The Dark Tower

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THE DARK TOWER 

Director : Nikolaj Arcel
Cast : Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Franz Kranz, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Jackie Earle Haley, Katheryn Winnick, Dennis Haysbert
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 1h 35m
Opens : 3 August 2017
Rating : PG13 (Violence)

After ten years in various stages of development, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series finally arrives on the big screen. At the centre of the universe stands the titular structure, protecting various realms from entities that seek to tear the universe apart. On Mid-World, the evil sorcerer Walter Padick/The Man in Black (McConaughey), has been conducting experiments on gifted children, attempting to use their minds to bring down the tower. The Man in Black’s nemesis is Roland Deschain/The Gunslinger (Elba), the last living descendant of his world’s version of King Arthur. On earth, teenager Jake Chambers (Taylor) has been plagued with nightmares in which he sees Walter and Roland. Locating an abandoned house he sees in his dream, Jake steps through a portal and into Mid-World, accompanying Roland on his quest to defeat Walter and prevent the collapse of the universe.

King’s series of eight books, with allusions to it scattered throughout his other works, has many devoted fans. This reviewer, being completely unfamiliar with the series, is not one of them. It must have been a challenge to adapt the series, which spans the genres of science-fantasy, western and horror, hence the succession of filmmakers who came and went. The approach with this is that it isn’t a straight adaptation, folding in elements from several books while also acting as kind of a sequel to them – we don’t fully understand the mechanics of that.

The resulting film is a serviceable fantasy adventure, but can’t help but feel underwhelming given the breadth of the source material. Director Nikolaj Arcel goes about the set-up with workmanlike efficiency, and the story isn’t difficult to follow at all. There’s just the nagging feeling that everything’s been condensed into its simplest form, and that the richness of the world that King has woven together is being sacrificed for something easier to digest. Visually, The Dark Tower isn’t too exciting, but the action sequences, especially Roland’s various reload tricks, are quite fun.

Actors including Viggo Mortensen, Javier Bardem and Russell Crowe have all been connected to the Roland Deschain role at some point. Elba is a fine choice for the part, cutting a heroic figure and possessing the stoic poise necessary to sell the character. There’s a strength and a grace to the way Elba moves, and he does have a larger-than-life quality to him. He just doesn’t have very much to do here, and even though Roland’s storied past is hinted at, the character feels a little flat.

The relationship between Roland and Jake is apparently key to the books, but it doesn’t get too much development here. It makes sense that Jake, as the audience identification character, is given more emphasis, but it detracts from the inherently interesting Gunslinger and Man in Black characters. Taylor, a relative newcomer, does his best as the troubled character and is generally sympathetic throughout the film. Jake winds up being an extreme example of the ‘chosen one’ trope, and the handling of the character nudges The Dark Tower into Young Adult fiction territory. He must overcome tragedy, has fantastical abilities he must hone, and stumbles into an adventure in a magical world. While this approach is too generic, it gets the job done.

McConaughey has as much fun as he can with the role of the mercurial, wicked Man in Black. There’s a seductiveness to his brand of menace, and McConaughey practices enough restraint so that he does not chew the mostly drab scenery to pieces. When McConaughey and Elba are pitted against each other, the sparks don’t fly as fiercely and as wildly as one hopes they would. Just as with this iteration of Roland Deschain however, the Man in Black doesn’t feel as substantial a character as he should.

There will be a TV series planned to bridge this film and its sequel, which Arcel has promised will be more faithful to the books than this film is. The Dark Tower is meant to launch a ‘Connected KINGdom’ cinematic universe uniting all of Stephen King’s works, with Easter Eggs from It, The Shining, The Shawshank Redemption, Cujo, Christine and others hidden in the film. Given all this, The Dark Tower feels sufficiently self-contained, and doesn’t come off as merely a long trailer for what’s to follow.

The Dark Tower is intermittently thrilling, sometimes entertaining, and runs a lean 95 minutes. It doesn’t have the feel of a sprawling epic, but that isn’t entirely a bad thing, since the audience isn’t overwhelmed with exposition-dumps and massive amounts of lore to process. However, it makes more of a dent than an impact, and isn’t especially memorable given the potential in its premise and the extent to which King has developed his universe. We’re far from the most qualified to judge how this stacks up against the source material, but we have a feeling that those who’ve been waiting a decade for a Dark Tower movie to materialise might feel indifferent if not disappointed.

Summary: The Dark Tower has charismatic leads and doesn’t twaddle in setting up its plot, but it comes off as generic and slight when it should be an absorbing epic.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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My Cousin Rachel

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MY COUSIN RACHEL 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Lion

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LION

Director : Garth Davis
Cast : Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 120 min
Opens : 24 November 2016
Rating : PG

lion-poster“Your heart will lead you home” – so sang Kenny Loggins in The Tigger Movie. Lion tells the true story of one man’s quest to find home, a quarter century after getting lost. It is 1986, and five-year-old Saroo (Pawar) accompanies his older brother Guddu (Bharate) to search for change on a train car. When Saroo falls asleep in the train and it leaves the station, he is separated from Guddu, his sister Shekilah and his labourer mother Kamla (Bose). The train takes Saroo 1200 km away from his home of Khandwa to Calcutta. Saroo doesn’t know his own surname or his mother’s name and can’t speak Bengali, the main language used in Calcutta. He eventually lands in a government centre for abandoned children. Saroo is adopted by John (Wenham) and Sue (Kidman) a couple from Tasmania, Australia.

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In 2007, the now-adult Saroo (Patel) leaves to study hospitality in Melbourne. There, he falls in love with his classmate Lucy (Mara). Over dinner with some of his classmates who were originally from India, Saroo tells them his story. He picks up on a suggestion to use Google Earth as a way of determining where his hometown is, so that he may search for his family. He is afraid of hurting his adoptive parents, who are struggling with their wayward adoptive son Mantosh (Ladwa), and keeps his quest a secret. Over the years, the pieces fall into place, and Saroo inches closer to a reunion with his long-lost family.

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Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography A Long Way Home, which was optioned as a film a month before it was published in 2013. Poet, novelist and screenwriter Luke Davies adapted the film for the screen. Director Garth Davis makes his feature film debut with Lion, which must have been a daunting undertaking. Location filming in India and Australia gives the story scope, both of Saroo’s home countries juxtaposed with each other.

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Lion is a harrowing, compelling tale, one that will resonate especially with adoptive families. The film’s Dickensian first act, with Saroo getting lost and overcoming various frightening obstacles in an unfamiliar big city, is immersive and authentic in its grimness. Through restrained stylistic flourishes, Davis conveys how Saroo is haunted by memories of his childhood and is driven by a desire for closure, the possibility that he might never see his birth mother again gnawing at him. While Lion’s first half is riveting, its second half lacks dramatic urgency. As incredible a story as this may be, Saroo’s outbursts of angst as he tries to trace his hometown grow repetitive, as does his browsing of Google Earth.

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The performances in Lion are uniformly excellent. Each actor seems intent on doing Saroo’s story justice, Patel leading the charge with a heartfelt, subdued turn. There’s a profound sadness in his eyes that sells the trauma burrowing to the surface. Patel’s Australian accent is solid too. Equally deserving of praise is Pawar, who won the role over 4000 other boys. It seems that more is required of the young actor than of Patel, since a good chunk of the film focuses on five-year-old Saroo. The brotherly bond between Saroo and Guddu is endearing, making the inevitable separation all the more painful. It’s an emotionally and physically demanding role that he pulls off with considerable panache. Pawar was unable to attend the film’s U.S. premiere because he was denied a visa. Boo.

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This ranks among Nicole Kidman’s finest work in recent years. Sue is warm and compassionate, but fears that she might not be able to keep her family together. Sue and John embody the most admirable traits of adoptive parents, and it is heart-rending to see them deal with their sons’ respective struggles. Kidman was the real-life Sue’s top choice to play her. Lion reunites Kidman and Wenham, who played enemies in Australia and play a loving couple here. While Wenham has less to do than Kidman, he helps make the onscreen Brierleys a believable family unit.

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Even though Mara gets second billing, her role is not as large as that suggests. Still, the character of Lucy, based on Saroo’s real-life girlfriend Lisa Williams, is kind and supportive while having more dimensions beyond that. Saroo and Lucy fall in love in what seems like an instant; their romance receiving limited development because that’s not where the story’s emotional weight lies.

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Lion has been less charitably described as “Oscar bait”, but it is bereft of the pomposity and self-importance some films of this type possess. Despite certain structural inconsistencies, Lion held this reviewer’s attention and laudably steers clear of being melodramatic and exploitative.

Summary: An impressive cast brings a remarkable true story to life in this powerful, well-made feature film directorial debut from Garth Davis.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN

Director : Tim Burton
Cast : Eva Green, Asa Butterfield, Chris O’Dowd, Ella Purnell, Allison Janney, Rupert Everett, Terence Stamp, Judi Dench, Samuel L. Jackson
Genre : Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 7min
Opens : 29 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Frightening Scenes)

miss-peregrines-home-for-peculiar-children-posterDirector Tim Burton has always had a preoccupation with the peculiar, one which continues in this fantasy adventure. Jake Portman (Butterfield) has long been fascinated by his grandfather Abe’s (Stamp) astonishing stories. Abe claims to have spent time at an orphanage for children with unique, unnatural abilities, run by one Miss Peregrine (Green), who can take the form of her namesake bird of prey. Jake’s psychiatrist Dr. Golan (Janney) recommends that Jake visit this orphanage himself to find closure, and so Jake’s father (O’Dowd) takes him to Wales. On a small island, Jake discovers a portal to 1943 – the orphanage is stuck in a time loop generated by Miss Peregrine. Jake finds himself drawn to Emma (Purnell), who can manipulate air. The sullen Enoch (Finlay McMillan), who brings Frankenstein’s Monster-style creations to life, feels threatened by Jake. The evil Baron (Jackson) is on the hunt for Peculiars, with Jake and his newfound friends having to fend off Baron and his cadre of monstrous ‘hollowgasts’.

 

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is adapted from Ransom Riggs’ novel of the same name. This reviewer is completely unfamiliar with the book and its sequel, and thus cannot judge the film as an adaptation of the source material. Just going off the title alone, it would seem that Burton is the ideal fit to bring the story to the big screen, and for a time, it looked like he might not actually commit to the project. Screenwriter Jane Goldman of X-Men: First Class and Kingsman: The Secret Service fame brings some of the edgy wit seen in her other work to bear, but for the most part, this is pretty standard young adult stuff. There’s a chosen one who uncovers mysterious family secrets, gets inducted into a fantastical world he’s never known, falls in love, gains an eccentric but good-hearted mentor figure and has to fight a sinister organisation.

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While it may not be anything revelatory for those raised on a steady diet of Harry Potter and its ilk, the world of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is still engaging. The mechanics of the fictional universe are laid out clearly enough and it’s generally pretty fun, not taking itself too seriously. As with any fantasy, there are some proper nouns to learn. For example, an ‘ymbryne’ is a female guardian of peculiar children who can shape-shift into a bird. It revels in the absurdity of it all without obnoxiously proclaiming “you are watching a Tim Burton movie”, which the director is prone to doing. The various abilities the children possess are at once shocking and amusing and in at least one case, genuinely disturbing. While there is an expected reliance on digital visual effects, we do get a fun sequence which makes use of old-fashioned stop-motion animation. The imagery is the right side of spooky: it will give children nightmares, but generally stops short of being completely traumatising.

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Butterfield does a fine job of being awkward and awestruck; ‘chosen one’ protagonists can get a little bland but he’s sufficiently likeable as a performer, so Jake doesn’t come off as merely a tabula rasa protagonist. The moment Green appears more than half an hour into the film however, it’s abundantly clear that this is her movie. She’s an actress who’s always acutely aware of the type of project she’s in, modulating her performance accordingly. Here, she’s essentially Professor X meets Mary Poppins. She appears to be enjoying herself and struts about with the utmost poise. The midnight blue streaks in Miss Peregrine’s hair, which take on a green tint in the right light, make Green even more mesmerizing than she usually is.

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One of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’s shortcomings is an understandable one that afflicts many superhero films: the bulk of the characters are defined by their powers, and that’s about it. The incongruity of the children’s ordinary appearances and their flabbergasting abilities provides most of the humour. Purnell strikes a balance between confidence and gentleness, with Emma’s link to Jake’s grandfather making her an enigma that Jake feels he needs to solve. Alas, one can almost see the label reading ‘designated love interest’ hanging above her head. In a move that might vex faithful fans of the books, Emma and Olive (Lauren McCrostie) appear to have switched powers: in the book, Emma was pyrokinetic and Olive was aerokinetic (see, we’ve done a tiny bit of research).

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The Harry Potter series packed plenty of prestigious thespians into the adult supporting roles. Here, the mix of actors is a little more eclectic. Stamp is usually cast as cold, intimidating villains and here, he’s playing an affectionate if odd grandfather. Jackson’s colourful, over-the-top villain, who lisps a little on account of the prosthetic pointy teeth, is a little too over-the-top to be genuinely frightening. Younger children might be spooked by the hollowgasts, who are essentially takes on the internet urban legend supernatural being Slenderman, but because of their CGI-ness, they can be a little too synthetic to be actually scary. There’s also altogether too little of Dame Judi Dench in this, but James Bond fans will appreciate the brief reunion between M and Vesper Lynd.

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The world of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has enough to it that we would be up for a sequel, but because it generally plays it safe as far as young adult fantasy stories go, it didn’t quite grab us. Still, it benefits from eye-catching visuals and an entertaining turn from Green in the titular role.

 

Summary: It’s more adequate than extraordinary and is far from Burton’s most memorable, but Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a fine marriage of director and source material and is pretty decent fantasy adventure stuff.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

War Dogs

For F*** Magazine

WAR DOGS 

Director: Todd Phillips
Cast :  Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, J.B. Blanc, Bradley Cooper, Barry Livingston, Kevin Pollak
Genre : Comedy
Run Time : 1 hr 54 mins
Opens : 1 September 2016
Rating : M18 (Coarse Language and Drug Use)

War Dogs posterWar, what is it good for? If you play your cards right, raking in the dough. It’s 2005, and the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the war in Afghanistan is in full swing. David Packouz (Teller) is a directionless twenty-something living in Miami, reluctantly working as a massage therapist. When his childhood friend Efraim Diveroli (Hill) shows back up in town for a mutual friend’s funeral, the two do some catching up. It turns out that Efraim has founded AEY Inc., an arms dealership, and has managed to secure several contracts supplying weapons and other equipment to the U.S. government. David goes behind the back of his pregnant girlfriend Iz (de Armas), who is against the war, and goes into business with Efraim. The pair soon find themselves in way over their heads, travelling to Jordan, Iraq and Albania as they chase lucrative deals. Is it just a matter of time before the dog that is success turns around to bite them?

War Dogs is based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article Arms and the Dudes, which he expanded into a book. Screenwriter Stephen Chin called on his own experience, having travelled to Iraq while trying to buy the rights to the story of two American businessmen who were setting up a radio station there. With War Dogs, director Todd Phillips of the Hangover trilogy fame faces the challenge of making the audience root for inherently unlikeable characters. Both Efraim and David idolize Tony Montana, with a huge poster of the Scarface protagonist decorating their office. They’re simultaneously scrappy underdogs and shady wheeler-dealers. Multiple artistic liberties are taken in the name of making things more exciting, and Alex Podrizki, the third partner, doesn’t feature in the film at all. That said, it does feel like the audience is getting a peek behind the curtain of a world most of us know nothing about. The technicalities of how Efraim and David go about their business are explained clearly enough without being too dry.

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The narrative conceit is that David is the strait-laced one while Efraim is the brash go-getter, and as such, David is our way in and is the narrator of the story. It might actually be that way in real life, but it definitely seems like character traits have been greatly exaggerated to keep things interesting. Jesse Eisenberg and Shia LaBeouf were initially considered for the lead roles, presumably Eisenberg for David and LaBeouf for Efraim. Instead, we have Teller and Hill. The two generate watchable buddy chemistry, and there’s an undercurrent of tension because we know it’s somehow all going to implode in the end.

Few can play dazed and confused like Teller, who for most of the film, is unwittingly being strung along. Of the two main characters, David is ostensibly closer to the traditional ideal of a movie hero, and the real David Packouz has a cameo as a singer at a nursing home. The real Efraim Diveroli wanted nothing to do with the movie. It makes sense that Teller is given the lower-key role, with Hill having the time of his life playing a character who is as boorish as he is savvy. Hill doesn’t have to be endearing or charming, and he steals the show with much gusto on multiple occasions. As expected, de Armas is relegated to the playing the stock nagging girlfriend who actually has a point, but is mainly in the movie to look pretty, since the two male leads don’t.

War Dogs Miles Teller, Ana de Armas and Jonah Hill

The world of “grey market” arms dealing offers plenty of dramatic storytelling possibilities, with room for sanctimonious finger-wagging as well – the compelling Lord of War comes to mind. Phillips tries to play down the seriousness of the subject matter, instead playing up the goofy absurdity of the premise. Just as Efraim and David find themselves in over their heads, it seems Phillips does as well, since the consequences here are graver than any of the mishaps that befell the Hangover Wolfpack. Speaking of those guys, Bradley Cooper makes a brief but memorable appearance as a notorious gun runner. Also, celebrity poker player and infamous playboy Dan Bilzerian cameos as himself. It seems the kind of people who idolize Bilzerian are exactly the target audience for this film.

War Dogs Jonah Hill, Miles Teller and Bradley Cooper

War Dogs mostly steers away from insightful satire, instead taking the “have your cake and eat it too” tack of glamourizing its subjects while also mocking them. It’s inevitable that impressionable younger viewers will aspire to be just like Efraim and David: who cares if it’s moral or even legal if there’s a payday to be made? It seems the takeaway is “if these stoner dude-bros could wriggle their way into multi-million dollar contracts, why can’t I?”

War Dogs Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in Albanian arms warehouse

It is entertaining and intermittently fascinating, but it’s hard to shake the sense that Phillips’ lowbrow slacker dude comedic sensibilities might not be the best fit for the true story. Yes, there’s comedy to be mined, but diving headfirst into the can of worms and actually making a statement about the implications of war profiteering might’ve been a more worthwhile enterprise.

Summary:  War Dogs plays to the strengths of both its stars, but in playing squarely to the dude-bro demographic, it passes up the chance to be searing and impactful.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Infiltrator

For F*** Magazine

THE INFILTRATOR 

Director : Brad Furman
Cast : Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Juliet Aubrey, Yul Vasquez, Amy Ryan, Said Taghmaoui, Jason Isaacs
Genre : Crime/Drama
Run Time : 2 hrs 7 mins
Opens : 25 August 2016
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scene and Coarse Language)

The Infiltrator posterIn Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston played a ‘cook’. In this biopic, he’s mixed up with treacherous drug cartels yet again, but this time, he’s a ‘washer’. Cranston portrays Robert Mazur, a U.S. Customs agent who takes on the alias “Bob Musella” to go undercover as a money launderer. Through the connections of fellow undercover agent Emir Abreu (Leguizamo), Bob is able to infiltrate the power Medellin Cartel, run by Pablo Escobar. Bob is paired with rookie agent Kathy Ertz (Kruger), who poses as his fiancée. They ingratiate themselves with high-ranking Medellin trafficker Roberto Alcaino (Bratt) and Alcaino’s wife Gloria (Elena Anaya), winning the couple’s trust. The high-risk nature of the job puts a strain on the relationship between Bob and his actual wife Evelyn (Aubrey), additionally threatening the safety of their two young children. Bob puts everything on the line as he journeys deeper down the rabbit hole, immersing himself in a world of violence and deception.

The Infiltrator Bryan Cranston and John Leguizamo

The real-life Robert Mazur served as a consultant on Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, and after Mann told Mazur that his own story had enormous potential as a movie, Mazur sat down to pen an autobiography. The double lives that undercover operatives lead have always been compelling to audiences. The Infiltrator is a tale of a decent man who went swimming with sharks for a living, with the danger of the prop dorsal fin coming unstuck from his back an ever-present possibility. There are moments of nail-biting tension and shocking brutality is employed with utmost effectiveness. However, director Brad Furman’s stylistic flourishes, including a marked overuse of colour filters, undermine the story’s authenticity instead of enhancing it. The screenplay by Furman’s mother Ellen Brown does hew to certain crime movie conventions, but there is a palpable sensitivity to the character interactions lying beneath the blood-soaked luridness.

The Infiltrator Bryan Cranston

The film rests squarely on Cranston’s shoulders, and there’s never any doubt that he can carry it all the way. He’s an actor who is immensely capable of eliciting sympathy, but can also summon an intimidating toughness that Breaking Bad fans are all too familiar with. Bob comes face-to-face with the searing ugliness at the heart of the drug trade on multiple occasions, and the way Cranston conveys Bob’s struggle to maintain his composure is harrowing. The realisation that he will have to betray people who, however ruthless, have trusted and shown kindness to him, eats away at Bob. The combination of Cranston’s performance and the circumstances in the plot mean that Bob is never just a boring hero despite his innate nobility.

The Infiltrator Bryan Cranston, Diane Kruger, John Leguizamo and bridesmaids

The relationship between Bob and his pretend fiancée, juxtaposed against that between Bob and his real wife, result in some moments that are overwrought and others that are quite moving. Aubrey’s Evelyn never comes off as unreasonable, and a scene in which Bob takes Evelyn out for an anniversary dinner but is recognized by a client is one of the film’s highlights. The mutual respect that forms between Bob and Kruger’s Kathy is heartfelt, and when they’re both in the trenches, they’re the only ones the other can truly seek solace in. The possibility that Bob will succumb to temptation lingers over this relationship, but it’s never played up to a manipulative extent.

The Infiltrator Benjamin Bratt and Bryan Cranston

There are too many characters to keep track of, and it’s sometimes challenging to remember who does what for whom. Bratt brings considerable charm to the role of Alcaino, nicknamed “The Jeweller”. It’s made abundantly clear that he’s a dangerous man, but when Alcaino and his wife invite Bob and Kathy to their house and treat them with such hospitality, one can’t help but dread the inevitable betrayal. Leguizamo plays the comic relief as he often does, but the wily Abreu still has an edge to him despite his jocular nature. Olympia Dukakis is a hoot when she briefly shows up as Bob’s larger-than-life Aunt Vicky, but Amy Ryan’s turn as Bob’s no-nonsense U.S. Customs boss Bonni Tischler borders on caricature.

The Infiltrator Bryan Cranston and cartel members

The History vs. Hollywood website has become an invaluable resource in evaluating the accuracy of movies touted as being based on true stories. A cursory look through their write-up on The Infiltrator reveals that the most explosive, intense parts of the movie, including moments when someone right next to Bob gets killed, didn’t actually occur. Nevertheless, the real-life Mazur is pleased with Cranston’s portrayal of him, and he continues to work to fight money laundering. The Infiltrator reinforces the stereotype of cartels as being as colourful as they are deadly and doesn’t provide much insight into their inner workings, but its protagonist’s perspective gives the story emotional heft.

Summary: Bryan Cranston is electrifying as he dives into Robert Mazur’s double life, but the echoes of other films and TV shows diminishes the impact of the true story.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Brooklyn

For F*** Magazine

BROOKLYN 

Director : John Crowley
Cast : Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson, Emory Cohen, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1 hr 52 mins
Opens : 18 February 2016
Rating : NC-16 (Sexual Scene)

One heart is torn between two lands in this historical romance. Said heart belongs to Eilis Lacey (Ronan), a young woman from the small Irish town of Enniscorthy. Eilis’ older sister Rose (Glascott) arranges for Eilis to go to Brooklyn in search of better prospects, Eilis leaving Rose and their mother (Jane Brennan) behind. Father Flood (Broadbent), a priest active in the Irish community in Brooklyn, arranges for Eilis to stay in a boarding house run by the landlady Madge Kehoe (Walters). Father Flood also enrols Eilis in bookkeeping classes at a night school. Eilis meets and soon falls in love with Tony Fiorello (Cohen), a plumber from an Italian family. When Eilis returns to Ireland after a family emergency, she begins spending time with eligible bachelor Jim Farrell (Gleeson), a mutual acquaintance of Eilis’ best friend Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins). The small Enniscorthy community, unaware that Eilis is already in a relationship with an American boy, expects her and Jim to end up together. Eilis begins to re-evaluate the future she has planned, feeling the pull of home and of the promise of a bright future in Brooklyn.

            Brooklyn is based on the novel of the same name by Irish author Colm Tóibín, adapted for the screen by Nick Hornby. This is not a particularly grand story, but the intimacy and honesty of the tale draws one in. Director John Crowley has crafted a drama that is earnest and wonderfully devoid of cynicism. It’s a throwback to a bygone era without being self-conscious and it captures the period in eminently relatable fashion. While Eilis is meant to represent any number of young Irish girls stepping across the pond to forge new lives in America, the story doesn’t sacrifice the character’s individuality in the process. Its portrayal of the immigrant experience is quietly stirring and thoughtful rather than overtly political. Tonally, Brooklyn hits all the right marks to make a maximum impact: there’s a pervading melancholy that achingly conveys what it feels like to be homesick, but the film never becomes dreary and Hornby’s script contains well-placed moments of wit and humour.

            Ronan reminds us yet again why she’s among the finest performers of her generation, Brooklyn capitalising on her talents in the best way possible – she gets to use her delightful natural Irish brogue, for one. The blend of impish charm, raw vulnerability and emotional depth that Ronan brings to the role of Eilis is ever so appealing. The audience is in her corner from minute one and it is satisfying to see the initially tremulous Eilis’ confidence gradually increase as she becomes accustomed to her new life in Brooklyn. As an Irish-American herself, Ronan says she identifies strongly with Eilis’ journey. With this role, Ronan has become the second-youngest actress to be nominated for two Oscars. One hopes that many more projects like Brooklynfind their way to her.

The film’s portrayal of young love is clear-eyed and just sentimental enough, Cohen endearingly awkward and just sweet as can be as Eilis’ suitor Tony. The “aww shucks” factor he brings to the part comes off as genuine and wistfully romantic without straying into sappiness. We’re cheering for Eilis and Tony to stay together, so Gleeson has an uphill battle in making Jim seem like anything more than a nuisance. His measured dignity ensures there is an actual conflict as to who Eilis ends up with. Walters and Broadbent are perfectly cast as the stern, traditional landlady and the kindly priest respectively. Eilis’ housemates are sometimes catty, but the girls do form a certain camaraderie. A scene in which two of them teach Eilis how to twirl spaghetti without making a mess, in preparation for Eilis’ visit to Tony’s house for dinner, is amusing and heartfelt.

            Brooklyn is comprised of several conventional narrative elements, but it ends up being far more than the sum of its parts. This is a relatively simple story that is absolutely captivating, a romance that is sweet but not cloying, a drama that is heart-rending yet not manipulative. The specificities of the setting and the care taken in realising the 50s Brooklyn and Enniscorthy locales imbue the movie with texture and authenticity. It’s old-fashioned but steers clear of stifling stodginess and is resonant even if one doesn’t have a personal connection to the specific culture and period depicted. Lyrical, engaging and sincere, Brooklyn is a work of disarming beauty.

Summary:Personal and richly humane, Brooklyn is a small tale gracefully told, carried by a glowing, transcendent performance from Saoirse Ronan.

RATING: 4.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Pride And Prejudice And Zombies

For F*** Magazine

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES

Director : Burr Steers
Cast : Lily James, Sam Riley, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Douglas Booth, Matt Smith, Charles Dance
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 11 February 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence)

Something is rotten in the state of England – human flesh. It is the 19th Century and a plague has befallen the nation, resulting in zombie hordes. Country gentleman Mr. Bennet (Dance) has ensured that his five daughters are trained in martial arts and weaponry to defend themselves against zombies, while Mrs. Bennet (Sally Phillips) is more concerned that they marry well. When the wealthy and single Mr. Bingley (Booth) purchases a nearby house, Mrs. Bennet sends her daughters to the first ball where Bingley is expected to appear. The girls defend the party from a zombie attack, and attraction sparks between Mr. Bingley and the eldest daughter Jane (Heathcote). Meanwhile, the second eldest daughter Elizabeth (James) clashes with Bingley’s friend, noted zombie slayer Col. Fitzwilliam Darcy (Riley). Meanwhile, local militia leader George Wickham (Huston), who had a falling out with Darcy, takes a shine to Elizabeth. Elizabeth and Darcy must overcome personal pride and societal prejudices to battle the zombie menace and discover their true love for each other.

            Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is based on the 2009 parody novel of the same name by Seth Grahame-Smith, who combined Jane Austen’s 1813 classic Pride and Prejudice with zombie fiction elements. A film adaptation has been in the works since even before the novel’s publication, with Natalie Portman set to star as Elizabeth and David O. Russell directing. Alas, the end result doesn’t have quite that level of pedigree, with 17 Again’s Burr Steers writing the adapted screenplay and directing. Portman remains as a producer. Across the development process, it ended up that Grahame-Smith’s follow-up novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter got a film adaptation first.

            While Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was criticised for being too self-serious, Pride and Prejudice and Zombiesacknowledges its inherent absurdity more readily. It’s not a dour affair and there is a great deal of winking self-awareness to be had, which led to this reviewer laughing more than he anticipated to. However, it’s quickly all too apparent that this is built on just one joke, that zombies are having their heads blown to bits amidst all the Jane Austen refinement. This is how the idea was conceived: an editor at Quirk books literally compared a list of “fanboy characters” like ninjas, pirates, zombies and monkeys with public domain classics like War and Peace, Crime and Punishment and Wuthering Heights. Sounds arbitrary, doesn’t it? This laziness comes through and the novelty factor proves insufficient in sustaining the film.



            We’ve had Charlize Theron with a bionic arm driving a giant oil tanker across a post-apocalyptic wasteland and Emily Blunt in a mech suit fighting aliens, so kickass heroines are in vogue. In this film, the Bennet girls were trained in a Shaolin monastery and are proficient in various forms of combat. In one scene, two of the sisters engage in sparring practice while gushing over Mr. Bingley, speaking the original Austen dialogue. It’s pretty fun.



James makes for an adequate plucky, wilful protagonist and the actress demonstrates her awareness of the type of film she’s in. The Cinderella and Downton Abbeystar is perfectly convincing as an aristocratic 19th Century English woman fighting social norms, albeit a little less convincing as a formidable zombie killer. Riley’s Mr. Darcy is brusque and brooding, clad in a leather duster. Unfortunately, Riley and James share little chemistry and there’s no flow to the progression of their relationship. Matt Smith showcases good comic timing as the bumbling clergyman Mr. Collins, heir to the Bennet estate. In Austen’s original novel, George Wickham turned out to be a liar and conman, if not an out-and-out villain. Things end a little differently here. Huston’s pulchritude has a slight tinge of menace, which makes him suited to the role. Dance is a welcome presence as the kindly yet strict Bennet patriarch, but his Game of Thrones co-star Lena Headey gets all too little screen time as the eyepatch-wearing Lady Catherine de Bourgh.



Many readers have used charts and diagrams to follow the interwoven relationships in Pride and Prejudice. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies trips up when it tries to get through the plot of the story as quickly as possible so it can get to the next zombie attack. The genre mashup isn’t as seamless and confident as it needs to be to fully sell the conceit. Furthermore, the action sequences aren’t particularly memorable. It’s also lacking the raw sex appeal of, uh, Colin Firth.

Summary: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is not the unmitigated train-wreck it could’ve been, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that all the premise should sustain is a mock trailer on Funny or Die.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

The Dressmaker

For F*** Magazine

THE DRESSMAKER

Director : Jocelyn Moorhouse
Cast : Kate Winslet, Judy Davis, Liam Hemsworth, Hugo Weaving, Sarah Snook, Caroline Goodall, Kerry Fox, Sacha Horler
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 119 mins
Opens : 28 January 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Language and Some Sexual References)
Revenge never goes out style in this dark comedy-drama. It is 1951 and after a long absence, Mrytle “Tilly” Dunnage returns to her hometown of Dungatar in the Australian outback to care for her ailing mother Molly (Davis). Tilly was accused of murder at the age of 10 and was exiled from the town. In the intervening years, she has become an expert designer and seamstress, having worked in Europe for high fashion houses such as Balenciaga. Teddy McSwiney (Hemsworth), a childhood friend, goes about romancing Tilly, though all the other residents of Dungatar regard her with suspicion. After Tilly helps general store clerk Gertrude Pratt (Snook) undergo a dramatic makeover, the women of the town become infatuated with Tilly’s couture creations. With the help of flamboyant police Sergeant Horatio Farrat (Weaving), Tilly uncovers the truth behind what happened all those years ago and enacts her vengeance on the townsfolk.

            The Dressmaker is adapted from Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel of the same name. Director Jocelyn Moorhouse co-wrote the script with her husband P.J. Hogan; a film version seeing the light of day after an earlier attempt in the mid-2000s fell through. A cursory glance at the title or poster might mislead one to believe that this is a run of the mill chick flick. For better or worse (mostly worse), The Dressmaker isn’t. Beneath the surface of immaculately-tailored dresses, an unsettling nastiness is bubbling over and The Dressmaker has quite the caustic edge. It’s a twisted tale of small town revenge that feels more like an askew Western than it does a period countryside romance. Moorhouse herself describes it as “Unforgiven with a sewing machine”.

            The Dressmaker is refreshing in how different it is, but it is also vexingly difficult to place. There are wild tonal inconsistencies: this is a film where a woman trips over a poofy skirt as she tries to keep her fiancé from seeing her in an embarrassing get-up, a policeman drapes himself in pink fabric and traipses about to the Flower Duet from Lakmé and someone’s anterior tibial artery gets severed. Moorhouse’s fearlessness in going full-tilt weird is alternately novel and off-putting. The odd combination of broad slapstick and some shockingly dark moments makes it difficult to get involved in the story, the overall effect vaguely alienating.

            Winslet as Tilly is inspired casting and her performance anchors the sometimes-shaky film that surrounds her. Her turn as an old-school femme fatale with revenge on the brain is pitch-perfect and she has poise to spare as she struts about in an array of striking ensembles created by costume designer Margot Wilson. It is heightened and exaggerated, as the rest of the movie is, but Winslet manages to find some nuance here. Davis is captivating as Tilly’s dementia-addled mother, who seems at first to be little more than a crotchety old lady who’s not altogether there, but eventually emerges as a complex, sympathetic figure. Davis imbues the movie with genuine pathos – there are raw emotional moments which feel out of place given the absurdity of it all, but Davis makes them work.

            Hemsworth fares considerably worse as Teddy, the rugged, dashing farmboy. While he does provide a good amount of eye candy, he’s completely mismatched with Winslet, the burgeoning relationship unconvincing as a result. Teddy is also supposed to be around the same age as Tilly. Hemsworth is 25 and Winslet is 40; it just doesn’t work onscreen. Weaving is quite delightful in a colourful supporting role, his cross-dressing Sergeant Farrat possibly having an even greater penchant for quality women’s wear than Anthony “Tick” Belrose did in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. A number of Australian actresses including Sarah Snook, Sacha Horler, Alison Whyte and Julia Blake help populate Dungatar with the peculiar people who call the town home.



            The Dressmaker is an odd bird, a costume comedy-drama dipped in acid. Its third act is especially bleak, and that’s when everything comes unstitched. Director Moorhouse brings a great deal of style to the proceedings and this is a distinct approach to the source material, but The Dressmaker is too inconsistent and tonally confused to work.

Summary: While Kate Winslet shines in the title role, The Dressmaker’s peculiar, unpalatable sensibilities make it a poor fit.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Room

For F*** Magazine

ROOM 

Director : Lenny Abrahamson
Cast : Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, William H. Macy, Joan Allen, Sean Bridgers
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 118 mins
Opens : 14 January 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Coarse Langauge)

It’s mother and child against the world in this drama based on Emma Donoghue’s novel of the same name. Joy “Ma” Newsome (Larson) has been held captive by “Old Nick” (Bridgers) for seven years, locked away from the outside world. Ma young son Jack (Tremblay) has been her companion for five of those years, and the only thing he’s known is the tiny shed known as “Room”. When Ma and Jack finally escape from Room, the world at large, which Jack has hitherto thought of as existing only in some unknowable realm depicted on television, is waiting. Ma’s parents Robert (Macy) and Nancy (Allen) welcome their long-lost daughter back with open arms, but the transition into normalcy is far from a smooth one for Ma and Jack.

            It is unfortunate that this reviewer’s first instinct upon hearing the title of this film was to draw a connection to The Room, that 2003 classic of so-bad-it’s-good cinema. This reviewer knows he’s not alone in that, but it’s something Roomcertainly doesn’t deserve. Donoghue adapted her own novel into the screenplay for this film, having conceived the story after learning of the 5-year-old child Felix, one of the children held captive in the infamous Fritzl case. As with many smaller films that quickly attract awards season buzz, some audiences might enter the theatre with lofty expectations of a grandiose, artsy work. In director Lenny Abrahamson’s very capable hands, Room is an intimate experience that unfolds at a decidedly unhurried pace. However, it’s remarkably easy to get invested in the tale and caught up in Ma and Jack’s small odyssey made large.

            Everywhere one looks, there are film critics raving about the two central performances in Room, and it turns out that Larson and Tremblay are indeed more than worthy of all the praise that has come their way. Every awards season, there are bound to be marquee stars tackling a high-profile, meaty role, usually a biopic of some description, in a bid for Oscar glory. Said performances are typically showy and not always successful. Larson puts in the opposite of that with a quiet, achingly beautiful portrayal of a woman who has braved an unimaginable ordeal, and has a child to care for in the midst of all that. Tremblay’s Jack is utterly believable, immediately putting this reviewer into the character’s shoes. There must be an immense amount for a child in Jack’s situation to process, and believably bringing out that depth is a challenge that Tremblay gamely overcomes.

The symbiotic bond between mother and child is strengthened by their experience as captives – Ma is literally Jack’s world, and vice versa. We know they break free of Room, so where’s the mystery or tension? The strength of the relationship is such that the “how” of their escape becomes secondary to the intertwined journeys of the characters. The book was written from Jack’s point of view, with Jack relating his experiences via voiceover in the film. There’s an innocence that is tempered with an unflinching view of how harsh reality can get, a purity that does not disintegrate into amorphous schmaltz. Nothing gets cranked up to eleven, so the emotional beats flow forth naturally and do not come off as an arm-twisting on the part of the filmmakers.



As Jack’s grandparents that he is only just now getting to know, Allen and Macy provide warmth and deep, abiding, mostly unspoken sadness. As their captor, known only as “Old Nick”, Bridgers is deeply unpleasant without being cartoonishly villainous. It’s made clear that because of the many years of emotional torment, Ma’s troubles are far from over once she emerges from Room. While we might breathe a sigh of relief after the escape, a good portion of both Ma and Jack’s soul remains trapped in Room, perhaps forever.

Considering the near-universal acclaim the film has received, it’s certainly not for everybody. For a story that contains elements as dramatic as years-long captivity and a child witnessing the outside world for the first time, this is a very subdued affair that will try the patience of more restless viewers. Keeping the focus on Ma’s bond with Jack means the film doesn’t delve too deeply into the psychological implications of surviving such a trauma. If you’re not wholeheartedly invested in Ma and Jack’s journey from the beginning, it might be difficult to stick around to see what unfolds. However, given the openness and rawness of the performances that Abrahamson draws out of Brie and Tremblay, it’s hard to imagine there will be too many viewers who won’t be.

Summary: A small, low-key movie that packs a powerful emotional punch, the affecting performances of the leads effectively convey an extraordinary bond between mother and child.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong