Thursday, December 31, 2015

By the Sea

For F*** Magazine


Director : Angelina Jolie Pitt
Cast : Angelina Jolie Pitt, Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Melvil Poupaud, Niels Arestrup
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 132 mins
Opens : 31 December 2015
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes and Nudity)

Brangelina are back together on the big screen for the first time in ten years, after continuously teasing – or threatening, depending on your point of view – the possibility of doing a movie as a couple again. Alas, it’s not Mr. & Mrs. Smith 2: Little Smiths, but this romantic drama instead. It is the mid-1970s, and Roland (Pitt) and his wife Vanessa (Jolie) are holidaying in a French seaside town. Roland is a struggling writer and Vanessa is a former dancer, and after 14 years of marriage, the couple have grown apart. In the hotel room next to theirs, newlyweds Francois (Poupaud) and Lea (Laurent) are having their honeymoon. Vanessa becomes envious of their wedded bliss as both she and Roland become increasingly frustrated with each other, unable to work things out. The fairy-tale setting’s there, now all they need is that happily ever after.

            Jolie is By the Sea’s writer and director and, alongside her husband, its star. There’s no point denying this isn’t a vanity project; it’s pretty much the dictionary definition of one. The foremost task any vanity project has to accomplish is that of convincing the audience that there’s a point or at least some semblance of value to the enterprise beyond a vigorous ego massage. There’s not even the faintest attempt at such justification here. The film has already been roundly savaged by critics, so excuse us for picking at its carcass. Jolie and Pitt are movie stars and where movie stars go, their egos are wont to follow. An ego is not necessarily a bad thing; some might say it’s an integral ingredient in the “star quality” cocktail. What Jolie and Pitt have done here is assume that the very notion of the two of them on the screen is enough to send audiences into a tizzy, and that there doesn’t need to be anything more than that. It’s ShamWow levels of self-absorption.

            Yes, By the Sea is pretty to look at. Then again, most people would like to have Christian Berger or a cinematographer of his calibre film their honeymoon in Malta as a keepsake if given a chance. Then again, most people wouldn’t foist it upon the movie-going public under the assumption that anyone other than themselves would want to watch it. There’s a good deal of style, with Jolie going for a 70s-type laid-back romance vibe. The climate may be Mediterranean, but the pace is glacial, with very little actually happening over the course of the film’s 132 minute duration. There is meant to be a sense of mystery as to why exactly Roland and Vanessa are so unhappy, with fleeting, initially indiscernible flashes serving as clues to what that is. When the root of the couple’s discontent is finally revealed, it comes across as little more than contrived and clichéd.

            Both Jolie and Pitt are talented and have delivered entertaining performances before, but their delusions to arthouse-ness do them no favours. When we first meet these characters, they’re charmless, and they pretty much stay that way right up until just before the very end, maybe. In her third film as director, Jolie has yet to find a distinct voice. That wild child streak, the fiery unpredictability and the brazen sexuality, qualities that made her such a magnet for fascination in the beginning of her career, are all but absent here. We have to make do with traces of it. The frank nudity in the film, including from Jolie, appears to be an attempt at honesty and intimacy, embracing a more European sensibility instead of mass-market Hollywood prudishness, but it is largely superficial. With the sun hats and the sunglasses, Jolie does pull off the classic Sophia Loren thing. There’s the feeling that this would work a lot better as a photo spread in a magazine than with any attempt at a plot tacked onto it.

            Jolie and Pitt leave little room for the supporting players, but they aren’t bad. Poupaud and Laurent are the frisky younger couple, whom Vanessa and Roland voyeuristically observe through a peep hole in the wall of their room. It’s a decent idea, one of a yearning for blissful days past, but because there’s so little to Roland and Vanessa and even less to Francois and Lea, it’s difficult to be affected by the sentiment. There are traits of an erotic thriller creeping into the film at times, but in Jolie’s attempt to be as tastefully arty as possible in the film’s depiction of sex, the film avoids straight-up appealing to any base instincts. Veteran French actor Niels Arestrup is wholly believable as Michel, the aging restaurant proprietor who is mourning the recent death of his wife, but his dialogue contains little more than vague aphorisms about marriage.

            By the Sea may boast the wattage of a Hollywood megastar couple and it might have an air of class about it, but when it comes down to it, this film is a great deal like those Adam Sandler movies that he’s admitted are basically paid vacations. Believe it or not, Jolie and Pitt were not the only things that made Mr. & Mrs. Smith enjoyable. It was a tongue-in-cheek action comedy that was buoyed by their undeniable chemistry and boosted by the swirling rumours of romance on the set, rumours that were soon confirmed. Ten years on, now that the pair are officially married, it’s not scandalous or even particularly romantic, just moderately aggravating. It’s odd, but seeing Jolie and Pitt in a relationship that has lost most of its spark is even more cloying and cringe-inducing than seeing them all lovey-dovey.

Summary: Spectacularly self-indulgent and utterly pointless, By the Sea is ample proof that a real-life relationship alone is a very flimsy foundation on which to build a romantic movie.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Daddy's Home

For F*** Magazine


Director : Sean Anders, John Morris
Cast : Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Linda Cardellini, Scarlett Estevez, Owen Vaccaro, Hannibal Buress, Paul Scheer, Thomas Haden Church
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1 hr 36 mins
Opens : 31 December 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Sexual References)

Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg throw down in a showdown of paternal proportions in this comedy. Ferrell plays radio station exec Brad Whitaker, new husband to Sara (Cardellini) and stepfather to her children, Megan (Estevez) and Dylan (Vaccaro). Brad is having trouble connecting with his stepchildren and just when he feels he’s making progress, a spanner is throw into the works when Dusty Mayron (Wahlberg) sidles up out of nowhere. Dusty is Sara’s ex-husband and the biological father of Megan and Dylan. Rugged, capable and charismatic, Dusty’s presence is immediately an immense threat to Brad. As Dusty upstages Brad in every aspect and attempts to win Sara back, the two dads engage in a fierce battle for fatherly supremacy, regardless of the collateral damage left in their wake.

            There’s something about Will Ferrell’s comic personality that makes him an ideal candidate for films focused on one-upmanship, as evidenced by Step Brothers, Blades of Glory and The Campaign. Here, Ferrell’s opponent is his co-star from The Other Guys, Mark Wahlberg. The buddy cop send-up showed that the duo have chemistry, but the results here are lacklustre. More often than not, Daddy’s Home opts for heavily gag-based humour rather than jokes that flow naturally out of character development. Most of the comedy is derived from Ferrell humiliating himself, whether it’s losing control of a souped-up motorcycle, being electrocuted by power lines or getting drunk at a basketball game, all designed primarily to be put in the trailer – which they are.

            The film does have its moments, seeing as Ferrell is often innately funny independent of extenuating circumstances. The role of the pompous, passive-aggressive tough guy who’s both overtly manly and is a master manipulator does play more to Wahlberg’s strengths than any number of straight-ahead action hero roles he’s done. Unfortunately, most of the situations that arise are contrived and the conflicts are overblown. There are set-pieces that are so outlandish they are wont to pull the audience out of the film entirely. It also gets repetitive – Brad does something, Dusty proves he’s far better, then Brad makes a fool of himself trying to beat Dusty. Cardellini’s Sara is the stock level-headed woman who stands in the corner and shakes her head as the guys are busy falling on their faces. It’s also unfortunate that Daddy’s Home trucks out the “all women ever think about is having babies” trope.

            In order to get us more invested in this spectacularly childish “battle of the dads”, the kids could have done with a lot more characterisation. Both Estevez and Vaccaro give somewhat stilted performances, but the writing’s to blame as well – Dylan is picked on and is in need of a strong male role model while Megan is something of a sociopath. They never come across as actual kids. The opening credits unfold over a series of drawings Megan has made of their family, all of which depict unseemly calamities befalling her stepdad. That’s disturbing more than it is funny, and her behaviour doesn’t get explored.

            Daddy’s Home also serves up silly side characters with Thomas Haden Church as Brad’s boss at a smooth jazz radio station and Hannibal Buress as a handyman who believes Brad harbours racist attitudes towards him. After a while, it’s pretty clear that this doesn’t take place in the real world, despite references to The Princess Bride and Frozen. There is some joy to be derived from seeing funny actors commit to over-the-top material and the climactic comic set piece at a school dance cleverly pays off an earlier joke. However, it’s often just too broad and there’s a scene where a fertility doctor played by Bobby Cannavale gives Brad a check-up, which is wholly cringe-worthy and juvenile. While not as egregious an offender as, say, most of Adam Sandler’s recent output, the film also lazily falls back on celebrity cameos for laughs. And yes, there are half-hearted stabs at pathos and everyone will have learnt a valuable lesson or two, so the various near-death experiences Brad endures aren’t in vain.

Summary: While Ferrell and Wahlberg are often funny, Daddy’s Home indulges in too much broad silliness and exaggerated sight gags for us to get invested in this duel of the dads.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, December 30, 2015


For F*** Magazine


Director : Anton Corbijn
Cast : Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, Ben Kingsley, Joel Edgerton, Alessandra Mastronardi
Run Time : 1 hr 52 mins
Opens : 31 December 2015
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scene and Some Nudity)

It can be said that a photo of someone is a sliver of a life frozen in time. It is 1955 and photographer Dennis Stock (Pattinson) of the Magnum Photos Agency is out to create art, tired of the same old set visit and red carpet assignments he has been given by his boss at the agency John G. Morris (Edgerton). At a Hollywood party thrown by director Nicholas Ray (Peter J. Lucas), Stock meets young actor James Dean (DeHaan). Stock quickly identifies Dean as a fascinating potential subject and pitches a photo essay for Life Magazine to Morris. Stock eventually convinces Dean to let him tag along, taking candid un-staged photos around L.A., New York and the farm in Indiana where Dean was raised. Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner (Kingsley) is intent on pushing Dean as the next big thing, but Dean rejects the pageantry involved with presenting himself as a new matinee idol. Stock and Dean gradually go from being photographer and subject to true friends, all while Dean’s status as an icon for the ages is being moulded.

            It seems that garden variety “cradle to the grave” biopics just won’t cut it anymore, and a movie about a real person has to have some kind of hook to stand out from the crowd. Steve Jobs takes place behind the scenes of three key Apple/NeXT product launches, and Life focuses on the relationship between James Dean and Dennis Stock, the photographer who took some of the most iconic photos of the star. Screenwriter Luke Davies had originally intended to pen a traditional biopic about James Dean, but was struck by the photos that Stock took of Dean walking in Times Square and looked into the background of said photos. Director Anton Corbijn is himself a photographer, famed for being U2’s official photographer and the director of many of the band’s music videos. As such, it is easy to see why he was drawn to material, perhaps feeling an affinity with Stock.

            Life proves incredibly frustrating because for a film about a figure who lived fast and died (very) young, it ambles along at the most leisurely of paces. In order to capture the rising star in his most unguarded moments, Stock hung out with Dean and this movie could be titled “Hanging Out with James Dean”. When we hang out with friends, noteworthy occurrences are usually infrequent. In the film, Dean attends an acting class conducted by legendary teacher Lee Strasberg (Nicholas Rice), then goes for drinks with a few classmates and dances. It just so happens that he’s dancing with Eartha Kitt (Kelly McCreary). We glimpse a who’s who of 50s Hollywood luminaries including Elia Kazan (Michael Thierrault), Raymond Massey (John Blackwood) and Natalie Wood (Lauren Gallagher), but all the glitz and glamour is intended to be secondary to the central friendship of Stock and Dean. It’s akin to a kid at Disney World being dragged past Star Tours by his parents and forced to sit through the Hall of Presidents.

            James Dean is hailed as something of a mythic figure idolised by many and casting someone to play a personality whose look and attitude has been influential far after his death must have been an immense challenge. DeHaan might only resemble Dean on a foggy night from 30 feet away but he does make a conscious effort to convey Dean’s brooding intensity. There are moments when the performance comes across as whiny and others when it feels like someone playing dress-up, but one can tell DeHaan’s done his homework. Fellow Harry Osborn James Franco has also played Dean, in a 2001 made-for-TV biopic.

Pattinson has spent most of his post-Twilight career trying to distance himself from the vampire romance franchise and while he’s not a terrible actor, he’s not great either – at least not yet. Pattinson does develop a chemistry with DeHaan and the relationship progresses believably. The film depicts the dissolution of Dean’s romance with Italian starlet Pier Angeli (Mastronardi), though it seems like the film is eager to get her out of the way so the bromance may commence. Kingsley shows up to do some very delicious scene-chewing as Warner, less head honcho and more terrifying overlord of tinsel town.

Life views James Dean through a photographer’s lens, pushing the glitz and glamour out of frame as much as possible. Perhaps through observing Dean, Stock changed and impacted the actor in some way as well. The approach is hit and miss – sometimes, Life’s quiet approach distinguishes it from melodramatic broad strokes biopics but at others, this feels like a boring movie about a fascinating subject, never digging quite deep enough.

Summary: While thoughtfully crafted, there are considerable stretches where Life seems to come to a standstill, the low-key approach working both for and against it.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ip Man 3 (叶问 3)

For F*** Magazine

IP MAN 3  (叶问 3)

Director : Wilson Yip
Cast : Donnie Yen, Zhang Jin, Lynn Hung, Patrick Tam, Mike Tyson, Karena Ng
Genre : Martial-Arts/Drama
Run Time : 1 hr 44 mins
Opens : 24 December 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

After a five year leave of absence from the role, Donnie Yen is back as legendary martial artist Ip Man. It is 1950 and things are going well for Ip Man, who is respected throughout the land, continuing to run his Wing Chun academy. Ip Chun, the son of Ip Man and his wife Cheung Wing-sing (Hung), gets into a schoolyard fight with Cheung Fong. It turns out that Cheung Fong is the son of rickshaw puller Cheung Tin-chi (Zhang), also a Wing Chun practitioner who is making money on the side in illegal fighting matches. Said matches are organised by American property developer Frank (Tyson), a crooked businessman who has the British Hong Kong police captain in his pocket. Local gangster Ma King-sang, working for Frank, terrorises the town, threatening the school that Ip Chun and Cheung Fong attend. As Ip Man’s disciples protect the innocent town folk, he must take on Frank and Cheung Tin-chi to prove his supremacy and safeguard his loved ones.

            Yen was initially reluctant to portray Ip Man a third time, saying of the second film “I believe it's best to end something when it's at perfection, and leave behind a good memory." “Perfection” is a very strong word, Donnie. The sheer number of Ip Man-centric projects that cropped up after the success of the first film were also a factor in turning Yen off returning. Somehow, Ip Man 3 happened anyway, with Yen saying this will close out the series for good. This is a mess, with the feeling that a great deal was changed from what director Wilson Yip intended to shoot. The screenplay by Edmond Wong, Lai-yin Leung and Chan Tai-Li comes across as incredibly choppy and lacking in focus. Sure, the action choreography by Yen, Yuen Shun-Yee and Yuen Woo-Ping is expectedly splendid, but it ultimately needs to be in service of a solid story, which just isn’t the case here.

The initial announcements that Mike Tyson had signed on to play the villain and that Bruce Lee would be resurrected via digital trickery both reeked of unabashed gimmickry. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and Lee is played instead by Danny Chan, who does a fun, if over-the-top impression of the pioneering action star. Chan’s movements are appropriately swift, though his attempt at Lee’s signature cocky grin borders on caricature. Chan previously played Lee in the 2008 biographical TV series The Legend of Bruce Lee. Chan bears an uncanny resemblance to Lee and this reviewer is relieved that this is what we got instead of a disconcerting floating CGI head. While it was originally suggested that director Yip’s objective was for Ip Man 3 to follow the master-disciple relationship between Ip Man and Lee, that’s more a B-plot than anything else.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Tyson is in very little of the film and his is a C-plot. Those looking forward to a showdown along the lines of Rocky vs. Ivan Drago in Rocky IV will come away sorely disappointed. Ip Man doesn’t even meet Frank until more than an hour into the film. Tyson is no actor and looks extremely out of place in Ip Man 3, unable to beat the snatches of Cantonese dialogue he is given into submission. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Ip Man film without a serving of anti-Western sentiment, with a supercilious British police captain also showing up. At one point, Kent Cheng’s Sgt. Po says the line “the two foreign devils are in cahoots!” with nary a sense of irony.

Yen has considerable experience playing Ip Man and his is often considered the definitive portrayal of the master. Ip Man is a combination warrior-sage-saint with no shortcomings to speak of and therefore not terribly interesting, because the filmmakers are too preoccupied with respecting his status to take any risks with the characterisation. Any and all scenes involving Ip Man’s wife Cheung Wing-sing and his son Ip Chun are treacly and cloying. Ip Man also had two sons in real life, but only one shows up. The real-life Ip Chun, now 91, served as the martial arts consultant on this film, as with the two earlier instalments. It is a massive missed opportunity not to have the actual Ip Chun interact with the child version of him in the film in a cameo. Like Yen, Zhang Jin actually is an accomplished martial artist and as such genre aficionados should enjoy seeing the two duke it out. There is a degree of complexity to Zhang’s character, who is an antagonist but not an out-and-out villain, which is appreciated in a film lacking in subtlety.

Audiences have waited a while for the conclusion to Yen’s Ip Man trilogy and this is far from a truly satisfying final chapter. The stunt casting of Tyson isn’t exploited to its full potential and Ip Man taking Bruce Lee under his wing (chun), something which these films have been building up to, is treated like a side-plot. There are superbly-staged kungfu skirmishes aplenty, but it is difficult to recommend the film solely on that basis. Should’ve left it at two, Donnie.

Summary: Dynamic fights cannot rescue this scattershot threequel which closes out the Ip Man trilogy on an underwhelming note.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

For F*** Magazine


Director : J.J. Abrams
Cast : Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Gwendoline Christie. Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Mark Hamill, Max von Sydow
Genre : Sci-Fi/Action
Run Time : 2 hrs 16 mins
Opens : 17 December 2015
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

We’re well aware that this is one of the most pointless reviews we’ll ever publish. You’re all going to see this movie, you want to stay spoiler-free, you don’t want to read on regardless of how much we promise to consciously omit crucial plot details. It doesn’t matter; we’ll be okay. We love you; you know, yadda yadda.

            Still here? Awesome! Okay, so it’s 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi and an evil regime following in the footsteps of the Empire named The First Order has arisen. The astromech droid BB-8 is carrying vital information that Kylo Ren (Driver), a dark warrior who is the tip of the First Order’s spear, is in pursuit of. Scavenger Rey (Ridley), defecting Stormtrooper Finn (Boyega) and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Isaac) are all drawn into the conflict. Our heroes meet up with Han Solo (Ford), Chewbacca (Mayhew), General Leia Organa (Fisher), C-3PO (Daniels) and R2-D2. Leia is the leader of the Resistance against the First Order, who are developing a deadly superweapon in the form of Starkiller Base. General Hux (Gleeson), the leader of the base, is itching to unleash its power. Secrets will be uncovered and destinies will be fulfilled as good rises against evil in the grand Star Wars tradition. 

            The very microsecond this new Star Wars film was announced, expectations and hype began building, reaching critical mass over the last few months. Even in this age of mega-blockbusters, few movies have arrived bearing such an enormous burden, with so much to live up to and so much to atone for. Ideally, The Force Awakens should sweep the audience up, taking them along for the ride, making them look beyond the labour that has gone into its conception and execution. In this regard, the film is largely successful. Director J.J. Abrams has strived to recapture the magic of the original trilogy, and its essence has been preserved. Where the prequel films belied a preoccupation with gee-whiz technology over compelling storytelling or genuine thrills, The Force Awakens possesses a crucial forward momentum, a genuine emotional core and a welcome humanity.

Abrams is fully cognisant of the honour bestowed upon him, yet this doesn’t feel like a film made by a director who is scared. The Force Awakens is very respectful of the venerated original trilogy and if anything, sometimes echoes A New Hope and bits of The Empire Strikes Back too strongly. There are many scenes that mirror ones from those earlier films almost beat for beat, but the exuberant energy that permeates The Force Awakens helps to keep it from feeling too slavish. Where the prequels were criticised for often jarringly stilted dialogue, the screenplay by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt absolutely works. Han and Leia sound like we remember them, the nods to iconic lines are just obvious enough and there’s a wit and tonal assurance with the humour that comfortably eases the audience back into that wonderful original trilogy mode. Hearing those John Williams motifs again, plus new music from the master composer, brought the chills on big time for this reviewer.   

Just as it is with the story, there must have been multiple considerations to bear in mind with regards to the design. It’s got to be close to what we remember, what we love, but not too close. There is a satisfying tactility to The Force Awakens and Abrams’ decision to favour practical in-camera approaches to the effects work whenever possible does pay off. Elaborate animatronics, guys in suits, special effects makeup, that’s the good stuff. The digitally-rendered characters portrayed by Lupita Nyong’o and Andy Serkis via performance capture do not stick out as jar(jar)ringly as some of the characters in the prequels did.

The spherical astromech droid BB-8 is a true triumph of design, becoming an iconic character even before the film’s release because of how cleverly it’s been conceived. BB-8 was an actual physical prop on set, and the dynamism in its movement and how much expression the droid can convey via beeps and whistles and a slight tilt of its head does feel authentically Star Wars-y. Since most of the ships riff on established designs, we don’t get any particularly inventive spacecraft, but that’s fine because everything just looks so good. The action sequences are kinetic but easy to follow and a chase scene between the Millennium Falcon and a TIE Fighter squadron in the planet Jakku’s atmosphere is one of the most gripping of the entire series.

There was a simplicity and purity about Star Wars that made it so easy to get into, before the cinematic universe expanded to a daunting, intricate extent. The new characters introduced are archetypes through and through, but that doesn’t mean they’re boring ciphers. Ridley’s Rey is a resourceful, capable female lead and it’s to the relative newcomer’s credit that her performance doesn’t yell “look at me, I’m a resourceful, capable female lead!” every other second. Her hardscrabble existence and dusty home planet remind us of Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, but she comes into her own at a quicker pace. As the Stormtrooper who decides he no longer wants to be in service of the bad guys, Boyega has a likeability about him and displays some excellent comic timing. Isaac has often been cast in villainous roles, but he wears the part of the old-fashioned swashbuckling hero well, relishing the chance to yell “woo-hoo!” as his X-Wing swoops out of the sky.

Seeing Ford reprise the role of that loveable scoundrel and seeing him do so with such willingness and conviction is an almost unspeakable joy. This is exactly the same Han Solo we know and love, with all the smirking and wisecracks feeling entirely appropriate. At the same time, there is a sweetness, sincerity and maturity in his interactions with Leia that is actually touching. Fisher brings a dignity and a quietly commanding presence to General Leia and seeing the pair back on the screen does feel like a big warm hug. Chewbacca is on hand to provide actual big warm hugs, too. Where is Luke Skywalker (Hamill)? We’re not going to answer that!

            In the villains’ camp, Driver’s Kylo Ren has been shrouded in mystery, his true nature a closely guarded secret. There is the danger that he comes off as an ersatz Darth Vader, but this is somewhat justified in that Ren feels it is his duty to fulfil Vader’s legacy. There is a petulance to Driver’s portrayal of the character that sometimes veers dangerously close to Hayden Christensen’s pouty temper tantrums, but one can tell that there’s more going on beneath the surface with Ren. As General Hux, Gleeson does a lot of supercilious sneering and it harks back to Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin in the most wonderful way. Christie’s Captain Phasma is a visually striking right-hand woman, but the character doesn’t have too much to do. Similarly, Indonesian martial artists/actors Yayan Ruhian, Iko Uwais and Cecep Arif Rahman make only the briefest appearance as members of the criminal Kanjiklub Gang. There are many characters to juggle as it is, but the film’s woeful underuse of Max von Sydow in particular is a shame.

            This is Star Wars in the same great original flavour we know and love. While there’s some rehashing going on, there are just enough new moves to keep audiences on their toes, while reminding them of what made those original three movies so spellbinding. This being the starting point for a new trilogy, there are plot threads that remain unresolved and there are tantalising hints of what’s to come in the sequel. While perhaps not 100% satisfying, Abrams has crafted a movie that is truly worthy of the name “Star Wars”. There are bound to be audiences this won’t please, but for this reviewer at least, The Force Awakens is quality entertainment.

Summary: The story beats and character types are familiar, but in embodying the soaring adventure and heartfelt simplicity that made the original trilogy so great, The Force Awakens is worth the agonising wait.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Jedi Jedi Abrams

For Issue #71/72 of F*** Magazine



F*** tracks the career of the man chosen to reawaken the Force
By Jedd Jong

Getting the gig to direct the first Star Wars film in ten years is at once an incredible honour and a daunting, Herculean task. After all, we’re talking about one of the most beloved, iconic film franchises in history, and one with a massive, passionate fanbase. Said fans have been burned before – once bitten, twice shy and all that. The man taking the Starfighter controls behind the scenes of Episode VII just so happens to be a huge self-confessed Star Wars fan himself. This is the voyage that the writer/director/producer embarked on which led him to that fabled galaxy far, far away.

Jeffrey Jacob "J.J." Abrams was born in 1966 to TV producers Gerald W. Abrams and Carol Ann Abrams. This would make him 11 when the original Star Wars film was released. “11 is a great age to have your mind blown,” Abrams said at the Star Wars Celebration convention in Anaheim earlier this year. “I will never forget that feeling of seeing ‘Long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away’ fade out. It was the first time a movie made me believe in another world that way.” He recalled that the title ‘Star Wars’ struck him as an odd one when he first came across it in the classic sci-fi culture magazine Starlog. He saw the movie on opening day, and left the theatre “never being the same again”.

At age 13, Abrams’ grandfather gave him a Super 8 camera which he used to create his own homemade movies. “I would take anyone who was available — my sister, my mother, any friends — and I would kill them in crazy ways," he told NPR’s Fresh Air program. As a teenager, Abrams entered a short film of his into a festival showcasing Super 8mm movies made by kids. Other contestants included Matt Reeves, who would go on to direct Cloverfield and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, as well as Larry Fong, who would become the cinematographer for 300 and Watchmen. Steven Spielberg read an article titled The Beardless Wonders of Film Making in the Los Angeles Times and hired Abrams and Reeves to restore and edit his own childhood 8 mm films. A couple of years later, a 16-year-old Abrams composed the music for Don Dohler’s low-budget sci-fi horror movie Nightbeast. This was the beginning of a very promising career.

Abrams had planned to enrol in a film school, but attended Sarah Lawrence college instead. The advice given to him by his father was that “it’s more important you learn what to make movies about, than how to make movies.” In his senior year, Abrams co-wrote a feature film treatment with Jill Mazursky that became the 1990 movie Taking Care of Business, starring Charles Grodin and Jim Belushi. Abrams and Mazursky also wrote the comedy Gone Fishin’, starring Danny Glover and Joe Pesci. In between those two films, Abrams wrote the amnesia drama Regarding Henry, starring none other than Han Solo himself, Harrison Ford, and the sci-fi romance Forever Young, starring Mel Gibson. Abrams was one of four credited writers on Michael Bay’s sci-fi action film Armageddon.

In 1998, Abrams and Reeves created the TV series Felicity, starring Keri Russell and set at a fictional New York university. "I miss writing for a show that doesn't have any sort of odd, almost sci-fi bend to it," he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2012, noting the difficulty inherent in devising stories for a show without a villain or high-stakes intrigue. Abrams co-founded the production company Bad Robot with Bryan Burk, and created the spy action show Alias in 2001. Now, here was a show that was wall-to-wall high-stakes intrigue. On Sydney Bristow, portrayed by Jennifer Garner, Abrams said "She was a character with a secret, and that is always a fun place to start. But she wasn't a superhero; she was terrified at almost every step. But still, she would do the right thing. I think we would all like to believe we would behave like that when the going gets rough."

In 2002, Abrams wrote the screenplay for Superman: Flyby, a project that eventually failed to materialise. Abrams’ script contained many deviations from established Superman lore, including a Kryptonian civil war between Jor-El and his evil brother Katar-Zor, Krypton remaining intact and Lex Luthor as a UFO-obsessed CIA operative who is revealed to be have been a Kryptonian sleeper agent all along. The leaking of this script played a large part in Abrams’ desire to keep as tight a lid as possible on later projects. “To have a script that is nowhere near the latest draft, let alone the final draft, being reviewed online, it frankly made me a little bit paranoid,” Abrams told NPR. “There are certain things that are, I think, important to keep quiet." He further explained that “it's not a Machiavellian sort of thing”, but that the secrecy stems from a desire for “people to have a good time and to have a little bit of a surprising time.”

2004 saw the premiere of Lost, which Abrams co-created with Jeffrey Lieber and Damon Lindelof for ABC. The network thought that Alias was too serialised in its storytelling, and Lindelof and Abrams promised the network that the show would be self-contained, with no ‘ultimate mystery’ to be solved. This might well be one of the great ruses in TV development history, as Lost was all about ‘ultimate mystery’, the show and its complex mythology soon becoming a pop culture phenomenon. Busy with other projects, Abrams left the show in the hands of Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, though it is a common misconception that he was involved throughout Lost’s six season run.

To return to the topic of secrecy, Abrams explained the appeal he finds in this practice in a TED Talk in 2007. During the presentation, he brought out a “magic mystery box” that he bought 35 years ago from a magic shop and which he refused to open. “It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential,” he declared. “What I love about this box — and what I realized I sort of do, in whatever it is that I do — is I find myself drawn to infinite possibility and that sense of potential. And I realise that mystery is the catalyst for imagination...What are stories besides mystery boxes?"

Abrams’ first feature film directing job was 2006’s Mission: Impossible III, starring Tom Cruise. In an interview with IGN, Abrams said he was able to create elaborate set-pieces, the likes of which he would love to have done on Alias but “we could never in a million years afford.” Mission: Impossible III proved that Abrams could handle explosive spectacle with sequences like an ambush on a bridge, a helicopter chase, the IMF team breaking into the Vatican and a heart-stopping leap off a Shanghai skyscraper. Abrams also set out to “see who these characters were as people not just as spies,” showing Ethan Hunt’s home life and his relationship with his wife. Abrams would take a stab at the spy genre again with the 2010 show Undercovers, which was cancelled after a season.

In 2008, Cloverfield, which was produced by Abrams and directed by Reeves, was released. The found-footage monster movie was promoted using a viral marketing campaign that captured the curiousity of many moviegoers. Abrams said the seeds of the project were sown when he was in Japan to promote Mission: Impossible III and was visiting toy stores there with his son. "We saw all these Godzilla toys, and I thought, we need our own American monster, and not like King Kong,” Abrams said at Comic-Con in 2007. “I love King Kong. King Kong is adorable. And Godzilla is a charming monster. We love Godzilla. But I wanted something that was just insane and intense."

Later in 2008, the sci-fi procedural television series Fringe premiered. Abrams co-created Fringe with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, citing The X-Files and The Twilight Zone as inspirations. Abram’s favourite TV series is The X-Files, and there is a large collection of memorabilia from the show on display at his Bad Robot offices. The show’s overarching mythology involves the presence of a parallel universe, similar in some respects to the “mirror universe” of Star Trek.

Speaking of which, Abrams directed the 2009 Star Trek reboot in what is likely his most high-profile feature film directing gig prior to The Force Awakens. Co-writer Kurtzman said "I always think of it as, Star Trek is beautiful classical music and Star Wars is rock 'n' roll, and it felt like Star Trek needed a little more rock 'n' roll to connect to a modern audience.” Abrams certainly brought the rock ‘n’ roll with a kinetic, exciting and action-packed take on Star Trek, which alienated some stalwarts of the original series but which opened what had become a slightly stodgy franchise to audiences at large.

Abrams has been upfront about being far more of a Star Wars fan than a Star Trek one. "I was never really a fan of Star Trek to begin with but the idea of working on something that is not necessarily your favourite thing can actually help, because it forces you to engage with it in a way an outsider can appreciate,” Abrams told The Sunday Times. “My love of Star Wars, the energy of it and sort of the comedy and rhythm of it I think affected Star Trek,” he said in a separate interview with PBS. Naturally, there were many ardent Trekkers who weren’t on board with this new take on the material and they felt further maligned with the sequel Star Trek Into Darkness, but both films received an overall positive critical reception. While Justin Lin is taking over the director’s seat for Star Trek Beyond, Abrams is remaining as a producer.

Beyond his early screenplays, Abrams has dabbled in comedy, directing an episode of The Office and starring in the musical sketch Cool Guys Don’t Look At Explosions alongside Will Ferrell and Andy Samberg. Abrams also got to perform a rockin’ keyboard solo in the video which spoofed the “unflinching walk” cliché seen in many an action movie.

Abrams was contemplating two ideas for an original movie: a coming-of-age movie about a group of kids making their own movie, drawing on his childhood love of film, and a thriller about the Air Force transporting an alien creature to a secret facility, with said creature naturally escaping. He combined both these ideas into Super 8, which was an unabashed love letter to his childhood idol Spielberg. Things came full circle in a way, from Abrams editing Spielberg’s Super 8 home movies to having Spielberg produce a film about the Super 8 movement in the late 70s-early 80s. Abrams told The Guardian that he loved how Spielberg’s films carried “a sense of unlimited possibility,” but that way lay around the corner “could be terrifying, it could be confusing, it could be disturbing, or it could be wonderful and funny and transportive."

Interestingly enough, it was super-producer Kathleen Kennedy, now the head of Lucasfilm, who suggested to Spielberg that he should hire the then-teenaged Abrams and Reeves to restore and edit his home movies. “We followed J.J.’s career, so when he committed to Star Wars, it was this kind of fantastic coincidence of fate, I guess—preordained destiny or something,” she said. Abrams was handpicked by Star Wars creator George Lucas over directors including David Fincher, Brad Bird and Guillermo del Toro.

In 2008, Lucas told Total Film that he’s “left pretty explicit instructions for there not to be any more features. There will definitely be no Episodes VIIIX." In 2012, after the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney, Lucas said “I always said I wasn't going to do any more, and that's true, because I'm not going to do any more. But that doesn't mean I'm unwilling to turn it over to Kathy [Kennedy] to do more."

As a mega-fan taking the reins of a storied, long-lived franchise, there is the danger of being self-indulgent. Abrams addressed this in a Vanity Fair interview, saying he resisted the temptation to make The Force Awakens “meta-Star Wars” as that would be “an ironic approach, which feels anti–Star Wars,” saying he was focused instead on “inheriting and embracing the elements of Star Wars that are the tenets of what is so powerful.”

Like all Star Wars fans, Abrams was enamoured of the iconic John Williams score. In the era before home video was readily available, the biggest piece of the movie Abrams could take home was the soundtrack, which he would often buy before the movie was even released. “I would lie on the floor in my room with my headphones on listening to the soundtracks which would essentially tell me the story of the movie that I didn’t know,” he said. For Abrams, the most surreal moment in the making of the film was getting to meet the legendary composer. “I can’t describe the feeling. All I will say is, just to state the facts of it: I am about to show John Williams 30 minutes of a Star Wars movie that he has not seen that I directed.”

While Abrams won’t be sticking around to direct Episodes VIII and IX, which are being helmed by Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow respectively, there is no doubt that The Force Awakens will shape the franchise in a monumental way. “I do feel like there’s a little bit more of a burden on [co-writer] Larry [Kasdan] and me to come up with a story that could at least be the beginning of what transpires over three films,” Abrams told Wired. The framework has already been planned, the foundation for the new trilogy been laid, and, according to Abrams, Episode VIII has already been written.

As Yoda said in Empire Strikes Back, “always in motion is the future.” Abrams has set a course for the future of the Star Wars franchise and there’s no stopping the jump to hyperspace now. 

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

The Peanuts Movie

For F*** Magazine


Director : Steve Martino
Cast : Noah Schnapp, Bill Melendez, Hadley Belle Miller, Alex Garfin, Noah Johnston, Francesca Angelucci Capaldi, Venus Omega Schultheis, Mariel Sheets, Kristin Chenoweth
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 93 mins
Opens : 10 December 2015
Rating : G

            It’s the great comeback movie, Charlie Brown! The Peanuts gang last graced the big screen in 1980’s Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don't Come Back!!), and in defiance of that title, Charlie Brown and friends are back indeed. Charlie Brown (Schnapp) has had a streak of bad luck, which he hopes to turn around when a new girl arrives in town. The Little Red-Haired Girl (Capaldi) quickly becomes the object of Charlie Brown’s affections, and he goes about attempting to win her heart. In the meantime, Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy (Melendez) finds a typewriter in a dumpster and begins writing a novel about his alter-ego, the World War I Flying Ace, who battles the Red Baron and falls for the poodle pilot Fifi (Chenoweth).

            The long-running Peanuts comic strip, created by Charles M. Schulz and running from 1950 to 2000, has occupied a beloved place in the American pop culture consciousness. Naturally, many were nervous as to how a computer-animated feature film would fare, given the resolute old-fashioned nature of the strips and related media. Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan co-wrote the screenplay with Cornelius Uliano, ensuring that the film honours the family legacy. Director Steve Martino, who helmed earlier Blue Sky Animation projects Horton Hears a Who! and Ice Age: Continental Drift, retains the mood of the classic animated TV specials by sticking closely to the established designs of the characters. Their herky-jerky movement is an effective way of keeping the film from feeling too slick and modern, while little touches such as the subtle felt-like texture of Snoopy’s fur add just enough detail.

            The aesthetics and wholesome feel of the strip have been preserved, with the film carrying nary and hint of big studio interference about it beyond the inclusion of a Meghan Trainor song. However, there’s very little here that’s capable of sustaining a feature film, even one that’s 93 minutes long. The Peanuts strips were never really rife with incident, but even then, the plot often feels too insubstantial. The most exciting moments of the film are the fantasy sequences in which Snoopy is a fighter pilot during World War I, harking back to the comic strip. These scenes feel superfluous and come off as little more than an attempt to pad things out. The personalities of all the characters do stick very close to those as established in the comic strip, but it seems like there’s a lot more room for a greater breadth of interaction between the various members of the Peanuts gang. As it stands, the movie possesses insufficient narrative drive.

            Another way in which the film sets itself apart from the bulk of Hollywood animated movies is that it doesn’t boast a cast packed with marquee names. All the kids are actually voiced by child actors, Schnapp in particular capturing the underdog melancholy so crucial to Charlie Brown’s enduring appeal. The late Bill Melendez, an animation icon who directed multiple Peanuts TV specials and films in addition to voicing Woodstock and Snoopy, voices the characters posthumously via archival recordings. Kristin Chenoweth is arguably the biggest name in the cast, providing the high-pitched yelps of Snoopy’s fantasy love interest Fifi. The film also preserves the tradition of having the voices of any adult characters, none of whom appear onscreen, be rendered as indistinct “wah-wah” sounds, created by jazz trombonist Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews.

            The animation in The Peanuts Movie hits the sweet spot and the film as a whole earnestly echoes a simpler, bygone era, which might be enough for some kids and their nostalgic parents or grandparents. However, this reviewer was left wanting more from the film. “Hollow” isn’t the right word, since it sounds so mean, and the film’s simplicity can be very charming indeed, but there’s just too little here to carry a feature film. If Vince Guaraldi’s classic piano piece Linus and Lucy, wonderfully incorporated into Christophe Beck’s socre, instantly gives you the warm and fuzzies, then The Peanuts Movie should pass muster.

Summary: While it’s an adequate way to introduce the Peanuts gang to a whole new generation of kids, the story is too flimsy a foundation on which to build a feature film.  

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars