Thursday, January 29, 2015

Big Eyes

For F*** Magazine


Director : Tim Burton
Cast : Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 29 January 2015

It was the 1960s and Margaret Keane’s hypnotic paintings of the doe-eyed waifs captured the imagination of the world, but for a long time, nobody knew the dark truth behind these depictions of innocence. After separating from her husband Frank, Margaret (Adams) takes her young daughter Jane (Delaney Raye) to San Francisco. There, she meets and quickly falls hard for Walter Keane (Waltz), seemingly also a passionate painter. Margaret and Walter marry and after Margaret’s unique “Big Eye” paintings garner attention, Walter begins to take credit for them. Soon, the paintings are everywhere, mass-reproduced and sold in supermarkets and gas stations, with Walter making television appearances and hobnobbing with celebrities, everyone believing him to be the true artist. As Walter grows more domineering, making Margaret fear for her own safety, she finally tells the world the truth as the couple battles it out in court to determine proper credit.

            Big Eyes marks director Tim Burton’s first biopic since 1994’s Ed Wood, re-teaming him with that film’s writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. It’s been repeatedly noted that this is Burton’s first live-action film since 1996’s Mars Attacks! without either Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter.  A project like Big Eyes is exactly what Burton needs and it is perhaps not entirely coincidental that this film about artistic integrity comes from a director once lauded as a fresh, unique voice but who has become something of a parody of himself. The film still bears many of Burton’s signature touches and the heightened stylisation proves to be a double-edged sword even when it’s consciously scaled down. While the saturated colour palette and the Stepford Wives-style depiction of a suburban idyll that becomes a personal prison add panache to the proceedings, they also hamper the authenticity of the true story.

            We’ve all heard stories of artists being taken advantage of and the Margaret and Walter Keane case is one of an artist being taken advantage of in the extreme. Burton establishes a sense of unease throughout and writers Alexander and Karaszewski manage to play on the audience’s knowledge of how things went down in a general, such that we know where it’s all headed but anticipate and dread it in equal measure as Walter’s lie snowballs. Production designer Rick Heinrichs and Burton’s usual costume designer Colleen Atwood create an immersive period-accurate milieu tinged with that kitschy Burton flair. The music video for Soundgarden’s Black Hole Sun comes to mind. While the film’s tone is not as uneven as it could’ve been, one still gets the feeling that characters such as Margaret’s friend DeAnn (Ritter) and snobbish gallery owner Ruben (Schwartzman) have been written in only to provide requisite comic relief in what really is an emotionally-heavy film, though it has been described as a “comedy-drama”.

            Amy Adams’ name has popped up on various “Oscar snubs” lists and it’s easy to see why. Adams ably embodies the quiet dignity of the character, shying away from showy bursts of emotion, her performance all the more affecting for it. An artist’s personal attachment to his or her work is a difficult sentiment to convey, but the way Adams plays it, one really feels that when credit for the Big Eye paintings is snatched from Margaret, it’s as if one of her own children has been taken from her. The film makes no bones about being a feminist statement and Adams’ Margaret is very sympathetic and easy to root for.

            Christoph Waltz brings his trademark wildfire charisma to the role of Walter Keane, effortlessly essaying a smug, charming manipulator with flair to spare. While magnetic and watchable, Waltz does veer dangerously close to the cartoony side of things when Walter lashes out at Margaret, as if he’s practising for his upcoming Bond villain role. His portrayal of the abusive, controlling husband here is near-identical to the performance he delivered as the abusive, controlling husband in Water for Elephants. Journalist Dick Nolan (Danny Huston) observes “subtle doesn’t sell”, and Waltz seems to have taken that to heart. All that said though, he’s a much better fit for the part than Ryan Reynolds, who was attached to the film at one point, would’ve been.

             Big Eyes sets itself apart from the prestige biopic pack with a deliberately cloying aesthetic, director Burton expressing the idea that ugliness can lurk beneath the surface of beautiful things. In focusing on Margaret and Walter’s relationship, Big Eyes seems to side-step challenging discussions about the role art plays in society which, when viewed through the lens of a period film, could have been especially thought-provoking. While still impactful and moving, this approach strips the material of some of the rawness and honesty it requires and ultimately, Big Eyes doesn’t dig deep enough.

Summary: A domestic abuse drama tinged with queasy stylisation, Big Eyes has Tim Burton deviating from his now-tired formula and boasts Amy Adams in top form but suffers slightly from being too simplistic.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


For F*** Magazine


Director : David Koepp
Cast : Johnny Depp, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Munn, Jonny Pasvolsky, Jeff Goldblum
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 29 January 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Sexual References)

He’s debonair, he’s dapper, he’s dumb – very, very dumb. Johnny Depp is Lord Charlie Mortdecai, an art dealer who finds himself embroiled in some very troubling business. When he is roped in by Inspector Martland (McGregor) of MI5 to assist in the case of a missing Goya painting, Mortdecai runs afoul of the Russian mafia and international assassin Strago (Pasvolsky). With his loyal valet Jock (Bettany) by his side, Mortdecai traipses across Europe and to Los Angeles to crack the case. To complicate matters, he is in crippling tax debt and a rift develops between him and his beloved wife Johanna (Paltrow) – brought upon by Mortdecai’s decision to grow a moustache.

            Mortdecai is based on Don’t Point That Thing At Me, the first in late author Kyril Bonfiglioli’s series of comic thriller novels. Film critics often describe action comedies as “romps” – there is no better way to describe Mortdecai other than a “romp”. This is a lowbrow movie gleefully prancing about in a highbrow movie’s clothes, tongue ever so firmly planted in cheek from start to finish. The plot features such hoity-toity elements as a priceless Goya painting, art auctions, a Rolls Royce, manors and manservants, yet almost all of the jokes are derived from unsubtle “nyuk nyuk nyuk”-style innuendo. For example, when Mortdecai is informed that he owes £8 million in tax debts, he remarks “I had no idea I was so deep in Her Majesty’s hole.” If you’re rolling your eyes just reading the line, then you should give Mortdecai a wide berth. But if you’re chuckling at it, you will find it easy to go along with all that silliness, and to the film’s credit, it isn’t all that hard to.

            Johnny Depp was once praised for being “daring” and “unique”, embracing oddball roles and shunning typical Hollywood leading men parts. Now, it’s hard to find anyone who takes him seriously but in Mortdecai, Johnny Depp wants to assure you the viewer that he doesn’t take himself seriously either. This is simultaneously a self-aware nod in the direction of Depp’s critics and an act of defiance, a “haters gonna hate”-type deal. Even if you dislike Depp’s shtick with all of your heart, you’ll have to admit it is pretty fun to see the actor dive so deep into the self-parody pool and with such conviction. That said, between the accent, the eyebrow-raising and that sound he makes that is somewhere between a grumble and a whimper, we understand why some viewers might find him all the more annoying after this.

            The rest of the cast do seem to be having a ball. It isn’t a stretch to buy Gwyneth Paltrow as a privileged, cultured aristocrat who has her husband firmly under her thumb and thankfully, she and Depp do share considerably more chemistry than Depp and Angelina Jolie did in The Tourist. Paul Bettany channels Jason Statham as the gruff, faithful sidekick named “Jock Strapp” (see what we mean about this being a lowbrow movie in a highbrow movie’s clothes?) There’s a running gag that the character is libidinous but largely manages not to let his dalliances with assorted buxom women get in the way of his work. Kinda funny. Ewan McGregor, reliable as always, is the straight man in all this. Unfortunately, it seems that the scenes featuring Oliver Platt and Aubrey Plaza have been left on the cutting room floor.

            Frothy and light-hearted, Mortdecai knows what it is and rejoices in that. Sure, it often seems like director David Koepp is attempting a bad Wes Anderson impression and that opening sequence borrows too liberally from that of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but as entertaining fluff, Mortdecai passes muster. Screenwriter Eric Aronson’s adaptation is comically verbose, the linguistic equivalent of a slapstick comedy routine – never mind that Aronson’s only other produced script is the execrable Lance Bass-starring 2001 rom-com On The Line. Lionsgate is planning a franchise and while that might not be particularly easy to sustain, especially when compared with the likes of Lionsgate’s lucrative Hunger Games series, it’s harmless fun that’s disposable but not worthless.

Summary: Johnny Depp knows nobody takes him seriously anymore and goes “what the heck”. While it needs a defter touch, Mortdecai is quite funny and, for the most part, enjoyably silly.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Strange Magic

For F*** Magazine


Director : Gary Rydstrom
Cast : Alan Cumming, Evan Rachel Wood, Elijah Kelley, Meredith Anne Bull, Sam Palladio, Kristin Chenoweth, Maya Rudolph, Alfred Molina
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 99 mins
Opens : 29 January 2015
Rating : G

Lucasfilm invites viewers into a world of whimsy, wonder and enchantment (and cheesy pop song covers, a moth-eaten story and some unbearable attempts at comedy) with the animated feature Strange Magic. Marianne (Wood) is a fairy about to marry the conceited prince Roland (Palladio). Marianne’s sister Dawn (Bull) is kidnapped by the tyrannical Bog King (Cumming), with both Marianne and the elf Sunny (Kelley) travelling to the Dark Forest to rescue Dawn. Spurned, Roland devises a cunning plan to make Marianne take him back, a plan that requires the love potion brewed by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth) to pull off. Over the course of these events, the Bog King realises that maybe all he needed after all was a little bit of true love.

            Strange Magic begins with a map unfurling and we find out that the two magical domains in which the film takes place are actually called “Fairy Kingdom” and “Dark Forest”. Within the first minute, it’s clear nobody really was interested in doing anything new with the story, which is a shame given the technically-accomplished animation work from Lucasfilm Animation Singapore. Even then, the detailed, lush backgrounds are offset by sometimes-creepy facial animation, sitting on the edge of the uncanny valley. Strange Magic is directed by Gary Rydstrom and, as the poster proclaims, is “from the mind of George Lucas”. Sure, Lucas has defined the storytelling of a generation with a certain space opera saga, but let’s not forget that “the mind of George Lucas” also spawned Jar Jar Binks. True to that, the comic relief characters here are all deeply annoying.

            It’s a shame that after incubating for 15 years, functioning as a sort of proving ground for Lucasfilm’s Singaporean animators, Strange Magic ends up being so mediocre and forgettable. This is a movie that seems hokey and insincere at every turn. It does have a “message”, as films of this sort must – everyone deserves to be loved, don’t judge a book by its cover, you know the drill. The problem is, there is no conviction behind this and it just feels so perfunctory, especially when compared to the surprisingly mature meditations seen in recent animated films like The LEGO Movie and Big Hero 6. On top of that, the film is presented in a “jukebox musical” format, meaning it is crammed with cringe-inducing, over-produced covers of songs like “Can’t Help Falling In Love”, “Love Is Strange” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”. The soundtrack is produced by Marius de Vries, who was the music director on Moulin Rouge!, also a jukebox musical. The repurposing of the opening chords of “Bad Romance” as a military march is pretty clever, though.

            The voice acting is fine and the one thing the filmmakers do get right is the casting of competent actors and singers in the booth over marketable marquee names. Evan Rachel Wood, who also did her own singing in Across the Universe, is serviceable as the stock “tough girl who can stand up for herself (but who still needs her Mr. Right at the end of the day)”. The Marianne character comes across as a cheap Disney Princess knock-off and the characterisation here reminds us that while it might seem overrated now, Frozen did get a lot right. Elijah Kelley does bring upbeat enthusiasm to the part of Sunny but the character’s “loveable underdog” shtick does come off as very forced. Alfred Molina barely registers as Marianne and Dawn’s father but it might be amusing to some that the character is designed to look as much like George Lucas himself as possible.

            Alan Cumming is the movie’s saving grace as the Bog King. He brings his signature theatricality and flair but tempers it with a lot of growling and snarling. It makes sense once one discovers Strange Magic was originally pitched as “Beauty and the Beast, but the Beast doesn’t transform”. As unoriginal as it all is, at least Strange Magic doesn’t settle for a “good vs. evil” plot and while the Bog King’s change of heart isn’t all that convincing, Cumming makes it relatively easy to go along with. The character animation on the insectoid Bog King himself is also outstanding. Cumming’s fellow Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth has been described with the adjective “annoying” and as the Sugar Plum fairy, she does get on the nerves but all things being relative, is far from the most grating character. That ignominious honour probably falls to Maya Rudolph’s Griselda, the mother of the Bog King. All she does is nag at him to find someone and settle down, and that’s apparently supposed to be funny.

            Animated films have the power to be cynic-proof, to deliver enough invention, charm and humour that hardened critics embrace their inner child for 90 minutes and allow themselves to be swept up in it all. Strange Magic does not possess this power. Everything that parents generally find aggravating about bad animated movies is here: painful attempts at comedy, shoehorned-in musical numbers and unsatisfying characterisation. Above all, it’s clear that Strange Magic doesn’t owe its existence to a fresh, intelligent story or dazzling visual invention, but because Lucasfilm Animation wants to prove it can stand with the big boys – which, for now, it can’t. Many of the animators who worked on Strange Magic also worked on 2011’s Rango, which was far wittier, dynamic and entertainingly offbeat. While we probably should be way past the “cartoons have every right to be bad, they’re meant for kids after all” stage, the reality is we’ll have to put up with films like Strange Magic, though hopefully less and less often.

Summary: Unoriginal and uninvolving, Strange Magic does have some good animation in it but it cannot compete with the many recent animated films that are well-animated and have excellent stories as well. The cheesy musical numbers and unfunny comic relief do not help.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

The Wedding Ringer

For F*** Magazine


Director : Jeremy Garelick
Cast : Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting Alan Ritchson, Cloris Leachman, Mimi Rogers, Ken Howard, Affion Crockett
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 29 January 2015
Rating : NC16 – Some Coarse Language, Sexual References and Drug Use

        It’s an old chestnut – the wedding may be the best day of the bride’s life, but it rarely is the best day of the groom’s. In this comedy, tax attorney Doug Harris (Gad) is about to marry Gretchen Palmer (Cuoco-Sweeting), whom some might say is out of his league, and all seems to be going as planned. However, with ten days to the wedding, Doug finds himself in something of a pickle when he realises he has no close friends he can get to be his groomsmen. In a last ditch attempt, he enlists the services of “wedding ringer” Jimmy Callahan (Hart). Callahan has built a successful business out of posing as a best man to any groom who can’t find one of his own. This time, Callahan needs to pull off an unprecedented con, the “golden tux” – recruiting a motley crew of six misfits to pose as Doug’s groomsmen. Taking on the identity of military chaplain “Bic Mitchum”, Jimmy has to prove he’s worth the $50 000 price tag and pull the wool over the eyes of all the wedding guests.

            There was a time when R-rated comedies that weren’t American Pie were not viable commercially-successful propositions. It all makes sense when one discovers The Wedding Ringer was written in 2002, then known as “The Golden Tux”. Todd Phillips was attached to produce – he would go on to direct The Hangover. The Wedding Ringer feels like a pale imitation of films like The Hangover, never fully committing to the hijinks, the gags never feeling as inspired and genuinely outrageous as in that film. Stale and silly rather than shocking, it’s hard for a comedy to feel fresh if it leans so heavily on gay jokes and fat jokes. 

            We’re going to use all the hedged statements we can here: this could have worked if it had been made earlier. We’d be lying if we said it was completely unfunny and the high-concept premise of a best man for hire is, on the premise level alone, somewhat plausible. Very often, the main characters in R-rated comedies aren’t particularly likeable. Both Josh Gad and Kevin Hart work well enough off of each other and Gad is sympathetic as a stock loveable underdog. Kevin Hart, among the most sought-after comedians of the moment in Hollywood, is dangerously close to overexposure and his shtick can grate on the nerves. However, he is, on occasion, genuinely charming and some viewers might actually want to root for Doug and Jimmy’s sham friendship to eventually become a real one, though Jimmy is clear that it’s all “just business”.

            Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting’s Gretchen is peripheral to the bromance between the two male leads. All of the ad-hoc best men are one-note stereotypes, to be the subject of pointing and laughing and nothing more. Character actor Ken Howard is suitably despicable as the stock “disapproving father-in-law”, with a heaping helping of homophobia. Olivia Thrilby is appealing as Gretchen’s sister Allison, who begins to detect all is not as it seems with Doug’s best man. And lastly, why cast Cloris Leachman as Gretchen’s grandmother when all she’s there for is a cheap sight gag?

            The Wedding Ringer is largely predictable and imagines itself to be far cleverer than it actually is. It also spends most of its running time lurching from one painfully-engineered over-the-top set piece to another, the most noteworthy of which being a car chase which tosses in an homage to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial for no discernible reason. Thankfully, The Wedding Ringer does save the best for last, its last line being a pop culture reference that works exceedingly well.

Summary: The chemistry between Kevin Hart and Josh Gad isn’t enough to offset The Wedding Ringer’s lazy, lowest-common-denominator humour and its uninspired comedic set-pieces, especially in a post-Apatow comedy landscape.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars.

Jedd Jong 

Monday, January 26, 2015

By Royal Command: Kingsman: The Secret Service press conference

As published in Issue #60/61 of F*** Magazine



F*** is at Comic-Con to hear the stars and creators of Kingsman: The Secret Service discuss the spy movie
[San Diego Exclusive] 
By Jedd Jong 

                Further into 2015, a certain famous fictional spy will be embarking on his latest cinematic adventure. But in February, moviegoers can look forward to kicking off the year with a different kind of espionage movie in the form of Kingsman: The Secret Service. In the film, Colin Firth plays Harry Hart, a dapper middle-aged gentleman who just happens to be a member of an elite covert organisation known as “Kingsman”. Harry plucks ne’er-do-well Gary Unwin, nicknamed “Eggsy” and played by newcomer Taron Egerton, off the streets to become a Kingsman recruit. The young man is put through his paces as a threat emerges in the form of maniacal biotechnology magnate Valentine, played by Samuel L. Jackson.

The film is based on the 6-issue comic book series The Secret Service by writer Mark Millar and artist Dave Gibbons. Millar is known for working on Marvel Comics titles such as Marvel Knights Spider-Man, Ultimates Fantastic Four and Civil War, in addition to creating Wanted and Kick-Ass. Matthew Vaughn, director of Kick-Ass, reunites with Millar on Kingsman, Vaughn working from a screenplay he co-wrote with writing partner Jane Goldman. F*** is in attendance for the press conference held at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, with Millar, Gibbons, stars Firth, Jackson, Egerton, Sophie Cookson and Sofia Boutella on hand to discuss the movie.

                This writer steps up to ask the panel a question regarding the tone of the film and the balance struck between that of an homage to 60s-style spy fiction and the exciting, sometimes-shocking panache director Vaughn is known for. This writer can’t help but feel a little nervous as Samuel L. Jackson replies “who do you expect to have the answer to that question?” It seems Vaughn would be best-suited to answering the query, but he is not on the panel. Luckily, Mark Millar steps in.

                “He’s a genius so he had no problem with it at all,” the Scottish author says of Vaughn. “He’s a big fan of all this stuff [spy-fi] growing up and like all of us here, probably, he’s into that eclectic pop culture, like Quentin Tarantino, [who] takes all the stuff that he loves and puts it into one movie.” It is a good move invoking Tarantino, seeing as Samuel L. Jackson is an oft-collaborator of the director and will also appear in his upcoming film The Hateful Eight. Millar reveals that the seeds for The Secret Service were planted when he and Vaughn chatted about old-school spy movies on the set of Kick-Ass. Millar credits the Roger Moore-starring The Spy Who Loved Me with igniting his love of spy movies and bemoans how contemporary entries in that genre have become too self-serious. “When I was a kid I used to go see James Bond and say ‘I want to be him when I grow up’ and now you go and see James Bond and he’s crying in the shower!” He remarks, referencing 2006’s Casino Royale, to laughter from the crowd. Granted, Bond was comforting Vesper who was crying in the shower, but we see where he’s coming from. “I think you want to see a spy movie where you don’t want to kill yourself after!”

                Much has been made of how this will the first big action film for Colin Firth, who like fellow esteemed British thespian Helen Mirren, has gone from winning an Oscar for playing royalty to “kicking arse” in a comic book adaptation. He describes his character Harry Hart as “the Henry Higgins of the spy world.” “It was great fun,” he says of getting to play a deadly action hero. “I’ve never had to do anything this physical, unless you include having to pull Hugh Grant’s hair,” he quips to laughter from the crowd, referencing Bridget Jones’ Diary. Firth worked with various experts including gymnasts, martial artists and ex-Special Forces soldiers to prepare for the part of the superspy. “The training was extraordinarily intense and unfamiliar to me. It was long and incredibly gratifying by the end. I wish I had done more of it.”

                Firth grew up in England in the 1960s, right in the middle of the spy-fi boom. “I think to a very large extent, in terms of style and the character of the spy movies that I fell in love with, [it] has its roots in the ‘60s,” he says, name-checking The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the Harry Palmer films, The Avengers and of course the early Bond flicks. A lethal streak hidden beneath a composed, proper surface appeals to Firth: “It’s the guy in the suit who seems slick and cool and capable but very, very contained - but you cross him at your peril.” Firth reveals that he had been “sitting here waiting for the offer on Bond for long enough” and recalls, “he [Vaughn] came to me and said ‘I think you’re the last person on earth anybody would expect to kick anyone’s ass and I think it would be a big surprise but I would want you to really do it.’” Vaughn and Goldman hadn’t finished the script when they approached Firth, but the comics were enough to sell him on the idea. “I loved it, I couldn’t put them down.” Vaughn told him up front that the training process would be an arduous one but Firth was up for the challenge. “He wanted me to
really do it, to be able to really sell it, not just cut to a stuntman. He wanted it to really be me, to be utterly, convincingly me.”

                Though certainly not a traditional “action star”, Samuel L. Jackson has markedly more experience in the action genre than Firth. When asked if he offered any advice to his co-star, Jackson recalls when Vaughn showed him Firth’s big fight scene. “I was sitting there slack-jawed. I was like ‘that’s Colin Firth? Really?!’ So he didn’t need any help from me.” Like Firth, Jackson was attracted to Kingsman because of the escapism of the spy action genre. He reminisces about playing pretend with his friends when he was growing up. “I get to do it as an adult on a grand scale. I get to have a real gun in my hand and it shoots fake bullets but now, when I shoot somebody, unlike my friends who always go ‘you missed me’, their chests explode. I love that.” 

Jackson has something of a reputation for giving reporters a hard time – he egged film journalist Jake Hamilton on to say the “n-word” and decimated a news anchor for confusing him with Laurence Fishburne. Today, we get a taste of that when a reporter’s mobile phone, placed on the table to record the press conference, starts ringing. Jackson answers. “No, this is Sam. What’s going on? Who’re you looking for? You know, whoever you were calling was in the middle of a press conference and had their phone on the desk as a voice recorder and you just f**ked that up. So you want to call him back in like 30 minutes? Awesome.” The crowd is amused; the owner of the phone probably less so. “Come on, don’t be ashamed,” Jackson chides. “Claim your f**king phone.”

It must be thrilling for the younger actors to go toe-to-toe with these titans of cinema, not to mention the other big-name supporting players Michael Caine and Mark Strong. Sophie Cookson, literally fresh out of the Oxford School of Drama, plays the lead female role of Roxy, a Kingsman recruit alongside Eggsy. She concedes, “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t slightly intimidated but we were all in it together and we all wanted to make the film as good as possible and have as much fun doing it and doing it with titans such as these has been an absolute honour and we’re very lucky.”

          Algerian dancer and actress, Sofia Boutella, known as the face of Nike Women, plays Gazelle, henchwoman to Valentine. In the comics, Gazelle is male. The film retains the character’s deadly bladed bionic legs. Echoing Cookson’s sentiments, she says of getting to act alongside Firth and Jackson, “it was absolutely amazing. I think it was such an honour for all three of us to get to work with them and could not believe what was happening to us, to be honest. They’re all really, truly generous and they were absolutely amazing with us on set. It was a great experience.”

               Welsh actor Taron Egerton seems a little overwhelmed by just being at Comic-Con and stays quiet through most of the press conference. He starts to answer a question about the training he had to undergo in preparation for the part of Eggsy, but is cut off by the afore-mentioned phone call. However, we do get the feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more from him soon. As a young actor, he is understandably thrilled to be in the film with Firth and Jackson. “I think the two gentlemen next to me, I think it’s probably fair to say are the quintessential living English and American movie stars and for me, getting to do scenes with both of them was not only wildly different but also completely wonderful in different ways and is something I’ll always remember.”

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Stranger Than He Dreamt It: Strange Magic Press Conference

 For F*** Magazine


George Lucas talks his new animated film Strange Magic
By Jedd Jong

“No questions about Star Wars, please” – that is the mandate we’re repeatedly reminded of. George Lucas is here to discuss Strange Magic and Strange Magic alone. It is a Thursday morning and reporters are gathered in the screening room at the Sandcrawler building, Lucasfilm’s Singapore headquarters. Following a screening of the film, Lucas, Rydstrom and producer Mark S. Miller enter the screening room to field questions from the press, with F*** in attendance. Lucas is clad in his signature chequered shirt and jeans and it is certainly a thrill for many in the room, this writer included, to see the Star Wars creator in person.

Strange Magic, directed by Gary Rydstrom and executive-produced by Lucas, is the first feature film created predominantly at the studio’s Singapore facility. An animated comedy musical, the film takes place in a fantastical realm populated by fairies, goblins, elves and assorted enchanted creatures. Alan Cumming voices the Bog King, a tyrant who despite his best efforts, is eventually overcome by love. Evan Rachel Wood voices Marianne, a headstrong fairy who opposes her father’s intent for her to marry the vain prince Roland. A “jukebox musical”, Strange Magic has its characters singing a number of pop hits such as “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, “Love Is Strange”, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)” and, of course, “Strange Magic”.

From left: animation supervisor Kim Ooi, director Gary Rydstrom, executive producer George Lucas, producer Mark Miller, VFX supervisor Nigel Sumner
With Strange Magic, Lucas has set out to make a family movie geared more towards an adolescent female demographic, as opposed to the adolescent male demographic targeted by Star Wars. Lucas shares about the long journey the film took from concept to fruition, how his own relationship with his daughters and his wife are reflected in the story, the decision not to cast marquee names, the competition with other more established animation studios and comments on the marked resemblance that the Fairy King in the film shares with himself.

What was it like making the film in Singapore?

It’s great to be here. I share this with a few other people, especially the few people that have been here for the entire run of us coming to Singapore. We started in a very small, humble abode, out by the airport, training people. They’ve had experience with cel animation or experience with computers, but we didn’t have anybody who’s had experience with both. We’ve come a long way, this film is the final goal we were trying to reach. I’ve said in a few press conferences like this from time to time, “we will make a feature film here”, and now we’ve done it and I’m very proud of the film that got made. It’s better than I had hoped it would be. The only other time I had this experience really was on Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark, where everything came out better than I hoped it would come out.

This has been a long journey, this is a testament to the great talent that’s been assembled here in Singapore. I’d like to thank the Media Development Authority and the government for bringing us here in the first place. It’s been a hugely successful experience for us. I just went through a tour with all the people who worked on this film and some of them have been here the 8 or 9 years we’ve been here. We’ve really come a long way and done a film that everybody can be proud of. Now we just have to wait for the results. It’s like an election. On Friday we’ll find out whether anybody voted for us but that does not have anything to do with whether the film is good or not because the film is brilliant. Gary and Mark, the producer and the director, came in at the end here, the last few years, and used it to make this film. They have nothing but wonderful things to say about the crews here and the work that’s been done. I think it’s the best.

I’m sure, you know, we do have some competitors, even within the same company; some started with me in the same company and then they moved on and got bought by the same company. Three different animation companies in the same corporate shell and we’re the junior one, but I think we’ve surpassed anything the other guys have done. That’s the one thing I grew up with in film school which is what I call the “Steven Spielberg-Martin Scorsese syndrome”, which is when we all try and outdo each other. I think at least for the moment, we’re ahead. 

The Fairy King looks vaguely familiar. Knowing that you have a few daughters, how much has your life as a father influenced the story?

My life as a father influenced it a lot because I had two daughters when we started and I have three daughters now. A part of it was that I decided Star Wars was a mythological adventure for 12-year-old boys, although it appealed to everybody from eight months to 80, as well as girls; not so much as popular with girls as it was with boys. I thought “maybe I’ll make a fairy tale adventure for adolescent, 12-year-old girls”. I hope that boys will go and see it, it’s got adventure, monsters, sword-fighting, that type of thing; I figured I’d do the same thing again. Obviously, a little bit more upbeat and funny and magical in a way than Star Wars was, but I was doing it primarily for my daughters.

I used to read The Wizard of Oz to my daughter every night for years and she also thought the king looked a lot like me. Gary was a little upset about that, I think Mark was more upset. They didn’t realise in the beginning that…this has gone on for 15 years, so there have been a lot of people involved over a long period of time. These guys came in as the last ones, we’re at the Alamo and it’s all over, and they are the cavalry that came to the rescue. Fortunately, nobody died in the process, saved us all! They kept making him fatter and fatter; I got upset about it. The joke is that he can’t fly; that’s the reason he can’t fly, because he’s so fat. I said “same thing happened to me. I started out skinny.” [Chuckles] Whether it really is me is a mystery. Somebody along the line designed him [to look like me] and it stuck.

What was the original idea behind the film?

The original idea was that I wanted to do a fairy tale for girls. On top of that, I had so much fun making American Graffiti that I wanted to put music in it; I love to make musicals. So, I said “well maybe I can tell a complete story using the lyrics from existing songs.” So it started that way and I needed a MacGuffin, something that starts the whole thing off and makes it work, which was love dust, which is from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It worked there, so I figured it would work anywhere. With the love dust, the music and wanting it to be about fairies and trolls, it moved from there to tell the story.

I ultimately wanted the story to be about the difference between infatuation and true love. Infatuation is like love dust, it’s like a disease. You kind of get it, you go crazy for an amount of time, then you wake up and go “who’s this, why am I with this person?” or they leave you and you have a heartache that comes out of that. So I said “you should focus on what’s behind that, what’s in the book, not the cover.” It’s an old story, it’s been told over and over again, but my feeling is that you can never tell these stories too often because each generation must have it told in their own language, so this is that story told for this generation. It’s like Star Wars, there’s nothing new in it, it’s just done in a different way.

Was this intended as a spiritual successor to fantasy films from the 80s like Labyrinth, Willow and Dark Crystal?

I’ve always loved fairy tales, I’ve always loved music. It doesn’t come out of nowhere, it’s like Labyrinth, Willow or any of the other things I’ve done. It’s something I like and I started it when I came up with the idea, saying “maybe I’ll do a little fairy tale.” I was doing it on the side, I had a group of about half a dozen people. We started doing stuff, designing stuff and I was really doing Star Wars, but I was doing this on the side because again, we’ve been doing this for 15 years. It’s something I was just doing for the fun of it, for my own enjoyment.

How did you go about picking the music?

This was started a long time ago and this was started because I just wanted to have fun and what I did was I went into my music archives, which is the same archives I went into for American Graffiti, and started finding music that I liked. Part of the development process was listening to the music, listening to the lyrics, trying to design the story where you could fit songs in it to tell the story. This went forever because we were constantly changing stories, taking music out because it was too expensive, or we had to shorten the film which meant we had to put in a new piece of music to sort of cover the glitch when we jumped from A to C instead of B. This is just movie music that I like. This is just my own personal favourite music. The real defining factor was the lyrics to tell the story and did I like the music, is it a nice song that I like to listen to? Part of it was as we work on it, I like to listen to it. Like Gary thinks the same way, it’s much more fun to be able to tap your toes while you’re working.

What is your favourite song in the movie?

[Groans] That’s terrible! This is my top 25! Apart from the top 25 that were in American Graffiti. The first song that got picked was the opening song…uh, “Can’t Help Falling in Love”. To me, that summed up the whole movie when I was starting. That was the inspiration, this is the kind of thing it should start with to tell you what the movie’s about. There’s a lot of other songs in there that also sum up the movie – “Strange Magic” is one of them, of course. It’s fun to be able to do this when you have songs that say what you’re trying to say. That was the original idea. Popular music, especially about love, goes into the categories of “disappointment, sorrow, heartbreak, unhappiness” and that’s two-thirds of it and one-third of it is the happiness of falling in love and having a great time. Obviously, there’s a lot more spent on the more tragic side of love than the happy side of the love and the movie kind of reflects that.

Have your daughters been waiting for this film and what did they think when they watched it?

Only one daughter’s seen it. She saw it at a press screening in Los Angeles yesterday and she loved it. So, that’s one out of three. The other one is married and just has a three-month-old baby so it’s going to be a little while [before she can see it]. She doesn’t live in L.A. like my other daughter, she lives in Las Vegas so she won’t be able to see it until this weekend. And then my other daughter, she’s only 18 months old, she has not seen it yet but I’m sure she’ll love it when she grows up.

Which part did your daughter who’s seen the movie like the most?

Well, she fancies herself as Marianne. Well, she liked the part about the king and his daughter. Listen, she’s 26 so we’re still at that same phase. She’s struggling to take over the kingdom [laughs]. That’s the part she liked the most. She liked the idea, the idea that real love is more than skin-deep and the way people think and what they feel about other people, the things they have in common are more important than what they look like.

Do you think the movie is a reflection of your own romantic relationships?

Well, in a way it is. I didn’t know it at the time, let’s put it that way, but it grew into it as we came along. I had gotten married, got divorced and never thought that I would ever find someone to love again. I was 40, I was a bachelor, I was raising one child by myself and then I had two more. For 20 years, obviously I wanted to get married again but I couldn’t find anybody. I had outgrown the infatuation part, which is another way of saying “actors, singers, models” [All laugh]. So, I had basically just given up. I just said “it’s never going to happen”. And then, I met somebody who was very different from me, looked very different, was in a different business, a child of the 60s, anti-government, anti-Wall Street, anti-everything, so I met a woman from Chicago and I’m from California, we’re from different countries [all laugh]. She’s from the financial business and I didn’t think we would have anything in common but as we got to know each other, I realised we had everything in common. We were just soulmates. That happened to me at 60. I just never thought it would, and it did. It’s just one of those miracles. No pixie dust was involved [all laugh].

Lucasfilm has always been on the forefront of filmmaking technology. Were there things in this film that you were able to bring in that you weren’t able to do about 10 years ago?

Well, what we did was when I started 15 years ago, I had this little group of people who were designers. They designed the characters and environments and things, and we had another little group that started working on technology because I wanted to do a lot of things that couldn’t be done. So, we were working at that point with ILM to develop new technology to be able to create the movie that I wanted to make within financial reason. They worked on that at the same time and that took a long time; that’s where a lot of the work was. I knew we couldn’t do it at that time and about 10 years was spent doing that stuff. In the last 5 years, we were able to take advantage of that and even over the last year we were improving things.

We tested it basically on a TV series we did here in Singapore, which was The Clone Wars. It was technically very advanced for a TV show; we were doing things with lighting, characters and all kinds of esoteric technical things that couldn’t have been done before. We were testing things out on that show, as I like to say. That went on with The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, [through] Episodes I, II and III of Star Wars, of developing technology so we could go to the next level.

Do you think modern cinema achieves the same magic associated with films like Star Wars, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Back to the Future? If not, why not?

Well, the magic you’re talking about is very hard to come by. You couldn’t just “do” it. It takes a very magical situation of creative talent, resources and all kinds of things to make something like that happen. It doesn’t happen very often. Otherwise, you’d see 20 or 30 of those movies every year. For somebody like me, I’m not looking to make a hit movie. I’m just doing something that I want to do for my own reasons. Some of them are hits, people like them, some of them aren’t. That’s not the real thing, for me, the real thing is doing it, and experimenting and doing things. That’s where I’m moving now, making experimental films. They won’t even be released because people will say “why did he do that, I didn’t like that.” I don’t really care, I just want to do it for myself and find out what happens when I do things and not worry about it.

Obviously, I’ve done some films that haven’t worked and I’ve done a lot of films that have worked. You never know…I have absolutely no idea how this movie will be received. I love it. I’ll always be happy with it. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the world is going to like it. I’ve had a lot of films that I really liked that nobody liked and I’ve seen a lot of films that I didn’t think were that special but everybody seems to like them. There’s no rhyme or reason to any of that part. You’ve got several groups that are going to come in and make decisions: the audience, in the form of now bloggers, the audience in the form of people who actually go to see the movie, then you’ve got the press and people who write about it. They all have different things about everything. There’s never any way to know what people are going to like. My worst-reviewed movie was Star Wars [Episode IV] and it seems to be the best [all laugh].

Voice acting is a key component of animated films. Did you envision Evan Rachel Wood and Alan Cumming as your voice actors when you first conceptualised the project and at which point did you settle on them voicing Marianne and the Bog King respectively? Dreamworks goes after a lot of big names to put on their posters, why did you pick these two actors?

The casting was done back when, I did casting by tape. I was looking for a good singer, I was looking for a good actor, I was looking for people who could be the characters. I was just listening to tapes to pick the cast and obviously, Elijah Kelley had worked with me on Red Tails and I knew I wanted him to be Sunny, the elf.

Gary Rydstrom: In Alan Cumming’s case, what I’m really amazed by is that character in this movie has to go from a scary, bad guy character to somebody you want to see fall in love and that you actually can stand to see being kissed. Alan Cumming is a great actor and so he brought a lot of emotional weight to this character; he could change from being a scary bad guy to a gentlemanly, heartfelt person you want to see fall in love by the end. Great actors as well as great singers, that’s what the casting for this film is about. Elijah Kelley was one of George’s first picks for this movie because Elijah Kelley is a force of nature and makes Sunny a force of nature. Casting is a pretty key element in an animated film. It’s more important that they create a character you remember. It’s not important, for me, that they’re famous names. The combination of the voices and the great animation makes it come alive in a way that really is magical.

George Lucas: I don’t believe in movie stars. I’ve never put a movie star in my movie, except for Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Other than that, anybody who’s in my movie who becomes a movie star, I’ve never hired a movie star to promote the movie and I don’t know why you need movie stars, except some of them are really great actors, why you need them in an animated film. In the beginning of animated films, they didn’t have a lot of money to get people like that and this is a reasonably low-budget picture. As a result, we had to use our wits to do it. In the beginning, there were a lot of challenges put in there by me, because I wanted to see if it would work; slightly experimental. One of them which was the love story, the first thing everybody said when they saw the designs was “she’s not going to actually kiss him, is she?” I said “yeah, they fall in love, they get married, they have kids, but we won’t go into that.” Everybody said we couldn’t do it, it wouldn’t work. People would go “ew” and I said “then, we didn’t do our job.” Our job is to say “everybody needs to be loved. Everybody deserves to be loved.” That was a big challenge that these guys pick up and that we’ve been fighting the whole time.

The other one was that I’ve been using this delicate line between photo-real and animation. I had a photo-real background but animated characters that are stylised like animation characters should be. I didn’t want it to look like Final Fantasy [The Spirits Within]. They’re slightly animated characters but they live in a real world, to not have that be jarring. Technically, trying to do that, bringing it up to being realistic and making it match was a huge challenge and the guys here in Singapore did a fantastic job in blending that to a point where it all works together.

It kind of looks like what you would find in your own backyard, which is one of the original concepts is if you’re seven years old, you could go out and see a butterfly, see a cockroach or praying mantis or something and look and it and say “I wonder if that’s really a fairy or a goblin?” It brings a sense of reality or as [Akira] Kurosawa said, “a great movie is made out of immaculate reality”. I turned that into Star Wars, which had that. It’s completely fanciful, there’s nothing real in it. But I managed to make it feel real and am trying to do the same thing here, which is trying to make something that’s completely concocted and animated feel like it’s a real place with real people, even though they’re bugs.

Is there a sequel being planned?

I started this when I was just playing around by myself and now it’s being owned by Disney, so it’s their decision about whether there’s a sequel or not. The big thing is if it does well, then they’ll start talking about things like that. If it doesn’t, they won’t.

Strange Magic opens in Singapore cinemas on 29 January 2015.