Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Movie Review                                                                                                             9/8/10

Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Directed by: Phillip Noyce
Released by: Columbia Pictures

Two groups of people think the Cold War is not over: conspiracy theorists and Hollywood. The Cold War provided a wealth of tales for filmmakers to spin, and the latest in this line is Salt, which uses the popular Cold War myth of Russian sleeper agents brainwashed as children and implanted in the United States, waiting to strike.

            The film opens with CIA operative Evelyn Salt (Jolie) being tortured in a North Korean prison. Her boyfriend Mike Krause (August Diehl) cooperates with the CIA to negotiate her release through a prisoner exchange.

            Two years later, Salt is happily married to Krause and is planning their anniversary celebration. In walks Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski), a supposed Russian defector and former power player in the Soviet government. He offers Salt the information that a sleeper agent of the former Soviet state will assassinate the current Russian president, Boris Matveyev (Olek Krupa), at the funeral of the American vice-president.

The problem? Orlov states that the agent is Salt herself.

Ted Winter (Schreiber), Salt’s friend and colleague at the CIA is sceptical about Salt really being a Russian spy. However, Peabody (Ejiofor), another fellow agent, is certain that Salt’s allegiance lies with the Soviet Union and that she will kick-start a war between the US and Russia with the murder of the Russian President. The two form an uneasy alliance hunting down the woman they thought was their ally.

This sends a desperate Salt on the run, jumping off the tops of vehicles, hanging off the ledges of apartment buildings, knocking people out with spider venom, crawling through the sewers of New York and so on, leading to a climax in the Presidential bunker beneath the White House.

In many ways, Salt is a textbook spy action-thriller, but unlike most textbooks, is one I would not mind reading again. Director Noyce is a master of the genre, having helmed Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger, both starring Harrison Ford.

However, much unlike those films, Salt borders on the fantastical and owes its existence more to other spy franchises than Tom Clancy novels. For example, the North Korean sequence is straight out of Die Another Day, and at one point Orlov uses a shoe with a hidden switchblade as a weapon, ala Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. Salt on the run from her superiors and coming to terms with her true identity, whatever it may be, is reminiscent of the Jason Bourne films, and Salt’s disguises-including dyeing her hair from blonde to black-brings to mind the television series Alias, starring Jennifer Garner.

What sets the film apart from scores of similar movies is its star, Angelina Jolie. The film was originally written for a male lead, with Tom Cruise attached to it at one point, but this reviewer is glad that Jolie got the part in the end. Cruise was right when he said the role was too similar to that from his Mission: Impossible movies.

The audience is meant to doubt where Salt’s loyalties lie at times, but they never stop rooting for her. It is also great to see Jolie back in her element kicking butt, like she did as action girls in fan-favourites Wanted and the Tomb Raider films. Especially impressive is that most of the stunts were performed by the actress herself. Jumping off a bridge onto a moving semi-truck probably wasn’t one of them, though.

The supporting cast is more than decent. Schreiber does a good job as someone who appears truly sympathetic of Salt’s plight and ready to defend his friend. Because Ejiofor’s character spends most of the film hunting down our hero though, his character is more unlikeable. He even punches Salt at one point.

Orbrychski oozes untrustworthiness as designated villain Orlov, playing the stereotype of the Russian general to a T without overly hamming it up. Diehl is also good as the nice guy husband, in a reversal of roles from that of typical spy films. However, Hunt Block as the US President has only one expression, that of wide-eyed shock and confusion, and is never really believable as the leader of the free world.

The action sequences in Salt keep the film at a brisk pace. While it’s nothing we haven’t seen before, it does stretch the imagination. Salt appears to be made out of a much harder rock than her namesake, bouncing off vans and trucks and jumping down elevator shafts. Evelyn Salt is a veritable one-woman Special Forces unit, but that is arguably part of the fun.

Mention must also be given to the score by James Newton-Howard, which is perfect action movie music, complete with rhythmic percussion, stirring strings and blaring horns. It manages to be kinetic at times and ominous at others.

Unfortunately, the movie is weighed down by an ending that is utterly preposterous and implausible, even in another universe and one that will have everyone going “what the hell?!” However, I’ll admit it was really hard to see the twist coming.

Salt is definitely watchable, but it rarely rises above being just that. The movie has no edge, no distinction other than Jolie. Still, you could do far, far worse this summer if you need to kill a couple of hours at the Cineplex. In the end, it’s fun and, after all, a little salt goes a long way to make a bland meal delicious.


By Jedd Jong Yue

Sunday, November 28, 2010

X Men Origins: Wolverine

So here's more of the older stuff I've written.

Movie Review                                                                                                                                 18/5/09


Starring: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston
Directed by: Gavin Hood
Released by: 20th Century Fox

            The X-Men film series began in 2000, paving the way for almost all of the superhero films this past decade. Now, the franchise is expanding with “origin” movies that endeavour to explore the individuals among the myriad of X-Men out there. After Brett Ratner’s noisy, empty and pointlessly-violent X Men: The Last Stand, I’m afraid to say that this half-baked prequel/spinoff does not fare so much better.

            As the title suggests, the focus of the film is the angsty, fan-favourite anti-hero Wolverine (Jackman). The film opens in 1845, where the sickly James Howlett (Troye Sivan) experiences a family tragedy and escapes with his half-brother Victor (Michael-James Olson). It is quickly revealed that both possess unusual powers, especially the sickly and weak James who actually has retractable claws made of bone. Also, both are practically immortal, as the opening credits sequence of the brothers charging in battle through five different major wars establishes.

            In the aftermath of an incident in which Victor goes violently overboard and James (now Logan) defends him, they are approached by Major William Stryker (Huston) who recruits them into a “special” team. The mutants who make up Team X include wise-cracking assassin Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), teleporting John Wraith (Will.i.am.) lethal marksman Agent Zero (Daniel Henney), electricity-controlling technopath Bradley (Dominic Monaghan) and the indestructible Fred Dukes (Kevin Durand). Led by Stryker, they go on their first mission together in Nigeria and Logan splits when things go awry.

            Years later, Logan appears to be enjoying an idyllic new life as a lumberjack in the Canadian Rockies, living with his girlfriend Kayla Silverfox (Lynn Collins). Victor, now going by the moniker Sabretooth, abruptly re-enters Logan’s life when he apparently kills Kayla, driving Logan to take revenge. He agrees to cooperate with Stryker, who is serving his own evil agenda, and has his skeleton bonded with the super-alloy Adamantium (as all self-respecting comic book fans would remember). Post-op Logan (who now calls himself Wolverine) escapes Stryker’s Alkali Lake facility and Agent Zero is sent to track him down. Meanwhile, Logan is dedicated to tracking down Victor which leads to several brutal encounters between the two. Their former teammates also get caught up in the conflict.

            Logan slowly uncovers Stryker’s plan to capture and conduct military experiments on mutants, and seeks the help of the telekinetic Remy LeBeau /Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) to take him to Stryker’s base of operations, where the climatic showdown between Wolverine, Sabretooth and a surprise villain Stryker has been working on takes place, as the captured mutants flee and are rescued by a familiar face.

            Now, despite much hype and circumstance, Wolverine is almost a complete letdown. The movie seems dutiful but almost reluctant to tell the Origin story, and too many superficial attempts are made to appeal to the fans – even a surprising cameo at the film’s conclusion does little to help this predicament. It seems to be perpetually stuck in a no-man’s-land sort of quality level, being almost the definition of average in parts. After a while, the film stops struggling to reach high ground and slumps towards a climax that is only moderately enjoyable.
            In terms of story, the Oedipal conflict between Wolverine and his half-brother Sabretooth seems more rote than epic and despite being played out with enough gravitas by the two leads, is weak and severely under-developed. Wolverine’s personal vendetta against his half-brother seems to be the poorly-made adhesive struggling desperately to bond too many other subplots.

            The screenplay by David Benioff and Skip Woods is clunky at best, and it seems that the apple has fallen far from the tree in that the first two X-Men films directed by Bryan Singer dealt with big themes while delivering the action goods, while this movie only somewhat achieves the latter. Writers such as David Hayter and Tom DeSanto were able to do far more in those movies than this prequel ever will achieve. Academy-Award winning director Gavin Hood, who got his Oscar for the South-African 2005 film Tsotsi, is also not the right director for this film. His direction brings to mind Marc Forster’s work for the recent Bond outing Quantum of Solace. Both directors have more of a dramatic background and struggled significantly with their big-budget blockbuster-type films. Hood tries but fails miserably to insert pathos into the action proceedings; the romantic scenes between Logan and Kayla are painful to watch, for one. Ultimately, Hood seems to be no more than Hugh Jackman’s errand boy, doling out a generic actioner for the star.

            This leads us on to the undeniable point that X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a Hugh Jackman vehicle. He is okay, but only okay, as the titular character. We’ve all come to accept him as the definitive screen Wolverine since the first X-Men picture, but he does little more than in the three main films that went before, which is a big part of why this flick disappoints. Soon enough into the film, a slight odour of the “vanity project” kind wafts unpleasantly from the screen – it seems as if Jackman desperately wants to be the centre of attention, even at the expense of the movie’s overall quality.

            Liev Schreiber is very good as Sabretooth, definitely a notch or so up from former-pro-wrestler Tyler Mane’s barely articulate beast in the first X-Men film. The Shakespeare-trained actor excels in sparring, both physically and verbally, with his half-brother, and these battles make for the best moments of the film. However, Schreiber is given fairly little wiggle room by the restricting screenplay. He tries to make the most of it, but even that barely suffices. Even the usually-great Danny Huston struggles to step up to the plate as William Stryker. Granted, Brian Cox left a tough act to follow as the older Stryker is X2: X Men United, in which he emanated quiet menace very effortlessly and could stand up to Patrick Stewart and even Ian McKellen when he shared the screen with them. Here however, Huston appears to simply go through the motions, like most everyone else.

            As for the rest of the cast, the filmmakers have a host of great characters at their disposal, many surefire fan-favourites straight from the comics, but do little with any of them. These incarnations are relatively faithful to the comic book source material and it is evident that most of the actors are having fun with this movie. However, this ensemble is a truly very mixed bag – first time actor Will.i.am (more famous as the frontman of the Black-Eyed Peas) is painfully stiff as John Wraith but Taylor Kitsch is suave and even a tad dangerous as Gambit. Unfortunately, without giving too much away, the filmmakers end up doing the unforgivable to a promising character and just about ruin the last act of the movie.

            X-Men Origins: Wolverine is far from this year’s The Dark Knight; in fact it is not even the equivalent of The Incredible Hulk, which was at least a little engaging. Not once does one get sucked into or immersed in the world that this movie tries to create. To be fair, there are many action sequences and whatnot that are plenty of fun, but they stop at being just that. “Plot twists” seem predictable and inconsequential and even the computer-generated effects of this film look barely as convincing as those of its predecessor X-Men films. After a while, it seems that mutants are being pulled out of a sack and flung onto the screen in the hope of placating restless moviegoers, which is a prime example of how not to go about an X-Men film. One would think that the Wolverine character’s mythos would make for ripe material and a most excellent film – apparently, not so. X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a mediocre effort that is watchable only at its best.


Jedd Jong


Thursday, November 25, 2010

Jedd plays the movies

Here are some of my horrifically amateur attempts at playing movie music on the violin. Enjoy (or at least try to!)

Just Around the Riverbend from Pocahontas

Kiss the Girl from The Little Mermaid

You Only Live Twice

If I Never Knew You from Pocahontas

Accidentally In Love from Shrek 2

Thanks for having a look, and visit your local hearing specialist to deal with the damage caused.

Tangled/Rapunzel: A Tangled Tale

Movie Review                                                                                                             25/11/10

Starring the voices of: Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy
Directed by: Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
Walt Disney Pictures

               Any child of the 80s/90s will probably remember the films from the Disney Renaissance, and chances are one or more of them would’ve shaped their childhood or influenced them in one way or another. In 2007, Disney’s Enchanted proved that there was life yet in the fairy-tale-based Disney animated movie. 2009 saw The Princess and the Frog, and now we have Tangled/Rapunzel/Rapunzel: A Tangled Tale (more on the naming debacle later).

            Drawing inspiration from the classic tale by the Brothers Grimm, Tangled tells the story of Rapunzel (Moore), a princess who was stolen away and locked in a tower by Mother Gothel (Murphy) a woman obsessed with the magical powers possessed by the young girl’s hair. Rapunzel’s hair can heal and rejuvenate when a magical incantation is sung, in effect a fountain of youth made of keratin.

            Enter the swashbuckling Flynn Rider, a debonair thief who has stolen a crown from the palace, and while evading capture hides out in Rapunzel’s tower. Keeping an eye out for Mother Gothel, Rapunzel promises Flynn that she’ll let him keep the crown in exchange for taking her out of the tower to see the lanterns that are released into the night sky once a year, to commemorate the lost princess’ birthday.

            Throw animal sidekicks, thugs, ruffians, palace guards and musical numbers into the mix and there you have Tangled.

            I was determined to watch the film with a critic’s eye. News of the development of the film seemed to be one upset after another. For one, there was the renaming: the corporate executives at Disney seemed to think the title Rapunzel would scare off young boys, and instead chose to focus on the male lead Flynn, and renamed the film Tangled. Here in Singapore and in Malaysia, the film is screened as Rapunzel: A Tangled Tale.

Then, there was the revelation that instead of a 2D cel-shaded animated film, Tangled would be made with CGI animation. Was The Princess and the Frog really that bad?  

            However, it seems that somewhere in the middle of the 90s, the folks at the House of Mouse had taken some of that winning Disney Renaissance magic and bottled it. It resurfaces here, albeit a little diluted. Still, this is six parts Disney magic, one part water, and that’s really alright.

            Making the film using 3D computer animation also had its benefits: Tangled is gorgeous to look at, combining the look of a Pixar animated film with that of a traditionally-animated Disney picture to good effect. Of course, the star here is Rapunzel’s hair. The long, long locks look amazing and possess fairly realistic weight and movement. Atmospheric elements such as water and fog turned out lovely as well, and the lantern sequence is truly awe-inspiring, especially when given the Disney Digital 3D process. Sweeping panoramic shots and some nice action scenes also add to the it-looks-wonderful factor of the film.

            This is a full-fledged musical, featuring the music of Alan Menken with lyrics by Glenn Slater. It’s a bit of a pity then that the songs and score sound fairly generic and, god forbid, bland, as opposed to the stirring music from such films as The Little Mermaid and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Also, Glenn Slater’s fairly uninspired lyrics fall dramatically short of the standard set by Stephen Schwartz, Tim Rice and earlier the late Howard Ashman. Still, the big love duet is a pleasant-sounding number.

            The story has been deftly adapted from the source material by the Brothers Grimm. Embellishments such as the chameleon Pascal and the palace horse Maximus (thank goodness they don’t talk – my favourite animal sidekicks never actually talk) and Flynn himself are worked into the story decently and don’t feel shoehorned in.

Disney seemed to be stuck with a formula of the “rebellious princess” for a while – but here, when Rapunzel is taken from her royal family, locked away in a tower and oppressed by a nasty woman – there seems plenty reason to rebel. Flynn is also a great leading man character: elements of Phoebus from Hunchback and especially Prince Edward from Enchanted are readily evident in the gung-ho, slightly vain, scoundrel-with-a-heart-of-gold Flynn.

Mother Gothel is also a fairly serviceable Disney villainess, with bits of Lady Tremaine from Cinderella, Ursula the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid and even Claude Frollo from Hunchback (the way she warns of the cruelty of the outside world and locks her charge in a tower) plain to see.

The voice acting in the film is actually one of the highlights. Zachary Levi is a revelation as an excellent, excellent voice actor. TV’s Chuck imbues Flynn with a roguish charm and likeability, and does his own singing to boot. Mandy Moore puts across the naiveté  and earnestness of the princess very well, and as a singer by trade she handles the songs well too. Donna Murphy’s voice drips with a dangerous silkiness that every self-respecting Disney villainess should possess.

This is far from the best the studio has produced, but still I laughed, I cried and I cheered. The enchantment that leapt off the screen melted away some of the scepticism, and it’s hard to deny that even when tarnished by meddling executives, this film still has its fair share of magical moments.


Jedd Jong Yue

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Movie Review                                                                                                                                 12/6/08


Starring: Harrison Ford, Cate Blanchett, Shia LaBeouf and Karen Allen
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Paramount Pictures
Piles of rejected scripts, downtrodden writers, and several shrouds of secrecy later, one of the longest-awaited returns of an icon arrives onscreen.

And no, I’m not talking about Superman Returns, but rather the fourth of the well-beloved contemporary classic series, so famous for its old-fashioned action-adventure and humour, and of course, Harrison Ford’s career-defining role. Fans and cynics crowded around the rumours of a fourth film like oversized army ants to any conceivable prey.

That aside, I finally caught the film in a tiny theatre and tried to forget all the criticism, deciding to just go in expecting a good time. It was loads of fun: I was cheering, laughing and clapping all the way. That said, I was the only one in the theatre doing so.

I’ll get on to the plot, then. Ironically, the story that creators Jeff Nathanson, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg tried so hard to protect got leaked out all the easier, with much hoo-ha surrounding an extra who blabbed and laptops that got stolen. This proved all quite unnecessary, because it isn’t the most ingenious plot either.

It’s 1957, and together with his sometime-partner/rival Mac (Ray Winstone), Indy (who else but Ford) is forced by Soviet Commies, led by the sca-reee KGB Col. Dr. Irina Spalko (Blanchett), to help them locate a mysterious corpse in an oddly familiar warehouse. There is the pre-requisite opening chase (which is actually quite inventive), after which our hero barely-and quite incredulously-escapes a nuclear blast.

Later, he’s approached about a missing old classmate, Prof. Harold Oxley (John Hurt), by greaser Mutt Williams (LaBeouf). Apparently, this all has to do with the myth of the lost city of Akator, and the titular Crystal Skull. An amusing close brush with the KGB later, Indy and his newfound sidekick go to South America in search of Oxley and the skull. He manages to get themselves hunted down by undead soldiers in an ancient temple complex and later gets kidnapped by the Soviet expedition, but is inexplicably reunited with former paramour Marion Ravenwood (Allen in a spunky reprisal of her role from the first flick). From here on, plot machinations lead to fencing duels, jungle chases down waterfalls, a furious attack of the ants I mentioned earlier, the expected supernatural encounter and an ending that is not anti-climatic per se, but is still pretty much a letdown.

For those who remember the era, the flick has a wonderfully nostalgic 50's flavour, what with McCarthyism, old-fashioned diners and greaser gangs, nuclear testing and the fascination with science fiction that’s more “fiction” than “science”. It’s also excellent exposure for today’s generation to peek into a time when muscle cars, leather jackets, pleated skirts and knitwear sweaters were all the rage.

Hearing John Williams’ seven-note trumpet theme and seeing Ford back in that creased leather jacket, battered fedora and wielding a bullwhip after so long is exciting to almost anyone, since the character is such a pop culture icon. A strong point is that film acknowledges the passing of the years, with Grail-hunting Nazis giving way to Reds seeking power over minds. Even though Ford is now 65, he still packs quite the punch. Ford is right in his element, considering that most of his recent roles contain traces of Indy anyway. His face might have creased and his hair may have turned grey, but his acting chops have only gotten better. Wry jokes about his age and a hilarious incident involving Indy’s fear of snakes, as well as loving mentions of characters we miss (Sean Connery’s Henry Jones Sr. and the late Denholm Elliot’s Marcus Brody) bring back some of that flavour from the Indy films of yore.

While many of the new characters prove unnecessary at times, there are moments where the talent of the big-name cast truly shines through. Cate Blanchett visibly relishes her every moment wielding a rapier and wearing the frightening hairdo and starched uniform of Irina Spalko. Playing a stereotype, complete with a Boris-and-Natasha faux Russian accent, is something new to the Academy Award-winning actress, but this is certainly a role that she pulled off with much aplomb. Shia LaBeouf’s turn as the “kid sidekick” shirks some of the conventions associated with that term, and he doesn’t simply tag along for the ride but offers plenty of fun and character dynamics. An especially memorable moment is his rapier duel with Spalko on two moving vehicles, while his mother chides him about his fencing pose.

Speaking about Mutt’s mother, she is of course Marion. Instead of pulling in a new love interest, the film’s use of the character is excellent. A few wrinkles aside, Karen Allen looks almost just as she did in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and her hilarious love/hate dialogue with Harrison Ford provides some of the film’s funniest moments.

Other characters such as Mac, Howard Oxley and the requisite evil henchman Col. Dovchenko (Igor Jijinkine) all get their time in the limelight, but seem disposable at best.

Sadly enough, the gist of the plot also falls into the same category. Historically, stories of “Crystal Skulls” have littered the occult and puzzled archaeologists around the world for years, most experts reaching the consensus that the few found are mere hoaxes. Therefore, this reviewer thinks expanding on it is futile in the first place. Once the film takes off (pardon the pun) into territory best left to Agents Mulder and Scully of the X-Files, there is no saving it. In fact, it makes me wonder if the next film might involve Easter Bunnies and the Loch Ness Monster. Even though most of the stories in the Indy franchise are rather far-fetched, they are still somewhat built upon historical relics or well-known legends. Any reference to ancient civilizations in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is simply cleverly-conceived conjecture. This makes the movie decidedly, as my Dad so put it so succinctly, “un-Indy” for me.

Famous for overusing computer graphics imagery (CGI) in the much-derided Star Wars prequels, George Lucas does the same here, despite earlier promises that the movie would be an old-fashioned adventure yarn. While it is not as noticeable as in The Phantom Menace, the use of CGI is almost just as excessive. On the plus side, though, the Lucas-owned effects company ILM has to be given proper kudos-the ants look scary enough and the nuclear blast is disturbingly spectacular-but what made the first three movies special were the innovative effects in an age before CGI, and spectacular sequences that still hold up to scrutiny today.

However, when real-life sets designed by Guy Hendrix Dyas are used, the result is reasonably awe-inspiring: Indy’s period-furnished home and Marshall College’s classrooms and halls sure bring back the memories, moving stone staircases in the temple complex provide sufficient tension and the warehouse piled to rafters with crates looks amazing in the flesh (it was a matte painting in the first film).

All in all, the film is a fun ride that never lets up and has many enjoyable instances. As a big Indy fan, it pains me to say this: but with just as many a weak moment, it’s not the 65-year old Ford that buckles at the knees, but the story’s core that does so instead.


By Jedd Jong

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Angels & Demons

Movie Review                                                                                                                                  24/5/09


Starring: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer
Directed by: Ron Howard
Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures
 Harvard professor and symbology super-sleuth Robert Langdon is back in this second adaptation of a Dan Brown novel. Besides the main character (played again by the unimitatable Tom Hanks), the Oscar-winning team of director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer have returned for the sequel. In the wake of 2006’s critically-derided The Da Vinci Code, how does its screen sequel fare?

            This time around, Howard and big-name screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp have made more of an effort to trim off the unwieldy excess from Brown’s narrative, and went for the ticking-bomb-thriller approach as opposed to the conspiracy theory 101 class we were forced to sit through the first time around. The filmmakers have wisely optimized the thriller material with which they were presented, so there is more running between churches than talking heads.

            The film begins with the death of the beloved Pope, and the cardinals of the world have gathered in Vatican City for the papal conclave, i.e. the election of a new Pope. However, in the midst of this, it appears that the Illuminati secret society, an old enemy of the Catholic Church, has resurfaced, kidnapping four of the favourites for the papacy and threatening retribution for the Church’s “crimes” against them some 400 years ago.

            The “ticking bomb” in this context is a canister of antimatter, a volatile experimental substance harvested by particle physicists at CERN (The European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Geneva, Switzerland. The canister has been stolen by the Illuminati, who are now using it to hold the church hostage.

            And that’s where Robert Langdon comes in. He is roped in by Inspector Ernesto Olivetti (Pierfrancesco Favino) of the Gendarme Corps of Vatican City State (otherwise known as the Vatican Police) and decipher cryptic symbols left as clues by the Illuminati and assist the Swiss Guard and the afore-mentioned Vatican Police in rescuing the four cardinals and finding the antimatter before it consumes the Vatican. Meanwhile, Commandante Richter (Stellan Skarsgard) of the Swiss Guard is largely dismissive of Langdon and is deliberately hostile to him.

            The Harvard Professor is given the blessing of the idealistic young priest Camerlengo Patrick MacKenna (McGregor), a favourite of the late Pope and his former right-hand man. The earnest Camerlengo seems the most desperate to end the madness. The beautiful CERN physicist Vittoria Vetra (Zurer) is also drawn into the fray, but even the combined expertise of both academics seems almost powerless to stop the looming Illuminati threat.

            Now, if the above synopsis sounds far-fetched, be warned that it is just the tip of this cinematic iceberg. Author Dan Brown is known for meddling fact and fiction and even passing off the former as the latter, achieving at-times laughable results. Plenty of plot points are downright ludicrious and there are enough contrivances to fill St Peter’s Square. The key prefix in this film is “psuedo” – the film is built on psuedo-science, psuedo-history, pretty much psuedo-everything. Stock characters and a fish market of red herrings also populate the picture. Therefore, suspension of disbelief is key. Thankfully though, the movie is paced well-enough, so much so that one eventually buys into the hodgepodge and goes along for the ride.

            We are treated to a wonderful tour of The Vatican City that is part The Amazing Race (but with dead bodies and shootouts instead of roadblocks and detours), part dramatic angel’s-eye-views of the world’s smallest country. The fortress-church Castel Sant’ Angelo, the famous Sistine Chapel, Santa Maria Del Popolo with its imposing obelisk and the former Roman temple of “all gods” the Pantheon all figure in this whirlwind romp. While some of Angels & Demons was shot on location, the filmmakers were not granted access to several sites within the Vatican Walls, as such set reconstructions and some digital magic was employed. The results are actually fairly impressive, one might even be fooled into thinking the computer-generated replicas are the real thing.

            This leads on to the cinematography of the film by Director of Photography Salvatore Totino. Totino excels in sweeping vistas of cavernous cathedrals, and many scenes are gorgeously lit, presenting the locales at their most mysterious and beautiful. The cinematography is ultimately one of the main strong points of the film. There is an enjoyable little sequence in which the main characters enter an abandoned church and Totino milks the location for all its horror-movie-style potential, even including a smart visual gag involving a pair of contractor’s boots.

            A quick mention must be made of the lush yet kinetic score from famed film composer Hans Zimmer, whose past credits include Batman Begins, the Pirates of the Caribbean films and even The Lion King (which gave him one of his seven Oscar wins). The violin solo by virtuoso Joshua Bell is also something of a masterpiece and even adds some depth to the film.

            Ron Howard and company are eminent forces in Hollywood today and exert that power by casting relatively big names. While this film boasts slightly less star power than its predecessor (The Da Vinci Code had actors such as Jean Reno and Ian McKellen among its cast), everyone puts in fairly credible performances here. Tom Hanks lends much credibility to the Langdon role, and gets plenty more to do in this than in the last film, from dodging bullets to saving a drowning man and from taking a dip in speedos to feverishly thumbing through ancient documents. Some of the time though, Hanks clearly has his tongue in his cheek, and especially excels in the rare humourous moments that do ease the cinematic tension. As the female lead, Israeli actress Zurer does barely as good a job as Hanks, relegated to tagging along in the mad dashes from church to church. However, she isn’t a bad actress per se and I look forward to seeing her in more Hollywood projects.

            After appearing in smaller films and adventuring around the world for the last several years, it is good to see Ewan “Obi-Wan” McGregor turning in his Jedi robes from the Star Wars prequel trilogy for the Camerlengo’s cossack and back in a blockbuster, and truth be told he does a mighty fine job. However, it is not exactly believable that the youngish McGregor plays a fairly high-ranking priest, especially when other characters have to call him “Father”, and McGregor also visibly stumbles through an unwieldly soliloquy. The character, originally Italian in the book, is now Irish to accommodate the Scottish actor, and as such the Camerlengo’s backstory seems largely implausible. Ultimately though, the Camerlengo is one of the most complex characters in the film, and McGregor is largely able to parse the finer nuances in his portrayal. The incredible Stellan Skarsgard (whom we’ve seen in such films as Good Will Hunting, The Hunt For the Red October and the Pirates of the Caribbean films) seems under-utilized as the prickly Commandante, despite this the actor still fleshes out the slight bitterness his character bears towards Langdon with much relish.

            The film’s small departures from the book seem to be a two-edged sword; on one hand the story has been streamlined and does work better for the screen, but on the other, interesting characters and other elements seem to have been sacrificed. For example, instead of the generic, bespectacled assassin-for-hire played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas, the book’s politically-incorrect but more interesting version was a brutish, imposing Middle-Eastern rapist. Also, the book came before The Da Vinci Code, but the timeline has been altered such that this functions as a sequel, and the romantic subplot has been jettisoned in favour of a strictly professional relationship between Langdon and Vetra. However, producer Brian Grazer did state that the filmmaking team was too "reverential" when adapting The Da Vinci Code, which resulted in it being "a little long and stagey". Therefore, the wiggle room this time around does more help than harm in the long run.
            The movie is enjoyable in spite of (or perhaps because of) its sheer absurdity, offering up legitimate thrills and even a couple of outstanding action sequences. Far from being offensive or overly-controversial, Angels & Demons ends up being more cotton candy fluff than a “lofty quest”. But have angels guided Howard and Co. in their mission nonetheless? Perhaps, though this film does have its fair share of demons to contend with as well.


Jedd Jong

Thursday, November 18, 2010


Probably still the best movie of 2010.

Movie Review                                                                                                             16/7/10


Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard
Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Released by: Warner Bros Pictures

            As many reviewers have noted, this summer movie season...well, it’s almost not deserving of being called a summer movie season at all. Sequels. Remakes. Reboots. Rehashes. Re-what-have-yous. Granted, they were not all bad, but neither were they all good. Along comes Christopher Nolan, saviour of the movie universe, with Inception.

            The psychological action-thriller centres on Dom Cobb (DiCaprio), a skilled “extractor”. Cobb is a master of a specific kind of corporate espionage: he enters peoples’ minds while they are asleep to retrieve secrets from their dreams. 

Cobb and his partner Arthur (Gordon-Levitt) are approached by the wealthy Saito (Ken Watanabe) to perform “inception”: planting an idea instead of stealing one. Their target is Robert Fischer Jr (Cillian Murphy), the son of a terminally-ill tycoon. Saito wants Fischer to disband his father’s empire.

However, Dom is a deeply troubled individual, and with valid reason: he is wanted for the supposed murder of his wife Mallorie (Cotillard), and visions of his wife manifest themselves in the dreams Dom enters. Being a fugitive, Dom is unable to return to their children.

Dom assembles a team to help perform the inception, consisting of Arthur, college graduate and “dream architect” Ariadne (Ellen Page), “forger” Eames (Tom Hardy) who impersonates others within a dream, Yusuf (Dileep Rao) the “chemist” who formulates the drugs needed to enter the dream state and Saito himself, as a “tourist” in the dream world.

And then things get (even more) complex.

In many ways, Inception, despite its mind-bending premise, is classic Christopher Nolan. Memento, Insomnia and the Prestige all display similar traits in that they enjoy playing with the audiences’ minds. However, Nolan is a director who learns, and after gaining the experience of the big-budget Batman films, is able to translate his ideas into mind-blowing spectacle.

Inception exemplifies the thinking man’s blockbuster, and it is very rare that filmmakers of tentpole summer fare treat their audiences like geniuses. After scores of films that are so painfully dumbed-down, it doesn’t hurt to watch a brain cell-jolting flick like this one once in a while.

Inception operates on its visuals: the notion that anything is possible within the world of the dream allowed production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas to go wild. The film includes such scenes as an entire city folding in on itself, a freight train running through a city, an assault on a fortress that wouldn’t be out of place in a Bond movie and a desolate, abandoned dream city filled with crumbling buildings. One of the many great sequences in the film is a zero-gravity fight scene performed by Gordon-Levitt along the corridors of a hotel. Even for audiences jaded by the proliferation of “wire-fu” since the Matrix films, it’s exciting.

Inception’s greatest asset however is arguably its emotional core that functions like a rope guiding the viewer through the labyrinth of story. Leonardo DiCaprio has carved a career out of playing emotionally-complex characters, Cobb indeed brings to mind DiCaprio’s recent performance in Shutter Island. Cotillard is also commendable in that it’s never easy to play a character who exists only as a figment of another character’s imagination, and Cotillard does this hauntingly well.

The rest of the cast, too, is an iron-clad ensemble. There is literally not one weak link, everybody is perfectly cast. Gordon-Levitt especially seems to be emerging as a bona fide movie star, after making a name for himself in smaller character films. Watanabe manages to be dignified yet possess a misleading sinister streak as the employer and money man.

Tom Hardy is a hoot as the comic relief who is actually really useful. My favourite however (it could be just that I’m a 17-year-old male) is the lovely Ellen Page, who has no problems portraying the youngest yet deepest character in the film. My only complaint with regards to the cast is that Michael Caine, as Cobb’s mentor and father-in-law, is woefully underused.

If you’re tired of being insulted by blockbusters that throw money at the screen and hope it sticks, then treat yourself to one of the best cinematic uses of money ever. There’s no shortage of spectacle or intelligence in what I can safely say the best movie of the year. And it’s only July! Or is it...


Jedd Jong Yue

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Movie Fanart

So, as you have perhaps gathered from the previous entries, I'm a writer at heart. but I'm also an artist at heart. You can't spell heart without "art". What I'm trying to say is, though I may not be too good at it, I also like to draw, and more often than not it's movie fanart. Actually, more often than not it's DC Comics fanart, but that sometimes overlaps with films. Main mediums used are coloured pencils and my Wacom Bamboo Fun digital tablet, which I have been neglecting for a while. Sorry Bamboo, I'll draw again when I feel like it.
"I believe...I believe that whatever doesn't kill you, simply makes you...STRANGER."

"The difference between you and me is that...I'M NOT WEARING HOCKEY PADS."

I'm not a huge Batman Returns fan, but Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman was genius.
"Life's a bitch, and now...so am I!"
"Thesze shadezs haulp im-provve maih po-li-ticz. I swe-eh-yah"

Cleavage corrupts. And abosulte cleavage corrupts absolutely!
Sir Alec, no need to be embarrassed. You were a big part of making Star Wars awesome.
If I may say so myself, this drawing emotes more than he ever did onscreen!

Yes, even horrific films that I haven't seen deserve the love

Pocahontas, new and improved, starring 9-ft-tall blue humanoid cat people!
From the mind of James Cameron.

"That Na'vi chick is totally cramping my style. And, I have prettier hair."
Salivating over Natalie Portman now = quite kosher.
Salivating over Natalie Portman in 1994 = not so much.
The original makes way for...

...the new guy, who anxiously hopes his tenure will continue past MGM's bankruptcy.
If not then he can always dress up in a cowboy hat and shoot at aliens alongside Harrison Ford.

As a younger boy I didn't feel bad about lusting after a sixteen-year-old mermaid.
Now the guilt is catching up.

 Thanks for looking. And there's more where that came from over at my DeviantArt page: http://jedd-the-jedi.deviantart.com/ I just hope my parents aren't reading this...but if they are, it's not too bad as they probably know all my movie crushes already.