Friday, August 31, 2012

Rush Delivery: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Takes Life by the Handlebars

As published in F*** Magazine, Singapore - Issue 32


Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes life by the handlebars 

By Jedd Jong

When one thinks of cool, badass movie rides, what comes to mind? One of the myriad souped-up sports cars in The Fast and the Furious movies? James Bond’s Aston Martin DB5? The time-travelling DeLorean from Back to the Future? The Batmobile? Whatever it is, it probably isn’t a bicycle. Sure, extreme sportsmen and professional racing cyclists can make the things look cool, but as the wheels of choice for an action hero? Premium Rush aims to prove that you don’t need a flux-capacitor or retractable machine guns, all you need are those two wheels, with a savvy bike messenger who knows his way around the streets of New York at the handlebars.  

Intriguing as it sounds, others have had similar ideas:  beyond the lawsuit leveled at the filmmakers by Joe Quirk, author of similarly-plotted novel The Ultimate Rush, Kevin Bacon played a bike messenger in 1986’s Quicksilver, and Taylor Lautner is due to play one as well in Tracers. However, this fall the bike lanes belong to Wilee, a bicycle courier tasked with delivering a mysterious envelope that soon attracts the attention of a corrupt cop indebted to the mob, played by Michael Shannon (who will be Superman villain General Zod in next year’s Man of Steel). 

So, who really is the guy pedaling frantically away on the brakes-less, single gear ‘fixie’ bike? Why, he’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, probably one of the most-admired younger actors working in Hollywood today, equally known for his dedication to the craft as for his easy, boyish charm and demeanour. He’s an actor who has made a near-seamless transition from being a prolific child performer in commercials, film and television shows to doing equally impressive work in an eclectic filmography peppered with smaller independent comedies and dramas and huge big-budget blockbusters. He’s one of the few child actors to escape the fate of becoming a “Baby Jane” and carve his own way – perhaps he could be considered the male equivalent of Natalie Portman, whom he incidentally co-starred with in Hesher. In addition to Premium Rush, this year sees Joseph Gordon-Levitt appear in The Dark Knight Rises, Looper and Lincoln, propelling him ever further up Hollywood’s A-list and cementing his position as the guy to watch. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt was born in 1981 to Dennis Levitt and Jane Gordon in Los Angeles California, and grew up in the Sherman Oaks suburb, and wasn’t the first in the family to break into show business: his maternal grandfather Michael Gordon was a movie director from the 40s to the 70s, helming films such as Pillow Talk and Cyrano de Bergerac, and his recently-deceased brother Dan was a professional fire dancer and photographer. Gordon-Levitt’s first acting role was as the Scarecrow in a preschool production of The Wizard of Oz, and the audience loved it – so much so that his mother was approached by an agent who was managing two of his cast mates in the school play (remember, this was a suburb of L.A.). The agent wanted to cast Gordon-Levitt in commercials, and the young boy was open to the idea. “I told Mom it sounded awesome”, he recalled in an interview with the New York Times. And so, a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt began starring in television advertisements for Sunny Jim Peanut Butter, Kinney Shoes, Pop-Tarts and Cocoa Puffs. However, even then he was beginning to show signs of artistic integrity. “I didn’t really like doing commercials,” he admitted. “You had to behave like you were on angel dust or something.” 

Gordon-Levitt found film and television work more to his liking, and had his first such role at age six, as Tommy Lee Jones’ son in the TV movie Stranger in My Land. More work quickly followed, such as parts in TV shows including Family Ties, the remake of Dark Shadows, Quantum Leap and The Powers that Be – the latter two earning him Young Artist Award nominations. It was his turn as Young Norman alongside Brad Pitt and Tom Skerritt in the Robert Redford-directed A River Runs Through It that actually won him one. After that came guest appearances on Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman and Roseanne, and a leading role in Disney’s remake of Angels in the Outfield. By the time the first episode of the TV show he’d eventually become known for aired, he had appearances in over 20 other TV shows and movies under his belt.

That particular TV show was, of course, the science-fiction family sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, about the exploits of a team of alien researchers sent on an expedition to earth and masquerading as a regular human family. Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrayed Tommy Solomon, an intelligence specialist who appears to be the youngest of the family but is really the oldest alien of the crew, in the guise of a teenager. The role showcased his comic timing and earned him critical acclaim, netting the young actor two YoungStar awards, one Young Artist Award and a Teen Choice Award, in addition to several more nominations. It also turned him into something of a teen idol and led to his being featured in teen and gossip magazines, something he didn’t particularly like. Reflecting on it, the guy who once played an alien seems very down to earth – “Supermarket tabloids and celebrity gossip shows are not just innocently shallow entertainment, but a fundamental part of a much larger movement that involves apathy, greed and hierarchy. Celebrity doesn’t have anything to do with art or craft. It’s about being rich and thinking that you’re better than everybody else.” In an age when every former child star seems to have sunk to the lowest depths of party-going, drunk driving and rehab stints, Joseph Gordon-Levitt remains a steadfastly focused actor who emphasizes the acting and not the lifestyle commonly associated with Hollywood stardom. “Actors didn`t use to be celebrities,” he says with no delusions. “A hundred years ago, they put the theaters next to the brothels.”

While he was on the show, Joseph Gordon-Levitt also took movie roles – in romantic thriller The Juror as Demi Moore’s son, in horror sequel Halloween H20, and, memorably, in Ten Things I Hate About You, alongside the late Heath Ledger. That’s right; the Joker went to high school with Gotham Police Detective R. John Blake. If you’ve seen The Dark Knight Rises, then you know what the ‘R’ stands for, and the circle of irony is complete. Joseph Gordon-Levitt bowed out of 3rd Rock in its final season, asking out of his contract, to which the producers agreed. “Acting was still fun, but a spark was missing,” he said. “I wanted a new challenge.” 

This new challenge came in the form of a stint at Columbia University’s School of General Studies, where Gordon-Levitt studied history, literature and French Studies – the school also figures in Premium Rush; it’s where Wilee picks up the strange envelope. While a student there, he developed a love for French language and culture, learning how to speak French (which probably makes him all the sexier) and a taste for snails (which should make him a little less sexy but probably doesn’t).  While most teens at the time were likely lusting over Playboy centerfolds and the girls on Baywatch, Gordon-Levitt’s celebrity crushes were French New Wave actresses such as Anna Karina, Corrine Marchand and Brigitte Bardot.  “For me,” he said, “few things are more erotic than a woman speaking in a French accent.” However, when he did make a trip to France at age 20, the ladies there didn’t return his affection. “I tried to meet French women and struck out left and right,” he sighed. There is something reassuring that even the alien-boy-turned-heartthrob is only human. 

Speaking about returning to acting after that, Gordon-Levitt told Movies Online, “well, the conscious decision was that I wanted to be in good movies.” As a younger actor, he was in it for fun, but he soon began taking acting more and more seriously, becoming the craftsman audiences known him as today. “When I started acting again,” he continued, “I wanted the acting to engage with that connection whereas, when I was younger, I was really unnerved when anybody would recognize me for something I’d done.” Many child actors desire to break out of the “cutesy” mould and attempt to do so with one or more performances that are as shocking as possible – it can be said that Gordon-Levitt did that to a degree. In Manic he played an abused teen committed to a mental institution, in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin he played a homosexual prostitute who was a victim of sexual abuse, in Latter Days he played a Mormon missionary (who has a cycling accident – amusing in retrospect), in Havoc he played a trailer park faux-gangster alongside Anne Hathaway (aka Catwoman), in Stop-Loss he became a traumatized Iraq War veteran and in Rian Johnson’s Brick he played a teen detective who gets embroiled in a drug ring. Quite the selection of heady dramatic parts indeed, seemingly a far cry from Tommy on 3rd Rock or his voice acting role as Jim Hawkins in Disney’s Treasure Planet. 

Of course, Gordon-Levitt really made all the girls sit up and take notice in (500) Days of Summer, a quirky little subversive romantic comedy film that in itself was a deconstruction of various chick flick tropes, billed as not a love story, but a story about love. The film, helmed by Marc Webb (who’d go on to direct The Amazing Spider-Man) paired Joseph Gordon-Levitt up with manic pixie dream goddess Zooey Deschanel. The chemistry between the two was explosive and just brought smiles to moviegoers’ faces, and the most iconic onscreen hipster couple in recent memory was born. The two leads also played a part in earning the film near-universal acclaim, putting it in “top ten best movies of 2009” lists in magazines and newspapers everywhere. For his efforts as the sweet, aw-shucks architect-turned-greeting card designer, Gordon-Levitt was nominated for a ‘Best Actor (Musical or Comedy)’ award at the Golden Globes. 

The same year, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was in a very different film – the blockbuster action flick G.I. JOE: The Rise of Cobra, based off the line of Hasbro Toys which had earlier inspired comic books and the nostalgia classic cartoon series. As for his role in the film, *Spoiler Alert* - he’s Cobra Commander. The serious young actor playing a cartoony villain in a toy movie? No way! The film’s version of Cobra Commander was formerly a mild-mannered US soldier, presumed dead after a mission goes awry. Keeping his survival a secret, becomes the insane, scarred head scientist of weapons manufacturer MARS. Gordon-Levitt was nearly unrecognizable, in a mask with prosthetic makeup beneath it as a Darth Vader of sorts. The actor recalls being excited by conceptual art for the film. "I was like, 'I get to be that? You're going to make that (makeup) in real life and stick it on me? Cool. Let me do it.' That's a once-in-lifetime opportunity." It also helped that Gordon-Levitt’s friend and co-star from Havoc and Stop-Loss, Channing Tatum, had been cast as main character Duke. Joseph Gordon-Levitt won’t be returning for the sequel, with Cobra Commander being played instead by Faran Tahir. Gordon-Levitt has moved on to bigger, better things. 

Namely, Christopher Nolan’s cyber-punk inspired action drama magnum opus, Inception. Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrayed the “point man” Arthur, partner-in-crime to the film’s main character Dom Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. “When problems arise,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt explained, “it's sort of Arthur's job to smooth things out - and problems inevitably arise." The part was originally intended for James Franco, who became unavailable due to scheduling conflicts. Aside from his penchant for stylish waistcoats, Gordon-Levitt as Arthur is also remembered for the mind-blowing action sequence set in a hotel corridor, where he tangles with his opponent in zero-gravity, bouncing and running off the walls and ceiling. Gordon-Levitt performed the sequence himself, barring one quick shot. About working with the Inception stunt team, Gordon-Levitt said, “They were really cool and brought me in and taught me a lot, and let me do it. It was hard and it hurt sometimes, but it was so much fun." At the Scream Awards that year, Joseph Gordon-Levitt took home the Best Supporting Actor award, and his gravity-defying hallway skirmish was named ‘Best Fight Scene of the Year’. 

Once reaching the big leagues, however, Gordon-Levitt didn’t abandon his dramatic aspirations and continued to appear in smaller films such as the quirky erotic comedy Elextra Luxx, the afore-mentioned drama Hesher alongside Natalie Portman and in the comedy-drama 50/50 alongside Seth Rogen. His role as a cancer patient, which was partially based on the real-life experiences of screenwriter Will Reiser, got him a second Golden Globes nomination for ‘Best Actor (Musical or Comedy)’. Gordon-Levitt also directed and starred in two personal short film projects featuring his character “Morgan M. Morgansen”, which were super-artsy and screened at film festivals. Gordon-Levitt’s other pet project is hitRECord, an online collaborative production venture where contributing artists share in the profits. Gordon-Levitt oversees this alternative outlet of multimedia artistic expression from a computer setup in his home studio. 

And now, 2012 is well and truly Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s year. Christopher Nolan enjoyed working with him in Inception so much that he was cast in The Dark Knight Rises, the final installment in the Dark Knight Trilogy. Gordon-Levitt played Det. John Blake, an idealistic policeman whose optimism and sincerity did not go unrewarded. Gordon-Levitt even got an action figure made in his likeness. Soon, he will appear in the science-fiction action film Looper, from his Brick director Rian Johnson. In the time travel assassin tale, Joseph Gordon-Levitt portrays – get this – the younger version of Bruce Willis. According to him, the prosthetics makeup people baulked, but eventually came up with something (it mainly involves giving Gordon-Levitt more of a chin). And he rounds out 2012 in Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited biopic Lincoln as Robert Todd Lincoln, the 16th US President’s first son. 

But first, he’s got to ride for his life, in Premium Rush, under the direction of veteran screenwriter/director David Koepp, whose writing credits include Jurassic Park, Spider-Man and Mission: Impossible. While expert cyclists and other stunt performers were used, Joseph Gordon-Levitt did a fair bit of the high-speed riding himself, and suffered for his art: he was cycling too fast and hit the back of a taxi, flying into its rear windscreen and slashing his arm, which required 31 stitches. A home video taken on the set shows Gordon-Levitt laughing the painful injury off, remarking “this is f***ing cool” before issuing a disclaimer for viewers not to try it at home – it is then that the cameraman realises that it’s time to whisk Gordon-Levitt away to the paramedics. That’s as cool as they come, folks. Come next year, Gordon-Levitt will take the title role in Don Jon which he will also direct, a retelling of the tale of Don Juan which re-imagines him as a young sex addict. 

There is no doubt that in the past several years, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s remarkable talent has come to the fore, and audiences are embracing the actor. On his status as something of a sex symbol, Gordon-Levitt remarked “I've played the smart kid, the funny one, the nice sweet one, even the angry one, but never the sexy one.” There certainly is something sexy about him, and it probably is – above everything else – that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the real deal. He’s a movie star who’s all about the “movie” part and not the “star” bit, someone who has plainly said “the whole concept of celebrity pisses me off” and that “astronauts and teachers are much more amazing than actors”, someone whose appeal is that he comes off as a genuine guy with no airs about him – someone who takes life by the handlebars. 

Tony Scott: A Legacy of Action

As published in F*** Magazine, Singapore - Issue 32


Remembering Tony Scott

By Jedd Jong 21/8/12

On 19 August 2012, Hollywood and the film-going public at large lost one of its best contemporary action movie directors: Tony Scott. While many may not know his face or even his name, his films are widely held by fans as shining examples of the modern-day action thriller, movies that were exciting to watch yet not silly, throwaway pieces of junk food.  His films Top Gun, True Romance and Crimson Tide have pretty much cemented their position as classics of sorts, and some could say he is the man at least partially responsible for turning big-name stars such as Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Brad Pitt into fully-fledged action heroes. Many readers of F*** Magazine are surely lovers of these films, films that many action movie junkies have some kind of an attachment to. “Boy’s movies” that we cling to as reminders of our childhood, just like matchbox cars and model airplanes, and that followed us into adulthood with the more serious and dramatic Man on Fire, Domino and Spy Game.

Who was the man who created all these memories? Almost never seen without his trademark faded red baseball cap, Tony Scott was an adrenaline junkie in real life with a penchant for fast cars and motorbikes and who often relaxed by going rock-climbing. Anthony David Scott was born in North Shields England in 1944, the youngest of three boys. His father Colonel Francis P Scott was an officer in the Royal Engineers and his older brother was, of course, fellow director Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator). Tony acted in his brother’s student film Boy and Bicycle and followed closely in his footsteps, graduating from the Royal College of Art just as Ridley did. However, Tony had originally wanted to be a painter, and it was his brother’s early success producing television commercials that sparked an interest in film. Tony wanted to make documentaries, and Ridley advised him to join his production company and promised his younger brother that he’d make enough money to get himself a Ferrari within a year, which he did. Over the next 20 years, Tony Scott directed thousands of television commercials working alongside his brother, looking after Ridley Scott Associates while its namesake was busy fostering a feature film career. On a sadder note, 1980 saw the passing of Tony and Ridley’s older brother Frank, who had succumbed to cancer.

The late 1970s and 80s saw something of an exodus of British directors who had experienced success directing television commercials over to Hollywood, including Alan Parker (Evita, Mississippi Burning), Adrian Lyne (Flashdance, Fatal Attraction), Hugh Hudson (Chariots of Fire, Revolution) and Ridley Scott himself . Many British directors who make it big in Hollywood these days are lauded, however during that time these directors were treated with a fair amount of hostility. In an interview with Cinema Blend, Tony Scott recalls the experience – “That period in the 80s was a period when I was constantly being criticized, and my press was horrible. I never read any press after The Hunger.” The Hunger was his first feature film, not an action flick like those he would become known for, but a horror film starring David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon, about a vampire couple caught in a love triangle with a researcher interested in sleep and aging science. Oh, and it was dripping with blood and sex. The critical reception was not warm; renowned film reviewer Roger Ebert panned The Hunger as “an agonizingly bad vampire movie” and it launched accusations that Tony was too focused on atmospherics and style as opposed to storytelling.

Downtrodden, Tony Scott returned to making television commercials and music videos, until he was approached by the super-producing team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer to direct a wee little fighter plane flick called Top Gun. They liked a television commercial Tony had made for Saab, featuring a car taking on a fighter jet in a pulse-pounding race, and thought he would be the perfect fit for their film. The film made waves with its aerial dogfight sequences shot in cooperation with the US Navy, the likes of which audiences had never seen before. However, the authenticity of these scenes had its price, and famous aerobatic pilot Art Scholl tragically crashed his plane while filming a sequence and neither he nor the craft was recovered – Tony Scott dedicated the movie in his memory. Once again however, the critics were not at their kindest to Tony Scott, Ebert once again offering this remark on the film: “the good parts are so good and the bad parts are so relentless”.

Tony Scott himself remarked, “when it came out I got slaughtered. ‘It represented everything bad that had ever been done in cinema.’ David Puttnam said that…But with the material I had, you can’t do it in a serious way — it had to be pop. I think it is the ultimate piece of Americana from 1986.” And that it was. Audiences on the other hand felt the need for speed, and rocketed the action flick towards an estimated worldwide gross of $353,816,701. The film made a star out of its leading actor Tom Cruise, and quickly took its place in popular culture, equally admired and parodied. Quentin Tarantino offered a humourous monologue during his cameo appearance in the film Sleep with Me, in which he analyses the homoerotic undertones Top Gun supposedly possesses, and the film was the primary basis for the spoof film Hot Shots! starring Charlie Sheen.

After the commercial success of Top Gun, the sky was the limit for Tony Scott and he quickly found himself in high demand as an action director. Simpson and Bruckheimer promptly hired Tony Scott to direct the second installment of their Beverly Hills Cop action-comedy series, replacing director Martin Brest from the first film. The film got mixed reviews, with Roger Ebert (him again) commenting, “What is comedy? That's a pretty basic question, I know, but Beverly Hills Cop II never thought to ask it.” Nevertheless, the box office take was once again sizable. Tony Scott ditched the comedy altogether for his next film, the romantic crime drama/thriller Revenge starring Kevin Costner, Anthony Quinn and Madeleine Stowe. Then, it was back to partnering with producers Simpson and Bruckheimer and re-teaming with Tom Cruise for the racing film Days of Thunder  (essentially “Top Gun on wheels”)– which also introduced Cruise to future-ex-wife Nicole Kidman. Next up was The Last Boy Scout, which paired Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans as a former secret service agent and an ex-football star respectively, solving the murder of the latter’s girlfriend. There was friction between Scott, and Willis and Joel Silver (who had produced the actor’s Die Hard movies), plus the film was a slight disappointment at the box office, the Christmas-time release date of a brutal action flick often cited as a reason. However, The Last Boy Scout did singlehandedly rescue Bruce Willis’ reputation after the flop Hudson Hawk, and proved popular as a video rental title and Tony Scott counts it as one of his favourite of the films in his oeuvre.

The story goes that on the set of The Last Boy Scout, Scott had been ambushed by a pesky fan who asked endless questions about, among other things, the correct use of smoke. At the end of the shoot he learnt this cinema geek was none other than Quentin Tarantino, the same guy who read homosexual subtext into Top Gun.  Tarantino then managed to get Scott to read a couple of scripts he had written, one of which became Scott’s next project: the romantic crime thriller True Romance, a sort of Bonnie and Clyde for the 90s. It starred Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as the central couple, with actors such as Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Tom Sizemore and Brad Pitt numbering among the supporting players. This time around, the critics loved it. Roger Ebert finally gave a Tony Scott film glowing praise, writing "the energy and style of the movie are exhilarating", and then up-and-comer Tarantino got a good deal of attention for his screenplay for the film. However, the edgy, violent and somewhat nihilistic nature of the film probably alienated some audiences, and the movie failed to make back its $13 million dollar budget.

The submarine thriller Crimson Tide would be something of a landmark for Tony Scott – not only is it considered one of his best and most successful movies, it was the first time he would work with Denzel Washington, who would become a frequent collaborator. Unlike on the gloriously exuberant Top Gun, Tony Scott didn’t receive government help for Crimson Tide. “The Navy didn’t give us any cooperation on that one,” Scott recalled. “They got cold feet about the plot — you know treason on a nuclear submarine!” He even had to rely on sneaky guerilla techniques to get some exterior shots of a Trident submarine. It did pay off; this time Roger Ebert’s praise was no longer faint. "This is the rare kind of war movie that not only thrills people while they're watching it, but invites them to leave the theater actually discussing the issues," he wrote.  The star power of Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman was followed up with the star power of Robert DeNiro and Wesley Snipes in Scott’s next film, The Fan, showcasing the frightening extremes a sports fan might go to in his obsession with a sports star.

1998’s Enemy of the State saw Gene Hackman reunite with Tony Scott, alongside Will Smith. At the time, Smith was attempting to transition from a rap and TV career to becoming a big screen star, and this electrifying conspiracy techno-thriller surely helped his case. The film painted a frightening picture of a government with near-omnipotent surveillance abilities, able to trap and frame a man for a crime he didn’t commit. It also allowed Hackman, as a retired NSA agent who aids Smith’s character, to reference his earlier leading part in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, in which he played a similar if more sinister role. This was a film that was on the cutting edge at the time it was released, and actually does not feel dated when viewed now, almost 15 years later. Scott’s first movie of the new millennium was 2001’s Spy Game, an espionage thriller that also had an older, more established silver screen veteran paired with a younger, sexier action star – in the form of Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. Singapore’s own Adrian Pang also had a minor role in the film.

2004’s Man on Fire was the second Tony Scott-Denzel Washington joint effort Man on Fire, based on a novel of the same name (there was an earlier film adaptation in 1987, and then a Bollywood remake in 2005). In it, Washington portrayed an ex-CIA agent-turned bodyguard who goes to great lengths to rescue his 9-year-old charge (played by Dakota Fanning) when she is kidnapped. Location filming in Mexico City proved to be as dangerous and exciting as the situations depicted in the film, but Scott took it in his stride.  “But I love the adventure and excitement,” he said offhandedly. “I mean, we had four bulletproof cars stolen. We had kids turning up shirtless at 3am on crystal meth carrying Uzis. We just said, ‘F*** it — take the cars.’”

Tony Scott’s next film was something a little different – a biopic of sorts, based on the life of model/socialite-turned-bounty hunter Domino Harvey. This being Tony Scott and the subject being a tough-as-nails chick, it was also an action film. The film starred Keira Knightley in the title role, chopping off her hair and donning a bulletproof vest and ammo bandoliers. Tony Scott explained what drew him to the project: “I took it on because I’m always inspired by extraordinary people. I grew up in art school in the north of England and my life has been surrounded by life’s casualties... even when I was a teenager at art school I was attracted to those darker characters. She (Domino) was definitely that. Heads you live, tails you die. That was her motto.” Critics tore it to pieces though, most weren’t fans of the combination of heady, stylishly gritty camerawork and over-embellished storytelling.

Tony Scott returned to the more familiar territory of having Denzel Washington be his leading man yet again, in techno-thriller Déjà Vu. The film also had Val “Iceman” Kilmer reteam with his Top Gun director as an FBI Special Agent who calls on Washington’s character, an ATF Agent, to investigate a mysterious ferry bombing. It combined a domestic terrorism-based mystery with high-concept science-fiction elements and is also notable for having Jim Caviezel, most famous for playing Jesus Christ in The Passion of the Christ, as a villainous Timothy McVeigh-esque home-grown extremist. Reviews were mixed and the film’s writers themselves were particularly unhappy with the end result, blaming Tony Scott for shifting the focus from their science fiction and philosophical ideas to the action scenes. Co-writer Terry Rossio stated flatly, "Tony Scott added nothing to Déjà Vu and made several hundred small mistakes and about eight or nine deadly mistakes". Rossio’s co-writer Bill Marsili was slightly more forgiving of Tony Scott, saying “while I am quite critical of the mistakes made, and while I mourn the good stuff that was cut or lost along the way, ultimately I am proud of the finished product. I hope people see it, I want them to like it.”

Tony Scott turned his attention to TV for a while, co-executive producing forensics procedural Numb3rs and legal drama The Good Wife alongside his brother Ridley, under their production company Scott Free Productions. For his penultimate film The Taking of Pelham 123, Tony Scott had his pal Denzel Washington as the leading man once again, but this time he wasn’t the action hero, he was an out-of-shape train dispatcher who spent most of the film confined to the control room, engaging the film’s villain (played by John Travolta) over the radio. The film was similar to Man on Fire in that it was also a remake of a film based on a novel. Yes, this was an action film, but it was an action film that mostly consisted of the back-and-forth between Travolta on the train and Washington in the control room. Tony Scott explains that he found this intriguing, saying, “it was really appealing and terrifying, two guys on the phone for an hour. Travolta plays it beautifully, but it’s all from the real guy. He’s funny, he’s f***ed-up. He’s dangerous. Denzel liked it because in this he’s playing The Guy Next Door, which he’s never done in any other movie.”  Reviews were, once again, mixed, with the general consensus being that the remake was not superior to the 1974 film.

In 2010, the Scott brothers co-produced the big-screen adaptation of The A-Team, starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson and Jessica Biel. Later that year, Tony Scott’s final completed film, Unstoppable, was released. Like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, it starred Denzel Washington and was set on a train, and like Domino, it had its basis in real life. Continuing the Tony Scott tradition of pairing up a veteran and a rookie, Chris Pine joined Washington as a young train conductor. The heft of the trains barreling towards the screen at insane speeds was something Scott wanted to capture mostly in-camera, without an over-reliance on computer-generated imagery.  “One of my strengths is putting the audience in the thick of it: in the seat of a racing car, the cockpit of a fighter plane, or the cab of a runaway train,” Scott said. “CGI doesn’t help with that…We’ve got freight trains going 80 mph, smashing into trucks, with helicopters buzzing overhead. You just can’t capture the intensity of that when you’re patching things together after the fact.”

There is no doubt that the filmmaker had many movies in him yet; at the time of his death he had multiple projects in various stages of production. Next year will see the release of the drama Out of the Furnace starring Christian Bale, which Scott was producing. Science fiction TV series The Sector and science-fiction drama Ion were also on Scott’s plate to produce. Reportedly, a sequel to Top Gun was in the works. As can be gathered from this article, Tony Scott did not receive the level of critical acclaim his brother did, nor did he ever win or get nominated for an Oscar, nor was he knighted. On the subject of his films being seen as more commercial and less meaty than Ridley’s, Scott commented “I always get criticized for style over content, unlike Ridley’s films like Alien or Blade Runner or Gladiator that go right into the classic box right away. Mine sort of hover. Maybe with time people will start saying they should be classics, but I think I’m always perceived as reaching too hard for difference, and difference doesn’t categorize you as the ‘classic’ category.”

However, ‘difference’ does get you remembered, and many of Tony’s Hollywood peers do hold him in high regard. The condolences poured in, and oft-collaborator Denzel Washington said in a statement to E! News, "Tony Scott was a great director, a genuine friend and it is unfathomable to think that he is now gone. He had a tremendous passion for life and for the art of filmmaking and was able to share this passion with all of us through his cinematic brilliance. My family sends their prayers and deepest condolences to the entire Scott family.” Ridley Scott has not issued a public statement at the time of this writing, but halted filming on his movie The Counselor in London to be with his family in L.A.

Tom Cruise, whom Tony Scott helped make the star he is today, said about his Top Gun and Days of Thunder director, "Tony was my dear friend and I will really miss him. He was a creative visionary whose mark on film is immeasurable. My deepest sorrow and thoughts are with his family at this time."

Joe Carnahan, who director the Scott-produced A-Team film, said on Twitter, “Tony Scott as a Director was Sui Generis. Tony Scott as a friend and mentor was irreplaceable. Tone, wherever you are, I love you man. RIP.”

Director Ron Howard put it sadly and laconically: "No more Tony Scott movies. Tragic day."

Tony Scott is survived by his wife Donna and his twin 12-year-old sons Frank and Max. Tony Scott also leaves behind a legacy of action, a filmography of a higher quality than he was ever given credit for.  Samuel L Jackson said on Twitter that he was “Taking a moment to reflect on Tony Scott’s life & work!”, something we hope this article achieved. The actor continued, “My sympathies to his family. Feeling the loss!”

As do we all.

RIP Tony Scott.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012



Starring the voices of: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Directed by: Sam Fell and Chris Butler

Dr Dolittle could speak to the animals, and he was celebrated and praised as a result. On the other hand, small-town kid Norman Babcock (Smit-McPhee) can speak to the dead, but is shunned and mocked as a result. Norman lives in Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts, famous for its Puritan witch-hunting heritage – the place is to witches what Rachel, Nevada is to UFOs. Norman has a great love for horror movies and is a zombie aficionado, owning a zombie-themed alarm clock and toothbrush in addition to old film posters.

He is saddled with a special ability and can see, speak to and interact with restless spirits, cursed to wander the earth. This gets him ostracized at school and earns the ire of his shallow, ditzy older sister Courtney (Kendrick). He is picked on especially often by the thuggish, dim-witted bully Alvin (Mintz-Plasse). The only kid in school who seems to like him is the portly Neil (Albrizzi), who possesses some eccentricities of his own and is excited by the prospect of his friend being an actual necromancer. Courtney has eyes for Neil’s hunky and clueless older brother Mitch (Affleck), who becomes the gang’s designated driver. It so happens that Norman’s crazy old uncle Mr Penderghast (John Goodman) is about to kick the bucket, and tasks Norman with reading an incantation from a grimoire, in order to appease a witch who was executed 300 years ago to the day by seven Puritans. The Puritans are cursed to rise from their graves and wander around the town as zombies; and as the residents go into frenzy, it’s up to Norman, Neil, Mitch, Courtney and Alvin to restore the town to normalcy.

ParaNorman is easily one of the very best films this reviewer has seen this year, animated or otherwise. It’s an outstanding showcase of technical artistry, a display of a mastery of craft and a well-told tale with a strong emotional core. ParaNorman was created using stop-motion animation, one of the most painstaking mediums to work in ever. In these days of studios practically belching out cheaply-made 3D animated films, it is refreshing and heartening to see a movie made with so much love and hard work, with CGI used to enhance and augment the traditional puppets, models and backgrounds as opposed to replacing them altogether. If making a movie is akin to creating a world, then a film like this is probably the ultimate example. There are rich atmospherics, a markedly non-gimmicky (albeit not entirely necessary) use of 3D and some remarkable character designs that help the viewer get a rough understanding of the characters’ personalities just by looking at them.

Beyond and probably even more so than its visual flair and appeal is the story’s heart. On the surface, it appears to be a ghoulish comedy, a fun romp with a few haunted house-style frights and nothing more. However, this is really a tale of courage and compassion, about the power of acceptance and how it’s perfectly fine, cool even, to be different. Everybody can relate to being under-appreciated, and we’ve all felt like outcasts at one point or another. Just like superhero comics like Superman or the X-Men, ParaNorman is a fantasy in which the main character proves his worth, the very qualities for which he is shunned coming into play and ultimately saving those that scorned him. Kodi Smit-McPhee of Let Me In fame is excellent as the voice of Norman, and the rest of the voice cast provides similarly evocative and, when need be, over-the-top vocal performances that really tie it all together.

This is also a loving homage to horror film clichés and to the appeal of their kitsch – there’s a great bit near the start when Norman is watching an old zombie movie, as he often does, and the actress in the film pushes aside a boom mike that accidentally comes into frame. Norman is a bit of a throwback in that he’s a horror movie geek, just as many prominent filmmakers today (Guillermo del Toro and Edgar Wright, to name two) are. There is a good mix of gross-out moments and small scares leading up to a bona fide epic and rather intense climactic confrontation. The movie is also a throwback in that it’s a kids’ adventure flick in the vein of Stand By Me, E.T.: The Extraterrestrial and The Goonies, and in fact shares a lot in common with last year’s Super 8.

In addition to its striking style, ParaNorman boasts a certain earnestness in its story-telling, very relatable characters and solid story arcs and evolution for them to undergo. It’s quite the laugh riot, featuring a good mix of slapstick pratfalls and more nuanced humour, but is also very rich emotionally, providing surprisingly mature ponderings on mortality. It’s also a fable about standing up to bullies, and taking pride in one’s own quirks, however unappreciated by the rest they may be. This reviewer will readily admit that he cried buckets through the whole film and particularly at the end. This doesn’t feel like your garden variety, over-commercially driven Hollywood cash-in; it’s kid-aimed but never pandering, and is something almost everybody (barring the really young ‘uns) should see.

SUMMARY: This is a near-perfect brew of wit, heart, humour, adventure, scares and BRAINS – an outstanding piece of animation which doesn’t feel stale, silly and zombie-eaten like much of its animated peers. 


Jedd Jong

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Campaign movie review

For F*** Magazine, Singapore


Starring: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott
Directed by: Jay Roach

It has been said that politics is show-business for ugly people; and an election year is as good as any for politics and show-business to properly collide. Jay Roach, who has helmed his fair share of comedies (the Austin Powers movies, Meet the Parents) and political films (Recount, Game Change) takes the reins and lets Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis loose; the shenanigans guaranteed to abound. As the tagline on the poster goes, “may the best loser win”.

Ferrell plays Cam Brady, Congressman of North Carolina’s 14th District who has gone uncontested for four terms and is about to take his fifth, with his loyal campaign manager Mitch (Sudeikis) helping him along. However, he suffers an embarrassing scandal and corrupt businessmen the Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd) aim to capitalize on this by sponsoring their own candidate to run against him. Enter Marty Huggins (Galifianakis), the son of their associate Raymond (Brian Cox). Huggins is slovenly, slow-witted, genteel and good-hearted – everything Brady is not. Naturally, the slick career politician underestimates his inept opponent and writes him off.

The Motch brothers dispatch expert campaign manager and image consultant Tim Wattley (Dylan McDermott) to overhaul the Huggins family, wife Mitzi (Sarah Baker) included and coaches Marty in creating an appealing facade to his voters. His poll numbers are also boosted when Cam punches a baby by mistake, and both parties get on with the mudslinging. It appears that in the midst of such fiascos as Cam getting bitten by a snake in a church, Marty shooting Cam in the leg with a rifle and various audacious campaign ads, Cam may be growing a conscience and Marty may be reluctantly letting go of his. In the background, the scheming Motch brothers are edging closer to their shady master plan and the two candidates may have to put down their swords and realise what really matters in their lives.

If you’re in need of a laugh or two, take part in this campaign. It is, first and foremost, a comedy, and is successful in that regard. Outrageous moments unfold in what’s presented as our world, established via cameos by news personalities such as Wolf Blitzer, Piers Morgan and Chris Matthews as themselves. It provides some grounding for several gut-busting sequences of outlandish humour which clearly couldn’t take place in the real world – though seeing how crazy American politics can get, we can’t be sure of that. Comedies of this nature can sometimes fall into a pattern of predictability when one can telegraph the gags a mile away, and while many of the best bits are in the trailers, there are still some moments that caught this reviewer delightfully off guard. “Never work with children or animals,” goes the quote attributed to W.C. Fields – thing is, children and animals are ripe sources of humour and the film knows this very well. The awkward scene where Marty has his wife and two sons own up to any skeletons in their closets while at the dinner table is the height of cringe comedy, and Marty’s two pugs (whom Cam labels as “Chinese dogs”) are funny even when they just sit there. There’s also a priceless cameo from a popular animal star who has gained fame in the past year for his role in an Oscar-winning film.

Being centred on a political campaign (hence the title) the film’s two most important assets are its leads. Ferrell and Galifianakis have made their names as cinematic schmucks – two different kinds of schmucks, but schmucks nonetheless. Ferrell’s Cam Brady is all haughty pandering, his overly-coiffed hair the best display of his hubris. Galifianakis augments the timbre and cadence of his voice to come off as the pudgy, odd, lovable idiot who pays little attention to his self image. Galifianakis’ uncle Nick actually ran for Congress in North Carolina, so he has some personal history there. When the two clash, it’s a real hoot to watch and it is oddly satisfying to see Marty one-up Cam after the latter has dealt out so much shame to him.

The show is almost entirely taken from out under both their noses by Dylan McDermott as Tim Wattley. The handsome actor, best known from TV’s The Practice, is suave, tough, decisive and almost omnipresent as the ‘magical’ campaign manager and Mr Fix-it. He’s never seen outside of a sharp suit or stylish leather jacket and invades the private space of Huggins with no qualms whatsoever. It’s not an inherently ultra-funny part, but McDermott plays it just right – not too flat and not wildly over-the-top – such that he manages to steal Ferrell and Galifianakis’ thunder. On the other camp, Sudeikis is pretty good too as Cam’s campaign manager Mitch. He’s playing the straight man to Ferrell, in essence, who has his head screwed on tighter than Cam does and whose advice Cam often blithely ignores. Sudeikis’ moment to shine is when Mitch has to mime the words to the Lord’s Prayer when Marty puts Cam on the spot, the latter having forgotten how the prayer goes. It’s a bit of a pity that veterans Brian Cox, John Lithgow and Dan Aykroyd are somewhat wasted in their limited roles, though.

The main point of contention with The Campaign is how very broad the comedy can be at times. It seems that Roach takes a baseball bat to the hide of the American political system, when in some instances a sharp needle would have worked better instead. The movie often opts for cruder situations more likely to draw a reaction and ends up sacrificing some degree of insight in the process. A political comedy would probably be more suited to a darker tone and jabs of a subtler and more elegant nature, as opposed to the post-Apatow comic stylings on display here. Don’t get us wrong, it is still very funny, just not as biting or observant as it could have been, given the material and timing of its release.

SUMMARY: The Campaign promises laughs and doles them out in spades, but doesn’t use its platform to examine and scrutinize the system via its comedic lens as well as it could have.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong