Personal Shopper

PERSONAL SHOPPER

Director : Olivier Assayas
Cast : Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten, Anders Danielsen Lie, Sigrid Bouaziz, Ty Olwin
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 46min
Opens : 23 March 2017
Rating : NC-16

Kristen Stewart is no stranger to the paranormal, having been entangled with vampires and werewolves. In this psychological drama, she encounters – to borrow a joke from the Ghostbusters reboot – ghosts from her past: both literally and figuratively.

Stewart plays Maureen Cartwright, a 27-year-old American working as a personal shopper in Paris. She can’t stand her boss, the haughty, well-heeled socialite Kyra (von Waldstätten), and misses her boyfriend Gary (Olwin), who is working as an I.T. technician in Oman. In addition to discerning taste, Maureen has another gift: the ability to communicate with the dead. When she notices eerie goings-on, Maureen suspects that her recently-deceased twin brother Lewis might be reaching back from the great beyond. She begins receiving ominous text messages from an unknown sender, and finds her life upended by unexplainable other-worldly occurrences.

Writer-director Olivier Assayas has described Personal Shopper as a companion piece to his previous film, Clouds of Sils Maria, in which Stewart also played the assistant to a wealthy woman. Personal Shopper is difficult to classify, and while it is somewhat infamous for eliciting boos at a press screening during the Cannes Film Festival, many critics later rushed to its defence. Assayas also bagged the Best Director Award, tying with Graduation helmer Cristian Mungiu. It’s the kind of film that will leave some audiences entranced, others puzzled, and drive yet others positively mad. This reviewer’s reading of the film as a deliberately inscrutable arthouse take on the ghost story genre might be a shallow one, but we just couldn’t get into Personal Shopper.

Assayas approaches the supernatural premise with the straightest of straight faces, the film never even hinting that it acknowledges its inherent absurdity. Personal Shopper demands the audience’s suspension of disbelief, yet seems unconcerned with earning it. It’s unlike any ghost story you’ve seen, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. There are several creepy scenes and a couple of effective set pieces, but in flitting from supernatural horror to quiet character study, Personal Shopper comes off as half-baked. There are frightening moments, but because the central mystery goes nowhere and multiple loose ends are left untied, the film doesn’t burrow under one’s skin the way it was likely intended to. One crucial scene seems reminiscent of a sequence in the afore-mentioned Ghostbusters reboot, but since both films were in production at the same time, it’s most likely mere coincidence.

This reviewer views Kristen Stewart as the female Jesse Eisenberg – their similarity is probably why they’ve worked so well together in Adventureland, American Ultra and Café Society. Both are known for nervous tics, an awkward public persona and can sometimes come off as aloof. They’ve both floundered about in big-budget blockbusters but excelled in smaller, character-driven projects. While Stewart has been praised for her role in Personal Shopper, we found her performance less than compelling. She displays a lot of the neurotic twitchiness and restlessness we’ve come to expect of her, and Maureen’s conflicting disdain for and desire to emulate Kyra is underplayed. For a film set in the world of Parisian high fashion, there’s very little vanity in Stewart’s performance, but there’s also little to capture the attention – that is, if one can’t muster up any excitement over seeing Stewart topless.

One of the arthouse touches that Assayas attempts to spice up this cold, soporific ghost story with is Maureen being fascinated with artists said to have been in contact with the spirit world. Maureen looks up Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, who claimed that spirits painted through her and whose work predates the known invention of abstract art. Maureen also watches a TV movie about Victor Hugo’s séances, with French singer Benjamin Biolay portraying Hugo in this show-within-a-show. It isn’t chintzy enough to look like a 60s TV movie, and these ideas are merely presented in the film, rather than worked into its fabric.

Personal Shopper might be regarded as a cult oddity of European cinema, reaching a wider audience than your average arthouse curiosity thanks to its American star. While there are glimmers of promise in auteur Assayas’ unorthodox take on the supernatural, it’s too detached and preoccupied with being abstruse to truly be haunting.

Summary: A high-falutin’ blend of supernatural thriller and character drama, Personal Shopper is an odd beast which alienates more than it frightens.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Life (2017)

For F*** Magazine

LIFE (2017) 

Director : Daniel Espinosa
Cast : Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya, Ryan Reynolds
Genre : Sci-Fi/Horror
Run Time : 1h 44min
Opens : 23 March 2017
Rating : NC-16 (Disturbing Scenes and Coarse Language)

Not all aliens in movies want to kill us. Some just want to have a jam session, or study earth’s vegetation and befriend some kids, or teach us a cool new language.

Those are the exceptions to the rule. Most aliens in movies want to kill us. The alien in Life certainly does.

The first confirmation of extra-terrestrial life has arrived, in the form of a microscopic organism found on Mars. A team of astronauts aboard the International Space Station are tasked with studying the sample in a controlled environment. An elementary school wins a contest to name the organism, choosing the moniker ‘Calvin’. Miranda North (Ferguson) from the Centre of Disease Control religiously follows protocol to ensure that everyone on the station and on earth is kept safe. Microbiologist Hugh Derry (Bakare) has the most interaction with Calvin, attempting to determine its composition and nature. Flight engineer Rory Adams (Reynolds) is more than a little disturbed by the creature. Medical officer David Gordon (Gyllenhaal) has come to enjoy life in space, breaking a record for the most consecutive days in orbit. Commander Katerina Golovkin (Dihovichnaya) is in charge overall, and systems engineer Sho Kendo (Sanada) keeps things running smoothly. Things go horribly awry, as they must, with Calvin acting unpredictably, displaying an alarming intelligence. It soon becomes clear that Calvin will stop at nothing to survive, with the mission’s crew in grave danger from a threat they do not fully understand.

The first instinct many viewers had upon seeing the trailer for Life was “this looks like a rip-off of Alien”. This is completely understandable, seeing as Life is a sci-fi horror film about an extra-terrestrial creature who menaces the occupants of a spacecraft. Life also draws on The Thing, since its protagonists are scientists and researchers. The Thing is based on the earlier film The Thing from Another World, itself based on the novella Who Goes There? The point we’re trying to make is that just because something is inspired by existing material, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically worthless. Life is part of a lineage of sci-fi horror films and builds upon the tradition, but stands well enough on its own as a good example of this subgenre.

Life is written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, of Deadpool and Zombieland fame. As such, one might expect the film to be an irreverent deconstruction of movies like Alien and The Thing. Life plays things surprisingly straight, and strikes a fine balance of taking itself seriously while also being entertaining. It plays by its own established rules, and no leaps of logic are demanded of the viewer to buy its sequence of events.

Director Daniel Espinosa stages the tension in Life with a master’s touch. Sure, characters make questionable decisions in the heat of the moment, as characters in horror movies are wont to do. However, the urgency and pressure that Espinosa establishes helps justify some not-quite-awesome judgement calls made by our heroes. Each set piece is staged with finesse, and even jaded genre aficionados who feel they’ve seen everything might find themselves subconsciously gripping the armrests during several intense moments.

The visual effects by vendors ILM, Double Negative, One of Us, Nvizible and Lola is convincing – Calvin seems like a tangible entity, the weightlessness in the space station is seamlessly done, and the exteriors of the space station itself look realistic. Nigel Phelps’ production design makes the space station an exciting location for the events to unfold in, and even we though we spend practically the entirety of the film in its confines, it never feels visually monotonous. Jon Ekstrand’s orchestral/choral score invokes Also Sprach Zarathustra, famously used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music gives Life, mostly set in a single location, a sense of grandeur and scale.

The characters are largely likeable and their individual foibles are neatly established. Ferguson was in the running for the lead role in Alien: Covenant, which eventually went to Katherine Waterston. Some might see her role in Life as a consolation prize, but after her breakout turn in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, Ferguson does continue to prove she has leading lady chops. Miranda is level-headed and does things by the book, but isn’t boring and cares for the well-being of her crewmates.

Gyllenhaal makes full use of the sensitivity that’s a large part of his charm, making the audience feel somewhat protective over him. After the fate that befell his character in Sunshine, you’d think Sanada would be wary of joining another sci-fi space mission, but he provides a steadfastness and reliability. Sanada also gets a marvellous scene in which he’s locked in a sleeping pod while Calvin lurks outside.

Bakare is the stock geeky scientist, but it is an interesting touch to have him develop something of an attachment to Calvin while studying him, unaware of the monster the seemingly-benign organism will become. Dihovichnaya doesn’t get too much to do, but she is the rare Russian character in a Hollywood film who isn’t villainous in the slightest. Reynolds is playing himself, the motor-mouth class clown, and is used judiciously. He was up for the lead role, but scheduling conflicts necessitated him taking a supporting one instead, which we think worked out for the better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life’s influences might be more than a little obvious, but thanks to energetic direction, a strong cast and convincing visual effects work, it becomes more than the sum of its parts. We also think there’s a market for Calvin plushies, if any toy manufacturers want to jump on that.

Summary: A thrilling sci-fi horror film that’s well-paced and scary, Life does its illustrious genre forebears justice.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Power Rangers

For F*** Magazine

POWER RANGERS

Director : Dean Israelite
Cast : Dacre Montgomery, Naomi Scott, R.J. Cyler, Ludi Lin, Becky G, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Banks, Bill Hader
Genre : Action/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 3min
Opens : 23 March 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

   It’s time for another lesson in morphology with the return of the Power Rangers to the big screen. In the seaside town of Angel Grove, teenagers Jason (Montgomery), Kimberly (Scott), Billy (Cyler), Zack (Lin) and Trini (Becky G) are working through their issues. By happenstance, they find themselves at the same quarry outside Angel Grove at the same time. This is the resting place of a long-buried alien spacecraft. They find themselves possessing superpowers, and upon exploring further, enter the alien ship. There, they meet the robot assistant Alpha 5 (Hader), and Zordon (Cranston), a former Power Ranger whose consciousness is trapped in the walls of the ship. Zordon charges Jason, Kimberly, Billy, Zack and Trini with the responsibility of becoming a new team of Power Rangers. They must train their minds and bodies, and master control of bio-mechanical robot vehicles called Zords. This is so they can face the evil alien witch Rita Repulsa (Banks), who has awakened to wreak havoc after a millennia-long slumber.

Nostalgia being the booming business it is now, it was only a matter of time before a big-budget movie reboot of Power Rangers came to fruition. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, an American adaptation of the Japanese tokusatsu franchise Super Sentai, first aired in 1993. The kids who watched it then have spending power now, and some have kids of their own. We would caution against taking younger ones (under 9 or thereabouts) to see this, since there are certain scenes that children could find genuinely unsettling, and because there are sexual overtones during one intense fight.

One of the biggest challenges facing director Dean Israelite is tone. The cheesiness of the TV show, which recycled footage from its Japanese progenitor, is a big part of its charm. However, a contemporary Power Rangers movie must stand-to-toe with such polished, expensive products as the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies. Surprisingly, Power Rangers strikes an adequate balance – for the most part. We do get a discernible Young Adult (YA) fiction vibe, and there is some moodiness – as can be expected from teenage characters. However, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously. For example, there’s a scene in which Zack’s Zord narrowly avoids an actual bus full of nuns. There’s also a running gag/spot of product placement involving a donut chain.

Much of Power Rangers unfolds predictably, doing the same old origin story song-and-dance. There is a training montage or two, and it’s almost 90 minutes into the film before our quintet of heroes dons their full armour. However, we do appreciate the palpable effort in getting some character development in. Instead of a breathless string of action sequences, audiences get to know each of the five characters enough before they’re plunged into battle. Some emotional moments are awkwardly written and performed, but scenes like a fireside gathering during which the characters try to get to know each other better feel welcome in a sci-fi action blockbuster.

Much has been made of the designs, with some long-time fans being sharply against the reimagined looks. Production designer Andrew Menzies rationalises the drastic aesthetic updates as emphasising the alien nature of the technology. The underlying concept makes sense, even if the suits end up being a little too busy. When they’re in the thick of the action, it’s sometimes hard to discern which prehistoric creatures each Zord is based on. However, compared to the designs in the live-action Transformers movies, this is an exercise in minimalism. And unlike the character designs in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle reboot films, they’re not viscerally off-putting to look at. Weta Workshop and Legacy Effects worked on the physical suits, which are worlds away from the traditional spandex look. The visual effects work by vendors Digital Domain, Image Engine, Method Studios, Pixomondo and Scanline is uniformly impressive.

Whether one finds the main characters annoying will depend on one’s tolerance of millennials. There are moments when Power Rangers tries too hard to be hip and cool, but Israelite and his writers are trying to develop the characters beyond the archetypes they embody.

Australian actor Montgomery, who resembles the love child of Rob Lowe and Zac Efron, is a serviceable ‘boring’ team leader. Cyler is sweet and endearing if a tad grating as Billy, who is on the autism spectrum, putting a few too many tics into his performance. Scott’s Kimberly, a cheerleader rebelling against perfection, will make some eyes roll. Lin is pretty fun as the most free-spirited and impulsive member of the team, who’s hiding a vulnerable side. Singer Becky G cranks up the attitude as the sullen, hoodie-clad Trini. It’s possible that this bunch could develop compelling chemistry after a sequel or two.

Cranston is an excellent choice to play the wise mentor, and Power Rangers augments that character type slightly by giving Zordon possibly selfish motivations. Zordon is portrayed via computer-generated pinscreen animation (think the Kryptonian displays in Man of Steel), so some of Cranston’s facial expressions are retained in the performance.

Banks is, naturally, the best part of the whole thing. She’s a pitch-perfect Rita Repulsa, fully aware of the type of role she’s playing. While she fulfils the cackling, scenery-chewing quotient long associated with the character, there are moments when Banks is genuinely frightening. The makeup effects, supervised by Supernatural makeup effects artist Toby Lindala, are suitably creepy.

As with any reboot of an established franchise, some fans will detest certain changes made in Power Rangers. However, thanks to its surprising emphasis on character development and rock-solid production values, this is a worthy reboot, if far from a perfect one. Studio Lionsgate are hoping for at least six films, which might be a touch optimistic, but we can see this going somewhere. Look out for a cameo from original stars Amy Jo Johnson and Jason David Frank, and stick around for a mid-credits scene teasing the addition of a popular character.

SUMMARY: Power Rangers’ updating of the beloved TV show is not a seamless one, but it works more than it doesn’t, serving as an efficient set-up for the mythos of this reboot. It’s also just edgy enough without being ridiculously mopey.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

Director : Bill Condon
Cast : Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor
Genre : Musical/Fantasy/Romance
Run Time : 2h 9min
Opens : 16 March 2017
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)

You know how this story goes: Belle (Watson), who lives in a provincial French town with her father Maurice (Kline), is misunderstood by the townsfolk because she’s intellectually-inclined and doesn’t conform to the norms of the time. Belle catches the eye of the boorish Gaston (Evans), always accompanied by his sidekick Lefou (Gad), but Belle rebuffs Gaston’s advances. When Maurice loses his way in the woods and is held prisoner by a frightening Beast (Stevens), Belle volunteers to take her father’s place as the Beast’s captive. The Beast was formerly a handsome prince, who has been cursed by an Enchantress for his haughtiness and unkindness. The household staff of the castle were also cursed: the suave head butler Lumiere (McGregor) is a candelabra, fussbudget majordomo Cogsworth (McKellen) is a clock, and matronly head of the kitchen Mrs. Potts (Thompson) is a teapot. Belle must fall in love with the Beast to break the curse, but when Gaston learns of the Beast’s existence, he will stop at nothing to kill the Beast and take Belle for himself.

These days, the foundation stones of the House of Mouse are nostalgia. Beauty and the Beast is a remake of the landmark 1991 animated film, which was in turn based on the 18th Century French fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. It’s easy to be cynical about the practice of live-action remakes, a practice Disney is keen on continuing. While there are elements to this lushly designed, beautifully photographed live-action remake that are worthwhile, it does hew closely to the venerated 1991 version. Director Bill Condon, who earned his musical cred with Chicago and Dreamgirls, dutifully assembles a work of prefab nostalgia.

This is not to say Beauty and the Beast is not enjoyable. This reviewer had goosebumps through much of the film, and there’s a novelty in seeing flesh-and-blood actors (alongside multiple computer-generated characters) telling this tale. There is an effort to stick a little closer to the original story. For example, the Beast imprisons Maurice because Maurice plucked a rose from the castle gardens, Belle having requested her father bring a rose back from his travels. That’s in this version. Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos’ adaptation of Linda Woolverton’s screenplay includes flashes of rib-tickling wit.

The production design by four-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood is sumptuous, with lots of dizzying details to take in. Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are similarly beautiful, but the friend whom this reviewer saw the film with noticed that the gold leaf details were printed onto the dress rather than sewn on. It’s also fun to parse when exactly this is set, given clues like Gaston having fought in “the war”, Belle reading Shakespeare to the Beast, the powdered wigs worn by the aristocrats, and the mention of the black plague, historical markers that were absent from the 1991 version.

Much of the nostalgia factor is directly linked to the music. The songs from the 1991 film, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, have been etched into the collective consciousness. In this iteration, there are lush orchestral arrangements and some very pretty harpsichord parts.

However, this reviewer couldn’t suppress his disappointment that the songs from the stage musical adaptation, including If I Can’t Love Her, Home, Me and Human Again, are conspicuously absent. Instead, Menken has re-teamed with Tim Rice, the lyricist for the additional songs in the stage musical, to write a few new numbers. These include the Beast’s solo Evermore, which is a sweet torch song but is an also-ran replacement for If I Can’t Love Her, and Days in the Sun, a more melancholic take on the wistful Human Again. It seems odd that given how this started out as a direct movie adaptation of the stage musical, those songs are all gone. Menken and Rice are plenty talented, so the new songs are good – just not as good as what we had on Broadway.

Watson has stated that the character of Belle was a big influence on her when she was growing up, and as such she’s honoured to get to play her. While Watson is fully convincing as a feisty bookworm, since she spent around ten years playing one earlier in her career, there seems to be something missing. Perhaps it’s how iconic the animated Belle is, that it’s hard not to see Watson the actress/activist when looking at this Belle. Her singing voice has also been autotuned into oblivion, disappointing when compared to how lively and engaging voice actress Paige O’Hara’s performance was in the 1991 version.

Stevens sounds remarkably like the Beast’s original voice actor, Robby Benson. This version makes multiple attempts to render him as sympathetic as possible, to tamp down the icky Stockholm Syndrome connotations. As such, the Beast is never really fearsome, even when he’s locking up Maurice in the beginning. At times, his computer-generated visage seems suitably animalistic, and at others, it looks like hair has been digitally flocked onto Stevens’ face. He also looks more than a little awkward while singing.

Gaston steals the show, as Gaston is wont to do. Evans flings himself into the part with great aplomb, seemingly channelling Hugh Jackman, who played Gaston on stage in the Sydney production. Much has been made of how Lefou is “officially” gay, and it can’t help but seem like a marketing device to generate controversy more than anything else. Gad is ideal casting and a fine complement to Evans. Maurice is less of the clumsy, absent-minded elderly man he was in the animated film, Kline lending the character warmth and a degree of grounding.

The all-star cast extends into the actors voicing the enchanted objects. McGregor seems to be putting in the most work, affecting a French accent and having fun with the role. He shares great vocal chemistry with McKellen, whose voice sounds apt emanating from a stuffy, unyielding worrywart. Thompson does a full-on Angela Lansbury impression, which is quite charming. This also marks a reunion for Hermione and Prof. Trelawney. Stanley Tucci voices a new character, the court composer-turned harpsichord Cadenza. Broadway star Audra McDonald voices the wardrobe Mme. Garderobe, and gets to perform an aria that seems awfully like Prima Donna from The Phantom of the Opera. The enchanted objects must’ve been the biggest stumbling block in translating the animated film into live-action, and there are several moments which work much better in the 1991 film, Be Our Guest being chief among them.

