Life Itself

As published in Issue #59 of F*** Magazine

Starring: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Marlene Iglitzen, A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss, Ramin Bahrani, Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, Martin Scorsese
Directed by: Steve James
            In 2013, filmmakers and moviegoers alike mourned the passing of the well-known, respected film critic Roger Ebert, a household name thanks to the At the Movies television program he co-presented. Documentary filmmaker Steve James brings us Life Itself, based on Ebert’s 2011 memoir of the same name. A fond, in-depth look at Ebert’s life and career, Life Itself tracks the film critic’s childhood in Urbana, Illinois, the beginnings of his journalistic career at his college newspaper The Daily Illini, his Pulitzer Prize win, co-hosting At the Movies with Gene Siskel and coping with his illness in the final months before his death.
            Life Itself also features interviews with a large array of Ebert’s friends and colleagues, which range from his fellow Chicagoan journalist William Nack to his wife Chaz to director Martin Scorsese, one of the executive producers on Life Itself. Watching the film, one gets the sense that this was a man who truly found fulfilment in his life’s work and was a cinephile through and through – the license plate of his car even spells “MOVIES”. We are regaled with accounts of the Cinema Interruptus event which Ebert would host each year at the Conference of World Affairs, in which he would spend hours dissecting a given film frame by frame. We see just how much he enjoyed covering the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and how he stuck by his ritual of staying at the same hotel and having breakfast at the same café each time he returned to the French Riviera.

            If you’re not a fan of Ebert, it would perhaps be easy to dismiss him as a snob. After all, what business does any critic have telling anyone what they think? The film makes it clear that beyond being more than qualified to do so, Ebert didn’t get his kicks from feeling he was above it all and those are footsteps this reviewer has tried to follow in. The film is far from afraid of presenting a very human look at its subject, including aspects of him that might be considered embarrassing. Ebert says of the Russ Meyer-directed exploitation film Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill, “the posters displayed impossibly buxom women and I was inside the theatre in a flash.” Ebert ended up penning the screenplay of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for Meyer and in one of Life Itself’s funniest moments, film critic A.O. Scott gulps, takes a long pause and then talks about the “earthier” elements of cinema that Ebert was drawn to (i.e., boobs).

            A good portion of the film focuses on the fascinating frenemy-bromance between Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, with Siskel’s widow Marlene Iglitzen providing a good deal of insight. For starters, they were the film critics of rival newspapers – Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times and Siskel for the Chicago Tribune. They also had wildly different upbringings and backgrounds, Ebert having been a journalist since he was in school while Siskel was a personal friend of Hugh Hefner’s, cavorting with Playboy bunnies aboard the Bunnyjet. The film reveals the deep extent of the competition that went on between the two – for example, everything was decided by coin toss, and that’s how Siskel got top billing in the title of the show. Time magazine critic Richard Corliss amusingly describes Siskel and Ebert’s double act as “a sitcom about two guys who lived in a movie theatre”. In Life Itself, we get lots of clips of the two getting into really heated arguments, including outtakes from the show. However, it’s also made heartbreakingly clear how much Siskel meant to Ebert and how he was affected after Siskel’s death from a brain tumour. Oddly enough though, Siskel’s eventual replacement Richard Roeper is not interviewed or even mentioned in the film.

            Naturally, Siskel and Ebert’s brand of TV-friendly film criticism had its, well, critics. It was seen as advertising for a film instead of objective, thorough analysis. In an essay in Film Comment, Corliss wrote “movie criticism of the elevated sort is an endangered species. Once it flourished; soon it may perish, to be replaced by a consumer service that is no brains and all thumbs.” At one point in Life Itself, Corliss reads his essay in Film Comment from which that passage is taken aloud, before he chokes up, unable to continue.

            The film also illuminates the influence Ebert’s reviews had on the careers of filmmakers such as Ramin Bahrani, Ava DuVernay and Errol Morris, with Selma director DuVernay recounting how excited she was to have her photo taken with Ebert when she was a little girl standing outside the Shrine Auditorium with her aunt on the day of the Oscars. There’s also a love story here, the relationship between Ebert and his wife Chaz a truly beautiful one. Ebert weighed 300 pounds when they first met and Chaz tells how she found it sexy that Ebert was comfortable in his own skin. “She is the love of my life. She saved me from a life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading,” Ebert says. It also feels genuinely emotional rather than plainly manipulative when Chaz breaks down while discussing her husband’s deteriorating health.

            Sure, if you feel that Ebert is overrated as a film critic and that his writing lacks insight or that his recognition is ill-deserved, this film is unlikely to change your mind. If you’re sufficiently cynical, you might say scenes such as Ebert being fed via g-tube is awards-baiting. However, if you’re a fan of Ebert’s work, if you have even a passing interest in film criticism or if you’re just a cinephile in general, odds are you’ll find this documentary inspirational, uplifting, entertaining, funny and deeply moving.

Summary: Life Itself paints a rich, compelling portrait of a man who loved movies, delighted in sharing his knowledge of and passion for movies and who continued living and working even in the face of dilapidating illness through to the end.
RATING: 4.5 out of 5Stars
Jedd Jong 

Exodus: Gods and Kings

For F*** Magazine


Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Tuturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, María Valverde
Genre : Adventure/Action
Run Time : 150 mins
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)
It could be said that Old Hollywood’s Biblical epics were the big-budget superhero blockbusters of their day, with their casts of thousands and lavish sets. Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments is the codifier of that genre and now director Ridley Scott offers up his retelling of the story of Moses.
            It is 1300 B.C. and Moses (Bale) is a general in the Egyptian army who has been raised alongside Prince Ramesses (Edgerton) by the Pharaoh Seti I (Tuturro). While on a routine survey at a work site, Moses is struck by how badly the Hebrew slaves are being treated. Nun (Kingsley) tells Moses the truth of his origins, that he was born a slave and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses is eventually exiled by Ramesses. He wanders the desert, becoming a shepherd and falling in love with the Midianite Zipporah (Valverde). After a dramatic spiritual encounter, Moses takes up the task of returning to Egypt to fight for the freedom of the Hebrew slaves. In the face of Ramesses’ stubbornness, God strikes Egypt with ten frightening plagues. Only after the most horrific of these calamities does Ramesses relent, but for Moses and the children of Israel, their journey has only just begun.

            The story of Moses is a familiar one, the best-known films inspired by it being the afore-mentioned The Ten Commandmentsand the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt. Director Ridley Scott, who as the promotional materials are quick to remind us helmed Gladiator, delivers a not-quite epic. While the departures from the Biblical source material are not as outrageous as in Noah, it seems that Scott’s approach was to make more of a gritty swords-and-sandals flick than a grand, majestic Old Hollywood-style extravaganza. Perhaps this is meant to appeal to more cynical moviegoers but this reviewer was particularly disappointed that after being promised large-scale 3D spectacle, in this version, the Red Sea does not so much part as recede – off-screen. In trying to differentiate itself from earlier takes on the Exodus story, Exodus: Gods and Kings ditches one of the most iconic images in favour of a more “plausible” underwater earthquake.

            Sure, this is a $140 million movie and there still is spectacle to be had. The film was mostly shot in the historic Spanish city of Almería and the Egpytian palace sets do look suitably imposing and sprawling. The highlight of the film is the sequence of the ten plagues, in which we get swarms of buzzing locusts in 3D. The first plague in Exodus: Gods and Kings, the rivers of blood, is brought about by a violent clash of a bask of monstrous crocodiles. There are also lots of flyovers of ancient Egypt and while the CGI does mostly look good and certainly took large amounts of effort to complete, it’s always clear that what we’re looking at is computer-generated, resulting in the nagging sense of a lack of authenticity.

            Much has been made of the “whitewashed” cast – suffice it to say that you wouldn’t find anyone who looked a lot like Christian Bale or Joel Edgerton in Ancient Egypt. Scott has defended this by saying the big-budget film would not get made without A-list stars in the leading roles. Fair enough, but for this reviewer at least, this further affects the authenticity of the film and pulls one out of it somewhat – not to the extent of the film adaptations of Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender, but still in that unfortunate vein.

            Christian Bale is now the second former Batman to play Moses, after Batman Forever’s Val Kilmer voiced the titular Prince of Egypt. More emphasis is placed on Moses as a warrior, the film opening with a battle sequence in which the Egyptian army storms a Hittite encampment. Through most of the film, Moses comes off as weary and confused, with the heavy implication that his encounters with God might merely be delusional episodes. However, he’s still plenty heroic and steadfast and there’s enough of an old-school leader in this interpretation despite the modern “flawed hero” approach. Joel Edgerton seems visibly unsure of how over the top to go with his portrayal of Ramesses, conflicted as to how much scenery he is allowed to chew without going all-out ridiculous. In the end, this pales in comparison to the clash of titans between Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. The “brothers-turned-enemies” relationship was also drawn more compellingly in The Prince of Egypt.

            The supporting cast barely registers, with Sigourney Weaver getting a total of around five minutes of screen time. Ben Mendelsohn’s campy turn as Hegep is entertaining but seems slightly out of place, even given the flamboyance associated with Ancient Egyptian royalty. As with most of Ridley Scott’s films, there will probably be an extended director’s cut released and perhaps we will get more characterisation in that version. At 154 minutes, this theatrical cut is still something of a drag. The “event film” of the holiday season has its awe-inspiring moments but alas, they are few and far between.

Summary: “Underwhelming epic” sounds like an oxymoron, but that is the best way to describe Exodus: Gods and Kings.  
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

2014: The Year In Action

For F*** Magazine

Top 10 action movies of 2014
By Jedd Jong
Action movies kind of get a bad rap in high-brow film criticism circles and there’s a perception that film critics will turn up their noses at any movie in which stuff blows up, dismissing an action film outright as “brainless”. Sure, as with every year, 2014 has had its mediocre franchise movies (Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn’t make the cut for this list). But we’ve also had a good number of high-quality action blockbusters too. At F***, we believe there’s definitely such a thing as a “good” action movie, and not just films that are so dumb they’re enjoyable – though there’s a place for that too. On this list, there are a few films that have scored a 90% approval rating or higher over on review aggregating site Rotten Tomatoes, so let it not be said that movie critics as a whole are unable to appreciate the explodier things in life. Let’s get rollin’!

During the holiday season of 2013, the Keanu Reeves-starring 47 Roninopened to a largely negative response. It was a historical fantasy mishmash that never quite gelled and Reeves looked out of his element in it. In this year’s John Wick, Reeves gets his mojo back in a big way. 47 Ronin was the inauspicious feature directorial debut of Carl Rinsch. John Wick is the first feature film directed by stunt performers/choreographers Chad Stahelski and David Leitch but it’s a slick, well-constructed affair complete with a colourful mini-mythology built in. There’s a “hitman hotel” called The Continental which is neutral ground and there’s a hitman bar where they all hang out when they’re off the clock! Keanu may not have a ton of range as an actor, but was there anyone who thought the dude from Bill & Ted could pull off playing a highly-trained, cold, lethal assassin? There’s also a pretty badass supporting cast, with Michael Nyqvist as the head of the Russian mob, Willem Dafoe as Wick’s fellow hitman and old friend and Ian McShane as the owner of The Continental. Practically no shaky-cam is a plus as well.

The King of All Monsters turned the big 6-0 this year and got a grand birthday bash in the form of his second proper Hollywood movie. Die-hard Godzillafans have made no secret of their distaste for the 1998 Roland Emmerich-directed film, so there was a lot riding on this reboot. We at F*** love stories of “promoted fanboys” and Gareth Edwards, a monster movie fan as a kid and the director of the indie creature feature Monsters, landing the job of directing Godzilla ’14 is a great example of that. Sure, it isn’t exactly the best use of Bryan Cranston or Ken Watanabe (not to mention Oscar-calibre actresses Juliette Binoche and Sally Hawkins) but this one does get a good deal right. It manages to be respectful of the source material, taking the premise as seriously as possible while serving up lots of large-scale spectacle. Godzilla actually fighting other kaiju(the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, or MUTOs)? An Akula-class submarine regurgitated by a MUTO and stranded in the trees? An airport monorail action sequence? That glorious atomic-breath-down-the-MUTO’s-throat bit? Deserving of a celebratory roar in our book.

This year, fans of the Rurouni Kenshin manga series were treated to the second and third instalments in the movie adaptation trilogy back-to-back, with Tokyo Infernoreleased in August and The Legend Endsin October. Live-action adaptations of manga and anime haven’t exactly had a sterling track record so the quality of the interpretation with this movie series did delight many fans of the source material. Our writer said “Kyoto Inferno is literally the best of both worlds: the stylised action and rousing storyline of a manga, and the star power and production values of a blockbuster movie.” The historically accurate period details and intricate, tightly-choreographed sword-fighting sequences created with minimal CGI assistance also added to the film’s appeal. Most adaptations of manga and anime are notorious for struggling to present their dense, complex plots to neophytes unfamiliar with the source material, but director Keishi Ohtomo was able to strike an adequate balance. If you’re not into the plot, there’s plenty of action to keep you entertained but if you’re a fan, it certainly caters to you too.

While fans have generally been happy with how things are progressing at Marvel Studios, it’s a different story with the Marvel properties that still reside at other studios, like with Fox’s X-Men series. There’ve been highs (X2: X-Men United, X-Men: First Class) and lows (X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine) so it is understandable that many were sceptical about X-Men: Days of Future Past. This era-spanning odyssey, taking place simultaneously in a post-apocalyptic future and in 1973, brings together much of the cast from the X-Men trilogy and their younger brethren from First Class. Adapted from the monumental 1981 comic book story arc of the same name, this is a “retroactive continuity” or “retcon” story, in effect wiping the slate clean so we can all move on from some of the spottier entries in the mutant filmography. However, this was a retcon done right, where it wasn’t too convenient or effortless to change everything. We also got Evan Peters as a gleefully scene-stealing Quicksilver, quelling fears of a poor portrayal based on the questionable character design.

Here’s a movie completely different from your run-of-the-mill action flick. This adaptation of Jacques Lob’s French graphic novel Le Transperceneige owes much of its unique feel to Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Kelly Masterson. A dystopian sci-fi fable, Snowpiercer is set aboard the eponymous train, perpetually circling an otherwise-uninhabited earth, stuck in a catastrophic ice age. Boasting a unique design sensibility, a talented cast, incisive, sometimes disturbing social commentary and intense, brutal action scenes, Snowpiercer was the “I’ve seen this really cool movie and you should too” flick of choice this summer. U.S. distributors The Weinstein Company insisted on cutting about 20 minutes of footage and adding voiceovers, but Bong refused to compromise. Bong was eventually successful in getting the original, uncut film released and even when the film was restricted to a limited release, the positive response was enough to win it a wider release. If there’s still anyone who thinks Chris Evans is nothing but a pretty boy, this is the movie to point them to.

It’s a shame Edge of Tomorrow wasn’t a box office champ, because we sure were entertained. Adapted from the Japanese light novel All You Need is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the film meshes a Groundhog Day-style time loop with futuristic mech suits, an alien invasion and a D-Day-esque beachhead battle. It also gives us Tom Cruise putting aside some of his ego to amusing effect as a military PR guy with no combat experience plonked into the middle of battle, having to seek out a seasoned warrior played by Emily Blunt to guide him through his predicament and teach him the ropes. The action in this is truly exciting stuff, sufficiently different from the battles with alien invaders taking place in big cities we’ve seen in blockbusters past. It’s also always great to have a badass female character show the guy just how it’s done and while “Emily Blunt” isn’t the name that immediately comes to mind, she sure looked awesome in this movie be it slicing at Mimics with a giant sword forged from a helicopter blade or rising from a downward facing dog yoga position. Top all that off with a hilarious turn from Bill Paxton as a blowhard drill sergeant-type and you’ve got a howling good time.

Action movie junkies went positively nuts over The Raid: Redemption, a badass film in which two SWAT officers face off against an apartment block full of deadly thugs. As such, there were high expectations associated with the sequel, expectations which The Raid 2: Berandal certainly met. It upped the ante when it came to the hyper-violent action spectacle when such a thing seemed impossible given all that happened in the first Raid. Iko Uwais returns as Rama, his opponents this time around including the trio of hired killers comprising “The Assassin”, “Hammer Girl” and her brother “Baseball Bat Man”. The film concludes with a virtuoso kitchen fight which took 10 days to film and comprises 196 shots. In order to shoot the car chase sequence, one of the cameramen was actually disguised as a car seat, passing the camera from the Director of Photography on one side of the car to a camera assistant on the other side to create a seamless shot through the car. Fans of this film are understandably weary of the upcoming Hollywood remake of The Raid, but apparently selling the rights for the remake was how director Gareth Evans was able to fund the sequel.

Marvel Studios has just announced their exciting Phase 3 line-up, but let’s take a moment to look back on just how amazing both entries into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2014 were. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is adapted from the story arc written by Ed Brubaker (who gets a cameo) in which a figure from Steve Rogers’ past returns in a new form to haunt him. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo set out to create a film which harkens back to the political conspiracy thrillers of the 70s, even managing to rope in Robert Redford. They definitely succeeded, creating a film which had just enough real-world resonance without compromising on the big-budget spectacle. It’s even more impressive considering this is the Russo Brothers’ first big studio action film, going from paintball battles in TV’s Community to super-soldiers duking it out as giant helicarriers fall out of the sky. The events in this film also upend the status-quo for the MCU at large and gave so-so TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. the kick it needed. We also get introduced to Anthony Mackie as the Falcon, who is the current Captain America in the comics. The special features on the Blu-ray also teach us Mackie’s catchphrase, “Cut the check!” which we cannot stop saying.

It’s kind of funny to think of it as such seeing as it’s a $170 million movie from a major studio, but Guardians of the Galaxy has an appealing underdog quality to it. It’s based on more obscure source material than its counterparts in the MCU, its most famous names voice CGI creations, it’s weird and woolly and some feared inaccessible but as it turns out, everyone loves this. Young or old, male or female, tree or raccoon, audiences fell in love with this “bunch of a-holes” in a big way, and at the time of writing, this is the highest-grossing movie of 2014. Director James Gunn crafted a spectacularly entertaining film populated with loveable oddball characters and packed with cosmic adventure, comedy and a heady dose of nostalgia in the form of Star-Lord’s precious mix-tape. Also inspiring was the physical transformation actor Chris Pratt, known for being the schlubby dude from Parks and Recreation, who inspired swoons with his chiselled bod and Han Solo-style roguish charm. There’s also just how genuinely moving this turned out to be; we doubt there’s another film that had you misty-eyed over the bond between a gun-toting raccoon and his tree friend.
“Apes with guns” – sounds silly, doesn’t it? Well, director Matt Reeves and crew managed to take that and turn it into one of the most intelligent, riveting mainstream films of the year. 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apessurprised many moviegoers by being a relevant, superbly-made reboot of the flagging Apes franchise, bringing it back from the misfire that was Tim Burton’s 2001 remake. The sequel skips ahead a decade, with Caesar leading a shrewdness of apes as the human population dwindles. Caesar forms a fragile alliance with the human Malcolm (Jason Clarke), but second-in-command Koba is none too happy about it. The clash of ideologies is presented compellingly, aided in no small measure by the impressive, hyper-realistic visual effects work by WETA Digital. Fox is pushing for Andy Serkis to be considered for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and if this awards bid is successful, history will be made. There’s no doubting the legitimacy of the performances Serkis, Toby Kebbell and the other performance capture actors turn in. And on top of all that, we get Gary Oldman as the leader of the human survivors! “Apes together strong!”

Batman and Gotham City at Takashimaya

Pretty much the final event of the year commemorating Batman’s 75th anniversary in Singapore took place at Ngee Ann City Takashimaya Shopping Centre. Presented by Pacific Licensing, there were mall appearances by Batman and Catwoman, a life-sized replica of the 1989 Batmobile on display and a cosplay competition organised by Movie Mania. This was a whole bunch of fun. The Batmobile is on display until 13 Dec so head on down and catch it before then!

Fellow blogger Tina Gan aka Red Dot Diva

The judges for the contest: Bernard Ang from GnB Comics, Reno Tan from Movie Mania and Wallace Tay from Pacific Licensing Studios

Yay, there was a Steph! This cosplayer came all the way from Hong Kong.

Shaun cutting a badass figure as Red Hood

Om nom nom!

Third place winner

Second place winner

First place winner

Batgirls love the Keaton.

A-cross the Universe: The Crossing Press Conference

A-CROSS THE UNIVERSE                      
John Woo, Zhang Ziyi and Tong Dawei in Singapore for The Crossing – Part 1
By Jedd Jong
Five years after the release of Red Cliff – Part 2, director John Woo returns with the two-part romantic epic The Crossing. The film, which focuses on three central romances that converge aboard the ill-fated steamer Taipingduring the Chinese Civil War in 1949, has been chosen as a special presentation for the opening night of the 25th Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF).
Woo, along with stars Zhang Ziyi, Tong Dawei and his daughter Angeles, are in Singapore to kick off the SGIFF festivities. F*** was at the press conference held at the ArtScience Museum in Marina Bay Sands Singapore.
Woo, known for his “heroic bloodshed” Hong Kong action films such as A Better Tomorrow and Hard Boiledand his Hollywood efforts including Face/Offand Mission: Impossible 2, isn’t necessarily a director one would associate with the romance genre. “I believe in love, I believe that love can bring strength and warmth,” he enthuses. “Seeing as this is a romance that takes place in tumultuous times, it is very moving. Making the film was a challenge because of the upheaval that took place during this period in history, making it a very painful chapter in time.” He goes on to explain that the two-parter looks at how the three central romances go through a trial by fire in the face of war and disaster.

Star Zhang Ziyi says that while making the film was far from a walk in the park, it was worth it for the chance to work with the famed director. “Everyone endured the hardships of making this film for the opportunity to work with John Woo. I was very moved after reading the script because the characters within are all drawn very vividly. Everyone hopes to be able to work with John Woo. He is a good person, he cares for us all very much.”

It is Tong Dawei’s first time in Singapore and he wonders aloud what sweet treats he should take back home for his kid. Zhang suggests he get some pandan cake from the airport. Tong last worked with director Woo on Red Cliff. Regarding The Crossing, Tong says “I feel that this is the most challenging film I’ve worked on to date. We were filming for nearly a whole year and be it for the actors or filmmakers, there were many firsts that we encountered. It was physically demanding and there were a lot of special effects involved.” The major set piece in Part 2 of the film is the dramatic sinking of the Taipingand shooting that required the actors to spend hours shooting in a water tank.

On the subject of working with Zhang Ziyi, Tong reveals “Ziyi and I have been good friends for a while but this is the first time we are working on a film together. On the first day, it was a little awkward because under normal circumstances, we don’t really discuss work. All of a sudden, we were working together and it was a little weird. Furthermore, we had to film a pretty heavy scene on the first day, the farewell scene.”

However, Woo confirms that the actors were able to get into the swing of things quickly, saying he was moved by their performances. “They are both very skilled actors and brought real emotion to the roles, there was genuine feeling to it. While I was watching them, I started tearing up.”

The Crossing is something of a family affair for Woo. His wife Annie Woo Ngau Chun-lung has a cameo in the film and his daughter Angeles Woo, also present at the press conference, has a supporting part as the sister-in-law of Takeshi Kaneshiro’s character. “It’s my first time working with my dad on a feature film. It’s my first time in Singapore too so I’m very excited,” Angeles says. “It’s something I never thought would happen and I’m very fortunate to be able to experience it in this film and it’s something that I’ve learned a lot from as an actress.” She adds that having grown up mostly in Los Angeles, it was challenging to play a character from a very different place and time. The role required her to brush up on her Mandarin and also learn Min Nan, the Taiwanese dialect. Host Danny Yeo jests that a scene in which Angeles tucks Takeshi Kaneshiro into bed must make her the envy of many of the heartthrob’s fans.
Zhang Ziyi states that she is not a believer in over-preparing for a role. “Acting is an emotional process and a lot of these emotions manifest themselves on the day as you play opposite the other actors. It’s also influenced by the environment; the costumes and the sets. If you’re in a special environment, it will draw out emotions that you cannot prepare for. A lot of it is in the moment…if you spend too much time worrying about every last technical detail of your performance, it becomes rote. I don’t think that’s what performing is about.”

Touching on the myriad struggles that her character in The Crossing must endure, Zhang says “both Dawei and I portray characters of the lowest social strata. They’re like wild grass, even though they grow in a rough environment, they are very resilient. After the war, she goes to Shanghai and has to become a prostitute. To a person this low on the social ladder, the challenges in her life are great. She has a resilience, an ability to persevere. This resilience is something that all successful people, be they men or women, have to possess.”

A reporter bravely broaches a personal question, asking Zhang about starting a family with her boyfriend, rocker Wang Feng.” It’s actually not me pushing him to get married, it’s the media,” she says with a chuckle. “I have never given him any actual pressure. I feel that marriage has to happen naturally. There’s no way to rush it, we never know what tomorrow may bring. In the meantime, we have to care for each other.” Zhang gets her own back at the reporter, who asked the question in English, with a dash of condescension. “Do you understand? You won’t misquote me, right?”

The film was post-converted into 3D and is being released in IMAX 3D. Woo explains his personal attitudes towards the stereoscopic format, saying “there are battle scenes and a disaster at sea, there were large-scale sequences that justify the use of 3D effects so the decision was made to convert it. It was more challenging while I was making the film because I had to pay special attention to angles and focus. That was a challenge because I still look at films as a 2D medium.” He admits that 3D doesn’t really excite him because of the limitations in making a film in that format. “I still think it’s better to make movies in 2D because I look at making movies as like painting, composing a frame. I feel that sometimes, 3D movies feel fake. There’s a sense of artifice, a house can look like a doll’s house and cars and buildings look like toys. However, there are advantages to the format but I still prefer traditional 2D movies. “

The director famous for stylishly violent action movies reveals his softer side when discussing the romantic elements of the film. “Normally, I’m more of a shy person. I have to find ways to express my romantic side. Sometimes, on my way back, I’ll pick a flower from the yard to give as a present to my wife.” Woo and his wife have been married for 38 years. In the film, there is a waltz sequence shared by Huang Xiaoming and Song Hye-kyo. Woo shares that when he was younger, he enjoyed dancing with his wife, dedicating the scene to her. He also believes in leaving his work on the movie set, saying “the general in the film doesn’t bring the war home and spares his wife from the ugly side of war. Similarly, I don’t bring my work home, I just want to support and care for my wife. That’s how I express ‘romance’.”

Angeles corroborates this, saying “At home he’s very caring and he doesn’t bring the work home and he likes to make dinner for everyone, that’s just another way of showing his affection. In this film, he used some memories past to really illustrate the love story happening and that’s a very nice touch. “

“Even though there are tragic elements to the romances in this film, I don’t want it to be a depressing experience for the audience and I hope for audiences to ultimately find it hopeful and uplifting,” the director concludes.

The Crossing – Part 1 opens on 4 December. Part 2 is due in May 2015.

Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

For F*** Magazine


Director : Miguel Arteta
Cast : Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Dylan Minnette, Ed Oxenbould, Kerris Dorsey, Megan Mullally, Jennifer Coolidge, Bella Thorne
Genre : Family/Comedy
Run Time : 81 mins
Opens : 4 December 2014
Rating : PG
Daniel Powter sang about a “Bad Day” in 2005 and in this Disney comedy, we meet someone who’s had his share of bad days, 11-year-old Alexander Cooper (Oxenbould). It’s the day before his 12th birthday and Alexander’s crushed that all his friends will be attending another schoolmate’s party instead. None of his family members will give him the time of day because they’re too caught up celebrating all the things that are going right for them. A dejected Alexander fixes himself a makeshift birthday sundae, wishing that the rest of his family will experience a downer day of their own. The next day, Alexander’s wish comes true: his dad Ben’s (Carell) job interview takes a less-than-successful turn, the children’s book his mum Kelly (Garner) is publishing emerges with an unfortunate typo, his sister Emily (Dorsey) might have to sit out the production of Peter Pan in which she’s starring due to the flu his older brother Anthony (Minnette) has a disastrous driving test and a falling out with his girlfriend Celia (Thorne) and his baby brother Trevor (Elise/Zoey Vargas) ingests a permanent marker. Alexander realises what his wish has wrought and the family band together to make it through the day together.

            This writer is grateful that Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day has as long a title as it does because it will help with his word quota. The film is based on the 1972 children’s book by Judith Viorst, which was earlier adapted into an animated musical special. Being a 32-page children’s book, the film calls for adaptation expansion. So, while the book focused on Alexander’s own bad day, the bulk of the film centres on the bad day Alexander wishes upon the rest of his family. It’s basically Hijinks Ensues: The Movie, with Murphy’s Law in full effect. There’s a degree of schadenfreude to be had in seeing myriad family-friendly calamities befall the Cooper clan. This is best-described as a sitcom episode with a larger budget. It’s really, really silly but you knew that going into it already. Between the least successful stage production of Peter Pansince the one in 21 Jump Street, Steve Carell pursuing a runaway kangaroo through the neighbourhood and strippers showing up for a kids’ birthday party, the comedy set-pieces are lively but stop short of being satisfyingly elaborate.

            Parents make many sacrifices for their children and sitting through cringe-worthy family movies is one of them. Thankfully, Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day isn’t as torturous for the older members of the audience as it could’ve been and it helps that it clocks in at a breezy 81 minutes. Steve Carell’s presence elevates the pratfall-heavy flick – no matter what he’s in, he never looks like he’s phoning it in or that the material is beneath him and he’s been subjected to far more embarrassment in earlier films like Evan Almighty. He’s game for anything director Miguel Arteta throws at him, including being lit on fire at a Benihana-style teppanyaki restaurant. Jennifer Garner’s good in this one too, making for a believable pillar of sanity for the family. The attitudes that both Ben and Kelly Cooper carry are actually quite uplifting and it does bring a smile to one’s face to see this couple try their darndest to remain positive as everything unravels around them in comedic fashion.

            The child actors in the film are competent if not particularly remarkable. Ed Oxenbould has just enough of that “loveable moppet” quality about him without looking like he was assembled in a Disney child star factory. It’s also pretty funny that Alexander is fascinated by all things Australian, and Oxenbould is an Aussie himself. Kerris Dorsey is appealingly loopy as she attempts to play Peter Pan while high on cough syrup. Dylan Minnette is a little stiff as the older brother eager to impress his date and Bella Thorne does bring just enough “mean girl”-ness to bear. Dick van Dyke is a bit of an odd cameo choice – we suppose there’s the Disney connection. Genre fans will also get a kick out of seeing Burn Gorman from Pacific Rim, Torchwood and Game of Thrones show up as the drama teacher.

            Alexander and the Horrible, Terrible, No Good, Very Bad Day has its share of bodily function jokes and other juvenile gags but it’s able to escape that feeling that it should be consigned to the Disney Channel thanks to the two A-list stars playing the parents. The production values are also decent, barring an iffy CGI kangaroo. If you’re at the Cineplex and have got little ‘uns in tow, you could do worse than this bad day.
Summary: It’s a really silly, fluffy family flick, but the gags fly thick and fast, Steve Carell throws himself into the nonsense and it’s all over fairly quickly.
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong 

Seven For Fifty – 7 Letters Press Conference

For F*** Magazine


Singapore’s directing dream team talks 7 Letters
By Jedd Jong
In 2015, Singapore celebrates 50 years of independence and there has been no shortage of projects planned to commemorate this occasion. One of the biggest is an anthology film that unites seven of Singapore’s most prolific filmmakers – Royston Tan, Boo Junfeng, Eric Khoo, K. Rajagopal, Jack Neo, Tan Pin Pin and Kelvin Tong. At the press conference held in Golden Village’s Suntec cineplex, the title of the Jubilee film project was officially unveiled: 7 Letters.

L-R: Kelvin Tong, Eric Khoo, K. Rajagopal, Royston Tah, Tan Pin Pin, Boo Junfeng, Jack Neo
“As we approach the celebration for Singapore’s 50th birthday, we as a film community wonder what we can contribute to this celebration,” Royston Tan, who is spearheading the project, says. “This is a ground initiative; we’ve decided to embark on a personal journey to tell personal stories about Singapore that inspire us, and more importantly about Singaporeans, how they’ve impacted us, and telling familiar stories. This gesture is almost like writing a very personal love letter to Singapore. Hence, 7 Letters.”
Royston says that when he put out the call for directors to participate in the project, the response was swift and enthusiastic and that the concepts each of them had for their short films came together fairly quickly. This assembly of directors is a super-group of sorts, Jack Neo remarking “this is the first time in Singapore history that all the directors are together so very exciting.”

When asked how each director’s different styles will work together as presented in 7 Letters, Tan Pin Pin replies “I think it’ll work together very well because this film will be a celebration of our differences. We all have a common core in which we’ve been making films for many years to tell Singapore stories. I think it’ll be exciting for audiences to see Singapore from so many different perspectives.”

Boo Junfeng, the youngest of the seven directors, is grateful to be invited on board. “Well, it’s an honour. When Royston asked if I was interested to be a part of it and when I found out who else was on board, it was really an honour to be a part of this and to be asked to be a part of this,” he says.

Each of the directors then elaborates on their own segments of the film. Boo’s is titled “Evolution”. Explaining why he chose the theme, he says “I think growing up in Singapore, we are used to the idea of change. Whether it is [the] cityscape, attitudes, our way of life, things have always been changing and will probably always continue to change.” Despite the constantly shifting sands, Boo observes that “certain things remain, certain core values remain, those are the things that carry through and define who we are.” “Evolution” will be set in the present day with a quick flashback to 1965.

Eric Khoo’s contribution is entitled “Legacy” and is dedicated to the golden days of filmmaking in Singapore. “The Shaw Brothers were here making films from the 40s and mine is really a tribute to the pioneer generation of filmmakers,” he explains. Khoo, who founded the horror film imprint Gorylah Pictures, shares how horror movies were a formative part of his film-going youth. “I love horror. That’s gonna sneak its way in. And then really, we were known for our great ghouls, Orang Minyak, Penanggal, these are incredible, fascinating sort of tales from folklore. My whole thing with cinema is to pay tribute to that kind of cinema that was huge and did incredible box office throughout Asia.” He then takes a moment to reminisce about making his first feature film 12 Storeys, in which Jack Neo played the lead role of “Ah Gu”.

K. Rajagopal’s section of the film, “Embrace”, is inspired by his own parents and as such is a story that’s close to his heart. “It was the early 70s and it was very uncertain at that time for a lot of people and being a minority, wondering whether to stay back in Singapore or not, it was very difficult in terms of the situation so to overcome that and whether to stay on, that was a very, very big question,” he says. “Embrace” deals with the struggle between following traditions and forging ahead. “I think as much as I don’t keep to the traditions or anything like that, it sort of makes you who you are, so I think it’s equally important and at the same time to embrace change,” he says, adding that this short film is a tribute to the Indian community of Singapore’s early post-Independence days.

Jack Neo, the most commercially successful of the seven directors, is helming “Time”. Outlining the story, he says “I wanted to tell a puppy love story. I have never done this before and I wanted to show you know kampong (village) boy and kamponggirl, they are around the age of 12, this is the beginning of…they start feeling about love.” Set in the late 60s – early 70s and inspired by his childhood in Kampong Chai Chee, his segment of the film will consist mostly of dialogue in the Hokkien dialect to keep things authentic for the period setting. “Because it’s 1965, so there’s no reason censor board not happy,” he quips. Waxing nostalgic, Neo says he misses “the coconut tree, I miss the smell in the village, the kampong…I miss all the neighbours. All the neighbour children playing together.” Having mostly worked in feature films, keeping the story at a running time of 10-12 minutes was a new challenge for the director.

For Tan Pin Pin, known mainly as a documentary filmmaker, the chapter “Roots” will be her first narrative drama in 15 years. “It is a challenge but I’ve decided that I should take challenges up so I really relish this opportunity and I hope to seek advice,” she says. Despite the banning of her recent film To Singapore, With Love, Tan Pin Pin’s affection for Singapore is still evident. “All my films, ever since I started making films too many years ago, have really been love letters to Singapore and that love is manifested by searching and finding and trying to dig out roots. So this theme, I’m not quite sure why it just stays with me, I think it’s almost quite central to everything I do. So when I was presented with this opportunity, the story that floated up in my mind also followed this theme. So it’s now a drama, a road movie, about a family looking for their roots.”

Royston Tan conceived of his segment, “Song”, after bouncing ideas off of Eric Khoo. “He said ‘oh, I’m going to pay tribute to cinema, images’ then I said ‘okay, I should pay tribute to sound, music.’” The short film is set in the 80s and revolves around two neighbours who become unlikely friends even though they don’t speak the same language, having been brought together by music. Royston says, “One of the very immediate things that I wanted to capture was Chinese Opera. I gathered the original troupe of Xin Sai Feng which had already disbanded but the Hua Dan (female lead), they’re retired but they specially decided to come back to do this film.” The director has an affinity for nostalgic locations in Singapore, as displayed in his documentary Old Romances. He plans to shoot “Song” at a first-generation Housing Development Board (HDB) block in Tanglin Halt before it is demolished.

Kelvin Tong is absent as he is busy working on post-production for his film in Bangkok. Royston explains on his behalf that Kelvin Tong’s short film, “Tradition”, will focus on “how tradition plays a very important part in bringing the whole family together” and is set during the annual Qing Ming festival, when Chinese families visit the graves of deceased relatives to pay their respects.

The gala premiere of 7 Letters in July 2015 will mark the grand reopening of the historic Capitol Theatre. We are shown a photograph from Royston’s youth taken at the Capitol Theatre, in which the then-19-year-old Royston stands alongside his friend and famed director Wong Kar-Wai after the premiere of Wong’s film Happy Together. “I remember Wong Kar-Wai saying this thing that was very, very moving. He said he decided to have the Asian premiere of Happy Together in Singapore because of Capitol Theatre. This kind of theatre you don’t see this anymore in many parts of the world. It’s something he feel that it’s truly a cinematic experience for him.”

Eric Khoo adds, “I think Capitol is the most grand of all the cinemas. There was the dome inside and you all these incredible sculptures and it was really big, I think like over a thousand seats. It’s great that it’s coming back. I saw a lot of horror films there, there was one really good film called It’s Alive,” he says, referring to the 1974 flick about a vicious killer infant.

F*** asks each of the directors what physical possession or piece of their own work they would put in a time capsule. “Probably a film I haven’t made yet,” Boo Junfeng says softly to chuckles from the audience. Tan Pin Pin’s pick is a branch from a tree growing downstairs that sheds purple flowers. K. Rajagopal chooses, appropriately enough, his film Timeless.

“For me, it won’t be a physical thing, it’s really the ren qing wei (personal touch) that I want to capture,” Royston says. “We’ve been moving very quickly and I think this ren qing wei is something I really cherish. I hope to capture this but I don’t think I’ve figured out how to put it on film.”

Jack Neo chooses something similarly intangible, the “kampong spirit” that has mostly eroded away.
For Eric Khoo, it’s Pain, the short film he made in 1994 that got banned. “I think it sort of paved the way,” he says thinking back. 

The Crossing – Part 1 (太平轮: 乱世浮生 –上)

THE CROSSING – PART 1(太平轮: 乱世浮生 –上)

Director : John Woo
Cast : Zhang Ziyi, Song Hye Kyo, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Huang Xiaoming, Tong Dawei, Masami Nagasawa, Hitomi Kuroki, Lin Mei Hsiu, Jack Kao
Genre : Romance/Drama
Run Time : 129 mins
Opens : 5 December 2014
Rating : NC-16 (Battle Scenes)
It’s been five years since the release of Red Cliff – Part 2 and director John Woo is back with the first film of another two-part historical epic, albeit one of a different stripe. It is 1945 and Chinese general Lei Yi Fang (Huang) defeats the Japanese troops, resulting in the capture of Yan Ze Kun (Kaneshiro), a Taiwanese doctor working for the Japanese army. Lei falls in love with Zhou Yun Fen (Song), who comes from a wealthy Shanghainese family. After Yan is released from the prisoner-of-war camp, he discovers his girlfriend Masako (Nagasawa) has been repatriated back to Japan. In 1948, as the Chinese Revolution begins to take shape, Lei is thrown back into the thick of battle. In the meantime, signaller Tong Daqing (Tong) has a chance encounter with volunteer nurse Yu Zhen (Zhang), with whom he is immediately smitten. Unbeknownst to him, Yu Zhen has to moonlight as a prostitute in order to make ends meet. We follow these three couples as their paths converge, leading them to the Taiping, a Chinese steamer bound for Taiwan, a last ray of hope as the Revolution heats up.

            Everyone has been referring to this film as the Chinese equivalent of Titanic. Well, that will have to wait until Part 2. First, we have to sit through what can be described as the Chinese equivalent of Pearl Harbour, a big, tragic wartime romance. Just as Michael Bay, a filmmaker known for bombastic action films, struggled with the hokey romance in Pearl Harbour, John Woo seems to have difficulty reconciling the tender love stories with the battlefield carnage in The Crossing – Part 1. The film lurches awkwardly from bodies being blasted apart in combat to lovers casting longing glances at each other, without ever really gelling. This is a decidedly unsubtle film and to call it “overwrought” would be an understatement. Every last wartime romance cliché in the book is flung into Wang Hui-ling’s screenplay – there’s even a “wife writes a love letter as we cut to the husband caught in battle” scene. This isn’t just cheesy, it’s cheese that’s set on fire and one can almost hear director Woo exclaiming “Saganaki!” in the background.

            Yes, this can be called “lush”, with faithful period recreations of post-war Shanghai and explosive battle scenes, but the beautiful cinematography by Zhao Fei is undercut by stilted editing and transitions, not to mention gobs of slow-motion even where it’s plainly unnecessary. The film’s pacing suffers in places and it is often painfully obvious that things are being padded out so the story can be split into two films. This is a war movie that features a subplot in which a woman struggles to compose a song for her husband. While it is evident that this is a big-budget production (by Mainland Chinese film standards), there are lapses in production values such as some unconvincing digital seagulls. We saw the 2D version but even then, a moment in which a tank hatch hurtles straight at the audience is embarrassingly gimmicky. If you have a thing for trucks flipping over as they explode, then the climactic battle between the Nationalists and Communists will leave you satisfied.

            The three male leads are appealingly charming in their own ways. Huang Xiaoming is classically heroic and dashing, Takeshi Kaneshiro has the sexy/vulnerable thing down pat and Tong Dawei’s goofy earnestness does provide welcome respite from the heaviness of the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the female characters are somewhat side-lined and mostly relegated to the role of “pining for significant other while he is out at war”. Of the women in the film, Zhang Ziyi has the most significant role, paring down her usual glamour to play the poor, illiterate Yu Zhen. Of the three central relationships, that between Tong Daqing and Yu Zhen is the most interesting – having never met before, Daqing takes a phony “family photo” with Yu Zhen and a random baby so he can be granted extra rations. It’s a shame that Lei Yi Fang and Zhou Yun Feng’s love story is downright dreary in comparison.

            The Crossing – Part 1 is a better war movie than it is a sweeping romance, and even then it isn’t an outstanding war movie at all. Constructed as a crowd-pleasing historical epic, the film’s transitions from brutal war violence to soppy sentimentality are jarring to say the least. John Woo is in his element for less than half the time here and at least there’s an all-star cast to enact all the shop-worn tropes. Here’s hoping Part 2, centred on the sinking of the Taiping itself, is more focused.

Summary: The Crossing – Part 1 is unsuccessful at being a passionate romantic epic and fares only slightly better as an explosive war movie. Also, you’ll have to wait until May 2015 for any actual “crossing” to happen.
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong