Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Steve Jobs


Director : Danny Boyle
Cast : Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss
Genre : Drama
Run time: 122 minutes
Singapore theatrical release currently unscheduled

Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin take us on a journey to the core of the Apple in this biopic. The film dives into the frantic lead-up to three key product launches during the career of tech entrepreneur Steve Jobs (Fassbender). In 1984, Jobs and marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Winslet) labour over the demonstration of the Apple Macintosh. In the meantime, Jobs brushes off his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Waterston), denying that he fathered Chrisann’s daughter Lisa (Moss, Sobo and Haney-Jardine at different ages). In 1988, Jobs attempts to get the NeXT computer off the ground after being ousted from Apple by CEO John Sculley (Daniels). The final act of the film skips ahead ten years to the unveiling of the iMac in 1998. Across the three segments, we also see Jobs’ interactions with his close collaborator Steve Wozniak (Rogen), member of the original Mac team Andy Hertzfeld (Stuhlbarg) and GQ journalist Joel Pforzheimer (John Ortiz).

            When Aaron Sorkin writes a movie, it’s immediately known as an “Aaron Sorkin movie”, regardless of however prolific the director is. Steve Jobs sees Danny Boyle take on Sorkin’s screenplay, imbuing what could very well be a stage play with considerable vim and verve. Boyle has never shied away from experimenting with style and Steve Jobs’ visual dynamism complements the wit of the script. Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Küchler shot each act in different film formats: 16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1988, and digital for 1998, with the look of each segment reflecting the gradual evolution of Jobs’ own style. Likewise, Daniel Pemberton’s score employs analog synthesisers for the 1984 segment, an orchestra for the 1988 segment and digitally-produced tracks made on an iMac for the 1998 act. There are conscious stylistic choices running through the film which enhance and reinforce the firecracker dialogue to string the three distinct acts into a holistic piece.

Sorkin’s hook is that instead of giving an overview of Jobs’ whole life, the film offers snapshots of it. The clear-cut three act structure (or a symphony in three movements, if one prefers) is a gambit that pays off. While it might be frustrating that only these specific events are given focus and that the film concludes a fair bit before the iPod or iPhone happened, the interpersonal drama is constructed with admirable intricacy. Naturally, Boyle and Sorkin take a considerable amount of artistic license and many of the incidents depicted in the film have been invented out of whole cloth. Sorkin said of the lines he wrote, “If any of them are real, it’s a remarkable coincidence.” However, because of how trippingly on the tongue all that Sorkinese is delivered, there is nary a moment for the audience to sit back and pick apart the inaccuracies.

Fassbender has been garnering deserved Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Jobs. While many leading men that Hollywood has attempted to foist on us in recent years are blandly handsome and lacking in screen presence, Fassbender is the master of magnetism. His lack of physical resemblance to Jobs is compensated by a bravura intensity and confidence which draws the audience in no matter how utterly unlikeable the character gets and how many tantrums he throws. This is a markedly different character from Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg in the earlier Sorkin-penned tech icon biopic The Social Network. Both screenplays are Sorkin pieces through and through, and it is fun to parse the similarities and differences. Despite the sheer strength of Fassbender’s portrayal, this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine what Christian Bale, who was attached to the project in its earliest stages, could have done with the part.

The film quickly establishes that it takes someone with an iron constitution to not only tolerate being around Jobs but to regularly stand up to him, and Winslet conveys exactly this with her portrayal of Joanna Hoffman. Winslet spent time with the real Hoffman to capture her mannerisms and she nails the slight Polish accent – her work with the dialect is better than Fassbender’s.  When she or any other character goes toe-to-toe with Jobs, it’s like watching a sparring match. Rogen has memorably stated that he “won’t ruin your fancy drama” and while the role of Steve Wozniak is not exactly the acting challenge playing Jobs is, Rogen is personable and the ideal counterpoint to Fassbender’s performance. Daniels’ performance as the mentor figure who eventually has a falling out with Jobs has considerable emotional impact in spite of the relatively small size of the role.

Steve Jobs is not a hagiography because its subject is not a saint. It’s not blind hero worship because its subject is not exactly a hero. If anything, several of the real-life figures portrayed in the film have come forward to say Jobs was nicer than written and portrayed in the film. The film does get it across that Jobs was driven and immensely passionate. The opening archival footage of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke standing in a room occupied by one massive computer from the late 60s as he predicts that personal computers will one day be as ubiquitous as telephones does put Jobs’ vision of a “computer for the rest of us” and Apple’s eventual realisation of said vision in perspective.

            Biographical dramas, particularly those calibrated for awards season consideration, can often be stodgy affairs. Steve Jobs practically cartwheels across the screen – it’s an exhilarating experience and it’s fun to soak in all those quotable, razor-sharp lines and momentarily feel smarter by osmosis. There are certain conflicts that feel a mite overblown and the ending is somewhat schmaltzy in spite of Sorkin’s and Boyle’s best efforts, but Steve Jobs succeeds as an insightful, unconventional character study that is enthralling throughout.

Summary: Factual inaccuracies are smoothed over with mesmerizing performances, electrifying direction and whip-smart storytelling in this unconventional and beautifully crafted biopic.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 


For F*** Magazine


Director : Thomas McCarthy
Cast : Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 128 mins
Opens : 21 January 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Some Mature Content)

It was 2001, and facing great opposition, one small band of intrepid reporters uncovered the truth behind a string of child sex abuse cases. Spotlight tells their story. The Boston Globe’s new editor Marty Baron (Schreiber), arriving from Florida, reads a small column about a paedophile priest whom Boston’s Cardinal Law was aware of and yet did nothing to stop him. Baron assigns journalist Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton) and his team to go after what appears to be a much larger story. Alongside Robinson, Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams), Ben Bradlee Jr. (Slattery) and Matt Carroll (James) comprise the Spotlight team, the oldest newspaper investigative unit still active in the United States. Because of the sensitive nature of the case and how strongly institutional Catholicism figures in the city of Boston, the Spotlight team faces an uphill battle in illuminating the sobering, horrifying truth of the pattern of abuse that has been perpetuated by the city’s priests.

            Directed by Tom McCarthy and co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight has emerged among the stronger contenders of the 2015-2016 awards race, premiering to “sustained applause” at the Venice Film Festival. As moviegoers, we’re used to seeing fearless, heroic reporters ducking out of the gun sights of assassins or going toe to toe with Lex Luthor, getting rescued by Superman at the last moment. Spotlight presents a portrait of real-life reporters and the good that they’re capable of doing. It’s a cinematic embodiment of journalistic integrity and a measured, objective handling of a potentially provocative topic. There’s nary a whiff of embellishment and McCarthy avoids a vulgar, sensationalistic approach to the subject matter at every turn. As the cliché goes, this is a movie about “men and women just doing their jobs”, and the realism and credibility McCarthy brings to the film is just the right way to celebrate the accomplishments of the Spotlight team.

            There’s a nobility and a worthiness to the story being told, of course, but seeing reporters standing around the bullpen comparing notes doesn’t exactly scream excitement. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who also lensed the Boston-set Black Mass, adds just the right amount of dynamism to the proceedings while restraining from distracting flashiness. There is a clarity to the progression of the story in the sequence of events without it getting too dry. At the same time, Spotlight never loses sight of the human toll of the case. A cleverly-edited sequence which intercuts Pfeifer and Rezendes interviewing two very different victims conveys how many young lives were affected by the scandal without descending into hokey sentimentality.

            Spotlight boasts a luminous ensemble cast who breathe life into unglamorous unsung heroes. Keaton doesn’t get as juicy a part as in the earlier award season darling Birdman, but is still able to bring a charisma to the role of the Spotlight team’s fearless leader. Schreiber’s Marty Baron is the outsider that is desperately needed to examine and evaluate the situation from a distance and without his impetus, the investigation probably wouldn’t have happened, or would at least have been significantly delayed. As a reporter who’s less of the plucky Lois Lane archetype she portrayed in State of Play, McAdams gets some excellent scenes where Pffeifer has to maintain her composure in difficult confrontations with victims and perpetrators alike.  Ruffalo is the stand-out as the dedicated, passionate, somewhat awkward Rezendes. He mostly plays opposite Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian, an attorney representing the victims. Garabedian is prickly and suffers no fools, but is ultimately well-meaning. Michael Cyril Creighton and Neal Huff both turn in affecting performances as but two of the many victims traumatised in their youth.

            A level-headed telling of the events that’s not out to shock or function as a smear piece, Spotlight offers great insight into the way investigative reporters conduct their inquiries and the positive impact that their work can have. Sure, the quiet, even-handed approach favoured by McCarthy may sacrifice superficial excitement, but Spotlight’s lack of self-conscious prestige picture artifice is refreshing. Spotlight is more concerned with lauding the Boston Globe journalists than delivering a searing takedown of the Roman Catholic Church, which is just as well. Pragmatic without being detached, compelling without being heavy-handed, Spotlight’s unassuming nature is the ideal reflection of the work ethic displayed by the journalists it is about.

Summary: This account of the Spotlight team’s investigation into the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston is concise, fair, dignified and respectful, brought to life by a powerhouse cast.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Hateful Eight

For F*** Magazine


Director : Quentin Tarantino
Cast : Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Channing Tatum
Genre : Western/Thriller
Run Time : 167 mins
Opens : 21 January 2016
Rating : R21

Hang on to them reins, boys and girls, because Quentin Tarantino’s wrangled up his eighth motion picture and is coming at you guns a-blazin’, all shot in glorious 65mm. It is some time after the Civil War in wintry Wyoming and bounty hunter Major Marquis Warren (Jackson) hitches a ride on a stagecoach occupied by fellow bounty hunter John “Hangman” Ruth (Russell) and his captive, Daisy Domergue (Leigh). Ruth is delivering Domergue to the town of Red Rock, and the trio comes across Chris Mannix (Goggins), apparently the new sheriff of Red Rock. The four arrive at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a stagecoach lodge, which is being looked after by Bob the Mexican (Bichir) in Minnie’s absence. They meet the other lodgers: English hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Roth), ranch hand Joe Gage (Madsen) and former Confederate general Sanford Smithers (Dern). Trapped in the middle of a fierce blizzard, this motley crew aren’t going to sit all quiet-like and wait for the storm to blow over, with mysteries unravelling, tensions mounting and lots of blood being spilled.

            As can be expected with any new Tarantino project, there was a great deal of pomp and circumstance surrounding the development of The Hateful Eight. The script surfaced online in January 2014, inciting Tarantino’s rage and a degree of finger-pointing as to who exactly leaked the screenplay. Tarantino briefly considered scrapping the film entirely and publishing The Hateful Eight as a novel instead. A live reading was staged before the film eventually went into production. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone came on board to score his first Western in 34 years and provide the first original score for a Tarantino film, the soundtracks of which customarily comprise existing songs. Then, the film was released in an old-fashioned roadshow presentation projected in 70 mm format, this version containing an extra 20 minutes of footage compared to the regular theatrical release.

            After all of this build-up, The Hateful Eight emerges as a film that is Tarantino’s through and through, but is not one of the director’s stronger efforts. With all the accolades he has amassed and with the impact his films have made on the pop cultural landscape, it makes sense that Tarantino would be given carte blanche to create the film he wants to. This is a spectacularly self-indulgent piece, and while Tarantino has made self-indulgence work in his favour in previous films, The Hateful Eight will test audiences who aren’t already converts to his style. Near the beginning of the film, Ruth orders Warren to put aside his pistol “molasses-like”, which is exactly the pacing of the movie. The 167-minute-long theatrical cut is already a challenge to endure, let alone the 187-minute roadshow cut. The cast is peppered with actors who have worked with Tarantino before and the director’s penchant for bombastic monologues and excessive, gory violence is in full force here. He has always planted his flag at the intersection of artfulness and vulgarity, and that flag is definitely still standing.

            At its core, this is a mystery, with Tarantino citing the Agatha Christie classic And Then There Were None as a reference point. It seems like it would work better as a stage play, and Tarantino does indeed have intentions of writing and directing a Broadway adaptation of the film. There are twists, turns and reveals, but this is a more straight-forward story than it is presented as, with the feeling of a tense, intimate drama being bloated to epic proportions, stuffed with over-the-top posturing and drenched in mostly unnecessary blood. Our characters arrive at a locale, are stuck there and a whodunit unfolds. The sometimes ridiculous heights that this reaches detract from the overall impact and suspense.

There are ingeniously staged moments of ratcheting tension that are immediately undercut by fountains of arterial splatter. One can imagine Tarantino rubbing his hands with glee, setting special effects makeup artists Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger loose on set, armed with assorted viscera. When Tarantino was paying homage to genres like the gangster movie, Blaxploitation or the martial arts film in the past, bloody violence makes more sense than it does in association with westerns, even given revisionist works by the likes of Sam Peckinpah. The violence crosses past the point of being shocking into being pointlessly numbing.

            Watching the cast at play is fun and thankfully, there’s a great deal of that going on here. This is an ensemble piece, but Tarantino’s oft-collaborator Jackson takes the lead as Major Marquis Warren. We initially lean into rooting for Warren because, as the lone black character for the bulk of the film, Warren is the target of strong racial slurs, but his own volatility and detestable actions soon come to light, making him at once fascinating and repulsive. Russell’s more understated approach is the ideal counterpoint to Jackson’s style, and for the most part, it’s clear this is a cast who knows full well what they’re doing.

Leigh is remarkably believable as the scuzzy Domergue, bad teeth, black eye, stringy hair and all, perhaps the most authentic of the bunch in mannerisms and appearance. Jennifer Lawrence was reported under consideration to play Domergue. Dern has a quietly commanding presence and carries one of the film’s most powerful moments, a conversation between Warren and Smithers about the fate of Smithers’ son. Goggins is entertaining though often bothering on annoying as he enthusiastically bounces about the set. Madsen puts in the least effort, though perhaps there’s a charm in that stemming from the Reservoir Dogs connection. In addition to Mr. Blonde, Mr. Orange, a.k.a. Tim Roth, is also present.

            Tatum’s appearance, however brief, completely pulled this reviewer out of the film. The actor has stumbled awkwardly through many a dramatic role and the ruthless badass Tatum plays in The Hateful Eight doesn’t capitalise on any of his comedic strengths. Stunt performer and actress Zoë Bell, a Tarantino mainstay, also has a minor supporting role. Bell’s New Zealand accent is acknowledged, but that doesn’t make it any less out of place in the setting.

            For fans of Tarantino’s technique and style and those who have enjoyed dissecting his back-catalogue and devising theories about how the events of all his films are connected, The Hateful Eight will be a largely fulfilling experience. However, if the wanton violence and odes to specific pop culture ephemera in his previous movies were alienating, The Hateful Eight is all the more so. It is generally true that a director making a film for himself is better than a hired gun just cashing a check, but The Hateful Eight feels like it was made primarily for Tarantino’s own amusement, and that if the general audience happens to like it, it’s mostly because they’ve been conditioned by the director’s own oeuvre.

Summary: The Hateful Eight is packed with its director’s signature flair, but it often feels saturated and overwhelmingly self-indulgent, a cloud of “you’re supposed to like this because it’s Tarantino” hanging over it.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Our Brand is Crisis

For F*** Magazine


Director : David Gordon Green
Cast : Sandra Bullock, Scoot McNairy, Billy Bob Thornton, Anthony Mackie, Ann Dowd, Joaquim de Almeida, Zoe Kazan, Reynaldo Pacheco
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 108 mins
Opens : 14 January 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Some Coarse Language)

On the electoral battlefield, only best-prepared campaign can emerge victorious. Political consultant Jane Bodine (Bullock) knows that the right campaign can turn even the unlikeliest candidate into a winner. Bodine is pulled out of retirement to manage the campaign of Pedro Castillo (de Almeida), an unpopular candidate running for the presidency of Bolivia. Together with her team Rich (McNairy), Ben (Mackie), Nell (Dowd) and LeBlanc (Kazan), Bodine has to yank Castillo’s polling numbers out of the abyss. Rivera (Louis Arcella), the candidate who is leading in the polls, has hired Pat Candy (Thornton) as his campaign manager. Candy and Bodine have a long, contentious professional rivalry and the desire to beat Candy spurs Bodine on as she rallies to get the Bolivian public on Castillo’s side. In the meantime, she befriends Eduardo (Pacheco), an idealistic young volunteer for Castillo’s campaign, endeavouring to better understand the situation on the ground.

            Our Brand is Crisis is an adaptation of the 2005 documentary of the same name. Directed by Rachel Boynton, the documentary recounted the role the Greenberg Carville Shrum political consultancy firm played in the 2002 Bolivian presidential elections. In the hands of director David Gordon Green and screenwriter Peter Straughan, the fictionalised account is a satirical comedy-drama.

This is an expectedly cynical work, built on the reality that political campaigns are basically branding exercises and that focus groups and demographic testing far outweigh the actual needs and concerns of the voting public. The humour is a way to make this more palatable, but it is hit and miss, resulting in a degree of tonal inconsistency. The out-and-out comedic set pieces, including stubborn llamas, a politician giving a speech from the back of a train and a bus chase that recalls Bullock’s Speed days, feel at odds with the bleakness of the entire political landscape. This approach sacrifices some depth, and Our Brand is Crisis is also guilty of deriving comedy from elements that are foreign to American audiences, which can be seen as insensitive. On top of all this, there’s a liberal sprinkling of pithy maxims, with Jane quoting from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

It’s a good thing then that star Bullock is there to hold it all together. The Jane Bodine character plays to all of Bullocks’ strength as a performer, with her dogged determination, suffer-no-fools attitude and the aspect of being a fish out of water. The character is an astute, aggressive go-getter and there are a number of shades for Bullock to play. The role was originally intended for a man, and then rewritten with Bullock in mind. The most intriguing parts of the film showcase the push and pull dynamic between strategist and candidate. De Almeida has mostly played villainous roles in American projects, and Castillo’s inherent unlikeability hammers home the point that Bodine is there to get a job done and not to ensure the “good guys” save the day.

The “bitter rivals” component with the comic one-upmanship that results from it feels like a largely superfluous attempt to make the story more engaging, with Thornton’s Candy coming off as little more than a moustache-twirling villain. McNairy, Mackie, Nell and LeBlanc do give the film some grounding as fairly believable members of the campaign team, conveying the idea that while “Calamity” Jane is their leader, she’s also a loose cannon who sometimes needs reining in. Pachecho delivers a vulnerable, sensitive performance as Eduardo and he is the representative of the common Bolivian citizen, though the character’s function in the narrative does sometimes lean on the manipulative side.

While not particularly insightful, there’s no denying that the subject matter of Our Brand is Crisis is fascinating. The film flopped at the U.S. box office, perhaps in part because it was sold as being “from the producers of Argo”. It’s a touch ironic that Our Brand Is Crisis had some issues with its own branding. The opportunity to explore grim, shady geopolitical realities in an impactful manner is eschewed in favour of petty revenge shenanigans and comedy that’s broader than it should be, but Bullock’s performance is just enough to string it all together.

Summary: While suffering from tonal issues and a lack of biting revelation into the seedy underbelly of the political campaign business, Our Brand is Crisis manages to entertain and smartly utilises the talents of its leading lady.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


For F*** Magazine


Director : Lenny Abrahamson
Cast : Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 118 mins
Opens : 14 January 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Langauge)

It’s mother and child against the world in this drama based on Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name. Joy “Ma” Newsome (Larson) has been held captive by “Old Nick” (Bridgers) for seven years, locked away from the outside world. Ma young son Jack (Tremblay) has been her companion for five of those years, and the only thing he’s known is the tiny shed known as “Room”. When Ma and Jack finally escape from Room, the world at large, which Jack has hitherto thought of as existing only in some unknowable realm depicted on television, is waiting. Ma’s parents Robert (Macy) and Nancy (Allen) welcome their long-lost daughter back with open arms, but the transition into normalcy is far from a smooth one for Ma and Jack.

            It is unfortunate that this reviewer’s first instinct upon hearing the title of this film was to draw a connection to The Room, that 2003 classic of so-bad-it’s-good cinema. This reviewer knows he’s not alone in that, but it’s something Room certainly doesn’t deserve. Donoghue adapted her own novel into the screenplay for this film, having conceived the story after learning of the 5-year-old child Felix, one of the children held captive in the infamous Fritzl case. As with many smaller films that quickly attract awards season buzz, some audiences might enter the theatre with lofty expectations of a grandiose, artsy work. In director Lenny Abrahamson’s very capable hands, Room is an intimate experience that unfolds at a decidedly unhurried pace. However, it’s remarkably easy to get invested in the tale and caught up in Ma and Jack’s small odyssey made large.

            Everywhere one looks, there are film critics raving about the two central performances in Room, and it turns out that Larson and Tremblay are indeed more than worthy of all the praise that has come their way. Every awards season, there are bound to be marquee stars tackling a high-profile, meaty role, usually a biopic of some description, in a bid for Oscar glory. Said performances are typically showy and not always successful. Larson puts in the opposite of that with a quiet, achingly beautiful portrayal of a woman who has braved an unimaginable ordeal, and has a child to care for in the midst of all that. Tremblay’s Jack is utterly believable, immediately putting this reviewer into the character’s shoes. There must be an immense amount for a child in Jack’s situation to process, and believably bringing out that depth is a challenge that Tremblay gamely overcomes.

The symbiotic bond between mother and child is strengthened by their experience as captives - Ma is literally Jack’s world, and vice versa. We know they break free of Room, so where’s the mystery or tension? The strength of the relationship is such that the “how” of their escape becomes secondary to the intertwined journeys of the characters. The book was written from Jack’s point of view, with Jack relating his experiences via voiceover in the film. There’s an innocence that is tempered with an unflinching view of how harsh reality can get, a purity that does not disintegrate into amorphous schmaltz. Nothing gets cranked up to eleven, so the emotional beats flow forth naturally and do not come off as an arm-twisting on the part of the filmmakers.

As Jack’s grandparents that he is only just now getting to know, Allen and Macy provide warmth and deep, abiding, mostly unspoken sadness. As their captor, known only as “Old Nick”, Bridgers is deeply unpleasant without being cartoonishly villainous. It’s made clear that because of the many years of emotional torment, Ma’s troubles are far from over once she emerges from Room. While we might breathe a sigh of relief after the escape, a good portion of both Ma and Jack’s soul remains trapped in Room, perhaps forever.

Considering the near-universal acclaim the film has received, it’s certainly not for everybody. For a story that contains elements as dramatic as years-long captivity and a child witnessing the outside world for the first time, this is a very subdued affair that will try the patience of more restless viewers. Keeping the focus on Ma’s bond with Jack means the film doesn’t delve too deeply into the psychological implications of surviving such a trauma. If you’re not wholeheartedly invested in Ma and Jack’s journey from the beginning, it might be difficult to stick around to see what unfolds. However, given the openness and rawness of the performances that Abrahamson draws out of Brie and Tremblay, it’s hard to imagine there will be too many viewers who won’t be.

Summary: A small, low-key movie that packs a powerful emotional punch, the affecting performances of the leads effectively convey an extraordinary bond between mother and child.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 


For F*** Magazine


Director : Peter Landesman
Cast : Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, David Morse, Paul Reiser, Mike O’Malley, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 123 mins
Opens : 14 January 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

            In this medical drama based on true events, something is driving America’s football players to madness, resulting in dangerous mental instability and suicides. Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) is a forensic neuro-pathologist from Nigeria, working under pathology consultant Cyril Wecht (Brooks) at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Steelers centre “Iron” Mike Webster (Morse) dies at age 50, homeless and deranged after suffering from dementia. Upon conducting the autopsy, Omalu finds it peculiar that Webster’s brain appears normal. The Steelers’ former team doctor Julian Bailes (Baldwin), having witnessed Webster’s decline first-hand, volunteers to help Omalu. Several other players display similar symptoms and die in quick succession. Omalu’s exhaustive research leads him to the conclusion that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease brought about by repeated brain trauma, is to blame. Omalu and his wife Prema Mutiso (Mbatha-Raw) must brave the uphill battle as the National Football League (NFL) aggressively attempts to discredit Omalu and bury his research.

            Concussion is based on the GQ article Brain Game: Football Players and Concussions by Jeanne Marie Laskas. While a film about brain trauma research does not sound particularly exciting, the controversial hot-button issue of the NFL’s denial that collisions as part of playing football can lead to potentially fatal brain damage is fuel for a searing prestige picture. Writer-director Peter Landesman pitches Concussion as a rousing David vs. Goliath tale of the heroic little guy taking down the evil wealthy corporation, but the film always feels too slick and glossy and, as a result, inauthentic. While the death of noted football players from CTE is a tragedy that is worth discussing, the film tries to sell it as the worst thing to ever befall humanity in all of its history. There are multiple artificial attempts to pump the story up, all of it accompanied by an overblown score that sees composer James Newton Howard at his highest “sombre drama” setting.

            Because of the immense power and prominence of the NFL, the “standing up to the man” quotient that Concussion possesses is worthy of admiration, but it’s insufficient basis on which to recommend the film. The romance between Omalu and Prema is treacly and feels entirely tacked on, while the film bends over backwards to simplify the medical jargon, boiling Omalu’s research down to its most easily understandable: football players get hit in the head; this is bad. There are things that Landesman gets right: Justin Strzelczyk’s (Matthew Willig) violent outburst against his wife and children is a frightening, haunting moment. When an angry football fan calls Omalu’s home to harass him, accusing him of “pussifying this country”, it’s a great example of how sports fans can sometimes be thuggish and bullying in their zealousness. 

            Smith is clearly gunning for Oscar glory with his performance in the film, and it is blatant stunt casting. While Smith has proven himself capable of strong, absorbing performances, he stops a good distance short of being convincing as Dr. Bennet Omalu. In a truly great performance, particularly a portrayal of a real-life person, the actor should completely vanish into the role. It’s evident that Smith has put effort into the performance, but when all is said and done, he’s still A-list movie star Will Smith. Even putting aside the fact that Smith bears almost no resemblance to the actual Omalu, his presence is distracting. Mbatha-Raw gets little to do as the designated love interest, and a scene in which Prema teaches Omalu how to dance at a club is almost cringe-worthy. Brooks and Baldwin contribute solid performances and Morse’s brief appearance as Webster, Pittsburgh’s favourite son-turned mad vagrant, is effectively disturbing and tragic.

            The nobility that drives Concussion often crosses over into smothering self-importance. Omalu has many speeches about the American dream, and he is depicted as an American hero who just happens to come from Nigeria. The shattering of Omalu’s idealism is handled via awkward chunks of dialogue. This is a film with something to say and it says so loudly and with conviction, but the feeling that Omalu’s story has been squeezed into the standard “inspirational underdog” tale mould is very hard to shake. Concussion is more Oscar bait than it is incisive exposé, and as much as it takes the NFL to task, it’s still relatively early days for CTE research and the full impact has yet to play out.

Summary: Concussion’s righteous indignation can only carry it so far, with a clumsy screenplay and a lead actor who’s not the best fit for the part letting it down.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Danish Girl

For F*** Magazine


Director : Tom Hooper
Cast : Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Amber Heard, Sebastian Koch
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 7 January 2016
Rating : R21 (Mature Theme)

An adaptation of David Ebershoff’s 2000 novel of the same name, The Danish Girl tells the story of Lili Elbe, one of the first known people to undergo gender reassignment surgery. It is 1926 and Lili, born Einar Wegener (Redmayne), is a landscape painter married to portrait artist Gerda (Vikander). When a model is late, Gerda has Einar stand in for her, wearing the model’s stockings and shoes. This unlocks Einar’s lifelong identification as female, and he begins to cultivate the persona of “Lili”. Gerda’s portraits of Lili attract the attention of the art world and she is invited to stage an exhibition in Paris, and Gerda tracks down art dealer Hans Axgil (Schoenaerts), a childhood friend of Einar’s. Hans’ attraction to Gerda establishes a complicated love triangle as Gerda struggles in supporting Einar’s transition into a woman. Eventually, Lili and Gerda seek the help of Dr. Wanerkos (Koch), who performs a two-part sexual reassignment surgery that is unprecedented and risky but is Lili’s only hope.

            Playwright Lucinda Coxon adapted The Danish Girl and the screenplay made the rounds for a decade before the film finally got made. The subject matter made it something of a hard sell, with Charlize Theron, then Gwyneth Paltrow attached to the role of Gerda opposite Nicole Kidman as Einar/Lili. Tomas Alfredson was initially set to direct, then was replaced with Lasse Hallström before that incarnation fell through. Director Tom Hooper of The King’s Speech and Les Misérables brings an awards contender pedigree to the project – it’s a bonus that star Redmayne is fresh off his Oscar win for The Theory of Everything. The film may be called “The Danish Girl”, but just as there was nary a French accent in earshot in Les Misérables, everyone in this movie sounds very English indeed. It can be seen as pandering to Academy voters, who seem to equate Englishness with prestige.

            While first stepping out in public as Lili, Einar worriedly asks his wife “am I pretty enough?” The Danish Girl is a film that does seem to be worried it isn’t pretty enough in a self-conscious manner, but cinematographer Danny Cohen, costume designer Paco Delgado and production designer Eve Stewart, all Hooper’s collaborators from Les Mis, ensure it is quite the pretty movie to look at. Any way one slices it, there was always going to be controversy surrounding the film, and it is incredibly difficult to appease everyone where the hot-button issue of gender identity is concerned. In a way, the period setting is a costume that lends a non-traditional story a more familiar guise, all of this prestige picture classiness a way in for audiences who might otherwise be clutching their pearls at the thought of a movie about a transgender woman.

            This brings us to the elephant in the room: the casting of a cisgender man to play a transgender woman. Transgendered actors are slowly gaining more visibility via projects like Orange is the New Black, but it seems we’re still some ways off from having a trans woman headline a mainstream awards contender film. There’s also the matter of drawing attention and scrutiny, plus the danger of typecasting. More cynically, the Academy loves physical transformations, and Redmayne has already bagged one Oscar after undergoing a physical transformation to play a real person. It’s difficult to talk about but it’s a conversation worth having and we’re trying to take a balanced view. Redmayne put a great deal of thought into the portrayal and spent time with trans women including activist Paris Lees, who gave Redmayne her blessing. “As a trans woman, I don’t think that if and when they make a biopic of my life I would want a cisgender man playing me,” Lees told Out Magazine. “Politically, it makes me groan. But if anybody’s going to do this justice, then I’m happy it’s Eddie. We had a good chat about everything.”

            The hype surrounding Redmayne’s portrayal is worth buying into, because this is an excellent, soul-baring performance. Lili’s emotional journey in coming to terms with her gender identity is eloquently conveyed by Redmayne. When the film is in danger of getting swallowed up by the larger issues at play, his portrayal pulls it back to a remarkably humane sensitivity. Vikander is just as worthy of praise and there is a good deal for her to sink her teeth into with the role of Gerda. This is a woman who sees the man she fell in love with slowly vanish, but her selfless love for him makes her want to see her husband arrive at a place where he is happy and comfortable with himself. Vikander’s performance is at once raw and measured, and if there was any doubt that she is 2015’s biggest breakout star, The Danish Girl erases said doubt once and for all.

            The Danish Girl is based on a fictionalised account of Lili’s life, with most of the characters besides Lili and Gerda created from whole cloth by Ebershoff. As such, both Whishaw and Schoenaerts can sometimes feel like hangers-on in the proceedings, but in addition to Gerda, their characters reinforce just how vital the support of a loved one is in undergoing a transition.

            The Danish Girl does over-romanticise and simplify Lili’s story a fair bit, side-stepping Gerda’s possible bisexuality and the eventual dissolution of Lili and Gerda’s relationship. The final scene also contains a visual metaphor that is heavy-handed in quite the cringe-worthy manner. However, Lili’s story is an important one to tell and there is considerable talent behind this biopic. The more jaded might dismiss this out of hand as shameless awards bait and it does possess those elements, but above and beyond all that, the genuine emotional resonance of the story rings true.

Summary: While not as challenging and in-depth an exploration of Lili Elbe’s life and times as it could have been, powerful performances and technical polish make this a worthwhile telling of a moving story.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Mojin - The Lost Legend (鬼吹灯之寻龙诀)

For F*** Magazine


Director : Wuershan
Cast : Chen Kun, Angelababy, Shu Qi, Huang Bo, Xia Yu, Cherry Ngan, Liu Xiaoqing
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 125 mins
Opens : 7 January 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

            It’s into the dusty, booby-trapped depths we go with our intrepid trio of heroes in this fantasy adventure. It is 1988 and grave-robbing explorers Hu Bayi (Chen), Wang Kaixuan (Huang) and Shirley Yang (Shu Qi) have retired to New York City. The three are the last remaining members of the Mojin Xiaowei, an ancient secret order of treasure hunters. Despite washing their hands of their dangerous exploits, the trio are drawn back into the fray when an incident from Hu and Wang’s days as teenagers in the Red Guards involving the fate of their mutual crush Ding Sitian (Angelababy) comes back to haunt them. Their middleman “Big Gold Tooth” (Xia) secures a contract with wealthy CEO/cult-leader Ying Caihong (Liu), who is in search of the mythical Equinox Flower artefact, believing it can grant her immortality. Deep within long-buried tombs, the Mojin come face-to-face with the past in more ways than one.

            Mojin – The Lost Legend is based on Zhang Muye’s best-selling fantasy novel Ghost Blows Out the Light, functioning as sort of a sequel rather than a straight adaptation. The novel also spawned an unrelated film called Ghost Blows Out: The Nine-Story Demon Tower, released in September 2015. Don’t ask us how the rights worked out, maybe It’s a Thunderball/Never Say Never Again-type deal.

This reviewer loves a good old-fashioned adventure flick and counts the Indiana Jones films, especially Last Crusade, as some of his favourite movies ever. Mojin promises lavish spectacle and pulse-pounding action, but instead it is muddled and bloated. Quest movies are by nature straight-forward affairs, but Mojin is pointlessly convoluted to a dizzying extent. The attempts at comedy are grating, the emotional scenes fall flat and the action sequences are flashy but ultimately unremarkable. During an extended flashback in which Little Red Book-brandishing, Mao-quoting Red Guard youths fend off zombie WWII-era Japanese soldiers, the film becomes Nationalist Treasure. The production design by Hao Yi features several cavernous sets bursting with intricately-carved details, but there’s a disappointing monotony to the subterranean chambers that is sorely lacking visual flair.

            While there is an attempt to flesh out two of the three leads by way of afore-mentioned flashback, there’s still far too little to hook on to. Hu and Shirley have a contentious love-hate relationship which is supposed to be romantic in a screwball fashion but is tedious instead. Chen is boring, Huang mugs for the camera and Shu Qi is just doing the Lara Croft thing, right down to the braided ponytail. Angelababy makes for a suitably dreamy hypotenuse to a love triangle between wistful youths, but that subplot feels entirely out of place in this adventure flick. Xia Yu is downright insufferable as the whiny, lily-livered Big Gold Tooth and Liu adds nothing to the “wealthy benefactor with a shady past” archetype we always see in films of this type. On top of all that, we have Cherry Ngan playing a henchwoman clad in a Japanese schoolgirl uniform, clearly aping Kill Bill’s Gogo Yubari.

            The visual effects work here is markedly more competent than in many recent Chinese films, though there are several sequences that are still some ways off from being convincing. From the martial arts to the rickety rope bridges to the hordes of undead guarding the buried treasure, Mojin – The Lost Legend has all the makings of a rousing adventure romp, but it never quite gets into gear. There are only so many times people can outrun a collapsing tomb before it gets tiresome. At once frenzied and listless, Mojin – The Lost Legend doesn’t make good on its promise of pulpy thrills.

Summary: A convoluted plot and characters that are either one-dimensional or downright annoying stand in the way of genuine adventure movie fun.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong