Wednesday, January 29, 2014

RoboCop (2014)

For F*** Magazine


Director: José Padilha
Cast:         Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, Abbie Cornish, Jackie Earle Haley, Michael K. Williams, Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, Marianne Jean-Baptiste
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Run Time: 121 mins
Opens: 30 January 2014
Rating: PG13 (Violence & Brief Coarse Language)

It’s been 27 years since Peter Weller stepped out of a police cruiser and into pop culture iconography in Paul Verhoeven’s now-classic RoboCop. A violent, biting and darkly comic piece of sci-fi action satire, the film had a lot to say about the state of late-80s America and cleverly hid all that beneath its franchise-ready action hero. The 1987 film spawned two sequels, various incarnations on TV both live-action and animated, comic book crossovers (Robocop vs. The Terminator!), video games, toys and the like, and after years in development hell, Alex Murphy returns to the big screen in this reboot from director José Padilha.

It is the near future and robots manufactured by conglomerate OmniCorp are helping to keep the peace abroad, but are still banned from enforcing the law on domestic streets by a bill passed by the U.S. senate. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Keaton) enlists the help of his chief scientist Dr. Dennett Norton (Oldman) to create a robot-human hybrid to convince Americans of the viability of a robotic police force. Dr. Norton’s guinea pig arrives in the form of Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Kinnaman), near-death after being caught in a car bombing. Murphy’s wife Clara (Cornish) and son David (John Paul Ruttan) are uneasy about his new form, while fiery political commentator and TV host Pat Novak (Jackson) champions the arrival of Robocop onto the scene. Murphy is now a souped-up crime-fighter, a shiny commercial product, a poster boy – but is he still a human being under all of that?

Change is painful. We at F*** are geeks and fans and we totally acknowledge that and this review is going to be filled with comparisons to the original RoboCop. The RoboCop reboot has been met with outright hostility from the moment of its announcement, many holding Verhoeven’s film sacrosanct. The internet erupted with cries of “I won’t buy that for a dollar”. Robocop’s matte-black suit was revealed, and what followed was possibly the largest backlash against a cosmetic change to a character since Michael Bay put flames on Optimus Prime. And what’s up with that ungloved hand? Suffice it to say that we definitely had our doubts going into this but the end result was surprisingly decent.

Yes, we’ve all heard that remakes and sequels are the only things that get made these days, but a remake/sequel doesn’t have to be bad and first of all needs to make a good case for its existence. RoboCop 2014 does that to a degree. There’s still satire, the targets are different and it’s heavy-handed, but it’s still there. Most of it is provided in the form of Samuel L. Jackson’s future-Glenn Beck who proclaims America as “robophobic” and whose show The Novak Element helps establish and frame the world of the film. An opening scene is set in “sunny Tehran” where suicide bombers protest the presence of American OmniCorp robo-troops – uncomfortable, questionable in terms of taste, but more daring than we expected from this movie. Greedy mega-corporations take the most hits – which is more than a little ironic seeing as this comes from Columbia Pictures, a Sony entertainment company.

Joshua Zetumer’s screenplay is well-written, there’s forward momentum to the story and it doesn’t drag its feet, though some references to the original movie are somewhat awkwardly shoehorned in. The story differs in quite a number of ways from the 1987 film. The PG-13 rating does mean that the brutality is less in-your-face, but this does not cripple the film and there are several very impactful scenes of body horror. However, it is disappointing that the character of Anne Lewis, the tough cop who was also the primary refuge for Murphy’s humanity after his reconstruction, has been dropped. Robocop is built in a lab in China and his new, sleek Iron-Bat-Dredd look can’t compare with the charm of the shiny, bulky Detroit steel designed and built by Rob Bottin for the 1987 picture. The camera also has a rather annoying tendency to swoop 360 degrees around characters whenever they’re having a conversation, in addition to going all shaky-cam during action sequences.

This is Joel Kinnaman’s first major lead role, and he’s not bad, but this reviewer did miss the distinct physicality and vocal performance Peter Weller brought so memorably to the part of Alex Murphy. The weakest part of the film is probably the relationship between Murphy and his wife, seeing as how Kinnaman and Abbie Cornish have next to no chemistry so the audience can’t feel the loss and hurt of separation and of Murphy possibly losing his humanity as deeply as would have been possible. A scene early in the film where they’re about to make love but stop short because, well, PG-13 is markedly rote and passionless. This take goes into the impact that Murphy’s transformation has on his family in greater detail and a good chunk of the movie is spent contemplating philosophical issues far deeper than the title RoboCop would suggest, but to mixed results, seeing as Murphy’s lack of closure in the 1987 film was a heart breaking driving force of the narrative and he actually gets to see Clara and David again here.

In the midst of the jeremiad of gripes stalwart RoboCop fans had about this reboot, one would occasionally hear “well, that supporting cast sounds awesome” – and that is wholly accurate. Gary Oldman lends the film heart and credibility, completely believable as a well-meaning but ultimately flawed scientist and in some ways he’s even more of a “wife” to Murphy than Clara is. Michael Keaton, replacing the initially-cast Hugh Laurie, is oh so deliciously slimy as corporate creep Raymond Sellars. Samuel L. Jackson brings the bluster and the posturing, perfectly cast as a larger-than-life, hyperbole-prone TV personality. Jackie Earle Haley entertains as well as the mercenary who’s put in charge of training Robocop and is none too fond of Murphy, dubbing him “tin man”. Haley has the remarkable ability to raise one eyebrow and form wrinkles on only one side of his forehead; he makes this face a lot.

Nothing’s going to replace one of the best films of 1987 but let’s face it, a carefully-handled update might win the original a new generation of fans and it’s not like it’s going to wipe Verhoeven’s movie from existence. Director José Padilha has put together a remake that’s slick, sharp and yes, a little sanitized, but not completely de-fanged nor pointless and soulless. This ends up trumping 2012’s Total Recall, also a remake of a Verhoeven sci-fi action flick. The prime directive here is to entertain, and that, RebootCop does. And hearing Basil Poledouris' original theme tune over the opening titles will probably put a smile on your face even if you were dead-set against this remake.

Summary: It won’t be easy for die-hard fans of the original to warm up to this remake, but Padilha’s RoboCop is a surprisingly solid outing, benefitting from several clever story changes and a killer supporting cast.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ilo Ilo launches on DVD

For F*** Magazine


by Jedd Jong

On January 21st, the Ilo Ilo DVD launch party and celebration was held at The Bank Bar in Singapore's financial district, hosted by Scorpio East, sponsored by Remy Martin. In attendance were the film's director Anthony Chen, stars Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tianwen and Koh Jia Ler, Scorpio East CEO Ko Chuan Aun and Remy Martin managing director Xavier Desaulles.

Ilo Ilo has been screened at 36 film festivals and has clinched 26 awards. On display at the party were some of the most prestigious: the Camera D'or Anthony Chen won at the Cannes Film Festival and the four Golden Horse trophies awarded to the film at the ceremony in Taiwan. The special guests partook in an yu sheng toss, a Chinese New Year tradition to usher in prosperity for the new year. Autographed copies of the DVD also were put on sale to benefit the Red Cross.
Ilo Ilo is available on DVD from 23 January onwards.

The DVD includes a 16-page booklet and bonus materials such as Behind-the-scenes, Singapore Gala and Press Conference Highlights and retails at $19.90.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

From Vegas to Macau

For F*** Magazine

Director: Wong Jing
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Nicholas Tse, Chapman To, Jing Tian, Gao Hu, Annie Wu, Michael Wong, Max Zhang, Philip Ng, Meng Yao
Genre: Comedy, Action
Run Time: 94 mins
Opens: 30 January 2014
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language And Violence)

Chinese New Year has rolled around again, and “luck” and “prosperity” are the operating words, many taking the season to hit the tables. Writer-director Wong Jing re-teams with star Chow Yun Fat for From Vegas to Macau, a kinda-sorta fourth entry in the God of Gamblers film series. The title is a misnomer as there are no globe-trotting hijinks and none of the film is set in Vegas. It is mostly set in Macau so the title isn’t a total bamboozle. Still, our advice is to keep away from this gambling den and do something more worthwhile with your hongbao money.

Benz (Hui), his son Cool (Tse) and buffoonish nephew Karl (To) operate as self-proclaimed Robin Hoods of the Hong Kong underworld, tripping up and humiliating criminals. Benz receives a call from his old friend, master con artist and gifted gambler Master Ken (Chow), who has left behind his life of crime to become a security consultant for casinos in Vegas. Master Ken invites Benz, Cool and Karl to Macau, both Cool and Karl falling for his daughter Rainbow (Tong). In the meantime, Cool’s half-brother Lionel (Ng) and his police partner Luo Xin (Jing) are undercover, attempting to unravel a match-fixing conspiracy. The mastermind is Mr. Ko (Gao), the head of the D.O.A. foundation, which is really a front for a money-laundering syndicate. The police goes to Master Ken for help, and Mr. Ko puts out a hit on Ken, sending assassin Ghost Eyes (Zhang) after the gambler. Benz, Cool, Karl and Ken’s beloved daughter soon find themselves in danger too, Master Ken having to summon all his skills to defeat Mr. Ko.

“Now ev’ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin'/Is knowin' what to throw away and knowin’ what to keep,” so sang Kenny Rogers. There’s a lot in From Vegas to Macau that should have been thrown away, and wasn’t. This is a crime caper forcefully injected with an overdose of mo lei tau (nonsense talk); the humour broad, aggressive and mostly painfully unfunny. It’s a loud, brash assault on the senses, from the unnecessary stylistic flourishes to the cartoon sound effects to the gross-out sight gags. The film wants us to care about a treacherous criminal scheme and root for the protagonists to put an end to it, but the gags and pratfalls are so boorishly unsophisticated that they completely undermine any drama or tension and render the stakes null.

The “it’s a comedy! It’s supposed to be goofy!” defence will eventually pop up, so allow us to say this: the tone that would work best given the premise is something along the lines of the Ocean’s Eleven reboot series: sharp, wry, occasionally quite silly but never insultingly so. Here, Chapman To makes so many references to his genitals we probably could draw them, but would rather not. The D.O.A. assembly, with its national stereotypes, recalls the S.P.E.C.T.R.E. organization from the old Bond flicks and the distasteful handling of female characters is even more misogynistic here than in those films. There’s a racist jibe and a fat joke literally within two seconds of each other – it’s more casually offensive than it is intentionally un-PC, but in some ways, that makes the tone of the jokes worse.

There are some ideas and sequences which manage to be mildly amusing or fairly thrilling. Philip Ng, a skilled martial artist, has a fight scene in the D.O.A. offices which ends with him bailing out by way of BASE jump. However, most of the stuff is derivative – the “bungee ballet” performed in the mansion hall by Kimmy Tong is lifted directly from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Said mansion is also bizarrely booby-trapped: motorised suits of armour function as a home security system and full-sized antique cannons magically pop out of the floor. It’s something you’d expect to find in a Scooby Doo cartoon. And yes, there are the showy displays of card-shuffling skill, where it’s constantly and painfully obvious that those are computer-generated clubs, spades, diamonds and hearts.

Chow Yun Fat is likeable, charismatic and charming rather than brooding and badass, and there’s nothing wrong with that. He’s forced to make a fool of himself, engaging in not one but two cringe worthy musical numbers, but the guy is cool no matter what and at least he looks like he’s having fun. His Master Ken character is given such ludicrous abilities that it seems more like sorcery than sleight of hand. He can perfectly duplicate the sound of gunfire with nothing but his voice and there’s a scene in which he magically extracts truth serum from a glass of wine, as if it was some kind of spell. Nicholas Tse is a serviceable straight man, mercifully spared from having to ham it up alongside his cast-mates.

Watch this movie and you’ll find that Chapman To’s Karl will become the annoying comic relief sidekick you think of whenever the phrase “annoying comic relief sidekick” is uttered. He provides little comedy and zero relief and his grating tomfoolery is so pervasive it gives Jar Jar Binks and Ruby Rhod a run for their money. Yes, we went there. Jing Tian has become a hot property in the Hong Kong and China film industry and while it looks like her character is a capable policewoman, it’s not long before she’s compromised by truth serum and ends up thoroughly embarrassing herself in front of Ken. Kimmy Tong’s turn as flighty heiress Rainbow is pretty inconsequential; she’s depicted being able to fend for herself but is promptly put in jeopardy during the climax. At least Max Zhang’s pretty cool as the deadly killer henchman.

Wong Jing has been very open about his contempt for critics, and the self-referential, self-aggrandizing “meta” jokes in From Vegas to Macau will not help his case. Apropos of nothing, Karl exclaims “I love Wong Jing!” and the director ends up being integral to pulling off the final gambit. For something clearly intended as a crowd-pleasing Chinese New Year blockbuster, this reviewer found From Vegas to Macau alienating and annoying, too aimlessly madcap to entertain. Stick around during the end credits for a stinger scene, featuring a cameo that…huh? How does that even work?!

Summary: For the love of the god of gamblers, please go blow on somebody else’s dice. From Vegas to Macau to the rubbish heap.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I, Frankenstein

For F*** Magazine


Director: Stuart Beattie
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Yvonne Strahovski, Bill Nighy, Socratis Otto, Miranda Otto, Caitlin Stasey, Jai Courtney, Aden Young, Deniz Akdeniz
Genre: Action, Sci-Fi
Run Time: 92 mins
Opens: 23 January 2014
Rating: PG13 (Violence)

So, let’s get this out of the way: yes, he’s “Frankenstein’s Monster”, “Frankenstein” is the name of the scientist who created him. We guess I, Frankenstein’s Monster just doesn’t quite have the same ring to it. This take on Mary Shelley’s classic horror tale is based on the Darkstorm Comics title by writer-actor Kevin Grevioux (who also appears in the film as henchman Dekar). Yes, the titular creature in the comics looks a lot more like how he’s traditionally depicted than what they went with for the movie, but rippling abs and barely noticeable scars notwithstanding, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised by the latest onscreen retelling of The Modern Prometheus.

The film starts with an image familiar to those who have read Mary Shelley’s novel: that of a lone figure trudging across the snow carrying a body on his back. The figure is Frankenstein’s Monster (Eckhart) and the body, that of his creator, Victorian scientist Victor Frankenstein (Young). Without a soul but somehow immortal, the creature finds himself caught in the middle of a celestial battle between the demons of hell and “gargoyles”, a contingent of angels who watch over humanity disguised as those stone sculptures. The Gargoyle queen Leonore (Otto) christens the creature “Adam”, and he takes the last name of his creator. It is more than 200 years later and the demon prince Naberius (Nighy) has his sights set on Adam, who is the key to the formation of a hellish army with which Naberius plans to conquer the world. In his human guise of “Charles Wessex”, Naberius has hired electrophysiologist Terra Ward (Strahovski) to conduct re-animation experiments; Terra keen to learn Adam’s secrets but unaware of the treacherous scheme they will be used to enact.

I, Frankenstein is adapted and directed by Stuart Beattie, whose diverse credits as a screenwriter include Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Collateral, 30 Days of Night and Australia. His first film as director was Australian young adult novel adaptation Tomorrow When the War Began (stars Caitlin Stasey and Chris Pang both have minor roles in this movie). I, Frankenstein is billed as being “from the producers of Underworld” and it does share a similar aesthetic and urban fantasy setting. Michelle McGahey’s production design is mesmerizing, the majestic cathedral sanctuary of the gargoyles and the horrific, cavernous demon corpse farm lending the picture a genuine sense of scale and grandeur.

There was every chance that I, Frankenstein would end up looking cheap and sloppily-made and there was no shortage of eyes being rolled upon the unveiling of the first trailer. Guess what: I, Frankenstein looks amazing. The visual effects work, mostly done by Australian houses Iloura and Cutting Edge, are top-notch stuff. The character animation on the angels in their gargoyle form is particularly noteworthy - the personality captured in the facial expressions, the mechanics of the wings and feathers, the mottled, stony texture – it reminded this reviewer of the Hulk in The Avengers. The visual representation of the “descending” of the demons and the “ascension” of the gargoyles (analogous to death) is also quite breathtaking, comprising dances of brilliant light and swirling fire. The Australia-based Makeup Effects Group may not be creatively named, but they sure produced some quality prosthetic makeup effects, particularly on the horned, reptilian natural form of the demons. The 3D conversion is not bad, especially in the flying scenes.

Yes, plopping Frankenstein’s Monster into a centuries-old supernatural feud does seem like an absurd and Hollywood-y jumping off point, but admirably enough, the film commits to the tone. Aaron Eckhart is a serviceable leading man, playing Adam as angsty, misunderstood and brooding, but never insufferably so. He never really got very good parts following the role that should have rocketed him up the A-list, that of Harvey “Two-Face” Dent in The Dark Knight. As mentioned earlier, he never convincingly looks like he was the result of a patchwork of multiple corpses, he just looks like Aaron Eckhart with a tiny bit of effects makeup. Eckhart acquits himself well in the action sequences, having trained in kali stick fighting to wield Adam’s weapons of choice. Also, props to Eckhart for delivering the line “I think your boss is a demon prince” with a totally straight face.

Interestingly, nobody in the supporting cast is terrible. This does seem like the kind of movie which would have some weak links acting-wise. Miranda Otto is stately and ethereal as Leonore, Chuck alum Yvonne Strahovski isn’t the least convincing cinematic “hot scientist” ever, Jai Courtney is gruff and grumpy as usual as her right-hand gargoyle Gideon and Hugo Weaving-esque Socratis Otto (no relation) is sufficiently menacing as hench-demon Zuriel.

Of course, it is Bill Nighy, dab hand at stealing the show, who walks away with hell (and the movie) in a handbasket. He relishes every chance to chew the scenery and seems to enjoy it after being denied the chance to make any kind of impact in Total Recall (2012). He bites into each word with entertaining gusto and dramatically arches his eyebrows the way only he can.

At first, I, Frankenstein looks like your run of the mill dumb, derivative CGI-fest and yes, there are goofy moments, the gargoyle concept is reminiscent of the premise of that 90s Disney cartoon series and it’s far from subtle (the demons in human form are all clad in business suits). But it does a fine job at being what it is, is never boring and manages to be sufficiently engrossing. It’s nowhere near as haphazardly sewn together as its protagonist and far as “oh, this is going to be bad” January releases go, it upends expectations.

Summary: Fire bad, but frankly, movie pretty good.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

How I Live Now

For F*** Magazine


Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, George MacKay, Tom Holland, Anna Chancellor, Harley Bird, Corey Johnson
Genre: Action, Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 101 mins
Opens: M18 (Sexual Scene)
Rating: 23 January 2014

The coming of age movie: it’s a genre that won’t go out of style. Anyone from any generation can relate to the concept of being post-pubescent, casting aside the carefree whims of childhood and “finding oneself”; wrestling with newfound thoughts and emotions, many attributable to the onset of hormones. Based on Meg Rosoff’s acclaimed young-adult novel of the same name, How I Live Now presents a coming-of-age tale of a different stripe, unfolding against the backdrop of a modern-day world war.

Elizabeth (Ronan) – or Daisy, as she insists on being called – is a morose, bratty New York teenager sent by her father to spend the summer in the English countryside. Playing host to Daisy is her Aunt Penn (Chancellor), sister of Daisy’s late mother. An academic expert on extremism and incredibly busy given the tense political climate around the world, Aunt Penn is called away on official business. So, Daisy is left with her cousins Isaac (Holland), Eddie (MacKay) and Piper (Bird). Though frosty and unwilling to participate at first, Daisy eventually settles into life away from the city. She also enters into a taboo romantic relationship with Eddie, but their blossoming romance is violently interrupted by the reality of an enemy occupation of the United Kingdom and the young lovers are torn apart. Daisy goes on the run with Piper, whom she has to care for, facing a variety of threats in the hopes of being eventually reunited with Eddie.

Young-adult novel adaptations have become attractive prospects to studio execs but are more often than not risky endeavours too. In 2013, The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones and Beautiful Creatures were critical and commercial duds. How I Live Now is atypical among such movies, the British production bearing an arthouse/indie flavour. The book it’s based on is not the first in a series of seven; there’s just one book. Lovingly photographed by cinematographer Franz Lustig, this is far from a wannabe Twilight or Hunger Games, though it has been mis-categorised as such. But this is not to say that it stands head and shoulders above its peers as some kind of picture of sophistication.

Director Kevin Macdonald, of The Last King of Scotland and State of Play fame, does a masterful job of quietly hinting at the larger world in which this intimate story takes place. When Daisy arrives at the airport, we glimpse the increased presence of uniformed soldiers and the stepped-up security measures. Chinook helicopters fly past in the background. The threat remains unnamed and unspecified, a looming, faceless terror. Macdonald draws on his own childhood summers spent in the countryside for his portrait of a carefree idyll bathed in soft sunlight, so when the movie enters “wartime mode”, the transition is effectively jarring.

However, one gets the feeling that a far more interesting story could have been told given this rich, thought-provoking backdrop. The film meanders and ambles, time spent with the main characters seeming more like time wasted than anything else. Daisy is sulky, pouty and insufferable, an amalgamation of teenage traits, utterly unlikeable and difficult to sympathise with. At some points in the film, the voices in her head are audible to the viewer, a cacophonous buzz of self-loathing and platitudes gleaned from teen magazine self-help articles. We’re not going to pretend like we were all angels at that age, but Daisy is not an easy protagonist to tolerate, let alone root for. We imagine Kristen Stewart is like this in her everyday life.

It’s at least a little of a good thing, then, that it’s Saoirse Ronan and not Bella Sulkypants in the part. Macdonald called his leading lady “the Meryl Streep of her generation” and that isn’t necessarily hyperbole. Ronan is without her Irish brogue, speaking instead with a convincing American accent. She makes the most of the part and tries to imbue Daisy with something beneath the “like, whatever” exterior. Tom Holland, who was very impressive in tsunami drama The Impossible, is good here too as the 14-year-old who’s still very much a little boy, laughing and playing pranks and still managing to have a good time in spite of the bleak situation that surrounds him. Harley Bird is as chipper as her name (and her character’s name, “Piper”) suggests, but she does sometimes come off as the annoying tag-along kid.

Now, to address the elephant in the room: Daisy romances her first cousin. The term itself isn’t spoken, but there is a “YOLO!” undercurrent beneath most of the film: “We’re young and you only live once, so screw the rules!” MacKay’s Eddie is a quiet, enigmatic animal-whisperer who sweeps Daisy off her feet and teaches her to break free of her neurotic headspace. Young people do impulsive things, yes, but in the midst of this life-or-death ordeal one can’t help but yell at the screen “Guys, you’re not thinking this through!” More often than not, infatuation clouds Daisy’s judgment and her refusal to try and comprehend the bigger picture – that of the impending Third freaking World War – makes it hard to get into How I Live Now.

SUMMARY: It’s sufficiently different from every other teen romance and there’s an intriguing, brutal and sometimes frighteningly realistic backdrop to the proceedings, but its miserable lead character and the unmined potential of the premise mean How I Live Now has trouble sticking.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Monday, January 20, 2014

Interview with Kevin Macdonald, director of How I Live Now

As published in Issue #48/49 of F*** Magazine


Director Kevin Macdonald chats exclusively with F*** about his film adaptation of the young-adult novel How I Live Now.

By Jedd Jong

Scottish director and documentary filmmaker Kevin Macdonald has stepped into the realm of movies based on young adult novels with How I Live Now, adapted from Meg Rosoff’s acclaimed novel. The director won an Academy Award for One Day in September, a documentary film about the massacre at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. He has gone on to make films about musicians, such as Being Mick and Marley, as well as Touching the Void, about an ill-fated mountaineering expedition in the Andes.

Macdonald is also a prolific director of narrative features, his film The Last King of Scotland earning lead actor Forest Whitaker a Best Actor Oscar for playing Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Macdonald then directed State of Play, adapted from the British television series of the same name and starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams and Helen Mirren. The historical drama The Eagle, starring Channing Tatum as a Roman centurion and based on Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, followed.

Macdonald speaks to F*** over the phone about his latest film, touching on what sets it apart from most movies set during an apocalyptic war scenario, the somewhat controversial love story between two cousins, talented leading lady Saoirse Ronan and some uncooperative animal actors.

F***: What drew you to Meg Rosoff’s book and how did you and the screenwriters decide what to keep and what to excise?

Kevin Macdonald: I was sent the book by the producer and just thought that it was a really beautiful piece of writing. I think sometimes, people are very dismissive of young adult novels and writing, but actually, they can explore more interesting, more daring, more complex themes than a lot of supposedly adult writing. I thought it was very original and you could see a very original kind of “teen movie”, I guess, being made out of it.

Whenever you adapt a book, you’re always having to…shorten, was the main thing. If you make a 300 page book into a film without removing anything, it would be five hours long. That’s one of the things you have to do, but also you have to give it a structure which will work more in film. And then you also have to find ways of making things that are interior, especially in this book where a lot of the book is written in interior monologue, to find ways of making the thoughts that people have and making them exterior. That means changing quite a lot, and I think in this instance we also changed things because we cast actors who were slightly older than the characters in the book. And that meant, for instance, in the book there was an older brother and that older brother was about 17, but when we cast a 17 or 18 year old in the lead role, there was no point in having an older brother so we lost the older brother. So those things happen inevitably as you transfer something from page to screen. But I think also the author, Meg Rosoff, very much likes the film and feels that it’s a very faithful adaptation in that it’s faithful to the spirit of the book. There’s always an interpretation of course, there’s always the director’s interpretation.

There’ve been some murmurs in response to the aspect of a coming of age love story between two first cousins. Was there any conversation about not making Edmond and Daisy cousins in adapting the book, or did you feel that that would have betrayed the essence of the story?

I think that would have betrayed the truth of the book, and I think it’s one of the things that makes the book interesting. It’s a little bit shocking, it’s a little bit daring, it’s a bit taboo-breaking, but when you’re a teenager, those are the sort of things you think about. You may not be acting on them, but you’re thinking “what are these rules, what do these rules mean? What am I allowed to do, what am I not allowed to do?”

How did you reconcile the coming-of-age drama aspect of the film with that of the oncoming war?
I think that the war is part of Daisy’s coming of age. Through the war, she has to learn to survive on her own, she has to learn to evaluate what is important in life and what’s not important in life and she has to learn to look after another human being, she looks after the little girl, Piper. And I always saw the story as being like a fairytale. It’s a modern-day fairytale, and in fairytales, often rather terrible things can happen: people have their fingers cut off…

Like a Grimm kind of thing.

Yes, exactly. And I think there’s something of that about this story.

Saoirse Ronan has a good American accent in the film, but did you consider casting an American actress for the part?

I very much did. I looked for a long time in America and I had a casting director there who saw thousands of girls. But I couldn’t find anybody who I was convinced by as an actor, who felt like they had the necessary edge; sense of rebelliousness, or just the plain talent. And then I read Saoirse and she was so fantastic as an actor and her American accent is so strong, she’s played an American many times before, that I thought there was no doubt that I had to cast her. I think she’s the finest young actor of her generation.

There’s the old Hollywood adage “never work with children and animals”; you’ve had to work with both for How I Live Now. What was that like?

(Laughs) The animals were much harder to work with than the children. I think for the first two weeks of filming, practically every day, we had different animals: we had cats, dogs, sheep, cows, a goat, a hawk…you know and there’s probably other ones that I can’t remember. They don’t always do…one thing I can tell you for sure is the goats don’t always do what you tell them. The children don’t always do what you ask them either, but they also then give you some very interesting things that you’re not expecting. I tried to create an atmosphere of freedom on the set so that the children could just enjoy themselves and experiment and improvise, instead of feeling they always had to stick to “stand here, do this, do that” and I think the children created a wonderful atmosphere for all the crew on the film. Nobody can be grumpy or unpleasant when you’ve got such lovely young people around on set. It was a very happy set and we all enjoyed ourselves a lot; it was like a little family in the countryside.

To tie into that a little, you grew up in the countryside and it’s interesting that a good portion of the film is set on a farm. Did you draw on your experience as a child?

I think I drew on my experiences growing up in the countryside and the freedom of my summer holidays and other holidays there where in the 1970s, when I was growing up, you would be allowed to just roam about all day and go walking and maybe meet some friends and go for miles and miles and nobody thought anything of it. I think these days, parents are a little bit more cautious, but I can remember being 8 or 9 and just being gone every day, going fishing, going swimming in the rivers, going walking, discovering caves, that kind of thing. I wanted to capture some of that feeling of childhood freedom in a pastoral (setting) in the movie. A lot of the movie is about the magic of the English countryside, I suppose.

In an interview with The Independent, you described the film as possibly being “too dark for America”: could you elaborate on that?

Well, I suppose I just meant that it’s a movie which shows the consequences of violence, real violence. It doesn’t really show violence, it’s not a violent film, and it’s not a dark film in respect to, I think, a lot of films that come out of America. But it does suggest and you see the consequences of some really horrible things, and what’s horrible that happens is taken very seriously in the film. It’s not had the edges rubbed off and it’s not “fantasy violence” in that way, as in a lot of Hollywood films. So, you have to confront a little bit of real life in the movie, and sometimes American audiences find that a bit hard.

It’s not a trivial or frivolous sort of film and shows the consequences of war and doesn’t compromise in that way?

No, exactly, and I think some people have said “are teenagers ready to see that kind of thing?” and exactly, they are. I think when people are that age, you know, between 13 and 21 or whatever, certainly from my experience and my friends, that’s when you’re asking big questions about life and death and violence and peace, and you are ready to see those things and to talk about them and think about them, I think much more so than adults are. That’s why teenagers can sometimes be very dark in their imagining.

Which scene in the film was, technically-speaking, the most difficult to put together?

Gosh, the most difficult to put together…well, probably the scene of Daisy and Piper coming across the crashed airplane and walking through this crashed airplane, and here we see the tail of an airplane in the woods. That was a big scene for us to put together in terms of the logistics of getting a plane wreck and putting it in the woods, decorating it to look wrecked. There wasn’t anything hugely, hugely complex in the film. One of the things that’s interesting about the movie is that there’s been so many films about “the end of the world” or about the apocalypse of one sort of another, but almost always…always, those films take place in the city and there’s destruction of big tower blocks and cars being thrown around. This film is about the apocalypse happening in the countryside, and you’re not going to see those big, action set pieces. You’re going to see some of the consequences of them: you see drive-pasts of big crashes of cars after they’ve happened, or you see bodies of people who’ve been killed, but you don’t see the battles. I think that obviously makes it easier to shoot, but it also makes it spookier and creepier because you’re always expecting that around the corner, you will find the perpetrators, the terrorists or whatever because it’s always more scary to suggest things than to see them head-on.

Would you be interested in making this film that you’ve described, the larger-scale film about the war, in a different project?

No, no. Because, as I said, the whole thing that’s interesting to me about this story is that it’s not one of those huge-scale action movies. Then it just becomes another movie about destruction and throwing cars up in the air and explosions, which we’ve all seen so many hundreds of times. It’s much more spooky and much more interesting and original to see the consequences of a war like this on people living in the countryside, on children who don’t really know what’s happening, don’t even know what’s happening, and the ambiguity is much more frightening and much more effective than definitely knowing.

Would I be correct to say the film is interesting in that it is not spectacle-driven?

Yeah, I think it’s full of beautiful shots and beautiful imagery and frightening set pieces, it is imagery-driven, but it’s not driven by the usual clichés of American Hollywood action movies, that you have to see everything happening in order to find it exciting, you have to see a jumbo jet crashing, whereas in our film you see what happens a week later, they stumble upon that. So you’re not seeing the moments of the action happening, you’re seeing what the consequences of that are. Or you hearing it off-screen or you’re seeing it out of the corner of your eye. And I think that’s to me, much more interesting and much more original.

Saoirse has accomplished a lot at a very young age. Speaking as her director on this film, where do you think her career will take her next?

I think that she has an enormously bright career. As I said earlier, I think she’s the best young actor out there. I don’t think anyone can equal her and she’s capable, as she’s shown in this film, of doing romantic parts, she’s capable of doing action parts, so she’s the Meryl Streep of her generation I think.

Can you speak about the chemistry between Saoirse and George McKay on set?

Yeah, they had really great chemistry and that’s obviously vitally important when you’re making a love story, especially a love story during which the two leads spend a lot of time apart, they’re separated halfway through the film but you’ve got to believe that she’s in love with him and wants to get back with him, and if you don’t, then obviously the film doesn’t work so well.

Thursday, January 16, 2014


For F*** Magazine


Director: Spike Jonze
Cast:  Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Pratt, Rooney Mara, Olivia Wilde, Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Spike Jonze, Sam Jaeger, Katherine Boecher, Rachel Ann Mullins, David Azar
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Run Time: 126 mins
Opens: 16 January 2014
Rating: M18 (Sexual Scene)

A good forty-ish years ago, few imagined that a sizeable portion of the world’s population would have a personal computer on their desk at home, let alone one in their purse or pocket. And yet here we are, with cell phones that also function as cameras, day planners, maps, compasses, media players and any number of other things. There’s even an “intelligent personal assistant” in the form of Apple Inc.’s Siri (who is aware of the existence of this film, and is not entirely fond of its portrayal of artificial intelligence, in case you were wondering). Writer-director Spike Jonze asks the question “Could you fall in love with Siri?” Okay, that doesn’t do this justice, so read on.

It is the not-too-distant future and Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) is a writer living and working in Los Angeles. He is employed at, where he helps clients express their feelings and emotions for someone in the form of computer-generated letters designed to look like the genuine article. Going through the final stages of divorce with his wife Catherine (Mara), Theodore is morose and lonely and gets himself the O.S. 1 – “It’s not just an operating system, it’s a consciousness”. The O.S. is configured into Samantha (Johansson): friendly, chirpy, helpful, efficient…one might almost forget she’s not a real person. Over time, this strange and wonderful relationship blossoms, and Theodore finds himself falling for his operating system and stops to consider the myriad implications of that possibility.

Like Jonze’s earlier works Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, Her is destined to be analysed, dissected and keenly examined by many a curious film student. Movies that fit this description tend to be impenetrable and inaccessible, functioning as examples of that maxim “true art is incomprehensible”. With Her, Jonze has crafted a film that doesn’t come across as lofty and high-falutin’. He has managed to marry a heartfelt tenderness with keen, astute social commentary, all wrapped up in a beautifully-photographed sci-fi package.

There are a flurry of thematic elements and ideas presented in Her. Has increased connectivity resulted in a lack of human connection? What constitutes a relationship? Can one enter into a romance with an intangible entity? Why do we need physical intimacy and does it matter from where it’s derived? Why do we try to emulate artifacts of a bygone era with the technology of today? Must we really conform to the roles society expects us to? Jonze doesn’t merely list them as this writer just has, he orders these thoughts elegantly, framing them within a well-realised near-future milieu created by production designer K. K. Barrett, costume designer Casey Storm, art director Austin Gorg and other crew members. It’s certainly more Shanghai than it is L.A., but there are delightful little design touches that ensure it’s “just futuristic enough”.

Praise has been lavished upon the performances in Her and it is well-deserved. Phoenix has gained a reputation as a capable, serious, extraordinarily intense and unpredictable performer, not your garden-variety movie star, as evidenced by incidences like his I’m Still Here social experiment/bizarre performance art piece. Here, Phoenix plays an everyman, Jonze refusing to turn Theodore into a stereotypical “loser” the way many other directors might. He is sweet, sympathetic, unsure of himself and still very wounded from the dissolution of his marriage. A lot of screen time is dedicated to close-ups of Phoenix’s face and seemingly inconsequential moments like a casual expression of being slightly disturbed during an off-kilter phone sex session are carefully realised by the actor. Theodore is not as unstable and discombobulated as the protagonists of Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, both artists like Theodore, but in Phoenix’s hands, he is by no means less interesting.

Johansson goes from being Black Widow to an amorous J.A.R.V.I.S., replacing the actress initially cast as Samantha, Samantha Morton. Johansson is known for her sexy voice, husky yet distinctly feminine, and with that voice and that voice alone, she gives one of the greatest performances of her career. Samantha comes across as cheerful, curious about the world, cheeky and playful, opening Theodore up to the simple joys of his existence, a ‘manic pixel dream girl’ if you will. However, Jonze in his writing and Johansson in her portrayal make Samantha far more than your average example of that trope, approaching “What is this thing you call love?” in the most compelling of ways and eventually subverting what might be an eye-roll-worthy character type. Show us a movie where Zooey Deschanel tangles with metaphysical transcendence.

The discussion of her eligibility come awards season can be seen as an extension of one of the themes in the film: does a voice-only performance qualify for an award as much any other type of performance?  Can an artificial construct ace the Turing test to the point where it’s indistinguishable from a person? There’s a crucial scene in the movie in which this idea is cleverly played with. The screen goes black, and for that brief period, it seems as if Samantha is physically interacting with Theodore as we can only hear both their voices and the chemistry they generate together is through the roof.

The rest of the cast is good too, Amy Adams playing the diametric opposite of her American Hustle role, largely make-up-free and recalling Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich. Chris Pratt is gently funny as Theodore’s colleague at and Mara is suitably frosty as his soon-to-be ex-wife, short flashbacks showing how rosy things were to start with. Olivia Wilde is only really in one scene but she is effective as Theodore’s blind date. Jonze himself gets a small role, entertainingly voicing a foul-mouthed alien child in a video game Theodore plays, quite possibly a spoof of many a Seth MacFarlane-style character. Listen out for vocal cameos from the likes of Kristin Wiig and Brian Cox, too.

Her has been compared to largely-forgotten 80s comedy Electric Dreams but perhaps it’s more like S1m0ne (also largely-forgotten), in which a desperate film director fabricates an A.I. actress that he tries to pass off as the real deal. Her handles the idea with far more wit and sophistication, delving far past the surface of its high-concept premise, and yet admirably avoids coming off as smug. Jonze’s screenplay is, on the surface, a less-complex affair than any of the scripts written by oft-collaborator Charlie Kaufman, but it is by no means poorly-written and Jonze’s command of character, emotion, tone and subtext is nothing short of masterful. Her is an “examination of” and a “meditation on” increasingly pertinent issues in the way we lead our lives in today’s “smart”, hyper-connected world, but it is far from clinical and sterile – as that description might suggest.

SUMMARY: Spike Jonze brings a deft intelligence and a disarmingly personal warmth and vulnerability to one of the best cinematic romances in recent memory, if not ever.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Infinite Studios Officially Opens

For F*** Magazine

On January 15, 2014, the Infinite Studios complex in Mediapolis Singapore was declared officially open and F*** was there to attend the opening ceremony and take a tour of the building. Business space solutions provider Ascendas jointly operates the studio with partner Citramas Nusaterra. The studio has been operational for a year but was formally declared open on Wednesday.

Infinite Studios officially opens

By Jedd Jong

The opening of the 24,078 square-metre hub, built at the cost of S$60 million, is a landmark for the media industry in Singapore. CEO of Infinite Frameworks, Mike Wiluan, describes the complex as a “clustered media ecosystem where every aspect of the media value chain is represented under one roof.” It is home to a collection of local and international companies involved in pre- production, production, post -production, animation, games, audio and sound, creative services and interactive and digital media activities. At the time of this writing, 17 companies are tenants at Infinite Studios. In addition to anchor tenant Infinite Frameworks, key tenants include major media service provider Globecast Asia, international television business Discovery Networks; Japanese games company Namco Bandai and international advertising agency M&C Saatchi.

We got a look at what is arguably the defining feature of Infinite Studios, Singapore’s largest purpose- built soundstages, designed in consultation with Hollywood-based soundstage operator, Raleigh Studios. Measuring 928 square metres and 1,681 square metres, the two soundstages are complemented by 1,445 square metres of supporting production offices alongside dressing and equipment rooms. Managed and operated by Infinite Studios' production services division, the soundstages are equipped to support productions that  require intricate set builds, multi-camera operations and green screen technology for visual effects productions.  Mr. Wiluan teased an upcoming science fiction project from Infinite Studios (which is also a content producer) that will be filmed on the premises.

For the opening ceremony, one of the sound stages played the part of event hall as guest of honour Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore’s Minister for Communications and Information, took to the podium. Wearing a Google Glass, actor/host Bobby Tonelli presided over the proceedings. A short film showcasing the capabilities of the studio was screened. Highlighted in the reel were Serangoon Road and Deadmine, co-productions shot at Infinite Studios facility on Batam Island, which has been operating since 2011. Australian children’s television program Hi-5 shot its last season at Infinite Studios in Mediapolis and will be returning to shoot its next season here again this year. Moving forward, the goal is to have Singapore emerge as an attractive filming location for productions from all over the world, with a production infrastructure to compete on the same level as Hollywood and an incentive program to defray higher production costs.

The opening of Infinite Studios is an early and crucial step in the development of Mediapolis@one-north, a strategic joint stewardship between four Singaporean government agencies: Media Development Authority (MDA), JTC Corporation (JTC), Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA) and Singapore Economic Development Board  (EDB). Slated to be fully completed by 2020, the 19-hectare Mediapolis will be home to a cluster of media companies across the value-chain from production to financing, distribution and trade.

The Playout control room at Globecast's offices at Infinite Studios.

Photos: Jedd Jong