Beauty and the Beast will charm and entrance large sections of moviegoers, but it seems preoccupied with hitting its marks, glancing down at the floor on occasion. Things get lost in translation, and Disney devotees will be locked into continuously comparing this with its animated forebear. Still, it will be largely futile to resist gasping when each petal falls off the rose, even though we know how it’s going to end.

Summary: While it’s largely bound by an enforced slavishness to the now-classic 1991 animated film, more than enough delights await within this refurbished castle.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Guardians

For F*** Magazine

GUARDIANS 

Director : Sarik Andreasyan
Cast : Sebastian Sisak, Anton Pampushnyy, Sanzhar Madiyev, Alina Lanina, Valeriya Shkirando, Stanislav Shirin
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 30min
Opens : 9 March 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Ah, Russia. The rest of the world can’t quite decide whether to fear them or laugh at them, just as it was in the 80s when Soviet villains in Hollywood flicks were alternately sinister and goofy. Americans don’t have a monopoly on the superhero film genre, as Bollywood blockbusters like Ra.One and Hong Kong’s Black Mask have proven. With Guardians, Russian filmmakers attempt to set up a superhero franchise that can go toe-to-toe with the big boys from the decadent west. Suffice it to say that Captain America can rest easy.

As a result of military genetic engineering experiments during the Cold War, a Soviet government agency named ‘Patriot’ has created superhuman warriors. These include Ler (Sisak), whose geokinesis and terrakinesis gives him power over earth and rocks; Arsus (Pampushnyy), a were-bear; Khan (Madiyey), an enigmatic teleporting swordsman; and Ksenia (Lanina), who can turn invisible and transform her body into water. Over two decades later, these superheroes are called out of retirement to defend the world from August Kuratov (Shirin), a mad scientist who worked for Patriot and was turned into an unstoppable monster after a terrible accident. Kuratov possesses the Modul-1, a device which grants him control of any electronic equipment, allowing him to turn the military’s resources against them. With Maj. Elena Larina (Shkirando) at the helm, the Guardians must rediscover what it means to be heroes, as not just Russia but the whole world is threatened by Kuratov’s dastardly scheme.

Guardians is directed by Sarik Andreasyan and written by Andrei Gavrilov, the same team behind Mafia: The Game of Survival. Gavrilov is a concert pianist, and it’s evident that he should stick to his day job. Andreasyan doesn’t appear to have a job other than directing, which is a pity. Guardians never becomes more than an inferior knockoff of an American product, and is inept on the most basic of levels. It must be one of the few Russian movies to get anything resembling a wide release here in Singapore, just because “people like superheroes, right?”

Even with the benefit of the doubt that the dialogue is terrible only because the subtitles are poorly translated, there’s just so much straight exposition that we’re bombarded with. Characters reel off their backstories in the most perfunctory way and our heroes are solely defined by their abilities. We come to appreciate elements we take for granted in most Hollywood movies, like functioning sound mixing. In Guardians, the soundtrack is way too loud in the mix. Transitions from scene to scene are often jarring. And for some reason, we get the same title card twice. This movie is broken and we can’t trade it in for a new one.

Where the action sequences are concerned, at least Andreasyan is aiming for some level of ambition. He’s obviously gunning for a degree of spectacle possessed by films of a much larger budget, and it’s a slightest bit admirable that the effort is evident. The computer-generated visual effects are of a higher standard than those in contemporaneous Chinese films, but that doesn’t make them convincing. The helicopters, spider-like drones and crumbling buildings all look passable, but Arsus himself is hilarious. We had to resist humming The Bare Necessities when he takes on his final form, realising that would be a grave insult to the infinitely superior visual effects work in the recent remake of The Jungle Book.

The performances are uniformly stiff, and everyone looks a mite too pretty – surely the feral bear-man should appear mangy and unkempt, instead of resembling Chris Pratt with a larger build. We’d call Kuratov one-dimensional but that would be an affront to straight lines everywhere. He made us almost promise to never disparage a Marvel Cinematic Universe villain ever again – almost. The characters in Guardians feel like they’ve been devised by struggling writers and artists desperate to break into the industry via an indie comic they’ve cobbled together with funds raised on Kickstarter, except those generally have much better characterisation than what’s on show here.

Guardians might be ‘so bad it’s good’, but that doesn’t make it any good. It might become a cult favourite, with hipsters ironically proclaiming how much better it is than your average Hollywood product because it’s “so sincere”. And brace yourselves for the sequel, co-financed by China and featuring Chinese superheroes, because of course it will. Even if we didn’t watch this within a week of Logan, Guardians would still be a laughable train wreck.

Summary: A chintzy knockoff inept in nearly every way, Guardians demonstrates that just because good superhero movies are a relatively common occurrence now, that doesn’t mean making one is easy.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Kong: Skull Island

For F*** Magazine

KONG: SKULL ISLAND 

Director : Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast : Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell, Corey Hawkins, Jing Tian, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Wigham, Terry Notary
Genre : Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1h 58min
Opens : 9 March 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

12 years after Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the classic movie monster lumbers back onto the big screen. It is 1973, and Bill Randa (Goodman), a senior official of the secret government organisation Monarch, is in search of monsters. He plans an expedition to an uncharted land mass nicknamed as ‘Skull Island’. Randa hires James Conrad (Hiddleston), a former SAS Captain who served in the Vietnam War, as a hunter-tracker. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Jackson) is a helicopter squadron leader, and is brought on to escort the expedition. The team also comprises war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), geologist Houston Brooks (Hawkins), biologist San Lin (Jing), Landsat official Victor Nieves (Ortiz) and Maj. Jack Chapman (Kebbell), Packard’s right-hand man. When explosives are detonated as part of the survey, an enormous ape called Kong (Notary/Kebbell) is provoked. The survivors of Kong’s initial attack come across Hank Marlow (Reilly), a pilot who has been stranded on Skull Island since World War II. The expedition soon learns that Kong is far from the only beast to call the island home, embarking on a survival odyssey.

Kong: Skull Island exists in the ‘MonsterVerse’, a planned cinematic universe which includes 2014’s Godzilla. This is a B-movie with A-list stars and a big budget, mostly living up to the potential to be a thrilling adventure yarn and a throwback to the creature features of yore. This is the first large-scale tentpole blockbuster for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who directed Kings of Summer and Nick Offerman: American Ham. He acquits himself well, delivering top grade escapism. Taking place in the waning days of the Vietnam War, the film makes great use of its period setting, taking inspiration from works like Apocalypse Now. There’s a healthy amount of humour and while Kong: Skull Island doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s a nail-biter when it needs to be. This is the kind of film that would be enhanced by the audience reacting, with jump scares and unexpected deaths sure to elicit gasps and shrieks.

Kong: Skull Island is not a strikingly original work – fantasy artist Joe DeVito, who co-wrote and illustrated the book King Kong of Skull Island, sued Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures for allegedly stealing his ideas, having had a pitch meeting with the studios. While there are familiar elements to Kong: Skull Island, there’s still plenty of imagination at work. The native Iwi people have distinctive tattoos and markings, and the creature designs are effective and awe-inspiring. In designing the Skullcrawlers, Kong’s Reptilian nemeses, Vogt-Roberts drew on the pit lizard from the 1933 King Kong film, Sachiel from Evangelion, No-Face from Spirited Away and Cubone from Pokémon.

The titular creature is performed via motion capture by Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell from the Planet of the Apes reboot films, and great effort is taken to establish the sheer enormousness of this reimagined Kong, scaled larger so he can one day take on Godzilla. Larry Fong’s cinematography captures the blend of natural beauty and extraordinary danger contained within Skull Island, with location filming in northern Vietnam, Hawaii and Australia’s Gold Coast selling the island as an actual, tangible place.

For all his charms, Hiddleston doesn’t exactly fit the archetype of a rugged, square-jawed action hero. Looking for all the world like he’s cosplaying Nathan Drake from the Uncharted video games, he does seem a little out of his element but is trying his best to sell it. The character’s name, “Conrad”, is a reference to Joseph Conrad, the novelist best known for Heart of Darkness. By the time he dons a gas mask to slash at flying Pterodactylus creatures with a katana amidst a swirl of noxious fumes, we were sold.

Jackson is playing the badass as usual, but there are layers to the Preston Packard character that make him stand out from the typical Samuel L. Jackson role. He’s disillusioned as the Vietnam War ends, and hunting down Kong to avenge his men gives him new purpose. It’s the ‘great white hunter’ archetype, and Jackson has compared his character to Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick.

Goodman is an ever-dependable presence, with Reilly providing comic relief and surprising pathos as a castaway who has spent nearly three decades stuck on Skull Island. Larson’s anti-war photographer helps to mitigate all that testosterone to a degree. While Kong doesn’t get a doomed romance like in almost every earlier incarnation, it’s referenced by having him share a moment or two with Mason.

Most of the supporting characters exist purely to be picked off one by one by the island’s denizens. Jing Tian sticks out, her casting an obvious bid to pander to Mainland Chinese audiences – which is something we’re only going to be seeing more of. After all, Legendary Pictures is now owned by China’s Dalian Wanda group.

Kong: Skull Island kicks off with an intriguing prologue, hits a bit of a lull when all the characters are being established and the mission is being set up, then hits its stride once the expedition arrives on the island. With beautiful scenery, solid visual effects spectacle and thrilling set-pieces in which various characters meet their untimely and inventive ends, Kong: Skull Island makes us wish big-budget monster movies were a little more common. Stick around for a post-credit scene which teases the future of the MonsterVerse.

Summary: Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie that doesn’t skimp on the monsters, a rousing adventure bolstered by its period setting and stellar cast.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Logan

LOGAN

Director : James Mangold
Cast : Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Boyd Holbrook
Genre : Action/Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 17min
Opens : 2 March 2017
Rating : M18 (Violence and Coarse Language)

The conclusion to the Wolverine trilogy sees our rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem not to be born, but to face his reckoning. It is 2029, and most of mutantkind has died out. Logan/Wolverine (Jackman) lays low as a limo driver in El Paso, Texas, now almost 200-years-old. The adamantium with which his bones were laced is poisoning him from the inside out, and his powers are waning. Logan makes medicine runs for Charles Xavier/Professor X (Stewart), a now-senile nonagenarian who is cared for by the albino tracker Caliban (Merchant). Logan finds himself in danger upon encountering Laura Kinney/X-23 (Keen), a young girl who was cloned from him and bred as a super-soldier by the evil scientist Zander Rice (Grant). Rice sends the Reavers, a cybernetic mercenary army led by Donald Pierce (Holbrook), after Logan, Charles and Laura. The makeshift family unit must traverse the United States to make it to Eden, a fabled oasis for mutants in Canada.

Hugh Jackman has portrayed Wolverine for 17 years – and to think it all began when the initially-cast Dougray Scott had to drop out of X-Men due to a scheduling conflict with Mission: Impossible II. Loosely inspired by the Old Man Logan story arc in the comics written by Mark Millar and illustrated by Steve McNiven, Jackman bids farewell to his signature role in grim, heart-rending fashion. Audiences feel fatigued from comic book movies in part because of how every franchise craves longevity, how every film must now set up the next few instalments in the series. The X-Men movies will not end with Logan, but there is a finality to this film that sinks its claws into the viewer, at once satisfying and sad. Logan does not busy itself with dropping breadcrumbs for fans to speculate about how this story will continue, nor is there some shadowy, ultimate villain who makes a cameo before manifesting in a later film.

Executive meddling is often bemoaned by fans – we’ve all heard too many stories of a director’s specific vision being cramped by the suits fretting over the bottom line. Seeing how expensive most superhero blockbusters are, it’s justifiable to a certain extent. After the explosive success of Deadpool, a movie which Fox repeatedly tried to prevent from coming to fruition, it seems the higher-ups at the studio have learnt their lesson. Director James Mangold seems completely free to make the movie he wanted to. A neo-western with a post-apocalyptic tinge, the Wolverine character suits the scenario which Mangold has placed him in to a tee. Mangold’s influences, from Mad Max to Johnny Cash to the 1953 Western Shane, create a rich tapestry, imbuing a linear, simply plotted film with genuine depth and resonance.

Much has been made of Logan’s R rating. At first, it was cynically rationalised as only being a direct result of the R-rated Deadpool being a hit. However, one would argue that if any superhero deserved an R-rated movie of his own, it would be one with metal claws extending from his knuckles, and who frequently flies into a ‘berserker rage’. Make no bones about it: Logan is brutal. Dismemberments, impalements and arterial spray abound. However, rather than relishing in the violence, Mangold uses it to make a point, to emphasise that all bets are off and that the consequences are realer than ever. Because it largely eschews elaborately-designed set-pieces in favour of visceral bloodshed, the spectacle in Logan might not be as memorable as in some of the earlier X-Men films, but it works.

Many tentpole genre films have claimed to be “character-driven”, and Logan is one of the few that deserves that label. Jackman’s swansong packs quite the punch. He essays a tenderness which the nigh-invulnerable Wolverine rarely exhibits, and it does ache to see the ravages of time finally catch up with the character. His worn visage partially hidden behind a scraggly beard, this is some of the finest acting Jackman has done in his career.

Stewart’s Xavier provides some of the film’s most gut-wrenching moments. Just as it is painful to see the powerful Wolverine reduced to a shambling ghost of his former self, it stings to see Professor X’s formidable mind rendered to mush. The kindness, wisdom and glimmers of mischief that have been visible throughout Stewart’s portrayal of Xavier remain, but we see it flickering and desperately want to capture it before it’s altogether extinguished. Giving beloved characters such fragility after so many years makes viewers cherish them, and is key to why it’s so easy to engage with Logan.

Keen’s Laura rounds out this dysfunctional but sympathetic and compelling family. The X-23 character, who debuted in the animated series X-Men: Evolution and who has now taken on the mantle of Wolverine in the comics, has great cinematic potential. The idea of a child grown in a lab who is mal-adjusted to the outside world and who forms a bond with a parental figure is not new, but Keen’s quietly stirring presence and X-23’s own formidable abilities make it feel like this is something we haven’t seen before. The distastefulness of imperilling a child for dramatic tension is mitigated by the fact that X-23’s own abilities are equal and perhaps outstrip those of Logan himself.

Previous X-Men films have suffered from trying to parcel out attention between way too many characters, and Logan benefits from keeping the circle small. English stand-up comic Merchant, known for his lanky proportions and awkward demeanour, delivers a surprisingly dramatic turn as Caliban. Holbrook’s Donald Pierce is little more than a hired gun, but it serves the story and his snarling manner is just the right pitch of evil. Similarly, Grant refrains from chewing the scenery as a stock mad scientist, his inhuman coldness towards his victims quite unnerving. There is a quiet interlude in which small-town farmer Will (Eriq Lasalle) invites Logan and company into his home, and they share a meal with Will and his family, a good example of letting the story breathe.

While Logan’s individual components might not break much new ground, they add up to something astounding, something powerful. If one has felt any kind of attachment to the Wolverine character as played by Jackman over the last 17 years, this heartfelt, visceral journey will tear you to shreds.

Summary: As thoughtful as it is brutal and as fresh as it is familiar, we can’t think of a better way for Wolverine to ride off into the sunset.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

A Dog’s Purpose

For F*** Magazine

A DOG’S PURPOSE

Director : Lasse Hallström
Cast : Josh Gad, Dennis Quaid, Britt Robertson, K.J. Apa, John Ortiz, Juilet Rylance, Luke Kirby, Peggy Lipton, Bryce Gheisar, Pooch Hall
Genre : Drama/Family
Run Time : 1h 41min
Opens : 2 March 2017
Rating : PG

a-dogs-purpose-posterThere is a wealth of movie-related resources online. Beyond the obvious review sites, one can peruse elaborate fan theories, read up on how a biopic measures up against historical fact, or check if a given film passes the Bechdel Test. DoesTheDogDie.com catalogues movies in which animals are put in peril. Here we have a movie which is predicated upon the dog dying several times.

 

Josh Gad provides the internal monologue of a dog’s spirit. In 1961, we meet this dog as the Golden Retriever Bailey. 8-year-old Ethan Montgomery (Gheisar) convinces his parents Jim (Kirby) and Elizabeth (Rylance) to let him keep the dog. They become best friends, and several years later, Bailey remains by the now-teenage Ethan’s (Apa) side as he falls in love with his classmate Hannah (Robertson).

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After Bailey dies, he gets reincarnated as Ellie, a German Shepherd K-9 who is paired with police officer Carlos Ruiz (Ortiz) in 80s Chicago. In her next life, Ellie becomes a Pembroke Welsh Corgi named Tino, who is taken in by an Atlanta college student named Maya (Howell-Baptiste) and accompanies her as she starts a family. Finally, Tino is reincarnated as a St. Bernard/Australian Shepherd mix named Buddy, who is neglected by his trailer trash owners Victor (Primo Allen) and Wendi (Nicole LaPlaca). Buddy is eventually dumped in an abandoned lot, and seeks a place where he belongs and after many lifetimes, comes to understand what his purpose on earth is.

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A Dog’s Purpose is adapted from the novel of the same name by W. Bruce Cameron, who is also one of the five credited screenwriters. Director Lasse Hallström, who also helmed the canine-centric Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, has put together an unabashed tearjerker. A Dog’s Purpose is geared towards anyone with even the slightest affection for dogs and advocates adoption and rescue. The problem is that people who love dogs generally don’t want to see dogs in pain or die onscreen, and there’s a great deal of canine misfortune, packed in with cutesy shenanigans. The emotional manipulation is plentiful and blatant, and because of the film’s episodic nature, the relationships between the human characters are largely simplistic.

Then there’s the elephant in the room, the infamous leaked video taken on the set of the film that showed a German Shepherd named Hercules being forced into rushing water. This drew sharp outcry, and while an investigation conducted by an independent animal cruelty expert concluded that proper safety measures were taken and that the video had been manipulatively edited, the damage was done. The film’s Los Angeles premiere was scrapped and A Dog’s Purpose will forever be tied to the abuse allegations. It’s possible that animals are often coerced in the making of movies and TV shows, if not mistreated, and this has further fuelled the debate of whether animals should be made to perform for the sake of human entertainment. It dates back to the days of circuses, and we’ll go out on a limb and say that animal actors in Hollywood are generally treated far better than circus animals.

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A Dog’s Purpose is ambitious in that the story spans several decades, and it features a convincing if sanitized re-creation of nostalgic Americana in its first segment. Bradley Cooper was originally cast as the voice of the dog, and was replaced by Gad. Gad has the wide-eyed earnestness down pat, but the voiceover is a big part of why the film is as heavy-handed as it is. Apa, currently playing Archie on Riverdale, makes for a decent teen heartthrob, while Robertson is appealing as she usually is. Quaid, the film’s most recognisable star, doesn’t get all that much to do. Both Ortiz’s Carlos and Howell-Baptiste’s Maya are likeable in their own ways, but suffer from the thin characterisation necessitated by the film’s vignette format.

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A Dog’s Purpose is filled with especially adorable canines (our screening seemed particularly taken with that Corgi), but its sentimentality is relentless and comes off as patronising. The plot of A Dog’s Purpose needs multiple dead dogs to make its altogether simple point. There are charming moments and large swathes of moviegoers will get misty-eyed, but A Dog’s Purpose often forgoes meaningful storytelling in favour of emotionally-manipulative shorthand.

 

Summary: There’s little profundity to be found in this tearjerker, though some will find its syrupy aw-shucks wholesomeness appealing. And, naturally, the dogs are really cute.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong