Chef

CHEF


Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Jon Favreau, Emjay Anthony, John Leguizamo, Sofía Vergara, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Oliver Platt, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Downey, Jr.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Opens: 5 June 2014

Rating: NC16 (language) 

Jon Favreau goes from Iron Man to Iron Chef, writing, directing and starring in this comedy-drama. Favreau plays Carl Casper, the Miami-born head chef of a Los Angeles restaurant. Owner Riva (Hoffman) insists that Casper abide by the popular menu, but Casper argues that creatively, things have gone stale. An explosive incident involving food blogger Ramsey Michel (Platt) is the last straw. Casper leaves the restaurant behind as he accompanies his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) and son Percy (Anthony) back to Miami. There, he starts from scratch, getting a food truck up and running. Martin (Leguizamo), his friend and line cook from the restaurant, drops everything to come over to Miami to help. Soon, Casper, Percy and Martin are selling Cuban sandwiches out of the food truck, going back to basics, Casper re-evaluating his career and his relationships along the way.
            Fulfilling the roles of writer, director and star, it might seem to some like Jon Favreau has made himself a tidy little vanity project. Chef is nothing of the sort. Watching Chef is like listening to a friend talk enthusiastically about his interest, this friend phrasing it so eloquently and enticingly that before you realise it, you’re all wrapped up in it. Favreau’s passion for food bubbles over and is extremely infectious. Then there’s the matter of just how lip-smackingly delicious everything – even the humble grilled cheese sandwich – looks. Every review has said this and mine is no different: don’t go into this hungry. I actually heard the audience at my screening crying out, almost in agony, at every lovingly-shot edible item. With acclaimed chef and food truck pioneer Roy Choi as consultant and overseer, Favreau does his own “stunts” in the film and is wholly convincing as a culinary wunderkind. It’s clear Favreau has done his due diligence, leading many professional chefs and food writers to sing the film’s praises.


            Chef is more than just a Food Network cooking show. There’s an earnestness and sincerity served alongside a heaping helping of wit and humour. Many films that are billed as “feel-good movies” can feel manufactured and contrived, but Chef flows organically, its relationships and characters largely believable and relatable. The emotional beats are genuine and even though there are over-the-top moments, this reviewer was sufficiently convinced that those were required to set events in motion; most of the film an entertainingly laid-back affair. Just as Casper trains his young son in the ways of the kitchen, Percy guides his father through the world of social media. There’s a clever visual gag in which tweets are represented as floating holographic text bubbles which are then compressed and carried away by a little blue digital bird. Favreau’s most recent film as director before Chef, Cowboys & Aliens, was not very well received. However, Favreau wisely resists demonizing critics in this film and using Chef as an avenue to vent against those who didn’t like his earlier work; the character of Ramsey Michel not portrayed as a sneering villain.


            Favreau is as adept in front of the camera slicing, dicing, sautéing, grilling et al as he is behind it. Chef Casper is utterly likeable but also flawed and most definitely human and prone to outbursts. Favreau’s Casper is a culinary force to be reckoned with, but not some kind of untouchable kitchen god the way the role could have been written and acted. He has a top-tier supporting cast as well, John Leguizamo especially fun as the faithful and capable sidekick/pal. Child actor Emjay Anthony is a revelation; his Percy isn’t your standard “smart-mouthed comedy mini-adult”, you buy that this is a real kid – in fact, he’s probably better-behaved than most real kids actually are. It’s fun and surprisingly not distracting to see Robert Downey, Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, both alumni of the Iron Man films, pop up. Sofia Vergara tones down her usual loud, fiery shtick and it winds up being a really nice performance from her. Oliver Platt and Dustin Hoffman as the food critic and the restraunter respectively are well cast, too. Look out for a pretty funny cameo from comedian Russell Peters.


            If there’s any relatively major gripe with Chef, it would be the R-rating. Now, I write for a magazine named F*** and I know foul language is a fact of life in real professional kitchens, but the swearing makes this unsuitable for younger moviegoers. It’s a shame because a large portion of the film is about a father-son relationship and involves a child actor. There’s also no violence or explicit sex, just mild sexual references. And kids should see this; it’s inspirational and empowering for anyone who has a passion about anything. Still, Chefis sweet, heartfelt and clearly prepared with love; Favreau on fine form as a true multi-hyphenate.


Summary: Can you smell what the Favs is cooking? Why, it’s quality, soulful cuisine! Bon Appétit!
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 
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Maleficent

For F*** Magazine

MALEFICENT 

Director : Robert Stromberg
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Sam Riley, Brenton Thwaites, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville
Genre : Fantasy, Adventure
Rating : PG (Some Frightening Scenes)

So much happened before Aurora dropped in. In Maleficent, we learn the untold story of the title character, hitherto thought of as just the dastardly villain from Sleeping Beauty. In her youth, Maleficent (Jolie) befriended and later fell in love with Stefan (Copley). But the gulf between Maleficent’s home, the enchanted forest kingdom of the Moors, and Stefan’s, the human kingdom, proves to be too wide. Stefan eventually becomes the king and betrays Maleficent. When King Stefan’s daughter Aurora (Fanning) is born, a scorned and heartbroken Maleficent casts a spell on her: if Aurora pricks her finger on the needle of a spinning wheel before her 16thbirthday, she will fall into a deep sleep and only true love’s kiss can wake her. As three fairies (Staunton, Temple, Manville) watch over Aurora, so does Maleficent – from a distance, and with the aid of her loyal raven Diaval (Riley). Slowly, Maleficent’s hate towards the child softens, just as King Stefan declares war.

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            After one John Carter/Lone Ranger too many, one hopes that Disney will realise that this is the direction in which their live-action blockbusters should proceed. In telling a villain’s back-story, there’s always the danger of the mystique and menace of said villain being stripped away – just look at Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker. It’s handled far better here and Maleficent makes the ideal candidate for a “perspective flip” retelling because Aurora is just about the most boring Disney princess of them all, and it was always Maleficent who was more fascinating. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton and an uncredited Paul Dini has an appealing fairy-tale logic to it; imps, fairies and enchanted forests existing in the same story as a protagonist who cannot be squarely categorised as either “hero” or “villain”. We live in a post-Loki world, and as a sympathetic character whose path towards the dark side makes sense, Maleficent is very much like Loki – right down to the trickster streak and those horns.

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            Robert Stromberg, production designer on Avatar, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Oz: The Great and Powerful makes his feature directorial debut with Maleficent. Many design touches from those three films are evident here and while the aesthetic may not be unique, it is undeniably beautiful. Yes, the film is heavily reliant on computer-generated imagery, but there’s still life and soul to the CGI (especially the character animation on Diaval the shape-shifting raven) and the backdrops do not dissolve into generic digital mucilage. Anna B. Sheppard’s costume design work is impeccable; the translation of Maleficent’s animated look into a live-action context particularly effective. It’s at once immediately recognisable and also inventive; how she has different coverings for her horns depending on the seasons is a nice touch. And of course, Oscar-winning makeup artist Rick Baker’s work completes Angelina Jolie’s transformation into the character, horns, severe cheekbones and all.

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            We don’t throw the word “perfect” around here too often, so believe us when we say Angelina Jolie is perfectly cast. She’s proven that she’s great at vamping it up, that she has the dramatic chops and that she can command the screen, all skills she calls upon for Maleficent. From the way she intones lines such as “a grand celebration, for a baby. How wonderful” to her calm, steely gaze to the way she tilts her head back at just the right angle, it proves to be quite the casting coup. The way the character is made sympathetic might not sit well with those who love Maleficent for being “the Mistress of All Evil” but this reviewer likes the layers Jolie brings to the part, in addition to how much she is enjoying herself as Maleficent. Elle Fanning doesn’t have to do much as Aurora because this really isn’t her story, but her wide-eyed naïveté is believable. Angelina Jolie’s real-life daughter Vivienne plays Young Aurora; the scene in which Maleficent interacts with her disdainfully is even cuter once you realise that’s just a toddler playing with her mother.

MALEFICENT
            South African actor Sharlto Copley is deservedly climbing the A-list, and he’s good here as well, playing a king who gradually descends into madness and who is consumed by an obsession with the menacing winged creature he once loved. Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville provide the comic relief as the three bickering guardian fairies – they’re amusing if not slightly grating and the CGI versions of them do teeter over the uncanny valley. Brenton Thwaite’s Prince Phillip is pretty much an afterthought but hey, he’s handsome. Sam Riley handily steals the show as mighty morphin’ bird Diaval (known as Diablo in the 1959 film). He may not look it, but Diaval is easily the most adorable an “evil minion” can get without being a yellow, overalls-clad, goggles-wearing capsule.

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            Hardcore Disney animation fans will be pleased to know that the late Marc Davis, one of the revered “nine old men” and the supervising animator for Maleficent, Aurora, Diablo and other characters in 1959’s Sleeping Beauty, is thanked in the credits. Darker, “Grimmified” takes on fairy tales have become something of an eye roll-inducing Hollywood trend, but Maleficent manages to soar above the pack thanks to a compelling turn from its wonderfully-cast lead. Sweeping classical imagery that includes Maleficent breaking through the clouds to bask in the sun’s glow and Diaval in horse mode rearing up on his hind legs as the sun sets behind the castle enriches the experience too. In many ways, the film is much like Lana Del Rey’s cover of “Once Upon a Dream” that plays over the end credits: an effective reinvention of something familiar but one that lovers of the old-fashioned approach might not necessarily enjoy completely.

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Summary: Those tired of blockbuster re-imaginings of time-worn fairy tales might not be won over by Maleficent, but Angelina Jolie’s stunning performance, in addition to some lush, awe-inspiring visuals, make this one worthwhile.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Grace of Monaco

GRACE OF MONACO


Director : Olivier Dahan
Cast : Nicole Kidman, Tim Roth, Milo Ventimiglia, Parker Posey, Paz Vega, Frank Langella, Roger Ashton-Griffiths, Derek Jacobi
Genre : Biography, Drama
Opens : 22 May 2014
Rating : PG

In his song “Grace Kelly”, Mika proclaimed “I’ve gone identity mad!” Grace of Monacoattempts to portray the crisis of identity the real Grace Kelly (Kidman) underwent. In marrying Prince Rainier III of Monaco (Roth), Kelly left her life as a Hollywood actress behind, but she was constantly reminded that the people of Monaco would not recognise the daughter of a Philadelphia bricklayer as one of their own. As France threatens to tax and possibly annex Monaco, resulting in a heated dispute between Rainier and France’s Charles de Gaulle (André Penvern), Kelly, now a wife, mother and princess, is tempted to return to acting.  Director Alfred Hitchcock (Ashton-Griffiths) comes calling with the script for his new film Marnie and with the whole world watching (and judging), the princess must decide what role she will play in the future of the principality.


            Many biopics have been criticised for taking a “cradle to the grave” approach, attempting to condense the entire lives of their subjects into two and half hours or so. Grace of Monaco instead focuses on a short, specific period in Grace Kelly’s life, which the actual royal family of Monaco claims has been highly fictionalised and is filled with factual inaccuracies. The film’s post-production process has also been turbulent, with director Olivier Dahan and distributor Harvey Weinstein feuding over the final cut and the release date being shuffled multiple times. The film ends up being overripe and uneven, hokey and melodramatic, if still watchable and somewhat palatable.
            Grace of Monaco is a pretty film to look at, cinematographer Eric Gautier dousing the movie in soft fill light. There are elegant costumes and sets galore, but one can’t help but feel a sense of artifice – at its worst, the movie evokes a movie-of-the-week affair, a pity given the marvellous La Vie En Rose, which Dahan also directed. The central conflict with its almost-intrigue and kinda-stakes just doesn’t feel as weighty as it needs to be, the film instead generating moments of overwrought emotion that despite Nicole Kidman’s best efforts, fail to ring altogether true. There’s even a montage that feels straight out of something like The Princess Diaries in which Grace Kelly takes elocution and history lessons in order to become a better princess.

            Nicole Kidman reportedly beat out the likes of Charlize Theron, Jessica Chastain, Amy Adams, Gwyneth Paltrow and January Jones amongst others for the coveted title role. She’s certainly not a terrible Grace Kelly, mustering up all of her glamour and, well, grace to play the part but there isn’t a lot of depth to the portrayal beyond “being a princess isn’t the fantasy it’s cracked up to be.” One would think that given the narrower scope of the film compared to a conventional biopic, we’d get more room for meaningful characterisation and Kidman tries, but ultimately doesn’t deliver a well-rounded depiction of Grace Kelly. We hear many frustrated exclamations, including “why must everything be so complicated?” and “Ah! So difficult!” At no point does “Nicole Kidman the actor” disappear for “Grace Kelly the person” to take her place. She does have her moments though, that climactic speech she delivers at the end is sufficiently moving. She’s also a good deal taller than her onscreen husband; something Kidman is probably used to.

Tim Roth is careful not to turn Prince Rainier into a stiff, stern caricature and while he doesn’t have much chemistry with Kidman, he is believable as the Prince pushed into a tight spot. Frank Langella is the requisite kindly father figure as Father Francis Tucker, one of Rainier III’s closest friends and most trusted advisors, warm and wise even when saddled with platitudes such as “at some point, every fairy tale must end”. Roger Ashton-Griffiths is a decent, convincing Alfred Hitchcock, playing the legendary director as a gruff but well-meaning uncle.

            Grace of Monaco is far from subtle – we get an ominous car/driving motif (of course) and some clumsy, on the nose cues in the score. It’s difficult to take the film entirely seriously, but perhaps there’s a charm in the kitsch and the silliness – it’s unlikely that it was what director Olivier Dahan intended, but for what it’s worth, Grace of Monaco is far from detestable or brazenly divisive. Sensationalised? Sure. More than a little awards-baity? You bet. But is it trash? Nah.
Summary: At one point, Princess Grace tells her husband “Rai, it’s just a movie”. Go into Grace of Monaco with that mindset and perhaps you might enjoy yourself. As a dramatic, insightful exploration of the life of the screen legend though, it mostly misses the mark.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

Director : Bryan Singer
Cast : Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Peter Dinklage, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Evan Peters, Halle Berry, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Josh Helman, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit
Genre : Action, Adventure
Opens: : 22 May 2014
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence & Brief Coarse Language)

            The “biggest X-Men film yet” has almost everybody from both the X-Men trilogy and 2011’s X-Men: First Class in attendance as part of this decades-spanning odyssey. In a post-apocalyptic future, mutants are at war with formidable, super-advanced Sentinel robots. Professor Xavier (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellen) hatch a plan to have Shadowcat (Page) project the consciousness of Wolverine (Jackman) into the body of his younger self; a sort of metaphysical time-travel. “Arriving” in 1973, Wolverine has to wrangle Xavier and Magneto’s younger selves (McAvoy and Fassbender respectively) in order to stop the war before it begins. A threat to mutants emerges in the form of Dr. Bolivar Trask (Dinklage), the inventor of the Sentinels. Mystique (Lawrence) is on a mission to hunt and kill Trask, but it is this action that will set the world on its dark path. The various mutants, too many to list in this paragraph, must band together to avert their horrific destiny.

            To say the X-Men film franchise has had its ups and downs is very much an understatement. As such, fans were understandably wary of X-Men: Days of Future Past, which takes its name and premise, if not every last detail, from the landmark 1981 comics story arc. The “everyone and their mother” cast (well, Mystique’s here but alas, Nightcrawler isn’t) led many to fear that this would be a bloated affair. We’re happy to report that director Bryan Singer has somehow managed to keep all the plates spinning. Because one metaphor isn’t enough to describe how masterful the balancing act here is, Days of Future Past is a football field-sized sheet of paper which has been folded into an intricate origami crane. X-Men: First Class is quite different in tone and style from the X-Men trilogy proper, so to marry those two into a cohesive universe is quite the achievement.

            Naturally, the plot is a complex one and neophytes might feel left out in the cold. For those who have stuck with the mutants’ cinematic outings through thick and thin however, X-Men: Days of Future Past will be rewarding and exhilarating. There’s character development aplenty and the interactions we’ve become familiar with, particularly the pivotal, rocky relationship between Xavier and Magneto, get a good deal of play. A section of the film is set against the real-life Paris Peace Accords (with Mark Camacho as a pretty darn good Nixon), lending the film historical context. In addition to all this, spectacle is not in short supply. We’re treated to a variety of combat scenes and action sequences in which the characters’ myriad abilities are showcased in full. There’s also just enough levity amidst the drama; Evan Peters’ kleptomaniac speedster Quicksilver in particular gets to steal the show with what might just be the single greatest slow-motion sequence ever put on film, set to Jim Croce’s ballad “Time in a Bottle”.

            Comic book fans have often joked of “Wolverine publicity”, that Marvel shamelessly coasts on the popularity of the clawed Canuck. In the comics, it was Shadowcat who did the time-travelling but here, everything rides on Logan. Jackman is as good in the role as always; ripped to shreds, baring his butt and playing mediator and guide, a role that’s unfamiliar for the short-tempered Wolverine. McAvoy’s turn is riveting, his lost, broken and argumentative Xavier in stark contrast to the signature tranquillity and wisdom of Patrick Stewart’s portrayal. Thankfully, screenwriter Simon Kinberg has preserved the in-flux relationship between Xavier and Magneto that Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman presumably wrote into their draft of the script. Fassbender is majestic, commanding, unwaveringly intense yet undeniably sexy, further proving that casting him as young Magneto was a stroke of genius.  

            Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is almost as big as Wolverine is on the poster and she does play a key role; her pursuit of Trask driving the 1973-set portion of the film alongside Wolverine’s quest. Lawrence and her stunt doubles break out some impressive acrobatic fight moves and Mystique’s shape-shifting power is used cleverly and surprisingly several times. The very sympathetic Mystique in X-Men: First Class differs greatly from the cold-blooded lackey in the X-Mentrilogy and Lawrence strives to make the character’s transition believable. Dinklage delivers a captivating performance, confident, focused and just menacing enough. Trask is the designated antagonist but he’s certainly not made out to be a cackling, one-dimensional villain. Dinklage’s casting carries a hint of comic book psychology, that perhaps the invention of oversized giant robots is Trask’s way of compensating for his slight physical stature.

            If there’s something about the film that doesn’t completely succeed, perhaps it’s the aesthetics. For every dazzling visual effects flourish, there is a questionable design choice or a casting of a supporting character that doesn’t quite work. Twilight teen idol Booboo Stewart is far from convincingly tough as Warpath. Quicksilver does come off looking quite silly, but Evan Peters’ joyous portrayal overcomes that. Mystique’s makeup consists mostly of a skin-tight bodysuit here, which no doubt saves application time but also means the scales can look glued-on. The Future Sentinels’ resemblance to the Destroyers in Thoris sometimes distracting; especially the way their faces open up to unleash a burst of flame. Josh Helman also looks way too much like Seann William Scott to be taken seriously as Young Stryker, the character having previously been played by character actors Brian Cox and Danny Huston.

            That said, it’s hard to be bothered by perceived surface-level imperfections when everything else blends and melds so seamlessly. Sequels can have a difficult time justifying their existence, not least when they’re the seventh entry in a long-running franchise. Days of Future Past does more than justify its existence, it becomes a stunning, involving epic that matches awe-inspiring visuals (plus some good 3D effects) with ever-evolving character dynamics. Stick around past the end credits for an appetite-whetting taste of where the story’s headed next.


Summary: The biggest, most ambitious X-Men film yet is also the greatest.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

X-Men: Days of Future Past – Singapore Press Conference Photo Highlights

Singapore was among the seven cities chosen for the global premieres of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Stars Hugh Jackman, Peter Dinklage and Fan Bingbing graced the blue carpet on 14th May and held a press conference at the Ritz Carlton Hotel on the 15th. Here are some photo highlights from the press conference that day.

True gentlemen. 

Hot 91.3 deejay Joshua Simon asked to speak to Wolverine himself and wanted to know if Logan eats his steak with cutlery, or just stabs at the ribeye with his claws. Wolverine didn’t take too kindly to the question and the matter was taken outside. I think it was a pretty clear fight. 

Note Peter Dinklage’s Batman and Robin shirt. We have a DC sympathizer in our midst (yay!) 

Grand Piano

For F*** Magazine

GRAND PIANO

Director : Eugenio Mira
Cast : Elijah Wood, John Cusack, Kerry Bishé, Tamsin Egerton, Allen Leech, Don McManus, Alex Winter
Genre : Thriller, Suspense
Opens: : 15 May 2014
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Elijah Wood trades in his fuzzy feet for dextrous fingers to play pianist Tom Selznick in this suspense thriller. Selznick, a prodigious young talent who crashed and burned after failing to complete an “unplayable” piece five years ago, reluctantly puts on a comeback performance at the behest of his wife, actress Emma (Bishé). Everything is in place, especially the customized Bösendorfer grand piano that belonged to Selznick’s late mentor. In the middle of his performance, Selznick finds a threatening message in the sheet music, and is warned by his would-be killer Clem (Cusack) that one wrong note will result in a bullet through the head. All eyes are on the pianist as he gives the most important performance of his career – and tries to keep it from being his last. 
From the opening titles in which the inner workings of the titular instrument are shot as if they were components of a trap from the Saw movies, audiences will know what they’re in for. Grand Piano is a pulpy thriller that is earnestly Hitchcockian; composer Victor Reyes channelling Bernard Herrmann in his soundtrack. Produced by Rodrigo Cortés, it bears a similar ominously theatrical feel to Red Lights, which he directed. That aesthetic is certainly more overt here, the colour palette predominantly blood red. While it is a look that draws one in, there’s also a degree of artifice exacerbated by the rather out-there premise. 
The film does have a pretty neat logline – “Speed with a grand piano”.  There are also shades of Phone Booth (Box Seat?). It’s one of those things that’s either completely ridiculous or utterly brilliant and, intriguingly enough, director Eugenio Mira bounces the movie between those two extremes with marvellous precision. Yes, there are moments that strain suspension of disbelief and the dialogue is oftentimes quite awkward (the conductor tells his orchestra to “ready (their) weapons”, for instance). It is also expertly paced and effectively taut. In spite of the smatterings of Grand Guignol bombast, there’s a credible sense of danger established and we feel trapped alongside Selznick, caught in the crosshairs and still having to focus on his craft. 
Elijah Wood has picked some quirky films over the last few years and his refusal to be pigeonholed after starring in a successful blockbuster franchise is admirable. Wood makes for an adequately convincing master pianist, his perpetual youthfulness upping the “child prodigy fallen from grace” quotient. Working with coach and hand double Héctor Eliel Márquez, Wood does actually look like he’s playing, and does actually look like he’s good. We wish that the trailer (and the poster) didn’t give away that John Cusack was the villain as it would’ve been a nice surprise reveal. He spends most of the film off screen, present in the form of a menacing voice in Selznick’s ear. While this is yet another case in which the revelation of the antagonist’s motive is at least a bit of a let-down, Cusack is still solid opposition to our heroic pianist. Shout-out to Alex Winter of Bill and Ted fame who shows up as a suspicious theatre usher. Excellent, dude! 
Grand Piano is an entertaining affair that isn’t afraid to dip into silliness and thanks to some assured direction, isn’t overcome by its preposterous premise, instead gamely running with it. While far from wholly satisfying, it’s a slickly-crafted, well-acted suspense thriller packed with pizzazz and flourish, Lang Lang-style. 
SUMMARY: Elijah Wood goes pedal to the metal in a slightly different way than Sandra Bullock did in this occasionally silly but consistently exhilarating flick.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars 
Jedd Jong 

The Teacher’s Diary

For F*** Magazine

THE TEACHER’S DIARY (คิดถึงวิทยา Khid Theung Wittaya)

Director : Nithiwat Tharathorn
Cast : Sukrit Wisetkaew, Chermarn Boonyasak, Sukollawat Kanaros
Genre : Romance, Thai
Opens: : 15 May 2014

Can you fall in love with someone you’ve never met? Why yes, this reviewer is convinced he and Kate Beckinsale will someday find true happiness with each other. Okay, so that’s not what The Teacher’s Diary is about. In this Thai film, Song (Wisetkaew), a former competitive wrestler, becomes a teacher at the houseboat branch of Bann Gaeng Wittaya School. Located in a rural community, lacking running water and electricity and attended by just four students, this wasn’t quite what Mr. Song imagined when he signed up to teach. He discovers a diary belonging to Ms. Ann (Boonyasak), the teacher who preceded him, and after reading of her time with the students and of her personal struggles he quickly becomes enamoured with this woman without even knowing what she really looks like. He continues to earn the respect, trust and friendship of his young charges as he dreams of Ann, embarking on a quest to find her.

Director Nithiwat Tharatorn took inspiration from two unrelated true stories, one of a producer’s friend who had fallen in love with someone after reading the diary she had left behind in an office desk drawer (the two eventually did get to know each other and marry) and the other of a teacher in a houseboat school in Chiang Mai. This is an amalgamation of “inspirational teacher” tale and star-crossed romantic comedy drama, and it’s a mix that pays off. Sweet, moving and gently funny, The Teacher’s Diary has a very charming earnestness to it. Oddly enough though, there are a few bits reminiscent of horror movies, including a jump scare during a dream sequence, but these are done playfully and infrequently enough. It’s beautiful to look at too. Cinematographer Naruphol Chokanapitak serves up vistas of a remote idyll far from the maddening crowd, with lush greenery, mist-covered mountains and lots of pretty sunsets.


       Most romances tend to go like this: boy meets girl, boy and girl initially don’t like each other, then it grows into mutual toleration and later affection, there’s a misunderstanding, they break up but then get back together again and stay that way. Here’s a movie in which our male and female leads spend pretty much the entirety of the film apart, its unconventional structure having Song’s time at the school in 2012 unfold parallel to Ann’s in 2011. The alternating timelines are presented coherently and there’s a montage juxtaposing Song interacting with the kids with Ann doing the same, featuring some pretty slick, elegant transitions. The bonds that Song and Ann each form with the kids are given as much attention as the “someday” wishful romance, and one boy even gets an arc about how he plans to follow in the family fishing business and is therefore reluctant to continue school.

Sukrit Wisetkaew, known by his nickname “Bie” in Thailand, brings a wide-eyed, wistful, “aww shucks” appeal to Song. The way he becomes enchanted with Ann after reading the entries in her forgotten journal is genuinely endearing, and not once does his infatuation become creepy or unsettling in that stalker-y manner because he consistently conveys such pure intentions. Actress and model Laila Boonyasak (formerly known as and credited here as Chermarn Boonyasak) brings an assertiveness to the part of Ann, a passionate educator who favours an interactive approach to teaching instead of rote memorisation. In the opening scene, we learn that she is reassigned to the houseboat because she refuses to remove a tattoo of three stars on her wrist. She is spirited and dedicated but never an overly-idealised “dream girl” caricature, the relationship troubles between her and her boyfriend Nui presented compellingly. All the kids in this are great too.

While The Teacher’s Diary might be a little too cloying and twee for some and features a good deal of slapstick humour, it never overdoes the melodrama or the silliness and we get pulled into this unique “relationship” between two parties who for the bulk of the film are unaware of the other’s existence. Some of the jokes are Thai language puns, the subtitles valiantly offering some kind of an interpretation. For a film that sounds like it would consist mostly of the male protagonist moping about pining for some girl, there’s a good deal that happens and there are several unexpected turns in the narrative. Thsis reviewer found himself rooting for Song to eventually find Ann and did shed a tear or two. Kate Beckinsale likes sensitive guys, right?

Summary: Romantic, heartwarming and gorgeously filmed, The Teacher’s Diary is at once old-school and unconventional, sweet and compelling instead of mawkishly sentimental.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Godzilla (2014)

For F*** Magazine

GODZILLA

Director : Gareth Edwards
Cast : Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn
Genre : Action, Sci-fi
Opens: : 15 May 2014
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)

It has been ten years since Godzilla: Final Wars, and the King of Monsters has returned to reclaim his rubble-built throne in this film. Lt. Ford Brody (Taylor-Johnson) is an explosive ordnance disposal technician, who has a young son (Carlson Bode) with his wife, nurse Elle (Olsen). As a child, Ford lived in Japan, where his parents Joe (Cranston) and Sandy (Binoche) were supervisors at a nuclear power plant. A catastrophic incident in which the power plant was attacked by a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism, or MUTO, still haunts Ford. 15 years later, the MUTO has re-emerged and as the military scrambles to fight it, scientist Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Watanabe) believes only one thing can truly stop it: the powerful ancient creature known as Godzilla – but not without causing its share of damage.

The release of this Godzilla film marks Big G’s 60th anniversary; the creature has appeared in a staggering 30 official films (including this one) since 1954. The original film was a serious-minded one but over time, it’s become harder and harder to take the creation seriously, the iconic kaiju sometimes regarded as camp and mostly viewed as a friendly mascot (look for “Godzilla happy dance” on YouTube). Director Gareth Edwards, who became an overnight sensation with his micro-budget creature feature Monsters in 2010, has delivered an incarnation of the monster that can indeed be taken seriously. With Godzilla, the creature’s second proper Hollywood outing, Edwards has crafted an effective disaster movie which possesses admirable scope and scale. In an age where moviegoers are difficult to impress, this is pretty darn impressive. The sheer amount of visual effects work and the number of major action set-pieces in this one film is hard to wrap one’s head around and yet, it’s not overwhelming or repetitive. 

We’ll be upfront about it: the plot isn’t Godzilla’s strongest point. The protagonist is little more than “the soldier” and his wife is merely “the nurse”. There are more than a handful of contrivances which repeatedly position Ford Brody in the middle of the action and he must be followed around by the same guardian angel who was looking out for Brad Pitt’s Gerry Lane in World War Z, seeing how he survives multiple catastrophes with nary a scratch. Seeing the future Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver as a married couple might gross some of the geekier audience members out a tad. However, there are definitely things about the narrative that work: it’s couched as a conspiracy thriller of sorts and the downright terrific opening credits are presented as a montage of Godzilla’s appearances throughout history, which the relevant authorities have tried to conceal from the public. Even though the military plays a pivotal role, Godzilla does not come off as jingoistic.
In addition to essentially being a scaled-up take on Monsters, Godzilla also takes a handful of pages from Steven Spielberg’s playbook. The late reveal of the titular monster (it’s approximately an hour in before Godzilla shows up proper) echoes Jaws, as does the surname “Brody”. The post-9/11 disaster movie feel is reminiscent of War of the Worlds. The daddy issues are present in many of Spielberg’s works. The father who grows obsessed with an outré subject is from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And of course, there’s the Jurassic Park connection, not just with the giant creatures running amok but also in scenes like a helicopter approaching a jungle. But while Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was an unsuccessful Jurassic Park rip-off, the above influences enrich Edwards’ work and do not stick out as being “stolen”. 

As of late, we’ve heard complaints of blockbusters being stuffed with too much wanton destruction, to the extent that scenes of major cities being levelled no longer carry any weight. Here, there is calamity with consequence; Edwards striking a difficult balance between the visceral thrill of seeing giant monsters punch each other and the solemnity of witnessing cities laid to waste and countless lives destroyed. Japanese fans have complained that Godzilla appears to have become the Burger King of all Monsters, having packed on the tons. Yes, Godzilla does seem a little pudgier here, but his presence is no less awe-inspiring and in spite of the extra weight and relatively small head, nothing seems very “off” about his look here. The character animation on Godzilla and his MUTO opponents is excellent; the creatures end up being great “actors” thanks to the emotion the visual effects artists imbue their facial expressions with. There’s also just enough of a nod in their movements to the heyday of men in rubber suits shoving each other about a model city without coming off as silly.  

Despite the cast not being the main draw, nobody in Godzilla is terrible. Taylor-Johnson borders on wooden but still brings a humanity to Brody, though at 23, he does seem a little young to be the father of a five-year-old. We do wish Elizabeth Olsen had more to do; she isn’t in the thick of the action for most of the film. Bryan Cranston is good as the troubled, slightly manic dad, though he isn’t in the film as much as the trailers would lead you to believe, playing more of a supporting role. Ken Watanabe is perfectly respectable, but he does constantly look worried/constipated. Sally Hawkins, in her first big-budget blockbuster, doesn’t have much to do either as his assistant. David Strathairn is the standard military type here but thankfully, isn’t characterized as ridiculously hard-nosed.
While the “human element” might be lacking somewhat, there is more than enough in Godzilla to get emotionally invested in and thanks to Edwards’ vision, this does stand above the loud, noisy blockbuster pack. The high-altitude low-opening parachute jump scene towards the film’s climax is gorgeously shot by cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, a moment of calm in the midst of the storm. For the most part though, the 3D effects are not sufficiently noticeable. The spectacle is massive but not numbing and the film takes itself just seriously enough without being droll and depressing. It is respectful of the original 1954 film while offering enough to make modern jaded audiences sit up and take notice. And as an added bonus, at no point does Matthew Broderick remark “that’s a lot of fish”. 

Summary: While there isn’t as much to the human characters as there could’ve been, Gareth Edwards serves up a spectacular royal rumble fit for the king. 
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Mindscape

For F*** Magazine

MINDSCAPE

Director : Jorge Dorado
Cast : Mark Strong, Taissa Farmiga, Brian Cox, Indira Varma, Noah Taylor, Clare Calbraith
Genre : Thriller
Run Time : 99 mins
Opens: : 8 May 2014

“Journey into the body” movies like Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace can be fun, but it’s often “journey into the mind” films that are truly intriguing and trippy. In this psychological thriller, Mark Strong plays John Washington, a “memory detective” working for the agency Mindscape. He has the ability to take subjects back into their memories and has used this skill to solve several crimes. Reeling from the loss of his wife, he takes a job from Mindscape boss Sebastian (Cox) to help 16-year-old Anna Greene (Farmiga) break her hunger strike. What appears to be a simple job soon becomes unpredictable and dangerous, as John tries to figure out if the girl is a helpless victim or a sociopathic mastermind herself, all while memories of his late wife intrude into his mind.

Mindscape is the feature film debut of director Jorge Dorado and is produced by Jaume Collet-Serra, director of Orphan, Unknown and Non-Stop. Collet-Serra co-founded studio Ombra Films as a platform for promising Spanish directors to make English-language movies, akin to what Luc Besson did for France with his studio EuropaCorp. Also known as Anna, Mindscape aims for a Hitchcockian flavour but comes off feeling more like a 90s erotic/psychological thriller, a tamer Basic Instinct meets The Sixth Sense. If we’re talking more recent films, there’s a tinge of Red Lights and Trance here too. Dorado creates a good deal of atmosphere, but he relies on tried and tested suspense movie tricks such as disorienting editing, recurring visual motifs (clocks, staircases, roses), slow focus pulling, and a score featuring what sounds like the string section of an orchestra having a collective seizure.

Sibling team Guy and Martha Holmes’ screenplay is filled with awkward, clumsy chunks of exposition and some unnatural dialogue, but the set-up does pull one in and the mystery is initially engrossing. As can be expected of this genre, there are several twists and turns and while there isn’t an outright preposterous cop-out, it’s still far from truly satisfying. Still, there is a valiant attempt made at characterisation and like with a good page-turner, this reviewer wanted to keep watching to find out how it all plays out. Films featuring a Lolita figure can end up feeling trashy and exploitative, and Mindscape doesn’t feel too cheap and schlocky in that way.

Mark Strong is one of those actors who gets typecast as villains in Hollywood films (hence his inclusion in Jaguar’s “Good to be Bad” advertising campaign) but his intensity and presence give him more range than a string of baddie parts suggests. As the “memory detective” plunged into the skeletons-in-closets-filled world of a wealthy and powerful family, Strong’s mix of wariness and vulnerability is quite convincing. The interplay between him and Taissa Farmiga is quite fun to watch. Farmiga bites into her meaty role in an entertaining fashion, her portrayal of the disturbed Anna Greene reminiscent of many a Saoirse Ronan performance. Anna is part Cole Sear, part Catherine Tramell (or is she?) and Farmiga gamely unravels the Gordian knot that is the character before the audience and is mesmerising at it. Brian Cox doesn’t really do much in his supporting role.

This neo-noir mystery film falls back on many conventions of the genre, substituting “psychologist playing head games with a mysterious female client” with “memory detective playing head games with a mysterious female client”. Strong and Farmiga work well with each other but ultimately, Mindscape is more convoluted than complex and while its game of “who’s manipulating who?” is intriguing in some places, it’s tiresome in others. It’s a twisty whodunit that busies itself with old stylistic tricks and lacks a sensational pay-off.

Summary: Taissa Farmiga is captivating and Mark Strong plays against her well, but Mindscape feels too much like any number of psychological thrillers even with its sci-fi-tinged setup.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Walk of Shame

For F*** Magazine

WALK OF SHAME

Director : Steven Brill
Cast : Elizabeth Banks, James Marsden, Gillian Jacobs, Sarah Wright, Ethan Suplee, Bill Burr, Oliver Hudson
Genre : Comedy
Opens: : 8 May 2014

After starring in a segment of last year’s Razzie-winning Movie 43 and directing a separate vignette in the atrocity, we expect Elizabeth Banks would be feeling a good deal of shame. Director Steven Brill helmed the “iBabe” sketch in Movie 43, so perhaps it’s fitting that Banks and Brill would collaborate on a movie called Walk of Shame. Following a drunken one-night-stand with bartender Gordon (Marsden), Meghan Miles (Banks) stumbles through Los Angeles without her phone, her purse or her car. This is bad enough as it is, but Meghan is a local news anchor with a major network job on the line. Throughout her day, she is pursued by cops (Suplee and Burr), has a run-in with a drug-dealing gang, steals a bicycle from a kid and gets sprayed in the face with mace by a bus driver.

Walk of Shame is the latest entry in a comedy subgenre we like to call “attractive woman embarrassing herself”. This can easily take a turn for the tasteless and that is indeed what Walk of Shame does. The contrived narrative jumps through hoops, each situation Meghan gets entangled in more unlikely and forced than the last. Almost all the gags are built around cheap racial stereotypes: there’s a slobbering, lecherous Middle-Eastern taxi driver (Ken Davitian), a trio of crackhouse-dwelling thugs, a timid Orthodox Jewish man (P.J. Byrne), an Asian lady who runs a massage parlour…we’re surprised a Royal Canadian Mountie didn’t randomly appear. There’s an art, if you will, to being offensive – the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen and George Carlin have mastered the skill of pushing buttons in the name of comedy. There’s no art whatsoever to Walk of Shame, where a running gag in which Meghan is mistaken for a prostitute constitutes “humour”.

Elizabeth Banks can certainly be funny, charming and sexy, but Walk of Shame’s hackneyed, crass and juvenile script does her no favours. While Walk of Shame isn’t a full-on gross-out comedy, all that’s happening to this poor woman still feels demeaning and awkward instead of funny. James Marsden doesn’t do much in this, probably having around ten minutes of screen time and as the nice guy who helps and falls in love with our protagonist, he’s not playing against type or anything. Gillian Jacobs shows up as Meghan’s wing-woman with Sarah Wright as the tagalong ditzy friend, and those couldn’t be more “stock character” if they tried. The rest of the supporting cast simply plays to the hoary stereotypes written for them, though this reviewer must admit that Alphonso McAuley is moderately funny as effeminate drug-addled gangster Pookie.

  Comedies involving a sequence of misadventures can certainly be funny – everything from Planes, Trains and Automobiles to the first Hangover film has proven that. Unfortunately, Walk of Shame is flawed from the premise up: As a TV news anchor, Meghan is a public figure and characters only recognise her as such whenever it’s convenient for the story. Having directed such critical failures as Little Nicky, Mr. Deeds, Without a Paddle and Drillbit Taylor, Steven Brill can now add Walk of Shame to the list and he’s doubly responsible here, having also written the screenplay.

SUMMARY: Certainly nothing to be proud of. At least the title’s honest.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong