The 9th Life of Louis Drax

For F*** Magazine

THE 9th LIFE OF LOUIS DRAX 

Director : Alexandre Aja
Cast : Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aiden Longworth, Oliver Platt, Molly Parker, Aaron Paul, Julian Wadham, Barbara Hershey
Genre : Thriller
Run Time : 1 hr 48 mins
Opens : 22 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Disturbing Scenes)

the-9th-life-of-louis-drax-posterDirector Alexandre Aja takes us past the plane of consciousness in this supernatural mystery thriller. Louis Drax (Longworth) is a peculiar, disturbed and highly accident-prone boy who is rescued after a fall from a cliff on his 9th birthday. Louis remains comatose, and Dr. Allan Pascal (Dornan), a paediatric coma specialist, is brought on to see if Louis can be revived. Louis was with his mother Natalie (Gadon) and his father Peter (Paul) at a picnic atop a cliff. The police try to ascertain whether it was an accident or Louis was deliberately pushed, with suspicion falling on Peter, who has vanished after the incident. Dr. Pascal contacts Dr. Perez (Platt), a psychiatrist who was treating Louis, to gain insight into the way Louis’ mind works. In the meantime, temptation rears its head, as Natalie and the married Dr. Pascal find themselves drawn to each other. Trapped in an otherworldly realm, Louis befriends a mysterious entity known only as ‘the sea monster’, attempting to reach back out to our world.

the-9th-life-of-louis-drax-aiden-longworth-and-sea-monster

The 9th Life of Louis Drax is adapted from the 2004 novel of the same name by Liz Jensen. Director Aja is part of the ‘splat pack’, and is known for gory, shocking horror films like Haute Tension and the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. The 9th Life of Louis Drax has elements of horror, but can’t quite be classified as that. In fact, it can’t quite be classified as much else – “supernatural mystery thriller” is as close as we got. This film is at once a whodunit, a relationship soap opera, a philosophical musing on the nature of the subconscious, a fantasy adventure and a noir mystery. Somewhere in there, a barnacle-encrusted creature reminiscent of the DC character Swamp Thing stalks about. Screenwriter Max Minghella appears to struggle with stitching these disparate components into a concinnate whole. The tone is difficult to place: it’s sometimes quirky, sometimes cynical, and sometimes sentimental.

‘Weird’ doesn’t have to be a pejorative – we can think of many films that are enjoyable by dint of their weirdness. The quality of being strange and surreal can be compelling and pull the audience in, but it can also be alienating and hold the audience at bay. Much of The 9th Life of Louis Drax falls into the latter category. There’s a mannered archness to the film, with nearly all of the acting coming off as exceptionally stiff. It’s one of those movies that makes us wonder, “how much of a bad performance is the actor’s fault, and how much is the director’s?” The dialogue is clunky and peppered with unsubtle lines like “men always act like fools around pretty girls”. Aja makes several stylistic choices that help the film become more engaging than it would be otherwise, but they aren’t sufficiently inventive. Perhaps it’s just bad luck that the Netflix series Stranger Things, which features similar motifs including a creature who lurks about a parallel plane, was recently released.

the-9th-life-of-louis-drax-aiden-longworth-sarah-gadon-and-aaron-paul

Another factor that kept this reviewer from getting fully involved in the story was that the main characters are all difficult to sympathise with. Louis is supposed to be more than the textbook troubled kid. He’s precocious and confrontational, exhibiting sinister proclivities. Longworth is unable to parse the ambiguity of the character, and as such Louis generally comes across as a budding serial killer instead of a brilliant but mal-adjusted child who needs guidance and bespoke care. There are several sequences in which Louis narrates the film, and while we understand the storytelling reasons behind perspective shifts, these seem twee and out of place.

the-9th-life-of-louis-drax-jamie-dornan-and-aiden-longworth

The smouldering, not especially charismatic Dornan plays Dr. Pascal as if he were a sexy doctor in Grey’s Anatomy. It’s extremely difficult to buy Dornan’s Pascal as an expert in his field, and all of the ‘forbidden romance’ intrigue feels terribly mundane when juxtaposed against the supernatural and psychological aspects of the story. And yes, he’s still audibly wrestling to suppress his Irish brogue.

the-9th-life-of-louis-drax-sarah-gadon-and-jamie-dornan

Gadon may not be an A-lister yet, but she has more or less established a niche for herself as a modern Hitchcock Blonde. She plays this to the hilt here: is Natalie a misunderstood and loving mother who is the victim of her husband’s abuse, or is she a malicious black widow who knows more than she’s letting on? The character isn’t quite one-dimensional, but is still very much a caricature. Natalie never feels like an actual person, which is another hindrance in The 9th Life of Louis Drax being genuinely absorbing.

Paul has comparatively little screen time, since much of the mystery revolves around the true nature of Peter Drax. He’s an inherently likeable actor but he’s also adept atplaying roles with a dark side, which serves him well here. Platt might be the best thing about The 9th Life of Louis Drax. We’ve been conditioned to be wary of psychiatrists and psychologists in suspense thrillers, but Platt manages to be a calm, comforting presence. Despite being treated with hostility by his patient Louis, Dr. Perez remains invested in his mental well-being.

the-9th-life-of-louis-drax-aiden-longworth-jamie-dornan-and-sarah-gadon

In an interview with ScreenwritingU magazine, Minghella explained that he deliberately set the film “in the heightened reality of movies…where the characters are all somewhat archetypal so then we can process these wild and abstract ideas more comfortably.” This makes sense, but there’s also the danger of the audience being painfully aware that they are watching a movie and thus being unable to dive into the story headfirst. With so many moving parts, this reviewer was distracted by the turning gears and thus couldn’t get lost in the mystery itself.

Summary: The 9th Life of Louis Drax is an interesting type of bad. Fascinating ideas and potentially moving moments are done a disservice by the stilted approach; its weirdness off-putting rather than beguiling.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Central Intelligence

For F*** Magazine

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE

Director : Rawson Marshall Thurber
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Amy Ryan, Aaron Paul, Danielle Nicolet, Thomas Kretschmann
Genre : Action/Comedy
Run Time : 1 hr 54 mins
Opens : 16 June 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Sexual References and Coarse Language)

Over the past few years, Kevin Hart has become the universal adapter plug of the buddy comedy subgenre, having been paired with the likes of Will Ferrell, Josh Gad and Ice Cube amongst others. This time, Hart is teamed with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. But is just their disparity in physical stature enough to elicit the laughs?
Hart plays Calvin “Golden Jet” Joyner, who in high school, was a popular and highly successful student. Robbie Weirdicht (Johnson) was an overweight social outcast who was relentlessly bullied, and Calvin was the only one who would show him any kindness. 20 years later, Robbie has undergone a complete physical transformation and reinvented himself as “Bob Stone”. Calvin is married to his high school sweetheart Maggie (Nicolet), but is unfulfilled in his accounting career. Robbie and Calvin reunite, but Calvin is informed by CIA agent Pamela Harris (Ryan) that Robbie is in fact a dangerous rogue agency operative wanted for the murder of his former partner. Robbie tries to convince Calvin of his innocence as the two go on the run, trying to stop classified intel from falling into the hands of a mysterious underworld player known as “the Black Badger”.
The thinking behind Central Intelligence seems to have been “just let the two leads loose, that should be plenty to carry a movie.” Much of the would-be comedy is painfully unfunny, and the action is generic and unimpressive. This is far from the first comedy in which a regular Joe is flung into the mix of high-stakes international intrigue, and the plot is painfully perfunctory and the final reveal is a predictable one. There’s an anti-bullying message here, that if you’re picked on by the jocks in high school, all you need to do is transform yourself into Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to get back at them. That should be pretty easy for anyone to do. The prologue features Johnson’s face digitally pasted onto Sione Kelepi who portrays the young Robbie; this effect is nestled deep in the uncanny valley and is terrifying rather than funny.
To the movie’s credit, it doesn’t go down the “one’s silly and the other’s stoic” route typical of buddy cop flicks. While Hart does eventually go into shrill, flailing mode, the character is likeable because of the kindness he shows towards the underdog. Johnson does have fun with the Robbie character, who may be all 6’ 5” of hulking muscle, but is the same awkward, socially mal-adjusted kid deep down. The thing is, Johnson is too slick and polished to come across as convincingly dorky. Nicolet’s Maggie is just “the wife” – the plot seems to hint at how marrying one’s high school sweetheart may not be all it’s cracked up to be, but doesn’t really go anywhere. Ryan is certainly far above the material, and phones it in as the comically serious dogged agent hunting down the suspect. Bateman is pretty much wasted as a stock slimy, snivelling banker type, and Paul’s appearance amounts to little more than an extended cameo. Look out for a prominent comedienne in the film’s climax.
Central Intelligence has the same problem that most Kevin Hart vehicles have: the producers bank too much on the comedian’s appeal to audiences and everything around him seems to be on autopilot. It’s a wasted opportunity, especially since Hart is paired with a bona fide action hero like Johnson. Instead of a production line comedy with bits of action sprinkled about half-heartedly, it would have been fun to see the duo tear into the conventions of buddy cop and spy movies in a full-tilt action extravaganza fuelled by belly laughs. The film trucks out the hoary dictum of “being yourself” – we’ll bet it’s easy to “be yourself” when you’re Dwayne Johnson. The scenes in which Robbie is wracked with anxiety brought about by the trauma he endured in school did resonate a little with this reviewer, but it never seems sincere enough to be a truly effective message. Sure, it’s sporadically amusing just by dint of putting Hart and Johnson together, but it’s clear that Central Intelligence isn’t aiming for any particular heights and is merely coasting along.
Summary: Sure, the leading men have chemistry, but unremarkable action sequences and jokes that are more cringe-inducing than genuinely funny ensure this won’t be front and centre in most moviegoers’ memories after they leave the theatre.
RATING: 2out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong

Eye in the Sky

For F*** Magazine

EYE IN THE SKY

Director : Gavin Hood
Cast : Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox
Genre : Drama/Thriller
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 7 April 2016
The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones in warfare has, to put it mildly, opened up quite the can of worms. This thriller delves into the myriad complications involved as UAVs are deployed high above the battlefield. British Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is in charge of a secret mission to capture a group of wanted Al-Shabab terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya. Lieutenant General Frank Benson (Rickman) is keeping a close watch on the proceedings in the Cabinet Office Briefing Room A, or COBRA, at Whitehall. At Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, American drone pilot Steve Watts (Paul) has the responsibility of pulling the trigger. When a nine-year-old girl named Alia (Aisha Takow) enters the blast radius, it throws a spanner in the works, with Kenyan intelligence operative Jama Farah (Abdi) sent in to try and mitigate the situation. As the window to hit their high-value targets closes, Col. Powell and the others running the operation will have to make life or death judgements while taking the various consequences into consideration.
            Movies about hot-button issues have the power to generate meaningful and thought-provoking conversations, at the risk of coming off as preachy, heavy-handed or ill-informed. The politics and the human cost of drone warfare are heavy subjects indeed, so it is to the credit of director Gavin Hood and writer Guy Hibbert that Eye in the Sky is taut and thrilling even as it delves into the relevant quandaries. Eye in the Sky unfolds in real time, with an unrelenting urgency sustained throughout its duration. The film unexpectedly steps into political satire, almost as if In the Loop has snuck into this tense thriller. The intentional yet uncomfortable moments of humour are derived from the lattice of red tape that has to be navigated as the decision to deploy the drones’ missiles or not is made. Instead of undercutting the tension, these instances add to the viewer’s frustration, further immersing us in the proceedings. The film effectively highlights how protocol is necessary yet can often stand in the way of things getting done.

            This is not a movie that calls for explosive theatrics, and most of the actors are seated or standing about in small rooms for the bulk of the film. In fact, Mirren, Rickman, Paul and Abdi did not even meet each other during production. Mirren effortlessly projects authority as Col. Powell, modulating her performance such that the character does not come off as a typical military hard-ass type. She eloquently puts across Powell’s thought process and when the character has to make tough calls, we understand she’s backed into a corner yet still question the validity of her judgement. Paul has an inner decency and earnestness which makes up for the fact that there’s not too much to the character. While the “conflicted drone pilot” might be on its way to becoming a cliché in and of itself, the way Paul’s Steve Watts attempts to reconcile his anguish and his obligation to duty is suitably compelling.


            The late Rickman, in one of his final roles, reminds us why his passing is such a loss to film. As General Benson, Rickman is level-headed and focused, and the actor does so much with little more than a withering stare and that sonorous baritone. A scene in which he’s buying a doll for his granddaughter does come off as a too-obvious attempt at humanising the character.

Abdi, best known for his Oscar-nominated role in Captain Phillips, is authentic as the resourceful man on the ground who is in charge of piloting a high-tech surveillance robot disguised as a beetle. The actor was struggling to get by even after his critically-acclaimed turn in that film, so one hopes more roles like that of Jama Farah find him. Iain Glen’s British Foreign Secretary James Willett, recovering from food poisoning while attending an arms manufacturing convention in Singapore, is the most Iannucci-esque the film gets and it does threaten to turn a little silly, but thankfully backs away from that cliff.

            From the film’s opening, which shows Alia’s father ensuring she gets an education and gets to play even as their town is oppressed by religious fanatics, we know we’re in for a degree of emotional manipulation. However, director Hood (who also plays a supporting role as an American Air Force Colonel) displays considerable nuance and the film strives to send the message that there are no clean-cut “good options” in war, no matter how high-tech the arsenal gets. While the multiple settings of London, Nevada, Hawaii, Nairobi, Singapore and Beijing create a sense of scale, there are also points where it feels the story is stretched a little too thin. This Singaporean writer also couldn’t help but notice that the wrong type of traffic lights is seen out the window in the scene set in the Southeast Asian nation. Still, that’s but a small nit to pick in this engrossing and provocative but even-handed thriller.


Summary: Even as it poses heady, heavy questions regarding the ethics of drone warfare, Eye in the Sky does not get bogged down in politics and provides edge-of-your-seat entertainment in addition to food for thought. 

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Triple 9

For F*** Magazine

TRIPLE 9

Director : John Hillcoat
Cast : Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr., Aaron Paul, Norman Reedus, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Gal Gadot, Teresa Palmer
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 115 mins
Opens : 17 March 2016
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language, Nudity and Violence)

Out on the streets, it’s never black and white – though sometimes it is red, owing to the dye packs that permanently stain stole cash. Oh, the red is also often blood. Criminals Michael Atwood (Ejiofor), Russell Welch (Reedus) and his brother Gabe (Paul), along with corrupt cops Marcus Belmont (Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Collins), have been committing armed bank robberies. The crew is working for Irina Vlaslov (Winslet), the wife of a powerful Russian Mafioso. Michael has a son with Irina’s sister Elena (Gadot), further complicating matters. To pull off another job, Marcus and Franco suggest calling in a code “999”, i.e. killing a cop to distract the rest of the police force so the crew can break into a government office and steal data concerning Irina’s husband. Their target is Chris Allen (Affleck), Marcus’ new partner who has transferred from a different district. Chris’ uncle happens to be Sgt. Det. Jeffrey Allen (Harrelson), who is tracking down the bank robbers. The stage is set for all-out war on the streets of Atlanta, Georgia.

            First off, we would like to get that “oh, this stars James Lye, Wong Li-Lin, Lim Yu Beng and Mark Richmond” joke out of the way. If you were watching Singaporean television in the 90s, you know what we’re talking about. Anyway, Triple 9’s screenplay, written by Matt Cook, landed on the 2010 Black List of most-liked scripts making the rounds in Hollywood and has finally been produced. At the helm is John Hillcoat, who directed the revisionist western The Proposition and the prohibition-era bootlegging drama Lawless. Triple 9 is a scuzzy, grimy crime thriller which liberally borrows from the likes of Training Day and Heat. The action sequences are messy and frenzied; our protagonists are mostly criminals who don’t get along; we deal with the theme of honour (or lack thereof) among thieves and there’s an abundance of street-level violence.

            There are many points where Triple 9’s plot feels like it comes straight out of a direct-to-DVD action flick starring 50 Cent and a pre-Mr. Robot Christian Slater. Hillcoat has managed to assemble an impressive cast and it’s impossible not to have high expectations looking the list, which comprises an Oscar winner, Oscar nominees and dependable character actors. Sometimes, seeing a name actor covered in tattoos and scars, all sweaty and grimacing while toting a gun, can feel like we’re just watching a pampered star play dress-up. For the most part, Triple 9does feel fairly authentic, with the city of Atlanta actually getting to play itself instead of doubling for some other locale. Nothing feels prettied up, nothing’s slick and shiny and the situations are overblown but not ludicrously so.

            As the straight-arrow rookie with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, Affleck is well cast and a scene in which Chris threatens a local Cartel bigwig without knowing what he’s getting into does demonstrate that the character is out of his element. Unfortunately, Ejiofor is harder to buy as a tough-talking thug. He has played sinister characters before, but he’s unable to fully shake off that innate nobility that has served him so well in other, very different roles. It comes with the territory of crime movies, but the members of the team are insufficiently distinct and can blur together after a while. Of the group, Collins is actually the most convincing as the unscrupulous, two-faced Rodriguez. Unfortunately, Paul and Reedus don’t bring too much to the table beyond “hey, Jesse Pinkman and Daryl Dixon are brothers!”

            Winslet chomps the drab scenery as the main villain of the piece, a stereotypical mob wife who’s been handed the reins of underworld power while her husband sits it out in a Russian prison. It’s a character even more ridiculously evil than Jeanine Matthews in Divergent and Insurgent. Gadot and Palmer are there to strut about in abbreviated outfits, providing eye candy and doing little else. Harrelson also doesn’t get a chance to work his offbeat, quirky charm in a role that could’ve been played by pretty much anyone.

            Triple 9 is a disappointingly generic crime flick that is elevated ever so slightly by its formidable cast. Not too much of a spin is put on the crime thriller formula and the would-be shocking twists and turns in the last act fail to have much impact at all. Hillcoat keeps things moving along and consciously avoids stretches of exposition, but that has the side effect of making the connections between the characters a little confusing to keep track of. At 115 minutes, it’s also a mite too long and could do with some tightening up. But if you’ve a taste for this sort of thing, you’ll probably find Triple 9 to be a competent thriller set on the mean, mean streets.



Summary:It fails to live up to the expectations generated by that cast list, but Triple 9 has enough brutal thrills and cops-and-robbers intrigue to scrape by.

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Exodus: Gods and Kings

For F*** Magazine

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

Director : Ridley Scott
Cast : Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Tuturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, María Valverde
Genre : Adventure/Action
Run Time : 150 mins
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence)
It could be said that Old Hollywood’s Biblical epics were the big-budget superhero blockbusters of their day, with their casts of thousands and lavish sets. Cecil B. Demille’s The Ten Commandments is the codifier of that genre and now director Ridley Scott offers up his retelling of the story of Moses.
            It is 1300 B.C. and Moses (Bale) is a general in the Egyptian army who has been raised alongside Prince Ramesses (Edgerton) by the Pharaoh Seti I (Tuturro). While on a routine survey at a work site, Moses is struck by how badly the Hebrew slaves are being treated. Nun (Kingsley) tells Moses the truth of his origins, that he was born a slave and raised by Pharaoh’s daughter. Moses is eventually exiled by Ramesses. He wanders the desert, becoming a shepherd and falling in love with the Midianite Zipporah (Valverde). After a dramatic spiritual encounter, Moses takes up the task of returning to Egypt to fight for the freedom of the Hebrew slaves. In the face of Ramesses’ stubbornness, God strikes Egypt with ten frightening plagues. Only after the most horrific of these calamities does Ramesses relent, but for Moses and the children of Israel, their journey has only just begun.

            The story of Moses is a familiar one, the best-known films inspired by it being the afore-mentioned The Ten Commandmentsand the 1998 animated film The Prince of Egypt. Director Ridley Scott, who as the promotional materials are quick to remind us helmed Gladiator, delivers a not-quite epic. While the departures from the Biblical source material are not as outrageous as in Noah, it seems that Scott’s approach was to make more of a gritty swords-and-sandals flick than a grand, majestic Old Hollywood-style extravaganza. Perhaps this is meant to appeal to more cynical moviegoers but this reviewer was particularly disappointed that after being promised large-scale 3D spectacle, in this version, the Red Sea does not so much part as recede – off-screen. In trying to differentiate itself from earlier takes on the Exodus story, Exodus: Gods and Kings ditches one of the most iconic images in favour of a more “plausible” underwater earthquake.

            Sure, this is a $140 million movie and there still is spectacle to be had. The film was mostly shot in the historic Spanish city of Almería and the Egpytian palace sets do look suitably imposing and sprawling. The highlight of the film is the sequence of the ten plagues, in which we get swarms of buzzing locusts in 3D. The first plague in Exodus: Gods and Kings, the rivers of blood, is brought about by a violent clash of a bask of monstrous crocodiles. There are also lots of flyovers of ancient Egypt and while the CGI does mostly look good and certainly took large amounts of effort to complete, it’s always clear that what we’re looking at is computer-generated, resulting in the nagging sense of a lack of authenticity.

            Much has been made of the “whitewashed” cast – suffice it to say that you wouldn’t find anyone who looked a lot like Christian Bale or Joel Edgerton in Ancient Egypt. Scott has defended this by saying the big-budget film would not get made without A-list stars in the leading roles. Fair enough, but for this reviewer at least, this further affects the authenticity of the film and pulls one out of it somewhat – not to the extent of the film adaptations of Prince of Persia and The Last Airbender, but still in that unfortunate vein.

            Christian Bale is now the second former Batman to play Moses, after Batman Forever’s Val Kilmer voiced the titular Prince of Egypt. More emphasis is placed on Moses as a warrior, the film opening with a battle sequence in which the Egyptian army storms a Hittite encampment. Through most of the film, Moses comes off as weary and confused, with the heavy implication that his encounters with God might merely be delusional episodes. However, he’s still plenty heroic and steadfast and there’s enough of an old-school leader in this interpretation despite the modern “flawed hero” approach. Joel Edgerton seems visibly unsure of how over the top to go with his portrayal of Ramesses, conflicted as to how much scenery he is allowed to chew without going all-out ridiculous. In the end, this pales in comparison to the clash of titans between Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner. The “brothers-turned-enemies” relationship was also drawn more compellingly in The Prince of Egypt.

            The supporting cast barely registers, with Sigourney Weaver getting a total of around five minutes of screen time. Ben Mendelsohn’s campy turn as Hegep is entertaining but seems slightly out of place, even given the flamboyance associated with Ancient Egyptian royalty. As with most of Ridley Scott’s films, there will probably be an extended director’s cut released and perhaps we will get more characterisation in that version. At 154 minutes, this theatrical cut is still something of a drag. The “event film” of the holiday season has its awe-inspiring moments but alas, they are few and far between.

Summary: “Underwhelming epic” sounds like an oxymoron, but that is the best way to describe Exodus: Gods and Kings.  
RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong