Doctor Strange

For F*** Magazine

DOCTOR STRANGE 

Director : Scott Derrickson
Cast : Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt
Genre : Action/Adventure Comics/Fantasy
Run Time : 1h 55min
Opens : 27 October 20
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

doctor-strange-posterThe Marvel Cinematic Universe charts a path into realms unknown with this fantasy adventure, the 14th (!) film in the ever-expanding canon. Our hero is Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch), a gifted but self-absorbed neurosurgeon whose life is upended following a car crash. His hands irreparably damaged, Strange is unable to find satisfactory treatment through western medicine, and heads east to Kathmandu. In a sanctuary called Kamar-Taj, the Ancient One (Swinton) holds court, opening Strange’s eyes to unexplainable wonders. Strange sets about mastering the mystic arts, guided along by the Ancient One’s disciple Karl Mordo (Ejiofor) and Wong (Wong), the keeper of Kamar-Taj’s sacred relics. The Ancient One’s students and humanity at large is threatened by Kaecilius (Mikkelsen), a former pupil who went rogue and is meddling in dark powers that could doom humanity. As Strange’s colleague and ex-girlfriend Dr. Christine Palmer (McAdams) comes to terms with his transformation, Strange must use his newfound abilities to defeat Kaecilius and his followers.

doctor-strange-benedict-cumberbatch-hex

For all of the MCU’s strengths and its branching into various subgenres, things have been feeling samey-samey. Audiences crave something all-new, all-different, and Doctor Strange is different enough. Director Scott Derrickson, known for horror films like Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, takes on his biggest, most ambitious project yet, emerging out the other side victorious. This is a film that’s packed with eye-popping invention. Production designer Charles Wood and visual effects supervisor Stephane Ceretti, among the legions of artists and technicians involved, are worthy of commendation.

doctor-strange-benedict-cumberbatch-and-chiwetel-ejiofor-folding-new-york

The trailer had us worried that the imagery would be too similar to that of Inception, which also showcased cities folding in on themselves. It turns out that the trippiest stuff has been saved for the film itself, with kaleidoscopic vistas, Doctor Who-style tunnels through space-time, buildings morphing and shifting like Dark City on steroids, and ghostly Astral projections floating between this plane and the next among the tricks up its sleeves. The mind-bending geometry gives the action sequences a delightfully unpredictable landscape in which to play out. The results resemble weaponised Escher artwork.

doctor-strange-benedict-cumberbatch-and-monk

Doctor Strange may serve up eye candy unlike anything we’ve seen from the MCU so far, but for the most part, this is a straightforward hero’s journey origin story. The haughty doctor must be brought to his lowest point, accept that there are things in this world and others beyond his understanding, and come into his own as a superhero. Things move along nicely and the screenplay by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill and Derrickson is witty without being smug. Just as Deadpool was a standard-issue origin story dressed with self-referential irreverence and attitude, Doctor Strange is a standard-issue origin story spiced up with logic-defying dazzlement.

doctor-strange-benedict-cumberbatch-as-doctor-strange

This reviewer will admit to thinking Benedict Cumberbatch wasn’t the best man for the job, and that Cumberbatch was cast in an effort on Marvel’s part to ride the Sherlock wave. This reviewer was wrong. It is gratifying to see a performer take the material as seriously as one would treat Shakespeare. Cumberbatch’s commitment to the part is yet another indicator that the days of “this is based on a comic book so it must be mere frivolity” are behind us. Cumberbatch rocks one of the most convincing American accents we’ve heard an English actor affect, and looks quite dashing in those robes and that cape. While we do already have an arrogant, brilliant MCU hero in the form of Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Strange doesn’t feel like a repeat of that. Having an actor of Cumberbatch’s calibre in the MCU roster is something we as geeks are grateful for.

doctor-strange-tilda-swinton-and-chiwetel-ejiofor

Ejiofor’s Mordo is by-the-book and serious, but the actor’s charm does shine through. Comic book fans know what becomes of the character, and that’s hinted at here. While Swinton is fine as the knowing mentor figure with a glint in her eye, the movie doesn’t make as a solid a case for its whitewashing as it promised. In the source material, The Ancient One is an elderly Tibetan man – your stock “Asian mystic” archetype. Co-screenwriter Cargill compared the dilemma to Star Trek’s no-win scenario, the Kobayashi Maru. Adhering to the comics and depicted an elderly Asian man as the wise mentor would have been one kind of racist, but it can be argued that substituting said Asian man with a white woman is just another kind of racist. The implication is that a white person has bested the locals at their own game and is now running the show. What we’re really saying is: wouldn’t Michelle Yeoh have made an awesome Ancient One?

doctor-strange-benedict-cumberbatch-and-rachel-mcadams

McAdams doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, but it’s great to see a lead female who isn’t merely the designated girlfriend. In fact, this is probably the first MCU leading lady who’s introduced as our hero’s ex. She’s also shown to be so skilled a surgeon, that even Dr. Strange acknowledges her prowess. Wong has been reinvented from the subservient tea-pouring butler of the original to a stern librarian who refuses to laugh at Strange’s jokes. Strange, Wong and Mordo end up working well together as an unlikely team.

doctor-strange-benedict-wong

By now, you’ve read the phrase “MCU villain problem” in countless think-pieces. Alas, as far as villains go, Kaecilius is quite generic, but Mikkelsen does give the character a sinister, authoritative presence. The design flourish of burned-out crater-like scars around his eyes is creepy. Keep a lookout for martial artist/actor Scott Adkins as one of Kaecilius’ goons.

doctor-strange-mads-mikkelsen

The levity exhibited throughout most of the MCU movies is present here as well, with Strange making some smart-alecky quips and the sentient Cloak of Levitation behaving akin to the Magic Carpet in Disney’s Aladdin. Just as elsewhere in the MCU though, the jokes sometimes diminish the stakes.

doctor-strange-tilda-swinton-and-benedict-cumberbatch

Doctor Strange may not bend the established rules of the MCU completely beyond all recognition, but it reinvigorates the formula with a satisfyingly unique aesthetic. Stick around for a mid-credits scene and a post-credits stinger.

Summary: A commanding performance from Benedict Cumberbatch and a surfeit of exciting, richly-realised visuals make this a supremely entertaining MCU outing.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Advertisements

Max Steel

For F*** Magazine

MAX STEEL 

Director : Stewart Hendler
Cast : Ben Winchell, Josh Brener, Ana Villafañe, Andy García, Maria Bello, Mike Doyle
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 1h 31min
Opens : 27 October 201
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

max-steel-posterHasbro and Mattel are kind of the Marvel and DC of toymakers. Hasbro’s Transformers films are hugely successful in spite of their poor quality, and there are plans underway to weave the G.I. Joe and Transformers franchises into a shared cinematic universe. Over at Mattel, after years of delays, a live-action Max Steel film limps into theatres. Yes, Hasbro is Marvel and Mattel is DC in this analogy.

After years of moving throughout the country, Max McGrath (Winchell) and his mother Molly (Bello) return to the small town in which he was born. Max’s father Jim (Doyle), a scientist, was killed in a lab accident when Max was a baby. Max goes to Dr. Miles Edwards (García), his father’s former colleague at biotechnology firm N-Tek, to learn more about the circumstances under which his father died. Sofia Martinez (Villafañe), a girl at Max’s new school, takes a liking to Max. However, Max begins displaying erratic behaviour as a side effect of developing superpowers: he gains the ability to manipulate and project liquid energy from his fingertips. The levitating alien orb Steel (Brener) finds and befriends Max. When Steel symbiotically bonds to Max, they fuse into the superhero Max Steel. Max must come to grips with his newfound powers as he fends off a shadowy threat and pieces together his father’s past.

max-steel-ben-winchell-1

Max Steel kind of feels like something you’d let your kids watch if they weren’t well-behaved enough to deserve seeing the Marvel Cinematic Universe films. In this age when superhero action flicks are done so often and so well, Max Steel comes off as a low-rent knockoff at best. When it’s not dull, it’s annoying. Every single hoary superhero origin story trope gets a re-tread. This film will put most audiences in a stupor, with viewers muttering in a half-conscious state of recognition “oh, that’s from Spider-Man” or “that kind of reminds me of Power Rangers”. Mattel’s Masters of the Universe property was, like Max Steel, created with the express purpose of selling toys, but a more or less fleshed-out mythology has developed around it. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Max Steel, which when it was created in 1997, tapped into the ‘Xtreme!’ zeitgeist. As originally conceived, Max Steel was kind of an extreme sports junkie superspy with a sci-fi tinge.

max-steel-ben-winchell-in-max-steel-suit

The premise has since been reworked into a young adult ‘chosen one’ plot: take the afore-mentioned Spider-Man and replace “radioactive spider bite” with “robot alien suit” and you get the picture. While the design work is largely uninspired, the production values aren’t terrible: the physical suit itself was created by Legacy Effects, who have constructed the non-CGI Iron Man suits for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Steel convincingly occupies the same space as Max. The love child of Navi from The Legend of Zelda and 343 Guilty Spark from Halo, Steel is exactly as irritating as that sounds. Brener’s rapid-fire neurotic delivery is as much to blame as the painfully unfunny lines that Steel spits out.

max-steel-ben-winchell-2

‘Chosen one’ protagonists have a not-undeserved rap for being blank slates. Max is almost prodigiously boring. Winchell is blandly handsome and is stricken with severe charisma deficit disorder. He was around 20 when the film was being shot, but looks significantly older, unable to pass for a high school student. Sure, Max executes a fine three-point landing, but a pose alone does not a hero make.

max-steel-ana-villafane-and-ben-winchell

Opposite him, Villafañe’s Sofia is the ‘designated love interest’ to an almost comical degree. She’s pretty much Lana Lang from Smallville, and Villafañe resembles Kristin Kreuk too. From the moment they have their meet-cute, it’s a sure thing the pair will end up together, and Sofia’s largely undeterred by Max’s techno-organic freak-outs. “If only getting the girl were this easy in real life,” the boys in the audience will sigh, realising that Max is now almost impossible to relate to. Bello and García are both respectable actors who are slumming it here. As the stock protective mother, Bello emerges with more of her dignity intact than García’s.

max-steel-andy-garcia-maria-bello-ben-winchell

Screenwriter Christopher Yost is a veteran of animated action adventure shows, with credits including the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, X-Men: Evolution, The Batman and Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. If nothing else, those shows were generally fun. Max Steel could have done with truckloads more fun, the ‘grounded’ approach crippling what could have been an unbridled, energetic, delightfully silly kids’ action flick. The franchise-begging ending seems almost adorably naïve.

max-steel-dread-vs-max-steel

Summary: Max Steel is a rusty shell of superhero origin story clichés, bereft of excitement or originality. At the very least, it doesn’t look that cheap.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Miss Saigon: The 25th Anniversary Performance

For F*** Magazine

MISS SAIGON: THE 25th ANNIVERSARY PERFORMANCE 

Director : Laurence Connor, Brett Sullivan
Cast : Eva Noblezada, Alistair Brammer, Jon Jon Briones, Hugh Maynard, Tamsin Carroll, Hong Kwang-ho, Rachelle Ann Go
Run Time : Approximately 3 hours 7 minutes (2 intervals – 1 minute between Acts and 15 minutes at end of film)
Opens : 22 & 23 October 2106 (Capitol Theatre)

miss-saigon-posterComposer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil are best known for their musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. The show that immediately followed Les Miz is generally considered to be their other most famous work, Miss Saigon. The musical, which premiered in 1989 at London’s Royal Drury Lane theatre, is based on Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. The doomed romance between a Japanese geisha and a United States Navy lieutenant during the early 20th Century in Madama Butterfly was re-contextualised and set against the Fall of Saigon, with a Vietnamese bar girl and an American G.I. as the star-crossed lovers instead. This gala performance commemorating the 25th anniversary of the show was filmed in October 2014 at the West End’s Prince Edward Theatre.

It is 1975, and Kim (Noblezada), a 17-year-old country girl, is working her first night at the Dreamland bar in Saigon, run by a French-Vietnamese entrepreneur known as ‘the Engineer’ (Briones). While the vampy Gigi (Go) is favoured by the bar’s G.I. patrons, the fresh-faced Kim catches the eye of Chris (Brammer), a disillusioned soldier. Chris’ friend John (Maynard) purchases Kim’s services for Chris. Chris and Kim fall in love and are quickly married in a traditional ceremony, much to the ire of Thuy (Hong), Kim’s cousin to whom she was betrothed. Chris and Kim are rent apart by the Fall of Saigon.

It is three years later, and John is running an organisation to reunite children conceived during the war with their American fathers. Chris, now married to an American woman named Ellen (Carroll), learns that he fathered Kim’s son Tam. Chris and Ellen travel to Bangkok where Kim and the Engineer have relocated, the sudden revelation throwing all their lives into uncertainty.

miss-saigon-eva-noblezada-1

This reviewer is a fan of the musical, and has fond memories of pestering his parents to bring him to see it at age 8. Most of sexual innuendo was lost on him, as were the details in the set design, because he had forgotten to bring along his glasses. Over the years however, it’s become very clear how problematic, to put it politely, the story is. Miss Saigon is chockful of stereotypes that are not only retrograde, but hurtful. It’s the textbook example of romantic racism, abounding with ethnic caricatures and driven by a ‘white saviour’ narrative. While this reviewer did want to cling to his childhood memory of ‘that show with the helicopter’, he’s found it increasingly difficult to do so, with many of the Asian-American protest groups raising salient points against Miss Saigon.

It doesn’t seem like Schönberg and Boublil set out to make an actively racist musical, but really, who would set out to make an actively racist musical? The duo was inspired by a photograph of a Vietnamese mother tearfully bidding her child farewell at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, the child heading off to the United States where her ex-G.I. father would provide a better life for her. The rousing gospel-tinged number Bui Doi does ring of heartfelt advocacy. However, the troubling elements of the show are impossible to ignore because they aren’t extraneous flashings that can be trimmed away, they are the foundation on which the story is built.

miss-saigon-the-morning-of-the-dragon

All of that said, this production is staged magnificently. Inspired by the original sets of Adrian Vaux, Matt Kinley and Totie Driver’s new production design is eye-catching and elaborate, with the streets of Bangkok and Saigon rendered with enough grit. A faceted sheet metal sculpture of Ho Chi Minh’s face, at once beatific and severe, watches over the Viet Cong soldiers during The Morning of the Dragon. During the song I Still Believe, which juxtaposes Kim pining for Chris three years on with Ellen comforting her PTSD-addled husband, Chris and Ellen’s bed is elevated above Kim’s shack. And yes, the helicopter is still a cornerstone of live theatre spectacle, the physical prop now enhanced with projection effects.

miss-saigon-helicopter

The songs in Miss Saigon may not have stuck in the public consciousness the way Les Miz’s tunes have, but there are some beautiful pieces here – even if they suffer for being compared directly with Puccini’s compositions. The Last Night of the World, with its smoky saxophone solo, and the lilting flute that opens Sun and Moon are very evocative. While some of Boublil and Richard Maltby Jr.’s lyrics are cheesy and melodramatic (“I have a heart like the sea/A million dreams are in me”), there are amusing bits of wordplay (“I should be American/Where every promise lands”).

Noblezada, who was 18 at the time of this performance, is remarkable in the lead role. Her vocal mastery is astounding, Noblezada conveying the sweetness and raw pain integral to the character. The Charlotte, North Carolina-born actress, who is of Filipino and Mexican descent, does great justice to original Kim actress Lea Salonga. Yes, it is distasteful that Kim eventually amounts to little more than a tragically fragile victim of circumstance, but her fierce love for her son and her enduring heartache as acted by Noblezada are sufficiently moving.

miss-saigon-eva-noblezada-and-alistair-brammer

Brammer, the love child of Neil Patrick Harris and Matthew Morrison in both physical appearance and vocal stylings, has plenty of the boy scout quality Chris needs. His rendition of Why God Why? is as desperate as it is pretty, if not as viscerally stirring as some other versions. Carroll’s rich mezzo-soprano voice and measured, compassionate demeanour make her an ideal Ellen. Neither Kim nor Ellen is to blame for the predicament they find themselves in, and there is the danger of Ellen being mischaracterised as a villain, something that this performance steers well clear of.

The Engineer has all the best lines and gets the gleefully glitzy show-stopping number The American Dream, so you’ve got to have someone with the charm and swagger to pull it off in the role. Briones amply delivers, hitting all the right notes as the charismatic sleaze-ball. Amoral and opportunistic, the Engineer is your archetype loveable rogue, not dissimilar to Les Miz’s Thénardier. Go, who has portrayed Kim before, delivers one of the musical saddest moments with her gut-wrenching rendition of The Movie in My Mind. This reviewer wouldn’t call him the weak link per se, but Maynard’s John fell a little short. The character is meant to transform from brash hard-partying wingman into a sober humanitarian, but Maynard’s Act 2 John doesn’t feel sufficiently different from Act 1 John.

miss-saigon-jon-jon-briones-the-american-dream

Long-time fans of the musical will be thrilled with the finale, in which original stars Salonga, Simon Bowman and Jonathan Pryce all perform with their 25th anniversary counterparts. Compared to the quartets comprised of past Valjeans and Phantoms for the 25th anniversary performances of Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera respectively, this tribute is more substantial. It is immensely enjoyable seeing the pride and happiness on Salonga’s face as she sings alongside Go and Noblezada.

If you’ve become attached to Miss Saigon, you’ll likely come away from this film of the musical quite satisfied. However, this reviewer would implore you to at least consider the grievances of the show’s detractors and not dismiss them out of hand. It’s certainly okay to appreciate the artistry, but we have to ask ourselves if we really want Asians to still be drawn this way in western popular culture.

Summary: It’s lavishly staged and beautifully sung, but Miss Saigon’s deep-seated issues of racism and misogyny cannot be drowned out by the whirr of helicopter rotors.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

For F*** Magazine

JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK

Director : Edward Zwick
Cast : Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Danika Yarosh, Austin Hebert, Patrick Heusinger, Aldis Hodge, Robert Knepper, Holt McCallany
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 58min
Opens : 20 October 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Violence)

jack-reacher-never-go-back-posterEnigmatic loner Jack Reacher (Cruise) is drifting back into theatres in this sequel to the 2012 action thriller. Reacher has been in contact with Major Susan Turner (Smulders), the commanding officer of his former Military Police unit. Turner has been assisting Reacher with cases across the country, and they’re finally about to meet face-to-face. When Reacher arrives in Washington, D.C., he discovers that Turner has been framed for espionage, after two of her men die in Afghanistan under mysterious circumstances. In the meantime, Reacher learns that a 15-year-old girl named Samantha (Yarosh) may or may not be his long-lost daughter. Reacher, Turner and Samantha go on the run, pursued by Captain Espin (Hodge) of the Military Police and a deadly mercenary known only as ‘the Hunter’(Heusinger). The Hunter reports to former general James Harkness (Knepper), who runs the private military firm Para Source, and who will stop at nothing to prevent the firm’s illegal activities from being exposed.

jack-reacher-never-go-back-tom-cruise-and-mps-on-the-tarmac

Never Go Back is based on the 18th book in Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher series. Fans of the novels cried foul over Cruise’s casting: was there no one more suited to playing the gruff, blonde, 240 lb, 6’5” bruiser? Anyone who was dead set against Cruise as Reacher the first time will likely be unconvinced this time around. Replacing Christopher McQuarrie, the first film’s director, is Edward Zwick, who previously directed Cruise in The Last Samurai. This is solid, meat-and-potatoes action thriller stuff, layered with military procedure that’s mildly compelling at best. We do get some satisfyingly crunchy hand-to-hand fights and a tense foot chase set against a Halloween parade in New Orleans, but nobody’s intent on reinventing the wheel here. Things keep moving at a nice clip, but when the villains’ scheme is finally revealed, it’s rather underwhelming.

jack-reacher-never-go-back-cobie-smulders-danika-yarosh-and-tom-cruise

While the action thriller beats are mostly generic, the character dynamics in Never Go Back shake things up a little. Reacher, Turner and Samantha are thrown together as an ad-hoc family unit: the strong silent type, the woman in charge and the moody teenager. Zwick finds just the right pitch such that the film has its intense, violent moments, but there’s also room for humour. The result is a movie that isn’t as downbeat and self-serious as it could’ve been, this lighter approach helping to offset the humdrum predictability of the main plot. There’s also a bit of a light shone on the plight of veterans who end up homeless or drug addicts after returning from combat abroad. Not an in-depth exploration of that serious topic by any means, but a glimpse of sobering reality in a largely inconsequential genre piece.

jack-reacher-never-go-back-fight

There’s not too much to say about Cruise’s portrayal of Reacher because he never really becomes the character, he’s just Tom Cruise: action star. That’s not entirely a bad thing, because Tom Cruise the action star brings with him the charisma, confidence and physicality we’ve come to expect. At 54, he seems to be sprinting as fast as ever. It’s just that as portrayed in this and the previous Jack Reacher film, our hero is altogether too close to Ethan Hunt, Cruise’s character from the Mission: Impossible film series, when Reacher as described in the books should arguably be a little older and more wizened.

jack-reacher-never-go-back-tom-cruise-aldis-hodge-and-cobie-smulders

If there’s one revelation out of this film, it’s that Smulders should totally be headlining more action flicks. In Never Go Back, she gets to kick significantly more ass than she has as Maria Hill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far. Turner uses a meat mallet and a garden hose as combat implements; Smulders acquitting herself well in the action scenes. She’s a performer with an innate likeability, and because Smulders isn’t as unyielding and severe as the stereotypical image of military woman is, it helps make Turner more of a well-rounded character. There’s a bit of a screwball back-and-forth between Turner and Reacher, and at no point does Turner come off as the designated love interest. This is something that we should be seeing more often in action thrillers.

Yarosh’s Samantha is the annoying tagalong kid through and through, but the character’s rough upbringing does earn her a bit of slack. It’s a role that would’ve been played by Kristen Stewart ten or so years ago. Hodge’s Espin, the guy whose job it is to pursue our protagonists but is just following orders, could’ve been plenty boring, but Hodge does bring the right amount of liveliness to the part.

jack-reacher-never-go-back-patrick-heusinger

Never Go Back does suffer in the villain department: private military contractor bad guys are, by now, pretty old hat. Heusinger’s Terminator-esque assassin, sporting scary black gloves, is occasionally frightening but lacks truly formidable presence. Harkness, the general-turned-PMC boss, is a typical Robert Knepper character, which is to say, slimy and shady. Alas, he’s far from a match for Werner Herzog, who made quite the impact as The Zec in the first film in spite of his limited screen time.

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is unambitious but never unwatchable. While Cruise’s talents were certainly put to better use in last year’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, it’s great seeing Smulders in action heroine mode, more than holding her own opposite a star of Cruise’s wattage.

jack-reacher-never-go-back-cobie-smulders-and-tom-cruise

Summary: You’ve seen the military procedural stuff done better on TV, but a good number of action sequences and the somewhat unconventional action hero pairing of Tom Cruise and Cobie Smulders make this worthwhile.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Inferno

For F*** Magazine

INFERNO

Director : Ron Howard
Cast : Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Ben Foster, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ana Ularu
Genre : Mystery/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 1min
Opens : 13 October 2016
Rating : PG13 (Brief Coarse Language And Violence)

inferno-posterHell hath no fury like a bioengineer scorned. In the third instalment of the Robert Langdon film series, Langdon (Hanks) is up against Bertrand Zobrist (Foster), a genius billionaire geneticist who has formulated a virus with which he will solve the world’s over-population crisis. The Harvard professor awakes in a hospital in Florence, Italy, stricken with amnesia and pursued by the assassin Vayentha (Ularu). Sienna Brooks (Jones), the doctor tending to Langdon, helps him escape. Langdon discovers that Zobrist has left him a trail of clues, giving him a chance to prevent the virus’ release. Said clues point to Dante’s epic poem Inferno. Visions of hell as described by Dante haunt Langdon, as Elizabeth Sinskey (Knudsen), the director-general of the World Health Organisation, assigns agent Christoph Bouchard (Sy) of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s Surveillance and Response Support Unit to track Langdon and Brooks down. Behind the scenes, Harry Sims (Khan) a.k.a. ‘The Provost’, who runs a shadowy organisation called The Consortium, is manipulating events for his client Zobrist.

inferno-felicity-jones-and-tom-hanks

Inferno is based on the fourth book in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series. We more or less know what to expect: Tom Hanks shoves tourists aside as he sprints through European cities, following a trail of breadcrumbs involving art history in order to foil a sinister plot. Both director Ron Howard and Hanks have said they’re not contractually obligated to make the Robert Langdon movies, but it does feel like most involved are going through the motions. For all its high stakes and ticking clocks, Inferno can get a little tedious, with obscure bits of art history trivia awkwardly bolted onto the dialogue of David Koepp’s screenplay. The bulk of the film is mildly interesting rather than breathlessly arresting. Inferno doesn’t have The Da Vinci Code’s long exposition lectures, but it also doesn’t quite reach the gleefully bonkers over-the-top heights of Angels & Demons.

inferno-felicity-jones-tom-hanks-and-omar-sy

Where the film succeeds is as a travelogue. Brown may not be a particularly gifted novelist, but he does pick locations with a beguiling air of long-standing history and splendour to them. Director of Photography Salvatore Totino showcases Florence, Venice and Istanbul in all their glory. A chase sequence in which Langdon and Brooks are pursued by a police drone through the Boboli Gardens isn’t the nail-biter it could’ve been, but the climactic set-piece makes marvellous use of the cavernous Basilica Cistern. Don’t expect to gain any particular insight into the overpopulation crisis or an alternative solution that doesn’t involve genocide. It’s a topic that’s worthy of in-depth discussion, but here, it’s little more than the motivation for a Bond villain. Some of the visuals depicting the various circles of hell as witnessed by Langdon in his hallucinations come off as slightly goofy rather than unnerving.

inferno-tom-hanks-and-felicity-jones-dante-death-mask

Hanks is the definition of a dependable performer, but this reviewer still isn’t quite convinced that he’s the best fit for the character of Robert Langdon. Perhaps Hanks is more affable everyman than tweedy professor. For nearly the entire duration of the film, Langdon is disoriented and out-of-sorts, struggling to recall events that occurred before he wound up in the hospital. A bedraggled, confused Hanks isn’t particularly fun to watch, but it helps that we’re dropped into the thick of the mystery, giving the audience the illusion that we’re piecing things together alongside our hero.

inferno-tom-hanks-and-felicity-jones-running

The supporting characters in the Robert Langdon stories mostly exist as plot devices as opposed to actual characters, with each tale featuring a gallery of red herrings. Jones follows in the ‘Langdon ladies’ footsteps of Audrey Tautou and Ayelet Zurer. While she is convincing as an intelligent woman, Brooks’ staggering achievements (child prodigy, marathoner, humanitarian, literary scholar) seem very Hollywood-ish and border on self-parody. Foster mostly appears via video messages and TED talk-esque presentations, but it is a neat structural twist that the primary antagonist is absent for the majority of the film.

inferno-tom-hanks-and-irrfan-khan

Sy runs around clenching his teeth, his character fitting the dogged Inspector Javert stock type to a tee. Khan steals the show, essaying Sims’ analytical nature and amorality while still imbuing the character with considerable charisma. The film doesn’t delve into the inner workings of the Consortium as much as this reviewer would’ve liked, but its depiction of a powerful, shadowy organisation hired to pull any number of strings is somewhat plausible. Knudsen doesn’t get too much screen time, but does strike a balance between sternness and warmth in her portrayal of Sinskey.

inferno-tom-hanks-and-sidse-babett-knudsen

Inferno may not be as searing as its name suggests, but there’s still entertainment to be derived from the Amazing Race-style obstacles Langdon has to navigate. The big reveal is as silly as one expects, but it does lead to a frenzied, competently-orchestrated finale. And as far as cinematic tour guides go, one could definitely do worse than Tom Hanks.

Summary: It has the veneer of learnedness rather than actually being smart, but Inferno does have its entertaining moments and shows off some quality globe-trotting.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Accountant

F*** Magazine

THE ACCOUNTANT

Director : Gavin O’Connor
Cast : Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, John Lithgow, Cynthia Addai-Robinson
Genre : Action/Drama
Run Time : 2h 8min
Opens : 13 October 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

the-accountant-posterWhen accountants pop up in movies, they’re generally meek nebbishes: think Gene Wilder and later Matthew Broderick as Leo Bloom in The Producers. Not here. Ben Affleck plays Christian Wolff, a certified public accountant with high-functioning autism. The mathematical genius covertly uncooks the books for the world’s most powerful criminal masterminds, and is also a highly trained marksman and hand-to-hand combatant. Treasury Department investigator Ray King (Simmons) has made it a priority to hunt down the mysterious underworld figure known only as ‘The Accountant’, putting analyst Marybeth Medina (Addai-Robinson) on the case. Christian is hired by Lamar Black (Lithgow), the founder of high-tech prosthetics manufacturer Living Robotics. Dana Cummings (Kendrick), a junior accountant at Living Robotics, has uncovered an anomaly in the financial records that puts her life at risk. In the meantime, Christian is pursued by Brax (Bernthal), a rival assassin with a link to his distant past.

the-accountant-ben-affleck-1

The Accountant is an odd duck, a mashup of the ‘misunderstood genius’ drama and action thriller subgenres. Bill Dubuque’s screenplay was featured on 2011’s Black List of the most-liked unproduced scripts making the rounds in Hollywood. While there are combinations of story elements in The Accountant which one would be hard-pressed to find in any other movie, there also are beats that seem quite familiar. There are stretches of awkward exposition, and the Medina character is introduced by way of having her superior reel off her résumé so the audience can know that she’s both brilliant and has a dark side. As expected, there is a lot of mathematics in the plot. Instead of a training or lock ‘n’ load montage, this movie has an accounting montage. It might be helpful to view all the bookkeeping talk in the same vein as Star Trek techno-babble, but a good amount of effort is required from the viewer to follow the progression of the story.

the-accountant-jon-lithgow-and-ben-affleck

Any time an able-bodied actor portrays a differently-abled character, there’s bound to be a little controversy. On the one hand, it’s a role that could have gone to an actor who actually has the condition being depicted, but on the other, the studio needs a big name. Affleck’s performance won’t be mentioned in the same breath as Dustin Hoffman’s turn in Rain Man or Daniel Day-Lewis’ role in My Left Foot, but it gets the job done. Affleck is mostly robotic, but also puts the effort into capturing the little tics Christian possesses. He is harder to buy as a maths whiz than his buddy and Good Will Hunting co-star/writer Matt Damon, since Affleck has always been perceived as the more lunkheaded of the pair. The intensity and focus with which Affleck performs the action sequences is riveting enough, though.

the-accountant-anna-kendrick-and-ben-affleck

There is an impressive supporting cast here, but strangely enough, they aren’t given all that much to do. Kendrick’s character is a loveable blend of ‘adorkable’ and intelligent – one almost suspects that “an Anna Kendrick type” was scribbled in the margin of the casting notes. The dynamic that develops between Christian and Dana isn’t what one might expect of a typical action movie, which is surprising in its own right.

the-accountant-jon-bernthal

Bernthal plays a garrulous faux-friendly assassin who seems to have wandered in from a Tarantino flick, calmly and affably chatting to his would-be victims, explaining how he’ll kill them. Alas, the final showdown between Bernthal and Affleck isn’t nearly as exciting as the phrase “Batman vs. the Punisher” might suggest. Simmons has a lot of range as a performer, and while Ray King isn’t a caricatured ‘police chief’, he’s still pretty non-descript. The back-story given to Addai-Robinson’s character is more interesting than her actual performance, but the procedural element in which Marybeth does the detective work to identify and track Christian down does have a satisfying logic to it. Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor, both reliable veteran actors, get very little screen time.

the-accountant-ben-affleck-and-jeffrey-tambor

There are little textural elements to The Accountant that give it a much-needed injection of fun. For example, Christian is paid in rare art and collectibles including original Renoir and Pollock paintings, a Star Wars lightsaber prop with a plaque signed by George Lucas, and Action Comics #1, the valuable comic book in which Superman first appeared. Prepare to hear the comic collectors in the audience wince when Christian tosses the issue (sans acrylic slab) nonchalantly into a duffel bag.

the-accountant-cynthia-addai-robinson-and-j-k-simmons

The Accountant’s mystery is more convoluted than it is gripping, with a succession of reveals at its conclusion wrapping things up a little too neatly. It’s not your, well, by-the-numbers spy/hitman flick, but at the same time, its individual components feel like odd bedfellows, and these books end up somewhat imbalanced.

the-accountant-ben-affleck-2

Summary: The things that make The Accountant unique also make it challenging to get wrapped up in. It’s a weird one, but maybe that’s what you’re looking for if the standard action thriller bores you.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Disappointments Room

For F*** Magazine

THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM 

Director : D.J. Caruso
Cast : Kate Beckinsale, Mel Raido, Lucas Till, Duncan Joiner, Gerald McRaney, Ella Jones
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 32min
Opens : 13 October 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

the-disappointments-room-posterA film with the title ‘The Disappointments Room’ is more or less asking for it. There’s that joke out of the way. The name makes it sound like this is a comedy-drama about a class of underachieving students who are galvanised by an inspirational teacher. Instead, it’s a supernatural/psychological horror movie.

Architect Dana (Beckinsale), her husband David (Raido) and their young son Lucas (Joiner) are looking to start over in the wake of a family tragedy. They move from the city to a sprawling, dilapidated country home, which Dana is intent on refurbishing. Unexplainable happenings in the house spook Dana, and she discovers a hidden chamber in the attic which was not in the blueprints. Dana learns that this is a ‘disappointments room’, in which wealthy families would lock away children who had birth defects and who would embarrass their parents. Dana sees visions of the cruel Judge Blacker (McRaney), the former owner of the house, and his deformed daughter Laura (Jones). Local handyman Ben (Till) arrives to help Dana with the repairs, but Dana finds herself losing her grip on her sanity as the estate’s dark past consumes her.

the-disappointments-room-kate-beckinsale-1

The Disappointments Room feels like the result of director D.J. Caruso picking up an instant ‘haunted house movie’ mix from the store and then missing a step or two during preparation. The film is co-written by Caruso and Wentworth Miller, marking the actor’s second produced screenplay following Stoker. While that Hitchcock-influenced Gothic family saga was unsettling and benefitted from Park Chan-Wook’s sumptuous direction, The Disappointments Room is a lot more rote. Creaky doors, a leaky ceiling, creepy paintings and a violent secret history are all present and accounted for. To be fair, it does look like an actual movie and doesn’t feel as cheap or schlocky as it well could’ve, but there’s just not a lot of personality to the house. The Adamsleigh Estate outside Greensboro, North Carolina, serves as the primary location. There’s nothing really that sets it apart from every other rickety, foreboding horror movie mansion.

the-disappointments-room-mel-raido

It’s very loosely based on a true story: Rhode Island residents Laurie and Jeffrey Dumas did discover a secret room in their house. A young girl named Ruth, who was born in 1895 and died five years later, was barricaded in said room. The couple did not report any paranormal activity. Sadly, the practice of segregating individuals with special needs from society out of fear and ignorance still continues to this day, and The Disappointments Room could have been a thought-provoking examination of societal attitudes towards the disabled. Instead, we get “they’re scary because they’re deformed”.

the-disappointments-room-duncan-joiner-and-kate-beckinsale

Beckinsale doesn’t seem to be phoning it in, but the way in which Dana is characterised does leave a lot to be desired. Instead of being tragic and moving, the back-story in which Dana’s infant daughter dies, leaving her wracked with guilt, comes off as convenient. The maternal hysteria that supposedly serves as the movie’s emotional core feels like reductive shorthand, a case of ‘blame it on the unstable woman’. Dana is depicted as capable and handy around the house, but because this motivation feels so familiar, nothing compelling comes of it.

the-disappointments-room-duncan-joiner-and-mel-raido

Raido is pretty bland as David. We see the effort that David puts into raising Lucas, but the character ends up as little more than the slightly schlubby dad who’s trying to cope with his wife’s meltdowns. This being a horror movie, the kid is incorporated into some scares, but we don’t get to understand the extent to which losing his baby sister and having his life completely uprooted has affected young Lucas. Till works his boyish charm for all it’s worth and the scenes in which Ben playfully flirts with Dana do provide a little levity, but the character would have worked better with some sinister undertones. As the main ghost, McRaney does a lot of standing around and staring ominously into the camera.

the-disappointments-room-lucas-till

Film music is often guilty of spelling out what viewers should feel, and this is most evident in the horror genre. Brian Tyler, whose work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Fast & Furious movies has raised his profile as a composer, turns in a score that borders on self-parody. Frenzied strings and loud ‘scare chords’ result in a complete lack of subtlety, and music that constantly lunges at the audience generates more annoyance than it does fear.

The Disappointments Room looks the way we expect a horror movie to look and sounds the way we expect one to sound. There aren’t really any surprises to be found, and it feels like the disappointments room itself should be a clue to a larger mystery, instead of being what the entire plot hinges on. It’s more a case of nobody trying really hard than this being a laughable display of ineptitude. When directors like James Wan are out there proving it’s still possible to make genuinely frightening haunted house movies that work, there’s not much excuse for The Disappointments Room.

Summary: If you’re tired of the same hold haunted house movie clichés, keep out of The Disappointments Room.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Operation Mekong (湄公河行動)

For F*** Magazine

OPERATION MEKONG (湄公河行動)

Director : Dante Lam
Cast : Eddie Peng, Zhang Hanyu, Carl Ng, Ken Lo, Feng Wenjuan, Pawarith Monkolpisit, Zhao Jian, Liu Xianda, Zhan Liguo, Jonathan Wu
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 4min
Opens : 6 October 2016
Rating : NC16 (Drug Use and Violence)

operation-mekong-posterDirector Dante Lam takes us downriver in this action thriller inspired by actual events. On the morning of October 5th 2011, two Chinese cargo ships were ambushed on the Mekong river, with all 13 crew members aboard both vessels killed. 900 000 meth pills are later recovered. In retaliation, the Chinese government dispatches a team of elite narcotics officers, led by Captain Gao Gang (Zhang), to the Golden Triangle. The region, where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet, is a notorious drug trade hotbed. Intelligence agent Fang Xinwu (Eddie Peng), formerly a narcotics officer and now based in the Golden Triangle, joins Gao’s crew. Their undercover investigation discovers that the attack was masterminded by drug lord Naw Khar (Monkolpisit). The governments of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China launch a joint task force to capture Naw Khar, igniting a fierce battle that sets the Golden Triangle ablaze.

operation-mekong-boat-action-scene

Lam is not a director known for his subtlety. The behind-the-scenes footage of The Viral Factor reveals that he fires a pistol into the air before calling “action” to get himself hyped up. Not even Michael Bay does that. We find ourselves in a bit of catch-22 with Operation Mekong: on one hand, Lam ostensibly wants to pay his respects to the 13 victims of the Mekong River attack, dedicating the film to them and listing the deceased by name. On the other, he wants to make this as explosive a high-octane extravaganza of bullets, explosions and blood splatter as he can. We’ve got shootouts galore, chases on land, water and in the air and some pretty brutal knife-fighting too. Lam has plenty of flair, and while some of his stylistic flourishes come off as unnecessary, the flashiness and dynamism do keep things very exciting.

operation-mekong-gao-gang-2

The problem here is that Lam doesn’t seem aware that one can’t quite get away with typical over-the-top genre hijinks in a film that is purportedly based on a true story. One factor that makes the macho 80s action flicks starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and stars of their ilk so entertaining is that we know it’s not meant to reflect reality. Audiences cheer when the hero utters a zinger after the bad guy is blown to bits, with the knowledge that this is silly and that’s fine. Lam claims to have undertaken three years of research and preparation to do the story justice. The scenarios depicted are so overblown, with the characters hewing so closely to established action movie tropes, that we’d be surprised if even 10% of the actual events went down the way it’s depicted in the movie.

Standing in the way of any credibility is how much this feels like the ‘Hollywood version’ of the aftermath of the Mekong River attack. It’s like the direct result of someone watching a hundred action movies and then being turned loose to write one of his own. The elite team’s codenames are all figures from ancient Greek mythology – naturally, ‘Panoptes’ is the tech guy in charge of surveillance drones. Panoptes was the giant with a hundred eyes, get it? It’s a screenwriter’s conceit if there ever was one.

operation-mekong-eddie-peng

Lam evidently seems to enjoy working with Peng, who starred in the director’s previous films Unbeatable and To the Fore. The character is the inside man who has taken up a post far away from home to get away from a tragic occurrence in his recent past. When said event is revealed, it’s almost unbelievably cliché. Peng’s very pretty visage is adorned with a hilarious assortment of fake facial hair, as part of Xinwu’s disguises.

operation-mekong-gao-gang

Zhang is appropriately gruff and steadfast as the team leader, a ‘father to his men’ type. In an attempt to give the character pathos, we see him forlornly watching video calls sent from his young daughter. There isn’t a lot of characterisation given to the other team members – for example, Joyce Feng Wenjuan’s Aphrodite is ‘the female one’, and that’s about it. The villains are every bit as exaggerated as one might expect: we even get a scene of a crazed drug lord stuffing a fistful of cocaine into his face in frustration, just before his base is attacked. The villains are all adequately despicable and we witness some ghastly atrocities, but they’re nearly as cartoonish as the Golden Triangle drug traffickers depicted in Tropic Thunder.

The standout performer is Bingo the German Shepherd. Yes, there’s a team pet. Animal-lovers, be prepared to wince as the dog finds itself in the thick of some pretty harrowing situations.

Speaking of atrocities, child soldiers figure heavily into the plot. This reviewer did feel pretty uncomfortable watching two kids play Russian Roulette in a ‘Deer Hunter Jr.’-type scene. Real-life drug lords do enslave child soldiers, but a topic like that needs to be handled with some sensitivity and feels quite out of place in a rip-roaring actioner.

Location filming and elaborately-staged action sequences indicate that a fair bit of effort was put into Operation Mekong. This reviewer was entertained by the big action set-pieces, notably a deal gone horribly awry in a crowded shopping mall. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Lam would have been better off making a wholly fictional film, instead of sticking “based on a true story” onto this balls-out shoot ‘em up bombast.

Summary: Action junkies will be satiated, but everything in Operation Mekong is so overblown that it flies straight past ‘taking artistic license’ into the realm of the patently ludicrous.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life

For F*** Magazine

MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE

Director : Steve Carr
Cast : Griffin Gluck, Lauren Graham, Rob Riggle, Thomas Barbusca, Andy Daly, Alexa Nisenson, Isabela Moner, Adam Pally, Retta, Efren Ramirez
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 91 mins
Opens : 6 October 2016
Rating : PG

middle-school-the-worst-years-of-my-life-posterAll Rafe Katchadourian (Gluck) wants to do is draw. After suffering a death in the family, Rafe and his sister Georgia (Nisenson) are going through a difficult time. Rafe is transferred to Hill Village Middle School, where he runs afoul of the unreasonable, sadistic principal Mr. Dwight (Daly) and vice-principal Ms. Stricker (Retta). Thankfully, Rafe’s teacher Mr. Teller (Pally) encourages Rafe’s artistic pursuits. Rafe and his best friend Leo (Barbusca) devise a scheme to systematically defy all the rules inscribed in Mr. Dwight’s precious Code of Conduct. Aside from being hounded by the principal and school bullies, Rafe has to contend with Carl (Riggle), his mother Julia’s (Graham) uncouth ne’er-do-well boyfriend. In the meantime, romance blossoms, as Rafe finds himself drawn to Jeanne Galleta (Moner), the intelligent president (and only member of) the school’s A.V. Club.

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life is based on the children’s novel of the same name by James Patterson and Chris Tebbett. On the cover of the book, you’ll notice that Patterson’s name is printed in huge font, while Tebbett’s is barely noticeable. Patterson is best known for his Alex Cross detective series but has branched out into books for younger readers, including the Middle School books and the YA series Maximum Ride. Patterson often catches flack for taking books written by ghost-writers and marketing them as his own work, operating what’s been called a ‘bestseller factory’. Suffice it to say that he seems keener on cultivating his lucrative brand name than actually writing, but he’s far from the only author who’s like that.

middle-school-the-worst-years-of-my-life-group-photo

With all that in mind, this reviewer is fine with the Middle School movie. It trades in many typical stock types and plot devices: our protagonist is a creative daydreamer, the principal is a cruel hard-ass, there’s one nice teacher, mum’s new boyfriend is an oafish lout, there’s a cute, bright girl he has a crush on, and so on. However, the film takes a stand against the stifling of children’s creative tendencies by the school system, with the principal obsessing about Hill Village’s ranking in an upcoming standardised test. Large banners hang above the lockers in the hallways, with the slogans ‘RESPECT AUTHORITY’, ‘OBEY THE RULES’ and, most amusingly, ‘ASSIMILATE’ emblazoned upon them. Seeing as this reviewer is from Singapore, where preoccupation with academic results and conformity to standards is practically mandatory, it does strike a chord.

As can be expected of a film that more or less looks like it belongs on Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, there isn’t too much subtlety to be found. Nearly all the performances are comically exaggerated and the screenplay by Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer and Kara Holden sounds cynical and smart-alecky at times. Mentions of a ‘hot stepmum’ and an allusion to Kim Kardashian’s rear end feel like jokes that exist so the writers could keep themselves amused. The animated interludes which depict Rafe’s drawings coming to life are fun, though. There’s a nice old-school quality to the largely-2D animation created by Duncan Studios, which is headed up by former Disney animator Ken Duncan.

middle-school-the-worst-years-of-my-life-alexa-nisenson-lauren-graham-and-will-gluck

Gluck is affable and sensitive as Rafe, turning in a subdued performance when compared to the broad comedy that surrounds him. He is believable as a quiet artistic type; what’s less believable are the elaborate protest art pranks that he executes, which seem logistically implausible at best. Barbusca does get on the nerves a little as the garrulous, upbeat best friend, but there is a reveal that lends the relationship between Rafe and Leo some meaning. While Georgia is, for the most part, the ‘little sister with attitude’, Nisenson pulls off a surprisingly heavy emotional scene. 100 Things to Do Before High School’s Moner plays the millennial equivalent to the hippie who would be handing out leaflets on campus in the ’70s, and she is immensely likeable as Jeanne.

middle-school-the-worst-years-of-my-life-will-gluck-and-alexa-nisenson

Lauren Graham plays a typical Lauren Graham character and Rob Riggle plays a typical Rob Riggle character. Julia is sweet, well-meaning and trying to work through grief, while Carl is obnoxious, self-absorbed and mean to those around him. Daly has a ball playing the eminently hateable villain, with Retta backing him up as the imposing second-in-command. Pally’s character is pretty much every ‘designated cool teacher’ ever: his establishing character moment involves him using hip-hop analogies to explain the concept of fair trade to his class. Efren Ramirez has a few scene-stealing moments as the under-appreciated janitor Gus.

middle-school-the-worst-years-of-my-life-andy-daly-efren-ramirez-and-retta

Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life suffers from some tonal issues and there are moments where it leans too strongly into the schmaltz. This reviewer will admit to tearing up during the final scene, cheesy as it is. While some may take umbrage with what can be seen as an incitement to revolution against school principals, its message of the valuing and nurturing of creativity in children and thinking beyond the textbook is a worthy one.

Summary: Middle School might be as over-the-top and silly as your average kid-aimed school comedy, but its celebration of creativity and takedown of an exams-obsessed school system do have merit.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Good Kids

For F*** Magazine

GOOD KIDS

Director : Chris McCoy
Cast : Nicholas Braun, Zoey Deutch, Israel Broussard, Mateo Arias, Demian Bichir, David Coussins, Virginia Gardner, Tasie Lawrence, Ashley Judd
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 86 mins
Opens : 6 October 2016
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes)

good-kids-posterWe’ve all seen that triangle diagram: the three corners are labelled ‘good grades’, ‘social life’ and ‘enough sleep’, and the centre of the triangle bears the imperative ‘choose two’. This comedy revolves around a group of friends who have devoted their whole lives to being well-behaved, academically successful students. It’s the summer before they each leave for prestigious colleges, and Andy (Braun), Nora (Deutch), Spice (Broussard) and The Lion (Arias) make a pact to enjoy all they’ve been missing out on. Andy begins having sex with Gabby (Judd) and the other wealthy married woman who patronises the country club where he is a tennis coach; Nora starts a relationship with Erland (Coussins), her colleague at an aquarium lab; The Lion partakes in a variety of drugs; and Spice goes off in search of ‘sexual release’. In the meantime, Andy continues communicating with a girl from India he’s met online who may or may not actually exist, while he attempts to come to terms with the feelings he’s had for Nora all this while.

Good Kids is written and directed by Chris McCoy, who makes his feature-film debut here. The screenplay landed on the 2011 Black List of most-liked scripts making the rounds in Hollywood. Sure, there have been plenty of Black List scripts that were turned into bad movies, but this case seems particularly puzzling, because there’s nothing special about Good Kids at all. It seems to be the product of typing the command ‘write teen sex comedy’ into some automated screenwriting program. The jokes are tired and mostly unfunny and the characters are all very recognisable archetypes and largely difficult to sympathise with. Beyond that, the underlying attitudes are retrograde, with the veneer of raunchiness serving to obfuscate its lack of originality.

good-kids-mateo-arias-zoey-deutch-nicholas-braun-and-israel-broussard

Braun’s lankiness is often remarked upon, and his gangly proportions do lend themselves to an awkward nerd character. Alas, he’s trying way too hard to come off as awkward, with the results bordering on obnoxious. The character’s sudden success with the ladies and the large amounts of sex he winds up having smack of cheap wish-fulfilment, and when it comes down to it, Andy isn’t even all that endearing. Arias is the generic stoner while Broussard doesn’t get all that much to do, getting the least screen time of the four main characters. It’s kind of weird to see Oscar nominee Demian Bichir in an over-the-top appearance as Andy’s boss Yaco, while Judd seems to be having a degree of fun in full vampy cougar mode.

good-kids-zoey-deutch

Deutch is the best thing about Good Kids by a mile. She has emerged as an elegant presence with fine comic sensibilities and a keen wit. She also seems intent on making a name for herself despite having somewhat famous parents to fall back on, appearing in no less than seven films being released in 2016. Her radiance is an appealing complement to the film’s sun-kissed, idyllic coastal Massachusetts setting.

good-kids-nicholas-braun-and-zoey-deutch

Good Kids is produced by Paul and Chris Weitz of American Pie fame, and it does come off like the reheated leftovers of that and any number of teen sex comedy flicks. Unlike American Pie, Good Kids won’t spawn any catchphrases or enter the pop culture lexicon. There’s plenty to say about millennials experiencing pre-college anxiety and getting caught in between the paper chase and revelling in youthful indiscretions, none of which Good Kids mines. The locale in which the story is set means it’s often quite pretty to look at, but the predictable plot trajectory and uninspired humour make it a bit of a chore to sit through, even given its lean 86-minute runtime.

Summary: Drugs? Check. Booze? Check. Sex? Check. Originality, humour or warmth? Look elsewhere.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong