Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

For F*** Magazine

MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

Director : Tim Burton
Cast : Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Ella Purnell, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 7min
Opens : 29 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Frightening Scenes)

miss-peregrines-home-for-peculiar-children-posterDirector Tim Burton has always had a preoccupation with the peculiar, one which continues in this fantasy adventure. Jake Portman (Butterfield) has long been fascinated by his grandfather Abe’s (Stamp) astonishing stories. Abe claims to have spent time at an orphanage for children with unique, unnatural abilities, run by one Miss Peregrine (Green), who can take the form of her namesake bird of prey. Jake’s psychiatrist Dr. Golan (Janney) recommends that Jake visit this orphanage himself to find closure, and so Jake’s father (O’Dowd) takes him to Wales. On a small island, Jake discovers a portal to 1943 – the orphanage is stuck in a time loop generated by Miss Peregrine. Jake finds himself drawn to Emma (Purnell), who can manipulate air. The sullen Enoch (Finlay McMillan), who brings Frankenstein’s Monster-style creations to life, feels threatened by Jake. The evil Baron (Jackson) is on the hunt for Peculiars, with Jake and his newfound friends having to fend off Baron and his cadre of monstrous ‘hollowgasts’.

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is adapted from Ransom Riggs’ novel of the same name. This reviewer is completely unfamiliar with the book and its sequel, and thus cannot judge the film as an adaptation of the source material. Just going off the title alone, it would seem that Burton is the ideal fit to bring the story to the big screen, and for a time, it looked like he might not actually commit to the project. Screenwriter Jane Goldman of X-Men: First Class and Kingsman: The Secret Service fame brings some of the edgy wit seen in her other work to bear, but for the most part, this is pretty standard young adult stuff. There’s a chosen one who uncovers mysterious family secrets, gets inducted into a fantastical world he’s never known, falls in love, gains an eccentric but good-hearted mentor figure and has to fight a sinister organisation.

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While it may not be anything revelatory for those raised on a steady diet of Harry Potter and its ilk, the world of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is still engaging. The mechanics of the fictional universe are laid out clearly enough and it’s generally pretty fun, not taking itself too seriously. As with any fantasy, there are some proper nouns to learn. For example, an ‘ymbryne’ is a female guardian of peculiar children who can shape-shift into a bird. It revels in the absurdity of it all without obnoxiously proclaiming “you are watching a Tim Burton movie”, which the director is prone to doing. The various abilities the children possess are at once shocking and amusing and in at least one case, genuinely disturbing. While there is an expected reliance on digital visual effects, we do get a fun sequence which makes use of old-fashioned stop-motion animation. The imagery is the right side of spooky: it will give children nightmares, but generally stops short of being completely traumatising.

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Butterfield does a fine job of being awkward and awestruck; ‘chosen one’ protagonists can get a little bland but he’s sufficiently likeable as a performer, so Jake doesn’t come off as merely a tabula rasa protagonist. The moment Green appears more than half an hour into the film however, it’s abundantly clear that this is her movie. She’s an actress who’s always acutely aware of the type of project she’s in, modulating her performance accordingly. Here, she’s essentially Professor X meets Mary Poppins. She appears to be enjoying herself and struts about with the utmost poise. The midnight blue streaks in Miss Peregrine’s hair, which take on a green tint in the right light, make Green even more mesmerizing than she usually is.

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One of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’s shortcomings is an understandable one that afflicts many superhero films: the bulk of the characters are defined by their powers, and that’s about it. The incongruity of the children’s ordinary appearances and their flabbergasting abilities provides most of the humour. Purnell strikes a balance between confidence and gentleness, with Emma’s link to Jake’s grandfather making her an enigma that Jake feels he needs to solve. Alas, one can almost see the label reading ‘designated love interest’ hanging above her head. In a move that might vex faithful fans of the books, Emma and Olive (Lauren McCrostie) appear to have switched powers: in the book, Emma was pyrokinetic and Olive was aerokinetic (see, we’ve done a tiny bit of research).

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The Harry Potter series packed plenty of prestigious thespians into the adult supporting roles. Here, the mix of actors is a little more eclectic. Stamp is usually cast as cold, intimidating villains and here, he’s playing an affectionate if odd grandfather. Jackson’s colourful, over-the-top villain, who lisps a little on account of the prosthetic pointy teeth, is a little too over-the-top to be genuinely frightening. Younger children might be spooked by the hollowgasts, who are essentially takes on the internet urban legend supernatural being Slenderman, but because of their CGI-ness, they can be a little too synthetic to be actually scary. There’s also altogether too little of Dame Judi Dench in this, but James Bond fans will appreciate the brief reunion between M and Vesper Lynd.

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The world of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has enough to it that we would be up for a sequel, but because it generally plays it safe as far as young adult fantasy stories go, it didn’t quite grab us. Still, it benefits from eye-catching visuals and an entertaining turn from Green in the titular role.

 

Summary: It’s more adequate than extraordinary and is far from Burton’s most memorable, but Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a fine marriage of director and source material and is pretty decent fantasy adventure stuff.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Imperium

For F*** Magazine

IMPERIUM

Director : Daniel Ragussis
Cast : Daniel Radcliffe, Toni Collette, Tracy Letts, Sam Trammell, Nestor Carbonell, Pawel Szajda, Chris Sullivan
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 1h 49min
Opens : 29 September 2016
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language)

imperium-posterDaniel Radcliffe solemnly swears he is up to no good, and that’s putting it very mildly. In this thriller, Radcliffe plays Nate Foster, a promising FBI analyst. His superior agent Angela Zamparo (Collette) gives Nate the assignment of infiltrating a Neo-Nazi white supremacist group, in order to foil an impending terror attack. Agent-in-charge Tom Hernandez (Carbonell) thinks that Nate and Zamparo are barking up the wrong tree, but Nate is determined to prove him wrong. Nate fully immerses himself in the role of a skinhead, with the intention of getting close to radio host Dallas Wolf (Letts), whom Nate believes is plotting something big. While he is initially accepted by Vince (Szajda) and his gang, Nate finds himself drawn to Gerry (Trammell), who appears to be a mild-mannered engineer and family man, worlds away from your typical white supremacist thug. At every turn, Nate is in danger of having his cover blown, as he starts to wonder if the risky endeavour was worth it.

Imperium claims to be inspired by real events – it isn’t based on a specific case, but former FBI agent Michael German, who receives a story credit, did have similar experiences on the job. Writer-director Daniel Ragussis makes his feature debut with this gripping film. Imperium invites audiences to not just stare evil in the face, but to dig beneath its skin and see what makes it tick. The scenarios presented are chillingly plausible, and we gain insight into the different facets of the white supremacist movement. The motivations and rationale of these people are established clearly enough. Some of these scenes are heavy on the exposition, but the film stops short of unspooling a manifesto and making the audience read through it line by line. All of the obstacles one imagines Nate might run up against when going undercover do present themselves, but the momentum of the story means it’s easy to overlook some fairly standard procedural plot developments.

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There are a few lines in the screenplay that are unintentionally funny – “we can’t control the ketchup, but we can control the streets” comes to mind (no, we’re not giving any context for that). However, most of the writing is engagingly clever, and it’s evident that Ragussis has given the premise a good amount of consideration. Nate thinks his way out of some truly daunting binds, and we are presented with characters who are very satisfyingly developed. It might be tempting to portray militant racists as one-note monsters or bumbling buffoons, but that would end up quite boring. It’s scarier when we see them as actual people. We learn that there isn’t just one type of white supremacist, and that there are rivalries of ideology even within that community. Imperium details why some would be drawn to the cause, while also acknowledging its danger.

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That’s not to say that Imperium is a work of unparalleled nuance: Ragussis falls back on familiar shock tactics, including sweet-looking children spouting hateful rhetoric. Flashing images of marching hate groups fill the screen, which comes quite close to hitting the audience over the head.

Many child actors dive headlong into eyebrow-raising, ‘adult’ roles in an effort to shake off any potential type-casting. One could dismiss Radcliffe as doing just that, but his varied post-Harry Potter career on the stage and screen shows that he is putting in the work to cement himself as a serious actor. He gives an Oscar-worthy performance here, creating a fully-rounded character whose harrowing journey is easy to go along with. Nate starts out looking like John Oliver Jr., and then goes full skinhead. Not the most drastic physical transformation, but striking all the same. This is an intelligent character who is able to apply what he’s studied to practical use, and who does his homework – there’s a montage of Nate diligently poring over Mein Kampf, Essays of a Klansmen and books of their ilk. He doesn’t look like he’s cut out for undercover work, but goes on to prove that he has a real knack for it. It’s a generalization, but English actors seem to struggle with American accents – we’ll be darned if Radcliffe doesn’t sound really natural here.

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Collette’s Zamparo is the authoritative maternal figure, and she seems to play the role a little too broadly. However, the interactions between Zamparo and Nate do reveal just enough about their respective characters, with a big part of Nate’s motivation being his eagerness to impress his superior. Letts avoids turning his radio host character into a blustery blowhard, and the character is all the more insidious for it. Trammell’s charming turn is disarming – Gerry is the friendly neighbour who builds a treehouse for his kids and throws barbeque parties; his wife makes cupcakes – albeit cupcakes that are decorated with Swastika frosting. The way Gerry views Nate as a potential successor in the movement and the hospitality he shows to Nate provide nail-biting tension cloaked in suburban normalcy.

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Imperium succeeds as a blistering thriller and a searing voyage down some foreboding paths. It may not be terribly complex, but there is a palpable effort to ask difficult questions, and it will give your skin a workout from all that crawling it’ll be doing. A likeable protagonist trying to keep a grip on his sanity as he plunges into the lion’s den ties it all together.

Summary: Placing the audience on the razor’s edge alongside its protagonist, Imperium is an affecting and deeply engrossing thriller boasting a captivating lead performance by Daniel Radcliffe.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Southside with You

For F*** Magazine

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU 

Director : Richard Tanne
Cast : Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway
Genre : Biography, Drama, Romance
Run Time : 1h 24min
Opens : 29 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)

southside-with-you-posterHaving one’s first date be dramatized and put up on the big screen for all to see must be a daunting, slightly unnerving notion. Public figures with as high a profile as the President and First Lady of the United States are probably fair game for this treatment, though. Southside with You depicts the summer’s day in 1989, when young law associate Barack Obama (Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Sumpter), the lawyer assigned to mentor him, go on their first date. They visit an Afro-centric art exhibit and admire the paintings of Ernie Barnes, eat sandwiches in the park, go to a community organisation meeting, watch Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing and finally have ice cream. Michelle starts out adamantly refusing Barack’s advances, but as the day goes on, the two learn more about each other and Michelle begins to think that maybe getting into a relationship with the guy is not so bad after all.

For the sake of easy reading, we’re going to refer to the President and First Lady of the United States by their first names. We mean no disrespect, and after all, this story takes place before they took on those positions.

On hearing of the premise for this film, a number of doubts began to form. What if it’s heavy-handed? What if it’s painfully cheesy? What if it comes off as propaganda? Southside with You has the easy-going, pleasant vibe of your typical indie romance, but because of its protagonists, the stakes are raised considerably. It’s an inspired premise, though one would need considerable finesse to pull it off – finesse that writer-director Richard Tanne mostly possesses. This is Tanne’s feature film debut, and what a calling card it is. The Obamas have briefly discussed their first date in various interviews, and Tanne extrapolated that into the conversations they might have had at and between the events they went to that day. Some of the dialogue is not terribly subtle, but we end up learning a fair bit about what makes Barack and Michelle the people they are. When the soon-to-be couple have arguments, the conflict arises and is resolved organically.

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Another worry this reviewer had was that this would fall into the “prequel trap” of laying down obvious hints to the characters’ future that the audience would already be cognisant of. Tanne displays admirable restraint, and his reach does not exceed his grasp. Far from a sweeping cradle-to-the-grave biopic, this is modest in scope, the events unfolding over a single day, and all the better for it. Southside with You does succumb to several rom-com clichés, chief of which being Michelle’s repeated insistence that “this is not a date!” Barack’s repeated attempts to woo Michelle, who initially is having none of it, are eminently relatable. The greatest triumph is that Barack and Michelle end up feeling like real, multi-faceted people.

Stephen James Taylor’s world music-tinged score is refreshingly different from the standard romantic swelling strings we’ve become accustomed to. An original instrument called the “transcendello”, a cross between a pedal steel guitar and a cello invented by David Rivinus, gives the music a unique textural quality.

Casting is obviously crucial, given how familiar the general public is with the way Barack and Michelle Obama look and sound. Sumpter is given top billing and co-produces in addition to starring. While we spend most of the film with both Barack and Michelle, we open on Michelle at her parents’ house, getting ready for her day out. Sumpter can be a little stiff at times, but she has Michelle’s distinctive vocal cadence down pat. Her fiery assertiveness is magnetic, and the back-and-forth between the pair is almost thrilling. She spends most of the film sizing Barack up, while he’s already smitten, and there is an aww shucks quality to how Michelle’s attitude towards Barack evolves as the day progresses (spoiler: they end up together).

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Sawyers is magnificent, proving himself to be bona fide A-list leading man material. According to Tanne, Sawyers’ initial audition was an over-the-top impression of Barack Obama, but once he was directed to tone it down, it became clear that he was the ideal choice for the role. The charisma, winsome charm and affability that are key components of Barack’s personality all shine through in Sawyers’ portrayal. A scene in which Barack addresses a community organisation and rouses the crowd with a phrase that’s a proto-“Yes we can” is acted with irresistible confidence. Barack discusses his upbringing and expresses bitterness at his late father, and while this is largely a hagiography, there’s a great deal of humanity in Sawyers’ portrayal.

“I just want to do more,” Michelle sighs as she shares a beer with Barack.

“Maybe wanting is enough for right now,” Barack replies. This disarming honesty is Southside with You’s greatest strength. In addressing politics and race relations, Tanne never uses the Obamas as delivery vehicles for ideologies, and always brings things back to how they’re affected as people. Southside with You manages to be quietly moving and genuinely romantic, not overly-engineered faux-Nicholas Sparks romantic. As Barack Obama’s presidency draws to a close, this is as wistfully affectionate a farewell as they come.

Summary: While it’s tender, insightful, gently funny and finely acted, Southside with You won’t win over the vehemently anti-Obama set, but it isn’t intended for that demographic anyway.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Girl with All the Gifts

For F*** Magazine

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS 

Director : Colm McCarthy
Cast : Sennia Nanua, Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Glenn Close, Anamaria Marinca, Fisayo Akinade
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 51min
Opens : 29 September 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence)

the-girl-with-all-the-gifts-posterWe know what you’re thinking: “another zombie movie?” In this one, there’s a bit of a twist, in the form of kinda-zombie kids. A fungal disease has brought the world to its knees, with those infected turning into bloodthirsty undead ‘hungries’. Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Close) identifies a group of children as humanity’s last hope. While they crave human flesh, they are still autonomous and not mindless monsters. Of these children, the inquisitive, precocious Melanie (Nanua) stands out. Teacher Helen Justineau (Arterton) forms a bond with Melanie, but the soldiers at the military installation refuse to view the children as actual human beings. Dr. Caldwell is close to devising a vaccine for the disease, but she will need to dissect Melanie in order to create the cure. When the base is besieged by hungries, Helen, Melanie, Dr. Caldwell, Sgt. Eddie Parks (Considine) and Pvt. Kieran Gallagher (Akinade) go on the run. They have no navigate a desolate London overrun with hungries as Helen tries to protect Melanie from Dr. Caldwell.

Writer Mike Carey, known for his comics work for DC, DC’s Vertigo Comics imprint and Marvel, adapted The Girl with All the Gifts from his own novel of the same name. Don’t let the fact that its protagonist is a little girl fool you: this is a brutal, violent film that is sometimes difficult to watch. Perhaps this is a way of keeping the sentimentality in check. For the most part, director Colm McCarthy finds an appropriate balance between the gore and the emotional core of the film, such that these two aspects do not seem incongruent. Even though this British production is a smaller film than its Hollywood counterparts, the production values are decent and the post-apocalyptic set design is sufficiently authentic. It’s just that the cityscapes overtaken by growth and the abandoned storefronts aren’t too different from what we’ve seen in similar films and television shows.

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Oddly enough, the story The Girl with All the Gifts reminded this reviewer of the most was Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Melanie is analogous to Matilda, and Helen, the kind teacher in an otherwise harsh environment, is analogous to Miss Honey. As far as we can remember, Matilda didn’t devour any live cats though. This aspires to be more cerebral than your average zombie movie, with literary allusions weaved into the plot. It is reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, which Carey has cited as his favourite dystopian movie, though it falls far short of that film’s profundity. The English setting will also conjure up memories of 28 Days Later. The ethical quandaries we’re presented with are worth pondering, but the film lacks momentum and urgency, with the zombie action scenes few and far between.

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As the titular girl, Nanua has a fair bit of dramatic heavy lifting to do. The character’s cheerful disposition and sunniness stand in stark contrast with gloomy end times milieu. Her chipper attitude is juxtaposed with the savage impulses she’s unable to control, with several instances of pitch-black humour derived from this. There are some scenes in which Melanie turns aggressive that Nanua has a bit of trouble playing, but for the most part she’s a very watchable performer.

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Arterton’s persona has always been a mix of sweet and sexy, a kind of throwback pinup. Here, she ditches the glamour and is sufficiently convincing as someone who’s lived underground in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. The bond that Helen and Melanie share is moving, and we can get behind Helen’s protectiveness over Melanie. Considine plays somewhat against type as a hard-edged soldier who is initially hostile to Melanie and the other children, but warms to her as their journey progresses.

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As expected, Close delivers the standout performance. The cold, analytical Caldwell, who seems to have no qualms about killing children, is ostensibly the antagonist. However, the character is worlds away from a cackling Cruella de Vil-type villain. Her motivations and rationale are laid out nicely, and there are times when her utilitarian reasoning does make sense. However, because of how loveable Melanie is, we don’t end up going “sure, whatever, just kill the girl.”

While the blend of heartfelt emotion and horror movie viscera works better than one might think, The Girl with All the Gifts ends up being particularly frustrating. Its ending isn’t a total cop out, but it is unsatisfying in its own right. For something that purports itself to be a fresh take on the zombie movie subgenre, it’s also derivative, with multiple parallels to the video game The Last of Us, including the zombie disease originating from the Cordyceps fungus. Taking all that into account, it still is intelligent, moving, gripping and scary enough to appeal to genre fans, if not the sublime triumph it could’ve been.

Summary: The Girl with All the Gifts is sensitively performed and has enough stomach-turning viscera to appease gore-hounds, but is marred by a sluggish middle act and an unsatisfying ending.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Florence Foster Jenkins

For F*** Magazine

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Christian McKay, John Kavanagh, Nina Ariadna
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 1 hr 51 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG

florence-foster-jenkins-poster“Follow your dreams, pursue your passion” – we’ve all heard it before, and while it sounds nice, sometimes it might not be the most practical advice. What if you’re passionate about something you’re demonstrably terrible at?

Such was the case with Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep), a wealthy New York socialite with dreams of singing opera at Carnegie Hall. Florence’s husband St. Clair Bayfield (Grant) arranges private concerts to which only vetted audience members are admitted, so as to shield Florence from any possible ridicule she might incur. St. Clair hires pianist Cosmé McMoon (Helberg) to be Florence’s accompanist, and while Cosmé is taken aback by Florence’s complete ineptitude, he accepts the job. When Florence gives her friends a recording of her singing as a gift, it’s not long before she becomes a sensation, with listeners across the country tickled by her tone-deaf performances. While he seems every bit the loving, supportive husband, St. Clair has secrets of his own, secrets in danger of being discovered by Florence.

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There is a whole subculture dedicated to the ironic appreciation of films that are “so bad they’re good” – movies like The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror and Troll 2. Florence’s appeal as an amateur soprano was very much in the same vein. Multiple plays about Florence have been written and performed, with the 2015 French comedy-drama Marguerite drawing inspiration from her story. This material is right up director Stephen Frears’ alley. Having directed The Queen, Philomena and Mrs. Henderson Presents, Frears is a dab hand at helming both biopics and comedy-dramas. As expected, Florence Foster Jenkins is a light-hearted, silly film. There is an undercurrent of sorrow, but the film comes off more as a celebration of Florence’s own self-delusion and the gargantuan efforts taken to enable her than anything else.

The 1940s New York high society setting is sumptuously dazzling, and Florence’s penchant for over-the-top costumes means that her outfits are never dull to look at. The film has many laughs at Florence’s expense, but also endeavours to make her endearing. There’s no malice behind what she does, and she is kind to those around her. However, it is frustrating that someone so unskilled at her chosen art form was given the platform to showcase her ‘talents’ just because she was wealthy and well-connected. Florence is a sympathetic figure in no small part because of her chronic illness, but as a critic, this reviewer can’t stand 100% behind the reinforcement of an artist’s self-delusion in lieu of self-improvement.

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Most of Streep’s recent high-profile roles have had a degree of silliness to them, and this is obviously no exception. She is having plenty of fun rocking those ridiculous costumes and yelping as if she were a Chihuahua who has stubbed its toe, but perhaps this wanton goofiness isn’t the best use of her abilities. To draw a comparison to previous leading lady in a Frears film, Helen Mirren seems to have a healthy mix of lighter fare and serious dramatic roles in her recent résumé. Even then, Streep remains a commanding presence and her performance is supremely entertaining, while also heart-rending when required. It’s pretty hard to sing badly on purpose and not damage one’s vocal cords, so Streep deserves credit in mastering that particular skill.

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Here, we have Hugh Grant playing a typical Hugh Grant role – the charming, ever so slightly awkward English gentleman. A subplot revolving around St. Clair and Rebecca Ferguson’s character Kathleen brings many of St. Clair’s foibles to the fore, so there’s more to him than just “supportive spouse”. Helberg steals the show on multiple occasions as the beleaguered, long-suffering accompanist who is bewildered that no one in her circle is objecting to Florence’s singing. Half of this movie comprises priceless reaction shots: shock, incredulousness, uncontrollable laughter. Helberg’s reactions, particularly when Cosmé first hears Florence sing and is absolutely mortified, further prove that the Big Bang Theory star has considerable comedic chops. Helberg did the piano-playing for real too.

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While Florence Foster Jenkins plays it broad for the most part, there are scenes that pack considerable emotional impact. This is a film that’s put together by people who know what they’re doing, with a veteran director leading the charge. However, Florence Foster Jenkins shies away from challenging the idea that behaviour like this should be challenged. Towards the film’s conclusion, St. Clair scrambles to conceal a negative review of Florence’s performance from her, for fear that it would be too much to handle. If it is your nature to have that thin a skin, perhaps the performing arts just aren’t for you.

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Summary: It’s entertaining and funny, but Florence Foster Jenkins passes up the chance to examine the implications of blindly enabling someone who’s bad at something instead of helping them actually improve.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

For F*** Magazine

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016)

Director : Antoine Fuqua
Cast : Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer
Genre : Action/Western
Run Time : 2 hrs 13 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

the-magnificent-seven-posterDirector Antoine Fuqua is heeding the Village People’s sage advice: “go west”. In this western, the townspeople of Rose Creek are threatened by the avaricious land robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), who plans on intimidating them into giving up their settlement. Emma Cullen (Bennett), whose husband Matthew (Bomer) was killed by Bogue, desperately engages the services of bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) to take on Bogue. Chisolm assembles a team of men to take on Bogue and his army. They include gambler Joshua Faraday (Pratt), sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke), tracker Jack Horne (D’Onofrio), knife-throwing assassin Billy Rocks (Lee), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Garcia-Rulfo) and Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Sensmeier). Chisolm and his team have to get the Rose Creek residents into fighting shape so they can defend their home from Bogue’s forces.

A remake of 1960’s John Sturges-directed The Magnificent Seven has been in the works for a while, with Tom Cruise, Matt Damon, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Costner attached at one point. The Magnificent Seven is itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 classic Seven Samurai. Working from a screenplay by True Detective creator Nick Pizzolatto and The Equalizer scribe Richard Wenk, Fuqua strives to create a film that’s true to the spirit of its revered forebears, while also having enough vim and verve to attract todays audiences. The ethnically-diverse cast might seem like a politically correct update, but Fuqua maintains that the reality of the old west was “more modern than the movies have been”, with black cowboys, Asian railroad workers and Native Americans all around. With ethnic minorities still not getting the representation in Hollywood productions that they desire, this is a nice step forward.

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While it is significantly faster in pace than the 1960 film, there are times when this Magnificent Seven drags its hoofs. At 133 minutes, it’s longer than it strictly needs to be. There is the feeling that the film never quite hits its stride, even by the time the protracted climactic battle takes place. That said, it’s still sufficiently entertaining, thanks to the dynamics of the appropriately stellar cast. Mauro Fiore’s cinematography has an old-fashioned sweep to it, the Rose Creek set is reasonably authentic and the action scenes are thankfully light on the shaky-cam. The fight choreography can get pretty elaborate, with lots of trick shots and fancy knife-flinging on show.

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For a film that celebrates old-school machismo, there isn’t too much obnoxious posturing to be found. Washington’s subdued authority makes him the ideal team leader, and he does have a similar quality to Yul Brynner in the 1960 version. He cuts a striking figure astride a horse, and projects manliness without resorting to chest-thumping bravado.

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One can tell that Pratt is having the greatest time here, stepping into the Steve McQueen role. He turns the roguish charm up to 11 and is absolutely irresistible as the wily card sharp, in no small part because he’s enjoying himself that much. There are snarky quips aplenty, and Pratt makes them work without coming off as annoyingly glib. Hawke’s Goodnight probably has the most depth out of all the characters. He’s the tormented veteran stricken with PTSD, and Hawke ably conveys that Goodnight is attempting to conceal his trauma beneath a cool veneer. There is some emotional resonance to the buddy pairing of Goodnight and Billy, who are established as being inseparable. While Lee, being the cool cat he is, fits right in with the others, the character still feels like the designated Asian martial arts guy on the team.

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Both Garcia-Rulfo and Sensmeier don’t have a lot to do, but if this were a boyband, Sensmeier definitely would be ‘the cute one’. D’Onofrio is delightful as Horne, who’s pretty much Chewbacca if he were a human being. He may be able to kill with his bare hands, but he’s still reasonably endearing. Bennett’s character is given a satisfying amount of agency, and is neither extreme of wailing damsel in distress or gun-slinging, rooting-tooting Annie Oakley type.

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The biggest difference between this and the 1960 Magnificent Seven is the primary antagonist. While the predecessor had a Mexican bandit played by Eli Wallach, Sarsgaard’s Bartholomew Bogue seems like a deliberate invoking of present-day Wall Street wolves. It’s not a subtle turn by any means and the character’s intimidation factor comes from the fact that he has an army at his disposal, not because he’s actually all that scary. Sarsgaard is an apt choice to play a snivelling, weaselly one-percenter, though we would’ve appreciated it if he could also throw down with the heroes.

This film features the final work of composer James Horner, who died in a plane crash two years ago. He had composed the score as a surprise for Fuqua; Simon Franglen wrote the additional music. It’s not a patch on the iconic Elmer Bernstein music from the 1960 version, but it gets the job done. While most film music connoisseurs have grown tired of Horner’s repeated use of the four note ‘danger motif’, which is very present in this score, we have to say we’ll miss hearing it.

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The Magnificent Seven is not the breathlessly entertaining romp we hoped it would be, but it isn’t a shameless desecration of the classics on which it is based either. Its political allegories and inclusive casting justify its existence somewhat, and it manages to be nigh-riotously funny and pretty darn intense at the right moments.

Summary: It’s ungainly at times, but an extremely fun cast make The Magnificent Seven ’16 a decently entertaining diversion, even if it won’t be viewed as a classic.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The 9th Life of Louis Drax

For F*** Magazine

THE 9th LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX 

Director : Alexandre Aja
Cast : Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aiden Longworth, Oliver Platt, Molly Parker, Aaron Paul, Julian Wadham, Barbara Hershey
Genre : Thriller
Run Time : 1 hr 48 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Disturbing Scenes)

the-9th-life-of-louis-drax-posterDirector Alexandre Aja takes us past the plane of consciousness in this supernatural mystery thriller. Louis Drax (Longworth) is a peculiar, disturbed and highly accident-prone boy who is rescued after a fall from a cliff on his 9th birthday. Louis remains comatose, and Dr. Allan Pascal (Dornan), a paediatric coma specialist, is brought on to see if Louis can be revived. Louis was with his mother Natalie (Gadon) and his father Peter (Paul) at a picnic atop a cliff. The police try to ascertain whether it was an accident or Louis was deliberately pushed, with suspicion falling on Peter, who has vanished after the incident. Dr. Pascal contacts Dr. Perez (Platt), a psychiatrist who was treating Louis, to gain insight into the way Louis’ mind works. In the meantime, temptation rears its head, as Natalie and the married Dr. Pascal find themselves drawn to each other. Trapped ins an otherworldly realm, Louis befriends a mysterious entity known only as ‘the sea monster’, attempting to reach back out to our world.

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The 9th Life of Louis Drax is adapted from the 2004 novel of the same name by Liz Jensen. Director Aja is part of the ‘splat pack’, and is known for gory, shocking horror films like Haute Tension and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. The 9th Life of Louis Drax has elements of horror, but can’t quite be classified as that. In fact, it can’t quite be classified as much else – “supernatural mystery thriller” is as close as we got. This film is at once a whodunit, a relationship soap opera, a philosophical musing on the nature of the subconscious, a fantasy adventure and a noir mystery. Somewhere in there, a barnacle-encrusted creature reminiscent of the DC character Swamp Thing stalks about. Screenwriter Max Minghella appears to struggle with stitching these disparate components into a concinnate whole. The tone is difficult to place: it’s sometimes quirky, sometimes cynical, and sometimes sentimental.

‘Weird’ doesn’t have to be a pejorative – we can think of many films that are enjoyable by dint of their weirdness. The quality of being strange and surreal can be compelling and pull the audience in, but it can also be alienating and hold the audience at bay. Much of The 9th Life of Louis Drax falls into the latter category. There’s a mannered archness to the film, with nearly all of the acting coming off as exceptionally stiff. It’s one of those movies that makes us wonder, “how much of a bad performance is the actor’s fault, and how much is the director’s?” The dialogue is clunky and peppered with unsubtle lines like “men always act like fools around pretty girls”. Aja makes several stylistic choices that help the film become more engaging than it would be otherwise, but they aren’t sufficiently inventive. Perhaps it’s just bad luck that the Netflix series Stranger Things, which features similar motifs including a creature who lurks about a parallel plane, was recently released.

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Another factor that kept this reviewer from getting fully involved in the story was that the main characters are all difficult to sympathise with. Louis is supposed to be more than the textbook troubled kid. He’s precocious and confrontational, exhibiting sinister proclivities. Longworth is unable to parse the ambiguity of the character, and as such Louis generally comes across as a budding serial killer instead of a brilliant but mal-adjusted child who needs guidance and bespoke care. There are several sequences in which Louis narrates the film, and while we understand the storytelling reasons behind perspective shifts, these seem twee and out of place.

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The smouldering, not especially charismatic Dornan plays Dr. Pascal as if he were a sexy doctor in Grey’s Anatomy. It’s extremely difficult to buy Dornan’s Pascal as an expert in his field, and all of the ‘forbidden romance’ intrigue feels terribly mundane when juxtaposed against the supernatural and psychological aspects of the story. And yes, he’s still audibly wrestling to suppress his Irish brogue.

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Gadon may not be an A-lister yet, but she has more or less established a niche for herself as a modern Hitchcock Blonde. She plays this to the hilt here: is Natalie a misunderstood and loving mother who is the victim of her husband’s abuse, or is she a malicious black widow who knows more than she’s letting on? The character isn’t quite one-dimensional, but is still very much a caricature. Natalie never feels like an actual person, which is another hindrance in The 9th Life of Louis Drax being genuinely absorbing.

Paul has comparatively little screen time, since much of the mystery is revolves around the true nature of Peter Drax. He’s an inherently likeable actor but he’s also adept and playing roles with a dark side, which serves him well here. Platt might be the best thing about The 9th Life of Louis Drax. We’ve been conditioned to be wary of psychiatrists and psychologists in suspense thrillers, but Platt manages to be a calm, comforting presence. Despite being treated with hostility by his patient Louis, Dr. Perez remains invested in his mental well-being.

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In an interview with ScreenwritingU magazine, Minghella explained that he deliberately set the film “in the heightened reality of movies…where the characters are all somewhat archetypal so then we can process these wild and abstract ideas more comfortably.” This makes sense, but there’s also the danger of the audience being painfully aware that they are watching a movie and thus being unable to dive into the story headfirst. With so many moving parts, this reviewer was distracted by the turning gears and thus couldn’t get lost in the mystery itself.

Summary: The 9th Life of Louis Drax is an interesting type of bad. Fascinating ideas and potentially moving moments are done a disservice by the stilted approach; its weirdness off-putting rather than beguiling.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Hollars

For F*** Magazine

THE HOLLARS

Director : John Krasinski
Cast : Sharlto Copley, John Krasinski, Richard Jenkins, Margo Martindale, Anna Kendrick, Charlie Day, Randall Park, Ashley Dyke, Josh Groban, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 105 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

the-hollars-posterThere are many wonderful things that can unite a family – then there are brain tumours. When struggling artist John Hollar (Krasinski) learns that his mother Sally (Martindale) is diagnosed with a brain tumour, he hurries home from New York to the small middle American town in which he grew up. Dr. Fong (Park) informs the family that the tumour has been growing for 10-15 years, but John’s father Don (Jenkins) has been dismissing and misattributing the symptoms. John’s brother Ron (Copley) and their dad aren’t getting along especially well, with Ron still reeling from his divorce with Stacey (Dyke). Stacey has moved on and is married to youth pastor Dan (Groban), much to the ire of Ron. Jason (Day), the nurse tending to Sally, panics on seeing John return, since John and Jason’s wife Gwen (Winstead) were high school sweethearts. Sensing that the family’s trials are wearing on him, John’s pregnant girlfriend Rebecca (Kendrick) arrives in town to keep him company. Will the Hollars sort out their issues and more importantly, will Sally pull through?

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The Hollars is Krasinski’s second time in the director’s chair, following 2009’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Krasinski directs from a screenplay by James Strouse, who wrote 2005’s Lonesome Jim, also about a struggling New York creative type temporarily moving back into his parents’ house. The Hollars seems tailor-made for Sundance and film festivals of its ilk, right down to the guitar-led score by singer-songwriter Josh Ritter. While there is a warmth and sincerity to it, The Hollars contains too many sitcom-style jokes that are often cringe-worthy in their obviousness. This is a cast that is studded with interesting, talented performers, but they’re often over-acting. The soap opera melodrama that runs through the plot is too mundane to be dramatic, yet too engineered to feel organic. Standard ‘family drama’ ingredients (terminal illness! Divorce! Pregnancy! Financial troubles!) are tossed into the pot, which is given just a quick stir when it needs to simmer.

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This is an ensemble cast that one can’t help but feel bad for, not because the material is embarrassing per se, but because their respective abilities just don’t get the chance to shine through. Copley is more closely identified with the action and sci-fi genres, and while it’s fun to see him stretching outside his wheelhouse, Ron is too much of a caricature to actually connect to. The character is brittle and confrontational, a tragicomic figure whom the audience is meant to laugh at but also sympathise with. It just doesn’t work, but it’s fitfully amusing to listen to Copley wrestle his South African accent to the ground.

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Jenkins is a fine actor capable of understated turns, but his hysterical performance here makes him seem like a pretty bad actor. Yes, it’s perfectly alright for someone to be emotional when their wife of several decades is at death’s door, but a subtler, more measured portrayal would have made Don’s struggles easier to identify with. As Don’s wife Sally, Martindale is eminently loveable, a gentle, sweet matriarch who’s trying desperately to hold the family together even as she’s fighting for her life. The trouble is, because of all the subplots unspooling simultaneously, one occasionally forgets that Sally is in the hospital with a brain tumour awaiting surgery. Losing sight of the story’s primary dramatic impetus isn’t usually a good sign.

As the harried, down-on-his-luck nice guy, Krasinski certainly isn’t playing against type, and he’s able to display a fair amount of the aww shucks charm he’s known for. Kendrick never fails to light up the screen, even though there’s not very much more to Rebecca than “pregnant significant other”. Park is a decent straight man, but it goes without saying that he’s more fun to watch when he’s given more room to be funny.

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Day is one of those actors who can very easily hop over that line between ‘funny’ and ‘annoying’, staying firmly in the latter camp as the shrill Jason. Winstead is entertaining in her brief appearance – alas, she doesn’t get to spend any screen time with fellow Scott Pilgrim alum Kendrick. Groban is quietly amiable as Rev. Dan, but his range as an actor is demonstrably limited and while he’s displayed a surprising knack for comedy in skits for Jimmy Kimmel Live, he’s stuck playing a straight man here.

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The family dysfunction depicted in The Hollars can be quite relatable, but the need to fall back on hackneyed humour (the opening scene features a character urinating into a pitcher in the kitchen) undercuts its potential to be genuinely moving. While several of the performances are enjoyable, others are evidence of miscalculated choices on the part of the actors and director. Above all, it’s covering well-trodden indie comedy-drama territory, and not covering it particularly well.

Summary: Watching The Hollars is like attending a family reunion with well-meaning but awkward and sometimes irritating relatives – but the cooking’s nice, so you grin and bear it.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Marauders

For F*** Magazine

MARAUDERS 

Director : Steven C. Miller
Cast : Christopher Meloni, Bruce Willis, Dave Bautista, Adrian Grenier, Johnathon Schaech, Texas Battle, Lydia Hull
Genre : Action/Crime
Run Time : 1 hr 47 mins
Opens : 15 September 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)

marauders-posterIt’s time to plunge back into straight-to-DVD action thriller purgatory with Marauders, which is being theatrically-released in places like Russia, Kuwait, and here in Singapore. Branches of Hubert National Bank, headquartered in Cincinnati, Ohio, have been hit by brutal bank robberies executed with utmost precision. FBI agent Jonathan Montgomery (Meloni) is put in charge of investigating the robberies. Montgomery is at loggerheads with local Cincinnati cop Mims (Schaech), whom Montgomery believes is trying to sabotage the investigation. Stockwell (Bautista) and Wells (Grenier), agents working under Montgomery’s command, find clues pointing to T.J. Jackson (Battle), a rogue Special Forces soldier. Only problem is, he’s dead. As Montgomery digs further and the bank robbers strike again, he is convinced that the bank’s CEO, Jeffrey Hubert (Willis), knows more than he is letting on.

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Marauders has mediocrity coming out of its ears. At first, it seems like the film might have a certain stylishness, and the opening bank robbery is staged fairly well. However, any attention the sequence might have earned quickly falls away as the leaden and airless plot unfolds. Being convoluted is not the same thing as being compelling, and that’s the crucial mistake that Marauders makes. There is an attempt at creating a layered mystery, but director Steven C. Miller’s lack of finesse results in there being no tension or excitement whatsoever. The writing is also to blame: Michael Cody and Chris Sivertson’s screenplay heaves with clunky tough guy dialogue that’s all machismo and no impact. There is potential in the germ of the idea that it’s the bankers and not the robbers who are the ‘real’ bad guys, but even then, that’s been done before and with exponentially more pizzazz.

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This is a film in which one character’s primary motivation is the death of his wife, and another’s is his wife’s terminal illness, both played painfully straight. Christopher Meloni of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit fame has ably played tough guys who are also charming, but Montgomery is a wholly unlikeable character who’s difficult to sympathise with even after we learn his tragic back-story. Willis seems to have settled comfortably into expending no effort at all in disposable action thrillers. Here, he’s playing the head of a bank instead of the typical cop or secret agent, meaning he isn’t involved in any action scenes and thus gets to give an even lazier performance than usual.

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Marauders that would like to think it’s gritty and hard-edged, but Grenier detracts from that significantly. Even at age 40, he’s still too much of a pretty boy to be convincing as a combat veteran-turned FBI agent. Grenier pretty much is his character Vincent Chase on Entourage, albeit less successful. Despite being in Guardians of the Galaxy and Spectre, Bautista is still a mainstay of direct-to-DVD films. For the bulk of Marauders, the physically-imposing actor is seated in a briefing room or at a desk, and is puzzlingly excluded from the bulk of the action.

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Ironically enough, it’s likely that Marauders would have been more watchable if it were merely a run-of-the-mill crime thriller and didn’t take stabs at social commentary. The larger conspiracy is meant to raise questions about government corruption, institutionalised banking and the way the American military conducts its operations overseas, but because Marauders lacks the wit to pull all that off, it ends up being pretentious and boring.

Summary: While Marauders wants to be more than your average direct-to-DVD crime movie, it’s woefully lacking in thrills and its mystery is too muddled to be engaging.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Operation Chromite (인천상륙작전)

For F*** Magazine

OPERATION CHROMITE (인천상륙작전)

Director : John H. Lee (Lee Jae-Han)
Cast : Lee Jung-jae, Lee Beom-soo, Liam Neeson, Jin Se-yeon, Jung Joon-ho, Park Chul-min, Jon Gries
Run Time : 1 hr 50 mins
Opens : 15 September 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence)

operation-chromite-posterWhile there are many films inspired by the events of the Second World War and the Vietnam War, it seems the Korean war doesn’t get explored onscreen as much. Operation Chromite tells of a covert squad of Korean Liaison Office (KLO) operatives, going undercover as a North Korean inspection unit to infiltrate the North Korean stronghold of Incheon. The squad is led by Jang Hak-soon (Lee Jung-jae), who is impersonating North Korean officer Park Nam-cheol. The mission directives from American general Douglas MacArthur (Neeson) are to scope out the North Korean command centre, locate the mine chart so the UN command can navigate the waterways, kidnap key North Korean personnel, and secure the lighthouse so the Incheon landing can take place at night. Senior North Korean colonel Lim Gye-Jin (Lee Beom-soo) begins to suspect that “Park Nam-cheol” isn’t all that he seems, with the mission in jeopardy at every turn.

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Operation Chromite has all the makings of a compelling war film, with a team of spies deep behind enemy lines racing against the clock and trying to preserve their cover as our heroes. Director John H. Lee has made a film about the Korean war before – 71: Into the Fire focused on student-soldiers defending a middle school from North Korean troops. He reunites with that film’s writer Lee Man-hee here. Unfortunately, Operation Chromite is marred by a sometimes staggering lack of subtlety. Emotional scenes are smothered by a maudlin piano score, melodramatic moments play out in slow motion and the script is laden with laughable proclamations that are meant to be taken deadly seriously.

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Even though the computer-generated battleships and planes aren’t terribly convincing, the production values generally pass muster. Several action sequences are suitably intense and engrossing, creating a sense of frenzied chaos. There’s a visceral effect to the gunfire and explosions, and while such scenes border on being overblown, they keep the film exciting. The stakes are established and when our heroes are in mortal danger, this reviewer did want to root for them. Unfortunately, meaningful characterisation is in short supply, and Operation Chromite falls back on oft-parodied war movie clichés. There’s a soldier who invites his friends over to his house after the war, saying his wife “makes the best noodles” – we’re sure he’ll emerge from the battlefield just fine.

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Lee Jung-jae exudes a noble heroism and is nicely restrained even as the film around him gets increasingly overwrought. It makes sense that this is a leader whose men would die for. Sure, he’s a little boring, but we think that’s better than being blustery and showy. If over-the-top performances are what you’ve come in search for, fret not: Lee Beom-soo does a nigh-criminal amount of moustache twirling as a villain who wouldn’t be out of place in an Indiana Jones movie. Lim Gye-Jin is as smug as he is bloodthirsty – he’s threatening, but also quite silly. A cold, steely foe might’ve been considerably more effective.

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The marquee name and big ‘get’ is, of course, Neeson. When asked why he took on the role of General MacArthur in the notorious flop Inchon, legendary actor Sir Laurence Olivier memorably replied “money, dear boy”. Neeson appears to be keeping that tradition going here. Neeson is as good an embodiment of commanding, swaggering masculinity as any actor alive, but his portrayal of MacArthur amounts to little more than a cartoon character. Even given MacArthur’s reputation as a larger-than-life historical figure, the portrayal is difficult to buy. It’s substantially more screen time than Neeson had in, say, Battleship, but Neeson just doesn’t get all that much to do besides arguing with Air Force chief of staff Hoyt S. Vandenburg (Gries) and spouting ridiculously cheesy lines. One scene in which MacArthur triumphantly quotes the Bible had this reviewer bursting into a laughing fit.

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North Korea has decried Operation Chromite as “ridiculous bravado from ignorant lunatics,” which really is the best endorsement of all. It’s fuelled by chest-thumping South Korean patriotism, but it’s only natural that a war film is pitched as a crowd-pleasing tribute to national heroes. It’s made with noble intentions and has its thrilling moments, but a sense of artifice pervades Operation Chromite. Lacking insightful sophistication, it comes off as even more of a “Hollywood version” of events than if it actually were a Hollywood production.

Summary: Audiences at large may not be as familiar with the Korean war as other military conflicts, but Operation Chromite’s many war movie clichés are easily identifiable.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong