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

Daughter of the Dragon: Jessica Henwick Interview

THE DAUGHTER OF THE DRAGON
Jessica Henwick tells F*** about playing Iron Fist’s kickass ally, Colleen Wing
By Jedd Jong

While most reviews for Marvel/Netflix’s Iron Fist series have been negative, it seems that critics agree that Jessica Henwick’s performance as Colleen Wing is an outstanding aspect of the show. The 24-year-old actress is best known for her supporting role as Nymeria Sand in Game of Thrones, and had a cameo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens as X-Wing pilot Jessika Pava.

Colleen is a martial arts instructor who comes across the show’s protagonist Danny Rand (Finn Jones) while he is practicing martial arts in the park. At first, she wants nothing to do with this strange homeless man, but as she gradually finds out more about Danny’s background, including his training in a mystical monastery called K’un Lun, she becomes sympathetic to his cause. While there is still mistrust between Danny and Colleen, Colleen comes to fight alongside Danny and respect his place as the Iron Fist of legend.

Speaking exclusively to F*** over the phone from London in December 2016, Henwick spoke about the nature of Colleen and Danny’s relationship, filming the fight scenes, her impressions of the late Carrie Fisher and what she thinks about Colleen not having an official action figure of her own just yet.

What can you tell us about Colleen Wing and the place she occupies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe?

JESSICA HENWICK: Colleen Wing runs a dojo in New York, in Chinatown. She’s a very cool character in that she’s travelled a lot of the world and has settled down here in New York. She’s struggling to make ends meet, she’s got money problems, but she’s just about managing. She’s very independent, very much a lone wolf and doesn’t want to get help from anyone. She just about manages on her own and she comes across Danny. He comes in and ruins her life [laughs].

What is the nature of Colleen and Danny’s relationship?

It’s a very interesting relationship in that, if you’ve seen the trailer, people think he’s kind of crazy. He’s a person who’s been missing for however many years and he’s been in this mystical place called K’un Lun being trained by monks. She thinks there’s more to him than just a lie; her gut tells her that he’s telling the truth.

Would you say that Colleen and Danny are kindred spirits in a sense?

Are Colleen and Danny kindred spirits? In some ways, you’ll have to wait and see.

The partnership between Colleen Wing and Misty Knight is something fans have been looking forward to for some time. Will we see the seeds of that being sown in this first season of Iron Fist?

I think Misty’s not in Iron Fist, but you certainly ways in which she could be introduced and I would love to see it.

We read that you actively pursued the role. What was the audition process like?

I was one of the very first actresses to audition for the role and we did some screen tests with me and Finn. It was fun, I’ve known Finn for a couple of years, he’s very easy to work with. I got on a plane, and when I landed, I got a phone call from the head of Marvel who said “welcome to Marvel”.

Having played Jess Pava in The Force Awakens and Colleen Wing in Iron Fist, you’ve now joined an elite club of actors who have been in both Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, Mads Mikkelsen and Andy Serkis. How does it feel to have accomplished this?

It’s very flattering and I’ve been very lucky [laughs].

 

What has the physical training been like, and what action sequences can we look forward to seeing Colleen Wing in?

There are really cool action sequences because she’s in a fight club. I get to wear the tracksuit, like she wears in the comics, the white suit. She’s in very cool fights, and I have another fight with a woman that’s probably my favourite fight in the show.

How would you compare working on a HBO show like Game of Thrones to working on a show for Netflix like Iron Fist?

Game of Thrones is quite unique in that it has such a huge budget that I feel that I’m working on a feature film. Netflix is interesting in that it’s digital media, it’s not mainstream television and it’s a very unique project.

Carrie Fisher passed away recently…

Gosh, I just heard about that, I know…

Did you have any interaction with her while working on or promoting The Force Awakens and what can you tell us about her if so?

I did meet Carrie Fisher. I only worked on Star Wars for about two weeks. I met her very, very briefly. I didn’t have too many interactions with her when we were on set, even though we were both on set, she kind of kept to herself. She’s a very gregarious, bubbly, wild personality, I would say. She was the life of the party. I regret that I had a very, very short time with her. It’s been a hard year, we’ve lot of actors and musicians. I think Carrie’s touched a lot of people around the world and a lot of people will remember her fondly.

Who are some actors whom you admire or look up to?

I used to be obsessed with the film The Shawshank Redemption when I was younger. I love Morgan Freeman, specifically Morgan Freeman’s voice. Back when I used to be on Facebook, I used to be a member of a club that was just devoted to Morgan Freeman’s voice. I love younger actors like Saoirse Ronan, she’s great. I watched Arrival recently, and I thought Amy Adams did a great job.

That’s a phenomenal film.

It really is.

What are some of the characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large that you’ve gravitated to?

I love Iron Man, specifically Robert Downey Jr. Who else in the Marvel universe? Hmm…oh, there’s this new role in Guardians of the Galaxy [Vol. 2], Mantis, played by Pom Klementieff. Mantis is such a cool role from the comic book and I’m excited to see what she does with it, I think she’ll knock it out of the park.

Finally, an official Colleen Wing action figure doesn’t yet exist. Can we start a campaign for Hasbro to get right on that?

Yes please! That would be so much fun. I would love to see that. I think there’s been a Nymeria Sand bobblehead from Game of Thrones and obviously Jess Pava from Star Wars is now a LEGO character, but to get a real action figure which looks like me, that would be cool.

Fast & Furious 8 (AKA The Fate of the Furious)

For F*** Magazine

FAST & FURIOUS 8 

Director : F. Gary Gray
Cast : Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel, Kurt Russell, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren, Elsa Pataky, Scott Eastwood
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 16min
Opens : 13 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

The driving force behind the Fast and Furious franchise – besides international box office – is ‘family’. Groan-inducing though it may be, many moviegoers have warmed to the crew led by Dominic “Dom” Toretto (Diesel), and audiences around the world feel a kinship with this team. In this, the eighth entry in the franchise, we watch the family get torn asunder.

Dom and his wife Letty (Rodriguez) are enjoying their honeymoon in Havana, Cuba. The couple is called away for a mission in Germany, where the team must prevent an Electromagnetic Pulse generator from falling into enemy hands. Dom, Letty, DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Johnson), motormouth Roman (Gibson), mechanical whiz Tej (Bridges) and hacker Ramsey (Emmanuel) pull off the mission without a hitch – until Dom betrays them. The woman who has somehow convinced Dom to cast aside his loyalty is elusive, powerful cyberterrorist Cipher (Theron). To track down Dom and Cipher, spymaster Mr. Nobody (Russell) places the team’s nemesis Deckard Shaw (Statham) alongside them. Everyone, especially Hobbs, is upset that they must work with Shaw, but desperate times call for desperate measures. This latest adventure takes the team from New York City to the frigid Russian tundra, as they try to stop Cipher and win Dom back to the side of good.

Director F. Gary Gray, who helmed Straight Outta Compton and the remake of The Italian Job, takes the wheel from Furious 7 director James Wan. While it’s officially titled ‘The Fate of the Furious’, it’s promoted as Fast & Furious 8 in several territories. With the superstar cast and key behind-the-scenes personnel including writer Chris Morgan, cinematographer Stephen F. Windon, composer Brian Tyler and second unit director/stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos returning, not too much has changed, even with a new director.

Under the guidance of Justin Lin, who helmed the third through sixth entries in the franchise, the series has morphed from being ostensibly about car racing culture into a globe-trotting military action/heist behemoth. Fast & Furious 8 opens with a street race in Havana, to remind viewers that the series hasn’t forgotten its roots. It takes confidence to open the film with a relatively humble set-piece, especially when compared to the mayhem that follows.

When the sixth film came out, some viewers were wondering just how the series would continue to top itself in the outlandish car stunt stakes. Just when it seemed there’s nothing new under the sun, Fast & Furious 8 launches a submarine at the crew. This is a series that’s always in danger of swallowing itself up, but Gray presides over things with a firm-enough hand. A sequence in which Cipher orchestrates unbridled vehicular chaos on the streets of New York City is inventive, and in between all the big-budget bombast, we get to witness a good old-fashioned prison brawl. Once again, Razatos deserves credit for staging grand, entertaining spectacle.

Watching the action scenes is like watching a penguin glide gracefully through the water. Sitting through the dramatic scenes is like watching said penguin waddle on land: it’s ungainly, but endearing. The soap opera quotient is even higher than before. Dom goes rogue! Shock, horror! While Morgan’s screenplay heaves with cheesiness and Gibson’s ad-libbing tends to make scenes less funny, we have to admire the logistics of it. Not just the logistics of staging the action, but the sheer mechanics of constructing the screenplay, such that each member of the ever-expanding cast gets their time to shine. There are a few twists, a cameo or two and a reasonably clever gambit is put into play, but it’s nothing as audacious as the chase with the safe(s) in the fifth film. While the seventh film made a fair few viewers tear up with its closing tribute to the late Paul Walker, the emotional scenes here make considerably less impact.

The massive ensemble works like a well-oiled machine, anecdotal murmurs of friction between Diesel and his castmates notwithstanding. Gray wrings a good amount of tension from the premise of Dom turning against his teammates, with Rodriguez’s Letty naturally being the most hurt.

Johnson and Statham play off against each other wonderfully, trading juvenile barbs. Having the big bad villain of the seventh film get all chummy with the crew does run the risk of diminishing Shaw’s intimidation factor, but that’s not too much of an issue because there’s a new villain in town.

Said villain is played by Theron, reuniting with her Italian Job director and co-star Statham. Theron’s awesome in pretty much everything (we like to pretend Æon Flux doesn’t exist) and she has just enough fun with this role. Cipher is coolly evil and her dastardly scheme is very Bond villain-esque. However, unlike the Shaw siblings from the last two instalments, Cipher is mostly a passive villain, standing in front of a bank of computers, shouting things like “hack ‘em all” to her minions. It’s not the best use of Theron, but we’re glad she’s in the series anyway.

Perhaps it’s because she was only introduced in the previous film, but Emmanuel’s Ramsey doesn’t really feel like a part of the team yet. Scott Eastwood plays Mr. Nobody’s apprentice who gets picked on by the crew and feels extraneous. But if you’re already invested in the series and its characters, this is a fun ride that feels shorter than its 136-minute running time. Gray does a fine job of preserving the series’ personality while furthering the team’s delightfully ludicrous exploits.

Summary: It’s as cheesy and outlandish as ever: Fast & Furious 8 sticks to what works for the franchise and even if it doesn’t break ground the same way that submarine did, it’s enjoyable.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Mean Dreams

For F*** Magazine

MEAN DREAMS 

Director : Nathan Morlando
Cast : Sophie Nélisse, Josh Wiggins, Bill Paxton, Colm Feore, Joe Cobden, Vickie Papavs
Genre : Crime/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 45min
Opens : 13 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

This is a movie about a boy, a girl, a dog and a duffel bag full of money. It sounds like it could be a comedic romp, but it really isn’t. The boy in question is Jonas Ford (Wiggins), a farmer’s son who quickly falls for his new neighbour, Casey (Nélisse). Casey’s father Wayne (Paxton) is a police sergeant who is abusive towards Casey. When Jonas tries to protect Casey from her father, Wayne threatens Jonas and his family. When Jonas comes across a duffel bag filled with nearly a million dollars, he spirits Casey away. Together with Casey’s dog Blaze, the young couple go on the run, pursued by Wayne’s boss, the sheriff known only as ‘the Chief’ (Feore). The teenage fugitives must fend for themselves, their respective futures hanging in the balance.

Mean Dreams comes from Canadian director Nathan Morlando and is written by Kevin Coughlin and Ryan Grassby. An indie crime thriller melded with a coming-of-age romance, Mean Dreams is intense, but never quite reaches the emotional high this reviewer was hoping it would. Cinematographer Steve Cosens presents the Canadian landscape of Sault Ste. Marie with equal measures of grace and dread, and the score by Son Lux features some exciting percussion work. It’s shot in Canada, but appears to be set in the U.S. Rust Belt. Mean Dreams doesn’t lack in atmosphere, but because it’s as dreary as it is, it can be a slog to sit through, feeling significantly longer than its 105 minutes. It’s set in the present day, but feels like a film that could’ve been made in the 70s. Dialogue like “it’s a mean world the angels left us” could’ve easily felt silly, but instead is effectively fatalistic.

The film is carried by its young leads. Nélisse’s moving turn in The Book Thief endeared her to many a filmgoer even if the film itself was too treacly, and her performance in Mean Dreams indicates that she continues to be a young talent to look out for. While there’s an obvious vulnerability to Casey, seeing as she is a victim of abuse, she also challenges Jonas’ perception that she is the damsel in need of rescuing.

Wiggins gives off young Matt Damon vibes, making for a wholesome, winsome lead. Both Jonas and Casey seem ill-equipped to face the adult world, having to do a whole lot of growing up overnight. While there are elements to the romance that seem too syrupy and twee, this feeling is offset by the film’s overall grim tone.

Mean Dreams is one of the late Paxton’s final films. Paxton may be best-remembered for his roles in James Cameron’s films, and he did star in HBO’s Big Love, but he’s never really been viewed as a leading man. He was a consummate character actor, and is wholly intimidating without resorting to wanton scenery chomping as the main antagonist of the film. When he’s first introduced, Wayne is acting all sweet towards his daughter, but her uneasy manner indicates that something’s not quite right with the man. Feore backs Paxton up as the sneering authority figure, and the fact that the movie’s villains are cops, who are supposedly sworn to uphold the law, makes them even scarier.

Mean Dreams presents us with cruel adults shattering the innocence of kids, with said kids running away and possibly fighting back. We have seen indie films tackle these themes before, but the strong performances and evocative cinematography give Mean Dreams a verve, even if it lacks the snap it needs to be truly engaging.

Summary: A straight-forward, small-scale crime thriller, Mean Dreams’ talented leads sell its central romance but the film never quite shifts out of second gear.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong