Alone in Berlin

For F*** Magazine

ALONE IN BERLIN

Director : Vincent Perez
Cast : Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Brühl, Mikael Persbrandt, Katharina Schüttler, Louis Hofmann
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 43min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Brief Coarse Language)

alone-in-berlin-posterAdapted from Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone, Alone in Berlin tells of a small but spirited resistance from within the heart of Nazi Germany. It is 1940, and working-class Berliners Otto (Gleeson) and Anna (Thompson) Quangel receive news that their only son has died in combat. After witnessing the treatment of an old Jewish woman in their apartment block, Otto and Anna begin writing postcards containing short messages exhorting for the people to resist Hitler and the Nazis. Otto wants to leave his wife out of it for her protection, but Anna insists in standing alongside her husband. They leave the postcards in public places, and this soon attracts the attention of the police. Escherich (Brühl), the detective put in charge of hunting down the perpetrators, finds himself gaining respect for his elusive targets, while starting to question Nazi ideology.

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Every Man Dies Alone is a fictionalisation of the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, has been adapted for TV and film in German several times, and was also made into a Czech television miniseries. The English translation of the 1947 German novel was only published in 2009. While the story of ordinary German citizens who attempt to stand against the oppressive Nazi regime has the potential to be powerfully resonant, said potential is only glimpsed a few precious times in this film. The family of Swiss actor/director Perez, who also co-wrote the screenplay, experienced the horrors of World War II first-hand. Perez’s grandfather was shot by fascists in Spain, his great uncle was gassed by Nazis, and another uncle died in battle on the Russian front. As such, it’s curious that he seems to approach the material with a distinct lack of passion.

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Thanks to location filming in Berlin, Cologne and Görlitz, Alone in Berlin possesses decent production values. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to pull the viewer in. For a film about a time and place where there was danger on all sides, Alone in Berlin fails to generate any urgency or tension. We get an adequate sense of the oppression that the Nazis imposed on their subjects, but nothing leaps off the screen. It’s generic historical drama stuff, when the story of Otto and Elise Hampel deserves a more searing telling.

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Thompson and Gleeson are both fine actors. They don’t get too many notes to play beyond “downtrodden”, but are invested in the material. The varying strength of the German accents across the cast can be a little distracting. Mark Rylance was originally cast as Otto, and in part because Gleeson is still unmistakably Irish, we think he might have been a better choice. Brühl tries to give Escherich notes beyond that of the typical dogged inspector, but only makes an emotional impact in the film’s closing moments. The Gestapo agents are stereotypically, blandly evil.
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The perspective of the common man living in Nazi Germany coupled with the fact that it’s based on a true story should have made Alone in Berlin a powerful work. Instead, even with its strong lead performances, much of the film is mired in mediocrity. Offering not enough insight into the minds of dissidents in Nazi Germany, nor serving up any wartime cloak-and-dagger mystique, Alone in Berlin will leave most viewers cold.

Summary: Finely-acted but too sluggish and dour to be genuinely moving, Alone in Berlin is far from the full-bodied, stirring tale it should’ve been.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

John Wick: Chapter 2

For F*** Magazine

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 

Director : Chad Stahelski
Cast : Keanu Reeves, Common, Riccardo Scamarcio, Laurence Fishburne, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Claudia Gerini, Bridget Moynahan, Peter Stormare, Franco Nero
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 2min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : M18 (Violence)

john-wick-chapter-2-posterMuch like Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, John Wick (Reeves) is a man who just can’t retire. After avenging the death of his puppy, the final gift from his late wife Helen (Moynahan), John thinks his hitman days are finally over. However, his former associate Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio) comes calling to collect on a blood oath Santino and John made years earlier. Santino tasks John with killing Santino’s sister Gianna (Gerini), so Santino can take her place on a high council of assassins. John reluctantly travels to Rome, facing off against scores of skilled hired guns. These include Gianna’s bodyguard Cassian (Common) and Santino’s security chief Ares (Rose). Back in New York, John seeks the assistance of old allies Winston (McShane), who runs the Continental Hotel, and Charon (Reddick), the hotel’s concierge. John also reunites with the Bowery King (Fishburne), a crime lord with whom John has had a tempestuous professional relationship. With a large bounty put on his head, it’s open season on John Wick.

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2014’s John Wick is hailed as a minor masterpiece in contemporary action cinema. While it contained many familiar tropes of the hitman movie subgenre, it boasted exceedingly stylish action and established an intriguing mini-mythology. Chad Stahelski, who directed the first film with fellow stunt coordinator/second unit director David Leitch, helms this outing solo. John Wick: Chapter 2 contains everything that worked the first time around. It’s largely more of the same, but it’s good. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad expands on the heightened world, introducing more elements central to the apparently global assassin subculture. Not only are there hitmen decked out in expensive suits who hang out in plush hotels, there are homeless assassins now. Much like the first go-round, this is a tonally assured work: there are dry winks and nods at the more absurd aspects of the premise, while steering clear of all-out self-parody.

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Aided by veteran stunt coordinators Darrin Prescott and J.J. Perry, Stahelski serves up a surfeit of fluidly orchestrated violence. The body count here far exceeds the first film, and there are plenty of messy headshots along the way. All the fights, shootouts and chases hit that sweet spot of being stylised and designed while retaining visceral impact. John is a one-man army and because of his nigh-superhuman prowess, the audience never really feels that he’s in grave danger from his opponents. However, the proceedings are never boring and always eye-catching. A showdown in the ancient catacombs beneath Rome is contrasted with a game of cat-and-mouse set in a maze of mirrors. The latter is at once disorienting and mesmerizing, and is also a technical feat seeing how a set comprised entirely of mirrors would make it difficult to hide cameras and crew.
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It’s been repeatedly noted that Reeves is not an actor with staggering emotional range, but just as in the first John Wick, he makes for a compelling force of nature. Even pretending to be an expert marksman or hand-to-hand combatant is tricky, but Reeves makes it all look so effortless. Deep beneath his unyielding surface, John is a sorrowful figure. Even though John should be no less fantastical a character than any action hero played by Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, Reeves gives him a vital grounding.

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Many of the supporting players from the first film, including McShane, Reddick and Leguizamo, return, giving this a strong sense of continuity. Italian actor Scamarcio exudes the sliminess one would expect of a mafia heir without turning the character into a caricature. Gerini’s Gianna has a confrontation with John that is as sexy as it ominous. The film’s detour to Rome seems a little too brief, but the location and the D’Antonio siblings do expand the story’s scope. Iconic Italian actor Franco Nero makes a cameo as the manager of The Continental Rome.

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Common gets to grapple with Reeves in an intense fight, but is ultimately little more than a generic henchman. Rose gets a slightly more interesting role as the mute Ares. She cuts an elegant figure in a suit and is entrancing as she signs her “dialogue”. It’s fun to see Reeves reunite with Fishburne, his co-star from the Matrix films. Fishburne’s Bowery King is cheery and exuberant, but we get the sense that this belies an uncompromising ruthlessness. Peter Stormare, who has long been on speed-dial for Hollywood casting directors in search of scenery-chomping European villains, shows up too.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 contains equal measures of muscularity and finesse, an action movie carved from polished obsidian. As the middle instalment in a planned trilogy, the film’s conclusion is open-ended, but its cliff-hanger is tantalising rather than howl-inducing. On top of that, the pit bull that John adopted at the end of the first film is adorably obedient.

Summary: Fans of the first film will be transfixed by John Wick: Chapter 2’s brutal, balletic action. The fascinating hitman subculture lore also gets built upon.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jackie

For F*** Magazine

JACKIE 

Director : Pablo Larraín
Cast : Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 1h 40min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Some Disturbing Scenes)

jackie-posterJacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier, the wife of John F. Kennedy, is among the most iconic First Ladies in U.S. history. This biopic pulls back the curtain on the queen of Camelot, limning the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Jackie (Portman) hosts a journalist (Crudup) at her home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, sitting down for an interview. It is not long after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy (Phillipson) in Dallas. The film depicts Jackie’s interactions with her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy (Sarsgaard), her confidante and the White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) and a priest (Hurt) who counsels Jackie on the day of the funeral. Jackie must also explain JFK’s death to their young children Caroline (Sunny Pelant) and John Jr. (Aiden and Brody Weinberg).

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Jackie aims to pierce the iconography that has surrounded Jacqueline Kennedy. Director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim seek to unearth the woman behind the elegant style icon, while also sidestepping the expected tropes of an awards season biopic. The framing device of Jacqueline Kennedy’s interview with journalist Theodore H. White (who is unnamed in the film) contextualises several vignettes which are deliberately placed out of order. This creates a disorienting effect and makes it more challenging to follow Jackie’s emotional journey, but in a strange way, is also more engaging. However, this does lead to a choppiness, and there’s the possibility that without this structural trickery, the story would be boring and straightforward.

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Part of Jackie is a flashback to the filming of the 1962 television special A Tour of the White House, in which Jackie guides audiences nationwide through the executive mansion after the extensive remodelling she had spearheaded. Real footage from that TV special is spliced together with footage shot for this film, giving the subconscious effect that we are given a privileged look at the angles the TV cameras did not see. While much of Jackie is dedicated to how the title character processed the trauma of sitting beside her husband as he was violently killed, the film also explores how she cultivated her image and crafted the First Family’s legacy. Jackie discusses JFK’s fondness for the musical Camelot with the journalist, and a scene in which she stands in the otherwise empty Oval Office with the musical’s title song playing in the background is positively haunting.

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Since winning the Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan, Portman hasn’t taken on many high-profile roles, and has recently turned her attention to directing. Jackie puts her back on the awards season map, and her Oscar nomination for this film is well-deserved. It’s a bravura yet nuanced turn, and if the prospect of playing such a well-known public figure intimidated her, Portman never shows it. While she looks and sounds the part, Jackie is about more than how its title character looked or sounded. Portman conveys the profound sorrow and the pressure of life in the public eye, while also essaying Jackie’s impish appeal. The glimpses of fire behind her eyes are impactful, and when the camera locks on her face as she weeps, one cannot look away.

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Because of the film’s laser focus on Jackie herself, the supporting players are largely relegated to the background. Crudup’s Journalist is not even named in the film and is meant to be a cipher, therefore there’s not much personality he’s able to bring to the part. Sarsgaard’s Robert, also crumbling from grief and pressure, is magnetic and volatile. This reviewer was hoping for the relationship between Jackie and her close friend and White House employee Nancy Tuckerman to get more screen time than it did. The late John Hurt is a comforting, warmly authoritative presence even though it’s a small part.

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Director Larraín cuts through the narrative of the Kennedy clan as a tragic American fairy-tale, while not necessarily undercutting the notion. This film gives Jackie her due, and is a star vehicle that ideally matches Portman’s talents. First Ladies have been often appraised mainly for their style rather than their own merits, with Jackie inadvertently becoming the poster child for that. Jackie finds the woman behind the coiffed bob, Chanel coat and pearls, painting a vivid portrait of Camelot’s queen.

Summary: A biopic which plays with the genre’s conventions just enough, Jackie features an entrancing turn from Natalie Portman and is respectful of its subject while avoiding blandness.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Manchester by the Sea

For F*** Magazine

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA 

Director : Kenneth Lonergan
Cast : Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov
Run Time : 2h 18min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language and Some Sexual References)

manchester-by-the-sea-posterWhile promoting Batman v Superman, Ben Affleck turned forlorn when the film’s negative reception was brought up. His expression went viral and was coined “Sadfleck”. Now, it’s his brother Casey’s turn to do the moping in this drama.

Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts. Lee keeps to himself and sometimes has terse confrontations with the apartment’s tenants. When Lee’s elder brother Joe (Chandler) dies of a heart attack, Lee is surprised to learn that he has been named the legal guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Hedges). Because Joe’s ex-wife Elise (Mol) is an alcoholic, Joe decided against giving her custody of Patrick. Lee reluctantly returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to look after Patrick. Lee’s sullen caginess makes it difficult for him and his nephew to bond meaningfully. Going back to Manchester-by-the-Sea unearths painful memories for Lee, whose marriage with his ex-wife Randi (Williams) ended under tragic circumstances. He dreads the prospect of permanently moving back, while Patrick is adamant against having his life uprooted and moving to Quincy with Lee.

Manchester by the Sea has been the subject of Oscar buzz ever since its premiere at the Sundance film festival in 2016. It’s on the “best of 2016” lists of numerous critics, has been repeatedly deemed “a masterpiece” and at the time of writing, is up for six Oscar nominations.

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We understand why it’s been such a hit with critics: it’s a character study about grief and loss that’s mature and largely subdued. In an awards season that takes place during a particularly fraught period in American politics, it’s not tackling any topical issues. We appreciate that despite the undercurrent of pain, it’s not oppressively bleak, and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan allows the film to be gently humorous where appropriate. It avoids gloopy sentiment or overwrought histrionics and unfolds naturistically.

By shunning surface-level excitement, Manchester by the Sea feels swamped by mundanity. It’s not an easy film to get into because of its unhurried pace and uneventful nature. The film’s nonlinear structure takes a bit of getting used to, especially because there’s no obvious indication that certain scenes are flashbacks. As an examination of repressed emotions and the angst of the working class white male, Manchester by the Sea is painfully honest but can come across as self-indulgent. Its 137-minute running time is altogether too long, and the emotional impact delivered by a dramatic reveal in the middle of the film dissipates as it continues.

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Matt Damon was originally cast as Lee, and remains as a producer. Affleck’s leading turn has been raking in the plaudits, and deservedly so: it’s not a showy performance and is sensitively nuanced. Lee is flat-out unlikeable, and picks fights in bars because he has no outlet through which to channel his hurt and frustration. The reasons for Lee’s self-destructive tendencies and self-loathing are revealed as the film progresses. Affleck demonstrates an understanding of externalising grief, which can be handled clumsily in a lesser actor’s hands. It’s a performance that engenders equal amounts of sympathy and frustration – just when one thinks Lee might make a breakthrough, he falls back into a pattern of self-destruction.

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Hedges’ Patrick is written as more than the stock annoying teenager, and the dynamic he shares with Affleck works, even though the relationship goes through repetitive beats. Both Patrick and Lee are in dark places in their lives, but neither will open up to the other. There is some comedy derived from Patrick’s inept garage band, and that he’s juggling romantic relationships with two separate girls. There’s the danger that Patrick might turn out like his uncle, and if the film were more actively engaging, we’d be rooting for both to course-correct.

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Williams’ performance as Lee’s ex-wife Randi has garnered significant positive attention, given her relatively short screen time. The flashbacks show a happier time, when Lee and Randi’s disagreements were small and expected. The marriage implodes off-screen, and when Lee and Randi meet again years later, it is an emotional moment. Because nothing that exciting occurs, it dampens the visceral pain of the trauma that led to Lee and Randi parting ways.

While Manchester by the Sea doesn’t contain nearly as much “woe is me” wallowing in self-pity as this review suggests, it is depressing by design, with brief glimmers of levity allowing the viewer to take a breath. Lesley Barber’s Baroque-inspired score is beautiful, but is sometimes slathered on too thick, and at odds with the muted realism Lonergan is aiming for. We comprehend that not all movies are meant to be entertaining in the traditional sense of the word, but while many are praising Manchester by the Sea as understated and sublime, it will generate apathy among more impatient viewers.

Summary: This awards season favourite is a strongly-acted portrait of grief that is sometimes too distant and meandering to be compelling.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Space Between Us

For F*** Magazine

THE SPACE BETWEEN US 

Director : Peter Chelsom
Cast : Asa Butterfield, Britt Robertson, Gary Oldman, B.D. Wong, Carla Gugino, Janet Montgomery
Genre : Sci-Fi/Romance
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : PG (Some Sexual References)

the-space-between-us-posterEnder’s Game might not have been successful enough to warrant a sequel, but Asa Butterfield is back in a spacesuit anyway in this sci-fi romance. Butterfield plays Gardner Elliott, who has spent all of his 16 years living in the East Texas habitat on Mars, raised by the scientist Kendra (Gugino). Gardner’s mother Sarah (Montgomery) was an astronaut on the pioneering manned mission to Mars, who died giving birth to Gardner. Nathaniel Shepherd (Oldman), the owner of Genesis Space Technologies, and mission director Chen (Wong) disagree over whether to go public with Gardner’s existence. Gardner befriends Tulsa (Robertson), a disaffected teenage girl, online. When Gardner arrives on earth, he convinces Tulsa to help him search for the father he’s never known. When Kendra, Nathaniel and Chen conclude that Gardner will be unable to withstand earth’s gravity and atmosphere, they must save him before it’s too late.

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The premise of a kid who’s spent his whole life on a different planet and becomes a fish out of water on earth has tremendous potential for drama and comedy, unfolding within a sci-fi context. Director Peter Chelsom, whose credits include Serendipity, The Hannah Montana Movie and Hector and the Search for Happiness, approaches this as a teen romance. There are several scenes set on Mars and there’s some vaguely credible techno-babble tossed about, but the bulk of the film ends up being a largely ordinary road trip love story. While it’s admirable that this is a character drama at heart, the film’s tone lands somewhere between awkward-cute and melodramatic rather than genuinely stirring or thought-provoking.

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We learn from Sarah’s memorial plaque on the Martian surface that she died in 2018. Gardner is 16 years old, so the bulk of the film takes place in 2034. It turns out that the United States of 2034 is barely distinguishable from that of 2017, and it seems due more to budget constraints than anything else. There’s a transparent laptop or two, but other than that, there’s nothing in the scenes taking place on earth to indicate that this is set in the future. It’s a bit of a shame, given that there’s attention to detail paid in other aspects: for example, Mars is accurately depicted as having a weaker gravity than earth, something which The Martian dispensed with because it would be too labour-intensive to portray consistently.the-space-between-us-asa-butterfield-1

 

Butterfield can play endearingly awkward in his sleep, and is fun to watch here. While there are too many twee fish out of water moments in which Gardner is awestruck by the most mundane things, there’s a real sweetness and sincerity that Butterfield brings to the part. The relationship between Gardner and Tulsa is central to the film, and while attempts at character development are made, the romance progresses too quickly and too Hollywood-y to be believable.

the-space-between-us-britt-robertson-1Robertson is a lively performer – her facial expressions in Tomorrowland reminded this reviewer of a Pixar character come to life. Both Tulsa and Gardner haven’t had much meaningful human connection in their lives, and find solace in each other. However, the journey from rom-com bickering to heartfelt professions of love takes a remarkably short time. This means that the relationship drama is not entirely successful at grounding the more fantastical elements of the story.

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Oldman is never a boring actor to watch, but his performance here is broader than required, with too much flailing and bluster for us to take him seriously as the boss of a spaceflight technology firm. Gugino’s Kendra is warm and intelligent, but unsure of how to connect to Gardner as his maternal figure. Wong doesn’t get to do much beyond arguing with Oldman, but it did let us imagine that Commissioner Gordon was having a heated disagreement with Hugo Strange.the-space-between-us-asa-butterfield-2

The Space Between Us isn’t an adaptation of a Young Adult novel, but it sure feels like one – perhaps it should be called The Fault in Our Mars. As a quirky teen-aimed romance, The Space Between Us has its charms and its leads are appealing enough to make up for the cheesiness and soap opera melodrama, especially in the concluding big reveal. It’s too bad that the film fails to meaningfully examine the themes of belonging and the role of scientific advancements in how we connect to other people. A science-fiction film that focuses on relationships rather than wham-bam spectacle or mind-bending metaphysics is a novel prospect, but The Space Between Us misses the opportunity to be sublime and profound.

Summary: The Space Between Us tries and barely succeeds at blending coming-of-age teen romance with science fiction, but it attains lift-off thanks to its endearing young leads.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Founder

THE FOUNDER 

Director : John Lee Hancock
Cast : Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, B.J. Novak, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson
Genre : Drama/Biography
Run Time : 116 mins
Opens : 9 February 2016
Rating : PG13

the-founder-posterIt might not be about Colonel Sanders’ zombie-fighting exploits or the palace intrigue that led to the Burger King usurping the throne, but The Founder is a fascinating fast food-related movie all the same. And better yet – it’s based on a true story.

It is 1954 and Ray Kroc (Keaton) is a travelling salesman, struggling to make a living hawking milkshake machines. His life on the road means he gets to spend little time with his wife Ethel (Dern). Ray gets a surprisingly large order for the machines, from a restaurant in San Bernardino, California called ‘McDonald’s’. Ray meets the restaurant’s owners, brothers Maurice “Mac” (Lynch) and Richard “Dick” McDonald (Offerman). Ray is struck by the ingenuity of this new ‘fast food’ concept, which results in burgers going from grill to counter in 30 seconds. Ray convinces the brothers to franchise, even though their earlier attempt to do so was unsuccessful. Ray overcomes various setbacks in expanding the McDonalds brand, referring to himself as “the founder” of the restaurant chain, as the McDonald brothers realise just what a snake Ray really is.

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Director John Lee Hancock, known for The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, has crafted an absorbing, wickedly clever biopic. The Founder has been described as akin to The Social Network, which detailed the behind-the-scenes machinations leading up to the creation of Facebook. The Founder can be viewed as an ode to entrepreneurial spirit, while also being a cautionary tale for anyone about to enter any business arrangement. It’s by turns rousing, fascinating and utterly terrifying. The Founder is a stark reminder that this is a world which rewards ambition, shrewdness and a lack of scruples over decency or goodwill – but the film does so with a smile on its face. A degree of cynicism is to be expected from a movie about a weaselly salesman who hijacks a homegrown business from two brothers, yet The Founder never becomes obnoxiously bleak or caustic in its outlook.

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Keaton has repeatedly proven to be adept at playing slime-balls from whom the audience can’t look away. Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay frames Ray as the underdog in its opening act. Ray is lugging about unwieldy milkshake makers, not unlike Will Smith hauling bone density scanners in The Pursuit of Happyness, getting doors slammed in his face. Then, once Ray meets the McDonald brothers and the light bulb goes off in his head, he becomes a villain protagonist. He’s doing the legwork, making impassioned speeches at Masonic lodges and synagogues alike to appeal to potential franchisees, but he also has no qualms taking credit for the ideas of others. Compulsively watchable even as his actions becoming increasingly devious, Keaton is a McMagnet as Ray.

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Any time the McDonald brothers are onscreen, one can’t help but feel a tinge of pity for them, having a general idea of how the story ends. The Founder does not portray Dick and Mac merely as hapless fools duped into signing away their baby, and while this movie is primarily The Ray Kroc Story, it does give the McDonald brothers their due. Lynch is affable as the older Mac, while Offerman’s Dick is more guarded and wary. The procedure through which Ray wrested control of McDonald’s from the restaurant’s namesakes is fraught with technicalities and while the nitty-gritties might cause some audience members to tune out, we were riveted throughout. To get an idea of how far away McDonald’s today is from Dick and Mac’s original vision, the brothers baulked at putting the Coca-Cola logo on their menus because it would be too commercial a move.

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At first, we view Ray’s neglect of his wife as a necessary sacrifice, and an exigency of the life of a travelling salesman. Then, Ray continues to ignore Ethel’s own wishes and even deceives her. While Dern doesn’t get a lot to do, the pain she projects is heart-rending, making us despise Ray even more. Ray meets Joan (Cardellini), the wife of wealthy restaurateur Rollie Smith (Wilson), and is immediately drawn to her. The film’s depiction of the relationship between Ray and Joan is nuanced rather than tawdry. And yes, this is yet another emasculated character for Wilson to add to his résumé.

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Many reviewers have drawn parallels between Ray Kroc and the current President of the United States of America, Donald Trump. Both are charming wheeler-dealers who screwed over a great many people in their respective paths to success, but at least as depicted in The Founder, Ray is more interesting than Trump. The Founder rides on Keaton’s ability to enthusiastically essay smarminess, and there’s something beguiling about these dirty machinations unfolding against the backdrop of “simpler times”. The corporate intrigue behind McDonald’s might not be the most exciting topic on which to base a biopic, but The Founder emerges as an absorbing and unexpectedly timely work.

Summary: Michael Keaton’s portrayal of self-proclaimed McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc brims with his signature charisma, keeping this insightful biopic entertaining even when it gets mired in business jargon.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Silence

For F*** Magazine

SILENCE 

Director : Martin Scorsese
Cast : Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Issei Ogata, Shin’ya Tsukamoto, Yoshi Oida, Yosuke Kubozuka
Genre : Drama/History
Run Time : 161 mins
Opens : 9 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence)

silence-posterMartin Scorsese’s 26-year-long odyssey to adapt Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence has finally come to fruition. It is the 17th Century, and Italian Jesuit priest Alessandro Valignano (Hinds) receives word that Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Neeson), a Portuguese Jesuit priest sent to Japan, has renounced his faith after withstanding years of torture. Ferreira’s young pupils Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Driver) journey to Japan in search of Ferreira, unconvinced by this report of Ferreira’s apostasy. Rodrigues and Garupe are surprised to be eagerly welcomed by the village of Tomogi, comprised of Japanese Christians who have been practising their faith in secret. The two priests and their followers find themselves hunted by Inoue Masashige (Ogata), a samurai whom the villagers call “the Inquisitor”. Rodrigues and Garupe become targets of the Tokugawa shogunate’s persecution, while still searching for their teacher Ferreira.

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Endō’s 1966 novel is considered to be among the most important pieces of 20th Century Japanese literature, and was adapted into film in 1971 by director Masahiro Shinoda. Scorsese bought the rights to the novel in 1988 and had been trying to get the project off the ground since 1990. Scorsese wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks, who co-wrote Scorsese’s films The Age of Innocence and Gangs of New York. Scorsese and Cocks continuously revised the screenplay over 15 years. It’s evident that Silence is a labour of love for the director – to prevent the budget from ballooning, Scorsese and many of the cast and crew, including actors Driver and Neeson, worked for minimum pay. Filmed near Taipei in Taiwan, Silence’s period setting is painstakingly realised. Rodrigo Pietro’s cinematography conveys a sense of foreboding, while also giving the landscape a beguiling beauty.

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Many reviews have described Silence as “punishing”, and we’d be hard-pressed to find a better adjective. The film is filled with uncompromising scenes of torture and at 160 minutes long, is anything but a breezy Sunday afternoon watch. The plight of the Kakure Kirishitan, or “hidden Christians”, is a piece of history that’s not widely known. Stories of devotees suffering in the name of their faith are inherently compelling, but where involvement in the story is concerned, one’s personal beliefs do play a part. While Silence has its powerful moments, and is, from a technical standpoint, masterfully crafted, there are long stretches of the film that are soporific and unengaging. Those unfamiliar with the tenets of Catholicism in general and the Jesuits in particular might struggle to find an emotional foothold, even given the depths of pain experienced by the characters in the film.

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Garfield and Driver deliver tangibly committed performances, Rodrigues’ journey being an especially harrowing one. Rodrigues is the more patient of the pair, while Garupe is more impulsive, and the first act gives Garfield and Driver several opportunities to play off each other. Later on, most of Garfield’s interactions are with Tadanobu Asano, who plays the unnamed translator to Inoue Masashige. Rodrigues makes a spirited defence of his faith and Garfield sells the emotional and physical torment he undergoes. Despite all this, it is sometimes difficult to relate to the character because he seems to be defined solely by his faith, and his denial of self makes Rodrigues, purely in storytelling terms, less human.

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Veteran actor Ogata, known for playing Emperor Hirohito in Alexander Sokurov’s The Sun, makes for a memorable villain. Like several of the characters in Silence, Inoue Masashige was an actual historical figure. There is never doubt about Inoue’s cruelty, even when the character sometimes comes across as comic. Neeson can always be depended on to lend gravitas. While we’ve seen him play the role of mentor before, the role of Ferreira presents Neeson with more of an acting challenge than the action hero parts with which he’s become associated in his later career.

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While there is much in Silence for cineastes to savour and while it’s almost automatically become canonised as an “important film”, it’s easy to see why Silence failed to find much of an audience. Faith-based films tend to be pitched as inspirational, and Silence is near-relentlessly bleak. It is interesting that Scorsese, whose Last Temptation of the Christ was hotly controversial and widely deemed to be blasphemous, approaches the Catholic faith with such reverence here. Scorsese has said of his own faith, “I’m a lapsed Catholic. But I am Roman Catholic; there’s no way out of it.” The filmmaker has sunk his heart and soul into Silence, but it’s obvious that not everyone will be convicted by its meditation on faith.

Summary: Meticulously crafted and intense but plodding and somewhat arduous to sit through, cinephiles and the faithful will find Silence thought-provoking, while others will simply find it boring.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Lego Batman Movie

For F*** Magazine

THE LEGO BATMAN MOVIE

Director : Chris McKay
Cast : (Voice Cast) Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes, Jenny Slate, Mariah Carey, Billy Dee Williams
Genre : Action/Animation
Run Time : 1h 45min
Opens : 9 February 2017
Rating : PG

the-lego-batman-movie-posterHe puts the ‘bat’ in ‘brickbat’ and serves as a stumbling block to Gotham City’s evildoers: he is Lego Batman (Arnett). When the Joker (Galifianakis) leads a collection of Batman’s rogues gallery in an assault on Gotham, Batman is confident that he alone can take them on. Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Elizondo), whose primary job has been activating the Bat-signal to summon Batman, retires. Replacing Gordon is his daughter Barbara (Dawson), who calls attention to Batman’s inefficacy in keeping Gotham’s streets crime-free, much to Batman’s chagrin. Alfred Pennyworth (Fiennes), loyal butler to Batman/Bruce Wayne, sees Batman’s self-aggrandizement as a façade. After accidentally adopting orphan Dick Grayson (Cera), Bruce must learn that relying on others in the face of overwhelming odds isn’t a sign of weakness, eventually teaming up with Robin/Dick Grayson, Alfred and Batgirl/Barbara Gordon to face an other-worldly threat.

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The Lego Batman Movie is a spin-off of 2014’s The Lego Movie, and is directed by Chris McKay, who served as an animation co-director on The Lego Movie. McKay has also directed multiple episodes of Robot Chicken, the stop-motion sketch comedy series which lampoons comics, cartoons and other aspects of geek culture. The Lego Batman Movie is reminiscent of Robot Chicken in its style of humour, which is heavily reference-based, albeit more kid-friendly than Robot Chicken. There are shout-outs to elements both well-known and obscure of the DC Comics universe and beyond, which are rewarding to spot. However, since this is based on a line of toys and primarily made to sell toys, there are moments when it’s evident that The Lego Batman Movie struggles to strike a balance between appealing to geeks and appealing to children.

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The animation by Animal Logic Studios is done in the same style as The Lego Movie, which emulates stop-motion animation using computer graphics. Each frame bursts with lovingly-rendered detail and the film is consistently eye-catching, if not quite as creatively designed as The Lego Movie. This version of the Batcave is delightfully outlandish, packed with needlessly extravagant machinery and containing a ludicrous number of vehicles with a ‘Bat’ prefix in their names. Of the various and sundry modes of transportation utilised by the Dark Knight in this movie, something called ‘the Scuttler’ is the most interesting. It’s a mecha that walks on four stilt-like legs and expresses emotion with dog-like ears which can droop to indicate sadness.

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There is a Batman for all seasons, and part of the character’s longevity is his malleability. The Lego Batman Movie does a fine job of gently poking fun at various incarnations of the Caped Crusader, from the 1966 TV show to the 1989 film to the recent Batman v Superman. At times, it’s evident that this wants to be Deadpool for Juniors, the film begins with Batman breaking the fourth wall and providing voiceover as the opening logos roll. Arnett’s performance, impeccable in its timing and just the right pitch of gruff, suits the tone of the film to a tee. Fiennes’ drolly prim and proper Alfred serves as a wonderful complement.

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Galifianakis’ turn as the Joker is passable, but is far from the high bar set by Mark Hamill, whose indelible vocal performance as the Clown Prince of Crime has made him the definitive voice of the Joker in many fans’ eyes (make that ears). The film addresses the psychosexual nature of Joker and Batman’s mutual obsession with the other, which Batman vehemently denies. Jenny Slate’s Harley Quinn is a slight disappointment, largely lacking the character’s signature Brooklyn accent.

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While Batman’s rogues gallery is generally agreed on as being the most dynamic in all of comics, these villains don’t make too much of an impact in The Lego Batman Movie. Sure, the film crams a lot of them in, but the likes of Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz), Poison Ivy (Riki Lindhome), Clayface (Kate Miccuci), Mr. Freeze and anyone who isn’t the Joker seem relegated to the background. It is fun to see D-listers like Condiment King and Kite-Man onscreen. Bane (Doug Benson) speaks in the same accent Tom Hardy affected for The Dark Knight Rises, even more amusing given how Bane was quoted in a certain inaugural address.

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One of the funniest aspects of the story is how Bruce Wayne adopts Dick Grayson completely by accident. The interpretation of Dick as a wide-eyed, bespectacled dork is a departure from the source material, but Cera’s inherent awkwardness as a performer suits this version fine. This reviewer enjoyed the changes made to the Barbara Gordon character, who is introduced as her father’s successor as Police Commissioner long before she dons the Batgirl costume. Batman has romantic designs on Batgirl – this is a pairing which many fans understandably find icky, and was a major factor in the backlash against the animated film The Killing Joke. Thankfully, Barbara does not reciprocate Bruce’s advances. The stunt casting of Mariah Carey as Mayor MacCaskill is completely unnecessary – but perhaps this can be viewed as akin to the celebrity cast on the ’66 Batman TV show.

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The Lego Batman Movie’s final act does involve a giant portal opening up in the sky, unleashing destruction that the townsfolk must scurry away from. There are some surprises as to who or what emerges from said portal, but even given that, it’s easy to tune out during the climactic battle. There’s an overreliance on incongruous pop ditties and not all the jokes land, but things are funny and frenetic enough to propel The Lego Batman Movie forward.

Summary: The Lego Batman movie prizes reference-based humour over plot, but even if it doesn’t use the Lego Batman world to its full comic potential, it’s an entertaining time.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

For F*** Magazine

RESIDENT EVIL: THE FINAL CHAPTER

Director : Paul W.S. Anderson
Cast : Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Iain Glen, Shawn Roberts, Eoin Macken, Ruby Rose, William Levy, Lee Joon-gi, Rola, Ever Gabo Anderson, Fraser James
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 2 February 2017
Rating : NC-16 (Violence)

resident-evil-the-final-chapter-posterCould ‘the world’s most profitable video game movie franchise™’ really be coming to an end? If vehement claims from the cast and, well, the title are to be believed, perhaps this truly is Alice’s (Jovovich) last ride – that is, until a reboot is announced in short order.

Picking up three weeks after the conclusion of Resident Evil: Retribution, Alice has been betrayed by arch-villain Wesker (Roberts) – shocking, we know – and is on her own again. The artificial intelligence construct Red Queen (Ever Gabo Anderson), hitherto malevolent, appears to help Alice, with the promise that an antivirus lies in wait for her at the Hive, deep beneath Raccoon City. Pursued by Dr. Alexander Isaacs (Glen), the evil head of the Umbrella Corporation, Alice sets off to return to where it all began. Along the way, she reunites with ally Claire Redfield (Larter), who has joined forces with a ragtag bunch of survivors including Doc (Macken), Abigail (Rose), Christian (Levy), Cobalt (Rola) and Razor (James). As hordes of vicious zombies stand in their way, Alice and her cohorts make a desperate last stand for humanity.

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The Resident Evil films have never been critical darlings, and The Final Chapter has its problems: the post-apocalyptic aesthetic is largely generic, the supporting characters are insufficiently distinctive, and the combination of rapid-fire editing and shaky-cam renders the action sequences incomprehensible.

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Much to this reviewer’s surprise and given the abovementioned shortcomings, The Final Chapter is enjoyable – if barely so. Given five earlier films’ worth of back-story, the film’s prologue does a fine job of setting things up for the uninitiated, detailing the origins of the T-virus. Regardless of how seriously one takes director Anderson’s claims of finality, there is the sense that things have come full circle. The first film’s signature set-piece is revisited and after the visual monotony of the wastelands that fill The Final Chapter’s first half, it’s fun to head back into the sleek, futuristic Hive. Best of all, this film possesses a welcome tactility to the action – there are somewhat-unconvincing digitally-generated creatures, but the visual effects work is an improvement on the previous instalment, and it doesn’t feel like this was entirely shot against a giant green screen.

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Jovovich has the action heroine thing down pat, and is sufficiently believable holding her own against gnashing zombies and Umbrella Corp goons kitted out in tactical gear. She looks cool astride that BMW Motorrad and is taking things just seriously enough. Alice gets substantial character development and gets answers to questions she’s had since the events of the first film. Some may call it nepotism, but there is a poetry in Anderson casting his and Jovovich’s daughter Ever Gabo in the role of the Red Queen. The film reveals a connection that Alice and the Red Queen have shared all along, giving the casting a wink-and-nod aptness.

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Glen, who last appeared in Resident Evil: Extinction, reprises his role of Dr. Isaacs with entertaining aplomb. It’s the same over-the-top élan with which he portrayed the villain in another video game movie, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Glen plays the part with so much relish, one expects ketchup and mustard to enter from stage left. Unfortunately, Roberts’ Wesker is given comparatively little to do, and spends most of the film pacing about the Hive’s control room, glowering at monitors showing Alice’s progress.

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If there was one positive thing about Retribution, it was that key characters from the games like Leon S. Kennedy and Ada Wong showed up, with Chris Redfield returning from Afterlife. They’re completely absent here. The plucky band of survivors with whom Alice allies are largely unmemorable. xXx: Return of Xander Cage made far better use of Ruby Rose, who has three action movies out in quick succession this year – look out for her in John Wick: Chapter 2. The inclusion of Japanese media personality Rola as Cobalt and South Korean actor/singer Lee Joon-gi as Isaacs’ henchman Commander Chu is a blatant bid of international appeal.

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The Final Chapter’s frenetic pace and senseless strobe-like editing might be numbing to some viewers, but for others, this will be a satisfying conclusion (?) to an oftentimes mediocre franchise. Setting our expectations appropriately low, we were pleased that there’s a semblance of a plot, however generic, and that given the title, it’s harder for Anderson and co. to get away with the shameless cliff-hanger endings he’s employed in the past. Then again, there was a Friday the 13th film subtitled ‘The Final Chapter’, and there have been eight more movies in that franchise since then.

Summary: There’s more disregard for continuity and the action sequences are horrendously edited, but The Final Chapter has enough forward momentum and entertaining moments for it to pass muster as a diversion.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

A Kind of Murder

For F*** Magazine

A KIND OF MURDER 

Director : Andy Goddard
Cast : Patrick Wilson, Jessica Biel, Vincent Kartheiser, Haley Bennett, Eddie Marsan
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 36min
Opens : 2 February 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

a-kind-of-murder-posterNovelist Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thrillers, including Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Two Faces of January, have lent themselves well to many masterful adaptations in the past. A Kind of Murder is based on Highsmith’s third novel The Blunderer, and is set in 1960s New York. Walter Stackhouse (Wilson) is an architect and aspiring crime novelist, who is unhappily married to his wife Clara (Biel). Walter becomes fascinated with the case of bookstore owner Kimmel (Marsan), who was suspected of killing his wife. Walter finds himself attracted to singer Ellie Briess (Bennett), further feeding his fantasies of killing Clara. Walter earns the suspicion of NYPD Detective Lawrence Corby (Kartheiser) and soon finds his sanity unravelling.

The Blunderer was earlier adapted into the 1963 French film Enough Rope. This new adaptation is directed by Andy Goddard, who has helmed episodes of Downton Abbey, and is written for the screen by Susan Boyd, who optioned the novel with her screenwriter/novelist husband William. A Kind of Murder wears its 60s New York setting as an affectation, and never feels like it authentically takes place in that world. The costumes, automobiles and sets all look convincing and the cinematography is often beautiful, but the film is pervaded with a sense of artifice. Because it’s so mannered and manicured, A Kind of Murder fails to grip the audience and pull them into the mystery. The acting is so stilted across the board that the cast seems like high school students stumbling through an amateur production of Death of a Salesman.

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Walter Stackhouse has the makings of a compelling character: he’s wealthy but unsatisfied with his existence, and his preoccupation with true crime and crime fiction might be driving him to commit murder himself. While Wilson could pass for a leading man in a 60s crime drama, between the stilted delivery and clunky dialogue, Walter becomes a bland cipher who is difficult to care about. The rocky relationship between Walter and Clara is at the heart of the film’s conflict. However, their brief interactions fail to paint a clear picture of why this marriage has deteriorated to the point where Walter would entertain the thought of murder to extricate himself from it.

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Biel’s Clara should be a compelling character in her own right, justifiably jealous when her husband makes eyes at a beguiling younger woman. Instead, we see Clara haranguing Walter and doing little else. Bennett makes for an alluring ‘other woman’, who might be innocent or a devious femme fatale. However, Ellie becomes increasingly extraneous as the story progresses. Walter’s entanglement with the murder suspect Kimmel and the possibly unstable police detective Corby lack the potent mind games a psychological thriller should possess.

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Director Goddard seems intent on capturing the superficial look of a noir thriller, and when we get to men in heavy coats and hats pursuing each other through foggy streets, A Kind of Murder is visually captivating. Unfortunately, the whodunit plot is so mangled in an effort to make things more complicated than they need to be, such that the audience is held at a distance. The film also feels far longer than its 95-minute running time, soporific rather than thrilling.

Summary: A Kind of Murder has a glossy exterior, but fails to deliver the engaging thrills expected of a Patricia Highsmith adaptation.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong