Collide

For F*** Magazine

COLLIDE

Director : Eran Creevy
Cast : Nicholas Hoult, Felicity Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Marwan Kenzari, Aleksandar Jovanovic, Christian Rubeck
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 39min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)

 

collide-posterThe Fast and Furious franchise may have cornered the market on car-centric action flicks, and while its reigning status remains unchallenged, it’s fun to see what more modestly-budgeted flicks in the same subgenre bring to the table.

Collide centres on Casey (Hoult), an American backpacker who, alongside his friend Matthias (Kenzari), is working for eccentric Turkish drug lord Geran (Kingsley) in Germany. When Casey meets bartender Juliette (Jones), a fellow American, he falls hard for her and swears off his life of crime. Juliette suddenly discovers she has a terminal illness, and Casey decides to plunge back into the murky underworld waters, planning a daring heist to save Juliette’s life. Casey plans to rob a shipment of drugs belonging to kingpin Hagen Kahl (Hopkins), whom the general public regards as a legitimate titan of industry. Casey soon finds out he’s bitten off more than he can chew, as he is ruthlessly pursued by Kahl’s men along the Autobahn, the German highway with no speed limits.

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By all counts, Collide is a fairly generic action thriller. With its European locale, Hollywood stars, fast cars, shootouts and slick camera moves, it seems like something Luc Besson would’ve produced, and at times comes off as a slightly less outlandish Transporter movie. Collide is directed by Eran Creevy, who burst onto the scene with his crime drama Shifty and followed it up with the stylish but flawed thriller Welcome to the Punch. Screenwriter F. Scott Frazier penned the deliriously silly xXx: Return of Xander Cage. While Collide doesn’t reach those ludicrously entertaining heights, it’s still decent fun. The central action set piece features some exciting stunt driving. True to its title, there are collisions galore – plus lots and lots of cars flipping through the air. It’s nothing that will be particularly impressive to anyone who’s been fed a steady diet of action movies, but it’s staged with considerable finesse.

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The cast is what makes Collide worth a look, if only as a curiosity. If someone told you Nicholas Hoult, Felicity Jones, Ben Kingsley and Anthony Hopkins were in a movie together, your first instinct would likely be that the film in question is a prestige biopic. Zac Efron and Amber Heard were originally cast as Casey and Juliette respectively, and it seems they would fit the characters better. Casey is a roguish ne’er-do-well with a romantic streak, and Juliette is the beguiling, free-spirited love of his life. It is very difficult to argue that Efron and Heard are better actors than Hoult and Jones. Casey seems practically invincible, but Hoult lends the character vulnerability and pathos. The final casting comes off as a little odd: we have Hoult the action hero and Jones the blonde party girl. Their chemistry doesn’t crackle, but watching both actors play against type in what is mostly a standard action movie does have its moments.

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Collide
is an unremarkable, unambitious action movie that’s made entertaining by its cast. It’s not the kind of movie one would expect two Oscar winners and an Oscar nominee to pop up in, but therein lies the novelty. There’s some charm to its silliness and the action sequences pass muster.Hopkins and Kingsley are consummate scene-stealers, and any action movie should be so lucky as to have them play duelling crime lords. Hopkins gets to give a Bond villain speech, making us wonder why he hasn’t yet played an actual Bond villain. In the middle of said speech, he busts out a completely unexpected, very amusing impression of an 80s action star. Kingsley is having a full-on good time as the loopy Geran, chewing scenery left and right and being unabashedly silly. We were expecting that Hopkins and Kingsley would do one, maybe two scenes each before leaving to collect their paycheques, but both have substantial screen time and are not phoning it in in the slightest.

 

Summary: Collide is built from familiar parts, but is far from a car wreck thanks to an overqualified cast.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Fist Fight

For F*** Magazine

FIST FIGHT

Director : Richie Keen
Cast : Charlie Day, Ice Cube, Jillian Bell, Tracy Morgan, Dean Norris, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Alexa Nisenson, Christina Hendricks, Dennis Haysbert
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1h 31min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language & Sexual References)

fist-fight-posterAs far as big screen match-ups go, Charlie Day vs. Ice Cube might not be as exciting as Batman vs. Superman or Rocky vs. Apollo Creed, but it’s got to be funny, right? Day plays Andy Campbell, a milquetoast English teacher at Roosevelt High School. When hot-tempered history teacher Ron Strickland (Cube) loses his job after lashing out at a student, he blames Campbell for snitching on him. Strickland challenges Campbell to a fight in the parking lot on the last day of school. Campbell has promised his daughter Ally (Nisenson) that he’d be at her talent show performance, and his wife Maggie (Garcia Swisher) is close to delivering their second child, so he has enough on his plate. In a panic, Campbell seeks the help of Holly (Bell), the guidance counsellor who frequently behaves inappropriately towards students, and the inept coach Freddie Coward (Morgan). The ‘teacher fight’ becomes the talk of the school, and the town at large, as all gather to witness the momentous throw-down.

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Fist Fight is a loose remake of the 1987 comedy Three O’Clock High – in the original film, the fight was between a meek student reporter and a brutish new student. Fist Fight is a production line comedy through and through, and one quickly realises that none of the characters are exactly likeable. There’s only so much humour that can be mined from the premise of teachers, instead of students, engaging in a schoolyard fight. The attempt to tack on half-hearted commentary about the state of the public school system in the United States doesn’t make this movie any more worthwhile. Each character’s personality and actions are exaggerated for comic effect, but because everything is so over-the-top, it’s difficult to find a foothold and get invested in the characters. Each situation that arises seems like it could be dealt with more sensibly, but hijinks wouldn’t ensue otherwise. Director Richie Keen lets his actors riff and improvise, but the comedy feels stale, with moments like a child swearing for shock value coming off as the work of a hack.

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Both Day and Cube play characters that are in line with their established comedic personas. Day is shrill and neurotic, the pushover who apologises too much and who lets his students and colleagues alike run roughshod over him. While the character is meant to be sympathetic, he’s often unbearably annoying. Because he doesn’t want to engage in violence with a fellow teacher, Campbell is characterised as “a pussy” and is mocked by everyone from his charges to the 9/11 operators. This lazily perpetuates the notion that the only way a ‘real man’ can solve a problem is by physically beating said problem up, and that any other approach is a tell-tale sign of weakness.

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Cube’s no-nonsense, imposing shtick is no different from the roles he’s played in recent comedies, the Ride Along movies being the immediate examples that come to mind. Fans of the rapper/actor will get a kick out of a reference to one of NWA’s biggest hits, but Cube does nothing too interesting over the course of the film. A teacher who brandishes a fire axe to intimidate his students and proceeds to hack a desk to pieces with said fire axe is a dangerous person who shouldn’t be allowed near, let alone in, a school. Real-world logic goes flying out the window, and with it, any inclination to care about these characters.

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The film does have a funny supporting cast, but they’re stuck with tired material – or frantically trying to generate their own. It’s nice to see Morgan on screen again, in his first role since his near-fatal car accident in 2014. Alas, he doesn’t do much beyond bumbling about being ineffectual. Bell’s character is built upon the single joke that she’s a guidance counsellor who’s a terrible example to her students, and that she’s obsessed with sleeping with them. It’s amusing for a bit, then becomes tired and distasteful. Hendricks is funny as a possibly psychotic teacher, but is underused. Garcia Swisher is just “the wife”, relegated to the side-lines for most of the film, while Nisenson is “the daughter”.

 

Fist Fight is an unpleasant if fitfully amusing comedy, built on a flawed premise and inhabited with characters with whom we want to spend as little time as possible. Thankfully, it’s all over in 91 minutes, with several minutes of bloopers used to pad out that running time.

 

Summary: Uninspired and misguided, Fist Fight pairs its message of ‘real men seek pointless conflict’ with lacklustre humour and unsympathetic characters.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Sleepless

For F*** Magazine

SLEEPLESS

Director : Baran bo Odar
Cast : Jamie Foxx, Michelle Monaghan, Tip “T.I.” Harris, Scoot McNairy, Gabrielle Union, David Harbour, Dermot Mulroney, Octavius J. Johnson
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 35min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Coarse Language)

sleepless-posterJamie Foxx is up all night trying not to get killed in this action thriller. Foxx plays Vincent Downs, a crooked Las Vegas cop. Along with his accomplice Sean Cass (Harris), Vincent steals a shipment of cocaine from business tycoon Stanley Rubino (Mulroney). Rubino is in cahoots with the unhinged mobster Rob Novak (McNairy), heir to a Vegas criminal empire. When Rubino finds out about Vincent’s involvement, his men kidnap Vincent’s teenage son Thomas (Johnson). Vincent goes about rescuing his son, while keeping the kidnapping a secret from his estranged ex-wife Dena (Union). Meanwhile, Vincent earns the suspicion of Internal Affairs investigators Jennifer Bryant (Monaghan) and Doug Dennison (Harbour). All parties clash over the course of one night in a battle that tears through the Luxus Casino and Hotel.

Sleepless is a remake of the 2011 film Sleepless Night, a French-Belgian-Luxembourgian co-production. Sleepless Night was also remade as the Tamil-language action thriller Thoongam Vanam. Sleepless might star A-lister Foxx and possess fairly slick production values, but it’s hard to shake the vibe of a disposable direct-to-DVD action thriller. Despite all the twists and turns the story takes, Sleepless never becomes more than a blandly generic crime movie, failing to put a spin on familiar tropes. Seeing as the bulk of the film is set in the span of one night, it should have a breathless, pulse-pounding momentum. No such luck. This feels considerably longer than its 95-minute running time, even with a healthy number of action sequences.

sleepless-t-i-and-jamie-foxxThe official Twitter account for the film brazenly declares it “the action event of the year”. We would like to have seen the PR person stifle laughter as they typed this. While it by no means even approaches that hyperbolic statement, the action in this is not terrible, thanks to the involvement of veteran stunt coordinator Jeff Imada. Imada’s credits include the first three Bourne movies and several of the Fast and Furious films, so the fights in Sleepless do look brutal, if uninventive. Foxx and Harbour throw down in a spa, and the climactic showdown that moves from the casino floor to the garage does generate some excitement. Alas, it’s all too rote to stick in the mind of any action aficionado, and director Odar’s workmanlike style, heavy on the shaky-cam, lacks panache.

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Foxx’s natural charisma is rendered moot in a role which is all knitted brows and gritted teeth. We’re introduced to Vincent as he steals drugs from a crime lord, but fret not, all is not as it seems and Vincent emerges as a typically heroic figure. Dispensing with the realism, Vincent shakes off being stabbed in the stomach like it’s no big deal. Monaghan is miscast as a dogged, tough cop, unable to shake her innate sweetness and coming off as unconvincing when she has to deliver silly hard-boiled dialogue. Both Harbour and McNairy are interesting actors despite not yet having that high a profile, Harbour being best known for Stranger Things and McNairy for Argo. Neither actor phones it in, but there’s not much they can do with this material. McNairy does try to have fun as the violent mobster scion, but is unable to significantly enliven the proceedings.

While Sleepless never plumbs the depths of bad movies that are dumped into theatres by studios in the beginning of each year, its mediocrity is still frustrating. It’s too dour to be fun and silly and too sluggish to be a piece of throwaway escapism.

 

Summary: An exercise in going through the motions, Sleepless is a crime thriller that fails to quicken the pulse.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Return

For F*** Magazine

THE RETURN 

Director : Green Zeng
Cast : Chen Tianxiang, Vincent Tee, Tan Beng Chiak, Gary Tang, Wong Kai Tow, Eve Tan, Eugene Tan
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 23min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Mature Content)

the-return-posterSingapore’s political detainees, arrested under the Internal Security Act for allegedly conducting pro-Communist activities in the 60s, are talked about in hushed tones when they’re discussed at all. It’s a particularly touchy aspect of our country’s history that is often misunderstood, with high-profile documentary and narrative films on the subject being banned in Singapore.

This drama centres on Lim Soon Wen (Chen), a fictional political detainee who was arrested on suspicion of being a Communist. Decades later, Wen is released, and returns to his family. While his daughter Mei (Tan Beng Chiak) is overjoyed to see her father again, Wen’s son Tien (Tee) harbours resentment towards his father, as Wen’s absence made it difficult for the family to eke out a living. In the intervening years, Wen’s wife Lian has passed away. Wen wanders the city, familiarising himself with a Singapore transformed. While Wen is ready to start anew, his past continues to haunt him, and he realises his decades-long struggle is still far from over.

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The Return was selected to compete at the International Film Critics’ Week at the Venice Film Festival in 2015. The film has since been screened at film festivals in Singapore, Cairo, Hanoi, Luang Prabang and Kerala, and is now having a limited theatrical release at FilmGarde Bugis+. This is the feature film directorial debut of multi-disciplinary artist Green Zeng, who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife June Chua, who is also the film’s producer. Melancholic and contemplative, Zeng couches The Return as a family drama, with the politics remaining strictly in the background. The specifics of Wen’s detention and imprisonment are deliberately vague, and the film focuses instead on the emotional toll that the separation from his loved ones took on Wen and his family.

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Several disorienting, eerie dream sequences convey that Wen might never be able to shake the trauma of his time as a political detainee. The film’s opening minutes contain one of the most elegant passage-of-time transitions we’ve seen. However, The Return is difficult to get into, and feels longer than its 83-minute running time. There isn’t much of a narrative drive, with a few dramatic incidents pushing the plot along. The film’s themes of longing and making up for lost time are moving, but Zeng’s restrained approach is a double-edged sword, preventing the film from reaching any emotional high points.

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The Return is anchored by Chen Tianxiang’s quietly dignified performance. Chen, a veteran actor who began his career on Rediffusion radio plays, takes his first leading role in this film. Wen is caught in between the past and the present, fighting an ongoing battle to reconcile the two. We see modern-day Singapore through Wen’s eyes: in one scene, he looks upon the Fort Canning Tunnel, which the Old National Library Building was demolished to make way for. In another, he stands beneath the Nantah arch – the Chinese-educated students of Nanyang University made up a significant proportion of anti-government protesters in the 1960s.

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The relationships between Wen and Mei and Wen and Tien are heart-rending in their own ways. Tien’s bitterness and scorn towards his father is somewhat justified, and while there are leaps in character development, Tien is sympathetic in his own way. While Chen is believable throughout, Tee and Tan Beng Chiak can be a little unconvincing during the film’s more dramatic moments.

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A scene in which a documentary filmmaker (Eve Tan) interviews Wen about his release seems to exist primarily to deliver exposition. While at a convenience store, Wen and his young grandson stop to watch a TV news broadcast about the 2013 Little India Riot, the first riot in Singapore in over 40 years. This seems pretty on-the-nose. Despite the odd clumsy moment, The Return is an intimate, heartfelt tale that highlights the human cost of political detention while never courting controversy outright.

 

Summary: Most of the drama in The Return is internal rather than external, but its humanist perspective on sacrifice in the name of political ideals is quietly stirring.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Alone in Berlin

For F*** Magazine

ALONE IN BERLIN

Director : Vincent Perez
Cast : Emma Thompson, Brendan Gleeson, Daniel Brühl, Mikael Persbrandt, Katharina Schüttler, Louis Hofmann
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 43min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Brief Coarse Language)

alone-in-berlin-posterAdapted from Hans Fallada’s 1947 novel Every Man Dies Alone, Alone in Berlin tells of a small but spirited resistance from within the heart of Nazi Germany. It is 1940, and working-class Berliners Otto (Gleeson) and Anna (Thompson) Quangel receive news that their only son has died in combat. After witnessing the treatment of an old Jewish woman in their apartment block, Otto and Anna begin writing postcards containing short messages exhorting for the people to resist Hitler and the Nazis. Otto wants to leave his wife out of it for her protection, but Anna insists in standing alongside her husband. They leave the postcards in public places, and this soon attracts the attention of the police. Escherich (Brühl), the detective put in charge of hunting down the perpetrators, finds himself gaining respect for his elusive targets, while starting to question Nazi ideology.

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Every Man Dies Alone is a fictionalisation of the true story of Otto and Elise Hampel, has been adapted for TV and film in German several times, and was also made into a Czech television miniseries. The English translation of the 1947 German novel was only published in 2009. While the story of ordinary German citizens who attempt to stand against the oppressive Nazi regime has the potential to be powerfully resonant, said potential is only glimpsed a few precious times in this film. The family of Swiss actor/director Perez, who also co-wrote the screenplay, experienced the horrors of World War II first-hand. Perez’s grandfather was shot by fascists in Spain, his great uncle was gassed by Nazis, and another uncle died in battle on the Russian front. As such, it’s curious that he seems to approach the material with a distinct lack of passion.

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Thanks to location filming in Berlin, Cologne and Görlitz, Alone in Berlin possesses decent production values. Unfortunately, that’s not enough to pull the viewer in. For a film about a time and place where there was danger on all sides, Alone in Berlin fails to generate any urgency or tension. We get an adequate sense of the oppression that the Nazis imposed on their subjects, but nothing leaps off the screen. It’s generic historical drama stuff, when the story of Otto and Elise Hampel deserves a more searing telling.

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Thompson and Gleeson are both fine actors. They don’t get too many notes to play beyond “downtrodden”, but are invested in the material. The varying strength of the German accents across the cast can be a little distracting. Mark Rylance was originally cast as Otto, and in part because Gleeson is still unmistakably Irish, we think he might have been a better choice. Brühl tries to give Escherich notes beyond that of the typical dogged inspector, but only makes an emotional impact in the film’s closing moments. The Gestapo agents are stereotypically, blandly evil.
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The perspective of the common man living in Nazi Germany coupled with the fact that it’s based on a true story should have made Alone in Berlin a powerful work. Instead, even with its strong lead performances, much of the film is mired in mediocrity. Offering not enough insight into the minds of dissidents in Nazi Germany, nor serving up any wartime cloak-and-dagger mystique, Alone in Berlin will leave most viewers cold.

Summary: Finely-acted but too sluggish and dour to be genuinely moving, Alone in Berlin is far from the full-bodied, stirring tale it should’ve been.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

John Wick: Chapter 2

For F*** Magazine

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 

Director : Chad Stahelski
Cast : Keanu Reeves, Common, Riccardo Scamarcio, Laurence Fishburne, Ruby Rose, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, Claudia Gerini, Bridget Moynahan, Peter Stormare, Franco Nero
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 2h 2min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : M18 (Violence)

john-wick-chapter-2-posterMuch like Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, John Wick (Reeves) is a man who just can’t retire. After avenging the death of his puppy, the final gift from his late wife Helen (Moynahan), John thinks his hitman days are finally over. However, his former associate Santino D’Antonio (Scamarcio) comes calling to collect on a blood oath Santino and John made years earlier. Santino tasks John with killing Santino’s sister Gianna (Gerini), so Santino can take her place on a high council of assassins. John reluctantly travels to Rome, facing off against scores of skilled hired guns. These include Gianna’s bodyguard Cassian (Common) and Santino’s security chief Ares (Rose). Back in New York, John seeks the assistance of old allies Winston (McShane), who runs the Continental Hotel, and Charon (Reddick), the hotel’s concierge. John also reunites with the Bowery King (Fishburne), a crime lord with whom John has had a tempestuous professional relationship. With a large bounty put on his head, it’s open season on John Wick.

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2014’s John Wick is hailed as a minor masterpiece in contemporary action cinema. While it contained many familiar tropes of the hitman movie subgenre, it boasted exceedingly stylish action and established an intriguing mini-mythology. Chad Stahelski, who directed the first film with fellow stunt coordinator/second unit director David Leitch, helms this outing solo. John Wick: Chapter 2 contains everything that worked the first time around. It’s largely more of the same, but it’s good. Screenwriter Derek Kolstad expands on the heightened world, introducing more elements central to the apparently global assassin subculture. Not only are there hitmen decked out in expensive suits who hang out in plush hotels, there are homeless assassins now. Much like the first go-round, this is a tonally assured work: there are dry winks and nods at the more absurd aspects of the premise, while steering clear of all-out self-parody.

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Aided by veteran stunt coordinators Darrin Prescott and J.J. Perry, Stahelski serves up a surfeit of fluidly orchestrated violence. The body count here far exceeds the first film, and there are plenty of messy headshots along the way. All the fights, shootouts and chases hit that sweet spot of being stylised and designed while retaining visceral impact. John is a one-man army and because of his nigh-superhuman prowess, the audience never really feels that he’s in grave danger from his opponents. However, the proceedings are never boring and always eye-catching. A showdown in the ancient catacombs beneath Rome is contrasted with a game of cat-and-mouse set in a maze of mirrors. The latter is at once disorienting and mesmerizing, and is also a technical feat seeing how a set comprised entirely of mirrors would make it difficult to hide cameras and crew.
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It’s been repeatedly noted that Reeves is not an actor with staggering emotional range, but just as in the first John Wick, he makes for a compelling force of nature. Even pretending to be an expert marksman or hand-to-hand combatant is tricky, but Reeves makes it all look so effortless. Deep beneath his unyielding surface, John is a sorrowful figure. Even though John should be no less fantastical a character than any action hero played by Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, Reeves gives him a vital grounding.

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Many of the supporting players from the first film, including McShane, Reddick and Leguizamo, return, giving this a strong sense of continuity. Italian actor Scamarcio exudes the sliminess one would expect of a mafia heir without turning the character into a caricature. Gerini’s Gianna has a confrontation with John that is as sexy as it ominous. The film’s detour to Rome seems a little too brief, but the location and the D’Antonio siblings do expand the story’s scope. Iconic Italian actor Franco Nero makes a cameo as the manager of The Continental Rome.

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Common gets to grapple with Reeves in an intense fight, but is ultimately little more than a generic henchman. Rose gets a slightly more interesting role as the mute Ares. She cuts an elegant figure in a suit and is entrancing as she signs her “dialogue”. It’s fun to see Reeves reunite with Fishburne, his co-star from the Matrix films. Fishburne’s Bowery King is cheery and exuberant, but we get the sense that this belies an uncompromising ruthlessness. Peter Stormare, who has long been on speed-dial for Hollywood casting directors in search of scenery-chomping European villains, shows up too.

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John Wick: Chapter 2 contains equal measures of muscularity and finesse, an action movie carved from polished obsidian. As the middle instalment in a planned trilogy, the film’s conclusion is open-ended, but its cliff-hanger is tantalising rather than howl-inducing. On top of that, the pit bull that John adopted at the end of the first film is adorably obedient.

Summary: Fans of the first film will be transfixed by John Wick: Chapter 2’s brutal, balletic action. The fascinating hitman subculture lore also gets built upon.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jackie

For F*** Magazine

JACKIE 

Director : Pablo Larraín
Cast : Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup, John Hurt, Max Casella, Richard E. Grant, Caspar Phillipson
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 1h 40min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Some Disturbing Scenes)

jackie-posterJacqueline “Jackie” Bouvier, the wife of John F. Kennedy, is among the most iconic First Ladies in U.S. history. This biopic pulls back the curtain on the queen of Camelot, limning the immediate aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Jackie (Portman) hosts a journalist (Crudup) at her home in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, sitting down for an interview. It is not long after the assassination of president John F. Kennedy (Phillipson) in Dallas. The film depicts Jackie’s interactions with her brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy (Sarsgaard), her confidante and the White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman (Gerwig) and a priest (Hurt) who counsels Jackie on the day of the funeral. Jackie must also explain JFK’s death to their young children Caroline (Sunny Pelant) and John Jr. (Aiden and Brody Weinberg).

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Jackie aims to pierce the iconography that has surrounded Jacqueline Kennedy. Director Pablo Larraín and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim seek to unearth the woman behind the elegant style icon, while also sidestepping the expected tropes of an awards season biopic. The framing device of Jacqueline Kennedy’s interview with journalist Theodore H. White (who is unnamed in the film) contextualises several vignettes which are deliberately placed out of order. This creates a disorienting effect and makes it more challenging to follow Jackie’s emotional journey, but in a strange way, is also more engaging. However, this does lead to a choppiness, and there’s the possibility that without this structural trickery, the story would be boring and straightforward.

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Part of Jackie is a flashback to the filming of the 1962 television special A Tour of the White House, in which Jackie guides audiences nationwide through the executive mansion after the extensive remodelling she had spearheaded. Real footage from that TV special is spliced together with footage shot for this film, giving the subconscious effect that we are given a privileged look at the angles the TV cameras did not see. While much of Jackie is dedicated to how the title character processed the trauma of sitting beside her husband as he was violently killed, the film also explores how she cultivated her image and crafted the First Family’s legacy. Jackie discusses JFK’s fondness for the musical Camelot with the journalist, and a scene in which she stands in the otherwise empty Oval Office with the musical’s title song playing in the background is positively haunting.

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Since winning the Best Actress Oscar for Black Swan, Portman hasn’t taken on many high-profile roles, and has recently turned her attention to directing. Jackie puts her back on the awards season map, and her Oscar nomination for this film is well-deserved. It’s a bravura yet nuanced turn, and if the prospect of playing such a well-known public figure intimidated her, Portman never shows it. While she looks and sounds the part, Jackie is about more than how its title character looked or sounded. Portman conveys the profound sorrow and the pressure of life in the public eye, while also essaying Jackie’s impish appeal. The glimpses of fire behind her eyes are impactful, and when the camera locks on her face as she weeps, one cannot look away.

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Because of the film’s laser focus on Jackie herself, the supporting players are largely relegated to the background. Crudup’s Journalist is not even named in the film and is meant to be a cipher, therefore there’s not much personality he’s able to bring to the part. Sarsgaard’s Robert, also crumbling from grief and pressure, is magnetic and volatile. This reviewer was hoping for the relationship between Jackie and her close friend and White House employee Nancy Tuckerman to get more screen time than it did. The late John Hurt is a comforting, warmly authoritative presence even though it’s a small part.

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Director Larraín cuts through the narrative of the Kennedy clan as a tragic American fairy-tale, while not necessarily undercutting the notion. This film gives Jackie her due, and is a star vehicle that ideally matches Portman’s talents. First Ladies have been often appraised mainly for their style rather than their own merits, with Jackie inadvertently becoming the poster child for that. Jackie finds the woman behind the coiffed bob, Chanel coat and pearls, painting a vivid portrait of Camelot’s queen.

Summary: A biopic which plays with the genre’s conventions just enough, Jackie features an entrancing turn from Natalie Portman and is respectful of its subject while avoiding blandness.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Manchester by the Sea

For F*** Magazine

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA 

Director : Kenneth Lonergan
Cast : Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov
Run Time : 2h 18min
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : NC16 (Coarse Language and Some Sexual References)

manchester-by-the-sea-posterWhile promoting Batman v Superman, Ben Affleck turned forlorn when the film’s negative reception was brought up. His expression went viral and was coined “Sadfleck”. Now, it’s his brother Casey’s turn to do the moping in this drama.

Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a janitor in Quincy, Massachusetts. Lee keeps to himself and sometimes has terse confrontations with the apartment’s tenants. When Lee’s elder brother Joe (Chandler) dies of a heart attack, Lee is surprised to learn that he has been named the legal guardian of Joe’s teenage son Patrick (Hedges). Because Joe’s ex-wife Elise (Mol) is an alcoholic, Joe decided against giving her custody of Patrick. Lee reluctantly returns to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to look after Patrick. Lee’s sullen caginess makes it difficult for him and his nephew to bond meaningfully. Going back to Manchester-by-the-Sea unearths painful memories for Lee, whose marriage with his ex-wife Randi (Williams) ended under tragic circumstances. He dreads the prospect of permanently moving back, while Patrick is adamant against having his life uprooted and moving to Quincy with Lee.

Manchester by the Sea has been the subject of Oscar buzz ever since its premiere at the Sundance film festival in 2016. It’s on the “best of 2016” lists of numerous critics, has been repeatedly deemed “a masterpiece” and at the time of writing, is up for six Oscar nominations.

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We understand why it’s been such a hit with critics: it’s a character study about grief and loss that’s mature and largely subdued. In an awards season that takes place during a particularly fraught period in American politics, it’s not tackling any topical issues. We appreciate that despite the undercurrent of pain, it’s not oppressively bleak, and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan allows the film to be gently humorous where appropriate. It avoids gloopy sentiment or overwrought histrionics and unfolds naturistically.

By shunning surface-level excitement, Manchester by the Sea feels swamped by mundanity. It’s not an easy film to get into because of its unhurried pace and uneventful nature. The film’s nonlinear structure takes a bit of getting used to, especially because there’s no obvious indication that certain scenes are flashbacks. As an examination of repressed emotions and the angst of the working class white male, Manchester by the Sea is painfully honest but can come across as self-indulgent. Its 137-minute running time is altogether too long, and the emotional impact delivered by a dramatic reveal in the middle of the film dissipates as it continues.

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Matt Damon was originally cast as Lee, and remains as a producer. Affleck’s leading turn has been raking in the plaudits, and deservedly so: it’s not a showy performance and is sensitively nuanced. Lee is flat-out unlikeable, and picks fights in bars because he has no outlet through which to channel his hurt and frustration. The reasons for Lee’s self-destructive tendencies and self-loathing are revealed as the film progresses. Affleck demonstrates an understanding of externalising grief, which can be handled clumsily in a lesser actor’s hands. It’s a performance that engenders equal amounts of sympathy and frustration – just when one thinks Lee might make a breakthrough, he falls back into a pattern of self-destruction.

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Hedges’ Patrick is written as more than the stock annoying teenager, and the dynamic he shares with Affleck works, even though the relationship goes through repetitive beats. Both Patrick and Lee are in dark places in their lives, but neither will open up to the other. There is some comedy derived from Patrick’s inept garage band, and that he’s juggling romantic relationships with two separate girls. There’s the danger that Patrick might turn out like his uncle, and if the film were more actively engaging, we’d be rooting for both to course-correct.

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Williams’ performance as Lee’s ex-wife Randi has garnered significant positive attention, given her relatively short screen time. The flashbacks show a happier time, when Lee and Randi’s disagreements were small and expected. The marriage implodes off-screen, and when Lee and Randi meet again years later, it is an emotional moment. Because nothing that exciting occurs, it dampens the visceral pain of the trauma that led to Lee and Randi parting ways.

While Manchester by the Sea doesn’t contain nearly as much “woe is me” wallowing in self-pity as this review suggests, it is depressing by design, with brief glimmers of levity allowing the viewer to take a breath. Lesley Barber’s Baroque-inspired score is beautiful, but is sometimes slathered on too thick, and at odds with the muted realism Lonergan is aiming for. We comprehend that not all movies are meant to be entertaining in the traditional sense of the word, but while many are praising Manchester by the Sea as understated and sublime, it will generate apathy among more impatient viewers.

Summary: This awards season favourite is a strongly-acted portrait of grief that is sometimes too distant and meandering to be compelling.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

The Space Between Us

For F*** Magazine

THE SPACE BETWEEN US 

Director : Peter Chelsom
Cast : Asa Butterfield, Britt Robertson, Gary Oldman, B.D. Wong, Carla Gugino, Janet Montgomery
Genre : Sci-Fi/Romance
Run Time : 120 mins
Opens : 16 February 2017
Rating : PG (Some Sexual References)

the-space-between-us-posterEnder’s Game might not have been successful enough to warrant a sequel, but Asa Butterfield is back in a spacesuit anyway in this sci-fi romance. Butterfield plays Gardner Elliott, who has spent all of his 16 years living in the East Texas habitat on Mars, raised by the scientist Kendra (Gugino). Gardner’s mother Sarah (Montgomery) was an astronaut on the pioneering manned mission to Mars, who died giving birth to Gardner. Nathaniel Shepherd (Oldman), the owner of Genesis Space Technologies, and mission director Chen (Wong) disagree over whether to go public with Gardner’s existence. Gardner befriends Tulsa (Robertson), a disaffected teenage girl, online. When Gardner arrives on earth, he convinces Tulsa to help him search for the father he’s never known. When Kendra, Nathaniel and Chen conclude that Gardner will be unable to withstand earth’s gravity and atmosphere, they must save him before it’s too late.

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The premise of a kid who’s spent his whole life on a different planet and becomes a fish out of water on earth has tremendous potential for drama and comedy, unfolding within a sci-fi context. Director Peter Chelsom, whose credits include Serendipity, The Hannah Montana Movie and Hector and the Search for Happiness, approaches this as a teen romance. There are several scenes set on Mars and there’s some vaguely credible techno-babble tossed about, but the bulk of the film ends up being a largely ordinary road trip love story. While it’s admirable that this is a character drama at heart, the film’s tone lands somewhere between awkward-cute and melodramatic rather than genuinely stirring or thought-provoking.

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We learn from Sarah’s memorial plaque on the Martian surface that she died in 2018. Gardner is 16 years old, so the bulk of the film takes place in 2034. It turns out that the United States of 2034 is barely distinguishable from that of 2017, and it seems due more to budget constraints than anything else. There’s a transparent laptop or two, but other than that, there’s nothing in the scenes taking place on earth to indicate that this is set in the future. It’s a bit of a shame, given that there’s attention to detail paid in other aspects: for example, Mars is accurately depicted as having a weaker gravity than earth, something which The Martian dispensed with because it would be too labour-intensive to portray consistently.the-space-between-us-asa-butterfield-1

 

Butterfield can play endearingly awkward in his sleep, and is fun to watch here. While there are too many twee fish out of water moments in which Gardner is awestruck by the most mundane things, there’s a real sweetness and sincerity that Butterfield brings to the part. The relationship between Gardner and Tulsa is central to the film, and while attempts at character development are made, the romance progresses too quickly and too Hollywood-y to be believable.

the-space-between-us-britt-robertson-1Robertson is a lively performer – her facial expressions in Tomorrowland reminded this reviewer of a Pixar character come to life. Both Tulsa and Gardner haven’t had much meaningful human connection in their lives, and find solace in each other. However, the journey from rom-com bickering to heartfelt professions of love takes a remarkably short time. This means that the relationship drama is not entirely successful at grounding the more fantastical elements of the story.

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Oldman is never a boring actor to watch, but his performance here is broader than required, with too much flailing and bluster for us to take him seriously as the boss of a spaceflight technology firm. Gugino’s Kendra is warm and intelligent, but unsure of how to connect to Gardner as his maternal figure. Wong doesn’t get to do much beyond arguing with Oldman, but it did let us imagine that Commissioner Gordon was having a heated disagreement with Hugo Strange.the-space-between-us-asa-butterfield-2

The Space Between Us isn’t an adaptation of a Young Adult novel, but it sure feels like one – perhaps it should be called The Fault in Our Mars. As a quirky teen-aimed romance, The Space Between Us has its charms and its leads are appealing enough to make up for the cheesiness and soap opera melodrama, especially in the concluding big reveal. It’s too bad that the film fails to meaningfully examine the themes of belonging and the role of scientific advancements in how we connect to other people. A science-fiction film that focuses on relationships rather than wham-bam spectacle or mind-bending metaphysics is a novel prospect, but The Space Between Us misses the opportunity to be sublime and profound.

Summary: The Space Between Us tries and barely succeeds at blending coming-of-age teen romance with science fiction, but it attains lift-off thanks to its endearing young leads.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Founder

THE FOUNDER 

Director : John Lee Hancock
Cast : Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Laura Dern, B.J. Novak, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson
Genre : Drama/Biography
Run Time : 116 mins
Opens : 9 February 2016
Rating : PG13

the-founder-posterIt might not be about Colonel Sanders’ zombie-fighting exploits or the palace intrigue that led to the Burger King usurping the throne, but The Founder is a fascinating fast food-related movie all the same. And better yet – it’s based on a true story.

It is 1954 and Ray Kroc (Keaton) is a travelling salesman, struggling to make a living hawking milkshake machines. His life on the road means he gets to spend little time with his wife Ethel (Dern). Ray gets a surprisingly large order for the machines, from a restaurant in San Bernardino, California called ‘McDonald’s’. Ray meets the restaurant’s owners, brothers Maurice “Mac” (Lynch) and Richard “Dick” McDonald (Offerman). Ray is struck by the ingenuity of this new ‘fast food’ concept, which results in burgers going from grill to counter in 30 seconds. Ray convinces the brothers to franchise, even though their earlier attempt to do so was unsuccessful. Ray overcomes various setbacks in expanding the McDonalds brand, referring to himself as “the founder” of the restaurant chain, as the McDonald brothers realise just what a snake Ray really is.

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Director John Lee Hancock, known for The Blind Side and Saving Mr. Banks, has crafted an absorbing, wickedly clever biopic. The Founder has been described as akin to The Social Network, which detailed the behind-the-scenes machinations leading up to the creation of Facebook. The Founder can be viewed as an ode to entrepreneurial spirit, while also being a cautionary tale for anyone about to enter any business arrangement. It’s by turns rousing, fascinating and utterly terrifying. The Founder is a stark reminder that this is a world which rewards ambition, shrewdness and a lack of scruples over decency or goodwill – but the film does so with a smile on its face. A degree of cynicism is to be expected from a movie about a weaselly salesman who hijacks a homegrown business from two brothers, yet The Founder never becomes obnoxiously bleak or caustic in its outlook.

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Keaton has repeatedly proven to be adept at playing slime-balls from whom the audience can’t look away. Robert D. Siegel’s screenplay frames Ray as the underdog in its opening act. Ray is lugging about unwieldy milkshake makers, not unlike Will Smith hauling bone density scanners in The Pursuit of Happyness, getting doors slammed in his face. Then, once Ray meets the McDonald brothers and the light bulb goes off in his head, he becomes a villain protagonist. He’s doing the legwork, making impassioned speeches at Masonic lodges and synagogues alike to appeal to potential franchisees, but he also has no qualms taking credit for the ideas of others. Compulsively watchable even as his actions becoming increasingly devious, Keaton is a McMagnet as Ray.

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Any time the McDonald brothers are onscreen, one can’t help but feel a tinge of pity for them, having a general idea of how the story ends. The Founder does not portray Dick and Mac merely as hapless fools duped into signing away their baby, and while this movie is primarily The Ray Kroc Story, it does give the McDonald brothers their due. Lynch is affable as the older Mac, while Offerman’s Dick is more guarded and wary. The procedure through which Ray wrested control of McDonald’s from the restaurant’s namesakes is fraught with technicalities and while the nitty-gritties might cause some audience members to tune out, we were riveted throughout. To get an idea of how far away McDonald’s today is from Dick and Mac’s original vision, the brothers baulked at putting the Coca-Cola logo on their menus because it would be too commercial a move.

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At first, we view Ray’s neglect of his wife as a necessary sacrifice, and an exigency of the life of a travelling salesman. Then, Ray continues to ignore Ethel’s own wishes and even deceives her. While Dern doesn’t get a lot to do, the pain she projects is heart-rending, making us despise Ray even more. Ray meets Joan (Cardellini), the wife of wealthy restaurateur Rollie Smith (Wilson), and is immediately drawn to her. The film’s depiction of the relationship between Ray and Joan is nuanced rather than tawdry. And yes, this is yet another emasculated character for Wilson to add to his résumé.

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Many reviewers have drawn parallels between Ray Kroc and the current President of the United States of America, Donald Trump. Both are charming wheeler-dealers who screwed over a great many people in their respective paths to success, but at least as depicted in The Founder, Ray is more interesting than Trump. The Founder rides on Keaton’s ability to enthusiastically essay smarminess, and there’s something beguiling about these dirty machinations unfolding against the backdrop of “simpler times”. The corporate intrigue behind McDonald’s might not be the most exciting topic on which to base a biopic, but The Founder emerges as an absorbing and unexpectedly timely work.

Summary: Michael Keaton’s portrayal of self-proclaimed McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc brims with his signature charisma, keeping this insightful biopic entertaining even when it gets mired in business jargon.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong