The Big Sick

For F*** Magazine

THE BIG SICK 

Director : Michael Showalter
Cast : Kumail Nanjiani, Zoe Kazan, Holly Hunter, Ray Romano, Adeel Akhtar, Zenobia Shroff, Anupam Kher, Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, David Alan Grier
Genre : Comedy/Romanc
Run Time : 2h
Opens : 27 July 2017
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language and Some Sexual References)

Many couples have probably thought to themselves, “say, our courtship would make a great movie”. Comedians Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon thought this, and they were right.

In The Big Sick, Nanjiani plays himself, a Chicago-based stand-up comic from a Pakistani immigrant family. Kumail’s mother Sharmeen (Shroff) has been trying to arrange a marriage for him, setting him up with as many eligible Pakistani-American women as she can find. Emily Gardner (Kazan) is in the audience at a show in which Kumail is one of the performers, and they hit it off. However, Kumail knows that he will be disowned by his family if they find out he is dating a white, non-Muslim woman. Several weeks into their relationship, Emily is struck by a mysterious illness, and is placed in a medically-induced coma. Her parents Beth (Hunter) and Terry (Romano) arrive from North Carolina to care for her, and while things between them and Kumail are awkward at first, they begin to bond over their mutual care for Emily’s well-being. In the meantime, Kumail hopes to impress a talent scout who is selecting comics to perform in the esteemed Montreal Comedy Festival, but Emily’s circumstances throw him off his game, forcing him to re-evaluate his priorities while he confronts the traditions that he feels bound by.

This romantic comedy-drama is co-written by Nanjiani and Gordon, starring Nanjiani as himself, re-enacting his own love story. This might sound like a vanity project on the surface, but The Big Sick doesn’t feel like one at all. Even if it is a vanity project, it’s the kind we need right now. While made with a niche audience in mind, The Big Sick has gained overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth and has become a critical and commercial success. Key to its success is that this a film that bleeds authenticity. Sure, as with any movie based on a true story, artistic licenses were taken, but at no point that this feel glossy and artificial, nor does the film seem like it’s straining to convince us of its realness. As cliché as it sounds, all of it comes from the heart. Profoundly moving and disarmingly raw, director Michael Showalter packages Nanjiani and Gordon’s shared experiences without them seeming packaged in any way.

This is a comedy first and foremost, and on that front The Big Sick is a gut-busting triumph. Little touches like Nanjiani’s abiding love for The X-Files add nice textural elements – the episode “One Breath”, in which Mulder tries to save Scully from a coma, was a major inspiration for this film. Stand-up comics like Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant fill supporting roles as Kumail’s fellow comedy club performers, sometimes sarcastic but never unbearably smug. At no point does The Big Sick feel smug or ‘funnier than thou’, as movies about comedy with the creative involvement of professional comics are wont to be. Best of all, the tricky tonal balances are executed with a master’s touch. The film makes no hard-left turns into dramatic territory, and when it gets serious, it never blindsides the audience. The subjects of medical emergencies, the prejudices faced by South Asians and other immigrants in the United States, and the prospect of being exiled from one’s family because of whom one chooses to love are not inherently funny. The Big Sick’s treatment of these issues provokes thought without feeling inorganic or like it’s forcing the audience into an uncomfortable spot. The comedy does not undercut or overpower the film’s depth or sincerity.

One could say that Kumail Nanjiani was the role Kumail Nanjiani was born to play. Nanjiani is earnestly dorky, yet charming and altogether endearing, without ever feeling like he’s over-amplifying aspects of himself. He shares sparkling chemistry with Kazan, who is eminently likeable and showcases a range of the most adorable facial expressions. There are conflicts and misunderstandings, but they never feel like stock rom-com contrivances. Emily is in a coma for most of the film’s running time, but Kazan makes her presence felt and the relationship between Kumail and Emily is one of the easiest to root for in all of romantic comedy film history.

 

Kumail’s family does feel a little exaggerated for comedic effect, but they are never the butt of the joke. Given all that Nanjiani has been through, the portrayal of Kumail’s father Azmat (Kher), mother Sharmeen, brother Naveed (Akhtar) and sister-in-law Fatima (Shenaz Treasury) is markedly sympathetic. Kumail might feel stifled by the traditions and worldview upheld by his family, but that doesn’t mean he loves them any less.

Romano and Hunter are impeccably cast as Emily’s parents. Romano brings his trademark slightly beleaguered, Dad joke-spouting everyman persona to bear, but also provides some of the film’s most honest emotion. Hunter’s fiery, no-nonsense Beth is a force to be reckoned with, and the way she eventually warms towards Kumail feels natural and earned. Having a daughter in a coma is an emotionally-exhausting experience, and Terry and Beth are shown warts and all – but then again, so is every character in The Big Sick, a key ingredient in its authenticity.

“Absolutely devastating” is not necessarily the description one would use for a comedy – but The Big Sick is absolutely devastating in the best way. In telling a love story through a unique perspective, skilfully folding in social issues and wrapping all this in bracing, disarming humour, The Big Sick is essential viewing.

Summary: Deeply personal, authentic, warm, heart-rending and immensely funny, The Big Sick will cause fits of laughter and uncontrollable sobbing without feeling incongruous, manipulative or self-indulgent.

RATING: 5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Atomic Blonde

For F*** Magazine

ATOMIC BLONDE 

Director : David Leitch
Cast : Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Toby Jones, Sofia Boutella, Eddie Marsan, James Faulkner
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 27 July 2017
Rating : R21 (Some Homosexual Content)

Charlize Theron goes from traversing the arid, scorching desert of Mad Max: Fury Road to sauntering into the coldest city in this action thriller. It is 1989, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and MI6 agent James Gascoine (Sam Hargrave) is killed by a KGB operative in West Berlin. Gascoine’s colleague and former lover Lorraine Broughton (Theron), one of MI6’s deadliest operatives, is sent behind the Iron Curtain to recover sensitive information stolen from Gascoine. Lorraine must work alongside MI6’s Berlin station chief David Percival (McAvoy), who is often drunk and unreliable. Lorraine’s mission is to track down a mark known only as ‘Spyglass’ (Marsan). She gets entangled with French spy Delphine Lasalle (Boutella), and Lorraine’s actions frustrate her superiors Eric Gray (Jones) of MI6 and Emmet Kurzfeld (Goodman) of CIA. Caught in a geopolitical firestorm and pitted against the most treacherous of enemies, Lorraine must retrieve the documents at all costs.

Atomic Blonde is based on the graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart. Directing the film is David Leitch, who co-directed John Wick with Chad Stahelski and who is also helming the upcoming Deadpool 2. Leitch employs a great deal of stylisation, crafting a brutal, sexy ‘neon-noir’. However, unlike John Wick, Atomic Blonde doesn’t lean into its heightened absurdity as much, and takes itself a little too seriously.

As with any espionage thriller, the plot is a web of double-crosses, shifting alliances and twisty reveals. Atomic Blonde hints at the fraught geopolitical climate of the time, but is far from substantive. While Atomic Blonde succeeds as a mood piece, it is too coolly detached for audiences to get involved in the story. With its title cards rendered as spray-painted graffiti text and its action set to songs by Queen, David Bowie, Depeche Mode and Kanye West, Atomic Blonde is sometimes too enamoured with its coolness for its own good.

Coming from a stunt performer/coordinator background and having co-founded the stunt collective 87Eleven Action Design, Leitch knows a thing or two about action sequences. Atomic Blonde showcases several elaborate, wince-inducing combat sequences, and doesn’t skimp on the blood splatter when people get shot in the head. It is inevitable that this gets compared to John Wick – we’ve already done that earlier in this review. As masterfully as the stunts are executed, the balletic gunfights in John Wick were more dazzling, and that film’s juxtaposition of elegance and brutality more beguiling, than the action on show in Atomic Blonde.

Theron is an outspoken feminist, and Atomic Blonde has been characterised as a feminist action movie. The screenplay is written by Kurt Johnstad, who has penned such “manly men” flicks as 300 and Act of Valour, and the film’s female characters are very much sexualised. However, Theron owns the character’s sexuality, and while it can be argued that moments like a lesbian sex scene are exploitative, she displays such conviction that it doesn’t feel sleazy. This is a role that’s right in Theron’s wheelhouse – Lorraine is slinky, lethal and unafraid to get her hands very dirty. We get very little in the way of back-story or meaningful character motivations, but Lorraine is intended to be an enigma and Theron relishes the cloak and dagger machinations her character enacts.

As is expected of McAvoy when he gets to play characters a little on the wild side, he puts in an entertaining turn. David plays second fiddle to Lorraine, and McAvoy has no qualms letting Theron take the spotlight. The openly hostile dynamic between the two ostensible allies contains glimmers of fun, but McAvoy and Theron don’t get to play off each other as much as this reviewer hoped.

Boutella’s Delphine is very much the traditional Bond girl: she’s in her over depth, and is seduced and taken advantage of by the hero(ine). It can be argued that the much buzzed-about lesbian sex scene between Lorraine and Delphine is gratuitous, but Theron has argued that it’s an example of women owning their sexuality in a mainstream film, something we don’t see a lot of. In the meantime, Goodman and Jones show up mostly to facilitate the framing device of Lorraine being debriefed/interrogated in the aftermath of her Berlin mission. Unlike Theron and Boutella, they do not have a sex scene together.

As a platform for Charlize Theron to strut her action heroine stuff, Atomic Blonde works well. However, its convoluted spy vs. spy narrative is at odds with its stylishness and devil-may-care vibe. Atomic Blonde gets bogged down with considerable amounts of plot to get through in between the action while not possessing much depth, but Theron’s virtuosic badassery make it worthwhile.

Summary: While not as compulsively entertaining as it could’ve been, Atomic Blonde packs in plenty of style and showcases Charlize Theron in full action heroine mode.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Baby Driver

For F*** Magazine

BABY DRIVER 

Director : Edgar Wright
Cast : Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Jamie Foxx, Jon Bernthal, CJ Jones, Flea, Lanny Joon
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 52m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

The director of the Cornetto trilogy and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World takes the driver’s seat, and he has the Wright of way. This action comedy follows Baby (Elgort), a getaway driver who is a veritable prodigy behind the wheel. After surviving an accident in his childhood, Baby suffers from tinnitus, and to drown out the ringing noise, listens to pre-selected music on his iPod. Baby is in the employ of criminal mastermind Doc (Spacey), whose gang of bank-robbers includes miscreants like Buddy (Hamm), Buddy’s wife Darling (González), the violent and unpredictable Bats (Foxx) and the surly Griff (Bernthal). The latter two aren’t especially fond of Baby, but Doc insists on keeping Baby as his getaway driver, even as Baby wants out. Baby fears that his foster father Joseph (Jones) and Debora (James), the diner waitress with whom he strikes up a relationship, are endangered by his criminal activities. While he dreams of hitting the open road with Debora next to him, Baby is kept under Doc’s thumb. He might be the world’s greatest getaway driver, but can he escape from his shadowy employer?

Baby Driver has long been gestating in writer-director Wright’s mind. After first coming up with the idea in 1994, Wright directed a music video for Mint Royale’s “Blue Song”, featuring Noel Fielding as a getaway driver with an affinity for music. Wright has become known for his films’ dynamic, sometimes quirky style, and the comic energy with which he executes them. Baby Driver is supremely entertaining, a funny, romantic thriller crafted with the utmost care. It’s a little like a souped-up version of Carpool Karaoke, in that each action sequence is set to music.

Baby Driver moves with an effortless fluidity; Wright tapping on choreographer Ryan Heffington to help sync the actors’ movements to the soundtrack. Atlanta, Georgia, often doubles for other locations, but in Baby Driver, the city gets to play itself, becoming an ideal backdrop for thrilling, inventive car chases. Baby Driver features such brazen stylistic choices as cutting a gunfight to a drum solo; editors Paul Machliss and Jonathan Amos giving the picture a rhythm that matches the vibe of the story Wright is trying to tell to a tee.

With Baby’s personal mix of songs helping him to zone in while he works, while carrying sentimental significance for him, there are traces of Star-Lord’s awesome mix from Guardians of the Galaxy. It turns out that Wright consulted director James Gunn to make sure there wasn’t any overlap between the tracks featured in Baby Driver and those used in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Artistes like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, The Commodores, T. Rex, Beck, Martha and the Vandellas and, of course, Simon and Garfunkel all show up on the soundtrack, making this something of a hybrid jukebox musical action movie. It’s a clever, unique effect.

Elgort’s Baby is one of the more memorable original protagonists in recent memory. There are elements to him we’ve seen before in many a crime thriller: he’s got a tragic past, is embarking on the fabled ‘one last job’, has a parental figure who disapproves of his job, and falls in love with a woman from whom he tries to hide his unlawful ways. Even so, there’s a resonant freshness to the character, as if Wright has remixed said elements. Baby is laconic and withdrawn, existing in his own world created with the assistance of music. ‘Tough’ isn’t the first adjective that springs to mind when describing Elgort, but Baby exudes toughness of a non-traditional sort. The character is roguish, charming and endearing with Elgort having to try too hard at all.

The film’s supporting cast is stacked with talent. James exudes a somewhat old-fashioned girl-next-door sweetness, and while the romance between Baby and Debora unfolds predictably enough, it is still achingly romantic. Emma Stone was initially cast in the role, but left due to scheduling conflicts with La La Land. The character isn’t given the greatest amount of agency, and for most of the film remains an observer, but she plays a crucial role in the movie’s conclusion.

Spacey is Spacey: slyly terrifying and having the time of his life, while displaying commendable restraint. Hamm, Foxx and Bernthal all have their moments, with Foxx being especially easy to dislike as a bank robber who is instantly antipathic towards Baby. The characters who surround Baby are over-the-top, but that never undercuts their capability to be truly terrifying. By the film’s climactic confrontation, Baby Driver dispenses with the humour, and that sequence is intense and brutal. It’s a little jarring, but that turn is mostly well-earned. CJ Jones, who plays Baby’s kindly deaf foster father Joseph, is deaf in real life and is an activist for deaf awareness causes.

Baby Driver is the work of an auteur at the top of his game, with Wright’s stamp on it from beginning to end. The filmmaker makes numerous canny, inspired decisions, and pulls them off with stunning aplomb. Instead of coming off as smug and self-indulgent, it packs in a great deal of heart, feeling polished yet personal. It’s a deliriously good time that’s also deliriously good filmmaking.

SUMMARY: Edgar Wright fires on all cylinders, creating a superb slice of entertainment that’s a visual and aural delight. Baby Driver is also the best showcase for Ansel Elgort’s star power yet.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Dunkirk

For F*** Magazine

DUNKIRK 

Director : Christopher Nolan
Cast : Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Genre : Action/War
Run Time : 1h 47m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language)

There have been plenty of films set during the Second World War, and plenty of excellent ones at that, but you’ve never seen a war movie quite like Dunkirk. It is May 1940, and 400 000 Allied soldiers from Britain, Belgium, Canada and France have been trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, by German forces. With the waters surrounding the beach too shallow for naval vessels, hundreds of small personal craft are called into service to evacuate the soldiers from Dunkirk. British Army private Tommy (Whitehead) is just trying to get home, while Commander Bolton (Branagh) and Colonel Winnat (D’Arcy) oversee the evacuation on the ground. Making his way to Dunkirk in his boat is Mr. Dawson (Rylance), accompanied by his son Peter (Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s best friend George (Keoghan). On the way to Dunkirk, they pick up the Shivering Soldier (Murphy), a shell-shocked survivor of a German U-Boat attack. In the skies overhead flies Farrier (Hardy), a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot warding off attacks from German fighters. As time runs out for the soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, all they need to be victorious is to survive.

The very notion of Christopher Nolan writing and directing a WWII movie sent expectations for Dunkirk sky-rocketing. The film has lived up to, and maybe even surpassed, those expectations. Cutting through the stodginess that can sometimes plague period pieces, Nolan delivers something revelatory. There’s no glamour, no romance, no treacly sentimentality, no pomp, no circumstance – from the opening moments, viewers are plunged into the thick of unspooling chaos, trapped alongside the film’s characters in a variety of panic-inducing circumstances.

Taut and running a lean 107 minutes, unusual for a movie of this type, Dunkirk unfolds with searing immediacy. Dunkirk is not about the strength and sheer might of its heroes – Winston Churchill characterised the events that led to the stranding of the 400 000 Allied soldiers at Dunkirk as a “colossal military disaster”. Dunkirk is not a chest-thumping ode to a bygone age of ‘true heroism’, nor is it a withering, cynical proclamation that ‘war is hell’. It’s not making any grand statements, it’s transporting the audience into situations so hopeless and so desperate that they’ll be gasping for air.

Putting the film together was a staggering logistical undertaking, and Nolan waited to accrue experience making large-scale blockbusters before tackling this film, which he has wanted to make since he was a student. Nolan makes the massive scope of the film digestible for audiences by dividing Dunkirk into three perspectives: the land, the sea and the air. The Germans are a faceless enemy, making their presence felt through the ordnance they bombard the beach with. With each cluster of protagonists having clear objectives to complete, Dunkirk is easy to follow, and doesn’t contain unwieldy stretches of exposition.

Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography provides both the breathless immersion of being stuck below decks in a sinking ship and the soaring majesty of Spitfires tearing across the sky, an expanse of ocean beneath the planes. Hans Zimmer’s frantic score contains no lush, sweeping melodies, incorporating interesting textural elements including the ticking sound of Nolan’s own pocket watch.

Another thing that sets Dunkirk apart from its prestige drama ilk is that there are no showy performances finely tuned for maximum Academy appeal. Make no mistake, the acting is excellent, it’s just that it doesn’t call attention to itself and character back-stories and motivations are deliberately scarce, so we can focus on the moment. It’s unusual that a thespian of Branagh’s calibre is given relatively little to do, but it works. Newcomer Whitehead aptly captures the wide-eyed innocence and desperation of a young soldier swept up in a colossal conflict, while Harry Styles, to his credit, is barely distracting.

 

Murphy’s turn as the PTSD-stricken Shivering Soldier, who is otherwise unnamed, is probably the closest thing Dunkirk has to a virtuoso turn, and even then, it isn’t overplayed. Rylance showcases the masterful restraint he’s become known for, his character embodying the quiet, everyday heroism displayed by the mariners who came to the soldiers’ rescue. While Hardy is at his best when playing antiheroes, roguish types or straight-up villains, but he’s easy to root for as the pilot who tries to save the day.

Stripping away the stylistic trappings often associated with WWII epics, Nolan shapes Dunkirk into a film that’s visceral and affecting, but is also spectacular and deserves to be seen on as large a screen as one can find. While it’s not the easiest film to watch, Nolan skilfully refrains from gratuitous blood and gore – it’s horrifying without being unnecessarily so. Because of its heavy subject matter and the tension with which it is brought to life, Dunkirk does feel longer than its running time and is not necessarily a film that begs to be re-watched immediately, but it is an effectively harrowing masterpiece all the same.

Summary: A war film that evokes helplessness and desperation like few before it, Dunkirk will thrill, shock and shake audiences to their core.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Bad Batch

For F*** Magazine

THE BAD BATCH 

Director : Ana Lily Amirpour
Cast : Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Yolonda Ross, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Diego Luna, Giovanni Ribisi, Jayda Fink
Genre : Romance/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 1h 58m
Opens : 20 July 2017
Rating : M18 (Some Disturbing Scenes and Drug Use)

There’s something about the desert that inspires madness. Whether it’s dehydration-induced hallucination, the sense of isolation in a vast open space, or just the arid heat, the desert is fine backdrop against which madness can unfold. This twisted, post-apocalyptic fairy tale is very mad indeed.

Our heroine is Arlen (Waterhouse), who wanders across the god-forsaken Texas desert. She is part of ‘the bad batch’, individuals deemed unproductive to society, and exiled to fend for themselves. Arlen is captured by cannibals, who saw off and eat her arm and leg. Arlen manages to escape, and is taken by a Hermit (Carrey) to a settlement called Comfort. The Dream (Reeves), a drug lord, rules over Comfort, keeping his followers compliant by supplying them with illicit substances during raves. Miami Man (Momoa), one of the cannibals who kidnapped Arlen, is searching for his lost daughter Honey (Fink), who has been adopted by The Dream. A relationship fraught with tension and attraction develops between Arlen and Miami Man, as they fight for survival in an unforgiving world.

The Bad Batch is written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, who made her feature film debut with the “Iranian vampire spaghetti western” A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The Bad Batch is hard to describe, and even harder to review. It’s destined for cult status, and VICE Creative Director Eddy Moretti, who is an executive producer on this film, dubbed Amirpour “the next Tarantino”. This is a heady, trippy experience, abstract art painted on a canvas of post-apocalyptic desolation. Often graphic when it’s not moving very slowly, it’s often a challenge to watch. While vastly more expansive than Amirpour’s first film, she’s hardly ‘gone Hollywood’ with her sophomore effort, which is almost defiantly weird. There’s an audience for this, and it would probably play well at a festival like South by Southwest, but The Bad Batch is self-indulgent and meanders without a centre to anchor it.

Waterhouse, known mainly as a model and entrepreneur, comes off like a cross between Cara Delevingne and Kristen Stewart. The visual effects used to create the illusion that Arlen is an amputee are seamless, and the yellow shorts with a winking face printed on the back is a cool visual device. There’s every opportunity for Arlen to ascend to the pantheon of badass genre movie heroines, but it seems that isn’t exactly what Amirpour had in mind. The character floats through the story, such that when she does something that directly impacts the story, it feels less significant than it should.

Momoa plays a musclebound, tattooed antihero – while this doesn’t sound like a stretch for him, it’s probably the most acting he’s done in his career. Momoa strives to evince a depth from the Miami Man character, who is a knife-wielding cannibal but also has a soft side and is a gifted artist. The relationship that develops between Arlen and Miami Man seems purposely vague and under-developed.

Reeves’ character, The Dream, who lives in luxury surrounded by a harem who bears him children, is clearly inspired by notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar. It comes off more as an odd bit of stunt casting than anything else, even if Reeve is fairly fun in the role. The raves that The Dream presides over are strongly reminiscent of music festivals like Burning Man, and it turns out that Amirpour went to Burning Man and took acid, which inspired the acid trip scene in the film.

Carrey, gaunt, grimy and nigh-unrecognisable beneath a scraggly beard, seems to relish playing the Hermit. It’s the kind of character actor part he wouldn’t have done in his comedy movie A-lister heyday, and it’s the right pitch of quirky comic relief for this movie.

The Bad Batch will remind connoisseurs of the exploitation films that came out of Italy in the 70s and 80s, or of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s trippy psychedelic westerns. Amirpour has described the film as “El Topo meets Dirty Dancing”. While there’s a seductiveness to The Bad Batch’s scorched dreaminess, the film lacks the energy and momentum to sweep the viewer up in its madness.

Summary: The Bad Batch’s peculiarity will attract some audiences but alienate others. It’s an arthouse exploitation cocktail that’s been spiked with a little something extra, and it’s very much an acquired taste.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Wish Upon

For F*** Magazine

WISH UPON 

Director : John R. Leonetti
Cast : Joey King, Ki-Hong Lee, Ryan Phillippe, Shannon Purser, Sydney Park, Daniela Barbosa, Sherilyn Fenn, Josephine Langford
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1hr 38min
Opens : 13 July 2017
Rating : PG13 (Horror)

Wishing upon a star seemed like a fairly harmless exercise for Pinocchio. Wishing upon a Chinese music box is a different story. In this horror flick, Clare Shannon receives a mysterious box from her father Jonathan (Phillippe), a rag-and-bone man. The box, inscribed with ancient Chinese characters, promises that it will grant the user seven wishes -for a price. Not taking its power seriously Clare uses the box to enact revenge on Darcie (Langford), who has been bullying Clare at school. She also wishes for Paul (Mitchell Slaggert), the boy she has a crush on, to fall madly in love with her. Clare’s best friends Meredith (Park) and June (Purser) get drawn into the eerie goings-on and deaths that seem to follow Clare around. Ryan (Ki-Hong Lee), who has a crush on Clare, offers to take the box to his cousin Gina (Alice Lee), so she can translate the inscription. Gina uncovers the box’s dark secret, and everyone is powerless to stop the horrors it unleashes.

Wish Upon plays on the old ‘be careful what you wish for’ adage, while also hinging on the classic horror movie device of a cursed artefact. It’s a variation on the short story The Monkey’s Paw by W. W. Jacobs, in which the titular object grants wishes but punishes the user for meddling with fate. Wish Upon also recalls the Wishmaster series with its sinister genie, and the deaths depicted are Final Destination-esque, albeit not as elaborate. As with many a teen-aimed movie before it, the dialogue strains to sound contemporary, and is sometimes unintentionally silly. Because of its PG-13 rating, Wish Upon doesn’t linger on the gruesome deaths. This means it isn’t gratuitous, but it also means that the consequences don’t carry too much weight. Final Destination let its inventive, gory deaths play out in full, because cutting away from them would diminish the selling point. Because we don’t see the deaths play out, they aren’t as unsettling or disturbing as they could’ve been.

The film also employs a familiar structure, in which in the protagonist unwittingly makes a deal with the devil – her wishes will be granted, but horrible fates will befall those she holds dear. We also get the requisite exposition-heavy scene of the characters doing a Google search to figure out what’s going on, as we are told the back-story of the music box. While the music box prop itself looks finely crafted and is reasonably spooky when it opens by itself, the accompanying mythos isn’t sufficiently interesting. The invoking of Chinese culture and superstition is meant to add a textural element, but this is under-developed. We’re relieved Wish Upon doesn’t fall back on an elderly Asian antique store owner to explain its central cursed artefact – instead, we get a tattooed young woman to fulfil that function in the plot.

Horror movies starring teenagers tend to have annoying characters, and one of Wish Upon’s strengths is that it acknowledges its heroine’s flaws while keeping her sympathetic. Having suffered from a family tragedy and being bullied by the popular kids in school, it’s easy to see why Clare might be frustrated. King, who also starred in the horror films The Conjuring and Quarantine, does a fine job as a relatable teen character. It does get to a point where one wonders why Clare isn’t more suspicious of this box that eerily unlatches and plays music on its own any earlier in the story.

Ki-Hong Lee demonstrates his ability to pass for a high-schooler at age 30, and is likeable enough as the guy whom Clare places in the dreaded friend zone. Park can come off as a little annoying, and her character seems more like she would fit in with the stuck-up popular kids than with Clare. Purser, best known as Barb from Stranger Things, is underused as “the other friend”. Twin Peaks star Sherilyn Fenn doesn’t get too much to do either. The film aims for depth in depicted the strained relationship between Clare and her father, but because Phillippe is as handsome as he is, it’s hard to buy him as a down-on-his-luck average joe digging through the trash for scraps.

Wish Upon might not be as actively grating as most teen-centric horror films of its ilk, but it’s too derivative to be truly scary. Director John R. Leonetti, who also helmed Annabelle, passes up a chance to meaningfully develop an engrossing mythology around the music box, and the ending is as unsatisfying as it is shocking. Stick around past the main-on-end titles for a sequel bait stinger scene.

Summary: The teen target audience might be spooked, but horror aficionados won’t find too much of value when they look in the cursed music box.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

War for the Planet of the Apes

For F*** Magazine

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES 

Director : Matt Reeves
Cast : Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Amiah Miller, Judy Greer, Terry Notary, Karin Konoval, Gabriel Chavarria
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 22min
Opens : 13 July 2017
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

           In the third entry of the Planet of the Apes reboot series, Caesar (Serkis) wages his most personal battle yet. It is two years after the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and the ape population has been dwindling due to a protracted war with the humans. When Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Greer) and younger son Cornelius (Devyn Dalton) are kidnapped by humans, Caesar heads into enemy territory to rescue them. He finds himself face-to-face with Colonel McCullough (Harrelson), a nigh-psychotic soldier hell-bent on obliterating the apes for good. McCullough and his men are assisted by apes who were followers of Caesar’s late rival Koba, and who defected to the side of the humans for fear of reprisal from Caesar. Maurice (Konoval), Caesar’s advisor and confidant, adopts a young orphaned human girl named Nova (Miller). Maurice, Nova, Rocket (Notary) and “Bad Ape” (Zahn) scope out McCullough’s encampment, looking for a way to liberate the apes who have been captured and enslaved. As humanity and apes make what each perceive to be their last stand, Caesar is in danger of being consumed by vengeance and hatred, and going down the path Koba did.

The Apes reboot films have set a high bar for any reimagining to follow. Reboots are often viewed as hollow, money-grubbing exercise, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes more than made an excellent case for its existence. Then, Dawn topped that, and the third instalment in the trilogy upholds that standard. This is an intense experience – it’s a war film, and more specifically, a prisoner-of-war film. Director Matt Reeves and screenwriter Mark Bomback have listed Bridge on the River Kwai as an influence, and the film cuts through its fantastical elements to deliver a searing, haunting drama.

In 2011, 2014, and now in 2017, Apes movies were released shortly after Transformers movies, almost as if to function as antidotes. It’s good to have a reminder of just how good and how powerful a well-made blockbuster can be. There are several dialogue-free stretches of the film during which it’s carried just by glances and gestures. The political commentary and the darkness of the story are tempered with an abundance of spectacle, culminating in a climactic showdown complete with explosions of fire and ice.

Despite the sheer quality of the visual effects work even back then, the apes in Rise were still a little challenging to buy as fully-fledged characters. Granted, it was also early in their evolution. In Dawn, and even more so here, the apes are so much more than visual effects flourishes. The superlative work of Weta Digital, supervised by Joe Letteri, complemented by the performances of Serkis, Greer, Notary and the other performers, make the creatures utterly believable. It gets to the point where they stop registering as digital creations, and the audience can fully buy into their journeys and arcs, as individuals and as a shrewdness. Each ape projects a sense of humanity, and having followed Caesar this far, it does sting to see him weary and haggard, wondering if his continuous struggles have been worth it. We get a tiny bit of comic relief in the form of Zahn’s kooky Bad Ape, but this doesn’t undercut the overall seriousness of the film.

While the presence of Miller’s Nova does seem derivative of any number of “a kid and their X” stories, the bond that she develops with Maurice is convincingly fleshed out, and the film refrains from using Nova as an emotionally manipulative plot device. The apes’ willingness to accept a human child into the fold also indicates that a war with humans isn’t their first course of action.

As the human antagonist, Harrelson is utterly terrifying – it’s probably the scariest he’s been since Natural Born Killers. Harrelson has become known for playing eccentric, rough-around-the-edges but ultimately likeable characters. In War, his performance echoes the characters of Vietnam War movies like Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. This is a film that doesn’t so much turn on battles as it does on confrontations. The central confrontation between McCullough and Caesar is a riveting nail-biter of a scene, impeccably staged and acted. McCullough is a larger-than-life character, but there’s no goofiness to him. Adding to the air of uneasiness around the character is the cult-like nature of his faction, and how he depicts himself as something of a prophet.

Many action movie soundtracks tend to sound indistinct, but Michael Giacchino’s score for this film packs plenty of personality. Giacchino employs a variety of textures, including an emphasis on pitched percussion instruments like the marimba, eliciting a wide range of emotions. Some directors mandate that the score be “invisible”, and we’re glad that Giacchino’s work for this film is as visible and as audible as it is.

War for the Planet of the Apes does demand effort from the viewer, as it takes a while to build up to the dazzling finale. Thankfully, the characters, ape and human alike, are easy to get invested in. Reeves proves himself to be a director at the top of his game, wringing drama and genuine emotion from a premise which can, and has, been handled clumsily before. While the door is left open for a sequel, War ends on such a satisfying note that it doesn’t feel like the producers are begging for another instalment. War is a stirring battle cry that caps off a consistently impressive trilogy.

Summary: A sombre yet stirring and stunningly-realised adventure, War for the Planet of the Apes engages the viewer on a human level and showcases everything a masterfully-made blockbuster can be.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Churchill

For F*** Magazine

CHURCHILL 

Director : Jonathan Teplitzky
Cast : Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, James Purefoy, Julian Wadham, Danny Webb, Richard Durden, Ella Purnell
Genre : Drama/Biography
Run Time : 1h 45min
Opens : 6 July 2017
Rating : PG

Sir Winston Churchill just might be the most iconic Briton in recent history. The wartime Prime Minister has become a nigh-mythic figure, and it’s easy to see why filmmakers are drawn to telling his story. This historical drama focuses on the leadup to D-Day as the Second World War rages on. Churchill (Cox) prepares for the beach landing of allied forces in France, meeting with American general Dwight D. Eisenhower (Slattery), Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Wadham) and other high-ranking personnel in the allied command. Churchill fears a repeat of the horrifically botched beach landing he oversaw during the First World War, and he takes his anxieties and frustrations out on his wife Clementine (Richardson), who becomes increasingly concerned about Churchill’s ability to deal with the pressure of leading the country through the war. Depending on a multitude of factors, D-Day could turn the tide for the allies or lead to tragic consequences. Churchill must call on his fortitude and decisiveness, when the troops and civillians need it the most.

Churchill is directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, who told a markedly different World War II story with The Railway Man. Teplitzky works from a screenplay by British historian Alex von Tunzelmann. Going into Churchill, one knows what to expect: a reverential, respectable historical drama, but one that might be a chore to sit through. While there is an attempt to humanise the titular historical figure, Churchill ends up as a stodgy and inaccessible work. The official synopsis for the film describes it as a “ticking-clock thriller”, but despite the incredibly high stakes in play, Churchill lacks urgency or momentum. As a result, the audience feels like they’re watching events unfold from a distance, rather than engaging with them.

Many great actors have played the steadfast British Bulldog, and Cox proves himself to be up to the task, having already accumulated a respectable body of work. Because a particular image of Churchill is so ingrained in the public consciousness, actors have to work extra hard to push past the caricature of an unyielding, principled curmudgeon. While Cox does what he can with the material, his portrayal of Churchill isn’t as indelible as John Lithgow’s recent turn in the Netflix series The Crown. Granted, Lithgow played Churchill at a slightly later stage in his life, but he evinced the inner conflicts roiling beneath the brickwork exterior better than Cox does.

In addition to being a historical drama, Churchill wants to be an unconventional romance. Richardson’s Clementine is often the only one in the room who can stand up to Churchill or even try to talk him down – after all, as his wife, Clementine has had years of experience. Richardson achieves a lot with just a glance, and we wish she were in more of the film. Unfortunately, the dramatic moments between the couple seem contrived and predictable, and while Churchill’s outbursts are violent and dramatic, there isn’t enough emotional heft behind them.

The supporting cast is fine, with Slattery a standout as a dashing, serious and commanding Eisenhower. Purefoy is an appropriately sweet, if slightly bland, King George VI. Ella Purnell plays the requisite audience identification character, the fictional secretary Helen Garrett. Churchill harshly berates her when she makes a spacing error in typing up a document, but one knows it’s going to build up to Churchill eventually treating the young woman with kindness, as she wells up with admiration for the great man. It’s a forgivable cliché, but a cliché all the same.

The best historical dramas transcend the niggling feeling that one is fidgeting in the back of the classroom during history period. Alas, Churchill does not overcome this. While there are snatches of clever repartee between the characters, and a smattering of powerful imagery, Churchill feels circuitous and unnecessary instead of illuminating or compelling.

Summary: A bog-standard historical biopic, Churchill features Cox giving it his best shot to play the iconic Briton, but it fails to drum up much urgency or strike an emotional chord.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

My Cousin Rachel

For F*** Magazine

MY COUSIN RACHEL 

Director : Roger Michell
Cast : Rachel Weisz, Sam Claflin, Iain Glen, Holliday Grainger, Pierfrancisco Favino
Genre : Drama/Romance
Run Time : 1h 46min
Opens : 29 June 2017
Rating : NC16 (Some Sexual Scenes)

When a character’s name is derived from the actor playing them, it’s known as ‘The Danza’. Take Will Smith as Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Tim Allen and Roseanne Barr in their respective sitcoms, and of course Tony Danza, who played ‘Tony’ in Who’s the Boss and Taxi, amongst other things.

In this romantic thriller, Rachel Weisz plays a character named Rachel – but seeing as the source material was written twenty years before Weisz was born, this can be chalked up to kismet. Philip (Claflin) is an orphan whose legal guardian is his godfather Nick (Glen), but who has been cared for by his cousin Ambrose. While in Florence, Ambrose meets a cousin of his and quickly becomes smitten with her. They marry, but Ambrose falls ill eventually dies. This cousin is named Rachel. Philip is sure that Rachel has killed Ambrose for his fortune, but on meeting her, Philip finds himself unable to resist her wiles. Meanwhile, Nick’s daughter Louise (Grainger) nurses unrequited affection for Philip, and Philip is caught in Rachel’s heady thrall.

My Cousin Rachel is based on the 1951 novel of the same name by Daphne Du Maurier. Du Maurier’s novels Rebecca and Jamaica Inn and her short story The Birds spawned film adaptations directed by Alfred Hitchcock. My Cousin Rachel was first adapted for the screen in 1952, this version directed by Henry Koster and starring Richard Burton and Olivia de Havilland. This new take on My Cousin Rachel is adapted for the screen and written by Roger Michell, famous for helming the considerably sunnier romance Notting Hill.

My Cousin Rachel looks the part of a torrid yet classy affair, thanks to Mike Eley’s lyrical cinematography and the English filming locations of South Devon, Oxfordshire and Surrey. Dinah Collins’ costumes are handsome complements to the picturesque surrounds. However, it seems that the film is slightly too concerned with looking the part, and seems more mannered and stiff than untamed and dangerous. At times, the forbidden romance, the linchpin of the plot, feels ho-hum rather than risky While Michell does stage the proceedings with restraint, the stodginess creates distance between the viewer and the story when this should be beguiling and irresistible.

Weisz is an ideal fit for the titular character, and not just because of her name. She’s able to find the humanity beneath the archetypical Black Widow veil, and her take on the character is far from a laughable caricature. The effortless charm Weisz so subtly exudes Similarly, the dashing Claflin is believable as a naïve heir who’s either ensnared by a bewitching woman, or simply paranoid and delusional. Unfortunately, when the two are put together, the results are lukewarm rather than scorching. Glen delivers a respectable supporting turn, but Grainger remains strictly in the background, when a further exploration of Louise’s feelings for Philip would have made things more interesting.

Playing like a version of Crimson Peak sans the supernatural hijinks and sans Guillermo del Toro’s dark imagination and canny genre references, My Cousin Rachel is skilfully staged but isn’t as viscerally gripping as it should’ve been. Because its central mystery isn’t cleanly resolved, My Cousin Rachel could leave viewers frustrated or haunted. We lean more towards the former.

Summary: Rachel Weisz delivers an electrifying performance, but the movie that surrounds her is considerably duller, too mannered and rigid to inspire passion or generate thrills.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Overdrive

For F*** Magazine

OVERDRIVE 

Director : Antonio Negret
Cast : Scott Eastwood, Freddie Thorp, Ana de Armas, Gaia Weiss, Simon Abkarian, Clemens Schick
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 36min
Opens : 29 June 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

Given the rip-roaring success of the Fast and Furious franchise, it’s a given that other filmmakers would want to hop on that souped-up bandwagon. In the vein of Need for Speed and Collide is Overdrive, which to its credit isn’t even pretending that it isn’t a Fast and Furious knockoff – not that it deserves too much credit.

Andrew (Eastwood) and Garrett (Thorp) are half-brothers, and the world’s greatest car thieves. After a job in Marseille goes awry, they end up being targeted by ruthless crime lord Jacomo Morier (Abkarian). To get Jacomo to spare their lives, Andrew and Garrett agree to steal the priceless car collection of rival kingpin Max Klemp (Schick) for Jacomo. With only a week to put together a high-stakes heist, the brothers enlist the help of pickpocket and con artist Devin (Weiss), who is a friend of Andrew’s girlfriend Stephanie (De Armas). Andrew plans to propose to Stephanie and settle down, but Garrett is adamant that they continue being car thieves since they’re in their prime. Everything is riding on the biggest job of their career, as Andrew and Garrett must outfox the most dangerous criminal elements in Europe to stay alive.

Overdrive is directed by Antonio Negret, who has directed episodes of Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, Scorpion and the MacGyver reboot. It’s written by Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, who penned 2 Fast 2 Furious, arguably the worst entry in the Fast and Furious series. Taken director Pierre Morel is on board as a producer, taking a leaf out of his mentor Luc Besson’s playbook by making a European action flick geared towards Hollywood sensibilities. Overdrive has been in development since 2011, with Karl Urban, Ben Barnes, Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke all attached at some point or another. Instead, we end up with Scott Eastwood and Freddie Thorp. Oh well.

While it’s impossible not to view this as a bargain basement take on the Fast and Furious movies, the set pieces here really aren’t bad at all. We have a healthy number of collisions, flipping cars and explosions. The film’s climax also contains a fun sequence involving a collapsing bridge. Unfortunately, this is all bolted on to a painfully generic plot, with characters spouting excruciatingly unfunny dialogue, and the overall tone is self-satisfied rather than irreverent. The crew that is assembled for the ‘big job’ is neither distinctive nor memorable, and the big reveal is wont to inspire indifference. There are also only so many times audiences can be impressed by garage doors swinging open dramatically to reveal fancy cars. After all, one expects a garage to contain cars. If the garage doors had opened to reveal llamas, that would’ve been more interesting.

Eastwood, son of Clint, has earned his place in Hollywood as “budget Chris Evans”. Sure, he’s handsome, but is ultimately too cookie-cutter a leading man to make much of an impact. It is a little funny that he’s been cast in the actual Fast and Furious series, as an ersatz Paul Walker. The buddy dynamic between Eastwood and Thorp feels utterly forced. Thorp’s Garrett is supposed to be the witty fast-talker, but the character just ends up being annoying. Eastwood is American and Thorp is English; this is justified by having them be ‘half-brothers’, and leads into a particularly wince-inducing “brother from another mother” joke.

While De Armas seems poised to hit the big time with a starring role in Blade Runner 2049 later this year, she’s terrible here, playing the designated girlfriend who – you guessed it – gets caught in several ‘damsel in distress’ predicaments. Weiss’ Devin is meant to be seductive and wily, but she comes off as bland. Then we have the villains, wannabe Bond baddies if ever there were any – Abkarian even played the henchman Dimitrios in Casino Royale.

Negret displays a degree of style, employing several semi-clever transitions. For the first act, things move at a nice clip, then there’s that dreaded sagging midsection. Overdrive seems to know it’s not very smart, but just knowing that without doing anything with that self-awareness isn’t enough.

Summary: Bland acting, a generic plot and a smug vibe blow out the tires of what would otherwise be an entertaining if disposable action flick.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong