Zombieland: Double Tap review

For F*** Magazine

ZOMBIELAND: DOUBLE TAP

Director: Ruben Fleischer
Cast : Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Zoey Deutch, Rosario Dawson, Avan Jogia, Luke Wilson, Thomas Middleditch
Genre : Horror/Comedy
Run Time : 99 mins
Opens : 31 October 2019
Rating : M18

Ten years ago, a scrappy zombie-comedy called Zombieland was released. The film’s tongue-in-cheek tone, likeable characters and creative world-building won it fans, and ever since then, a sequel has been in various stages of development. Said sequel has finally arrived.

Just as in real life, ten years have elapsed since the events of the first film. Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), Wichita (Emma Stone) and her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) have settled into the abandoned White House. The makeshift family grows apart, with Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) running away with hippie Berklee (Avan Jogia) and Wichita feeling too tied down by Columbus. Tallahassee and Columbus meet the ditzy Madison (Zoey Deutch), who has been living in a mall. Tallahassee pursues his lifelong dream of visiting Elvis’ home Graceland and encounters the tough-as-nails Nevada (Rosario Dawson) along the way. In the meantime, a new breed of faster, more vicious and more impervious zombies dubbed the “T-800s” menaces our heroes.

Zombieland: Double Tap is frequently funny. There’s a comforting sense of familiarity in seeing the gang all back together, even though the four stars have gone on to varied, successful careers in the intervening decade. It’s a high school reunion attended by people you want to see, even those whom you didn’t expect would come. Director Ruben Fleischer and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have also returned, meaning that Double Tap retains much of the tone of the original. Fans of the first movie will already be invested in the characters, and the developments and changes they undergo in this movie stay true to what was established in the first go-round. There’s a very comfort food-esque quality to the movie, and while its humour is largely sardonic and cynical, there is heart here too.

Much of the novelty of the original Zombieland has been diluted because the formula of fourth wall-breaking narration, an overall smart-alecky tone and graphic violence was done in Deadpool, which reached a wide audience. Reese and Wernick also wrote the two Deadpool movies.

The film’s romantic subplots are hit-and-miss: while the rocky relationship between Columbus and Wichita was already set up, the relationship between Tallahassee and new character Nevada feels kind of tacked on.

There is a bit of the feeling of this being too little too late, because plot-wise, this is a slight, insubstantial film that mostly coasts along on the personality of its characters and its joke-laden script. The intensity of the feeling of “we’ve waited ten years for this?” will vary based on how charitable one is feeling.

Harrelson seems to be enjoying himself and Eisenberg is on his “charmingly neurotic” setting rather than his “aggressively obnoxious” one. While Stone doesn’t seem as into this as her other co-stars, she is still very watchable. Breslin doesn’t get a lot to do, but the surrogate father-daughter relationship between Tallahassee and Little Rock does give the movie a degree of emotion. Zoey Deutch is a hoot as the airheaded Madison – it pretty much is just one long dumb blonde joke, but she is so capable a performer that Madison becomes endearing rather than merely annoying.

Summary: One of the key elements of the Zombieland mythos is Columbus’ rules. Zombieland: Double Tap largely plays by the rules, delivering more of the same. It is fun hanging out with this cast of characters and plenty of jokes land, which mitigates the feeling of this being a re-tread. The movie works if you’re a fan of the original and want something that’s entertaining but not necessarily memorable. Stick around for a hilarious mid-credits scene which pays off the setup of a peculiar film poster glimpsed in a mall earlier in the film.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Addams Family (2019) Review

For F*** Magazine

THE ADDAMS FAMILY

Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan
Cast : Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Finn Wolfhard, Nick Kroll, Allison Janney, Conrad Vernon, Bette Midler, Elsie Fisher, Titus Burgess
Genre : Animation/Comedy
Run Time : 87 mins
Opens : 31 October 2019
Rating : PG

The Addams Family is as old as Superman: the loveably macabre characters debuted in The New Yorker in 1938, the same year the Man of Steel graced the cover of Action Comics #1. Charles Addams’ bizarre creation has endured through the decades, spawning numerous live-action and animated film and TV incarnations. The Addamses return to the big screen in this animated movie.

Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Morticia (Charlize Theron) Addams live in an abandoned mental asylum atop a hill in New Jersey. The family unit also includes their children Wednesday (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Pugsley (Finn Wolfhard) and their butler Lurch (Conrad Vernon). Pugsley is preparing for the Mazurka, a rite of passage involving choreographed swordplay that all Addams men must undergo. Grandmama (Bette Midler) and Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) have arrived early, with the rest of the extended Addams clan soon to follow to attend the ceremony. Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), the host of a home makeover reality TV show, fears that the Addamses’ presence will jeopardise the sales of a planned community called Assimilation. Margaux’s distaste for the Addamses grows more intense when Wednesday befriends Margaux’s daughter Parker (Elsie Fisher).

The top-shelf voice cast is incredible, each of the main actors suiting their characters to a tee. One could very easily picture Oscar Isaac and Charlize Theron playing live-action versions of Gomez and Morticia Addams, and one can tell they had a lot of fun with the roles. Theron’s withering delivery is another example of how she is underestimated as a comedic performer. Chloë Grace Moretz is just droll enough as Wednesday, while Nick Kroll’s excitable Uncle Fester is goofily endearing.

The character designs deliberately hew closely to the original Charles Addams drawings, so while most might not be used to seeing a shorter, stouter Gomez Addams, that’s how he was drawn even before the characters had first names. One addition to Wednesday’s design is especially clever – her trademark French Braid pigtails now end in nooses.

The writing is not very strong, but many of the jokes do land and some sight gags are inspired – there’s a joke about Instagram filters which is legitimately funny. The film attempts to touch on the themes of parental expectations of children and the fear of the other – while it doesn’t tackle these with much nuance or insight, they are themes that go well with the Addams Family. At the very least, the plot isn’t yet another version of “a normal family moves in next door” – or at least, it isn’t just that.

There’s a long and storied legacy to live up to whenever someone attempts a new version of The Addams Family. Some versions are better regarded than others, and time will tell if this take on The Addams Family will be regarded fondly. It just feels so underwhelming. Unfortunately, the animation comes off as somewhat flat and noticeably cheaper than the big-budget work of major Hollywood animation studios. The movie’s plot is very slight and feels more like a TV episode than a feature film. Margaux’s mission to drive the Addamses out to increase house sales in Assimilation is the A-plot and Pugsley’s preparation for the Mazurka is the B-plot.

The movie also sometimes succumbs to the gimmicks that are commonly seen in animated films that try to toss the accompanying parents a bone. The chief of this is the casting of Snoop Dogg as Cousin Itt, whose speech is famously garbled, therefore making the casting of a big name in the role especially pointless, and that’s apparently supposed to be the joke.

The movie struggles with how weird and dark it should go, because it’s ostensibly still aimed at kids. Directors Conrad Vernon and Craig Tierney also made Sausage Party, so they’re no strangers to more adult animated material. However, The Addams Family has most of the edges sanded off. The jokes are all on the safe side of dark, and while there are delightful moments like Morticia using her parents’ ashes as makeup, the movie never truly lives up to the potential of the franchise. This is not the first version of The Addams Family to have this problem, but in making it commercial and accessible, the filmmakers lose some of the subversiveness that is key to the appeal of these characters. The project was apparently conceived as a stop-motion animation project to be directed by Tim Burton, before eventually morphing into what it is now. That would certainly have been more interesting.

Summary: The Addams Family is a largely competent but unremarkable incarnation of the long-time goth icons. An impressive voice cast cannot disguise that this is ultimately a cookie-cutter animated movie that just isn’t weird enough to rank among the best versions of The Addams Family.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Biggest Draw: Disney Animation Research Library’s Mary Walsh talks Disney: Magic of Animation exhibit

For F*** Magazine 

F*** talks to Mary Walsh, managing director at the Disney Animation Research Library, at the launch of the Disney: Magic of Animation exhibition in Singapore.

By Jedd Jong

Disney fans, or ‘Disnerds’ as they like to be known, are in for a treat: more than 500 pieces of artwork used in creating the studio’s short and feature animated films are going on display for the first time in Singapore. The Disney: Magic of Animation exhibition opens at the ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands Singapore and runs from 26 October 2019 to 29 March 2020.

The exhibition offers visitors a peek behind the curtain at the House of Mouse, highlighting the talented artists and technicians who work in various departments on the studio’s animated films and walking visitors through the process of creating these films. The pieces of art on display include original concept sketches, background paintings, sculptures and models which were created in the making of Disney’s animated films.

The highlights of the exhibition include sketches of Mickey Mouse from 1928’s Steamboat Willie, the first animated short film synced to sound, early designs of Snow White, sculptures of Belle and the Beast from Beauty and the Beast and a model of Sugar Rush from Wreck-It Ralph made from biscuits and candy.

The exhibition also includes artwork from the upcoming Frozen 2, marking the first time that art from a yet-to-be-released Disney film has been exhibited.

The exhibit also includes interactive activities, including a station where visitors can get a taste of what it’s like to be a Foley artist, attempting to match sound effects created using props to a scene from Mulan. A zone of the exhibit is decorated to resemble the Nordic autumnal forest seen in Frozen 2, allowing fans to take photos against a backdrop that brings the film to life.

Disney keeps meticulous records of the artwork created in the process of making its films. The Disney Animation Research Library (ARL) is where the physical art pieces are kept, and the works displayed at this exhibition are drawn from the library’s vast collection, which stretches back to the very beginnings of Disney.

At the media preview of the Disney: Magic of Animation exhibition, F*** spoke to Mary Walsh, the managing director of the Disney ARL, about what it’s like for artists who work at Disney and what fans can look forward to when they visit this exhibition.

F*** MAGAZINE: Great to get to talk to you! Could you tell our readers what you do at Disney?

MARY WALSH: I’m the managing director of the Animation Research Library. The Animation Research Library is the repository for all the original animation artwork that was used to produce our animated short and feature-length films, both from the very beginning, so we’ve got artwork from the early 1920s, all the way up to the present day. We have over 65 million pieces of art in our physical collection. We’re not public facing, but we’re open to anybody in the Walt Disney Company who needs access to that artwork for either creative inspiration, theme parks, new product development, whatever it happens to be. Theme parks, Broadway shows, everything, so it’s really great. Because we aren’t open to the public, we have this huge collection of such beautiful and I would argue really important artwork from an animation point of view, what can we do to share that with the world? We established this exhibition program, and this exhibit is one of the fruits of that labour. We can take this artwork, curate it in a story that we want to share with the world, and then bring it into museums like ArtScience.

What is your personal Holy Grail piece? If you were Nicolas Cage, what would you steal?

That’s funny, Nicolas Cage, I get the reference! I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t have a single favourite piece of art because I’m surrounded by all this beautiful art! I have two kids: it’s like asking which of my two boys is my favourite. Some days I like one boy better than the other because of his behaviour. For me, there is so much beautiful art and it is really the development of the artistry and the craftsmanship from the very beginning to what we’re doing today, and the constant inspiration that the art in our collection provides for our artists. One thing that we really value is we have all this artwork and it’s a fabulous artistic creative legacy that we have, but we don’t look back on it and say “wow, that was great! We’re done.” We’re never done. [The artists] are using that to inspire themselves, to inspire themselves, to educate themselves, so they can create at least that level and hopefully go above it.

Rapunzel by Claire Keane

At this exhibit, there’s a Tangled piece by Claire Keane, who is the daughter of animator Glen Keane. It’s so beautiful that there is that familial legacy. Disney is all about legacy – what do you think represents that idea the best?

The biggest part for the legacy point of view for me is the fact that we can look back at the art that was created. Claire is the perfect example of that: her father is obviously a brilliant animator and draughtsman and a huge component of the artistic output the studio has, ever since he joined in the 1970s. He’s been hugely important in the development and continuing expansion of our creativity and our artistry. Claire’s doing that on her own – she’s following in the footsteps of her father, but all the other great artists who came before him and are coming after her as well too.

Ariel by Glen Keane

For me, that legacy really ties into the idea of mentorship, because all of the senior artists mentor younger artists coming in. Glen Keane worked with Frank (Thomas) and Ollie (Johnston) – he knew them, he could go to them, they were his mentors. He continues to mentor people through his career at Disney. I think that’s really important – the artists joining the studio understand Disney animation because of its impact in the animation industry, culturally and from an artistic point of view. They come in with that expectation and I argue responsibility to create to that minimum level and exceed it. The way you do that in a collaborative artform is to support each other artistically – the mistakes that you made and how you corrected those mistakes. It’s all about sharing that information. I think that’s a true testament to that legacy because it started with Walt and we’re still doing it today.

There is a saying that is attributed to Walt Disney, “everyone has 10 000 bad drawings in them and you have to get them out of the way”.

I don’t know if he actually said that, but the concept I think is actually true. There’s another way that we describe in animation: “pencil mileage”. You have to draw and draw and draw or create on the computer – you can call it “pixel mileage” or whatever you want because it’s based on the tool. It’s an iterative process. When you create something, you’re never perfect the first time out, almost nobody is, but you have to look at a piece and say “how can I make it better? How is that piece going to support the story? How is that piece going to fit in this world? So it’s a very iterative process. You get 10 000 bad drawings before you get one [good one] – that concept I think is very true. It’s all about going out there and being willing to have a bad drawing in order to get to a great drawing.

I think that personally, it’s easy to feel discouraged when I see someone who’s really good at what they do and feel like I cannot measure up to that, so it’s important to know that nobody starts out there. How do you feel this exhibition inspires future artists?

That’s one of the things that I love about this exhibition program. What I hope is that there are artists coming through, maybe young artists, who are like “I never thought about a career in animation.” It’s a viable artform and you can have a really great profession if you’re committed to your craft, if you’re disciplined about it and you’re passionate about it. Hopefully this can show a path to a burgeoning artist who wants to go in that direction and that there are people who came before you and that you can do this too.

I attended the Singapore press conference for Moana in 2016. Producer Osnat Shurer and the voice of Moana Auli’i Cravalho came, as well as Disney artists Roger Lee and Griselda Sastrawinata. There was a sense of hometown pride, “one of our own made it”. What are some stories about the experiences that people from around the world bring to Disney?

I’m glad you brought that up because I think it’s that diversity of thought and experience. We tell global stories. The filmmakers’ intent is to be able to touch the emotional human core no matter where you are in the world, and one way to do that is to surround yourself with a diversity of styles, of thought and of experiences. That is something that we hold very dear and that we’re committed to doing.

A five-year-old will take something different away after visiting this exhibit than a 12-year-old will, than a 16-year-old will, than a 30-year-old will. How will this exhibit speak to those different age groups differently?

That’s a great question because if you step back a little bit, the intent of all the films we make is that it’s for everybody. We don’t target just little kids or just adults. Walt was the one who set the stage, he said “I make films for entire families, not just children or just adults.” With that in mind, when a young person comes in and maybe it’s a child and they’re going to be enraptured and go “oh my god, I get to stand next to Mickey and Minnie and go on this boat and take a photo,” or “I get to see these sketches, what may be very loose drawings, and go ‘maybe I can do that’” and as you get older you can understand and appreciate the artistic integrity of some of the drawings and the sketches and the storytelling.

I also think it ties back to the emotions you have when you see the film for the first time and what age you were. In my case, I’ve watched films now with my children that I watched as a kid. I now look at the film very differently, through their eyes. That is any good art, whether it’s moving images, or a beautiful painting, or a piece of music: if it stands the test of time, it’s going to resonate with you as a human being regardless of how old you are, but your life experiences are really going to inform how you’re viewing or enjoying that piece of art at that moment.

I was in the Little Mermaid gallery and was overhearing the other journalists who were surprised to see the early concept design of Ursula, when she looked more like a lionfish. What are some concept pieces that surprised you?

It was really funny, when I first got exposed to some of the early concept pieces for the character of Snow White, she was blonde, she had braids, she had red hair, so they explored all kinds of different styles. When you think about it, they were developing that film in the mid-late 1930s, so those artists were also reflecting on the societal norms and the fashions of the day and what the concept of feminine beauty was at the time. They were contemporary artists in their timeframe looking out on the world, reflecting on that and bringing it into their designs.

In an early concept, it’s all about creating all kinds of different designs and then really focusing down and narrowing down to what that final design is going to be. Without that iterative process, they wouldn’t have gotten to the final design of Snow White was without all those other concepts. If you don’t give the time for experimentation, sometimes you won’t get the best work. I think the timeframe for that iterative process is really important.

As someone who has spent your career educating people about Disney animation, what are your feelings about the recent live-action remakes? They do bring it to a new audience, but there’s also the school of thought that it’s derivative. Where do you stand on that?

For me, it’s really about the storytellers. If that storyteller and filmmaker thinks they can deliver a different take on it, why not allow them that ability to do it? If it introduces that story to a whole new generation who may not have seen the animated film who may then go back and appreciate it, it can be a gateway, and the gateway goes both ways. From my point of view, if the storyteller is committed to the story they want to tell and the visual realisation of that story is different from the original one, why not give it a go and see what that’s like?

Visit https://www.marinabaysands.com/museum/disney-magic-of-animation.html for tickets and more details.

Terminator: Dark Fate review

For F*** Magazine

TERMINATOR: DARK FATE

Director: Tim Miller
Cast : Linda Hamilton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mackenzie Davis, Natalia Reyes, Gabriel Luna, Diego Boneta, Enrique Arce
Genre : Sci-fi/Action/Horror
Run Time : 2 h 8 mins
Opens : 24 October 2019
Rating : NC16

The Terminator franchise is a defining one in the genres of sci-fi, action and horror. While the imagery and the catchphrases have become ingrained in popular culture, the film series has struggled to recapture the glory of the first two entries. The underrated spinoff television series was sadly short-lived. James Cameron, who directed the first two films and helmed the theme park attraction but has had no direct involvement in the series since then, returns as a producer for this sixth film.

It is 27 years after the events of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. A young Mexican woman named Daniella “Dani” Ramos (Natalia Reyes) has been targeted by the Rev-9 Terminator (Gabriel Luna), who has been sent back in time to kill her. Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a cybernetically-enhanced human soldier from the future, has been sent back in time to protect Dani. Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), who has spent the last two decades hunting Terminators, joins Dani and Grace to fight the seemingly invincible Rev-9. Along the way, they meet the T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger), one of several sent back in time after Sarah’s son John Connor years ago, who has been keeping a low profile. The future is once again in the hands of Sarah Connor, who has gained new allies in her long-term battle against the machines.

Terminator: Dark Fate learns from the failure of the previous entries. The most recent Terminator film before this, Terminator: Genisys, was a jumbled mess of multiple timelines and attempted to remix beloved elements of the series, alienating fans in the process. Dark Fate benefits from more of a back-to-basics approach, presenting a straightforward story without relying too much on exposition. It functions as a direct sequel to Judgement Day, with all the other films taking place in alternate timelines. This is not dissimilar to 2018’s Halloween, which was a direct sequel to the 1978 movie and ignored the many sequels that were made in the intervening years.

The film’s biggest asset is Linda Hamilton, who has not appeared in any of the films since Judgement Day. This is much more than the glorified cameo which we could’ve gotten, with the Sarah Connor character front and centre. Hamilton took some convincing to come back on board, and the film really wouldn’t have worked if she had said no. Hamilton easily conveys the no-nonsense toughness fans of the series know and love, but also delivers a genuinely good performance beyond that. The R-rating means that she gets to swear a whole lot, and she’s amazing at it. There are several moments when just a look from Hamilton tells us so much. This is a character who has been through the wringer and would like the world to think she can just shrug it off, but there is a lot of sadness and pain that she’s internalised – when those shards are visible, that’s when Hamilton’s immense contribution to the movie really registers.

Arnold Schwarzenegger appears in more of a supporting capacity, but completely steals the show when he’s onscreen. The film wisely makes use of Schwarzenegger’s comedic talents while also preserving the formidable physical power associated with the T-800 character.

One scene in the film showcases the most convincing digital de-aging/face replacement effects we’ve ever seen.

The film clearly aspires to the heights of Judgement Day, so it is noticeable when it falls short of those heights. There are moments when the film is almost emotional, and while there are some moving beats, there is nothing nearly as sublime as “I know now why you cry, but it’s something that I could never do.” While the stronger connection to the first two films anchors Dark Fate in the tone and mythos of the earlier movies, it also prevents the movie from being too innovative on its own terms. Also, much of the events in Judgement Day seem to have been rendered moot – not quite to the level of “Ripley finds Newt and Hicks dead at the beginning of Alien 3,” but it does approach that.

While some action sequences are brilliantly executed, others feel just a touch too synthetic. The visual effects are leaps and bounds over the somewhat unpolished work seen in Genisys, but there are still moments when one thing made of CGI is being thrown into another thing also made of CGI. Out of necessity, the earlier films made ingenious use of practical animatronic effects and miniature models. Director Tim Miller of Deadpool fame is a co-founder of Blur Studio, best known for making animated cutscenes and cinematics for video games. The action sequences in Dark Fate can sometimes come off as a little too video game-esque, but Miller does often demonstrate a keen awareness of how to place elements in space to create action sequences.

The Dani character is sympathetic and Natalia Reyes gives the role her all, but she can sometimes come off as a little whiny and is not written that well.

 Another way that the film echoes Judgement Day is in its villain, the shape-shifting Rev-9. Like Robert Patrick, Gabriel Luna is less conspicuous in a crowd than Arnold Schwarzenegger, meaning the Rev-9 is more convincing as an infiltration unit. It also has a neat gimmick of being able to separate itself into liquid metal outer shell and endoskeleton, allowing it to perform tag-team attacks. Rev-9 is perhaps a touch too indestructible, such that the action sequences become a little repetitive.

Mackenzie Davis’ Grace is a great addition to the canon. This reviewer enjoys seeing actors whom one wouldn’t typically associate with action movies take on action-heavy roles. Davis underwent a complete physical transformation to play the muscular, angular Grace. There is a tragedy to the character, who has sacrificed her physical autonomy for the cause, so she is always sympathetic.

Terminator: Dark Fate is in a way commenting on the history of the series. There is so much that’s memorable about the first two Terminator films that it’s hard to resist the temptation to make constant references to them. Yes, Sarah Connor does say “I’ll be back”, but Dark Fate demonstrates restraint and refuses to lean on the series’ storied past as a crutch.

It’s not brilliant, but especially when compared to Genisys, this is a lot closer to what a Terminator movie should feel like. Terminator: Dark Fate is not a film that strictly needs to exist, but by building a strong connection to the second film and by getting Linda Hamilton back in a starring role, it satisfyingly echoes the franchise at its best.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil review

MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL

Director: Joachim Rønning
Cast : Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Harris Dickinson, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sam Riley, Robert Lindsay, Ed Skrein, Imelda Staunton, Lesley Manville, Juno Temple
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure
Run Time : 1 h 58 mins
Opens : 17 October 2019
Rating : PG

In 2014, audiences learnt the back-story behind Maleficent, the villainess of Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty. Beyond being a cackling sorceress/sometimes-dragon, Maleficent painted its title character as someone who rose from tragedy and betrayal to form a complex bond with the young Princess Aurora. Directed by Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge), this sequel continues that story, pitting Maleficent against a conniving, ruthless new foe.

Aurora (Elle Fanning), Queen of the Moors, is about to marry Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) of Alstead. Aurora’s godmother Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is resistant to this union. Despite her heroic actions, she has been cast as a villain in stories spread by the humans. Philip’s father King John (Robert Lindsay) thinks the wedding could help to unite the two kingdoms, but his mother Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer) harbours hatred towards Maleficent and the magical creatures with whom she is aligned. Maleficent discovers a hidden society of faes, including the wise Connall (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the fiery warrior Borra (Ed Skrein). Queen Ingrith foments a war between the humans and the faes, with the young couple caught in between.

Angelina Jolie continues to be all sharp-cheekboned perfection as Maleficent. We were afraid that she might phone in it given that this is a sequel, but she still appears to relish the role. Not only does she get numerous fabulous costume changes, Maleficent goes on a journey of discovery, getting acquainted with her people and learning about their customs and beliefs. There is a conflict between her allegiance to her fae kin and to Aurora, which gives the powerful character something to struggle with.


Much of the film works because of Michelle Pfeiffer. Casting her opposite Jolie was an inspired move. The early promotional materials tried to hide it, but there’s no point beating about the bush now – Queen Ingrith is the “Mistress of Evil” of the title. Pfeiffer plays the villain with sneer and swagger hidden beneath a regal façade, with shades of her witch character from Stardust sometimes visible. Coming off like a PG-rated Cersei Lannister, it’s an absolute hoot.

There’s a lot going on in the plot of the movie, so it is to writers Linda Woolverton, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue’s credit that the movie never loses sight of its emotional core: the relationship between Maleficent and Aurora. They might not be on the same page for much of the film, but it cannot be questioned that Maleficent deeply loves and cares for Aurora, something Ingrith winds up exploiting.

Just as in the first film, the show is stolen by Sam Riley as Diaval, Maleficent’s shape-shifting sidekick. Riley manages to be both cool and endearing. Queen Ingrith’s sadistic henchwoman Gerda (Jenn Murray) is also a fun, arch character.

While the visuals are often mesmerising and transporting, the film does lean very heavily on computer-generated imagery. This is expected of a fantasy adventure film, but some of the characters do seem unnatural. The Fairy Godmothers Knotgrass (Imelda Staunton), Thistlewit (Juno Temple) and Flittle (Lesley Manville) return from the first film, and their almost-human facial features sometimes cross over into the dreaded uncanny valley.

Prince Philip is boring, but then again, this is something inherent in the source material. Brenton Thwaites, who was busy filming Season 2 of Titans, is replaced by Harris Dickinson, who constantly seems a little bit confused and flat. However, this is also a sign that the film understands that Philip is not the main character, and that he does not have to be the hero to save the day.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is almost completely wasted in a relatively small supporting role.

The action sequences in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil are grand and expansive. Like most big-budget high fantasy projects these days, it seems more than a little derivative of Game of Thrones, but the big battle scenes are dynamic and lively. The movie gets surprisingly dark, with the villain’s plot involving genocide by way of biological warfare. However, the movie still has a bounce and a sense of humour to it and is never too self-serious the way something like Snow White and the Huntsman and its sequel The Huntsman: Winter’s War sometimes were. The big climactic battle takes place in broad daylight, which is a relative rarity in films of this type.

This film has a completely different design team than the first but maintains a sense of visual continuity while also giving us something new. The costumes by Ellen Mirojnick are stunning, especially Maleficent’s battle outfit, which is a sexy, elegant body paint-style number. Production designer Patrick Tatopolous creates some gorgeous fantasy environments, chief of which is the hidden fae sanctuary comprising mini-environments which have different climates.

Summary: Maleficent: Mistress of Evil sometimes transcends its fantasy adventure genre trappings thanks to strong performances by Angelina Jolie and Michelle Pfeiffer, putting more of a spin on its source material than many of the live-action remakes Disney has given us lately.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Gemini Man review

GEMINI MAN

Director: Ang Lee
Cast : Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong, Linda Emond, Douglas Hodge
Genre : Action/Science Fiction
Run Time : 117 mins
Opens : 10 October 2019
Rating : PG13

Will Smith is one of the biggest movie stars around, so perhaps there’s no greater flex than for your film to star not one, but two Will Smiths. Is a double dose of Big Willie Style enough to save an action thriller filled with familiar plot beats and built on a borderline ridiculous premise?

Henry Brogan (Will Smith) is the world’s greatest assassin. A lifetime of killing has begun to eat away at Henry’s soul, and he is settling in for retirement. However, when Henry learns the truth behind a recent hit, he makes himself a target. Henry allies with Danny Zakarweski, a Defence Intelligence Agency operative assigned to surveil him. Together with pilot and Henry’s old friend Baron (Benedict Wong), they go on the run. Clay Verris (Clive Owen), owner of the shadowy Gemini private military company, has sent a special asset after Henry. Said asset, known as Junior (also Will Smith), is a 23-year-old clone of Henry, created without Henry’s knowledge. Henry must escape a younger, more efficient, better-trained version of himself, while also trying to save Junior out from under Clay’s thumb.

This reviewer enjoys seeing arthouse directors tackle action movies. Ang Lee has done this earlier in his career with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk. Lee attempts to imbue the proceedings with philosophical heft, and while he’s far from successful, the effort is admirable.

The movie’s big gimmick is its double act. Star Smith is duplicated using cutting-edge visual effects technology, such that this is a big step beyond the face replacement and de-aging we’ve seen in movies like the MCU films and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Junior’s face is completely synthetic. This is as close to perfect as the technology can get now, and after a while, it’s easy to forget that Junior isn’t played by an actor who just has a naturally uncanny resemblance to Smith. The visual effects are supervised by Bill Westenhofer, part of the team that won the Oscar for Lee’s Life of Pi.

There are some well-executed action sequences, including a fun bike chase through the streets and across the rooftops of Cartagena. The film also serves up eye-catching locations, including Budapest, Hungary, with scenes taking place in the historic Széchenyi Thermal Bath.

The film attempts to avoid a romantic subplot and tires to establish the Danny character as a capable operative who can hold her own, without making her a stereotypical tank top-clad gun-toting badass. Not putting a pointless romantic subplot in an action movie shouldn’t be something that’s so rare it’s worth praising, but alas, it still is.

Lee takes this very seriously – perhaps too seriously. Gemini Man doesn’t wink and nod at its preposterous premise at all, nor is its action so completely bombastic and over-the-top as to give audiences the sense that it’s being self-aware. Benedict Wong provides limited amounts of comic relief as a character who feels tacked on. This is a hitman movie that is packed with clichés that are all played painfully straight. Even the hook that the film’s antagonist is a clone of the protagonist is already somewhat overplayed. It’s also a bit confusing that Will Smith, a famously well-preserved man, is who the filmmakers chose to contrast with a younger version of himself. Sure, 51-year-old Will Smith and 23-year-old Will Smith look different, but not that dramatically.

Matters are not helped by the awkward, clunky dialogue, which alternates between exposition and “all this killing hurts my conscience”-type monologuing. There is a scene in which an informant character tells Henry “Clayton Verris is playing God with DNA. He must be stopped.” Many elements of the movie feel canned, which is at odds with how invested Lee seems to be in realising the project.

A lot becomes clear about Gemini Man once you learn that the movie has been in development hell since around 1997. At the age of 27, screenwriter Darren Lemke sold his pitch for this film, with Tony Scott attached to direct. Visual effects technology had not yet caught up with the concept. Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Nicolas Cage, Clint Eastwood and Sean Connery were all attached to the role at some point or another.

Despite being a showcase for filmmaking technology that does push the envelope, Gemini Man can’t help but feel like something leftover from the 90s or at best the early 2000s, a cross between Face/Off and The 6th Day. The plot is also reminiscent of the Metal Gear video game franchise, in which twin brothers Solid and Liquid Snake are clones of Big Boss.

Gemini Man was shot at 120-frames-per-second in 4K resolution, like Lee’s previous film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Movies typically have a framerate of 24 fps. We saw the film in high frame rate 3D. Maybe we need time for it to grow on us, but it just makes everything looks unnatural. The action scenes seem to suffer the most, because it looks like the stunt team’s rehearsals rather than the finished film. Lee has come to favour the HFR format because it eliminates dimness, strobing and motion blurring, but it can’t help but feel less cinematic. In a way, this format draws more attention to the flatness of the story and the characters, putting everything in uncomfortable hyper-focus.

If you really love Will Smith and will watch anything he’s in, you could do far worse than this, but Gemini Man falls short of its promise of a dynamic action thriller enlivened by ground-breaking visual effects.

Gemini Man is a fun idea in search of a story, and the story that we have arrived at after the involvement of at least eight screenwriters (including Game of Thrones’ David Benioff) is an uninspired one. There’s nothing wrong with unoriginality so long as the existing parts are assembled into something entertaining, and despite an established movie star in dual lead roles and some good action choreography, Gemini Man struggles to be entertaining.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Joker review

For F*** Magazine

JOKER

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast : Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Dante Pereira-Olson
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 122 mins
Opens : 3 October 2019
Rating : NC16

This standalone movie takes inspiration from the pages of DC Comics, focusing on arguably the company’s best-known supervillain, the Joker. Director Todd Phillips, best known for the Hangover films, has modelled this film on Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, creating a portrait of a twisted man lost in a cruel and uncaring world, eventually turning violent. This film is unconnected to the films set in the DC Extended Universe, or to the upcoming Batman film that will be released in 2021.

It is 1981, and Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is one of the faceless masses trying to eke out a living in the increasingly inhospitable Gotham City. Arthur cares for his ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy) and dreams of being a stand-up comedian. He is beaten down on all sides, unable to seek help for his deteriorating mental health after state funding for health programs is cut, and is fired from his job as a clown. Only his neighbour Sophie (Zazie Beetz) seems to understand him. Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), a talk show host whom Arthur idolises, airs footage of Arthur’s disastrous stand-up act and mocks him. Resentment among the hoi polloi mounts against Gotham’s wealthy elite, embodied by Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen), a billionaire planning a run for mayor. Arthur unleashes violence and chaos, reinventing himself as the costumed criminal called ‘Joker’.

There are many ways to make a movie based on a comic book. Lately, we’ve seen the Marvel Cinematic Universe method produce considerable success, but there are many types of stories told in the medium of comics and therefore many possible big screen interpretations. Joker is a valid take on the character – traditionally, he isn’t a character who needs a definitive back-story, and has said “If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice!” This is a ‘man unravels’ character study – certainly not the first in the history of cinema but marrying that archetype to a well-known pop culture property is novel to a degree.

This is a movie that wears its Scorsese inspirations on its sleeve and emulates them with style, Lawrence Sher’s cinematography displaying Gotham in all its grimy, rat-ridden glory. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is creepy without overdoing it. Robert De Niro shines in a textbook star supporting role, while Frances Conroy is thoroughly convincing as a frail, delusional and pitiful woman. Then of course, there’s the central performance, which we will get to in a bit.

Joker was always going to be controversial, and the studio and the filmmakers know this. This is a great character study about someone who winds up doing horrible things – there’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but it is worth remembering that films do not exist in a vacuum.

Disaffected, disenfranchised people have committed horrific crimes, something that has arguably intensified given the current political climate. There is a discussion to be had about how responsible movies are for that – one would say never directly, but it is possible that certain media could push those already predisposed to abhorrent behaviour to committing said behaviour. Given how John Hinckley Jr. strongly identified with Travis Bickle, protagonist of the afore-mentioned Taxi Driver, and attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, this is not idle handwringing. Both Phillips and Phoenix have handled reasonable questions about the possible real-life implications of the movie very poorly.

Of course, it is reductive to say that this movie should not exist because of the chance that someone could emulate its protagonist, but considering how many people valourised the Joker when he was portrayed as a villain in The Dark Knight, it’s not a stretch to think many more will valourise him since he’s portrayed here as a hero. There is a difference between idealising a fictional character and actively emulating their actions, something which can get lost in this conversation.

While the film is generally restrained when it comes to Easter Eggs and references to the source material, a few nods to the comics are rather clumsy, with one that happens towards the end of the film coming off as forced.

Joaquin Phoenix is a big get and probably the film’s greatest asset. Marvel Studios sought Phoenix to play Doctor Strange, but he turned the part down, not wanting to sign on for multiple films. Joker’s status as a one-off (at least, that’s how it was intended) gives Phoenix the chance to play this iteration of the character with no extensive commitment. It’s the kind of role any thespian would love to sink their teeth into: a tragic, compelling figure who is not okay in the slightest. It’s the type of performance that the Academy loves too – Phoenix underwent a drastic physical transformation, which usually helps with the Oscar buzz. There still are critics who find it hard to accept movies based on comic books as legitimate cinema, but the performance Phoenix gives here is hard to ignore or diminish.

As alluded to earlier, a problem that arises when making a movie about a supervillain with no superhero to counteract him is that said supervillain winds up looking heroic, even if that wasn’t the intention. We see Gotham from Arthur’s point of view. As such, the typically noble Thomas Wayne is instead depicted as a callous, condescending son of privilege, crushing the masses beneath his heel. There’s been a lot of back-and-forth about whether the film appears to condone the Joker’s action or state clearly that they are wrong – “condone” is a strong word, but Arthur certainly is drawn in a sympathetic manner. In a way, the film serves as a cautionary tale, because Arthur would have never become the Joker if the right support systems were in place to grant him the help he desperately needed, and if it were harder for him to gain access to the tools that he uses to wreak his havoc.

It is entirely plausible that the worst people will relate to the character and hold this version of the character up as an ideal, so hopefully the people who see this movie will be able to compartmentalise, and walk away from this going “that was an interesting portrayal of a supervillain and a sobering warning” rather than “Joker has it all figured out!”

Summary: There is a boldness to the way Joker interprets its comic book source material that makes it stand out from the usual crop of comic book movies, and Phoenix’s titular performance is impressive, but the controversy surrounding the film shouldn’t merely be swept under a rug. It’s intense, gripping and disturbing. We don’t necessarily want to see more comic book movies exactly like this, but if nothing else, Joker shows that comic book movies can take many strange, compelling forms.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Farewell review

For F*** Magazine

THE FAREWELL

Director: Lulu Wang
Cast : Awkwafina, Tzi Ma, Diana Lin, Zhao Shuzhen, Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara
Genre : Drama/Comedy
Run Time : 100 mins
Opens : 3 October 2019
Rating : PG

Nora “Awkwafina” Lum has burst onto the scene in a big way. Starting out as a rapper, Awkwafina recently appeared in high-profile films like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s Eight. She will next be seen in Jumanji: The Next Level, with roles in the live-action remake of The Little Mermaid and Marvel’s Shang-Chi lined up. Awkwafina is known for her brash, comedic onscreen persona, but it wasn’t long before she would get a tour de force dramatic showcase to prove her versatility as an actor. The Farewell is that showcase.

Billi Wang’s (Awkwafina) family moved from China to the US when she was six. Billi has been struggling to make it as an artist and moves back in with her parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). They tell Billi that her paternal grandmother ‘Nai Nai’ (Zhao Shuzhen) has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. However, the extended family has made a pact to hide this from Nai Nai, so she can live out her remaining months without worry. Under the pretences of a wedding between cousin Hao Hao (Chen Han) and his girlfriend Aiko (Aoi Mizuhara), the family reunites in Changchun to see Nai Nai one last time. Billi wrestles with the dilemma of whether she should tell her beloved Nai Nai the truth, as she is confronted with the realities of Chinese traditions and societal expectations after having lived in the US for most of her life.

The Farewell is a remarkable piece of storytelling – moving, involving and gently funny without being overwrought. Writer-director Lulu Wang has a fantastic ear for dialogue and a confident yet light directorial hand, creating a film that is filled with relatable scenarios and yet has a specificity to it that only someone with that cultural background could bring to the movie. Wang was fiercely protective over keeping most of the dialogue in Mandarin Chinese, against the wishes of the studio for the movie to be in English or to be a broad comedy. Tonally, Wang keeps everything just right – it’s just the right amount of sad, the right amount of funny, and no incident or interaction is superfluous. This is how one does family drama. The device of the big secret that the family is keeping from Nai Nai adds to the dramatic tension and serves as a focal point.

Perhaps it’s an exigency of movies about big family gatherings, but naturally not everyone gets equal amounts of characterisation or screen time. The character that suffers the most from this is Aiko, who has practically no lines. As the biggest outsider, things must be the most confusing for Aiko, who has been dragged to a pseudo-wedding because her boyfriend’s grandmother is dying but nobody is going to tell her. This reviewer would like to have seen Billi and Aiko share a moment.

Awkwafina is brilliant as Billi, bringing a raw, beautiful honesty to the part while also displaying her comedic instincts when the story calls for it. Tzi Ma, who is often given thankless bit parts in Hollywood, creates a sympathetic character in Billi’s father. The film contrasts Billi’s relationship with her father and that with her mother without putting too fine a point on it. Zhao Shuzhen’s turn as Nai Nai is confident and brimming with warmth; the affection between Billi and Nai Nai is utterly, heart-achingly believable.

Part of why The Farewell feels so authentic is because Lulu Wang drew inspiration from an incident in her own life, when her own grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and her family decided to keep it a secret from her. She first told this story in an episode of the podcast This American Life, which garnered the attention of film producers. Lulu shares a lot in common with the character Billi, including moving from China to the US with her family at age 6. Much of The Farewell was filmed in Changchun, which is where Wang’s family is from. Further adding to the verisimilitude is that Lu Hong, who portrays Billi’s grandaunt “Little Nai Nai”, is Wang’s real-life grandaunt.

The Farewell is another good example of why more filmmakers from different backgrounds and with different life experiences should be given the opportunity to make movies. Writer/director Wang demonstrates a sensitivity and a sense of humour about questions of identity and of the immigrant experience, which itself covers a wide spectrum. Drawing inspiration from the specificities of her life, Wang creates something that can reach a wide audience regardless of their cultural background. The exceedingly positive critical reaction to this film is more than deserved.

Summary: The Farewell is a touching portrait of family that asks poignant questions about cultural values and identity without being either dull or histrionic. Writer-director Lulu Wang firmly establishes herself as a talent to watch, with star Awkwafina showing off impressive dramatic chops while still being appealingly funny.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong