Why Him?

For F*** Magazine

WHY HIM?

Director : John Hamburg
Cast : Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Zoey Deutch, Megan Mullally, Griffin Gluck, Keagan Michael-Key
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1h 51min
Opens : 29 December 2016
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language And Sexual References)

why-him-posterIt’s every father’s nightmare: your daughter falls in love with (dramatic pause) James Franco. The father in this case is Ned Fleming (Cranston), who owns a printing company in Michigan. While studying at Stanford, Ned’s daughter Stephanie (Deutch) falls for Laird Mayhew (Franco), a Silicon Valley billionaire. Laird invites Ned, his wife Barb (Mullally) and their son Scotty (Gluck) over for the holidays. Ned is shocked by Laird’s over-the-top antics and lack of a filter, creating endless awkwardness. Ned flies into a panic when Laird tells Ned his plans to propose to Stephanie. As the rest of the family begins to warm to Laird, Ned takes drastic measures to prevent Laird from becoming his son-in-law.

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Why Him? is directed and co-written by John Hamburg, who co-wrote the Meet the Parents series of films. There’s not a lot of originality in the premise of Why Him?, which pits a strait-laced dad against a free-spirited, outrageous potential son-in-law. The film’s brand of humour is crass and unsophisticated, awash in scatological jokes and an abundance of coarse language. Why Him? also possesses several traits seen in many recent big studio comedies, such as falling back on celebrity cameos for laughs, and attempting to offset wanton ribaldry with sweetness. However, it is frequently funny, thanks to extremely effective casting.

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Cranston has proven to be a gifted performer in both comedic and dramatic roles. Even when doing as little as looking aghast or wringing his hands, Cranston is a thoroughly entertaining presence. Ned is a boring family man: to hammer this home, we see that his 55th birthday party is being held at an Applebees restaurant. He’s also expectedly protective over his daughter. The ways in which Ned and Laird come into conflict are mostly predictable, but Cranston doesn’t phone it in at all here.

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We’ll come right out and say it: Franco has a reputation for being at least a little weird. He’s an Oscar-nominated multi-hyphenate with a prolific list of credits both in front of and behind the camera, but he can’t help being the target of parody and accusations that he’s an attention-seeker. This seems like a part that’s tailor-made for Franco, and he has great fun with the goofy role. Franco and Cranston share palpable comic chemistry, and they power through the hackneyed jokes and toilet humour to deliver the laughs.

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Deutch is an exceedingly appealing actress, it’s just a pity that she’s popped up in so many cringe-inducing comedies as of late. As with Cranston and Franco, this is casting that just works. Deutch looks sensible and intelligent, so we’re meant to question “why him?” alongside Ned. Since the bulk of the movie is about Ned and Laird’s rivalry, it means that Deutch’s part isn’t as substantial as it should be. Mullally and Gluck are good as Ned’s wife and son respectively. Mullally gamely works her way through a scene in which Barb, high on marijuana, aggressively comes on to Ned (that’s not how weed works). Scotty is business-savvy and focused on self-improvement, but is swayed by the lavish trappings of Laird’s lifestyle all the same.

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Why Him? pokes fun at Silicon Valley excesses via Laird’s contemporary art collection, his parties deejayed by Steve Aoki, fancy-pants haute cuisine served up by Top Chef alum Richard Blais, and a Siri-like smart home system named Justine, voiced by Kaley Cuoco. While material like this is done much better on HBO’s Silicon Valley, there are still laughs to be had from the culture shock that Grand Rapids native Ned experiences when confronted with Laird’s California tech elite lifestyle. Keagan Michael-Key steals the show as Gustav, the German-accented manservant who springs surprise attacks on Laird so Laird can improve his self-defence skills.

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Why Him’s lowbrow jokes are punctuated with semi-inspired visual gags and even though some of the set pieces go on for too long, the acting is just enough to sustain in. The subplot of Ned’s I.T. guy Kevin Dingle (Zack Pearlman) having a creepy, perverse obsession with Stephanie that’s played for laughs is particularly distasteful.

Why Him? is far from the best use of its talented cast and its cynicism and crassness won’t sit well with some audiences, but it’s almost as funny as it is stupid. We mean this in the best way possible.

Summary: Inelegant and vulgar but entertainingly acted by its excellent cast, Why Him? showcases energetic performances overcoming a tired script and some tasteless jokes.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

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Railroad Tigers (铁道飞虎)

For F*** Magazine

RAILROAD TIGERS (铁道飞虎)

Director : Ding Sheng
Cast : Jackie Chan, Xu Fan, Huang Zitao, Darren Wang, Wang Kai, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 5min
Opens : 29 December 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

railway-tigers-posterIt’s all aboard the Jackie Chan express – destination: Thrillsville. In this period action comedy, Jackie plays Ma Yuan, a porter working at a railway yard in Japanese-occupied China. Ma Yuan leads a motley crew of odd-job labourers who form a resistance against the Japanese, calling themselves the “Railroad Tigers”. The team includes tailor Da Hai (Huang) and Fan Chuan (Wang Kai), the former soldier and current proprietor of a noodle shop. Ma Yuan’s family has been killed by Japanese forces, and he is seeking to make a new life with the pancake vendor affectionately known as “Auntie Qin” (Xu). Ma Yuan, Auntie Qin and company harbour a wounded soldier named Da Guo (Darren Wang), whose compatriots have been killed, stalling a crucial mission to blow up a bridge. Ma Yuan and his fellow Railroad Tigers take it on themselves to complete the mission, with the psychotic commander Yamaguchi (Ikeuchi) and his men standing in their way.

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Railroad Tigers is the third collaboration between Jackie and director Ding Sheng, who also directed Little Big Soldier and Police Story 2013. It’s reminiscent of The Good, The Bad and the Weird, which also pitted a ragtag gang against the Japanese military during the Second World War. It fits into that broader sub-category of wartime capers like The Dirty Dozen. For the most part, this is a fun ride. There are several ambitious, explosive action set-pieces, amusing moments of physical comedy and a merry band of misfits to root for. The sequences set in and around moving trains must have been a logistical nightmare to coordinate, so credit to action director He Jun of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team is due. The cast and crew weathered temperatures of -20°C while shooting in Liaoning and Shandong in China, suffering for their art.

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The film does have its fair share of issues. It succumbs to a common pitfall of ensemble war movies, that of having too many characters, some of whom are difficult to distinguish from each other or could have been combined for efficiency. Ding also edited the film, and it is choppy and uneven in patches. The use of title cards to introduce each new character is unnecessary, and the 3D-animated interludes, while stylish, tend to take one out of the film. The film’s climax is intense and exhilarating, but it is also protracted and bloated. There is a healthy amount of practical stunt work and miniature effects, but there are still computer-generated shots that stick out. This is all topped off with a completely superfluous celebrity cameo in the film’s closing moments.

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Jackie has grown into ‘father to his men’-type roles nicely, and his turn as Ma Yuan is thankfully free of the self-aggrandizing egotism that has plagued some of his recent projects. Jackie is still involved in most of the action and his comic timing remains as sharp as ever. Xu gives the overblown proceedings warmth and authenticity as the ‘auntie’ who sells pancakes by day and helps the rebellion by night. As is de rigueur in present-day Chinese blockbusters, there must be at least one boyband teen idol to attract the young female demographic; that role falls to Huang Zitao here. Wang Kai steals the show as the dashing, highly skilled Fan Chuan, while Ikeuchi is just the right amount of over-the-top as the blustering villain.

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The way the Japanese soldiers are depicted in Railroad Tigers is akin to the portrayal of the Nazis in the Indiana Jones films. While some might find it distasteful that the historical atrocities of the occupying Japanese forces are glossed over in favour of a pulp villain approach, it fits the generally light-hearted tone of the film. There are Japanese characters who are painted as buffoons, but then again, the Railroad Tigers themselves partake in significant quantities of buffoonery.

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Railroad Tigers lacks the cohesion and focus to be the supremely entertaining, tightly-constructed romp that it could’ve been, but it delivers the action and the comedy in heaping helpings. There’s a bit in which tank turrets function as swords in a delightfully bizarre ‘duel’. That finale, as drawn out as it is, is an absolute corker.

Summary: A rousing, white-knuckle tale of the scrappy underdogs vs. big bad military forces, there’s a bit too much going on in Railroad Tigers to keep track of but it’s plenty of fun.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Assassin’s Creed

For F*** Magazine

ASSASSIN’S CREED 

Director : Justin Kurzel
Cast : Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Ariane Labed, Denis Ménochet, Michael K. Williams, Charlotte Rampling, Brendan Gleeson
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1h 56min
Opens : 22 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Violence and Brief Coarse Language)

assassins-creed-posterNobody expects the Spanish Inquisition – least of all Callum Lynch (Fassbender), a death row inmate who is spirited away to the late 15th Century. It’s not time travel per se, but regression via ‘genetic memories’. Callum is the descendant of Aguilar de Nerha, a warrior who belonged to the secret society known as the Assassins. The Assassins have long been at war with the Templars. Alan Rikkin (Irons), the CEO of Abstergo Industries, is a Templar. Callum lives out the experiences of Aguilar using a machine called the Animus, developed by Alan and his daughter Sophia (Cotillard). Alan endeavours to discover the whereabouts of an artefact known as the Apple of Eden, which is said to contain the origins of free will. Callum must come to grips with his destiny as he finds himself caught in the conflict between the Assassins and the Templars, a conflict that is about to reach its tipping point.

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It’s no secret that films based on video games have long had a bad rap, and many had hoped that Assassin’s Creed would mark a watershed moment, proving that good movies based on video games could actually exist. After all, promising director Justin Kurzel was picked to direct, with Michael Fassbender starring and co-producing. Alas, a video game movie that can be universally considered ‘good’ remains elusive. Assassin’s Creed has the task of appealing to fans of the game franchise, while remaining easy enough for neophytes to get into. The decision to create an original story that would not be a direct adaptation of any of the games in the series seemed like a wise one. While this should have freed Kurzel and the film’s creative team from the burden of condensing a sprawling plot into one film, the end result is infuriatingly muddled.

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The suspension of one’s disbelief is key to buying into the premise of Assassin’s Creed. A sinister corporation seeking out the descendants of a sect of assassins and tapping into their genetic memories for their own ends sounds silly on paper, but could be worked into something compelling. The screenplay is credited to Michael Lesslie, who adapted Shakespeare’s Macbeth for Kurzel; and the team of Adam Cooper and Bill Collage, who wrote The Transporter: Refueled and Exodus: Gods and Kings. Assassin’s Creed is an inchoate work, a mish-mash of history, sci-fi and philosophy that refuses to gel into a workable whole.

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The Apple of Eden is as ludicrous a MacGuffin as they come. In the games, the mystical orbs are the creations of the godlike Isu, and have granted incredible power to figures from Moses to George Washington. In the film, the Apple contains, uh the cure to violence? Or something. It’s one of many ways in which Assassin’s Creed is stubbornly hokey.

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The scenes set during the Spanish Inquisition are the best bits of the film. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw treats us to sweeping establishing shots, the environments are rich with period detail and the action choreography is slick. It is difficult to get into the ‘flashbacks’ because we’re constantly jerked back to the present day and reminded that it’s all a simulation (even though ‘simulation’ is not an entirely accurate description). The big parkour chase set piece is executed well, making us wish there was more of that and less wading through an exposition swamp. The Spanish Inquisition has been codified as an example of oppression through religion. As expected, it’s not depicted with much nuance; the Catholics portrayed here as moustache-twirling villains. The violence is as brutal as a PG-13 rating will allow, and it’s clear that a movie about assassins shouldn’t have to pull this many punches.

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Fassbender has leading man charisma to spare and is a believable action hero, which is why it’s so frustrating that Callum Lynch is kind of a nothing protagonist. He has a tragic past, has been dealt a bad hand in life and becomes a pawn in a far-reaching conspiracy. Those are fine ingredients for a hero, but something’s missing here. Perhaps it’s in how the film gets bogged down in the mechanics of the plot, instead of letting the characters carry the story forward.

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Cotillard delivers her poorly-written dialogue with admirable conviction, while Irons stands around and looks solemn. Aguilar’s fellow Assassin Maria (Labed) could’ve been the character to steal the show, but she’s just required to look cool. It’s difficult to get invested in the relationship between Aguilar and Maria, or in the relationships between any of the characters, for that matter. Moussa (Williams) a descendant of the Haitian Assassin Baptiste, emerges as the character with the most personality.

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Kurzel’s brother Jed composed the film’s score, as he’s done for most of the director’s films. It’s tinged with world music flair, and like the rest of the atmospherics, is fine. While there’s something of a silver lining to be found in a filmmaker treating a video game-based film as seriously as Kurzel has here, Assassin’s Creed is po-faced to a detrimental extent. Dull and convoluted rather than spirited and entertaining, this is a let-down for anyone who was hoping it would herald the success for video game movies that comic book movies have been enjoying lately.

SUMMARY: Assassins are deft and swift; this movie is clumsy and plodding. The sequences set in the thick of the Spanish Inquisition are the closest Assassin’s Creed gets to actually being entertaining.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Passengers

For F*** Magazine

PASSENGERS 

Director : Morten Tyldum
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Genre : Adventure/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 1h 56min
Opens : 22 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Scenes of Intimacy)

passengers-posterMany of us have pleaded for “five more minutes” when struggling to get out of bed in the morning. Compared to Jim Preston’s (Pratt) predicament in this sci-fi romance, that’s nothing – Jim is awoken 90 years too early. He is among the 5000 passengers on the starship Avalon, bound for the colony planet Homestead II. A malfunction in his hibernation pod results in Jim’s 120-year-long slumber being cut short. Doomed to live out his days in solitude aboard the Avalon and with no way of returning to hibernation, Jim only has the android bartender Arthur (Sheen) for company. That is, until another passenger awakes: Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a writer from New York. Jim and Aurora fall in love – it’s not like they have too much else to do. However, the hibernation pod malfunction is only the first warning sign as it soon becomes apparent that the state-of-the-art ship is in jeopardy, putting the lives of Jim, Aurora and their fellow voyagers at risk.

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Jon Spaiht’s screenplay for Passengers landed on the 2007 Black List of most-liked unproduced scripts in Hollywood, with Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon once attached to the project. It’s safe to say that Lawrence and Pratt have significantly more star wattage. They were the top-earning female and male movie stars of 2014 respectively, and while making the promotional rounds, the pair has given some entertaining interviews. While there’s a novelty in the premise of a sci-fi film carried mostly by two actors, Passengers ends up feeling too familiar. With Oscar-nominated director Morten Tyldum at the helm, it is solidly assembled, but the romance central to the film borders on the simplistic. There is conflict and a rom-com-style big misunderstanding writ large, but the film relies more on its stars’ charm than its wit.

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Passengers’ gleaming, futuristic aesthetic is pleasing, if not terribly ground-breaking. The corkscrew-like exterior of the Avalon is a departure from the traditional bulky star cruisers from most sci-fi media, but the interiors conform to expectations of Apple-esque sleekness. The Avalon is meant to be a space-borne luxury cruise liner, with the passengers spending the last four months before arrival to Homestead II enjoying its plush surrounds. This is one of several ways in which Passengers resembles WALL-E. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, known for his work on Inception and Interstellar, does some beautiful work here and is successful in making the Avalon seem like an awesome place to take a vacation. Infinity pools have got nothing on infinity-and-beyond-pools.

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Both Lawrence and Pratt are interesting case studies in stardom. It’s affected the former more than the latter so far, but there are large swathes of moviegoers who find themselves put off by a perceived sense of ‘trying too hard’ projected by both actors. Lawrence has spoken up about pay inequality after being paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle, and secured a $20 million salary for Passengers – $8 million more than Pratt, despite Pratt having more screen time. Behind the scenes politics aside, they do make for perfectly-matched romantic leads, and their immense chemistry helps the film overcome some contrived moments of character development. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography also makes them both look as glamorous as ever.

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Michael Sheen’s Arthur the android bartender deliberately invokes Lloyd, the ghostly bartender in The Shining. The character is a clever creation, Arthur’s polite friendliness belying an unsettling uncanny valley vibe. Despite its fantastical setting, the film’s depiction of loneliness and despair resulting from isolation and the desire for meaningful companionship is relatable, if not exactly profound.

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Thomas Newman’s score is frequently guilty of being too obvious and intrusive, loudly dictating what the audience should feel rather than hinting at it. It’s a bit of a shame, given how many of Newman’s scores have been lyrical and moving.

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The posters for Passengers feature the ominous tagline “there’s a reason they woke up”. This reviewer was hoping for a mind-bending conclusion and an audacious reveal of a massive conspiracy that Jim and Aurora get caught up in. There are flashes of wit in Spaiht’s screenplay – why yes, Sleeping Beauty’s real name is Aurora – but when it is explained why Jim’s hibernation pod opened early, this reviewer was disappointed. Passengers promised a marriage of fiendishly clever sci-fi with a tearjerker romance, but only takes audiences partway to that destination.

Summary: There was never any doubt that Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt would work wonderfully off each other, but past its sci-fi context, it’s a bit of a let-down that Passengers is as straightforward as it is.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

For F*** Magazine

By Jedd Jong

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY 

Director : Gareth Edwards
Cast : Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Forest Whitaker, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 14min
Opens : 15 December 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

rogue-one-posterStar Wars devotees have long known that the galaxy has innumerable stories to tell beyond the Skywalker family saga, and moviegoers are getting their first taste of that with this spin-off.

Set just before the events of Episode IV, Rogue One reveals how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the blueprints for the Empire’s planet-annihilating superweapon, the Death Star. Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of Galen (Mikkelsen), an Imperial science officer and secret Rebel sympathiser. Separated from her father at a young age, she was raised by Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a hard-line Rebel fighter. When Bodhi Rook (Ahmed), an Imperial pilot who has defected, delivers a message to the Rebels from Galen regarding the Death Star, Jyn is roped in to reach out to her father. Jyn teams up with Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Luna), who has his suspicions regarding Jyn’s loyalties. Also part of the team is K-2SO (Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid; Force-sensitive blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Yen) and Chirrut’s partner, the mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang). Standing in their way is Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn), the treacherous director of advanced weapons research who is overseeing the Death Star program.

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The premise for Rogue One seems like a no-brainer in hindsight: a war movie, with spies going behind enemy lines to complete a high-stakes mission, set within the Star Wars galaxy. Director Gareth Edwards has done everything humanly possible to assuage fears that this is merely a cash grab. Rogue One looks and feels like an authentic part of the Star Wars series, but has plenty of surprises in store despite being a prequel. We have a rough idea of where it will all lead, but the journey is still an exhilarating one with just the right amount of grimness. There still are jokes and amusing characters, but this is the right pitch of grim. The screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz (with Gary Whitta and John Knoll receiving a ‘story by’ credit) has a satisfying amount of depth to it. We get to experience the shades of grey and the confusion cast by the fog of war, somewhat refreshing in a franchise that often trades in moral absolutes.

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Rogue One’s visuals remain faithful to the look of the original trilogy, while also feeling dirtier and more tactile than ever. We revisit the Rebel stronghold on Yavin IV, and travel to new moons and planets including Jedha, home to a holy Jedi city; perpetually-stormy Eadu and Sacrif, a paradise-turned-warzone. There is no shortage of battle sequences both on land and in space, including a full-fledged dogfight which provides astounding spectacle.rogue-one-scarif

The effects work is an ideal combination of digital and practical, with what appear to be miniature effects used to depict the Star Destroyers in certain scenes. Every hit of blaster fire, each clump of dirt kicked up in an explosion, every time a Stormtrooper gets clunked on the head – it all feels real. That said, there are some digital face replacements which aren’t 100% convincing.

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Creating a new Star Wars character must be a daunting task, given the iconic status of Luke, Leia, Han, Darth Vader et. al. Lead characters Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor will remind fans well-versed in the Star Wars expanded universe of Jan Ors and Kyle Katarn respectively, who recover the Death Star plans in the video game Star Wars: Dark Forces. Given her slight frame, Jones might not seem like the most obvious candidate for an action heroine, but she pulls it off. While many protagonists have back-stories as tragic as Jyn’s, the Oscar nominee sells Jyn’s defiance in the face of sorrow. Despite both characters being played by English women, Jyn is sufficiently different from The Force Awakens’ Rey, steelier and world-wearier, if understandably nowhere near as fun.

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Luna’s Cassian Andor is gruff yet suave while not being a knockoff of the galaxy’s #1 loveable rogue, Han Solo. The development of Cassian and Jyn’s working relationship is believable and is mercifully devoid of twee romantic comedy bickering. They might not like each other, but they have a job to do, and are going to complete said job at any cost.

 

In Hollywood, Mikkelsen is known mainly for his villainous roles, and Rogue One gives him a chance to showcase his softer side as Jyn’s tortured father. The character has relatively little screen time, but Mikkelsen makes considerable impact in the given time.rogue-one-forest-whitaker

Whitaker gives Saw a dangerous edge – he’s ostensibly one of the good guys, but his extreme methods warrant wariness. The character first appeared in the Clone Wars animated series, and it’s fun to see a pre-existing character incorporated into a live action Star Wars film.

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Donnie Yen’s casting as a blind martial artist monk who spouts fortune cookie aphorisms should be greeted with an eye roll or two. While falling back on these stereotypes is not particularly progressive, it’s hard for us to get upset at Yen delivering an epic smack-down to a pack of Stormtroopers. Those familiar with Jiang’s work might have a hard time picturing him as a burly bruiser, but his Baze Malbus fits that position just fine, and complements Chirrut nicely.

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There is a grand Star Wars tradition of comic relief droids, but K-2SO differs from his predecessors in that he actually is intimidating. The character’s design is striking and Tudyk’s bemused, ever-so-slightly stilted delivery sounds just right emanating from the lanky, powerful droid. Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook is not as memorable as the other characters, but he does get the distinction of coining the call-sign Rogue One.

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Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic is everything this reviewer hoped for in a villain. Krennic is cold, supercilious and brutal, fitting right in with the Imperial higher-ups of the original trilogy. At the same time, he is eager to please and seeks the validation of Darth Vader and the Emperor. Speaking of Vader, he is used judiciously here, Edwards resisting the temptation to be overly reliant on one of the greatest screen villains ever. James Earl Jones returns to provide the voice, with “a variety of large-framed actors” donning the helmet.

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Reshoots months after production had completed and the replacement of composer Alexandre Desplat with Michael Giacchino led to rumblings that Rogue One might be on shaky ground. Edwards has soundly disproven sceptics with a film that hits all the right notes. There are homages to the series’ past without it turning into a mere parade of fan-service, the action sequences are plentiful and visceral, and the characters are easy to care about. Consider this battle won.

Summary: A riveting, richly-realised adventure tinged with the right amount of darkness and maturity, Rogue One transcends the notion that spin-offs aren’t as worthy as the ‘real thing’. An auspicious first entry in the Star Wars anthology.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

La La Land

For F*** Magazine

LA LA LAND 

Director : Damien Chazelle
Cast : Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Tom Everett Scott
Genre : Musical/Romance
Run Time : 2h 6min
Opens : 8 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

la-la-land-poster         If you’re looking to have stars in your eyes, a spring in your step and a song in your heart, boy, does writer-director Damien Chazelle have a show for you. This romantic musical comedy-drama is set in present day L.A., where we meet jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) and aspiring actress/playwright Mia (Stone). Sebastian and Mia have been chasing their dreams to little success: Mia works as a barista in a café on the Warner Bros. studio lot in between unsuccessful auditions, while Sebastian plays humiliating cocktail party gigs. After meeting and falling in love, Mia and Sebastian push each other to chase their dreams. Success comes knocking when Keith (Legend), Sebastian’s former classmate, offers Sebastian a gig with his new band, just as Mia begins writing a one-woman play. Will love survive in the City of Angels, a place that takes more than it gives?

In a pop culture landscape overdosed on nostalgia, referring to something as “a love letter to X” has inadvertently become a warning. La La Land proves it is possible to create a loving homage that doesn’t drown in schmaltz, with Chazelle’s own sensibilities as evident as his influences. Present-day Los Angeles isn’t exactly the most romantic city in the world, but Chazelle hones in on and amplifies its charms. It isn’t a fairy tale setting per se, but the injection of magic in just the right amounts makes La La Land an enchanting film.

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Linus Sandgren’s cinematography paints L.A. in vivid, inviting hues, the fuchsia skies looking like a cake one could cut into.  The film’s deliberate use of colour is refreshing and eye-catching. Mandy Moore (no, not that one) provides choreography that is a finely-executed throwback to the days of Busby Berkeley. Every last one of the songs, with music by Justin Hurwitz and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, is a shoo-in for an Oscar. Just try not tearing up on hearing Audition (The Fools Who Dream).

The opening number, edited to look like a continuous shot in which dancers leap over car doors in the middle of a traffic jam on a freeway, is a technical accomplishment and is joyously cheesy. However, it’s clear that La La Land isn’t a cheery Pollyanna fantasy musical. No, the sun might not come out tomorrow, the fact that it’s southern California notwithstanding. La La Land astutely captures the struggles of an artist climbing the Tinseltown ladder, without swinging to either extreme of self-pity or glibness. Chazelle experiments by letting the worlds of an all-singing, all-dancing Studio-era frothiness and real life collide. Despite its slick visual stylings and deliberate moments of artifice, La La Land’s blend of sincerity tempered with cynicism is resonant and heartfelt.

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La La Land’s genesis can be traced back to Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, which Chazelle made with Hurwitz as a senior thesis film at Harvard University. Chazelle, known for Whiplash, is a drummer himself, and has followed that film up with a vastly different take on the life of a musician. La La Land’s starry-eyed reminiscence is mesmerizing rather than bloated and self-indulgent, and Chazelle consciously avoids making things too ‘inside baseball’. There’s just the right amount of showbiz satire: for example, a screenwriter (played by actual screenwriter Jason Fuchs) introduces himself with “I have a knack for world-building”, and pitches his idea for a franchise – “Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but from the perspective of the bears”.

The film was originally set to star Miles Teller and Emma Watson, but we have a difficult time picturing them as a better pair than the leading couple we wound up with. Chazelle said Gosling and Stone “feel like the closest thing that we have right now to an old Hollywood couple”, comparing them to Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. After watching La La Land, we’re inclined to think that’s not hyperbole. Gosling and Stone displayed effervescent chemistry in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad, and watching them sing and dance their way through an old-school movie musical is an utter delight.

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While we’ve seen the archetype of a struggling actress slogging through audition after audition in nigh-futile hope of her big break, Stone’s energy and comic sensibilities make Mia more than the “girl in Hollywood with a suitcase of dreams” cliché. Early on, Stone performs the group number Someone in the Crowd with Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Rothe, who play Mia’s housemates. At this point, Mia is disillusioned but not broken. The personal odyssey she embarks on and the effect that her relationship with Sebastian has on her artistic journey quickly draws the viewer in.

Gosling’s Sebastian is a jazz snob, thumbing his nose as what he perceives as perversions of the art form. “How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” Sebastian’s bandmate Keith chides. “You’re holding onto the past, but jazz is about the future.” If anyone can make crotchety sexy, it’s Gosling. There’s a roguishness that spices up his usual boyishness, and many a woman will melt at seeing Gosling tinkle the ivories. While composer, orchestrator and keyboard player Randy Kerber performed the piano pieces for the film, Gosling took intensive piano lessons and could play all the pieces by heart, without the need for a hand double or CGI replacements. Gosling’s singing voice isn’t particularly pretty, so phew, he isn’t perfect – but it does seem to fit the character.

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La La Land is as much a soaring, uplifting experience as it is an aching one. Big, brash Hollywood musicals with their hundreds-strong dance ensembles are not known for measured subtlety, but La La Land is infused with surprising, profound nuance. Ambitious and indelible, Chazelle harnesses his nostalgia for classic movie musicals while steering clear of gooey sentimentality. Gorgeous imagery, memorable tunes and perfectly-matched leads make La La Land a transcendent achievement.

Summary: Damien Chazelle weaves a spell-binding, toe-tapping tale, showcasing the talents of his lead couple and paying tribute to classic movie musicals of yesteryear. L.A.’s never looked this lovely.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Yellow Bird

For F*** Magazine

A YELLOW BIRD

Director : K. Rajagopal
Cast : Sivakumar Palakrishnan, Seema Biswas, Huang Lu, Indra Chandran, Nithiyia Rao, Udaya Soundari
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 50min
Opens : 8 December 2016
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scene and Coarse Language)

a-yellow-bird-posterReceiving pride of place in the line-up for the 27th Singapore International Film Festival is A Yellow Bird, which was one of two Singaporean films to make it to Cannes Film Festival in 2016. A Yellow Bird centres on Siva (Palakrishnan), a recently-released ex-convict struggling to eke out a living. Siva discovers that his ex-wife has remarried and wants nothing to do with him, and his mother (Biswas) has rented out Siva’s room to Chinese tenants. Siva attempts working through his frustration and anger, making a few bucks working as a drummer in a funeral band. He meets Chen Chen (Huang), a Chinese prostitute who is in Singapore illegally. Seeking to provide for her young daughter, she endures the abuse of her pimp and finds solace in Siva even though they don’t speak the same language. Siva must regain his purpose as he avoids getting back in trouble with the law.

A Yellow Bird is the directorial debut of filmmaker K. Rajagopal, who penned the screenplay with Jeremy Chua. The film is unrelenting in its bleakness, sombre and depressing throughout. In capturing what it’s like to live on the fringes of a society that’s turned its back on you, A Yellow Bird feels unflinchingly authentic. However, it’s a challenge to sit through, more so because it’s dreary to the point of soporific than because it makes the viewer uncomfortable. While the tone is befitting of the subject matter, the overall oppressiveness of the film makes it difficult to get invested in Siva’s journey. Counter to what we presume were Rajagopal’s intentions, this puts distance between the audience and the characters.

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A Yellow Bird portrays Singapore’s multi-ethnic society with nary a shred of idealised ‘kumbaya’ sentimentality. Siva is often on the receiving end of racial slurs and Chen Chen is similarly ostracised, being a sex worker from Mainland China. The film’s handling of this brims with heartache, is tinged with pessimism and the way the characters are treated does feel sickeningly plausible. Part of the film is set in a makeshift brothel in a swampy forest, and this most unwelcoming of settings unexpectedly leads to some beautiful, serene visuals.

Siva is far from a likeable character, which is a brave move on Rajagopal’s part. Siva shuffles between being explosively belligerent and sullenly stoic, with Palakrishnan remaining watchable if not exactly a force of charisma. This is the most significant acting role thus far for Palakrishnan, who works mostly as a documentary producer and director. Siva is given a motorised scooter that he cares for, Chen Chen teasingly saying that it’s as if Siva believes the scooter actually is a motorcycle. It functions almost as a pet, a humanising element. There is a purity to the performance, but the plot point of Siva apparently being catnip to the ladies stands at odds with the movie’s dour realism. This is a deliberately unattractive character who has women throwing themselves at him with some frequency.

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Huang provides the film’s emotional centre, and while the character is sensitively acted and painfully tragic, the film does veer close to falling back on the “hooker with a heart of gold” archetype. The relationship between Chen Chen and Siva gives the film a sliver of tenderness, but it’s inevitable that any happiness either party might find will be strictly short-lived. Biswas says very little throughout the film, Siva’s mother cloaking her sadness with silence. While she says plenty through her nuanced expressions, we wish the veteran actress had more to do here.

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While the bulk of the film has Siva floating aimlessly through it, we are suddenly thrown chunks of plot as the movie nears its conclusion. The movie’s ending is baffling – not “intentionally vague”, but flat-out baffling. Audiences might be moved by scenes earlier in the film, but they will leave the theatre befuddled all the same.

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There are things to recommend about A Yellow Bird, but it’s hard to imagine the film having any real sort of appeal. There are plenty of sad, bleak movies which audiences can form a connection to, but A Yellow Bird is a draining, largely unfulfilling experience. A Yellow Bird’s grittiness is almost punishing, and it would’ve benefitted from some modulation and a more focused narrative for audiences to latch onto.

Summary: While A Yellow Bird comes across as heartfelt, its bleakness often makes it dull and interminable, with a patently unsatisfying ending topping it all off.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Sing

For F*** Magazine

SING 

Director : Garth Jennings
Cast : Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Tori Kelly, Taron Egerton, Nick Kroll, Nick Offerman, Garth Jennings, Peter Serafinowicz, Jennifer Saunders, Jennifer Hudson, Beck Bennett, Leslie Jones, Jay Pharaoh
Genre : Animation
Run Time : 1h 50min
Opens : 8 December 2016
Rating : PG

sing-posterIllumination Entertainment aims to unite all creatures great and small through the power of song in this animated musical comedy. Buster Moon (McConaughey) the koala is running out of options. After a string of flops, the showbiz entrepreneur’s theatre will soon be foreclosed upon. Moon and his business partner Eddie (Reilly) the sheep mount a singing competition to save the theatre. The contestants include harried housewife Rosita (Witherspoon) the pig, the flamboyant pig Gunter (Kroll) who is paired with Rosita, an arrogant jazz crooning mouse named Mike (MacFarlane), punk-rocker porcupine Ash (Johansson), stage fright-afflicted elephant Meena (Kelly), and Johnny (Egerton), a mountain gorilla who goes against the wishes of his criminal father Marcus (Serafinowicz) by pursuing his passion for singing. As Moon seeks the financial assistance of wealthy diva Nana Noodleman (Saunders), Eddie’s grandmother, this motley crew of animal performers must sing to save the theatre.

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“Hey, let’s put on a show!” is a stock trope as old as Hollywood itself. To save an orphanage/theatre/hospital/school from being demolished, an unlikely group must draw on their talents and mount a fund-raising production. Babes in Arms, starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, codified this formula. Sing adds funny anthropomorphic animals and top 40 hits to the mix, but the results feel rote. Illumination Entertainment is quickly gaining on the big boys like Pixar and Dreamworks, what with the Minions taking over the world and all. Sing is the studio’s second film this year, following The Secret Life of Pets. Sing is probably Illumination’s most Dreamworks-like film yet, with its celebrity voice cast and surfeit of pop tracks. For a studio trying to set itself apart from the competition, perhaps that’s not the wisest move.

Sing suffers immensely for being released in the same year as Disney’s Zootopia. The design of Zootopia was thoroughly thought through, and each frame was bursting with clever, amusing details to notice. In Sing, anthropomorphic animals are plonked into a non-descript coastal city. While some might appreciate an animated film that isn’t hyperkinetic, Sing lacks dynamism and forward momentum. There’s a nicely staged set piece in the middle and the film’s climax is enjoyable, but Sing lacks the energetic visuals and propulsive pacing of Zootopia or The Secret Life of Pets. For a film with lots of dancing in it, it feels oddly static in parts.

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As a tribute to old-fashioned movie musicals, Sing seems half-hearted at best, and the selection of songs isn’t especially inspired. There are shades of A Chorus Line and The Producers, but there’s no thematic cohesion to the musical numbers, and Sing often feels like an animated variety show with a bit of plot tacked on. If you roll your eyes whenever a cheery pop ditty shows up in a Dreamworks movie, prepare to cringe through a good amount of Sing. This reviewer did appreciate that Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure makes an appearance, when it seems more likely that the filmmakers would’ve gone with the Under Pressure rip-off Ice Ice Baby.

To accommodate the large cast of characters, most of the arcs are simplistic. McConaughey delivers an amiable, earnest performance, but seems miscast. There’s the dissonance of a Texan drawl coming out of a koala’s mouth – perhaps Hugh Jackman would’ve been a better fit, especially since Jackman has more of a slick, old-school showman vibe than McConaughey does. It might be difficult for kids to care about a character who can’t pay the electric bill to keep his theatre operational – there’s a difference between mature themes and adult worries.

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Rosita is the overtaxed stay-at-home mom who struggles to care for her 25 children and jumps at the chance to break out of her routine and embrace her inner diva. It’s a predictable arc and Witherspoon’s performance isn’t distinctive. MacFarlane’s character is smug and self-important, with a penchant for big band jazz – we can’t argue with that casting. Johansson’s Ash is spurned by her boyfriend and is out to prove that she can make it as a solo act – shooting quills into the audience while rocking out is pretty punk. Director Jennings’ cameo as Miss Crawley, a senile green iguana with a glass eye who works as Moon’s assistant, might not be a patch on Brad Bird as Edna Mode in The Incredibles but it has its moments.

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The big revelation here is Taron Egerton of Kingsman: The Secret Service fame, who shows off some impressive pipes. We’ve often seen the archetype of a kid who marches to the beat of his own drummer, much to the chagrin of his parents – Johnny the Gorilla is not unlike Lenny from A Shark’s Tale, who wanted out of the mob headed by his father. The Cockney street tough accent sounds right coming out of a gorilla.

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If you were moved by Tori Kelly’s rendition of Hallelujah during the In Memoriam segment at this year’s Emmys, you’ll get to hear her sing it again here – never mind that the song is overused. Since Kelly is the one professional singer in the principal cast, it’s a shame that Meena sings as little as she does. Jennifer Hudson, as the younger version of Nana Noodleman, gets to open the film with a soaring rendition of Golden Slumbers, and then is absent from the rest of the film.

Sing isn’t just clichéd, it’s a gathering of lots of clichés in one place. If singing and dancing cartoon animals are all you’re looking for, then Sing has you covered – but then again, the history of animation is filled with singing and dancing animals. Sing has several entertaining sequences and a talented voice cast, but is too generic for its own good.

Summary: You know how this song goes: Sing’s “let’s put on a show plot” doesn’t offer any surprises, and will inevitably be compared to stronger animated films from this year.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Warrior’s Gate (勇士之门)

For F*** Magazine

THE WARRIOR’S GATE (勇士之门)

Director : Matthias Hoene
Cast : Uriah Shelton, Mark Chao, Ni Ni, Dave Bautista, Henry Mah, Francis Ng, Sienna Guillory, Kara Wai
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 8 December 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

the-warriors-gate-posterAn ancient Chinese kingdom is under threat, and only one person can save the land: an American teen gamer from the year 2015. Jack Bronson (Shelton) spends most of his time engrossed in an online game, taking on the persona of a fearsome warrior called the Black Knight. His single mother Annie (Guillory) is struggling to make ends meet, and their house will soon be foreclosed on. Jack works part-time for antiques dealer Mr. Chang (Mah), who entrusts Jack with a priceless chest. One night, the warrior Zhao (Chao) and Princess Sulin (Ni) emerge from the chest through a portal called ‘the Warrior’s Gate’ into Jack’s bedroom. Zhao gives Jack the mission of protecting the princess. When Sulin is abducted by barbarians, Jack leaps into the chest after her, and is transported to ancient China. Standing alongside Zhao and with the help of the wizard Wu (Ng), Jack must rescue Sulin from the clutches of the ruthless Barbarian king Arun the Cruel (Bautista).

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The Warrior’s Gate is a co-production between France’s EuropaCorp and China’s Fundamental Films. EuropaCorp’s head honcho Luc Besson produced the film and co-wrote the screenplay with long-time collaborator Robert Mark Kamen. The Warrior’s Gate comes off as an extremely tired enterprise. It’s a bog-standard coming-of-age hero’s journey story, combined with fish out of water hijinks. It also feels horribly dated, as if the filmmakers are scrambling about wondering “this is what kids these days like, isn’t it?” The production notes refer to The Warrior’s Gate as “an action-packed adventure film with martial arts derring-do, seen through the eyes of a Gen Z video gamer and set to a hip-hop breakdance beat.” Excuse us while we roll our eyes. There’s a BMX bike chase scene straight out of the 90s and our hero has a rotund, bespectacled best friend who says “bro” a lot.

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Thankfully, The Warrior’s Gate doesn’t take itself too seriously at all, and several jokes land. It does, however, play the Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) trope painfully straight. A meek teenager who is habitually bullied is suddenly thrust into the middle of a grand adventure where he must beat the bad guys and save the girl despite lacking skills and being unfamiliar with the world. The similarities between The Warrior’s Gate and 2009’s The Forbidden Kingdom are inescapable. In that film, it was a martial arts movie geek rather than a gamer who was pulled through a portal into ancient China, but most of the story beats are the same. The Forbidden Kingdom boasted Jackie Chan and Jet Li going toe-to-toe on the big screen for the first time, in fights that were choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping. The Warrior’s Gate has nothing close to that.

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Shelton, whom teen audiences might recognise from the Disney Channel sitcom Girl Meets World, play the designated white saviour. Somehow, an entire contingent of royal guards who have been trained since birth aren’t good enough to defend the kingdom: we need a modern-day millennial for that. Jack is meant to be a shut-in who gets lost in his video games, but his BMX skills are on par with a professional stunt rider and when we see Jack with his shirt off, dude’s got abs. It’s the kind of role Shia LaBeouf would’ve gotten 15 years ago, and Shelton is frequently just about as annoying.

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Taiwanese-Canadian actor Chao, who starred in the TV series Black and White and its big-screen spin-off, does the stoic action hero thing well enough. You know the drill: Zhao thinks little of Jack, but the two eventually bond and learn from each other. Zhao teaches Jack martial arts and discipline; Jack teaches Zhao to loosen up a little. Ni Ni’s Sulin is the spoiled, feisty princess who spends the bulk of the film in captivity. Mah’s Mr. Chang is yet another ersatz Mr. Miyagi – the presence of that hoary archetype is to be expected, given that Kamen wrote the Karate Kid screenplay. As Mr. Chang’s magical ancient Chinese counterpart, Ng is the playful sorcerer with a twinkle in his eye. He sounds like James Hong as Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda films to a distracting degree.

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Bautista is a bright spot here. He’s having great fun playing the villainous Arun, who appears to be a riff on Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones. He even gets a dim-witted henchman named Brutus. Thanks to his sheer physical presence and comic timing, Bautista comes off as both funny and imposing. Fans of Hong Kong cinema will enjoy the cameo from Kara Wai, who makes a brief appearance as a mountain witch.

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While the sub-par visual effects work is most evident during a fight against a trio of tree monsters, the production values benefit from location filming in China. It’s obvious that Besson is attempting to jump on the Chinese film industry bandwagon, because that’s where all the money is now. The Warrior’s Gate is formulaic and limp, a clear demonstrate of how out-of-touch its filmmakers are.

Summary: American teenager is transported to ancient China, saves the day, story goes just how you’d expect. Keep this gate closed.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

OPEN THE FLOODGATES: James Marsden regales F*** with tales from Westworld

For F*** Magazine

OPEN THE FLOODGATES
James Marsden regales F*** with tales from Westworld
By Jedd Jong 30/11/16

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HBO’s sci-fi drama series Westworld has riveted viewers across the globe. Sure, the violence and sexuality we’ve come to expect from the premium cable channel has raised some eyebrows. However, the show’s heady existential questions, gut-punch twists and commentary on how humanity coexists with technology have provoked much thought. The show, based on the Michael Crichton film of the same name, expands on and updates the ideas explored in the 1973 movie.

James Marsden, who was in Singapore to promote the show’s 90-minute-long season finale, spoke to F*** and other journalists at the Four Seasons Hotel. The actor is known for his role as Cyclops in the X-Men franchise, as Prince Edward in Enchanted and Jack Lime in Anchorman 2. In Westworld, Marsden plays gunslinger Teddy Flood, who yearns for a quiet life with Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood) the farmer’s daughter, but whose programming says otherwise. Teddy and Dolores are two of many ‘hosts’ who populate the titular amusement park. Human guests shed their inhibitions as they immerse themselves in a vivid recreation of the American Old West, indulging their darkest inclinations without real-world consequences.

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The series’ characters can be divided into “upstairs”, those who live in or visit the park, and “downstairs”, those involved in running it. “Upstairs” characters include Ed Harris as the enigmatic Man in Black, Jimmi Simpson as reluctant visitor William, Ben Barnes as William’s hedonistic friend Logan and Thandie Newton as Madame Maeve Millay. “Downstairs” is populated by Anthony Hopkins as the park’s creator Dr. Robert Ford, Jeffrey Wright as programming head Bernard Lowe, Sidse Babett Knudsen as Quality Assurance head Theresa Cullen, Tessa Thompson as Westworld board member Charlotte Hale and Luke Hemsworth as director of security Stubbs.

Westworld boasts an all-star creative team too, with screenwriters Jonathan “Jonah” Nolan and Lisa Joy serving as showrunners. Nolan created Person of Interest and his big screen credits include Interstellar and The Dark Knight, both of which he collaborated on with brother Christopher. Joy has written for Pushing Daisies and Burn Notice. J.J. Abrams, current poster child for mainstream geek culture, is an executive producer.

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Marsden remained tight-lipped about whether Teddy will figure in the show’s second season or not, but offered this tantalising hint: “he won’t be target practice forever, let’s just say that.”

This marked Marsden’s first visit to Singapore, which he described as “a vibrant city with a great vibe”. He shared about his experiences acting opposite Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, what it’s like getting naked for the show, the training he undertook to play a cowboy and how much he really knows about where the series is headed.

The following interview contains mild spoilers for the first 9 episodes of Westworld Season 1.

Let’s say that one of your fellow cast-members actually is a robot. Who’s the first one you’d suspect?

That’s a funny question! I don’t know how to answer that without making the person seem dull! I’ll put a positive spin on it. I would say there are some actors who have to stay in character in-between takes, they have to do that method approach, then there are some actors when the cameras roll, they know their lines, they do it perfectly, and every take is brilliant. They do it with perfection, precision, and then when we cut they tell stories. That’s Anthony Hopkins, probably. Because he is so gifted at what he does and so perfect, such a fine-tuned instrument, I would say in that regard he would probably be the one I would think is…a robot. Hopefully, that’s in a positive way. Make sure you put that in there too, I don’t want Anthony Hopkins to see [the headline] “James Thinks Anthony is a Robot!”

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What was it like being naked in front of Anthony Hopkins?

I find the best thing with Westworld is to dive in and go for it. If you have any apprehension or if you hesitate, it’s not as fun. Evan, Thandie, Rodrigo, all of us, we all at one point or another end up nude on the table talking to people. It’s just part of the beast. It’s part of the character that you’re playing. I don’t know, I guess you learn not to be too shy in this business.

Did you reference any sci-fi films in preparing to play Teddy?

Ex Machina had just come out…the year we did the pilot. I just thought it was a perfect movie; that was my favourite film of that year. I thought it was just classic science fiction. Cerebral, thought-provoking, a good commentary of where we’re going with A.I. and just brilliantly acted and directed. That was just interesting to watch, Alicia Vikander.

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We were definitely doing our own thing with Westworld, and Jonah and Lisa had their own thing, their own specific way they wanted to approach playing these characters. Their main direction was “you’re human. Play this as you would a human. If there’s moments where I need you to show you’re a robot, I’ll let you know. If there’s a moment where I want you to register a shift in an idea or a trajectory, I’ll ask for it, and you give me that.” So he’s masterfully coming in and adjusting us here and there. For the most part, you approach these characters as if they were real. They should be indistinguishable from humans.

What are Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy like as showrunners and writers?

Some of the most supportive people I’ve ever worked with. With a show like this, you really need to dive in and take a leap of faith. I think that goes for any project as an actor, it’s all about having trust, and that’s not always something that you feel with a director or a showrunner. You sometimes can question if you have different opinions on how the scene should unfold, and maybe sometimes disagree, but with Jonah and Lisa, we were always in agreement. We would always follow suit, and we knew they had a very specific vision. I just wanted to, every day, give them that.

They’re also some of the most gregarious and wonderfully warm people to work for as well. They’re terrific, and they want this to be as smart, multi-layered and deep as it can be. Sometimes, when you’re making something really special or intricate and complicated, it‘s not easy. That, to me, is the mark of a good show or a good film, or a painting, whatever it is. It’s never going to be easy. I always worry when it’s too easy, if there are no hiccups or bumps along the way, I always get concerned.

They wanted to get it perfect. If you’ve seen the show up until now, you’ll realise that this is a very complicated show. It’s not a show that you can be on your phone texting and chatting with your friends while you’re watching it. You need to pay attention, but when you do, the rewards of that are so big. Audiences are savvy now. They’re smart, and they know how films are made. Jonah wanted to give them something really unique, and I love to be in his field of gravity. I love the way he thinks, I love the way Lisa thinks as well, they want it to be a great show and they take care of their actors, they’re very generous that way. Couldn’t ask to work for better people.

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How much did you know of the trajectory of the story, and how much were you kept in the dark?

We only knew what was happening when we got the script, before we started shooting the script. What I mean by that is when we were doing episode #1 or #2, I had no idea what #3 or #4 was, I had no idea where it was going. Jonah and Lisa would answer your questions, but they would always remain very vague – not that they were trying to keep information from us. They only wanted us to focus on what was necessary at the time. To that end, we would sometimes get the script three days before shooting. Each time you got that script, it was like Christmas. “What happens? I’m confused! Where is this going? Who’s Wyatt? What does this mean, what’s the history?” He would say a little bit about what that is, but never something so concrete that would give us all the answers.

To Evan’s credit, she was one of the ones that put the pieces together earliest on. She was saying in Episode #3 or #4, “I’ve got it figured out.” I was like “no, you don’t have anything figured out! They want you to think that you’ve got everything figure out, they want you to zig so they can zag,” but to her credit, she got a lot of it right. She had this appetite to figure it all out, and I did not. I wanted to know what I needed to know for the scenes I was doing at the time. It speaks to all of our enthusiasm for the show. We’re fans of the show as well, and there are plenty of scenes that we’re not in, and we go “oh my god, I’m enjoying this thing that I’m a part of, but there are a lot of scenes that I get to enjoy.”

There’s a lot of enthusiasm out there and people theorising what it all means. “Who’s a host and who’s a human?”  I think the most rewarding way to watch the show is not try to figure out all the mysteries, and let the show give them to you in its own, organic time. It’s the feeling when you’re a kid and you sneak downstairs before Christmas day to peel the wrapping paper back and see what the present is. On Christmas day, it’s not as special. At least that’s my analogy for it. Patience, let the show tell you when it happens, then you get to experience the journey the showrunners want you to experience.

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In the show, Teddy dreams of a simple life with Dolores. What is the ideal “simple life” for you?

I think probably similar to what Teddy’s is, which is a simple, peaceful life of goodness. I want to be a good man, I want to make good decisions and bring peace to whoever’s in my world. I think Teddy and I are similar in that way. I love what I do, I love having these opportunities, to be in a special show like this. These don’t come along very often. To be able to continue that, to be looked on as a valuable player in the big picture of it all, that’s important to me. To be a good father. I have no idea if that’s down Teddy’s timeline or not (laughs). That’s genuinely the truth, I have no idea. I’ve learned to not speak in absolutes about the show, too. I think there’s a genuine purity and goodness to him and to Dolores, I think much more than some of the humans in the show. They’re guileless, they’re pure, and I admire that.

What are the challenges in playing Teddy just a little differently each time he’s rebooted?

That’s fun. It was fun to jump from different modes. Evan said it’s an “acting Olympics”. There are great things to grab hold of as a creative artist, to be able to switch between all of those modes. It’s like you’re playing three-four different characters at once, so that’s really exciting. I’m always questioning “is this working, is the audience registering this shift?” Like when [Ford] uploads the Wyatt storyline, my face changed. That was a specific moment that Jonah wanted to get right. In that moment, when [Ford] uploads that story, in Teddy’s consciousness, he has lived with all that knowledge his whole life.

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The things that are sometimes difficult for me to wrap my head around are that everything that happened to Teddy in his timeline, he doesn’t remember everything. It’s happening for the very first time. The Man in Black, he could’ve killed me 50 times and each time it happens, it’s Teddy’s first time experiencing that. The Man in Black may remember that, but for Teddy it’s the first time. That’s part of what’s really sad about their existence, is they’re stuck in this box, they keep repeating these loops; they suffer. They may not remember the suffering, but they’re starting to with these ‘reveries’ that were installed in them from the pilot on. These reveries are surfacing a little faster, some faster than others.

With Thandie’s character and Evan’s character, their evolutions are happening a lot quicker which I think probably speaks to women vs. men in general [laughs]. I have a daughter and I have a son, and my daughter is always a little ahead of the game, and my son, it took him a little longer to grasp some of these concepts.

He’s going to read this one day.

Yeah, I probably won’t change my mind about that [laughs].

Did you consciously make each death scene different from the last?

I let Jonah be my guide on that. Look – there’s nothing that happens in this show that’s by accident, that’s what I’ve learned. Everything is there meticulously planned and with great precision. There’s a scene where I get shot, in the second episode. I’m talking to Thandie in the bar, and I just sprawl out over the floor. It doesn’t look anything like how I died when I got shot by the Man in Black. There are certain other times when Jonah comes in and he says “I want you to mimic this, something which you did before, and it’s important that you do it here.” I may not know what he’s thinking, what his grand picture is, I just nod my head and go “yeah, I can do that”. [Laughs]

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How did you prepare for the action sequences, what’s your gym regimen like?

It’s amazing when you know you have to be naked opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins, that gets you in the gym pretty quick [laughs]. I spent some time getting in shape, as much as I could’ve in the time that I had. Beyond that, I spend all my downtime with a gunsmith, learning how to properly shoot and twirl. It’s not always just pulling the gun and firing at somebody, sometimes you’re riding a horse at full speed and you’re firing two guns, sometimes you have a knife. I wanted to get as good as all that as possible and plus, it was just fun.

Riding a horse, I spent a lot of time practising, getting comfortable on a horse. I grew up riding horses in Oklahoma, I was self-taught, but this was learning “here’s what a lope is, here’s what a canter is, here’s what a gallop is, here’s where your feet should be.” You’re learning all these tricks. All that was fun. There wasn’t anything difficult, I guess.

These creations should be perfect. In [Ford’s] eyes, they’re perfect. Physically, they don’t’ all look like Adonises, but Teddy’s a character who’s programmed to be very good at what he does. He can be lethal if he needs to be, and he’s always been lightning fast with a gun. So, me as James Marsden had to learn how to be lightning fast with a gun. When he’s got his shirt off, he’s a park attraction, so he should probably look good with his shirt off [laughs]. That was my training, learning how to be a real cowboy and learning how to look decent naked.

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Ed Harris seems like the kind of actor who would impart great wisdom. What was it like shooting most of your scenes with him?

I grew up in Oklahoma, and Ed is from there as well. He was born there and raised in New Jersey I think, he has a lot of family there in Oklahoma still, so we chatted a lot about that. I was never trying to get them to talk about certain specifics about their history as an actor, I like to be observant. I like to watch them work. Ed and Anthony were the two that I always had my eyes on, just because I figured there’s so much you can learn from those two.

My favourite scene was when we were at the bar together and the Man in Black meets Ford for the first the time, and I’m there, almost dead and listening to them sort of spar with each other. Two acting legends going toe to toe. Everyone has their own method to getting where they need to be. Both actors love what they do, and you can see why they care. Neither one of them were ever phoning it in; they would constantly leave every scene thinking “what could I have done better?” It’s interesting, it’s classic actor neuroses to feel like “what could I have done better?” Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, I’ve never seen them doubt themselves, but it just made me feel better as an actor.

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If you were a guest in Westworld, what would you like to do?

I still don’t have a great answer for that, but where my mind always goes is “I want to go with all the people I think I know in real life, my friends, my family, and see how they behave.” Like “I thought I knew you, but you’re sick. We can’t be friends anymore.” [Laughs].

It can be upsetting to me nowadays, how realistic video games can be sometimes, how violent they can be, and this is essentially a video game. Westworld is a fully immersive virtual reality, it’s reality. You’re there with the other characters in the video game. You can actually pull the trigger, you can actually go into a brothel and misbehave, and maybe that’s okay because it’s a robot. You’re acting on all these impulses that you wouldn’t act on in the real world, and that reveals who you really are. It says a lot about where we’re going as a culture.

I don’t know – I think the show is about what it means to be human, the human condition. The beginning of consciousness. We associate being alive with being conscious, without that consciousness, we’re not really alive. You realise that there’s a necessary grief that was programmed into some of the characters to make them feel more alive. It’s an interesting study on what it is to be human and also where we’re going with artificial intelligence.

James Marsden with Cyclops action figure wearing cowboy hat

Westworld’s season 1 finale The Bicameral Mind premieres 5 December 2016, Monday, at 10 am on HBO. Marathon encores of the episodes to date will air on 24 December Saturday and 25 December Sunday. The entire first season of Westworld is also available on HBO On Demand and StarHub Go.