade characters like Galaga and Pac-Man, President Will Cooper (James) calls upon his childhood best friend Sam Brenner (Sandler) to combat the threat. Brenner was once a Pac-Man champion, but was beaten at Donkey Kong by his rival Eddie Plant (Dinklage), who is provisionally released from prison to help fight the aliens. Rounding out the team is the mal-adjusted conspiracy theorist Ludlow Lamonsoff (Gad), who has an unhealthy obsession with buxom video game character Lady Lisa (Benson). They answer to Lieutenant Colonel Violet Van Patten (Monaghan), who has helped develop cutting-edge light ray guns to use against the invaders. Brenner and his team, branded “The Arcaders”, are all that stands in the way of the disintegration of the planet. 

Pixels is based on Patrick Jean’s 2010 short film that quickly became an internet sensation. It’s not the first good idea that has been completely mishandled by Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison production company, nor will it be the last. It’s an utter disappointment that Sandler got his hands on this – it may seem fashionable to hate on the actor/producer, but it’s completely understandable that many filmgoers are not swayed by his frat boy humour and his penchant for varying shades of prejudice in his movies. His lack of popularity is such that there have even been only semi-joking conspiracy theories that his films are elaborate money laundering schemes. Director Chris Columbus does not have a spotless track record, but having directed the first two Harry Potter and Home Alone movies, is more successful than Sandler oft-collaborators Dennis Dugan and Frank Coraci. This gave this reviewer a glimmer of hope that Pixels would end up better than other Sandler movies. This glimmer was quickly extinguished. 

This is especially a shame considering the technical polish with which Pixels is made. The visual effects work, supervised by Matthew Butler and produced by Denise Davis, is excellent and some of the imagery is eye-catching and inventive. A battle against the Centipede from the Atari game of the same name is an absolute blast and the film makes great use of stereoscopic effects, with visual gags like the game scores floating off the screen. The sequence in which our heroes hop into kitted-out Mini Coopers (with the license plates “Pinky”, “Inky”, “Blinky” and “Clyde”) to fight Pac-Man in a high-speed skirmish on the streets of New York is plenty of fun as well, even if it owes a huge debt to Ghostbusters

This might have worked with a different plot and different characters, because the characters are generally very unlikeable. Sandler stars as a ne’er-do-well home theatre system installer, his ego overwhelmingly apparent as he’s cast himself as the underdog who is “the only man for the job” and is eventually adored by the public as an international hero. Kevin James is the least believable movie president since Charlie Sheen in Machete Kills. Granted, it’s supposed to be a joke, but the casting of a credible actor as the President would have given the film at least some grounding, because if it’s all a joke, then the stakes are diminished. 

Josh Gad plays the stereotypical basement-dwelling, mouth-breathing nerd, who actually seems to have some very serious issues that we’re supposed to laugh at instead of be concerned about. It’s a shame that the character is as loathsome and unimaginative a caricature as he is, since Gad has displayed a fair amount of charm in other roles. Peter Dinklage is similarly wasted as the show-boating Eddie Plant, who was apparently modelled after real-life Pac-Man and Donkey Kong champion Billy Mitchell. Dinklage is clearly having a lot of fun in the role, but his character is so repulsive that’s it’s difficult to enjoy his performance. Part of Eddie’s terms in order to help the government fight the aliens is that he gets to have a threesome with two unlikely female celebrities, a joke which is followed up on instead of being treated as an absurd and offensive request. 

This brings us to the lead female character, Michelle Monaghan’s Lt. Col. Van Patten. We’re left picking at scraps, and at the very least, this reviewer is grateful that there’s a woman in a position of power in the film and Monaghan carries herself with as much dignity as she can. Of course, there’s an inane romantic subplot involving Van Patten and Brenner, complete with the “they start out hating each other!” romantic comedy arc. Ludlow’s slobbering obsession with the Red Sonja-esque Lady Lisa is nauseating, and one of the takeaways of the film is that women are trophies who can be won and owned. On top of that, there are multiple casual sexist remarks, such that the film’s atrocious attitude towards women is impossible to ignore. Not content with being flagrantly misogynistic, Pixels also tosses in a stereotypical portrayal of Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani (Denis Akiyama) and a nigh-incomprehensible, buffoonish British Prime Minister (Penelope Wilton). A scene set in India takes place in front of the Taj Mahal, because how else are audiences supposed to recognise that it’s India otherwise? 

Pixels is Adam Sandler’s attempt to hop on the geek bandwagon in a bid to cash in on the retro nostalgia trend. The film bombed upon its opening in the U.S., another blow for Sony just as the studio has been reeling from a massive cyber-attack. This could have been excellent in the hands of someone with a genuine love for classic arcade games, a passion that was palpable in Wreck-It Ralph, which was fuelled with lots of heart and had jokes that were actually funny instead of offensive and cringe-worthy. Animated sci-fi comedy series Futurama also did the “aliens attack earth in the guise of video game characters” plot way back in 2002 – and, needless to say, far better. It’s truly a shame that all Pixels amounts to is Adam Sandler hurling barrels at the audience for two hours. 

Summary: Pixels has Adam Sandler’s grubby fingerprints all over it, smearing a fun premise and some engaging visuals with crass, tasteless jokes and unlikeable characters.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars 

Jedd Jong 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Live from Nerd HQ - Geeking out with Zachary Levi

As published in Issue #67 of F*** Magazine



[San Diego Exclusive] by Jedd Jong 

It’s that time of the year again, with the city of San Diego bracing itself for an influx of over 150 000 geeks, all here for the pop culture mega-event that is Comic-Con. For the fifth year running, actor Zachary Levi is hosting Nerd HQ, the “mini-con” complementary to the main event and part of his Nerd Machine lifestyle brand. Levi is best-known for such geek-friendly roles as the likeable title character on the NBC action comedy series Chuck, and Thor’s swashbuckling ally Fandral the Dashing in Thor: The Dark World. He can also be heard as the voice of Flynn Rider in Disney’s Tangled (a role he will reprise in the upcoming Tangled cartoon series) and is set to return to the small screen with a leading role as vengeful father Luke Collins in Heroes Reborn, the 13 episode spin-off of Heroes.

Nerd HQ, which has been held at different locations over its history, is intended as a hangout spot where like-minded fans can chill out, play demos of games, rock out at dance parties and try out new tech. There are also the “Conversations for a Cause” panels, with past guests including such fan-favourites as Joss Whedon, Nathan Fillion, Stan Lee and the casts of shows such as Sherlock, Doctor Who and Supernatural. These ticketed events sell out faster and faster each year and benefit the cleft palette surgery charity Operation Smile. Fans can also make donations to the charity to get their photos taken with celebrities in the Smiles for Smiles photo booth.

This year, Nerd HQ’s home base is the New San Diego Children’s Museum, across the way from the sprawling Convention Centre. It is a Wednesday afternoon, just before the madness kicks into high gear, when this writer arrives at the Children’s Museum. Levi is dressed casually, clad in a shirt, shorts, a cap and slippers as he greets and high-fives the personnel putting the finishing touches on the museum’s transformation into Nerd HQ. Charming, laid-back and with no airs about him, Levi is extremely approachable throughout one of the breeziest interviews this writer has ever participated in. There are no minders hovering over his shoulder and while attending the hectic Comic-Con may be a chore for some actors, Levi seems right at home. He shares his personal definition of what it means to be a “nerd”, speaks fondly of the iconic guest stars who graced Chuck and enthuses about getting to play in the sandbox that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

So here we are at the very centre of geekdom. Would you say geeks rule the world now?

[Laughs] You know, they do, right? I feel like the world that we live in now is far less of a manual labour world, not too long ago there were a lot of jobs where you’d be a farmer ploughing fields. Now there’s so many jobs in tech and using your mind and using computers so yeah, geeks do rule the world!

What has your journey been like as a champion of nerdiness in Hollywood?

Well, it’s been interesting. First of all, I definitely am trying to redefine what it means being a “nerd” because being nerdy just means you’re passionate. I’ve said that a lot; it’s kind of one of our mantras at The Nerd Machine. They’re synonymous, “nerdy” and “passionate”. You can be a fashion nerd, you can be a food nerd, you can more of a traditional, stereotypical nerd and be nerdy about comic books, videogames, I’m nerdy about all those things too. Technology, [I’m] probably most nerdy about technology. The future, how technology and entertainment work together…I like that though.
I’m a firm believer that when people speak about things that they’re passionate about, that’s what means the most and that’s when you’re trying to convey something to somebody, they can feel your passion for your nerdiness about it and it’s infectious and it really means a lot. When I first started the Nerd Machine and when I first started playing Chuck, people had a hard time going “that guy, he doesn’t seem like a nerd” or whatever. And I’d say “clearly, you don’t know me very well” because I was made fun of [for] incessantly playing video games and doing lots of theatre. I was a theatre nerd. It’s fun to be able to challenge people’s stereotypes and challenge their ideals of what it all means. It can be difficult too.

Do you find yourself missing the character of Chuck since the show’s conclusion?

Um, I miss our cast and I miss our crew. I was so much playing a lot of myself in Chuck so I feel like I’m still playing Chuck every day in a lot of ways [Laughs]. So I don’t miss it as much I guess, but I do miss the family that we have and creating television together, that was really excellent. I hope that I can get to doing like a Chuck movie a year. I think that would be a lot of fun.

What was it like working with geek icon guest stars such as Linda Hamilton, Scott Bakula, Mark Hamill and Christopher Lloyd on Chuck? Did you get star-struck often on the set?

Oh man [Laughs]. It was awesome. Every single one of them was excellent, they were really sweet people, very talented people and very iconic. It’s very cool to say that Scott Bakula is my dad or Linda Hamilton is my mum. Or even Timothy Dalton was just so incredible to work with, he was such a great villain and a great actor and I learned a lot from him. I learned from all of them, really. When you have seasoned, veteran actors like that who have already done this and been in this world, there’s a lot to glean from them so I was really blessed to be able to work alongside all of them.

Tell our readers about how Nerd HQ and the Nerd Machine came to be.

I had been coming to Comic-Con for a while, doing Chuck panels at the convention centre and we would have a great time, but there were always a few things about my experience while I was here that I felt “if I did my own thing one day, how would I do it differently?” One of those things was dance parties, there were never really any dance parties so I wanted to do that for sure [Laughs]. I guess it even started before that because I was looking around and to me it seemed that there was no one unifying brand for nerd culture, in the same way that athletes have Nike or Adidas or Reebok, you can go and get shirts and shorts and hoodies and all that stuff. There are a lot of little one-off apparel things if you’re a Doctor Who fan or an Avengers fan but there was never one brand that all people who congregated in a place like this could wear and say “regardless of whatever your niche or your fandom is, we’re all in this together.” So I wanted to create that lifestyle brand for nerd culture and that’s how The Nerd Machine came about.

And then, when I was figuring out how we activate that brand, how we get people to know it, how we succeed as a business, merchandise, all that stuff, it seemed to be that the best place to activate the brand would be at San Diego during Comic-Con, it’s Nerd Mecca. Then I started applying all the things that I thought “what can we give to fans and what can we give to celebrities that will be really special?” And hopefully by giving that to them, we’ll build brand awareness and we’ll build brand loyalty. People will look at us and say “I like what you do as a company, I like your spirit, your passion, I like your product and you’re not forcing anyone to buy it, it’s totally up to them.” That’s why we make the event for free: the parties are free, the gaming is free, the tech is free, the only thing you really have to pay for are the celebrity interactions, the Conversations for a Cause or the Smiles for Smiles photo booth. I didn’t want to make money off of that, I just wanted to bring people together and make it about a bigger thing than all of us, which is the non-profit world, particularly Operation Smile, which I am an ambassador for.

Personally, what are some of the most memorable moments during the Conversations for a Cause panels? Tom Hiddleston doing an impression of a Velociraptor ranks pretty high up there for me; missed opportunity that he wasn’t cast in Jurassic World.

[Laughs] Absolutely! God, so many. Matt Smith and Arthur Darvill and Karen Gillan all just breaking out into Bohemian Rhapsody was incredible, Matt Smith and Jenna Coleman just busting into Richard Madden’s panel a couple of years ago in 2013, Joss Whedon Skyping into his panel actually because he had injured himself in London and we had him on a giant screen and he was puppeteering all of his former employees on the stage! There are so many moments because it’s all unscripted, nobody knows what’s going to happen, you don’t know the audience is going to ask and you don’t know what the panelist is going to answer with. A lot of magic comes from that. Nathan Fillion just doing impromptu auctions with a bag of s**t, it’s those things. The mystery panel every year, we don’t know who’s going to be on until the last second and then it’s “I hope everybody likes them, here we go!” It’s just those magical moments that are organic, they’re completely off the cuff, you don’t know what’s going to happen and when they happen, it’s so much fun.

Do you think it’s difficult to preserve that sense of spontaneity given how crazy everything is and given that the schedules are tight?

Um, no, because…the questions and answers are always going to spontaneous so you’ll always have that, and because we allow our panelists to do or say whatever they want, they’ll often surprise their audiences with a surprise guest that we might not even know about sometimes, we just say “sure, do it!” And sometimes, you never know, because schedules are so tight, you think you might not be able to get a panelist and then all of a sudden they go “hey, it worked out,” and that’s very spontaneous. So much of the Smiles for Smiles is spontaneous, you never know what’s going to happen on the dance floor, it’s all those things, it’s fun.

What do you think of the notion that San Diego Comic-Con has become too commercialised and harder to get enjoyment out of in recent years?

Well, I don’t think that’s fair to San Diego Comic-Con. I say that because we’ve sat down with those guys and it’s a very, very difficult thing to create this, it’s a behemoth. In a lot of ways, they just responded to the desires of the people. The people want bigger and bigger stars and more of them every year, it’s a supply and demand world and they’re trying to do what they can over there and we’re trying to do what we can over here. It’s like apples and oranges sometimes, it’s a pretty massive undertaking for us but we’re still a very small company and we want it to be small, we never wanted to compete, we wanted to be a complement to what they’re doing over there. I think Comic-Con has smartly just kind of gone with the flow of how pop culture and nerd culture are very much intertwined now. Whereas before, you might have a few people who were very into Avengers comic books, now there’s Avengers movies, so you have a lot of people who want those panels. How do you do that, how do you that while pleasing everyone? You’re not going to be able to.

In order to pay for it all, you need the corporate side – we have a corporate side of things, I hope that nobody thinks we’re a sell-out because we’ve got AMD or Sony PlayStation 4 or IGN…you need corporate help in order to make these things a reality so I don’ think it’s fair to say that San Diego Comic-Con has sold out in any way. I think that they’re doing the best they can to facilitate the desires of everyone and unfortunately, we know this very well, you’re not going to be able to make everyone happy. We hope that people take a second to step back and say “well, what am I really upset about? Am I upset that I couldn’t get into the panel or am I upset that they have lost touch with who we are?” Look, what they do over there has provided the landscape for us and so many other pop-ups to exist, so we’re grateful for it.

What is it like being a part the Marvel Cinematic Universe and how awesome a compliment is it that you’re playing a character called “The Dashing”?

[Laughs] Well, it’s a dream come true, I’m a big Marvel fan. Playing Fandral the Dashing is awesome, I love that I got to be blonde, I love that I got to speak in a British accent…

You got to swash and buckle?

I got to swash and buckle, he’s very Errol Flynn, and that’s just fun, it’s just fun! Being an actor, this world of Hollywood is all just playing dress-up and make-believe anyway, so to do that in a really big and splashy way, it’s nothing but awesome.

Is there anything you can tell us about Thor: Ragnarok without getting into trouble with Kevin Feige?

The truth is, I don’t know anything. I even talked to Chris Yost, who’s writing it with Craig Kyle, they both worked on the last Thor, they’re hard at work. There’s a lot of things that are under wraps but I know that they’re going to shoot next year because they already have the release date for 2017, November 2017, so here’s hoping that I get a call in the next four months saying “pack your bags, because wherever we’re shooting, you’re invited.” And I certainly hope that Fandral and Volstagg, the Warriors Three and Lady Sif and Hogun have a little bit more to do. Tadanobu [Asano], Ray [Stevenson] and Jaimie [Alexander], it was just a really fun experience and I’d like to do more, I want to do more.

What was it like working with the other actors who make up the Warriors Three and Lady Sif seeing as you were replacing a different actor from the first Thor film?

Yeah, it was very strange because they had all built relationships and friendships on the first film but it was also a really crazy story because I was originally cast as Fandral and I couldn’t do it because of Chuck and then Josh [Dallas] ended up doing it and he couldn’t do it [the sequel] because of Once Upon a Time, so it was this very strange changing of the guard but Josh was very cool about it, the cast embraced me with open arms and we had a blast!

Heroes was kind of ahead of the superhero TV show curve when it came out. What can we look forward to in Heroes Reborn and what is the nature of its connection to the original show?

Hopefully what people are going to find in Heroes Reborn is a really cool new set of characters and new storylines but that’s very tied to the original show in tone, feel. Jack Coleman is obviously back as HRG and he’s the glue that holds the old series and the new [together]. There are also some great cameos from Masi Oka, from Greg Grunberg, Jimmy Jean-Louis and a lot of references back to…and also Sendhil [Ramamurthy], Sendhil’s back as well. There’s a lot of nods to the original series, specifically what happened at the end of the original series so I think that what’s nice is that if you’ve never watched Heroes before, you can jump into it, but if you’ve watched Heroes before, you’ve also got some of those cool Easter Eggs from the original series.

Would you say you’re an athletic person and what has it been like learning stunt choreography for projects like Chuck, Thor and Heroes Reborn?

I think I’m a pretty athletic person but I think I’m not nearly as athletic as other people, but I love that stuff. Fight choreography is almost like dance choreography because you’re almost dancing with whoever you’re fighting with. They’re gonna throw this punch, you’re gonna block it, it’s really this interesting kind of fight dance. Especially when you get to use weapons, swords and guns, things like that, I mean I love it, I love it. It’s the kind of stuff that you only get to do…it’s the only job in the world where you get to do the things that nobody else gets to do other than the real people. The only people that get to go on spy missions are real spies and the actors that play spies. The only people that get to have swordfights are real people…I mean, not that there’s a lot of people having swordfights anymore, but people who actually did that stuff and actors who are now portraying it. So, it’s a really fun job to be an actor and get to do those things because you wouldn’t normally get to do those things in everyday life.

There is a swordfight club, but the first rule of swordfight club is you do not talk about swordfight club.

You do not talk about swordfight club, yeah [Laughs].

Providing the voice for an animated Disney hero was a long-time dream come true for you with Tangled. Were you caught up in Frozen fever and what did you think of Flynn and Rapunzel’s cameo in Frozen, during Elsa’s coronation?

I saw Frozen and I was so happy for them, for Disney for making such a giant success in that, I thought it was really fun seeing Flynn and Rapunzel make that little cameo. I didn’t see it [at first] while watching the movie, I wasn’t even thinking to look, it was online that people were like “check this out!” and I went “oh, that’s fun, that’s fun!” Yeah, Kristen Bell, Josh Gad and Idina Menzel, I know them all, they’re all lovely and talented people. I was just happy for them and the success of that and now they’re making a sequel which is awesome and there’s going to be a Tangled animated series, which is awesome, and Mandy and I are both back for that. It really was a dream come true. Like singing at the Oscars, I was like “what is happening?” It was so weird, so surreal.

Do you enjoy singing and pursuing the musical side of your career?

Oh yeah, I love singing man. I’ve sung since I was a little kid, it brings me a lot of joy and happiness. I’d like to incorporate it more in my career in the future. It’s always a matter of finding that right project, whatever fits correctly.

What was it like debuting on Broadway in First Dates the Musical?

It was amazing, it was amazing. I started my acting life doing nothing but theatre and it’s a great training ground, it’s a great place to find and refine your craft. Television and film are amazing also but they’re very different animals, you’re fulfilled in different ways and I was longing to get back to stage and do it live. No safety net, you can’t cut, you can’t try again. And to sing as well, to have a connection with an audience, it’s very symbiotic: they feed you energy, you feed them energy, they feed you energy, it’s very cyclical, very symbiotic. The theatre we did First Dates at sat about a thousand people and on a packed night, making a thousand people laugh or cheer, it’s the greatest joy in the world, nothing beats it.

What was it like being in Tomb Raider as a DLC playable character, and are you looking forward to the sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider?

Yeah, definitely. I’m a big fan of the Tomb Raider series and to be able to do that lead-up docu-series for it was really cool. I already knew a lot about how games come together but I learned even more doing that. And that they gave me that as kind of a fun gift to me, a DLC playable character with my “Nerd” shirt on, talk about being immortalized in fun ways, that’s a fun way to be immortalized for sure.