Moonlight

For F*** Magazine

MOONLIGHT 

Director : Barry Jenkins
Cast : Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Mahershala Ali
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 51min
Opens : 27 April 2017
Rating : M18 (Some Homosexual Content)

            The Best Picture winner at the 89th Academy Awards finally comes to Singaporean theatres. This coming-of-age drama centres on Chiron (Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes at different ages), who grows up in Liberty City, Miami, Florida. Chiron’s mother Paula (Harris) is a drug addict, and the shy, often-bullied child finds a mentor figure in Juan (Ali), his mother’s drug dealer. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Monáe) look after Chiron, and the bond that Chiron forms with Juan and Teresa earns Paula’s jealousy. Chiron’s only friend is Kevin (Piner, Jerome and Holland at different ages). While Chiron and Kevin are close, their relationship is charged. Chiron finds himself the target of relentless bullying from Terrel (Patrick Decile), whom Kevin is friendly with. As he moves through life, Chiron must come to terms with his sexuality and his sense of self.

Moonlight is based on playwright Tarell Alvin McRaney’s unproduced semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. When Medicine for Melancholy director Barry Jenkins was looking to make his second film, he was introduced to McRaney’s script through the Miami-based Borscht arts collective. It turns out that both Jenkins and McRaney grew up in Liberty City. Jenkins adapted McRaney’s script into a screenplay, changing the structure to make it a linear story that tracked Chiron’s journey from child to adult. In the original play, the three chapters ran simultaneously. Jenkins and McRaney eventually won the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

A large part of Moonlight’s appeal is that even though it has made history as the first film with an entirely black cast and the first LGBT+-themed film to win Best Picture, it doesn’t come off as a film that’s overly self-conscious about its game-changing status. Moonlight covers ground that we’ve seen in many coming-of-age films before, but it has a distinct freshness to it. In its sincerity, Moonlight never becomes self-indulgent. Jenkins pulls off multiple balancing acts, one of which being the ensuring the film maintains its authenticity, while keeping it relatable no matter what the audience’s background is. Because it is partially inspired by McRaney’s and Jenkins’ own experiences, the dialogue sounds honest and real.

The presentation is slick without sacrificing personality. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton were intent on avoiding what they called a “documentary look”, and as such, the images are rich and pop with colour. Each of the film’s three segments is graded in such a way as to imitate different kinds of film stock. This is not something most viewers would notice (this reviewer certainly didn’t), but it contributes to it registering on a subconscious level that there are subtle differences between each distinct section. Composer Nicholas Britell’s chamber music score is exceedingly lyrical, enhancing and enriching the emotion generated by the story and the performances.

Moonlight’s theatre DNA is evident in how much hinges on the performances. Unlike on the stage, film allows the use of closeups, and a lot of the story is told in subtle changes of expression, and the pain that ebbs and flows behind Chiron’s eyes. Hibbert’s Chiron is quiet and shy, Sanders’ teenaged Chiron lanky, awkward and frustrated, and Rhodes’ adult Chiron muscular and sure of himself – or at least, that’s the image he projects. The character of Chiron is developed with such care that it seems like the audience is watching a sculpture taking shape before their eyes. He’s a work in progress that we are witness to, and the audience observes Chiron construct his defences and his persona. The impact that Chiron’s environment and his interpersonal relationships have on him are organic and satisfyingly fleshed out.

Backing up the young actors who play Chiron and Kevin at different ages are reliable performers Ali and Harris. Ali’s screen time is relatively brief, but the character is a crucial one in Chiron’s story. Juan is a drug dealer with a heart of gold, yet Ali’s Oscar-winning portrayal rises far above the stereotypes that come to mind on hearing that description. Harris’ turn as Chiron’s broken, drug-addicted mother is even more impressive when one learns that because of issues with her visa, the British actress shot all her scenes in three days, in between the promotional tour for Spectre. Singer Monáe, arguably the breakout star of Hidden Figures, commands the screen. Teresa is gentle, yet it’s clear that she isn’t someone to be trifled with.

Moonlight has been hailed by black and LGBT+ activists alike as an unmitigated victory, a giant leap forward for the representation of both groups in mainstream popular culture. Moonlight isn’t an ‘issues film’ and its filmmakers aren’t merely jumping on a soapbox and preaching their point of view – its strength is in wearing its heart on its sleeve. While there is commentary on sexuality and race, especially with regards to the perception of black masculinity, all this is in service of the character. It adds up to a work that is captivating, sensitive and powerful.

Summary: Believe the hype: Moonlight reinvents the coming-of-age drama genre with subtlety, style and soul. It’s arrival in Singaporean theatres is better late than never.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Aftermath

For F*** Magazine

AFTERMATH 

Director : Elliott Lester
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Scoot McNairy, Maggie Grace, Judah Nelson, Glenn Morshower, Martin Donovan
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 34min
Opens : 27 April 2017
Rating : NC16 (Some Violence and Scene of Intimacy)

Arnold Schwarzenegger has been back in the limelight, after a short-lived stint on The Apprentice which earned the relentless mockery of the show’s former host, President Trump. In this film, Schwarzenegger leaves the realm of reality television for ‘serious actor’ territory.

The Austrian Oak plays Roman Melnyk, a construction foreman whose wife Olena (Tammy Tsai) and pregnant daughter Nadiya (Danielle Sherrick) are flying in from Ukraine to spend Christmas with him in the United States. Olena and Nadiya’s plane is caught in a tragic mid-air collision, which claims the lives of 271 souls aboard both aircraft. Broken and distraught, Roman blames Jake Bonanos (McNairy), the air traffic controller on duty. Jake is wracked with guilt following the incident, and spirals into a depression that affects his relationship with his wife Christina (Grace) and his young son Samuel (Nelson). Roman decides to take matters into his own hands, and sets about tracking down Jake to kill him.

Aftermath is inspired by the real-life incident of the Überlingen mid-air collision in 2002, when two planes flew into each other above a German town. Russian architect Vitaly Kaloyev, whose wife and two children perished in the crash, hunted down Peter Nielsen, the air traffic controller handling traffic at the time, even though an inquest cleared Nielsen of any responsibility.

Elements such as disaster, grief and revenge make this a potentially compelling tale. However, Aftermath’s heavy-handed approach draws too much attention to itself. Director Elliott Lester practically shouts “this is a serious, artistic drama, you guys!” from the rooftops. The title card consists of all-lowercase white letters on a black background, as Mark D. Todd’s contemplative piano-driven score plays in the background. Then, the title card ‘roman’ (similarly all-lowercase) appears, showing us the events from Roman’s point of view. Subsequently, we get a title card reading ‘jacob’, switching to Jacob’s perspective. These stylistic touches are intended to legitimise Aftermath, but instead give it the vibe of a student film. This is to say nothing of Javier Gullón’s often inelegant dialogue. Gullón is known for writing Denis Villeneuve’s mind-bending psychological thriller Enemy.

Schwarzenegger has been dipping his toes into more dramatic fare, playing a father who struggles with gradually losing his daughter to a zombie virus in Maggie. Perhaps it was easier to accept Schwarzenegger flexing his thespian muscles in Maggie, because it was ostensibly still a genre film. While Schwarzenegger takes the role of Roman seriously, his presence is distracting. Part of it is because he’s never without his trademark Austrian accent, and is playing a Ukrainian man in this film. There’s also a random superfluous moment in which we see Schwarzenegger’s bare posterior while he’s in the shower, which seems hardly necessary. The film is set during Christmastime, and “Jingle Bells” is played in one scene. Surely it must have occurred to Lester that this would only conjure up memories of the Schwarzenegger-starring family comedy Jingle All the Way.

Aftermath is interesting in that it has no villain, and we’re meant to sympathise equally with Roman and Jake. The circumstances under which the collision happened are clearly explained, with the primary causes being that the control tower was short-staffed and phones were malfunctioning. McNairy is a capable performer, but Jake’s meltdown isn’t any different from other downward spirals we’ve seen in movies or TV. The film also goes the on-the-nose route of establishing just how rosy things are between Jake and Christina, obviously signalling that things will fall apart.

We’ve refrained from stating it here, but if one does a cursory look-up of Kaloyev’s actions following the Überlingen mid-air collision, one will know how things ended. As such, the events depicted in Aftermath are predictable, and even at 92 minutes, well below the average running time for a drama, the film feels padded out. Instead of being a visceral meditation of the destructive power unchecked, unmanaged grief can have, Aftermath seems more concerned with packaging itself as respectable awards-worthy fare.

Summary: Try as he might, Arnold Schwarzenegger can’t shake off the baggage of being an action star and pop culture icon. The grave, deadly serious film that surrounds him is stodgy rather than impactful and moving.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

For F*** Magazine

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

Director : James Gunn
Cast : Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2h 16min
Opens : 27 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

Pop the tape in the deck and pump up the volume, ‘cos Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Pratt) and company have returned. Our loveable gang of a-holes crosses the cosmos in an adventure that brings Quill face-to-face with his biological father, Ego (Russell) the Living Planet. That’s not the only family reunion taking place: assassin Gamora (Saldana) and Nebula (Gillan), the daughters of Thanos who have long been at each other’s throats, cross swords again. Jolly big guy Drax (Bautista), cantankerous cybernetically-enhanced raccoon Rocket (Cooper) and wee sapling Baby Groot (Diesel) are along for the ride. The team makes a new ally in the form of Mantis (Klementieff), an alien empath raised by Ego. They also make a new enemy: the haughty High Priestess Ayesha (Debicki) of the Sovereigns, who has put a bounty on the Guardians’ heads. In the meantime, Yondu (Rooker) is in danger of being displaced, as Taserface (Sullivan) leads a coup against him within their gang of Ravagers. The fate of the galaxy once against rests on the wildly different-sized shoulders of our ragtag heroes.

Before Guardians of the Galaxy’s release in 2014, several industry watchers were predicting it could be the first high-profile misfire for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Following its rollicking critical and commercial success, director James Gunn was feted as having accomplished the nigh-impossible. Now that the first Guardians film has become a juggernaut and Chris Pratt is an established movie star, that dark horse sheen has worn off. We can imagine Gunn having a mini “now what?” crisis as he was prepping the sequel. He certainly had his work cut out for him, and Vol. 2 retains much of the wacky charm that made the first film as distinctive and enjoyable as it did, while further exploring what makes this colourful cast of characters tick.

Gunn stated in a Facebook post that he dislikes sequels bringing characters back to square one. In Vol. 2, we see arcs progress, and everybody gets their moment in the sun. It’s a precarious balancing act, and at times the push/pull between far-out spectacle and exploring motivations and backstories is palpable. As with several MCU outings before it, there’s the danger of the humour undercutting the drama. However, that’s not as big a problem here, because this is the funniest MCU movie yet. Since there are so many jokes, some don’t land, and the more juvenile innuendos might make parents nervously hope their kids won’t ask for explanations about them later.

In hyping up the film, Pratt promised Vol. 2 would be the “biggest spectacle movie of all time”. As much as Gunn continues to do his own thing, Vol. 2 is noticeably working overtime to top the first one, and this can sometimes be exhausting. The set-pieces are varied and thrilling and the visuals are dazzling, but sometimes there’s a little too much going on – this is most noticeable during the finale. The visual effects work is splendid (apart from one iffy de-aging job), and the environments are consistently mesmerizing. Production designer Scott Chambliss, whose credits include Star Trek (2009), Star Trek Into Darkness and Tomorrowland, has outdone himself with the cosmic-Rococo palace which Ego calls home. Vol. 2 of Quill’s Awesome Mixtape is the right degree of eclectic: the opening credits unfold to ELO’s Mr. Blue Sky, while the lyrics of Looking Glass’ Brandy become a key plot point.

Gunn’s dialogue preserves the voices of each returning character, and the principals reprise their roles with entertaining aplomb. Pratt has the ‘fun action hero’ thing down pat and yes, gets another gratuitous shirtless scene.

Saldana struts about with utmost confidence, and pulls off a potentially ridiculous scene in which Gamora wields a ludicrously oversized cannon. Bautista continues to prove that he is a gifted comedian, showcasing timing sharper than the daggers Drax brandishes.

Cooper gets some of the film’s best lines, delivering them in the vocal approximation of mange. If you thought Diesel was overpaid for saying the same line repeatedly in the first one, he doesn’t even sound like himself here. Anyone could have voiced Baby Groot. Still, that doesn’t detract from how adorable the character is, those limpid eyes and that plaintive expression sure to elicit “aww”s aplenty from the audience.

Russell is a big get, and if there’s anyone who should play the father of a daring spacefaring scoundrel, it should be Snake Plissken/Jack Burton himself. He’s enjoying himself, and to Gunn’s credit, this doesn’t become an endless string of references to the iconic entries in Russell’s filmography. Like Star Wars before it, Guardians trades in mythical archetypes. This is the tale of a god, the mortal he fell in love with, and the progeny they bore: think Zeus, Danaë and Perseus. The ‘team-up with long-lost dad’ device has been employed in everything from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to Aladdin and the King of Thieves. Therefore, even given its fantastical trappings, Vol. 2’s take on things is fairly predictable.

Debicki, looking like she’s escaped the clutches of Goldfinger, is yet another underwhelming MCU villain – but it seems like this was intentional this time around. Rooker gets some surprisingly emotional notes to play amidst a pirate drama in which Yondu gets displaced by mutinying Ravagers. We gain more insight into the rivalry between Gamora and Gillan’s steely, formidable Nebula, and the soap opera-ness is a safe distance from being too cheesy.

Klementieff’s Mantis is a naïf to the nth degree, and jokes are had at her expense while we’re meant to empathize with her. The character’s convoluted backstory in the comics has been handily distilled, and she makes for an interesting addition to the team. Sean Gunn, brother of James, gets an increased part that, if one is being cynical, can be chalked up to nepotism. It’s hard to stay cynical while watching something like Vol. 2, though.

Keep your eyes peeled for several cameos beyond the standard Stan Lee moment, and take a quick glance around the hall to see the cognoscenti nodding in approval when an obscure Marvel character pops onscreen. Five (count ‘em) stinger scenes are spread throughout the end credits. Vol. 2 might not have the same bold, devil-may-care freshness that its predecessor had, but there’s no shortage of vim and verve. The cutest little tree creature you’ve ever seen doesn’t hurt, either.

Summary: While there’s a bit of a struggle in balancing the spectacle with the character beats, Vol. 2 possesses most of the offbeat charm, visual splendour and knee-slapping humour as its forebear.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Bitter Harvest

For F*** Magazine

BITTER HARVEST 

Director : George Mendeluk
Cast : Max Irons, Samantha Barks, Barry Pepper, Tamar Hassan, Terence Stamp, Aneurin Barnard, Tom Austen, Richard Brake, Gary Oliver
Genre : Historical/Romance
Run Time : 1h 44min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : NC16

The Soviet famine of 1932-33, also known as the ‘Holodomor’, is an oft-overlooked historical atrocity. This romantic drama is set against this event, as Joseph Stalin (Oliver) seized farmers’ harvests and starved the Soviet Ukraine populace, as part of his collectivisation campaign. The starvation is accompanied by indiscriminate slaughter, with Stalin’s troops rounding up dissenters and throwing them into gulags, where they eventually face firing squads. Yuri (Irons), a young artist whose grandfather was a famous warrior, is separated from his childhood sweetheart Natalka (Barks) when he travels to Kiev to attend art school. Back home, Stalin’s men, led by Commissar Sergei (Hassan), are terrorising the farmers and their families. Caught in the violence and despair, Yuri must make his way home to be reunited with Natalka.

Bitter Harvest is directed by George Mendeluk, a Canadian filmmaker of Ukrainian descent. Mendeluk co-wrote the film with Ukrainian-Canadian screenwriter Richard Bachynsky, who decided to make a film on the subject when he visited Ukraine in 1999. This is a labour of love for both men, who feel a responsibility to shed light on this man-made famine which only became public knowledge after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. While Mendeluk and Bachynsky have noble intentions, Bitter Harvest falls short of being the impactful, revelatory and visceral experience it could’ve been.

This is a film that aspires to be a sweeping period romance, setting a fictional tale of young lovers rent apart by the horrors of war against an actual historical tragedy. The love story at the core of Bitter Harvest is rote and melodramatic. It is intended to be a way in for audiences, the vast majority of whom will be unfamiliar with the historical context, but instead, it serves to cheapen the actual suffering experienced by the Ukrainians. While it certainly wasn’t what Mendeluk intended and despite the horrifying actions of the Soviet troops that are depicted, Bitter Harvest is sometimes in danger of romanticising the Holodomor. The film busies itself with looking painterly above delving into its characters. Most filmgoers don’t want to sit through a history lesson, but the compelling story of the anti-Bolshevik resistance ends up playing second fiddle to a ho-hum love story.

Bitter Harvest benefits from location filming in Ukraine itself, as well as the talent and experience of veteran cinematographer Douglas Milsome. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score, with its lush, mournful strings, sounds just like what one would expect from a film in this genre. Despite its strong production values, various factors undercut Bitter Harvest’s authenticity. One such factor is that everyone’s speaking with clipped English accents. We understand that making the film in the English language broadens its reach, and that the U.K. cast might have sounded silly affecting Ukrainian accents, but this sonic incongruity is often distracting. It also invokes “Englishness = prestige”, the same reason why everyone in The Danish Girl sounded a little Masterpiece Theatre-esque.

Even more detrimental is the sheer cheesiness of the dialogue. “You shouldn’t love me. I will only bring you misfortune,” Natalka tells Yuri forlornly.

“Oh, I have been a fool for lesser things,” Yuri replies, as the audience rolls their eyes.

Irons, who will have “the son of Jeremy Irons” following any mention of his name for the foreseeable future, is a bland leading man. Yuri is a sympathetic character, a sensitive soul who is more at home painting than taking arms against enemy combatants. As played by Irons however, we never fully step into Yuri’s shoes, and it’s hard to feel a lot of him even as he endures significant hardship.

Barks, who finds herself associating with student revolutionaries again after playing Éponine in Les Misérables, occasionally gets to exhibit the blend of fighting spirit and fragility that served her so well in that film. Hassan’s Sergei is little more than a snarling villain, while Terence Stamp pops up in a dignified supporting role. Aneurin Barnard’s spirited resistance leader is entertaining to watch, but he has too little screen time.

The general critical consensus on Bitter Harvest is that while it will raise the awareness of the Holodomor, it doesn’t do the victims of the famine-genocide due justice. It aspires to the soaring, searing wartime romances of yore, but its cheesiness and complete lack of subtlety work against it at every turn.

Summary: Bitter Harvest shines a light on a dark, little-known chapter of history, but its hokey romance and heavy-handed treatment of historical events let it down, despite the filmmakers’ admirable intentions.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Fabricated City (조작된 도시)

For F*** Magazine

FABRICATED CITY (조작된 도시)

Director : Park Kwang-hyeon
Cast : Ji Chang Wook, Shim Run Kyung, Ahn Jae Hong, Oh Jung, Kim Sang-ho, Kim Ming-kyo
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 6min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)

Ji Chang-wook finds himself entangled in a web of high-stakes intrigue in this techno-thriller. Ji plays Kwon Yoo, a former taekwondo champion who is now jobless and spends his days gaming at the internet café. He’s the leader of a team called Resurrection, which includes Yeo-wool (Shim), Demolition (Ahn), Negative Space (Kim Ki Cheon) and Yong (Kim Min-kyo). Kwon Yoo is framed for rape and murder. He is immediately vilified in the media, and Kwon Yoo’s mother (Kim Ho-jung) seeks the help of lawyer Min Cheon-sang (Oh) to exonerate her son. The evidence against Kwon Yoo is too strong, and he is locked up in a supermax prison. While there, he becomes a target of fearsome mobster Ma Deok-soo (Kim Sang-ho). Kwon Yoo’s online teammates, whom he has never met in real life, must prove Kwon Yoo’s innocence, each using their own unique skillset to expose a far-reaching conspiracy.

Fabricated City is a difficult film to describe. It’s not quite a straightforward crime thriller, nor is it really about online gaming. The film marks the comeback of writer-director Park Kwang-hyun, who helmed the Korean War-set comedy-drama Welcome to Dongmakgol 12 years ago. With its twisty plot and intricately-staged action sequences, Fabricated City is an ambitious undertaking which yields sometimes-impressive results. While Park sustains a nervous energy throughout, the film can be too frenetic, as if it’s hopped up on energy drinks. Fabricated City also suffers from obvious tonal issues: there are dark, harrowing scenes and depictions of brutal violence, but there’s also very broad comedy. It’s as if the prison-set portion of Fabricated City is from a completely different film than the scenes of the team pulling off their heist. It takes a bit of effort to keep up, but Park devises fiendishly clever gambits and the central mystery remains engaging throughout.

The Kwon Yoo character is absolutely put through the wringer, and Ji is easy to root for. He handles the dramatic moments and the numerous action beats with equal confidence, and it will tear his legions of fans apart to see him endure his prison ordeal. As necessitated by the plot however, the expert gamer is somehow an action hero in real life. Sure, the character’s past on the South Korean national Taekwondo team explains his martial arts prowess, but not his precision stunt driving skills.

Backing Kwon Yoo up is a loveable band of misfits. The crew, which includes an expert hacker (a pre-requisite for any action movie team), a special effects technician, a professor and a porn star amongst others has a strong underdog vibe. This is especially evident because they’re going up against powerful figures with tremendous political pull. The second half of the film is a heist/caper tale, with the Resurrection team employing nifty subterfuge to stay one step ahead of the villains. We’ve seen sullen hacker girls in action movies before, but Shim Eun-kyung brings a certain something to the role of Yeo-wool, especially when juxtaposed against the sillier members of the team. Kim Min-kyo, a cast member of Saturday Night Live Korea, is on hand to provide comic relief.

There are a handful of plot contrivances in Fabricated City and it’s more than a little obvious who the villainous mastermind is, but it’s still tightly-plotted and thrilling. In between the fights and pursuits, Fabricated City sneaks in commentary about how convincing media-spun narratives around criminal cases can be. Director Park serves up car chases that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster, and our scrappy team of gamers is an endearing bunch. It’s a bit of an odd duck of an action film, at once familiar and weirdly alien, but more often than not, Fabricated City works.

Summary: While its tonal shifts are jarring and its frenzied pace can be exhausting, Fabricated City has enough reasonably clever tricks up its sleeve.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Under the Hood: Ubisoft Assassin’s Creed Exhibit

For F*** Magazine

UNDER THE HOOD
F*** tours the Ubisoft Assassin’s Creed exhibit to learn what goes into making the games
By Jedd Jong

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As part of the Voilah! Singapore French Festival, game developer Ubisoft is holding an exhibition at the National Design Centre. F*** was at the media preview of the exhibit on the morning of Tuesday 18th April. Entitled The Art Behind the Game: The Ubisoft Experience, the exhibit showcases conceptual artwork, storyboards, sculptures and video segments to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the company’s blockbuster video game franchise, Assassin’s Creed.

Kobe Sek concept art

The exhibit takes up the atrium of the National Design Centre, and is focused predominantly on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, released in 2013 as the sixth major entry in the series. Ubisoft is headquartered in Rennes, France, with studios all over the world. Ubisoft Singapore was opened in 2008, and Black Flag is the Assassin’s Creed game which the local studio had the largest involvement in.  Set during the Golden Age of Piracy, Black Flag centres on Welsh pirate Edward Kenway’s adventures in the Caribbean. Edward gets drawn into the ongoing conflict between the Assassins and the Templars. Historical figures Laureano de Torres y Ayala, Bartholomew Roberts and Edward Teach a.k.a. Blackbeard feature in the plot.

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Walking in, the first thing that catches one’s eye is the life-sized statue of Connor a.k.a Ratonhnhaké:ton, the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation and the grandson of Edward Kenway. As we looked around the exhibit, the finishing touches were being added in time for the official opening that evening. We were guided by Ubisoft Singapore Communications Manager Sylviane Bähr, and WY-TO Architects co-founder Yann Follain, who curated and designed the exhibit.

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Bähr explained that a collaboration with Voilah! had been in the works for some time. “This year, the theme of Voilah! is ‘imagination and innovation’, so we thought it [was] the right opportunity for us to show that we are a company and an industry that deals every day with imagination and innovation,” Bähr said. “It was a no-brainer for us that it was the right moment for us to do it, and we have a lot of content, as you can see,” she said, motioning to the artwork on display around her.

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Follain’s guiding principle in designing the exhibit was to create an interactive experience for visitors, as well as emphasising the amount of work that goes into designing a game. “The whole idea of the exhibition is to put the visitor in the shoes of somebody playing the game,” Follain said, pointing to the curved walls printed inside and out. “Discovering, going around, looking behind the wall – this is what inspired us when we designed the exhibition.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“The particularity of Assassin’s Creed is that it is heavily embedded into historical research and theoretical research,” Follain said, leading us to a wall with research photographs taken in Cuba pinned to it. A strip of storyboards ran from a pillar onto the floor, with a screen showcasing a comparison between the storyboards and the final cutscene as it appeared in the game’s demo. The Singapore studio oversaw the demo for E3, the annual massive game industry convention held in Los Angeles.

The section of the exhibit featuring character and costume design was based on the layout of a traditional portrait gallery. “We did some research on how a portrait gallery is done in the National Gallery, for instance,” Follain said. Gesturing to a schematic of the signature hidden blade, Follain remarked “the level of detail is fantastic, you can really feel how it works.” Follain added wistfully that he wished they could have had an actual functioning model of the blade on display as well.

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Several of the concept paintings on display are by Kobe Sek, the Associate Art Director at Ubisoft Singapore. Sek’s sketchbook was also on show – Bähr explained that Sek would draw in it during his commute on the MRT. Sek’s work has been included in Assassin’s Creed exhibitions around the world. Bähr highlighted a piece of concept art that Sek created for Assassin’s Creed Rogue, which she described as “iconic”.

Assassin's Creed Rogue Kobe Sek art

An often-overlooked part of video games, as it is in movies, is sound design. Ubisoft Singapore has its own Foley studio, where the sound effects for the game were created and recorded. Black Flag presented the team with the challenge of recording sounds underwater. At first, they tried waterproofing microphones with balloons and condoms, but that didn’t work, so proper hydrophones had to be acquired. Behind-the-scenes clips on the sound design for Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate will be screened as part of the exhibit.

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Another part of the exhibit features cross-section schematics of pirate ships and diagrams comparing the scale of the various vessels featured in the game. “The Singapore studio owned the majority of the ocean technology, the naval battles, and this is really what puts the Singapore studio on the map for Assassin’s Creed,” Bähr said. In addition to environments and ships, ocean life featured in the game. “We may change a little bit with the animals, because we want [them] to have a personality, or have a goal in the game,” Bähr said. The great white shark was designed by Teo Yong Jin, who made the shark somewhat bulkier than it would be in real life, because the design closer to reality made the shark appear too friendly.

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Finally, we were shown a wall celebrating the collaborative spirit and team synergy of the Ubisoft Singapore artists and technicians. The Singapore-based developers had decorated the wall with drawings and polaroid photos documenting their shared adventures working at the studio. “This tells a lot about our culture as a company. We always say ‘we’re serious about fun’,” Bähr said.

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When asked about Singapore’s evolution as a hub for both tech and the arts, Bähr said “I have been here for only four years, but I can tell you it has changed dramatically.” Bähr first visited Singapore ten years ago, and remarked that she thinks the government is “pushing in the right direction” by bringing in artists and promoting creativity in schools. “We are working with the schools, we are trying to push that ecosystem for art, for tech. Our developers really have that sense of sharing and mentoring the people here in Singapore,” Bähr said. “Honestly, from what I’ve seen, I’m amazed at where the country has come from, it’s really cool to see that all coming together…it’s like a mini Silicon Valley here in Asia.”

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Reassuring parents who have the misconception that video games are a frivolous enterprise, Bähr stated “you can have a serious career if you’re joining this industry. We’re using techniques that are being used in other industries, we’re using all the best practices and people from other industries actually end up with us. We learn all the time, because we are at the edge of technology. The industry is super-competitive, so we’re always on our toes.”

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Ubisoft: The Art Behind the Game runs from 18 April to 25 May at the National Design Centre. Admission is free, and admission for workshops and panels is free upon registration. Workshops include a speed drawing session by Kobe Sek and Mohamed Gambouz and a talk about the technology behind water simulation and waves by Paul Fu. Please visit https://goo.gl/3Nydjk to register for the workshops.

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Gifted

For F*** Magazine

GIFTED 

Director : Marc Webb
Cast : Chris Evans, Mckenna Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate, Octavia Spencer, Keir O’Donnell, Elizabeth Marvel
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 41min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)

       Being a genius must be awesome. If we’ve learnt anything from watching TV, it means you can solve crimes with a single glance, shaming the stubborn cops who ever doubted you in the first place. But those same TV shows have also taught us that being a genius can be as much a curse as a gift, as is evident in this drama.

Mary Adler (Grace) is an exceptionally gifted 7-year-old with a keen acumen for mathematics. She lives in a central Florida town and is cared for by her uncle Frank (Evans), after her mother Diane died when Mary was a baby. Mary’s only friend is her neighbour Roberta Taylor (Spencer), who helps Frank look after her. On Mary’s first day at school, her teacher Bonnie Stevenson (Slate) quickly realises that Mary’s capabilities far outstrip those of her peers. Frank rejects a scholarship for Mary to attend a school that caters for gifted children, saying that his sister wanted Mary to lead a normal childhood. Frank’s estranged mother Evelyn (Duncan) sues for custody of her granddaughter, believing that Mary’s potential will not be realised if she remains under Frank’s care. A battle to determine what is best for Mary ensues.

Gifted is directed by Marc Webb of (500) Days of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man fame. It’s an intimate drama with comedic elements and while one would expect it to be saccharine and sentimental given the above synopsis, the film refrains from heavy-handed emotional manipulation. Hardened cynics are still advised to give this a wide berth, though.

Tom Flynn’s screenplay is witty and the film progresses at a steady pace. Gifted could’ve easily been overwrought, but Webb demonstrates sufficient restraint. This has the double-edged sword of rendering the story more believable, but also less memorable. Since it revolves around a preternaturally intelligent child and her ‘dad’ who has trouble keeping up, there are moments when Gifted feels like a sitcom. However, this is mitigated by how cinematic the film looks, thanks to cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh’s postcard-ready frames, and location filming on Tybee Island, Georgia, doubling for Florida.

Evans may be best known as Marvel’s star-spangled man, but it seems that he gravitates towards smaller projects, having indicated that the pomp and circumstance that come with promoting the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies aren’t exactly his bag. Both he and child actress Grace work well off each other, creating a compelling bond. While Frank’s heart is in the right place, he makes questionable judgement calls, but the film does a fine job of cluing us in to where he’s coming from.

Mary is the linchpin of the plot, and as such, must be more than a mere plot device. Thankfully, Grace is up for the task. Her performance is mostly in line with the stock ‘precocious kids’ we’ve seen in countless movies and TV shows. However, Grace gets to showcase her acting chops in several dramatic scenes, proving she’s more than just a cute moppet. That said, she is plenty adorable, and when she knits her brows and furrows intensely, it’s hard not to go “aww”.

Evans and Slate share palpable chemistry, and even though the romance between Frank and Bonnie is the most formulaic ingredient in a film made of them, the two performers are enjoyable to watch. It’s no surprise that the relationship carried over into real life, and though the couple has broken up, they apparently remain good friends. Duncan is the right degree of icy as Frank’s supercilious mother. We’re meant to root against her, but she’s not an outright villain either, Duncan fully able to parse those nuances. Unfortunately, Spencer doesn’t get too much to do as the kind neighbour who’s become invested in Mary’s upbringing.

While Gifted doesn’t pack enough of an emotional punch, nor does it delve deep enough into the myriad challenges of raising a child like Mary, is watchable and engaging. Even though it’s comprised of familiar narrative elements, director Webb and writer Flynn still demonstrate skill in telling the story, particularly in parcelling out details about Mary’s mother as the film progresses. Even if it isn’t spectacularly complex or profound, Gifted has significantly more on its mind than the average family drama tearjerker.

Summary: Gifted is a slickly packaged heartstring-plucker that features sincere performances and moving moments, even if it falls short of brilliance.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Going in Style

For F*** Magazine

GOING IN STYLE 

Director : Zach Braff
Cast : Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Alan Arkin, Joey King, Ann-Margret, Christopher Lloyd, John Ortiz, Matt Dillon Peter Serafinowicz
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1h 36min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : NC16 (Some Coarse Language and Drug Use)

Here in Singapore, senior citizens have been urged to use their SkillsFuture credits to take courses in I.T., languages, cooking and crafts. There is yet to be a SkillsFuture course on bank robbery. In this comedy, lifelong friends Willie (Freeman), Joe (Caine) and Albert (Arkin) find their pensions funds dissolved after the steel mill they work for undergoes a restructuring. Joe, who found himself caught in a bank robbery, proposes that the trio steal what is rightfully theirs from the bank. While Willie seems open to the idea, Albert is adamant that the plan will fail. Through his ne’er-do-well former son-in-law Murphy (Serafinowicz), Joe contacts Jesus (Ortiz), who is a part-time pet store proprietor and part-time thief. Jesus trains Willie, Joe and Albert in the art of the heist, so they can pull off the audacious robbery and retrieve their hard-earned pension.

Going in Style is a remake of the 1979 film of the same name, directed by Martin Brest and starring George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg. Adapted by Theodore Melfi of Hidden Figures fame and directed by Zach Braff, this remake is amiable if rather toothless. This is obviously aimed at moviegoers of a certain vintage, with the filmmakers taking care not to make things too depressing even as in the film touches on how the elderly get gradually forgotten by society and are taken advantage of by financial institutions. Even though its characters are shown smoking weed and one is depicted post-coitus, it’s far from an edgy enterprise and is likely to be a hit with the retirement home set.

This is nothing short of a top-shelf cast, the film’s three leads having all won Oscars. The characters’ personas are generally in line with how we perceive each actor: Caine plays the steadfast team leader, Freeman is warm and has a twinkle in his eye, and Arkin is the curmudgeon who’s grumpy and caustic but ultimately well-meaning. These actors have no problems garnering sympathy from the audience, and while nobody will be nominated for Oscars for this one, their camaraderie is fun to watch.

There are recognisable names in the supporting cast too. Ann-Margret, the Oscar-nominated triple threat pinup of the 60s, is entertaining as a grocery store employee who makes romantic advances towards Albert.

Matt Dillon plays it straight as a dogged FBI agent on the bank robbery case, while Christopher Lloyd is hilarious as the guys’ senile friend Milton. Milton is a one-joke character, the joke being “he’s crazy because he’s just so old”, which isn’t exactly tasteful but is in line with most of the characters Lloyd has played in his recent career.

Caine shares some sweet moments with his onscreen granddaughter Joey King, and it’s additionally amusing because Alfred is Talia al Ghul’s grandpa (The Dark Knight Rises is five years old, we can spoil it all we want). The Jesus character could’ve easily been a bad case of racial stereotyping, but Ortiz fleshes him out well, and the character is depicted as being competent and ultimately good-hearted, even given his criminal actions.

Going in Style is light-hearted if a touch too sentimental at times, and because of its powerhouse cast, can’t help but feel slightly underwhelming. Because so much time is spent with the characters just hanging out before the heist is even proposed, the intricacies of the planning, execution and aftermath of the heist seem rushed through. However, thanks to the overall likeability of its cast and glimmers of wit, Going in Style is easy to go along with.

Summary: You’ll be forgiven for expecting more from a cast of this calibre, but Going in Style’s reliable, talented leads make this a fairly enjoyable old time.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Shock Wave (拆彈專家)

For F*** Magazine

SHOCK WAVE (拆彈專家)

Director : Herman Yau
Cast : Andy Lau, Jiang Wu, Ron Ng, Babyjohn Choi, Audrey Song Jia, Philip Keung, Liu Kai Chi, Felix Wong, Louis Cheung, Tony Ho, Shek Sau, Felix Lok, Vincent Wan, Michael Tong
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 59min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

The original Chinese title of this action thriller translates to ‘Bomb Dismantling Expert’. Not quite as exciting as ‘Shock Wave’, but it is an accurate description of our protagonist, Cheung Choi-san (Lau). Cheung heads up the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Bureau of the Hong Kong Police Department. 18 months ago, Cheung went undercover as a member of notorious criminal Hung Kai-pang’s (Jiang) gang, and Hung has wanted revenge ever since escaping Cheung’s grasp. Now calling himself ‘Blast’, Hung toys with Cheung by planting several bombs for Cheung to defuse. This culminates with Blast rigging Hong Kong’s Cross Harbour Tunnel with explosives, the terrorist and his men holding hundreds of commuters hostage. As Cheung’s girlfriend Carmen (Song) awaits his safe return, the bomb defusal expert must face off against an unstoppable mad bomber, as the city braces for cataclysmic destruction.

Shock Wave reunites star and producer Lau with Herman Yau, who directed him in The Truth and Fascination Amour. As one would expect of a film about a bomb disposal specialist, Shock Wave does not skimp on the explosions. The production values pass muster, with a massive full-scale replica of the Cross Harbour Tunnel entrance built for the film. The computer-generated set extensions are largely seamless.Alas, Shock Wave is also often patently ridiculous. The screenplay by Yau and Erica Li is packed with clichés, with the influence of various Hollywood action thrillers including Blown Away, Speed and The Dark Knight and all the Die Hard movies plain to see. The dialogue is overwrought, emotional scenes are all too maudlin, and when the film should be at its tensest, it’s unintentionally hilarious.

Lau is as suave and charming as he usually is, playing the confident bomb disposal expert. While there is a good amount of action and Lau had to don a bomb disposal suit weighing 31 kg, the role doesn’t require very much of him. Jiang’s villainous Blast is barely menacing, and not just because one is wont to snicker every time the name ‘Blast’ shows up in the subtitles. For all the innocent people who die by his hand, Blast just isn’t scary. He spends the bulk of the film flailing and yelling, when this film clearly requires a cool, droll antagonist along the lines of Alan Rickman’s Hans Gruber in Die Hard.

This reviewer often refers to the protagonist’s love interests in action movies as ‘the designated girlfriend’. Song’s Carmen is the designated-est girlfriend who ever girlfriended, barely registering as an entity in the film. She wants Cheung to say “I love you” to her, which he’s holding out on. Cue the eye rolls. Philip Keung plays Cheung’s blustery superior at the police department, spending most of the film throwing a conniption fit. His anger at the situation and his concern for Cheung’s well-being is supposed to be moving, but instead, Keung overplays it to a silly degree. Louis Cheng pops up as a friendly tour guide, lending the film some welcome humanity.

Shock Wave features several clever set pieces and some elaborate, thrilling stunts. There’s also a subplot about the financial impact of the hostage crisis and how the CEO of the firm that operates the tunnel stands to profit from the situation, which isn’t quite as derivative as the rest of the film. This fails to fully mitigate how formulaic the film is, compounded by how every time Yau tries for drama, he ends up with comedy instead. Even with a few surprises flung our way, Shock Wave is largely predictable and is too melodramatic to take seriously.

Summary: Shock Wave might boast grand set-pieces and Andy Lau in fine form, but it’s silly when it should be intense and is comprised of many familiar action thriller ingredients.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Lost City of Z

For F*** Magazine

THE LOST CITY OF Z 

Director : James Gray
Cast : Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, Sienna Miller, Tom Holland, Angus Macfayden, Edward Ashley, Iain McDiarmid, Franco Nero
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 2h 20min
Opens : 20 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Nudity and Violence)

The Lost City of Z might be executive produced by Brad Pitt through his Plan B production house, but it has nothing to do with zombies. Instead, this historical drama tells the story of Col. Percy Fawcett (Hunnam), a British soldier-turned explorer. In 1906, Fawcett sets out on his first expedition at the behest of the Royal Geographical Society. Leaving his wife Nina (Miller) and his young son Jack (Tom Mulheron, Bobby Smalldridge and Holland at different ages), Fawcett departs to map an area of uncharted jungle on the border between Bolivia and Brazil. His expedition includes Cpl. Henry Costin (Pattinson) and biologist James Murray (Macfayden). Over the course of several expeditions and through befriending indigenous populations, Fawcett learns of a fabled lost city, said to be the remains of El Dorado. Fawcett dubs the city ‘Z’, and develops a single-minded preoccupation with finding this place, enduring the mockery of his peers.

The film is based The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, a 2009 non-fiction book by journalist David Grann. Pitt and his Plan B partners optioned the film rights in 2010, and was attached to play Fawcett. Then, he was replaced by Benedict Cumberbatch, who later dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, with Hunnam stepping in.

The story of Percy Fawcett, with its elements of history, adventure and obsession, has all the makings of a spellbinding motion picture. James Gray, who directs in addition to adapting the book for the screen, steadfastly crafts an old-fashioned film. Taking inspiration from directors like David Lean, Gray allows the grandeur to unfold. Gray presents us with detailed re-creations of Edwardian streets and costumes, location shooting in Santa Marta, Colombia, and even a sequence depicting the Battle of the Somme during the First World War. Because of Gray’s desire to make The Lost City of Z a serious historical drama, the film is sometimes stuffy, coming across like it’s putting on airs. For all its production values, the movie sometimes feels like a particularly expensive re-enactment from a National Geographic documentary.

For a film about an all-consuming obsession, The Lost City of Z doesn’t burrow very deep beneath the viewer’s skin. Gray is intent on faithfully depicting historical events, but we don’t get to spend enough time in Percy Fawcett’s headspace. While some have hailed Fawcett as a great explorer and a war hero, several historians have decried him as delusional and incompetent. It appears that Fawcett is a figure who remains controversial among the cognoscenti today, and taking this into account, The Lost City of Z is a rather staid affair. It is largely reverential of Fawcett, even though he’s portrayed with some flaws. The film’s standout scene depicts Fawcett consulting with a psychic, and things get a tiny bit trippy. Gray stated that he was aiming for a “slightly more hallucinogenic feel” than the David Lean-directed works he referenced, and perhaps The Lost City of Z could have benefitted from a few more injections of style.

All the actors are locked in to the type of film Gray is trying to make, and deliver performances befitting a stately period drama adventure. Hunnam might not yet have Pitt’s star power, nor does he have Cumberbatch’s peculiar charm, but he’s believable as a strapping heroic type, slashing through the jungle growth with a machete. It would’ve been interesting to see Hunnam tackle Percy’s burgeoning obsession in a slightly showier, albeit not cartoonishly exaggerated, manner.

As Fawcett’s right-hand man, Pattinson is hard at work distancing himself from his sparkly vampire days, sporting glasses and a bushy beard. While it’s a fine turn, it could have done with a dash more wit. Miller’s performance is similarly respectable, but as is often an exigency of the genre, Nina is little more than ‘the wife back home’. Towards the latter half of the film, the drama hinges on Fawcett’s relationship with his eldest son Jack. Jack resents his father for neglecting the family, but eventually yearns to follow in his footsteps as an explorer. While there isn’t a lot of room for the character to develop fully, Holland does his best with the material at hand.

The Lost City of Z’s 140-minute runtime will try the patience of viewers who aren’t particularly longing for the “good old days” of classic cinema. For a film that’s promoted as an epic adventure, it doesn’t exactly quicken the pulse. However, there’s a sincerity that permeates Gray’s approach, and with the assistance of veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji, he captures the look and feel of an old-timey period piece.

Summary: The Lost City of Z is lush, majestic and finely acted, but it lacks a rousing, viscerally exciting sense of propulsive adventure.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong