47 Meters Down

For F*** Magazine

47 METERS DOWN 

Director : Johannes Roberts
Cast : Mandy Moore, Claire Holt, Chris J. Johnson, Yani Gellman, Santiago Segura, Matthew Modine
Genre : Thriller
Run Time : 1h 30m
Opens : 17 August 2017
Rating : PG13

What would horror movies be without American tourists making horrible decisions? From Hostel to Turistas to Chernobyl Diaries, filmgoers have witnessed would-be fun vacations turn horrifying in the blink of an eye. In this thriller, Lisa (Moore) and her younger sister Kate (Holt) are on vacation in Mexico. Lisa’s boyfriend Stuart has just broken up with her, claiming Lisa made the relationship boring. Two handsome strangers (Gellman and Segura) whom the sisters meet convince them to go on a shark cage dive. After all, what better way to prove Lisa isn’t boring? Kate has some diving experience and Lisa has none, so Lisa is initially reluctant, but goes along with her sister anyway. Captain Taylor (Modine) takes the sisters out to a rickety boat, and they get into an even ricketier shark cage. Lisa’s worst fears are realised when the cable holding the cage snaps, sending the sisters plummeting to the ocean floor. Trapped and surrounded by great white sharks, Lisa and Kate must find a way out of their predicament before they run out of air.

47 Meters Down is one of those movies that must’ve made a great elevator pitch: two women get trapped in a shark cage at the bottom of the ocean. We have seen films built on intriguing premises that fall apart after a while, the high concept unable to sustain a feature-length film. 47 Meters Down has its genuinely thrilling moments, but even running a lean 85 minutes, it feels padded out, with it being around 20 minutes before our heroines step into the shark cage.

The film is built around a set piece, so director/co-writer Johannes Roberts and co-writer Ernest Riera don’t seem to be particularly concerned with crafting compelling characters. It’s all about the situation the characters are trapped in. It’s inevitable that any shark movie be compared to Jaws, the granddaddy of them all. It’s important to remember that Jaws had Brody, Hooper and Quint, and the dynamic between those three characters was as important to the movie as the shark was, if not even more so.

The sharks created by Outpost VFX look sufficiently convincing, but they don’t pop up quite as often as this reviewer would’ve liked. Even if there isn’t enough to the protagonists to care deeply for them, Roberts generates a visceral sense of panic and there are just enough jump scares without overdoing it. Any film is bound to take artistic license with the subject matter at hand, and any expert diver will probably be beside themselves with amusement and bemusement at the dive science on display in 47 Meters Down. Even for non-experts, some moments strain suspension of disbelief. The articles that break down the myriad inaccuracies in 47 Meters Down are expectedly technical, but make for interesting reading after watching the film.

47 Meters Down is a low-budget film that boasts above-average production values. Thanks to cinematographer Mark Silk, production designer David Bryan and other crew members, it’s easy to believe that Kate and Lisa are in the waters off Mexico when the film was mostly shot in a modest tank in Essex. As with many horror movies, 47 Meters Down is sometimes guilty of using the score to signal when audiences should be frightened – then again, that could be seen as merely following the example set by Jaws.

This reviewer quite enjoyed last year’s shark thriller The Shallows. What made that film better than 47 Meters Down was that audiences could assign a certain intelligence to the shark, and that it played out as a game of wits between the protagonist and her toothy tormentor. 47 Meters Down isn’t quite as inventive and is consequently not too memorable, but when the scares work, they work.

Summary: A spare thriller with just enough jolts to keep it afloat, 47 Meters Down is gripping in parts, but is also repetitive and even at just 85 minutes, feels too long.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Hitman’s Bodyguard

For F*** Magazine

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD

Director : Patrick Hughes
Cast : Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Élodie Yung, Salma Hayek, Joaquim de Almeida, Kristy Mitchell, Richard E. Grant, Sam Hazeldine
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 51m
Opens : 17 August 2017

This reviewer has long thought that The Hague would be a cool setting for an action movie to unfold. Imagine this scenario: a brutal dictator is brought before the International Court of Justice, but his sympathisers disrupt the trial, taking the judges, witnesses and other attendees of the trial hostage. It’s up to a John McClane-style hero to save the day. The Hitman’s Bodyguard uses a similar premise, but with a comedic twist.

Michael Bryce (Reynolds) is a triple-A rated executive protection agent, and his services are highly sought-after by arms dealers, warlords and other shady figures with a long list of enemies. After a botched job, Bryce’s career is in the dumps. His shot at redemption is a job escorting hitman Darius Kincaid (Jackson) to The Hague, where Kincaid is set to testify against Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Oldman). Kincaid agrees to testify on the condition that his wife Sonia (Hayek), herself a career criminal, is released from prison. Bryce’s ex-girlfriend, Interpol agent Amelia Roussel (Yung), has learned that there is a mole within Interpol and Bryce, being on the outside, is the only person she can trust to protect Kincaid. The catch: Bryce and Kincaid have been sworn enemies for years, Bryce finding himself caught in Kincaid’s crosshairs countless times across their respective careers. Kincaid insists that he doesn’t need Bryce’s protection, but the unlikely duo must rely on each other to survive the onslaught of Dukhovich’s mercenary army.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard seemed promising: there’s plenty of potential in teaming up Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, and the marketing campaign that riffed on the 1992 film The Bodyguard was reasonably witty. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. Director Patrick Hughes, who helmed the mediocre The Expendables 3, struggles to make the film seem fresh or genuinely thrilling. Despite the obvious chemistry its stars share, there’s only so much expletive-laden bickering one can take before it just gets tiresome. The conflict between Bryce and Kincaid is meant to be amusing, but it just feels like a single joke that’s stretched out. As written by screenwriter Tom O’Connor, the back-and-forth between Reynolds and Jackson isn’t nearly clever enough to keep our interest.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard also suffers tonally: a bloody bar brawl scored to Lionel Richie’s “Hello”, and Atli Örvarsson’s over-the-top Bond movie-esque score indicate that the film is aiming for ironic self-awareness. However, the villain is depicted committing full-on war crimes, and one character’s tragic backstory is depicted in a dark flashback. Then there’s general silliness, like when our protagonists hitch a ride on a bus full of nuns. The Hitman’s Bodyguard doesn’t commit to full-tilt madcap comedy because it also wants to be a cool action flick, and ends up stranded in between. The action sequences are mostly filmed in shaky-cam so they’re difficult to enjoy, but the boat chase through Amsterdam’s canals and the explosive finale are reasonably fun set pieces.

Reynolds and Jackson play strictly to type: the former is a wisecracking action hero, and the latter is a foul-mouthed badass who doesn’t suffer fools. While they appear to be enjoying themselves, the dysfunctional buddy cop dynamic falls short of the fireworks one would expect from the pairing of performers who, in the right roles, can be supremely entertaining. The incessant arguing between the pair does draw out a few laughs, but most of the would-be zingers Reynolds and Jackson exchange fall flat. You might find yourself wondering how this would go if Reynolds and Jackson were playing Deadpool and Nick Fury respectively – that would be more exciting.

Gary Oldman can always be counted on to play a fantastic villain: he can throw a shouting fit like few others. He’s good here, no surprise, but he seems to have wandered in from a different movie. The character is introduced committing war crimes, that introductory scene feeling uncomfortably out of place in what is ostensibly a light-hearted action comedy.

Hayek is ridiculous amounts of fun, swearing up a storm and putting in a performance that’s markedly different from what we’ve seen from her before. Yung doesn’t make much of an impact, but it is fun to imagine Deadpool and Elektra being former lovers.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard seems like it should’ve been an entertaining lark, but it comes off as generic and oddly lethargic, despite trying hard to come off as funny. While its action sequences are unremarkable and its comedy is largely forced, The Hitman’s Bodyguard can thank its leads for wringing some laughs out of the material.

Summary: It’s mostly a rehash of buddy action movie clichés and the fights and chases are nothing to write home about, but even when given middling material, Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson make some of this work.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Dark Tower

For F*** Magazine

THE DARK TOWER 

Director : Nikolaj Arcel
Cast : Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Franz Kranz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick, Dennis Haysbert
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 35m
Opens : 3 August 2017
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

After ten years in various stages of development, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series finally arrives on the big screen. At the centre of the universe stands the titular structure, protecting various realms from entities that seek to tear the universe apart. On Mid-World, the evil sorcerer Walter Padick/The Man in Black (McConaughey), has been conducting experiments on gifted children, attempting to use their minds to bring down the tower. The Man in Black’s nemesis is Roland Deschain/The Gunslinger (Elba), the last living descendant of his world’s version of King Arthur. On earth, teenager Jake Chambers (Taylor) has been plagued with nightmares in which he sees Walter and Roland. Locating an abandoned house he sees in his dream, Jake steps through a portal and into Mid-World, accompanying Roland on his quest to defeat Walter and prevent the collapse of the universe.

King’s series of eight books, with allusions to it scattered throughout his other works, has many devoted fans. This reviewer, being completely unfamiliar with the series, is not one of them. It must have been a challenge to adapt the series, which spans the genres of science-fantasy, western and horror, hence the succession of filmmakers who came and went. The approach with this is that it isn’t a straight adaptation, folding in elements from several books while also acting as kind of a sequel to them – we don’t fully understand the mechanics of that.

The resulting film is a serviceable fantasy adventure, but can’t help but feel underwhelming given the breadth of the source material. Director Nikolaj Arcel goes about the set-up with workmanlike efficiency, and the story isn’t difficult to follow at all. There’s just the nagging feeling that everything’s been condensed into its simplest form, and that the richness of the world that King has woven together is being sacrificed for something easier to digest. Visually, The Dark Tower isn’t too exciting, but the action sequences, especially Roland’s various reload tricks, are quite fun.

Actors including Viggo Mortensen, Javier Bardem and Russell Crowe have all been connected to the Roland Deschain role at some point. Elba is a fine choice for the part, cutting a heroic figure and possessing the stoic poise necessary to sell the character. There’s a strength and a grace to the way Elba moves, and he does have a larger-than-life quality to him. He just doesn’t have very much to do here, and even though Roland’s storied past is hinted at, the character feels a little flat.

The relationship between Roland and Jake is apparently key to the books, but it doesn’t get too much development here. It makes sense that Jake, as the audience identification character, is given more emphasis, but it detracts from the inherently interesting Gunslinger and Man in Black characters. Taylor, a relative newcomer, does his best as the troubled character and is generally sympathetic throughout the film. Jake winds up being an extreme example of the ‘chosen one’ trope, and the handling of the character nudges The Dark Tower into Young Adult fiction territory. He must overcome tragedy, has fantastical abilities he must hone, and stumbles into an adventure in a magical world. While this approach is too generic, it gets the job done.

McConaughey has as much fun as he can with the role of the mercurial, wicked Man in Black. There’s a seductiveness to his brand of menace, and McConaughey practices enough restraint so that he does not chew the mostly drab scenery to pieces. When McConaughey and Elba are pitted against each other, the sparks don’t fly as fiercely and as wildly as one hopes they would. Just as with this iteration of Roland Deschain however, the Man in Black doesn’t feel as substantial a character as he should.

There will be a TV series planned to bridge this film and its sequel, which Arcel has promised will be more faithful to the books than this film is. The Dark Tower is meant to launch a ‘Connected KINGdom’ cinematic universe uniting all of Stephen King’s works, with Easter Eggs from It, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Cujo, Christine and others hidden in the film. Given all this, The Dark Tower feels sufficiently self-contained, and doesn’t come off as merely a long trailer for what’s to follow.

The Dark Tower is intermittently thrilling, sometimes entertaining, and runs a lean 95 minutes. It doesn’t have the feel of a sprawling epic, but that isn’t entirely a bad thing, since the audience isn’t overwhelmed with exposition-dumps and massive amounts of lore to process. However, it makes more of a dent than an impact, and isn’t especially memorable given the potential in its premise and the extent to which King has developed his universe. We’re far from the most qualified to judge how this stacks up against the source material, but we have a feeling that those who’ve been waiting a decade for a Dark Tower movie to materialise might feel indifferent if not disappointed.

Summary: The Dark Tower has charismatic leads and doesn’t twaddle in setting up its plot, but it comes off as generic and slight when it should be an absorbing epic.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Big Sick

For F*** Magazine

THE BIG SICK 

Director : Michael Showalter
Cast : Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, David Alan Grier
Genre : Comedy/Romanc
Run Time : 2h
Opens : 27 July 2017
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language and Some Sexual References)

Many couples have probably thought to themselves, “say, our courtship would make a great movie”. Comedians Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon thought this, and they were right.

In The Big Sick, Nanjiani plays himself, a Chicago-based stand-up comic from a Pakistani immigrant family. Kumail’s mother Sharmeen (Shroff) has been trying to arrange a marriage for him, setting him up with as many eligible Pakistani-American women as she can find. Emily Gardner (Kazan) is in the audience at a show in which Kumail is one of the performers, and they hit it off. However, Kumail knows that he will be disowned by his family if they find out he is dating a white, non-Muslim woman. Several weeks into their relationship, Emily is struck by a mysterious illness, and is placed in a medically-induced coma. Her parents Beth (Hunter) and Terry (Romano) arrive from North Carolina to care for her, and while things between them and Kumail are awkward at first, they begin to bond over their mutual care for Emily’s well-being. In the meantime, Kumail hopes to impress a talent scout who is selecting comics to perform in the esteemed Montreal Comedy Festival, but Emily’s circumstances throw him off his game, forcing him to re-evaluate his priorities while he confronts the traditions that he feels bound by.

This romantic comedy-drama is co-written by Nanjiani and Gordon, starring Nanjiani as himself, re-enacting his own love story. This might sound like a vanity project on the surface, but The Big Sick doesn’t feel like one at all. Even if it is a vanity project, it’s the kind we need right now. While made with a niche audience in mind, The Big Sick has gained overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth and has become a critical and commercial success. Key to its success is that this a film that bleeds authenticity. Sure, as with any movie based on a true story, artistic licenses were taken, but at no point that this feel glossy and artificial, nor does the film seem like it’s straining to convince us of its realness. As cliché as it sounds, all of it comes from the heart. Profoundly moving and disarmingly raw, director Michael Showalter packages Nanjiani and Gordon’s shared experiences without them seeming packaged in any way.

This is a comedy first and foremost, and on that front The Big Sick is a gut-busting triumph. Little touches like Nanjiani’s abiding love for The X-Files add nice textural elements – the episode “One Breath”, in which Mulder tries to save Scully from a coma, was a major inspiration for this film. Stand-up comics like Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant fill supporting roles as Kumail’s fellow comedy club performers, sometimes sarcastic but never unbearably smug. At no point does The Big Sick feel smug or ‘funnier than thou’, as movies about comedy with the creative involvement of professional comics are wont to be. Best of all, the tricky tonal balances are executed with a master’s touch. The film makes no hard-left turns into dramatic territory, and when it gets serious, it never blindsides the audience. The subjects of medical emergencies, the prejudices faced by South Asians and other immigrants in the United States, and the prospect of being exiled from one’s family because of whom one chooses to love are not inherently funny. The Big Sick’s treatment of these issues provokes thought without feeling inorganic or like it’s forcing the audience into an uncomfortable spot. The comedy does not undercut or overpower the film’s depth or sincerity.

One could say that Kumail Nanjiani was the role Kumail Nanjiani was born to play. Nanjiani is earnestly dorky, yet charming and altogether endearing, without ever feeling like he’s over-amplifying aspects of himself. He shares sparkling chemistry with Kazan, who is eminently likeable and showcases a range of the most adorable facial expressions. There are conflicts and misunderstandings, but they never feel like stock rom-com contrivances. Emily is in a coma for most of the film’s running time, but Kazan makes her presence felt and the relationship between Kumail and Emily is one of the easiest to root for in all of romantic comedy film history.

 

Kumail’s family does feel a little exaggerated for comedic effect, but they are never the butt of the joke. Given all that Nanjiani has been through, the portrayal of Kumail’s father Azmat (Kher), mother Sharmeen, brother Naveed (Akhtar) and sister-in-law Fatima (Shenaz Treasury) is markedly sympathetic. Kumail might feel stifled by the traditions and worldview upheld by his family, but that doesn’t mean he loves them any less.

Romano and Hunter are impeccably cast as Emily’s parents. Romano brings his trademark slightly beleaguered, Dad joke-spouting everyman persona to bear, but also provides some of the film’s most honest emotion. Hunter’s fiery, no-nonsense Beth is a force to be reckoned with, and the way she eventually warms towards Kumail feels natural and earned. Having a daughter in a coma is an emotionally-exhausting experience, and Terry and Beth are shown warts and all – but then again, so is every character in The Big Sick, a key ingredient in its authenticity.

“Absolutely devastating” is not necessarily the description one would use for a comedy – but The Big Sick is absolutely devastating in the best way. In telling a love story through a unique perspective, skilfully folding in social issues and wrapping all this in bracing, disarming humour, The Big Sick is essential viewing.

Summary: Deeply personal, authentic, warm, heart-rending and immensely funny, The Big Sick will cause fits of laughter and uncontrollable sobbing without feeling incongruous, manipulative or self-indulgent.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Atomic Blonde

For F*** Magazine

ATOMIC BLONDE 

Director : David Leitch
Cast : Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, James Faulkner
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 27 July 2017
Rating : R21 (Some Homosexual Content)

Charlize Theron goes from traversing the arid, scorching desert of Mad Max: Fury Road to sauntering into the coldest city in this action thriller. It is 1989, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and MI6 agent James Gascoine (Sam Hargrave) is killed by a KGB operative in West Berlin. Gascoine’s colleague and former lover Lorraine Broughton (Theron), one of MI6’s deadliest operatives, is sent behind the Iron Curtain to recover sensitive information stolen from Gascoine. Lorraine must work alongside MI6’s Berlin station chief David Percival (McAvoy), who is often drunk and unreliable. Lorraine’s mission is to track down a mark known only as ‘Spyglass’ (Marsan). She gets entangled with French spy Delphine Lasalle (Boutella), and Lorraine’s actions frustrate her superiors Eric Gray (Jones) of MI6 and Emmet Kurzfeld (Goodman) of CIA. Caught in a geopolitical firestorm and pitted against the most treacherous of enemies, Lorraine must retrieve the documents at all costs.

Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart. Directing the film is David Leitch, who co-directed John Wick with Chad Stahelski and who is also helming the upcoming Deadpool 2. Leitch employs a great deal of stylisation, crafting a brutal, sexy ‘neon-noir’. However, unlike John Wick, Atomic Blonde doesn’t lean into its heightened absurdity as much, and takes itself a little too seriously.

As with any espionage thriller, the plot is a web of double-crosses, shifting alliances and twisty reveals. Atomic Blonde hints at the fraught geopolitical climate of the time, but is far from substantive. While Atomic Blonde succeeds as a mood piece, it is too coolly detached for audiences to get involved in the story. With its title cards rendered as spray-painted graffiti text and its action set to songs by Queen, David Bowie, Depeche Mode and Kanye West, Atomic Blonde is sometimes too enamoured with its coolness for its own good.

Coming from a stunt performer/coordinator background and having co-founded the stunt collective 87Eleven Action Design, Leitch knows a thing or two about action sequences. Atomic Blonde showcases several elaborate, wince-inducing combat sequences, and doesn’t skimp on the blood splatter when people get shot in the head. It is inevitable that this gets compared to John Wick – we’ve already done that earlier in this review. As masterfully as the stunts are executed, the balletic gunfights in John Wick were more dazzling, and that film’s juxtaposition of elegance and brutality more beguiling, than the action on show in Atomic Blonde.

Theron is an outspoken feminist, and Atomic Blonde has been characterised as a feminist action movie. The screenplay is written by Kurt Johnstad, who has penned such “manly men” flicks as 300 and Act of Valour, and the film’s female characters are very much sexualised. However, Theron owns the character’s sexuality, and while it can be argued that moments like a lesbian sex scene are exploitative, she displays such conviction that it doesn’t feel sleazy. This is a role that’s right in Theron’s wheelhouse – Lorraine is slinky, lethal and unafraid to get her hands very dirty. We get very little in the way of back-story or meaningful character motivations, but Lorraine is intended to be an enigma and Theron relishes the cloak and dagger machinations her character enacts.

As is expected of McAvoy when he gets to play characters a little on the wild side, he puts in an entertaining turn. David plays second fiddle to Lorraine, and McAvoy has no qualms letting Theron take the spotlight. The openly hostile dynamic between the two ostensible allies contains glimmers of fun, but McAvoy and Theron don’t get to play off each other as much as this reviewer hoped.

Boutella’s Delphine is very much the traditional Bond girl: she’s in her over depth, and is seduced and taken advantage of by the hero(ine). It can be argued that the much buzzed-about lesbian sex scene between Lorraine and Delphine is gratuitous, but Theron has argued that it’s an example of women owning their sexuality in a mainstream film, something we don’t see a lot of. In the meantime, Goodman and Jones show up mostly to facilitate the framing device of Lorraine being debriefed/interrogated in the aftermath of her Berlin mission. Unlike Theron and Boutella, they do not have a sex scene together.

As a platform for Charlize Theron to strut her action heroine stuff, Atomic Blonde works well. However, its convoluted spy vs. spy narrative is at odds with its stylishness and devil-may-care vibe. Atomic Blonde gets bogged down with considerable amounts of plot to get through in between the action while not possessing much depth, but Theron’s virtuosic badassery make it worthwhile.

Summary: While not as compulsively entertaining as it could’ve been, Atomic Blonde packs in plenty of style and showcases Charlize Theron in full action heroine mode.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Baby Driver

For F*** Magazine

BABY DRIVER 

Director : Edgar Wright
Cast : Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, Flea, Lanny Joon
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 52m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

The director of the Cornetto trilogy and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World takes the driver’s seat, and he has the Wright of way. This action comedy follows Baby (Elgort), a getaway driver who is a veritable prodigy behind the wheel. After surviving an accident in his childhood, Baby suffers from tinnitus, and to drown out the ringing noise, listens to pre-selected music on his iPod. Baby is in the employ of criminal mastermind Doc (Spacey), whose gang of bank-robbers includes miscreants like Buddy (Hamm), Buddy’s wife Darling (González), the violent and unpredictable Bats (Foxx) and the surly Griff (Bernthal). The latter two aren’t especially fond of Baby, but Doc insists on keeping Baby as his getaway driver, even as Baby wants out. Baby fears that his foster father Joseph (Jones) and Debora (James), the diner waitress with whom he strikes up a relationship, are endangered by his criminal activities. While he dreams of hitting the open road with Debora next to him, Baby is kept under Doc’s thumb. He might be the world’s greatest getaway driver, but can he escape from his shadowy employer?

Baby Driver has long been gestating in writer-director Wright’s mind. After first coming up with the idea in 1994, Wright directed a music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song”, featuring Noel Fielding as a getaway driver with an affinity for music. Wright has become known for his films’ dynamic, sometimes quirky style, and the comic energy with which he executes them. Baby Driver is supremely entertaining, a funny, romantic thriller crafted with the utmost care. It’s a little like a souped-up version of Carpool Karaoke, in that each action sequence is set to music.

Baby Driver moves with an effortless fluidity; Wright tapping on choreographer Ryan Heffington to help sync the actors’ movements to the soundtrack. Atlanta, Georgia, often doubles for other locations, but in Baby Driver, the city gets to play itself, becoming an ideal backdrop for thrilling, inventive car chases. Baby Driver features such brazen stylistic choices as cutting a gunfight to a drum solo; editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos giving the picture a rhythm that matches the vibe of the story Wright is trying to tell to a tee.

With Baby’s personal mix of songs helping him to zone in while he works, while carrying sentimental significance for him, there are traces of Star-Lord’s awesome mix from Guardians of the Galaxy. It turns out that Wright consulted director James Gunn to make sure there wasn’t any overlap between the tracks featured in Baby Driver and those used in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Artistes like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Commodores, T. Rex, Beck, Martha and the Vandellas and, of course, Simon and Garfunkel all show up on the soundtrack, making this something of a hybrid jukebox musical action movie. It’s a clever, unique effect.

Elgort’s Baby is one of the more memorable original protagonists in recent memory. There are elements to him we’ve seen before in many a crime thriller: he’s got a tragic past, is embarking on the fabled ‘one last job’, has a parental figure who disapproves of his job, and falls in love with a woman from whom he tries to hide his unlawful ways. Even so, there’s a resonant freshness to the character, as if Wright has remixed said elements. Baby is laconic and withdrawn, existing in his own world created with the assistance of music. ‘Tough’ isn’t the first adjective that springs to mind when describing Elgort, but Baby exudes toughness of a non-traditional sort. The character is roguish, charming and endearing with Elgort having to try too hard at all.

The film’s supporting cast is stacked with talent. James exudes a somewhat old-fashioned girl-next-door sweetness, and while the romance between Baby and Debora unfolds predictably enough, it is still achingly romantic. Emma Stone was initially cast in the role, but left due to scheduling conflicts with La La Land. The character isn’t given the greatest amount of agency, and for most of the film remains an observer, but she plays a crucial role in the movie’s conclusion.

Spacey is Spacey: slyly terrifying and having the time of his life, while displaying commendable restraint. Hamm, Foxx and Bernthal all have their moments, with Foxx being especially easy to dislike as a bank robber who is instantly antipathic towards Baby. The characters who surround Baby are over-the-top, but that never undercuts their capability to be truly terrifying. By the film’s climactic confrontation, Baby Driver dispenses with the humour, and that sequence is intense and brutal. It’s a little jarring, but that turn is mostly well-earned. CJ Jones, who plays Baby’s kindly deaf foster father Joseph, is deaf in real life and is an activist for deaf awareness causes.

Baby Driver is the work of an auteur at the top of his game, with Wright’s stamp on it from beginning to end. The filmmaker makes numerous canny, inspired decisions, and pulls them off with stunning aplomb. Instead of coming off as smug and self-indulgent, it packs in a great deal of heart, feeling polished yet personal. It’s a deliriously good time that’s also deliriously good filmmaking.

SUMMARY: Edgar Wright fires on all cylinders, creating a superb slice of entertainment that’s a visual and aural delight. Baby Driver is also the best showcase for Ansel Elgort’s star power yet.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dunkirk

For F*** Magazine

DUNKIRK 

Director : Christopher Nolan
Cast : Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Genre : Action/War
Run Time : 1h 47m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

There have been plenty of films set during the Second World War, and plenty of excellent ones at that, but you’ve never seen a war movie quite like Dunkirk. It is May 1940, and 400 000 Allied soldiers from Britain, Belgium, Canada and France have been trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, by German forces. With the waters surrounding the beach too shallow for naval vessels, hundreds of small personal craft are called into service to evacuate the soldiers from Dunkirk. British Army private Tommy (Whitehead) is just trying to get home, while Commander Bolton (Branagh) and Colonel Winnat (D’Arcy) oversee the evacuation on the ground. Making his way to Dunkirk in his boat is Mr. Dawson (Rylance), accompanied by his son Peter (Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s best friend George (Keoghan). On the way to Dunkirk, they pick up the Shivering Soldier (Murphy), a shell-shocked survivor of a German U-Boat attack. In the skies overhead flies Farrier (Hardy), a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot warding off attacks from German fighters. As time runs out for the soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, all they need to be victorious is to survive.

The very notion of Christopher Nolan writing and directing a WWII movie sent expectations for Dunkirk sky-rocketing. The film has lived up to, and maybe even surpassed, those expectations. Cutting through the stodginess that can sometimes plague period pieces, Nolan delivers something revelatory. There’s no glamour, no romance, no treacly sentimentality, no pomp, no circumstance – from the opening moments, viewers are plunged into the thick of unspooling chaos, trapped alongside the film’s characters in a variety of panic-inducing circumstances.

Taut and running a lean 107 minutes, unusual for a movie of this type, Dunkirk unfolds with searing immediacy. Dunkirk is not about the strength and sheer might of its heroes – Winston Churchill characterised the events that led to the stranding of the 400 000 Allied soldiers at Dunkirk as a “colossal military disaster”. Dunkirk is not a chest-thumping ode to a bygone age of ‘true heroism’, nor is it a withering, cynical proclamation that ‘war is hell’. It’s not making any grand statements, it’s transporting the audience into situations so hopeless and so desperate that they’ll be gasping for air.

Putting the film together was a staggering logistical undertaking, and Nolan waited to accrue experience making large-scale blockbusters before tackling this film, which he has wanted to make since he was a student. Nolan makes the massive scope of the film digestible for audiences by dividing Dunkirk into three perspectives: the land, the sea and the air. The Germans are a faceless enemy, making their presence felt through the ordnance they bombard the beach with. With each cluster of protagonists having clear objectives to complete, Dunkirk is easy to follow, and doesn’t contain unwieldy stretches of exposition.

Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography provides both the breathless immersion of being stuck below decks in a sinking ship and the soaring majesty of Spitfires tearing across the sky, an expanse of ocean beneath the planes. Hans Zimmer’s frantic score contains no lush, sweeping melodies, incorporating interesting textural elements including the ticking sound of Nolan’s own pocket watch.

Another thing that sets Dunkirk apart from its prestige drama ilk is that there are no showy performances finely tuned for maximum Academy appeal. Make no mistake, the acting is excellent, it’s just that it doesn’t call attention to itself and character back-stories and motivations are deliberately scarce, so we can focus on the moment. It’s unusual that a thespian of Branagh’s calibre is given relatively little to do, but it works. Newcomer Whitehead aptly captures the wide-eyed innocence and desperation of a young soldier swept up in a colossal conflict, while Harry Styles, to his credit, is barely distracting.

 

Murphy’s turn as the PTSD-stricken Shivering Soldier, who is otherwise unnamed, is probably the closest thing Dunkirk has to a virtuoso turn, and even then, it isn’t overplayed. Rylance showcases the masterful restraint he’s become known for, his character embodying the quiet, everyday heroism displayed by the mariners who came to the soldiers’ rescue. While Hardy is at his best when playing antiheroes, roguish types or straight-up villains, but he’s easy to root for as the pilot who tries to save the day.

Stripping away the stylistic trappings often associated with WWII epics, Nolan shapes Dunkirk into a film that’s visceral and affecting, but is also spectacular and deserves to be seen on as large a screen as one can find. While it’s not the easiest film to watch, Nolan skilfully refrains from gratuitous blood and gore – it’s horrifying without being unnecessarily so. Because of its heavy subject matter and the tension with which it is brought to life, Dunkirk does feel longer than its running time and is not necessarily a film that begs to be re-watched immediately, but it is an effectively harrowing masterpiece all the same.

Summary: A war film that evokes helplessness and desperation like few before it, Dunkirk will thrill, shock and shake audiences to their core.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Bad Batch

For F*** Magazine

THE BAD BATCH 

Director : Ana Lily Amirpour
Cast : Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Yolonda Ross, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Diego Luna, Giovanni Ribisi, Jayda Fink
Genre : Romance/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 1h 58m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : M18 (Some Disturbing Scenes and Drug Use)

There’s something about the desert that inspires madness. Whether it’s dehydration-induced hallucination, the sense of isolation in a vast open space, or just the arid heat, the desert is fine backdrop against which madness can unfold. This twisted, post-apocalyptic fairy tale is very mad indeed.

Our heroine is Arlen (Waterhouse), who wanders across the god-forsaken Texas desert. She is part of ‘the bad batch’, individuals deemed unproductive to society, and exiled to fend for themselves. Arlen is captured by cannibals, who saw off and eat her arm and leg. Arlen manages to escape, and is taken by a Hermit (Carrey) to a settlement called Comfort. The Dream (Reeves), a drug lord, rules over Comfort, keeping his followers compliant by supplying them with illicit substances during raves. Miami Man (Momoa), one of the cannibals who kidnapped Arlen, is searching for his lost daughter Honey (Fink), who has been adopted by The Dream. A relationship fraught with tension and attraction develops between Arlen and Miami Man, as they fight for survival in an unforgiving world.

The Bad Batch is written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, who made her feature film debut with the “Iranian vampire spaghetti western” A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The Bad Batch is hard to describe, and even harder to review. It’s destined for cult status, and VICE Creative Director Eddy Moretti, who is an executive producer on this film, dubbed Amirpour “the next Tarantino”. This is a heady, trippy experience, abstract art painted on a canvas of post-apocalyptic desolation. Often graphic when it’s not moving very slowly, it’s often a challenge to watch. While vastly more expansive than Amirpour’s first film, she’s hardly ‘gone Hollywood’ with her sophomore effort, which is almost defiantly weird. There’s an audience for this, and it would probably play well at a festival like South by Southwest, but The Bad Batch is self-indulgent and meanders without a centre to anchor it.

Waterhouse, known mainly as a model and entrepreneur, comes off like a cross between Cara Delevingne and Kristen Stewart. The visual effects used to create the illusion that Arlen is an amputee are seamless, and the yellow shorts with a winking face printed on the back is a cool visual device. There’s every opportunity for Arlen to ascend to the pantheon of badass genre movie heroines, but it seems that isn’t exactly what Amirpour had in mind. The character floats through the story, such that when she does something that directly impacts the story, it feels less significant than it should.

Momoa plays a musclebound, tattooed antihero – while this doesn’t sound like a stretch for him, it’s probably the most acting he’s done in his career. Momoa strives to evince a depth from the Miami Man character, who is a knife-wielding cannibal but also has a soft side and is a gifted artist. The relationship that develops between Arlen and Miami Man seems purposely vague and under-developed.

Reeves’ character, The Dream, who lives in luxury surrounded by a harem who bears him children, is clearly inspired by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. It comes off more as an odd bit of stunt casting than anything else, even if Reeve is fairly fun in the role. The raves that The Dream presides over are strongly reminiscent of music festivals like Burning Man, and it turns out that Amirpour went to Burning Man and took acid, which inspired the acid trip scene in the film.

Carrey, gaunt, grimy and nigh-unrecognisable beneath a scraggly beard, seems to relish playing the Hermit. It’s the kind of character actor part he wouldn’t have done in his comedy movie A-lister heyday, and it’s the right pitch of quirky comic relief for this movie.

The Bad Batch will remind connoisseurs of the exploitation films that came out of Italy in the 70s and 80s, or of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s trippy psychedelic westerns. Amirpour has described the film as “El Topo meets Dirty Dancing”. While there’s a seductiveness to The Bad Batch’s scorched dreaminess, the film lacks the energy and momentum to sweep the viewer up in its madness.

Summary: The Bad Batch’s peculiarity will attract some audiences but alienate others. It’s an arthouse exploitation cocktail that’s been spiked with a little something extra, and it’s very much an acquired taste.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

For F*** Magazine

VALERIAN AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS 

Director : Luc Besson
Cast : Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 17m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

20 years after The Fifth Element, Luc Besson takes another crack at the space opera subgenre with this sprawling sci-fi epic. It is the 28th century, and Major Valerian (DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Delevingne) are Federation operatives tasked with keeping the peace across the cosmos. Valerian is drawn to Laureline, but because of his reputation as a serial heartbreaker, Laureline rebuffs her partner’s advances. The minister of defence (Hancock) sends the pair on assignment to Alpha, a bustling space station metropolis home to 30 million inhabitants of every conceivable species, nicknamed ‘the city of a thousand planets’. When Valerian and Laureline’s superior Arün Filitt (Owen) is kidnapped, they must get to the bottom of a long-buried conspiracy. Along the way, the pair meets colourful characters including the shape-shifting nightclub singer Bubble (Rihanna) and her sleazy pimp Jolly (Hawke).

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is based on the classic French comic Valerian and Laureline, created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières and first published in 1967. When writer-director Besson was growing up, the comics were a favourite of his, and they became a strong influence of The Fifth Element. Mézières was a concept artist on that film, and pre-dating that, many French observers noted strong similarities between the aesthetic of Star Wars and that of Valerian and Laureline. An anime adaptation called Time Jam: Valerian and Laureline was made in 2007, but a feature film adaptation hasn’t been made until now.

This is clearly a labour of love for Besson, and it’s abundantly obvious that lots of people put staggering amounts of effort into bringing this film to fruition. Environments bursting with imaginative detail are all over the movie. There is extensive, expansive visual effects work from vendors including Weta Digital, ILM, Rodeo FX and Hybride. While the film is fun to look at, after a certain point, it becomes exhausting, as if one has gotten indigestion after a feast for the eyes. This is yet another example of an adaptation being late to its own party – in between 1967 and now, audiences have seen similar visuals in many sci-fi films and TV shows. Beyond the obvious Star Wars and Star Trek connections, Valerian is also quite reminiscent of the Mass Effect video games. There is a race of slender, sylph-like tribal aliens with translucent, glowing skin, which will instantly conjure up memories of the Na’vi from Avatar.

Besson busies himself far more with the world-building than with developing the story. The plot is surprisingly difficult to follow, until everything is laid out in an exposition-heavy scene towards the film’s conclusion. While the action set pieces and chases are relatively thrilling, every other scene feels like a diversion, and it seems like we take extended breaks from furthering the plot to poke around some corner of some extra-terrestrial city. Our heroes don’t go through that grand an arc, and because of the episodic nature of the central adventure, it seems like we’re watching a stretched-out episode of a TV series. Audiences might be tired of origin stories, but perhaps that would have served this well, since most viewers outside France aren’t overly familiar with the property.

The film’s biggest weakness is the casting of its two leads. At every turn, DeHaan and Delevingne look woefully out of place amidst the dazzlingly designed surroundings. Valerian and Laureline should be swashbuckling action heroes, charismatic, larger-than-life figures. DeHaan and Delevingne aren’t the obvious picks to lead a sci-fi action adventure, and that’s a significant problem. Leaning into, instead of rejecting, the archetypes would play better, since this is something of a tribute to the space opera genre. Beyond their inability to convincingly inhabit the other-worldly environments, DeHaan and Delevingne have minimal chemistry with each other. The bickering rom-com relationship is tiring rather than tantalising, most of their interaction consists of Valerian harassing Laureline, and a lot of their dialogue borders on Star Wars prequel, Padmé and Anakin cheesiness.

The movie is packed with characters, but none of the supporting cast has that big an impact on the story. Owen does next to nothing, and Kris Wu stands around the control room a bunch. Hancock mostly appears as an image on the screen giving orders to our heroes via video call. Rihanna gets an extended dance sequence, which is entertaining, but is yet another moment when it feels like the story comes to a screeching halt to turn its attention to a distraction. Her character Bubble is sympathetic and is more interesting that either Valerian or Laureline, but she’s only in the film for a bit. Hawke has fun as the cheerfully cruel Jolly, but it amounts to little than a cameo.

Valerian serves up spectacle in spades, and packs in a lot of weirdness that’s sufficiently different from standard Hollywood blockbuster fare. However, it can’t help but feel derivative, even if its source material is a progenitor of the media that this film appears to borrow from. This is meant to be a light-hearted jaunt, but a key plot point centres on war crimes and genocide. It’s often close to being immersive, but is hampered by marked unevenness and miscast leads.

Summary: Visually, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets serves up bang for your buck, but no matter how dazzling the effects or how thrilling the action, you’ll have a hard time believing Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne as space-hopping super agents.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wish Upon

For F*** Magazine

WISH UPON 

Director : John R. Leonetti
Cast : Joey King, Ki-Hong Lee, Ryan Phillippe, Shannon Purser, Sydney Park, Daniela Barbosa, Sherilyn Fenn, Josephine Langford
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1hr 38min
Opens : 13 July 2017
Rating : PG13 (Horror)

Wishing upon a star seemed like a fairly harmless exercise for Pinocchio. Wishing upon a Chinese music box is a different story. In this horror flick, Clare Shannon receives a mysterious box from her father Jonathan (Phillippe), a rag-and-bone man. The box, inscribed with ancient Chinese characters, promises that it will grant the user seven wishes -for a price. Not taking its power seriously Clare uses the box to enact revenge on Darcie (Langford), who has been bullying Clare at school. She also wishes for Paul (Mitchell Slaggert), the boy she has a crush on, to fall madly in love with her. Clare’s best friends Meredith (Park) and June (Purser) get drawn into the eerie goings-on and deaths that seem to follow Clare around. Ryan (Ki-Hong Lee), who has a crush on Clare, offers to take the box to his cousin Gina (Alice Lee), so she can translate the inscription. Gina uncovers the box’s dark secret, and everyone is powerless to stop the horrors it unleashes.

Wish Upon plays on the old ‘be careful what you wish for’ adage, while also hinging on the classic horror movie device of a cursed artefact. It’s a variation on the short story The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs, in which the titular object grants wishes but punishes the user for meddling with fate. Wish Upon also recalls the Wishmaster series with its sinister genie, and the deaths depicted are Final Destination-esque, albeit not as elaborate. As with many a teen-aimed movie before it, the dialogue strains to sound contemporary, and is sometimes unintentionally silly. Because of its PG-13 rating, Wish Upon doesn’t linger on the gruesome deaths. This means it isn’t gratuitous, but it also means that the consequences don’t carry too much weight. Final Destination let its inventive, gory deaths play out in full, because cutting away from them would diminish the selling point. Because we don’t see the deaths play out, they aren’t as unsettling or disturbing as they could’ve been.

The film also employs a familiar structure, in which in the protagonist unwittingly makes a deal with the devil – her wishes will be granted, but horrible fates will befall those she holds dear. We also get the requisite exposition-heavy scene of the characters doing a Google search to figure out what’s going on, as we are told the back-story of the music box. While the music box prop itself looks finely crafted and is reasonably spooky when it opens by itself, the accompanying mythos isn’t sufficiently interesting. The invoking of Chinese culture and superstition is meant to add a textural element, but this is under-developed. We’re relieved Wish Upon doesn’t fall back on an elderly Asian antique store owner to explain its central cursed artefact – instead, we get a tattooed young woman to fulfil that function in the plot.

Horror movies starring teenagers tend to have annoying characters, and one of Wish Upon’s strengths is that it acknowledges its heroine’s flaws while keeping her sympathetic. Having suffered from a family tragedy and being bullied by the popular kids in school, it’s easy to see why Clare might be frustrated. King, who also starred in the horror films The Conjuring and Quarantine, does a fine job as a relatable teen character. It does get to a point where one wonders why Clare isn’t more suspicious of this box that eerily unlatches and plays music on its own any earlier in the story.

Ki-Hong Lee demonstrates his ability to pass for a high-schooler at age 30, and is likeable enough as the guy whom Clare places in the dreaded friend zone. Park can come off as a little annoying, and her character seems more like she would fit in with the stuck-up popular kids than with Clare. Purser, best known as Barb from Stranger Things, is underused as “the other friend”. Twin Peaks star Sherilyn Fenn doesn’t get too much to do either. The film aims for depth in depicted the strained relationship between Clare and her father, but because Phillippe is as handsome as he is, it’s hard to buy him as a down-on-his-luck average joe digging through the trash for scraps.

Wish Upon might not be as actively grating as most teen-centric horror films of its ilk, but it’s too derivative to be truly scary. Director John R. Leonetti, who also helmed Annabelle, passes up a chance to meaningfully develop an engrossing mythology around the music box, and the ending is as unsatisfying as it is shocking. Stick around past the main-on-end titles for a sequel bait stinger scene.

Summary: The teen target audience might be spooked, but horror aficionados won’t find too much of value when they look in the cursed music box.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong