Friday, November 27, 2015


For F*** Magazine


Director : Ryan Coogler
Cast : Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashād, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish, Wood Harris
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 133 mins
Opens : 26 November 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

            Michael B. Jordan was the teammate of a rock creature in Fantastic Four, and now he’s under the tutelage of the actual Rocky in this spin-off. Jordan plays Adonis Creed, the illegitimate son of the late legendary boxing champ Apollo Creed. After bouncing around juvenile detention halls and group homes as a kid, Adonis was taken in by Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Rashād). Adonis dreams of being a professional fighter, but wants to make his own name and not get stuck in his father’s shadow. He moves out to Philadelphia to train under Rocky Balboa (Stallone), Apollo’s rival-turned-friend. Adonis strikes up a relationship with his neighbour, singer-songwriter Bianca (Thompson). Adonis agrees to take on British fighter “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Bellew), the undefeated title holder. As the pressure mounts and doubts begin to cloud Adonis’ mind, Rocky’s health starts to fail. Adonis has to step into the ring, fighting in the name of his mother, his mentor, his girlfriend, his father and most importantly, himself.

            The theme of legacy is one that permeates Creed both in the plot of the film and behind the scenes. Creed is directed by Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Aaron Covington. Coogler conceived the idea for the spinoff when he was in film school and pitched it to Stallone, who, understandably protective of Rocky, was initially hesitant to sign off on the movie. Coogler’s father suffered a neuromuscular disorder, and dealing with his father’s mortality sowed the seeds of Creed. After Coogler’s feature film debut Fruitvale Station became a film festival darling, Stallone reconsidered and lent the film his support. Spin-offs to successful franchises can often feel like cynical cash grabs, so just as Adonis has to prove he can stand on his own, Coogler has to prove that there is a point to continuing the Rocky series, which most assumed had come to its natural conclusion with 2006’s Rocky Balboa.

            The first Rocky film is a modern classic, possibly the purest example of contemporary American myth. It’s an honest, straightforward film about a hardworking blue-collar hero with a dream. While some of the later films traded heavily in kitsch, the series as a whole is still a beloved pop culture staple. A strong affection for the movies is palpable in Creed, but Coogler is mostly able to steer things away from feeling slavish to what has gone before. This is very much in the Rocky spirit and it’s not a desecration of any childhood memories, far from it. At the same time, Creed sticks closely to the established sports drama formula, offering practically zero surprises. For the most part, Coogler is able to turn this into a strength and it reads as honouring the legacy instead of lazy storytelling, but the predictable nature of the plot and the characters might make one question if this was an absolutely necessary endeavour.

            Jordan has proven that he’s got what it takes to be an A-list leading man, displaying astonishing athletic prowess and unwavering intensity. The character has to be cocky without being obnoxious; Jordan crosses the line on several occasions but he remains generally easy to root for. In sports, entertainment and other arenas, we’ve seen many children of well-known personalities attempting to strike out on their own to varying degrees of success. There’s always a huge amount of baggage when trying to outrun the looming shadow of a figure such as Apollo Creed, which is something Jordan sells.

As is typical of the genre, Thompson’s Bianca is little more than the designated love interest. There’s the meet cute, they bond over Philly cheesesteaks, a minor misunderstanding or two, a falling out, the whole works. The romantic subplot is the most formulaic element in a movie that is almost entirely formula. Real-life cruiserweight boxer Bellew is an adequately unpleasant bully, albeit far less colourful and memorable than the best opponents in the series.

            Stallone is now the same age that Burgess Meredith, who played Rocky’s corner man Mickey, was when the first Rocky film was released. It makes sense to have Rocky assume the position of a mentor. Of course, there’s the dance of “I just don’t do that stuff no more” before Rocky relents and takes Adonis under his wing, which perhaps mirrors the process behind the scenes between Coogler and Stallone. While it is cool to see Stallone kicking ass and taking names in the Expendables films and late-period efforts like Bullet to the Head, it is just as satisfying seeing him act more his age and taking on a more emotional, less physical role. The scene where Rocky chokes up when talking about his late wife Adrian is pretty moving. This is a different ball game from Bruce Willis sleepwalking through the umpteenth Die Hard, in that Stallone does look like he’s in this for a purpose.

            Filmgoers have become wary of belated sequels/spinoffs to beloved properties after having been burned by everything from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to the recent Terminator Genisys. Even Schwarzenegger’s involvement couldn’t save that last one. Director Coogler comes at Creed from the right angle, spinning a viable if very familiar story with which to bring Rocky back, this time as a supporting character. True, it’s still something of a hard sell, but Creed packs in impactful emotional beats and rousing, inspirational moments and has enough of a driving force behind it.

Summary: Rocky fans won’t be disappointed with how director Ryan Coogler has figured out a way to bring the character back. Creed isn’t particularly ground-breaking, but is earnest and well-made enough to be worthy of ascending those famous steps.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Good Dinosaur

For F*** Magazine


Director : Peter Sohn
Cast : (The voices of) Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, A. J. Buckley, Steve Zahn, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 101 mins
Opens : 26 November 2015
Rating : PG

Pixar transports us back to an era when dinosaurs ruled the earth. Oh, and there are humans there too, no big deal. In an alternate version of prehistory, the asteroid missed the earth and the K-T Extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs never happened. Arlo (Ochoa) is the youngest in a family of Apatosaurus, living with his siblings Buck (Marcus Scribner) and Libby (Maleah Padilla) and their parents Poppa Henry (Wright) and Momma Ida (McDormand) on a farm. Arlo lacks self-confidence and while attempting to face his fears, he gets swept away by a strong river current, separating him from his family. A young caveboy named Spot (Bright) has been stealing corn from Poppa Henry’s silo, and while Arlo starts off viewing him as a nuisance, he gradually comes to befriend and care for Spot as they traverse the wilderness together. Among the characters they meet on their travels is a family of Tyrannosaurus, comprising Butch (Elliott) and his children Ramsey (Paquin) and Nash (Buckley). Arlo and Spot must survive the elements and hostile critters to make their way home safe and sound.

            The Good Dinosaur is the second Pixar film this year after Inside Out, making 2015 the first year in the studio’s history in which they’ve released two feature films. The Good Dinosaur is a straight-forward, kid-friendly adventure film packed with breath-taking, realistically rendered environments and several cute character moments. However, we’ve come to expect more from this studio and the film lacks the wisdom and nuance that characterises some of Pixar’s best work. The film was originally intended to be released in 2014, and issues with the third act led to an overhaul, with Peter Sohn replacing Bob Peterson as director. The end result is largely safe, the coming of age story well-trodden territory for family films. There are story beats that seem lifted wholesale from The Lion King and there are no surprises as the narrative progresses.

            The film is a take on the ‘boy and his x’ trope, except in this case the boy is a young Apatosaurus and the ‘x’ is a feral caveboy. Tales of cross-species friendship have long been fixtures of cinema and the example that leaps to mind in recent animation is How to Train Your Dragon. The bond between Arlo and Spot does possess a certain sweetness about it, but it doesn’t tug on the heartstrings as strongly as the connection between Hiccup and Toothless did. The generally high standard set by Pixar is its own undoing here. The environmental effects are expertly executed and the film has its share of colourful, eye-catching visuals, but the character design comes off as a little unsophisticated, like something that one would see in a typical children’s picture book. There is no shortage of neat physical humour, but the emotional through-line is undercut by the film’s episodic road trip nature.

            Child actor Ochoa does capture the vulnerability of Arlo, but there is little to the character that adds to the stock underdog protagonist seen in many an animated movie. He’s picked on by his siblings and feels a need to prove himself, thrust into a journey in which he must discover “the strength that lies within” and all that. Bright must have had a ball of a time growling and yelping into the microphone as Spot, and there is a dynamism to the size contrast between the two lead characters. Wright’s kindly authority figure is reminiscent of a gentler Mufasa from the afore-mentioned The Lion King. The casting of Elliott, known for his roles in Westerns, as a cattle baron-type does feel more like a Dreamworks move than a Pixar one, but it’s still an amusing performance. The way the T. rexes are animated galloping comes off as jarring; it’s meant to evoke cowboys but it doesn’t quite work. The incidental characters include a pack of Velociraptor Rustlers that are, for all intents and purposes, the trio of hyenas from The Lion King.

            The Good Dinosaur is touching and funny on occasion, but the maturity beneath the surface and the profundity displayed in the likes of WALL-E and The Incredibles is mostly absent. This will sound harsh, but especially in comparison with Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur feels like it was assembled by Pixar’s B-team. The wide open American Northwest landscapes are rendered with technical polish, and enhanced by Mychael and Jeff Danna’s Appalachian-tinged score, but the plot is formulaic to a fault. The predictability of the story is rescued by flashes of heartfelt sweetness, but The Good Dinosaur is ultimately an average animated film from a studio known for delivering masterpieces far above the average.

Summary: There’s nothing fatally wrong with The Good Dinosaur, but we’ve come to expect far greater things from Pixar than this pleasant but formulaic effort.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Victor Frankenstein

For F*** Magazine


Director : Paul McGuigan
Cast : James McAvoy, Daniel Radcliffe, Jessica Brown Findlay, Andrew Scott, Freddie Fox, Charles Dance
Genre : Drama/Thriller/Horror
Run Time : 110 mins
Opens : 26 November 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Disturbing Scenes)

A classic tale is struck with a new spark in this adaptation of the landmark Mary Shelley novel. A nameless hunchback circus freak (Radcliffe) with a penchant for anatomical science has his life changed when he is rescued from the circus and taken in by Victor Frankenstein (McAvoy). Frankenstein is a medical student who is embarking on radical, controversial experiments to bring living beings back from the dead. The hunchback assumes the identity of “Igor Strausman”, Frankenstein’s former flatmate. Inspector Turpin (Scott) of the Scotland Yard is convinced that there is something fishy about Frankenstein and his new associate, the nature of their experiments offending Turpin’s religious sensibilities. In the meantime, Igor pursues a relationship with circus aerialist Lorelei (Findlay), whom he has long harboured affections for. As Frankenstein becomes increasingly obsessed with his experiments, Igor finds himself caught in a web of monsters and madness. 

           Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, is a massively influential work that has been adapted countless times across multiple mediums. This version is told from Igor’s point of view and is kind of “The Social Network in the 19th Century”, with two friends collaborating on a project that will have untold ramifications. There are significant departures from the source material – after all, Igor wasn’t even in the original novel. However, Victor Frankenstein does get a lot right in not straining to be a drastic reinvention or to turn everything on its ear. This is still a science fiction horror story and the heady themes so crucial to the longevity of the tale are very much intact and expounded upon.

Adapted by Max Landis of Chronicle fame, there are knowing winks and nods in the dialogue and there is explicit acknowledgement of the misconception that “Frankenstein” is the name of the monster instead of the scientist. There’s even a line about a “Presentation in Hall H,” a reference to the San Diego Convention Centre hall that hosts Comic-Con’s largest movie panels each year. It is sometimes smart-alecky, but never overwhelmingly so. The tone is consistent, moody and grave with just the right concessions to campiness. The gloomy, gothic Victorian London setting is heightened without being goofy, Eve Stewart’s production design and Jany Temime’s costume design lending the project considerable period piece cred. Director Paul McGuigan employs some neat stylistic flourishes, most notably superimposing annotated anatomical diagrams onto the image, which is a fun visual device. 

The film’s two leads are invaluable assets and in their hands, the “mad scientist bromance” comes off as a viable and compelling angle from which to approach the story. Radcliffe is eminently vulnerable and sympathetic as Igor, a character who is given multiple dimensions and is satisfyingly developed past the shambling, subservient hunchback he is commonly depicted as. McAvoy tackles the Frankenstein role with brio, this is clearly a man possessed but his motivations do come from an honest place. McAvoy partakes in histrionics and ravenous scenery-chewing, but he always seems in control of the theatricality and doesn’t let the over-the-top elements of the role run away from him. McAvoy and Radcliffe have marvellous chemistry and the film revels in its homoerotic subtext. Their relationship is genuinely affecting and the duo bring out the sincerity in a story that can be very cynical.

Because so much of the film is focused on Frankenstein and Igor’s partnership, the supporting characters do get the short shrift. Both Lorelei and Turpin are somewhat under-written roles that can’t help but feel like the designated love interest and antagonist respectively. Since Radcliffe shares so much more chemistry with McAvoy than with Findlay, the romance between Igor and Lorelei feels entirely peripheral to the relationship between Igor and Frankenstein; this was likely intentional. Scott, best-known for his portrayal of Moriarty in BBC’s Sherlock, delivers a terse performance that is ultimately not very arresting. Turpin’s personal beliefs are a way of depicting the conflict of science and religion, which is heavy-handed in parts. Charles Dance makes an all-too-brief brief appearance as Frankenstein’s haughty, disapproving father.

When a studio rolls out yet another iteration of a beloved tale, with the producers promising a take “like nothing you’ve ever seen before,” one can’t help but roll one’s eyes. Victor Frankenstein introduces new elements to the story that do not seem awkwardly out of place. The relationship on which the story hinges is fleshed out and there’s a vibrancy to the storytelling as opposed to a self-important stuffiness. Instead of coming off as an unnecessary re-tread, Victor Frankenstein feels like a retelling that is clever enough to justify its existence. There is also just the right amount of gore – it doesn’t feel like the filmmakers are pulling any punches, which is rare for a PG-13 horror movie. The explosive sexual tension between the leads certainly doesn’t hurt either. 

Summary: Assured in tone and boasting electrifying lead performances, Victor Frankenstein is a dynamic, entertaining retelling of the sci-fi/horror classic.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2

For F*** Magazine


Director : Francis Lawrence
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone, Natalie Dormer, Donald Sutherland
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 2 hrs 17 mins
Opens : 19 November 2015
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

The Mockingjay sings her last in the conclusion of the Hunger Games saga. The nation of Panem is in the throes of a revolutionary war, with Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) continuing to bear the burden of being the symbolic figurehead of the uprising, the Mockingjay. Katniss teams up with a group of her closest allies – including Gale (Hemsworth), Finnick (Claflin), Cressida (Dormer) and Peeta (Hutcherson) – to infiltrate the palace of President Snow (Sutherland) and assassinate him. After an extended period of captivity in the Capitol, Peeta is deeply shaken by the psychological torture he was subjected to and becomes hostile towards Katniss. District 13’s President Alma Coin (Moore) and her right-hand man Plutarch (Hoffman) are counting on this final assault to be the tipping point that allows them to overthrow Snow. As Snow becomes increasingly obsessed with destroying Katniss and putting a stop to the revolution, Katniss realises that as high as the stakes were before, they are ever higher now, with the future of Panem in her hands.

                The expectations are high for the final instalment in the Hunger Games film series, not just because of the massive following the Suzanne Collins novels and the films themselves have gained, but because the filmmakers went the route of splitting the last book into two films, increasing the build-up for Part 2. Typically, movies that close out a blockbuster series promise colossal, epic battles and a surfeit of spectacle. For both better and worse, Mockingjay Part 2 takes a different route. The emphasis is on the politics, an element which has set the Hunger Games series apart from most teen-aimed properties. From the word “go”, this is an appropriately bleak affair, an unrelenting downer. True, The Hunger Games was never meant to be particularly happy or uplifting, but Mockingjay – Part 2 will alienate or even confuse viewers who aren’t 100% invested in what has come before. Audiences are expected to be familiar with the preceding films and, preferably, the books as well.

                The Hunger Games series has taken a considerable amount of risks that have been rewarded critically and at the box office. After all, the basic premise of the first movie/book is a tournament in which kids kill each other for the entertainment of the masses. Finally overthrowing the tyrannical rule of President Snow should be a rousing triumph, but for a society as far gone as Panem, a quick fix simply won’t cut it. That the film not only acknowledges this but delves into the myriad ramifications of the revolution is admirably mature, if not viscerally exciting. Particularly during the first act, things can be a bit of a slog, and Mockingjay Part 2 struggles to gain momentum. The action sequences, in which Katniss and the District 13 Unit have to navigate booby-trapped stretches of the Capitol and fend off all and sundry threats that are flung at them, feel more perfunctory than truly thrilling.

                Jennifer Lawrence’s ever-rising star has paralleled Katniss’ journey from starving District 12 girl to bearer of the Mockingjay mantle, though we imagine being J-Law in real life is generally more fun than being Katniss. In a way, it’s a good thing that Jennifer Lawrence won’t be playing Katniss indefinitely and that she’s given an opportunity to see the character’s arc through to completion. Even more than in the earlier instalments, Mockingjay Part 2 asks the question “is this too much for one girl to handle?” point blank, answers “yes” and shows us all the ways in which it is too much. In the film’s opening scene, Katniss is trying to speak as she is being tended to by a nurse, after Peeta nearly crushed her windpipe in the previous film. There are many films about “finding one’s voice”, but instead of manufactured optimism, the Hunger Games series serves up unflinching brutality and Jennifer Lawrence’s final bow as one of this generation’s defining heroes is expectedly affecting and stirring.

                We also get a resolution to the love triangle, which director Francis Lawrence tries his darndest to couch as something secondary to the turning cogs of revolution. The wounded, feral quality that Peeta takes on is heart-rending and does give Hutcherson more shades to play, as well as switching up the dynamic between Peeta and Katniss. Gale’s bond with Katniss as a childhood hunting buddy is played up a little more in this one; Hemsworth has repeatedly demonstrated that he’s not an actor with immense range but not too much is demanded from him here.

There is quite literally an army of supporting players, so it is natural that some will get shorter shrift than others. This reviewer did enjoy that the film is packed with badass female characters in addition to Katniss, including Dormer’s Cressida, Patina Miller’s Commander Paylor, Gwendoline Christie’s Commander Lyme, Michelle Forbes’ Lieutenant Jackson, Jena Malone’s Johanna Mason and Moore’s President Coin. Moore is especially fun to watch as we see President Coin making increasingly questionable but decently justified decisions. Elizabeth Banks, clad in increasingly fanciful ensembles, seems to be crying out from all the greyness that surrounds her. Sutherland proves he was the ideal choice for President Snow from the beginning, exuding a deep malice that is several layers past idle moustache-twirling villainy and making us all the more eager to see Snow get his comeuppance.

In an age where series finale blockbusters seem almost mandated to include no-holds-barred clashes of epic proportions, the Hunger Games series’ more cerebral conclusion is welcome. However, if one has a particularly short attention span and isn’t fully immersed in the world of Panem as established by the earlier films, it is possible to become bored and frustrated by the ponderous proceedings. This is sure to be a smash hit (at least until Star Wars invades cinemas), so we hope Lionsgate doesn’t try to futilely stretch things out with spinoffs and a reboot, though, like the fall of Panem, that does seem depressingly inevitable.

Summary: The Mockingjay’s last song is resonant if not especially rousing, the final chapter of the Hunger Games series largely satisfying but at times overwhelmingly downbeat.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong


The 33

For F*** Magazine

THE 33

Director : Patricia Riggen
Cast : Antonio Banderas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Jacob Vargas, Juan Pablo Raba, Coté de Pablo, Juliette Binoche, Rodrigo Santoro, Gabriel Byrne, Bob Gunton
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 19 November 2015
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

From the Atacama Desert in Chile comes the true story of courage and perseverance under pressure and underground. On Thursday, 5 August 2010, a major cave-in at the San José copper–gold mine traps a group of 33 miners 23 000 feet under the surface. The group is led by Mario “Super Mario” Sepúlveda (Banderas) and shift leader Luis "Don Lucho" Urzúa (Phillips). Among the 33 is Álex Vega (Casas), whose wife Jessica (de Pablo) is pregnant with their first child, and the troubled Darío Segovia (Raba), who is on poor terms with his empanada vendor sister María (Binoche). As the loved ones of the stranded miners grow restless with no news on the well-being of the 33, Minster of Mining Laurence Golborne (Santoro) coordinates the rescue efforts, collaborating with chief engineer André Sougarret (Byrne). As the nation of Chile and the world at large rallies around “Los 33”, rescuing the miners becomes a priority for the Chilean government, headed by President Sebastián Piñera (Gunton). In the face of insurmountable odds, faith and blue collar spirit must win the day.

            The 33 is based on the book Deep Down Dark, journalist Héctor Tobar’s account of the 2010 Copiapó mining accident. The film is in the English language and is clearly gunning for mass appeal, couched as an inspirational tearjerker that is a celebration of the “triumph of the human spirit” and all that good stuff. It may seem cold of us to be this cynical, but nearly every move The 33 makes seems right in line with established disaster/survival story formulas. Also, the ordeal was so well-documented that practically everyone who goes to see the film would already know the outcome, and the process leading to said outcome as depicted here is rather tedious. Structurally, The 33 is primarily comprised of a “three steps forward, two steps back” dance of some progress being made, only for the rescuers and/or miners to run into a setback before breaking through again. It gets repetitive rather than riveting the longer it goes on.

            Director Patricia Riggen does make some solid stylistic choices, and even though the 33 miners are cooped up in a small refuge underground, the story does have sufficient scope to it. The scene of the initial collapse is frightening and harrowing and the production values can’t be faulted, with the environment coming across as suitably foreboding. In a bid for added realism, actual news footage is spliced in and Chilean TV present Mario Luis Kreutzberger Blumenfeld, better known as “Don Francisco”, plays himself. The miners’ Catholic faith and how their belief played a key role in sustaining them is also showcased.

            There is a scene in which the exhausted, starving miners fantasise about their loved ones bringing them the favourite foods they have so craved. It is corny and a little silly, but it possesses a combination of warmth, levity and sad longing that lifts the film above the standard tropes it presents us with up till that point. This reviewer found that to be the movie’s single most memorable moment.

            Every time a film based on a true story is made, there must be a bit of a dilemma with regards to casting. While a marquee name draws the crowds, thus drawing attention to the film, this might also pull the viewer out of the story. Banderas does bring plenty of star quality to bear as the charismatic and earnest “fearless leader”, though his performance is a touch theatrical at times. Phillips is something of an underrated actor and he’s excellent here as the second-in-command. Naturally, 33 characters is too many for each to be meaningfully developed, so the fact that most of the miners blend together can’t be held against the film.

            The casting of actors of different nationalities and ethnicities from the real-life figures they’re portraying achieves varying degrees of success. Binoche is commendably convincing, but Gunton’s accent slips a whole lot. Santoro is well cast as the slick Minster of Mining, because we’re conditioned to expect that a handsome government guy in a suit won’t actually get anything done. The interplay between Golborne and head engineer Sougarret is sometimes more interesting than the interaction among the miners themselves.

            There’s a scene around the middle of the film when de Pablo (who is actually from Chile), sitting with others around a fire at the base camp, tearfully sings a ballad expressing how she years for her husband to be returned to her side. That’s only one of many melodramatic moments in The 33. Sure, there are parts that manage to be genuinely moving, but it’s all pretty obviously engineered. Engineered entertainment value is a whole different ball game from engineered pathos. One gets the feeling that this story would be better served by a documentary featuring interviews with the real-life miners, their family members and the engineers and officials who orchestrated the rescue interspersed with re-enactments, as opposed to a generic survival drama movie.

Summary: The true story of the 33 Chilean miners is inspiring, but this film is a rather rote affair that is occasionally lifted by good performances and strong production values.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong  

The Program

For F*** Magazine


Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Ben Foster, Chris O’Dowd, Guillaume Canet, Jesse Plemons, Lee Pace, Denis Menochet, Dustin Hoffman
Genre : Drama/Sport
Run Time : 103 mins
Opens : 19 November 2015
Rating : NC16 (Some Drug Use And Coarse Language)

We all remember Jeff Goldblum muttering to himself “must go faster, must go faster”, while being pursued by dinosaurs (and later, aliens). What happens when a man lives his life solely in the pursuit of going faster, at any cost? Lance Armstrong (Foster), having defeated cancer and becoming the darling of the professional cycling world, is admired and adored the world over, both for his multiple Tour de France championship titles and his charity work. David Walsh (O’Dowd), a sports journalist with the Sunday Times in the UK, begins to suspect that Armstrong may be using performance-enhancing drugs, despite Armstrong’s repeated and empathic claims to the contrary. Sports doctor Michele Ferrari (Canet) has devised “the program”, a sophisticated doping regimen that Armstrong and all the cyclists on his team are put on. The illicit drug use is enabled by Armstrong’s agent Bill Stalpleton (Pace) and the team’s directeur sportif Johann Bruyneel (Menochet). This weighs on the conscience of Floyd Landis (Plemons), a promising cyclist recruited onto the team, as Walsh gets ever closer to uncovering the devastating truth.

            The Program is inspired by David Walsh’s book Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong. The film’s approach is that of a David vs. Goliath tale, with an honest journalist battling the odds to expose the deceit of a nigh-untouchable superstar athlete. As such, it is as much an “uncovering the scandal” thriller as it is a biopic, with sports in place of politics. Seeing as that’s the starting point, this was never going to be a particularly objective or balanced account of Armstrong’s life, and to an extent, that’s fine. Director Stephen Frears, whose recent credits include The Queen and Philomena, is an experienced filmmaker and The Program is assembled with style and panache. As a takedown of a false idol, it is aggressive and damning, but as a thoughtful investigative drama, it lacks clear-eyed credibility.

            The movie’s pacing is appropriately brisk, Valerio Bonelli’s editing making it all quite a heady trip. Screenwriter John Hodge ensures events unfold coherently and efficiently. Even if one isn’t into pro cycling, The Program is likely to hold one’s attention and it’s a dynamic, even thrilling film. However, it doesn’t take much to step back and go “wait a second, just how Hollywood-ed up is this thing?” The Lance Armstrong story has all the elements that make for a compelling true story: deceit, betrayal and conspiracy on a very public stage, but all those elements feel drummed up and slightly inauthentic here. Furthermore, it’s all ground that’s already been covered in Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie. This reviewer was hoping the film would explore the effect that Armstrong’s deception had on his family and others close to him in more detail, but The Program trundles down a different path. Armstrong meets his wife Kristin Richard (Chloe Hayward), marries her in the next scene, and she’s never actually seen again, since that would slow things down.

            Armstrong as portrayed by Foster isn’t just a villain, he’s a supervillain. The film’s depiction of the cyclist is a man seduced by and obsessed with victory, a master manipulator and a detestable, unrepentant fraud. With an inspiring, carefully-constructed public persona hiding sneering malice, giving rousing speeches and comforting children in cancer wards while threatening any and all who would give away his secret, Armstrong is basically Lex Luthor. Foster puts in an electrifying, passionate performance, but it is one almost entirely devoid of nuance and altogether too difficult to take seriously. On hearing of Walsh’s accusations, Armstrong bellows “I am Lance Armstrong and he is f***ing no-one!” as he strides down a grand staircase in his mansion. Doing a spot of method acting that we’ll neither condone nor condemn, Foster actually took performance-enhancing drugs under medical supervision to better get under Armstrong’s skin.

            O’Dowd’s Walsh is a standard-issue “dogged reporter” hero, dedicated to his family and to his profession, persistent in hunting the truth to the bitter end. The character is so idealised that it’s impossible to overlook that the real-life Walsh’s account of events was the primary source for the film, and if Armstrong is a supervillain, then that must make Walsh a superhero. O’Dowd is likeable without trying too hard, and for an actor better known for playing the goofy schlub in many a comedy, he puts in a solid dramatic turn.

Canet is spectacularly over the top in this, playing Dr. Michele Ferrari like a mad scientist in a monster movie, exaggerated accent and all. “No longer confined to the earth, now we can learn to fly,” he intones, squirting droplets of Erythropoietin from a syringe. Plemons, truly coming into his own as a capable character actor, is very sympathetic as Floyd Landis, who was raised a devout Mennonite and whose father strongly discouraged his pursuit of cycling. Dustin Hoffman makes a brief appearance as Bob Hamman, the founder of SCA Promotions who sought the repayment of $10 million in prize money after discovering Armstrong was doping. In what is likely a sly reference to The Graduate, The Lemonheads’ cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s song Mrs. Robinson is used in the film.
There’s a fun, bitingly cynical scene in the film, in which Armstrong and his teammates are having the performance enhancing drugs administered to them and are discussing who might play Armstrong in a movie. Matt Damon is out and Jake Gyllenhaal, whose name Armstrong mispronounces, is in. It’s a good thing Hollywood waited. The Program isn’t all that incisive or searing, more an entertaining diversion than awards contender prestige pic, but it is a rip-roaring ride.

Summary: Slick and entertaining but ultimately superficial, Ben Foster’s delicious albeit obvious lead performance keeps this biopic on track.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


For F*** Magazine


Director : Brian Helgeland
Cast : Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, Christopher Eccleston, Taron Egerton, Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, Chazz Palminteri
Genre : Drama/Crime
Run Time : 132 mins
Opens : 12 November 2015
Rating : M18 (Violence and Coarse Language)

After going Mad earlier this year, Tom Hardy’s going Kray-zy in this gangster biopic. Hardy plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, identical twins who ruled the London criminal underworld in the 60s. Reggie is the savvy businessman while institutionalized Ronnie is the unhinged, unpredictable loose cannon. After threatening a psychiatrist into declaring Ronnie sane, the pair rise through the ranks, running protection rackets and buying up nightclubs. Reggie falls in love with Frances Shea (Browning) who eventually marries him, much to the disapproval of her mother (Tara Fitzgerald). In the meantime, Ronnie openly pursues a relationship with Teddy (Egerton). The twins become business associates of Philadelphia crime family don Angelo Bruno (Palminteri) and are pursued by Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent Leonard “Nipper” Read (Eccleston), intent on putting an end to their reign of terror. 

Legend is based on John Pearson’s biography The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins. The twins were the subject of the 1990 biopic The Krays as well as the straight-to-DVD 2015 film The Rise of the Krays, the latter apparently made to ride the coattails of this film. Writer-director Brian Helgeland earned his crime movie bona fides with 1997’s Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential and the Kray twins’ colourful history and trail of violence makes them attractive true crime biopic subjects. While Legend is a superb showcase for its star, it falls short in almost all other departments. Like many period gangster movies, Legend all too frequently invokes the classics of the genre while feeling like a mere echo. Its portrayal of 60s London is at once stylish and slightly artificial, Helgeland never achieving the authenticity he strives for. 

The film falls into a pattern of Ronnie doing something despicable and outrageous with Reggie cleaning up after him, the twins often coming into conflict with each other and those around them. It’s odd: even though the film spends a lot of time with its central characters, it doesn’t dig very deep into the psychology of the twins and by its conclusion, we only actually understand very little about them. It is eventful, but sometimes difficult to follow, everything tied together with a voiceover by Browning’s Frances. The voiceover is often heavy-handed and there are some clumsy attempts at breaking the fourth wall. In the end, it feels like the main purpose this voiceover serves is to give Frances some semblance of agency, since for most of the film, she is just there, just “the wife”.

Hardy has emerged as an A-lister who can headline big-budget blockbusters and prestige dramas with equal ease, and his dual role here is plenty impressive. Of course it’s gimmicky, but it’s a gimmick that works. With the help of body double Jacob Tomuri (who was Hardy’s stunt double in Mad Max: Fury Road and the upcoming The Revenant) and some clever visual effects trickery, two distinct versions of the actor co-exist and after a while, the sleight of hand becomes truly seamless. When Ronnie and Reggie come to blows during an especially heated argument, the fight is spectacularly convincing. Affecting an East End dialect, Hardy is able to play both twins as distinct characters, the end result far less stilted than when Armie Hammer’s head was duplicated and pasted onto Josh Pence’s body to play the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Reggie is the tortured antihero and Ronnie is the wild-eyed, mal-adjusted psychopath. In very loose terms, Reggie is the “good” twin, though that is of course relative. 

The afore-mentioned Browning looks gorgeous, appropriately retro-chic in a selection of 60s ensembles, but is given little to do beyond fretting over her husband’s illegal activities. Christopher Eccleston huffs and puffs as the cop on the Krays’ case, but Helgeland doesn’t seem too interest in the cat-and-mouse cops vs. criminals aspect of the story. Egerton, having made a splash in Kingsman: The Secret Service earlier this year, is also underused as Ron’s boy toy. Paul Bettany pops up very briefly as rival gangster Charlie Richardson. The British character actors who make up the Krays’ criminal posse come off as sufficiently tough and unsavoury, with Palminteri adding a touch of American mob movie cred. 

Given how Legend has been positioned as an awards contender, the film ends up surprisingly superficial. Even more so than other gangster films, it revolves around relationships, given its main characters are twins, but few of those relationships are satisfyingly developed and explored. Slick but formulaic and often unfocused, Legend offers very little real insight into the lives of the fascinating Kray twins. 

Summary: Tom Hardy’s dual role is dynamite stuff, but Legend is hampered by its heightened glossiness and is ultimately too shallow to pass as a gripping biopic. 

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars 

Jedd Jong 

Rock the Kasbah

For F*** Magazine


Director : Barry Levinson
Cast : Bill Murray, Kate Hudson, Bruce Willis, Zooey Deschanel, Danny McBride, Scott Caan, Arian Moayed, Leem Lubany, Beejan Land
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 5 November 2015
Rating : NC16 (Some Drug Use And Coarse Language)

Bill Murray is out to get Afghanistan in the groove in this comedy-drama. Murray plays Richie Lanz, a washed-up rock manager whose glory days are far behind him. When he takes his remaining client Ronnie Smiler (Deschanel) to Afghanistan to perform for American troops, Ronnie abandons him, leaving Richie high and dry, stranded without money and a passport. A seasoned wheeler-dealer, Richie comes into contact with a variety of colourful personalities, including American prostitute Ms. Merci (Hudson), mercenary Bombay Brian (Willis) and cab driver Riza (Moayed). While staying the night as guests of Pashtun elder Tariq Khan (Fahim Fazli), Richie is struck by the remarkable singing voice of Tariq’s daughter Salima (Lubany). Richie makes it his mission to get Salima on the televised singing contest Afghan Star. However, an enormous uphill battle lies ahead of Salima and Richie, as it is forbidden for a Pashtun woman to sing, and doing so is life-threatening. 

Rock the Kasbah takes its name from The Clash’s song Rock the Casbah, though that song doesn’t feature in the film. Richie’s daughter informs him that he won’t find any Kasbahs in Afghanistan; the walled citadels are in North Africa. The premise is ripe for both comedy and drama, but the film’s execution does leave a fair amount to be desired. Director Barry Levinson, working from a screenplay by Mitch Glazer, attempts to gingerly balance the big belly laugh moments with some serious, sensitive thematic elements, and it doesn’t always work. Afghanistan as depicted in Rock the Kasbah plays into all the stereotypes ingrained in western popular culture: rubble is strewn through the streets, bombings are an everyday occurrence, warlords rock up to villages on horseback packing AK-47s, the whole works. At the same time, there are attempts to subvert said stereotypes and the film is dedicated to real-life Afghan Star contestant Setara Hussainzada, a woman who risked her life to pursue her musical dream. 

Rock the Kasbah has something to say, but instead of finding a meaningful way to say it, the film frantically exclaims “look! Bill Murray!” in the hopes that audiences will be more forgiving of anything else because of the film’s star. Rock the Kasbah does play to all of Murray’s strengths as a comedic actor. Richie Lanz is an experienced huckster who claims to have discovered Madonna and is eager to regale anyone with tall tales about rubbing elbows with music’s biggest stars. It’s the “loveable scoundrel” archetype through and through. He mangles Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water while strumming a rubab in front of unamused Pashtun tribal leaders and wakes up tied to the bed in a compromising position after a particularly wild night. Richie Lanz is the brash American abroad who thinks he can talk his way out of anything, and that’s right up Murray’s alley. 

The thing is, this really shouldn’t be a story about Richie Lanz, it should be about Salima Khan, the aspiring songstress. Levinson wants to avoid the standard treacly “fight for your dreams!” angle, even though that story seems like one that can be meaningfully told. Salima is played with quiet dignity and understated vulnerability by Palestinian actress Lubany, who starred in the Oscar-nominated 2013 film Omar. She performs some very pleasant covers of Yusuf Islam (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens) songs, including Peace Train (this is not a subtle movie), but the focus is never really on Salima’s journey; it’s about how the wily American rock manager who helps her along. Naturally, there are other Afghan characters who are positively portrayed, namely Beejan Land’s charismatic and canny Afghan Star host Daoud Sididi and Arian Moayed’s friendly cab driver/translator Riza, but they all play second fiddle to the American characters. 

Rock the Kasbah is a reasonably star-studded affair, with big(-ish) names brought in to play what essentially are caricatures. Deschanel’s long-suffering Ronnie Smiler is only in this as a plot catalyst, bailing out on Richie after being fed up with her lack of prospects under his management. Willis brings his comedic chops to bear, though we are disappointed that the movie doesn’t reference his blues singer alter ego Bruno Radolini. Hudson seems miscast as the temptress “hooker with a heart of gold”, since she’s more sunny than sultry, but she is better here than in many of the sub-par romantic comedies she’s headlined. Rounding out the cast are Danny McBride and Scott Caan as a pair of con men/arms dealers. They appear to have been inspired by the real-life stoners-turned-gunrunners who are the subjects of the book Arms and the Dudes

Entertaining and funny but occasionally misguided, Rock the Kasbah seems afraid to dive into the weighty material at hand in order to avoid alienating audiences, counting on Murray to make everything go down smoother. Rock the Kasbah touches on America’s involvement in Afghanistan and the way woman are treated in the Middle East, but coming at this from a humorous angle is about as tricky as it sounds. 

Summary: Rock the Kasbah leans heavily on the comic presence of its leading man, sometimes at the expense of meaningfully digging into the themes it sets out to shed light on. 

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Miss You Already

For F*** Magazine


Director : Catherine Hardwicke
Cast : Drew Barrymore, Toni Collette, Dominic Cooper, Paddy Considine, Tyson Ritter, Mem Ferda, Jacqueline Bisset, Frances de la Tour
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 113 mins
Opens : 5 November 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Some Sexual Scenes)

The course of true BFF-ship never did run smooth, and in this comedy-drama, Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore play best friends who weather thick and thin together. Milly (Collette) and Jess (Barrymore) have been the closest of pals since childhood, when Jess’ family moved from the US to the UK. Milly marries former rock band roadie Kit (Cooper) and the two go on to have two kids together. Jess settles down with construction engineer Jago (Considine) and the two are trying for a baby. A spanner is thrown in the works when Milly discovers she has breast cancer. As those around her, including Jess, Kit and Milly’s mother Miranda (Bisset) try to help out in any way they can, the time-tested bond between Jess and Milly undergoes considerable strain. Will the besties conquer all?

Miss You Already is adapted for the screen by Morwenna Banks from her own BBC Radio play. The radio play has a spoiler-tastic title, so we shan’t print it here (and don’t go looking for it if you haven’t seen the movie yet). It’s very easy to be cynical about Miss You Already – it’s a story about a cancer patient and her best friend and has drawn inevitable comparisons to the likes of legendary chick flicks Beaches and Steel Magnolias. Now, “chick flick” isn’t an appellation and it’s perfectly fine for a film to be made with the intention of getting its audience to get all misty-eyed. Director Catherine Hardwicke is cognisant of the pre-conceived notions one might go into Miss You Already with and attempts to walk the tightrope between subverting the tropes of the weepie movie subgenre and playing them straight. This is mostly successful. 

There is the great danger of the film coming across as a blatantly hokey “Lifetime movie of the week” affair. At the same time, one wouldn’t want it to be too bleakly mundane. Miss You Already does stick to many of the established traits of comedy-dramas centring on someone battling a terminal illness, but it carries nary a shred of self-importance and as such is easy to get involved in. The recent comedy drama 50/50 took a down-to-earth, gently humorous look at dealing with cancer, and while the situations in Miss You Already are more outlandish, the approach is along those lines. Many of the jokes do land, and the comedy functions as a way of cushioning the blow of the devastation that comes with a condition like breast cancer. It doesn’t feel like the film is forcing us to laugh at something that inherently just isn’t funny, and that’s a point in its favour. 

Miss You Already’s coup is its casting, since if Milly and Jess come across as actual lifelong friends, half the battle is won. Milly and Jess are distinct enough without being polar opposites; it’s a relief that the film doesn’t take the “one’s buttoned-up and the other’s a flighty free spirit!” approach. Collette does most of the dramatic heavy lifting and her performance is as entertaining as it is affecting. We get the sense that this is a woman who loves having fun and does have a real zest for life, so we’re rooting for her in spite of some very questionable decisions she makes. Collette’s comic timing is on point, and both she and Barrymore consciously avoid over-the-top joke delivery styles. Barrymore’s Jess is the more stable and dependable of the two, having to be the unwavering pillar of support throughout Milly’s ordeal and Barrymore is understated and appealing in the role. There’s even a reference to E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which this reviewer found especially amusing. 

Both Cooper and Considine make for fine significant others to Collette and Barrymore, with Considine in particular turning in what might the movie’s most realistic performance. Each has to “share” his wife with her best friend, but they become friends in the process and it is heart-warming to see them all hanging out together and enjoying each other’s company. Bisset, fabulous as always, is a complete and utter hoot as Milly’s feisty actress mother. 

Miss You Already is by no means a realistic movie – there’s a subplot involving Milly dragging a pregnant Jess along on a spur-of-the-moment road trip to Brontë Country, the setting of their favourite book Wuthering Heights. However, by the time the film closes in on the tear ducts, it has largely earned that and the characters feel sufficiently developed and relatable. Miss You Already’s formulaic aspects are easy to forgive, because director Hardwicke and writer Banks have mostly put them to good use. 

Summary: While partaking in its share of clichés, this story of two friends manages to be funny and moving thanks in no small part to enjoyable, engaging performances from its leads.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong