Pop Aye

For F*** Magazine


Director : Kirsten Tan
Cast : Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Bong the elephant, Penpak Sirikul, Chaiwat Khumdee, Yukontorn Sukkijja, Narong Pongpab
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 1h 42min
Opens : 13 April 2017
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes)

Some men buy sports cars when they hit a mid-life crisis. In this comedy-drama, Thana (Warakulnukroh) buys an elephant. Thana is an architect whose magnum opus, the mixed-use complex Gardenia Square, is about to be demolished. He is made to feel less-than-relevant at the firm which he co-founded, and his relationship with his wife Bo (Sirikul) has hit a rough patch. One day, he spots an elephant being paraded through the streets, its owner charging tourists for photos with the pachyderm. Thana recognises the elephant as Popeye (Bong), his childhood companion when he was growing up on a farm. Thana buys Popeye and plans an epic odyssey to take Popeye back to the province of Loei where they both hail from. Along the way, Thana encounters colourful characters including the dishevelled Dee (Khumdee), who lives out of an abandoned filling station, and Jenni (Sukkijja), a transgender woman who works at a seedy roadside dive bar.

Pop Aye is the directorial debut of Kirsten Tan, who became the first Singaporean filmmaker to win an award at Sundance. In addition to taking home the Special Jury Award Screenwriting at the prestigious indie festival, Pop Aye also bagged the VPRO Big Screen Award at the Rotterdam Film Festival. Anthony Chen of Ilo Ilo fame is an executive producer, with his label Giraffe Pictures being one of the production houses involved in bringing the film to fruition.

Pop Aye is unlike any Singaporean film before it, and the audacity of the production is highly commendable: the dialogue is entirely in Thai, which is neither Tan’s first nor second language; it’s shot on location in a mix of rural and urban areas in Thailand; and of course, there’s the formidable logistical challenge of placing an elephant in roughly 90% of all the shots. Speaking before our screening, Tan joked that she thought that having an elephant as a main character would be charming, and by the time she realised what the actual production would entail, it was too late to back out.

There are many films about middle-aged men dealing with a personal or professional rut in ways that are eccentric, self-destructive, or a little of both. When Thana finds his life making less and less sense, he gravitates towards something that reminds him of his formative years, a simpler life far from the city. One of the themes that drives Pop Aye is the quest to regain innocence lost. Tan juxtaposes the sweetness inherent in the ‘a boy and his X’ genre (think E.T., The Iron Giant or How to Train Your Dragon) with adult elements like sex and death. The fact that Thana’s own boyhood ended decades ago lends the film a gentle sadness. In some scenes, cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj presents the elephant with a sense of reverence, almost as if Popeye is Thana’s spirit guide. In other scenes, Popeye is picking pieces of watermelon off the floor or guzzling beer from a mug, and is presented as a more traditional cute animal sidekick.

Warakulnukroh, who is known mainly as a singer in Thailand, hasn’t acted in over 30 years. One would be hard-pressed to tell. He imbues Thana with everyman relatability, rendering the character eminently sympathetic. Thana is prone to acts of kindness, and his interaction with Dee is especially striking. Where others would be afraid or at least wary of the homeless man, Thana is friendly towards him, is keen to hear his story, and buys Dee food. At the same time, Thana is flawed and makes several questionable decisions. Because the character is as fleshed out as he is, we’re willing to go along with his journey, even when things get a little slow.

Like many other road movies, Pop Aye is episodic in structure. Therefore, it is a little challenging to form an emotional connection with the film. In the abovementioned ‘a boy and his X’ films, there’s always at least one moment of interaction between the boy and the ‘X’ that is indelible. We have Toothless and Hiccup’s first meeting, Hogarth telling the Iron Giant “you don’t have to be a gun. You are what you choose to be”, or Elliott bidding E.T. farewell, scenes which stay with the viewer for their emotional resonance. Pop Aye has scenes which approach this, but falls short of delivering a truly impactful moment, one that will bring a tear to the eye of even the burliest, toughest audience member. There is a brief flashback to Thana’s childhood – Popeye the Sailor-man happens to be playing on TV, giving young Thana the inspiration to name the elephant. Perhaps we could have spent a little longer with Thana and Popeye in their respective youths.

While Thana shows kindness to Jenni and we get the impression that she’s led a difficult life, Jenni serves primarily as a comic relief character. Pop Aye does not mock her outright, but the character does invoke how the transgender community in Thailand is misunderstood and ridiculed.

Pop Aye is offbeat, charming and warm, a film which was clearly a mammoth task to put together. It might not possess the sublime emotional purity of other films about the bond between man and beast, but to call Kirsten Tan’s debut “promising” is an understatement.

Summary: Pack your trunk and join Thana and Popeye on the road: it’s bumpy at times, but it’s largely a worthwhile journey.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Void

For F*** Magazine


Director : Jeremy Gillespie, Steven Kostanski
Cast : Aaron Poole, Ellen Wong, Kathleen Munroe, Kenneth Welsh, Grace Munro
Genre : Horror
Run Time : 1h 31min
Opens : 13 April 2017
Rating : M18 (Violence and Gore)

Unspeakable terrors lie beyond this plane of existence in this horror flick. Police officer Daniel Carter (Poole) discovers a bloodied man named James (Evan Stern) crawling down a deserted road, and rushes the man to the nearest hospital. As it’s late at night, the hospital has a minimal staff, including Dr. Richard Powell (Welsh), aloof medical student Kim (Wong) and staff nurse Allison (Munroe), who happens to be Daniel’s estranged wife. In the waiting room is a pregnant teenage girl named Maggie (Munro) and her grandfather Ben (James Millington). Eerie figures in white robes and hoods, the front of their hoods emblazoned with a solid black triangle, surround the hospital. The staff and patients start exhibiting erratic, violent behaviour, and as Daniel uncovers the truth behind the spooky goings-on at the hospitals, he is forced to confront horror on an unfathomable scale.

The Void comes from Canadian filmmaking collective Astron-6. The group has popped up on the radar of genre aficionados thanks to their various low-budget horror-comedy short films. They were also behind the deliberately schlocky Manborg, a 2011 film that it appears the better-known Kung Fury owes quite the debt to. With The Void, Astron-6 attempts a graver, more serious brand of horror, while still paying homage to the filmmakers and storytellers they idolise. Writer-directors Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski were also involved in various other aspects of the film, from composing to editing to creature effects. When not making their own films, Gillespie has worked in the art departments of films including Pacific Rim and Suicide Squad, while Kostanski has been a special effects makeup artist on Crimson Peak, Suicide Squad and the Hannibal TV series.

While The Void boasts a respectable amount of truly disgusting gore and inventive, cleverly-executed practical creature effects and prosthetic work, it is an unpolished product that’s very rough around the edges. Perhaps this is a part of its charm, but even with the filmmakers’ dedication fully evident, this gives off a bit of an amateur vibe. The overarching concept is ambitious, recalling the Eldritch abominations of H.P. Lovecraft and John Carpenter-directed horror films like The Thing, as well as countless ‘video nasty’ horror films from the 80s and 90s. In the Mouth of Madness, a Carpenter-directed adaptation of a Lovecraft story, seems like it had a strong influence on Gillespie and Kostanski, as did Carpenter’s action suspense flick Assault on Precinct 13.

While the actors are not the main draw and the film’s limited budget means a lack of access to stars, nobody in the cast is terrible. Poole has enough of a leading man quality without coming off like an invincible action hero, while Munroe has a warmth to her that’s comforting until the horror kicks into high gear. Wong, a.k.a. Knives Chau from Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, puts in a fun performance as the bored millennial flung into utter chaos. Canadian character actor Welsh from Twin Peaks is on hand to lend genre cred, though the film has plenty of that on its own. The characters aren’t flat-out unlikeable, but they aren’t endearing enough to want to actively be around either.

Gillespie and Kostanski know exactly who their audience is, and this will find a cult following at horror film festivals and when it eventually gets on Netflix. For the uninitiated, however, The Void is disorienting and incoherent. There’s an effort to explore the psychology of the characters in addition to serving up a surfeit of stomach-turning body horror, but it’s too restless and frenetic for its own good. We know that “elegant” and “slimy tentacle monsters bursting out of abdomens” don’t necessarily go together, but The Void could have benefitted from a more elegant approach, letting the mythos build organically instead of unleashing it on the audience at one go.

Summary: Audiences who, like this film’s directors, grew up on 80s horror flicks they were too young to watch, will lap this up. However, the ideas at play are almost as messy as the assorted gore.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Carrie Pilby

For F*** Magazine


Director : Susan Johnson
Cast : Bel Powley, Nathan Lane, Gabriel Byrne, William Moseley, Jason Ritter, Colin O’Donoghue, Vanessa Bayer, Desmin Borges
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 1h 38min
Opens : 6 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language and Sexual References)

High-functioning geniuses are all over TV, typically solving crimes while earning equal measures exasperation and adoration from someone named Watson. In this coming-of-age comedy-drama, the titular character does no crime-solving, but does do plenty of soul-searching.

Carrie Pilby (Powley) is a 19-year-old Harvard graduate living in New York City. She has a keen intellect, having been accepted into the school at age 14, but is socially mal-adjusted. Carrie resents her father (Byrne) for neglecting her and remaining in England. Carrie’s father has engaged therapist Dr. Petrov (Lane) to counsel Carrie. Petrov assembles a ‘to-do list’ for Carrie: go on a date, make a friend, spend New Year’s Eve with someone, get a pet, do something you loved doing as a child and read your favourite book. While Carrie initially scoffs at the list, she tries moving out of her comfort zone to tackle the tasks on the list. She begins working as a proof-reader at a law firm, befriending her colleague Tara (Bayer) while trying to ignore the dopey Douglas (Borges), another colleague. When Carrie goes out with an engaged man named Matt (Ritter) to out him as a cheater, painful memories of a relationship with Professor Harrison (O’Donoghue) are unearthed. As smart as she is, maybe love is the one thing Carrie can’t figure out.

Carrie Pilby is based on the 2003 novel of the same name by Caren Lissner, adapted for the screen by Kara Holden and Dean Craig, and directed by Susan Johnson. The film bears many hallmarks of the quirky, hip indie comedy-drama subgenre, and has trouble shifting gears from glibness to sincerity. Structurally, it doesn’t flow all too smoothly, and seems like it might work better as a TV show – perhaps a less obnoxious Girls (just kidding, this reviewer doesn’t watch Girls and is merely going off the show’s reputation). While there are glimmers of razor-sharp wit, the dialogue is generally too smart aleck-y for its own good. On the up side, it certainly isn’t as mopey as many young adult-aimed coming-of-age stories are, and there’s a pleasant tinge of optimism that sometimes cuts through its annoyingness.

The film rests squarely on the shoulders of English actress Powley, who strikes this reviewer as a teenage Maggie Gyllenhaal with a dash of Felicity Jones. Powley is an engaging presence and she gamely tackles the comic material, fully embracing the character’s awkwardness. One gets the sense that for as much time as we spend with Carrie, she’s still not too much more than the “socially-impaired teen prodigy” archetype. We get the sense that Powley is, as a performer, a whole deal more likeable than the Carrie character is written. The main way her social awkwardness manifests is how she’s quick to tell everyone just how smart she is. Despite the sympathy Powley is capable of generating, Carrie still feels a little too manufactured to be a fully-realised character. Hailee Steinfeld was originally cast as Carrie, and had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts – we could see her pulling the role off too.

Nathan Lane plays the straight man here, suppressing his innate comic sensibilities. He’s able to marshal a warmth and wisdom befitting a therapist, sharing some fun, gently adversarial scenes with Powley. Byrne isn’t in the film for too long, but he shines when Carrie and her father get to share an unconventional bonding moment.

From O’Donoghue’s dashing young professor to Ritter’s would-be cheater to William Moseley’s multi-instrumentalist, Carrie is positively surrounded by handsome men. It’s never easy navigating the winding paths of romance as one faces adulthood, much less for someone who’s never fit in. However, Carrie’s romantic misadventures seem largely in line with the experiences most of us have had. Carrie’s run-ins with the opposite sex seem to hew closely to established rom-com tropes, though there are several conversations that she has which possess adequate depth. Long-serving Saturday Night Live cast member Bayer is hilarious, even though Tara is the ‘sassy best friend’ stock character through and through.

Carrie Pilby has garnered positive attention for being a film about a woman which has a female director, female producers and a female co-writer, and while its sometimes amiable, this is far from ‘hidden indie gem’ material. This might be too twee and grating for some, but others will be able to relate to its imperfect, awkward protagonist. And as a bonus, there sure are some good-looking guys in the cast.

Summary: Sometimes loveable and sometimes insufferable, the uneven Carrie Pilby is a lot like its idiosyncratic title character.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Extraordinary Mission (非凡任务)

For F*** Magazine


Director : Alan Mak, Anthony Pun
Cast : Huang Xuan, Duan Yihong, Lang Yueting, Zu Feng, Xing Jiadong, David Wang
Genre : Action/Crime
Run Time : 2h 1min
Opens : 6 April 2017
Rating : NC16 (Drug Use and Violence)

In this action thriller, undercover cop Lin Kai’s (Huang) mission, should he choose to accept it, is to infiltrate a drug cartel. He accepts. Lin Kai works his way up the ladder, making supply runs for the syndicate in China. He reports his findings about the syndicate’s contacts and organisational structure to his supervisor, Captain Li Jianguo (Xing). To gain the trust of Eagle (Duan), the boss of the Twin Eagles cartel, Lin Kai is taken to the cartel’s base of operations in the heart of the Golden Triangle, where he is forcibly made an addict to prove his loyalty. Lin Kai attempts to sway Eagle’s daughter and right-hand woman Qingshui (Lang) to the side of good, as the mission unearths ghosts from Jianguo’s past as a field agent.

Extraordinary Mission is directed by Alan Mak and Anthony Pun and is written by Felix Chong. Pun is also the film’s cinematographer. The team has been involved in the Infernal Affairs and Overhead series, having garnered considerable cred in the crime thriller genre in Hong Kong. The title ‘Extraordinary Mission’ recalls the 80s action flicks in which Chuck Norris helicopters in to a jungle to take out some dictator’s private army. It takes a while for Extraordinary Mission to get into gear, and for its first two acts, it’s mostly a twisty game of mental cat-and-mouse between our brave undercover cop hero and the devious criminal mastermind. Then during its final 20 minutes, Extraordinary Mission lets loose with an elaborate, protracted action sequence that goes from the rooftops to the streets. Our heroes are outnumbered by Eagle’s mercenaries, and there are joyously ridiculous motorcycle stunts to behold.

Extraordinary Mission suffers from a bit of an identity crisis, because things are played straight and circumstances are supposed to be grave – but everything leads up to a gleefully explosive finale which is self-indulgent in every regard. Entertaining, sure, but still self-indulgent. Action choreographer Nicky Li, whose credits also include Wolf Warrior and Invisible Target, stages intense shootouts, crunchy vehicular collisions and a large assortment of explosions. The production values benefit from location filming in Thailand, and the sprawling Twin Eagles compound sells the power and reach of the illicit operation. We see large factory floor where scores of workers are mixing and packing the heroin, then Eagle shows Lin Kai a vertical greenhouse in which multiple storeys of poppy plants are being cultivated via hydroponics. It does lend this a sense of scale.

For all its action spectacle, the story beats in Extraordinary Mission are familiar. There are several twists and reveals, as is a trademark of Mak and Pun’s filmography, but the filmmakers seem to think these are cleverer than they really are. Several scenes, accompanied by a mournfully cooing female vocalist and an acoustic guitar, are too melodramatic. Tiny things like gunshot wounds or drug addictions only affect the characters when it’s convenient for it to affect them. There are also scenes in which characters yell at the top of their lungs to convey intensity, which can get unintentionally silly.

Huang Xuan makes for a decent tortured hero and handles the action beats ably. Like many films of its ilk, Extraordinary Mission suffers from having its hero be a lot less compelling than its villain. Lin Kai gets a bog-standard tragic back-story, and while Eagle’s back-story is similarly predictable, Duan Yihong is more fun to watch than leading man Huang. Duan hits the right pitch of devilish charisma and unrepentant sadism, while still being convincing as a savvy businessman who could run such a massive outfit.

While the subplot of Lin Kai attempting to turn Eagle’s daughter against him is intriguing, it isn’t given enough development. That said, Lang Yueting gets to play a more complex role than the typical action movie interest. Xing Jiadong has sufficient presence as the police Captain who must confront a botched mission from a decade ago, a character that could’ve easily been quite boring.

Extraordinary Mission’s 121-minute runtime is slightly too long and it does spend a lot of time setting up straightforward back-stories, but action aficionados will be rewarded for their patience with a rip-roaring ending battle for which directors Mak and Pun pull out all the stops.

Summary: While its plot beats are largely predictable, Extraordinary Mission’s solid production values and spectacular finale make it worth a look for fans of Hong Kong action cinema.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Shack

For F*** Magazine


Director : Stuart Hazeldine
Cast : Sam Worthington, Octavia Spencer, Avraham Aviv Alush, Sumire, Radha Mitchell, Megan Charpentier, Gage Munroe, Amelie Eve, Alice Braga, Graham Greene, Tim McGraw
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 2h 13min
Opens : 6 April 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Mature Content)

Sam Worthington has encountered aliens, robots and the Greek pantheon across his acting career. In this faith-based drama, Worthington comes face to face with God Himself – or Herself, as the case may be.

Worthington plays Mack Phillips, who has endured a difficult childhood with an abusive father (Derek Hamilton). Mack is happily married to Nan (Mitchell), his wife of 18 years, and they have three children together: Josh (Munroe), Kate (Charpentier) and Missy (Eve). A family tragedy leaves Mack in shambles, questioning the existence of God. When Mack receives a letter inviting him to ‘the Shack’ signed ‘Papa’, Missy’s nickname for God, his first instinct is that it’s a cruel joke. In a moment of desperation, Mack decides to investigate, on the off chance that God really might be waiting for him in the woods. He is greeted by Papa (Spencer), Jesus (Alush) and Sarayu (Sumire). While Mack is unable to believe the bizarre circumstances, at first, he eventually allows his soul to be healed as he spends time with the physical manifestations of the Holy Trinity.

The Shack is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by William P. Young. The self-published book eventually became a best-seller, resulting in lawsuits over royalties and authorship. It’s as funny as it is sad that behind this inspirational novel which has been credited with “changing lives” is a story of greed and animosity. While The Shack is beloved by millions around the world, it has also drawn the criticism of several theologians, pastors and priests, who claim that it misrepresents God as described in the Bible and that it echoes New Age teachings.

Faith-based movies have gotten a bad rap, criticised for everything from poor production values to the use of strawman arguments. The Shack tackles topics that are darker and less comfortable than one would find in your average Christian movie. It makes a valiant attempt at addressing hurt and anger at God. At its heart is the Problem of Evil, the conundrum of how to reconcile a benevolent God with the existence of evil. This has been mulled over by philosophers and theologians for centuries, and the answers presented in The Shack aren’t exactly convincing. There’s plenty of blatant emotional manipulation, and after a downer of a first act, things get syrupy fast.

“The secrets we keep have a way of clawing themselves to the surface,” narrator Tim McGraw intones. Judging by Worthington’s performance, Australian accents are a lot like secrets that way. There are many dramatic moments in which Mack tearfully pleads with the members of the Trinity to explain why God allows such terrible things to happen in the world. Worthington isn’t phoning it in, but there are times when it seems like he might’ve run off in-between takes to make panicked phone calls to James Cameron, demanding why Avatar 2 isn’t ready for production yet.

The film’s portrayal of God the Father as a black woman has raised several eyebrows. Apparently, this is a form with which Mack will be comfortable, which is why God chooses this guise to appear to Mack in. While Spencer’s performance brims with good-natured warmth, this is an example of the ‘Magical Negro’ trope through and through, the Southern mammy housekeeper.

We acknowledge that this is the first English-language film to actually cast an Israeli actor as Jesus, and depicting Holy Spirit as an ethereal Japanese woman is, if nothing else, interesting. Canadian First Nations actor Graham Greene, who won an Oscar for Dances with Wolves, also shows up, as does Brazilian actress Alice Braga. It’s kind of a step in the right direction that the film has as diverse a cast as it does, but it has the unfortunate implication of people from other ethnicities guiding the white guy to spiritual enlightenment. This is exactly what Doctor Strange, which cast a white woman in a traditionally Asian, male role, was bending over backwards to avoid, creating a new set of controversies in the process.

Many other works of fiction have attempted to humanise God, to render a figure often seen as distant and unapproachable more relatable. The Shack’s approach to this is one of the reasons why it’s been decried as heretical by certain scholars. There are viewers who might find comfort in seeing the Trinity being relaxed, friendly, patient and caring. However, there are others who might consider this too Chicken Soup for the Soul-esque, its blend of sentimentality and magical realism altogether too cloying. Other reviewers have mocked The Shack as coming off like a special episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show – at one point, Winfrey herself was linked to the Papa role in this film. There are many who have found the novel to be therapeutic, and a psychiatrist and family therapist named Brad Robison has even written a study guide after using the book in his practice. It didn’t have this effect on us.

The use of a fantastical parable to address feelings of loss, bereavement and confusion is a fine starting point, and one that could have been the basis for a poetic, poignant film. Instead, The Shack is on-the-nose and clumsy. It’s different enough from the traditional idea of a ‘Christian movie’, but is content with peddling platitudes rather than provoking thought.

Summary: A mawkish faith-based parable, The Shack trades in emotionally manipulative melodrama and faux-sage truisms.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Bit of Fisticuffs: Iron Fist press conference

The stars and showrunner of Marvel and Netflix’s Iron Fist tells F*** about filming the superhero martial arts show
By Jedd Jong

The juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has had quite the solid track record since it kicked off with Iron Man in 2008. Despite the occasional misstep, none of the films or television series that constitute the MCU have been met with a terrible reception.

That is, until Iron Fist.

Iron Fist is the final entry in the string of shows about street-level Marvel characters who will unite in The Defenders. Iron Fist, which centres on a billionaire named Danny Rand (Finn Jones) who is raised in a mystical monastery after surviving a plane crash that kills his parents, has faced a barraged of negative reviews. These have mostly focused on the show’s meandering pace, actor Finn Jones’ less-than-satisfactory grasp of martial arts skills, the show’s failure to embrace the outre nature of its source material, and its problematic handling of race and culture. The character was created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane, debuting in Marvel Comics in 1974. At the time, martial arts movies were starting to take off in the United States. It was fuelled in part by exoticism, and critics have called out how Danny spends most of the show explaining Asian philosophy to Asian characters.

On the morning of Friday 31st March, stars Finn Jones, Jessica Stroup and Tom Pelphrey and showrunner/writer Scott Buck participated in a press conference held at the JW Marriott South Beach in Singapore. Deejays Shaun Tupaz and Melody Chen moderated the press conference, which notably did not include a Q&A segment, so journalists were unable to ask questions of their own. One-on-one and roundtable interviews were also not held. A Netflix representative clarified that this format was to fit more talent into the press tour, as it was earlier announced that only Jones would be flying in. Jones was apparently suffering from tonsillitis, hence the cancelling of the previously scheduled one-on-one interviews.

Jones, who played Loras Tyrell in Game of Thrones, said that he heard about the auditions for Iron Fist on his final day of filming the fantasy series. He then underwent a “really intense process”, meeting with casting directors and executives in Los Angeles and doing a series of screen tests before clinching the role.

“What I like about Danny is that he’s full of contradictions,” Jones said. “On the one hand, he’s this fierce, strong, loyal warrior. And on the other hand, he’s this vulnerable wreck of a kid who’s just trying to piece together his life.” Jones added that Danny is kind-hearted, wears his heart on his sleeve and is a Buddhist, but is also involved in the running of a Fortune 500 company. “To play that and find the greyness in it all and not just be one thing or the other, was really fun for me to explore all those elements,” Jones explained. “No matter how much s*** is thrown at him, he will push through and will always see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I think that’s a good example of a superhero.”

Danny’s arc is one of self-discovery. Having led a privileged childhood and then having that violently rent from him after the death of his parents, Danny has been through the wringer. Training for 15 years in the inter-dimensional realm of K’un Lun, sometimes accessible via the Himalayan mountains, Danny earns the mantle of the Iron Fist. In addition to being an expert martial artist, Danny can concentrate his chi to manifest superhuman strength and impact in his fist, which glows when this power is activated.

Buck is known for shows like Six Feet Under and Dexter, and will also be the showrunner for the upcoming Marvel TV series The Inhumans, about the cosmic adventures of an alien royal family. Buck explained what sets Iron Fist apart from the other Defenders. “With Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, they are slightly older characters,” Buck said. “They’re already fully-formed, and they’re not necessarily going to change from who they are. They’re very dark characters who have sort of a dark sensibility and outlook on life, as opposed to Danny Rand, who is trying to figure out who he is and what it means to be the Iron Fist. Despite the horrible things that he’s been through, he’s still true to himself in that he has an optimistic outlook on life. He always believes that no matter what, things are always going to work out somehow. Because of that, it gives the show a lighter tone, a happier tone. We also try to reflect that in the look of the show in that we don’t shoot at night as much.”

While happenstance factors into Danny’s back-story, his abilities are something he had to earn. “They all have superpowers because something happened to them. They have no say in the matter,” Buck said of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. “Whereas for Danny Rand, becoming the Iron Fist was something he had to work for, he had to struggle. It took many years for him to become the Iron Fist. We pick up in his life not so long after that. Now that he has the Iron Fist, now that he is the Iron Fist, he’s trying to figure out ‘what does it mean? What did I just spend my life trying to attain? What am I going to do with this?’”

The siblings Ward and Joy Meachum are Danny’s childhood friends, who have thought Danny to be dead for the last 15 years, and are now running Rand Enterprises. Their father Harold (David Wenham) was the business partner of Danny’s late father, Wendell Rand. Joy believes her father has been dead for the last 12-13 years, when he has actually been holed up in a penthouse, manipulating events behind the scenes. Ward is aware of Harold’s secret, which he has had to keep from Joy for all this time.

Iron Fist Tom Pelphrey and Finn Jones

Pelphrey described what he found compelling about the character. “What is that like, helping a sibling through the grieving process of losing a parent when you know that’s not true?” he pondered aloud. “How does that break your heart or twist your soul?” Pelphrey reasoned that while Ward often seems like a selfish jerk, this is because he is caught in “kind of an impossible situation.” In response to Pelphrey’s questions about the character, Buck wrote the actor an email detailing Ward’s circumstances and his motivations. “In every scene, no matter how crazy he was being, or what big lies he was telling, or how sinister he seemed, it was able to come back to an equation wherein I, Tom, could figure out why Ward was doing what he was doing in the interest of his sister and himself, from a good place, not a bad place,” Pelphrey concluded.

Finn Jones, Jessica Stroup and Tom Pelphrey with my custom action figures of Iron Fist and Colleen Wing

Stroup was the liveliest of the three actors during the press conference. “Joy is a joy to play,” she laughed, adding that she came up with the line that morning. “This is the first time I’ve played a character who has a lot of money. That was really fun,” she quipped. She didn’t seem bothered by Tupaz repeatedly hitting on her, playing along with the deejay’s advances. For most of the series, Joy comes off as far more sympathetic towards Danny than Ward is. “I have an older brother in real life and he’s my biggest hero, I absolutely adore him although we live in opposite parts of the world,” Stroup said. In the original comics, Ward was Joy’s uncle instead of her brother. “The writing, I felt, was so compassionate for them,” Stroup said, referring to the Meachum siblings. “It just felt so real, and I was so grateful to have a partner like Tom to allow you to find that scene and make it your own while supporting you.”

“I always had way too much fun filming with David Wenham, who plays our father Harold. David, aside from being wildly talented, is a very, very funny human being,” Pelphrey recalled. Harold might have a psychotic streak and has a contentious relationship with his son, but it seems Wenham and Pelphrey got along superbly. “When we had some scenes where Harold punches Ward, all we did was bust each other’s chops all the time when we were filming,” Pelphrey said. “I was like ‘did they train you to punch like that when you doing 300? Because if they did, it’s kind of weak!’”

Another one of the show’s villains, Wai Ching Ho’s Madame Gao, is apparently not as scary in real life. “We loved working with Wai on the show. She’s such a sweetheart,” Pelphrey said of the 73-year-old actress, who reprises her role from Daredevil.

Stroup and Pelphrey elaborated on the secretive casting process. Both were given dummy sides, or short sections of dialogue, and were not allowed to read full scripts until after they had been hired. “I set my goals for Netflix. It was pilot season for us in Los Angeles and I was just pushing everything away and wanted to work on a Netflix program to see what that platform was like,” Stroup said. After sending in their audition tapes, both Stroup and Pelphrey were called in to do an audition together. Stroup was taken aback by the scale of the production, including the sets of the Rand Enterprises offices and Harold’s secret penthouse. ““To me, it was breath-taking, the magnitude and how much detail had gone into it,” Stroup said. “It slowly dawned on me just what a huge project it was going to be, especially when (President of Marvel Television) Jeph Loeb said ‘these are the three best words you’ll ever hear: welcome to Marvel’. I was kind of in shock,” Stroup admitted.

Pelphrey was similarly overwhelmed by being inducted into the sprawling MCU. He admitted to being star struck by one of the show’s guest stars. “One of my favourite movies of all time is The Matrix,” Pelphrey said. “When I saw in the script what was going to happen, then I arrived on set the day I got to work with Carrie-Anne Moss…meeting her was like…when I was a younger man, I had a very big crush on Trinity,” he confessed. Moss reprises the part of powerful lawyer Jeri Hogarth, a role she originated on Jessica Jones. “That was a big moment for me. I internally reverted to my 16-year-old self,” Pelphrey laughed.

Tupaz and Chen presented each guest with a pack of Singlish flash cards, so they could learn the colloquial words and phrases that form Singapore’s English-based creole language. Pelphrey proved to be a fast learner, saying of the audition process “I still had no idea what the project was that they were talking about. I thought that they were siao (crazy) for asking me to do something when I didn’t know what it was. But at the same time, I was a little kiasu (scared of losing out), so I thought maybe I should look into it a little more.” The room roared with appreciative laughter.

Finn has just finished filming The Defenders, the team-up series which all the Marvel/Netflix show have been leading up to, and gave us a taste of what to expect. “It’s fun, it’s really great working with the other actors,” Jones said. “Me, Mike (Colter), Krysten (Ritter) and Charlie (Cox) have a really great dynamic on set, both as friends and as the characters.” Anyone who’s seen her show will know that Jessica Jones is not to be trifled with, and Jones confirmed that it pays to be careful around the actual Ritter too. “Krysten Ritter recently kicked a stunt guy in the face and made his nose burst open,” he revealed. He promised that the show will be “very action-packed,” and revealed that it “takes place in a very short amount of time, there’s an intensity to it.”

All 13 episodes of Iron Fist are available on Netflix.

Finn Jones with my custom action figures of Iron Fist and Colleen Wing





Ghost in the Shell (2017)

For F*** Magazine


Director : Rupert Sanders
Cast : Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Pilou Asbæk, Michael Pitt, Chin Han, Juliette Binoche, Peter Ferdinando
Genre : Sci-fi/Action
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : PG-13

“Oh boy.”

That’s the common reaction when the live-action Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in the Shell is mentioned. There’s a cybernetically-enhanced elephant in the room, (it’s got retractable metal tusks) but we’ll get to that later.

It is the future, and robot technology has become commonplace, many humans augmenting themselves with cybernetic implants. Hanka Robotics has gone a big step further, implanting a human mind into a fully synthetic robot body. The result is Major Mira Killian (Johansson), whose creation was overseen by Dr. Ouélet (Binoche). The Major works for the Section 9 task force, under the command of Chief Daisuke Aramaki (Kitano). Alongside her colleagues Batou (Asbæk) and Togusa (Chin Han), the Major must hunt down a shadowy villain named Kuze (Pitt), who has been remotely hacking Hanka’s products, making various robots turn on their owners. At the same time, the Major is haunted by visions of a burning pagoda, and seeks to piece together the mystery of her former, human existence.

The elephant is on its way – hear that synth-tinged trumpeting? First, some background: Ghost in the Shell is based on Masamune Shirow’s manga, first published in 1989. The manga was adapted into an anime film directed by Mamoru Oshii in 1995, and has since spawned other films, anime television series and video games. Ghost in the Shell rode the cyberpunk wave of the 90s, and has proven to be a deeply influential work. It was one of the main inspirations for The Matrix – the Wachowski siblings reportedly screened the 1995 film for producer Joel Silver, saying “we want to do that, but for real”.

One of the myriad issues with this adaptation is that it’s late to its own party. Filmgoers have seen similar futuristic cityscapes and high-tech prosthetics in other sci-fi films. It’s akin to how John Carter arrived around 100 years after its source material was written, with Star Wars and Avatar among others having become popular in the intervening years. There are plenty of eye-catching visuals in this take on Ghost in the Shell, but one gets the sense that director Rupert Sanders is dutifully duplicating the imagery from Oshii’s anime film, divorcing those images of their intended impact.

And now, the elephant. The protagonist was originally named Major Motoko Kusanagi, and the casting of Johansson led to widespread outrage, making ‘whitewashing’ a household phrase – even though it’s something Hollywood has done for years. Here is an action heroine in a big-budget movie, a role that could’ve and should’ve been played by an Asian actress, but a white actress was cast instead for box office appeal. Some make the argument that Motoko has no assigned race, as she is an android, and that ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ is a pseudonym. By this logic, an Asian actress still could have played the part. If this were a movie about Catherine the Great, Boudicca or Joan of Arc, retaining the original historical context, that wouldn’t have been possible.

“Maybe it’s much ado about nothing,” this reviewer told himself, taking his seat during the screening. “Maybe it’ll be so much fun I won’t notice. Maybe it’s a non-issue”. It’s not. It’s a non-non-issue. It’s an issue. Because so much emphasis is placed on the Major unearthing her past and coming to terms with the life she had before her brain was plopped into a robot shell, questions of identity fuel the plot. Like it or not, race is a part of one’s identity – not the sole part, mind you, but depending on the person, a key one. Without giving too much away, the big plot twist carries with it some ghastly implications where race is concerned.

To be fair to Johansson, her casting makes sense on some levels. She has considerable action heroine cred from playing Black Widow in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has been in sci-fi films like The Island and Lucy, and played an artificial intelligence construct in Her. While Johansson handles the fights well and gets to show off her toned physique in a skin-tight bodysuit, the Major is mostly confused rather than confident. While some episodes of Stand Alone Complex have hinted at it, Motoko’s back-story in the original Ghost in the Shell is not a driving force of the plot. By making the rediscovery of her past the Major’s primary motivation, screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger have reduced the character to ‘Jason Bourne as the Terminator’.

Noted Japanese actor-director “Beat” Takeshi Kitano makes what is only his second appearance in a Hollywood film, after 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic. All his dialogue is in Japanese, he gets to retain his dignity and has a few moments of badassery. Asbæk is not as physically imposing as most fans would expect Batou to be, but he’s fine. Pitt’s role is minimal, his character being something of a composite of Kuze from Stand Alone Complex 2nd Gig and the Puppet Master from the original manga run and the 1995 film. While there’s an attempt to make him sympathetic even as he carries out ruthless acts, we don’t get to know enough about the character to feel for him.

While not to the extent of 2014’s Godzilla, Ghost in the Shell is yet another Hollywood tentpole movie that wastes Binoche’s considerable talents as an actress. The character of Dr. Ouélet is comparable to Gary Oldman’s Dennett Norton in the RoboCop remake. A lot of this film reminded us of the RoboCop remake, only that was more fun. We also have Chin Han sporting a hairstyle that’s even more awkward than the one he had in Masters of the Sea. We did not know such a thing could be possible.

It may sound pretentious to scoff at a movie for “dumbing things down” for American audiences, but it’s hard to argue that this isn’t what Ghost in the Shell is doing. The source material’s heady themes of transcendence and the nature of consciousness are largely unmined, and the unfettered sexuality is neutered. Ah well, maybe there actually was an Asian actress in a co-lead role, but she was just cloaked in thermo-optic camouflage.

Summary: While it showcases familiar key visuals, Ghost in the Shell retrofits a Hollywood sci-fi action plot onto sophisticated source material. The negative buzz about casting a white actress as the protagonist is also fully warranted.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong


The Zookeeper’s Wife

For F*** Magazine


Director : Niki Caro
Cast : Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl, Michael McElhatton, Iddo Goldberg
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 2h 6min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : NC-16

After the second world war, various accounts of everyday heroism started coming to light. The Zookeeper’s Wife tells the true story of Antonina Żabińska (Chastain), who along with her husband Jan (Heldenbergh), ran the Warsaw Zoo in Poland. On September 1st 1939, the German invasion of Poland began, with the zoo devastated by bombings, many of Antonina and Jan’s beloved animals killed. The couple attempt to raise their son Ryszard (Timothy Radford and Val Maloku at different ages) amidst the horrors of war. They also become involved in the Polish underground resistance against the Nazis, using the zoo to house over 300 Jewish “guests” escaping from the Warsaw ghetto. During this time, the Warsaw Zoo is frequently visited by German zoologist Lutz Heck (Brühl), who spearheads a Nazi program to recreate extinct breeds of cows and horses. Heck begins to suspect something is amiss, as Antonina rebuffs his advances, all while ensuring the safety of those who have found a safe harbour in the Warsaw Zoo.

The Zookeeper’s Wife is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by poet and naturalist Diane Ackerman. As crass a thing to say as it is, many audiences have developed a jadedness towards biopics set in Europe during WWII. Most of us have a general idea of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime, and these films tend to be sombre, stuffy affairs, often too concerned with being respectable to have a visceral impact.

While The Zookeeper’s Wife has much in common with your average WWII prestige pic, there are fascinating, moving elements to the story. For one, there’s the setting of the Warsaw Zoo, and the depiction of the menagerie that Antonina, Jan and their staff cared for. There are elephants, camels, lions, tigers and birds of prey, with the film doing a good job of setting up how dear the animals are to the zookeepers. When everything is ripped away, we get a sense of their pain.

The film was predominantly shot in Prague, with production designer Suzy Davies creating a convincing environment for the story to unfold in. A combination of well-trained animal actors and visual effects work bring the zoo’s denizens to life. A battle sequence in Warsaw’s Old Town area is appropriately intense. There’s also a haunting scene in which the Nazi troops setting the ghetto ablaze with flamethrowers is intercut with the Jews hiding in the zoo observing Passover, singing a seder song.

War films tend to have male protagonists, and it’s easy to see why director Niki Caro and star Jessica Chastain were drawn to Antonina’s story. Caro made waves with her film Whale Rider, and is attached to direct the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan. Chastain is as radiant as ever, essaying utmost poise in the most desperate of circumstance. Antonina is not afraid to get her hands dirty, and early on, resuscitates a new-born elephant calf. As with many films of this nature, The Zookeeper’s Wife is a story of sacrifice and principles. We can’t tell if that’s a good Polish accent she’s affecting, but it’s not as distracting as it could’ve been.

The relationship between Antonina and Jan goes through a trial by fire. Heldenbergh is believably rugged, a rough-hewn hero who cares deeply for those around him, even if he doesn’t show it on the surface. Like many German actors, Brühl seems typecast as a Nazi, but he makes for a layered antagonist here. At first, Lutz doesn’t seem quite so bad as his compatriot – after all, he loves animals. However, the depths of his viciousness are gradually revealed.

With the focus placed squarely on Antonina, we don’t quite get to know the people who are huddled in the basement of the zoo’s residential villa, such that The Zookeeper’s Wife sometimes succumbs to the pitfalls of making them faceless victims. The film also hits a considerable lull in the middle, and could have benefited from more suspenseful moments. Caro does strike a balance in portraying the cruelty of the German occupying forces without making the film gratuitously gory.

Throughout The Zookeeper’s Wife, there are glimmers of the bracingly powerful film it could’ve been. Instead, this is largely standard war biopic stuff, but it will bring the story of Antonina and Jan Żabińska to a larger audience than ever before.

Summary: While it’s bolstered by a stirring, engaging lead performance from Jessica Chastain, there’s not too much to distinguish The Zookeeper’s Wife from other wartime biopics of its ilk.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong



From a House on Willow Street

For F*** Magazine


Director : Alastair Orr
Cast : Sharni Vinson, Steven John Ward, Gustav Gerdener, Zino Ventura, Carlyn Burchell
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 27min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : NC-16

Don’t you just hate it when decent, honest, hardworking people fall victim to a cruel twist of fate? In this horror flick, a band of decent, honest, hardworking kidnappers get more than they bargained for after they unwittingly abduct the host of a powerful demon. Hazel (Vinson) leads a team of criminals including her boyfriend Ade (Ward), Ade’s cousin James (Gerdener), and Mark (Ventura). Over six weeks, they plan the kidnapping of Katherine (Burchell), the teenage daughter of a wealthy couple, demanding that the ransom be paid in diamonds. Alas, what was meant to be an easy job turns out to be anything but, when the demon that has possessed Katherine wreaks havoc. Hazel and her cohorts must face their deepest, darkest fears, made manifest by the demon’s power, as the tables are turned and the criminals become the victims.

From a House on Willow Street has a rather novel premise: mash up the home invasion thriller and supernatural horror subgenres to deliver twice the tension. While director Alastair Orr displays an affinity for the horror genre, the execution here leaves quite a bit to be desired. The back-story is conveyed through clunky exposition, and the audience is fed a lot of information about the history of the titular house at one go. Things get tedious rather than suspenseful, such that this feels longer than its 87 minutes.

Even though there is an effort made to humanise our protagonists, they’re still largely unlikeable by dint of being career criminals. Then there are the shocks, which are almost all basic jump scares of the “there’s nobody behind you, THEN THERE’S SOMEBODY BEHIND YOU!” variety. Out of all the scares, the most effective is probably a relatively lo-fi gag involving a framed portrait that transforms when one looks away from it.

There is a large amount of appropriately gruesome makeup effects on display, created by South African studio Dreamsmith. Jaco Snyman, who supervised the creature effects, has worked on films such as Mad Max: Fury Road and District 9. If gory, ghoulish figures stalking our ‘heroes’ are what you’re after, From a House on Willow Street has plenty of that. Orr wisely doesn’t overuse computer-generated effects, with the barbed, slimy tongue-like appendage that emanates from Katherine’s mouth looking just as disgusting as that description sounds.

Australian actress Vinson is building her ‘scream queen’ repertoire, after starring in the hit horror film You’re Next. She gives the role her best shot, summoning the toughness that Hazel should exhibit, but is saddled with poorly-written dialogue. The relationships between the four members of Hazel’s crew are roughly defined. Just as in many home invasion thrillers, the people doing the invading are constantly at each other’s throats. Everyone has a tragic backstory that is exploited by the demon, but the bloodied and maimed ghosts popping up throughout the movie lose their frightening effect because of how repetitive things get.

From a House on Willow Street has decent makeup effects and is competently shot, but its potential is gradually eroded thanks to director Orr falling back on too many tried and tested genre tricks. The film relies on the soundtrack lunging at the audience repeatedly, and while the jump scares provide a few jolts to start with, they soon become predictable.

Summary: This horror film promises a different spin on things with its kidnap plot set-up, but ends up falling back on genre devices we’ve all seen before. Star Sharni Vinson and some grisly special effects makeup work barely lift it above mediocrity.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Boss Baby

For F*** Magazine


Director : Tom McGrath
Cast : Alec Baldwin, Miles Bakshi, Tobey Maguire, Steve Buscemi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow
Genre : Animation/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 38min
Opens : 30 March 2017
Rating : PG

Alec Baldwin recently played the sitting President of the United States on Saturday Night Live. In this animated film, Baldwin plays a character who wears better-fitting suits, is more articulate, throws fewer tantrums, but has the same sized hands.

Virtually every review of The Boss Baby will open with or otherwise contain a passage just like the one above, but it’s just too difficult to pass up the comparison. Baldwin voices the title character, a corporate high flyer who just happens to be an infant. He is dispatched to the Templeton family by Baby Corp, after the love that babies in general are receiving is threatened by ever-cuter breeds of puppies. Mr. and Mrs. Templeton (Kimmel and Kudrow) work for Puppy Corp, so the Boss Baby attempts to infiltrate the company via his new parents. Seven-year-old Tim Templeton (Bakshi) has a feeling that something’s amiss with his new baby brother, and quickly discovers the Boss Baby’s secret. Even though they strongly dislike each other, Tim and the Boss Baby must cooperate to stop a dastardly scheme engineered by Puppy Corp’s CEO, Francis E. Francis (Buscemi).

The Boss Baby is directed by Tom McGrath, who directed Megamind, co-directed the Madagascar films and voiced Skipper the Penguin. Dreamworks Animation has built its brand as being more cynical and wiseacre than other studios that cater to children. The Shrek films were a vehicle for Dreamworks studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg to express his spite towards Disney, his former place of employment. You get the occasional oddity like Bee Movie. There’s an expectation that there will be lots of pop culture references. Big-name stars are slotted in, regardless of whether they’re capable voice actors. The best Dreamworks films, like the two How to Train Your Dragon movies, are praised as being “Pixar-like”.

The fundamental problem with The Boss Baby is that this is a premise which some suits in a boardroom found amusing. Much of the humour is derived from the incongruity of an infant spouting business jargon, and that the Boss Baby salivates at the thought of a gleaming corner office in Baby Corp. This is not stuff that kids will connect to. In the meantime, the parents will be alienated by the typical bodily function gross-out jokes. Family-aimed animated films can package challenging themes in a palatable way, the example that springs to mind being the recent Oscar winner Zootopia. The Boss Baby doesn’t do this at all. The best animated films are easy to connect and get lost it, when it’s clear that The Boss Baby was the brainchild of a bored studio exec.

Even though the premise doesn’t work as a whole, there are individual parts of The Boss Baby that are entertaining. The animation is lively, and there’s an inventive stylistic flourish in how Tim’s overactive imagination is depicted in a simpler, more colourful animation style. There’s an unexpected grandeur to the soundtrack composed by Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazarro, which is influenced by the big band style. The Tim character is likeable and has adequate personality thanks to Bakshi’s performance. Baldwin also showcases keen comic timing, even though his turn as Santa Claus in Dreamworks’ Rise of the Guardians was more fun.

Buscemi, replacing the initially-cast Kevin Spacey, can play ‘weaselly’ in his sleep. It’s a fine performance, but nothing we haven’t heard from him before. Kimmel and Kudrow are serviceable but unremarkable as the Templeton parents. Weirdly enough, there isn’t a scene-stealing supporting character, when Dreamworks movies can often be counted upon to provide those.

Throwing the parents a bone in the form of a pop culture reference or two is fine, and can be amusing if done right. However, The Boss Baby has entire scenes built around homages to films that its target audience will not be familiar with, including a gag spoofing the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. There’s also the “cookies are for closers” line, a nod to “coffee is for closers” from Glengarry Glen Ross, in which Baldwin starred opposite Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon. These moments geared towards older audience members do not gel with the lowbrow humour, such that it’s not quite clear who exactly The Boss Baby is for.

While The Boss Baby can be viewed as a comically exaggerated allegory for sibling rivalry and it does get some moving moments in, cynicism is always bubbling beneath its talcum powdered skin.

Summary: An animated film with a half-clever premise, The Boss Baby’s corporate-themed plot will fly over the heads of most younger viewers, while the adults will barely tolerate the lowbrow gross-out jokes.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong