Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Life of Pi

For F*** Magazine


Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall
Genre: Adventure, Drama
Run Time: 127 mins
Opens: 29 November 2012
Rating: PG - Some Frightening Scenes

There’s no undertaking quite like filming the “unfilmable”, and director Ang Lee and co. have bravely stepped up to the plate with this adaptation of Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi. Many deemed translating the much-loved story to the big screen an impossible task, and it has been a long road to fruition – but the glorious end result probably makes it all worthwhile.

As a framing device, we have an author (Rafe Spall) visiting Piscene Molitor “Pi” Patel (Khan), who sets the stage with some backstory, including his relationship with his parents, his encounters with various faiths and the origins of his peculiar name. Then, he recounts for the writer a life-changing event: his getting stranded at sea for 227 days on a lifeboat alongside a Bengal Tiger named Richard Parker. 16-year-old Pi (Sharma) must learn to survive not only the harshness of the open ocean, but a hungry big cat too, as he embarks on an adventure that is as much spiritual and emotional as it is physical.

Life of Pi has been described as a “spiritual odyssey”, a coming-of-age film of “magical realism” dealing with faith and philosophical themes. Now, all this makes it sound lofty and inaccessible and may turn off many a viewer. It’s a good thing then that Lee has succeeded in making a deep, complex film very accessible and appealing. The first part of the film, in which an adult Pi speaks about his past, draws the viewer into a somewhat heightened, fantastical world, preparing them for the adventure ahead.

While Life of Pi isn’t one of those head-scratchingly confusing arthouse films, it’s also as far from your typical blockbuster as you can get – it’s not a movie for the particularly impatient, and is one of those “experiential”-type films that you need to just soak in. One could also describe Life of Pi as sort of a surrealistic buddy road trip movie – like in every such film; there are two characters on a journey, whose relationship is essential to the plot. It’s just that instead of, say, two stoners in a beat-up old car; it’s a boy and a Bengal tiger in a lifeboat. Now, before you begin groaning, let it be known that Lee’s famous visual flair is in full force here: this is probably the most-gorgeous looking film of the year and a breathtaking technical achievement in every regard. From a harrowing shipwreck to a whale leaping out of plankton-illuminated waters, it’s practically a parade of one awe-inspiring image after the other.

The framing device of an adult Pi telling his story to the writer is similar to that used in Titanic, and Spall and Khan put in commendable supporting performances, their relatively mundane meeting providing contrast to the larger-than-life odyssey that forms most of the movie. For the bulk of the film however, Pi is played by first-time actor Sharma, who beat out 3,000 other hopefuls for the part. He very nearly missed out too, as he wasn’t initially interested in auditioning, having tagged along for his younger brother’s audition. He gamely takes on the Herculean task of carrying a huge film (almost) all by his lonesome, something which would be daunting to any actor, let alone one with no prior film experience. Furthermore, Sharma spends most of the film acting opposite nothing, which isn’t an easy thing to do.

You probably won’t realise he is acting against nothing though, because of how incredibly lifelike Richard Parker the tiger and the other animals in the film look. Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer of Rhythm and Hues Studios and his team have created a digital tiger that captures all the nuances of the real thing, every snarl, crouch and lunge feeling suitably animalistic and not plasticky or artificial as it well could have been. Extensive visual effects work was also used to make it look convincingly like Pi and Richard Parker were out on the open ocean, when in reality the film was shot in several water tanks in an abandoned airport in Taichung, Taiwan. Many films have come under fire for an overuse of computer-generated imagery, but along comes this film that serves as a perfect example for how the technology can be used as an effective storytelling tool.

3D has also been the target of similar accusations, and not without reason. However, Lee’s use of stereoscopic filmmaking is markedly artful and in many places adds to the otherworldly feel of Pi and Richard Parker’s sea voyage. There’s even a moment where the tiger lunges out of the screen – it could be seen as gimmicky, but is actually quite fun. Shooting the film in 3D was one of many elements that made Life of Pi a really difficult film to put together – animals, water, “unfilmable” source material and 3D on top of all of that?

Lee has admitted that this was the toughest film he’s had to work on, but he and the cast and crew of Life of Pi can rest assured that they’ve been amply rewarded with something of a masterpiece. If there’s any major thing this reviewer didn’t quite enjoy of the film, it would be the film’s attempt to incorporate the “twist ending” of the book, which seems to slightly undermine everything which came before. In the end, however, this is that rare movie which strikes a balance between the epic and the intimate, pure and refined in its storytelling – what movies are meant to be.

SUMMARY: It is, indeed, a wonderful Life – and certainly deserving of more than 3.142 stars.

RATING: 4 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

As published in F*** Magazine Issue #34

Movie review                                                                                                               10/10/12


Starring the voices of: Peter Weller, Ariel Winter, Gary Anthony Williams, David Selby
Directed by: Jay Oliva

Some Batman fans weren’t all too pleased that Christopher Nolan had chosen the title “The Dark Knight Rises” for the final instalment in his Batman film trilogy – because to them, the acronym “TDKR” referred to The Dark Knight Returns, and ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ alone. ‘The Dark Knight Returns’, written and drawn by Frank Miller with inks by Klaus Janson and colours by Lynn Varley, was published in 1986 in four issues and is arguably one of the most important graphic novels ever created. Along with Miller’s other defining Batman work ‘Batman: Year One’ (which has also been adapted into an animated film), ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ was credited for making Batman truly grim and gritty again. No more pink aliens, colourful Batsuits or ridiculous one-liners folks: if you like your Batman dark and no-nonsense (as he should be), this graphic novel is to thank for that.

Fans got little tastes of what an animated version of this now-classic yarn would look like in an episode of ‘The New Batman Adventures’ entitled ‘Legends of the Dark Knight’, and in the ‘Artifacts’ episode from ‘The Batman’. Now, at long last, we have an actual, full-length animated version of the story with this two-part film, the latest in DC’s mostly stellar stable of direct-to-video animated movies.

The film is set some time after Batman’s (Weller) retirement; Gotham having become a dystopia terrorised by a gang of mutants. Commissioner James Gordon (Selby) is near retirement himself, and is now privy to Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne. Harvey Dent (Wade Williams), formerly Two-Face, has apparently been cured of his affliction, his face repaired by a plastic surgeon and his psyche supposedly mended by head psychiatrist Bartholomew Wolper (Michael McKean) of the ‘Arkham Home for the Emotionally Troubled’. The increasingly violent activity of the mutant gang, with the brutish mutant leader (Gary Anthony Williams) at the helm, brings Batman back out of retirement. He’s got a new Robin too: teenager Carrie Kelley, much to the disapproval of Bruce’s aging butler Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Jackson (no, not that one)). However, much as they need Batman, the people of Gotham are divided as to whether they’re willing to welcome him back, some viewing him as a fascist vigilante who is as much responsible for creating Gotham’s supervillains as he is fighting them.

Those still on a high from the release of ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, and its impending arrival on home video formats, should definitely check this animated film out. Christopher Nolan has included more than a few nods to ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ in his films, including the tank-like appearance of the Batmobile and the small scene between the two cops (“boy, are you in for a show tonight, son”) in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. This film has, in turn, also been influenced by that trilogy, featuring a musical score from Christopher Drake that, with its low electronic drum beats and repetitive bass line, is quite Hans Zimmer-y, and the theme sounds suspiciously like it was plucked straight out of ‘Inception’.

Thing is, as iconic as the story is, it isn’t exactly accessible to the average reader, being pretty rough around the edges in its brutality, featuring a ‘Dirty Harry’-style take on Batman and drawn in Frank Miller’s decidedly grungy style. This film, while staying as faithful an adaptation as a PG-13 animated flick can, refines it a little, the character models cleaner while still recognisable as following Miller’s designs. The animation is of a better quality than that of the ‘Batman: Year One’ adaptation, and has something of an anime feel – if not in character design, then in backgrounds, lighting and ‘camera’ movement. This is quite a dramatic and dynamic looking film, the animators having done a very good job translating Miller’s story from the page to the screen, and including a decent amount of cool-looking action that’s still adequately brutal. The clash between Batman and the Mutant Leader in a mud pit is undoubtedly the centrepiece of the movie, and doesn’t disappoint.

Besides the visuals, it’s the voice work that’s crucial to completing the transition of ‘The Dark Knight Returns’ from page to screen, and the film shines in this regard too. Peter Weller makes for a great elderly Batman, his voice naturally deep and gravelly as opposed to sounding forced or silly as some think Christian Bale’s Batman voice did. Also, it’s RoboCop as Batman! Now that’s something to geek out over. The DC animated films have had a tradition of featuring television stars as voice actors and this one is no different, with Ariel Winter (Alex from ‘Modern Family’) as Carrie Kelley. It may be a little odd for the uninitiated to see a red-headed tomboy dressed in the Robin outfit, but Winter sells it, sounding every bit the plucky teen-turned-new-protégé. For this reviewer, David Selby as Commissioner Gordon is the standout. His performance is very reminiscent of that of Bob Hastings from ‘Batman the Animated Series’, albeit tuned to sound a little older.

The main difference between the book and the film is that most of Batman’s inner monologues have been excised, probably because these would be rather clumsy as voiceover bits. This could be seen as either a good or a bad thing: for many, Batman’s ‘narration’ of the comic was a big part of what made it so memorable, offering a good look into the emotional and physical toll being Batman has taken on him. However, it also showed that Frank Miller was developing signs of “early onset Miller-itis”, with lines that may sound silly if spoken out loud. The newscaster exposition sequences, on the other hand, are intact. While a useful narrative tool in the graphic novel, these ‘talking heads’ scenes are very static onscreen, and the weakest spots of this animated movie. Thankfully, there’s a great story to follow here, and there are bits and pieces which satisfyingly tie this back to the Batman we’re all familiar with, such as the inclusion of stalwart Batman allies Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, a flashback to the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents, and Jason Todd’s Robin costume standing in the Batcave as a memorial to the slain Robin.

Though it may annoy some that they have to wait for the conclusion, it was a relatively good decision to split this film into two parts, because with a ‘Part 2’ coming early next year, this one doesn’t have to cram the story into its 77-minute runtime. ‘Part 1’ ends on quite the cliffhanger that well and truly whets the appetite for the follow-up. It’s good to see the Dark Knight return, and if you’re still on a Batman kick from ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, this is sure to keep you on that high.


Jedd Jong 

Saturday, November 3, 2012


As published in Issue #34 of F*** Magazine, Singapore


Director: Ben Affleck
Cast:  Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 120 mins
Opens: 13 November 2012
Rating: PG13 – Coarse Language

Arnold Schwarzenegger recently released his autobiography, entitled ‘Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story’. Well Arnie, it seems you have some serious competition in that department; because Argo is as unbelievable as true stories come. Ben Affleck’s historical political thriller recounts the U.S.-Canadian joint covert rescue operation nicknamed ‘The Canadian Caper’, drawing on declassified documents and personal accounts, laying it all out in incredible fashion.

It is 1979, and Iranian militants have stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 52 Americans hostage. Six others manage to escape and seek refuge at the residence of the kindly Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber). The CIA calls upon exfiltration and disguise expert Tony Mendez (Affleck), working with his boss Jack O’Donnell (Cranston) to devise a plan to rescue the six consulate workers. When his son watches Battle for the Planet of the Apes on TV, Mendez is inspired and hatches a crazy plan: he will enter Iran under the pretence of doing location scouting for a science-fiction fantasy film. With the help of Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (Goodman) and Hollywood film producer Lester Siegel (Arkin), Mendez concocts the sham-movie Argo, and thus begins the harrowing mission to smuggle the six Americans out of Iran, having them pose as a Canadian film crew.

Producers George Clooney, David Klawans and Grant Heslov read an article in Wired magazine about the ‘Canadian Caper’ and thought it would make for a great movie. Guess what: they were absolutely right. Ben Affleck delivers a crackling thriller which hits all the right notes: it feels thoroughly authentic with meticulous details ensuring the audience is convinced of the '70s period setting; it’s taut and exciting with the very high stakes feeling very real and it’s leavened with a good helping of humour revolving around the fickle Hollywood machine.

When the trailer was released, some concerns arose that the tone of the film would be uneven, lurching from serious political drama to light-hearted movie business satire. Well, you can rest assured that director Affleck and screenwriter Chris Terrio have managed to weave both elements of the story together and very cleverly presented an interesting juxtaposition. In the film and, presumably, in real life too, nobody seemed convinced for a second that the idea would work, and just as Mendez had to sell the CIA on it, so Affleck has to sell the idea to the film-going public – and that, he does. Goodman and Arkin are welcome presences, their affability providing much-needed respite from the intense goings-on in Iran. Hollywood is presented as a place where nothing is meant to be taken seriously, vis-à-vis Washington D.C. and Langley Virginia, where everything is meant to be taken seriously, and we get to see just how much trouble Tony Mendez had to go to in order to assemble ‘The Hollywood Option’, and in how short an amount of time he had as well.

Ben Affleck seems to have regained all the credibility he lost following the likes of Gigli and Daredevil with his directing stints in recent years, and this film most definitely continues that winning streak. He presides over the picture with a sure hand, expertly ratcheting up the tension (though he sometimes appears overly dependent on 360 degree camera moves) and giving the film something of a retro feel (notice the old-school Warner Bros. logo at the beginning) without going overboard. The climactic airport tarmac pursuit is a bona fide edge-of-your-seat moment. He’s not too shabby in front of the camera either, putting in a low-key performance while conveying the quiet valour and determination of the Mendez character very well.

During the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, there were some murmurs from the Canadian crowd that the film unfairly overlooked the involvement of the Canadian government in the rescue operation – it’s called the ‘Canadian Caper’ after all. Ben Affleck agreed to augment the postscript text, noting that the CIA’s actions were performed in conjunction with Canadian intelligence. This reviewer can’t vouch for the veracity of the film’s portrayal of historical events, but he can say this: it really doesn’t feel like your average overly-embellished ‘loosely based on a true story’ Hollywood deal, and that’s something to be admired. Argo is an expertly-crafted tribute to the power of ingenuity, bravery and co-operation (cheesy though that may sound) and makes for engrossing, compelling and powerful entertainment.

SUMMARY: Ben Affleck has a monumental success on his hands with this intriguing, exciting and smart historical political thriller. Go see Argo now!

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 STARS

Jedd Jong

Thursday, November 1, 2012


For F*** Magazine, Singapore

2011 Release

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kristen Wiig, Seth Rogen (voice)
Director: Greg Mottola

            Ever since 1982’s E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, everyone has wanted to have an alien as a best friend – sometimes a friendly alien is more fun than a vicious invasion. 19 years later, British comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost give us “E.T.” for grown-ups. They star as two British nerds on a pilgrimage to the San Diego Comic Con, and who go on a road trip to fabled UFO hotspots. On the way, they pick up escapee alien Paul (voiced by Rogen), meet trailer park-owner Ruth (Wiig) and evade Man-in-black agent Zoil (Jason Bateman).

            This movie is first and foremost a celebration for nerds everyone, a joyous ode to geekdom. Nerds need not be ashamed of themselves, and this film shows that they have the capacity to be awesome. Loving references to science-fiction favourites are scattered throughout the movie, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek, The X-Files and more get nice nods. The best part is that there’s a real story, and good characters that go on a journey and finish the film changed people (and aliens).

            Pegg and Frost share an easy bromance that is carried over from their cult hits Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. Their comic timing seems almost synchronised, but they wisely do not hog the limelight, allowing the supporting characters to shine as much as they do. They also prove themselves capable of serious acting during some dramatic moments. However, there are moments when there’s a rift between their style of humour and the more accessible, crasser material that Superbad director Mottola brings to the table.

Kristen Wiig makes for an interesting love interest as the one-eyed Ruth, but the film attempts to deal with the theme of science vs. religion and gets a little wobbly there. Jason Bateman is an interesting casting choice as the steely and no-nonsense Agent Zoil and Sigourney Weaver is actually quite scary as his boss, “The Big Man”. Watch out for the obligatory Aliens reference.

Seth Rogen’s laid back voice is a good fit for the foul-mouthed, pot-smoking Paul. The thing that’s interesting is that not only has Paul been influenced by our pop culture, he’s made his mark on it too, hence a scene where he advises Steven Spielberg via telephone about the special abilities he should give to E.T. The visual effects work is commendable, Paul seeming like a real character and possessing very expressive, liquid eyes.  

Even for those who aren’t sci-fi aficionados, Paul is a genuinely funny joyride packed with a good amount of belly-laughs. Of course, it helps a little if you know your pop culture references, but the enjoyment isn’t contingent on that.

SUMMARY: An ode to the joys of being a nerd, Paul is carried by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s chemistry. It’s a whooping good time and is one of the better comedies this year so far.