Spies in Disguise review

For F*** Magazine

SPIES IN DISGUISE

Director: Nick Bruno, Troy Quane
Cast : Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka
Genre : Action/Comedy/Animation
Run Time : 1 h 42 mins
Opens : 25 December 2019
Rating : PG

Animation studio Blue Sky is best known for the Ice Age movies, but also made the two Rio movies about Spix’s Macaws. Blue Sky turns their attention to a far more common bird in this action-comedy, loosely based on Lucas Martell’s 2009 animated short film Pigeon: Impossible.

Lance Sterling (Will Smith) is a dashing, somewhat arrogant superspy who hits a snag in his latest mission to save the world. Lance reluctantly turns to Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), a young tech genius working in the spy agency’s gadget labs, for help. Walter is developing a highly experimental form of “biodynamic concealment”, which will allow operatives to disguise themselves as animals and go practically unnoticed. Lance accidentally drinks a serum formulated by Walter, which turns Lance into a pigeon. In this new form, Lance can no longer rely on his highly honed combat skills and must adapt to life as an Avian agent. Pigeon-Lance and Walter must work together to take down Killian (Ben Mendelsohn), a criminal mastermind with a cybernetic arm who is hellbent on acquiring cutting-edge assassin drone technology. Meanwhile, agent Marcy Kappel (Rashida Jones) is convinced that Lance has gone rogue and is unaware that he has taken on the form of a pigeon.

Spies in Disguise is often energetic and entertaining, moving along at a decent clip. The film makes great use of stars Smith and Holland – the character designs resemble the actors enough while also being sufficiently stylised. While major animated movies can sometimes feel like they’re cramming a big name in there just for the sake of it, the two stars of Spies in Disguise fit well within this world. Smith’s effortless charm and Holland’s endearing earnestness are played to the hilt. There is the sense that we are watching Smith and Holland themselves, but the movie also does many things that are better suited to animation than to live-action – chief of which being the “human turns into an animal via genetic modification” aspect, which could otherwise be very David Cronenberg-esque.

There is a palpable affection for the spy-fi genre here and the film gets plenty of laughs from juxtaposing James Bond-style coolness and elaborate action sequences with the silliness of one of its main characters having been transformed into a pigeon. Early in the film, we even get an homage to Kill Bill, with Lance facing off against hordes of Yakuza goons. As with any espionage thriller worth its salt, Spies in Disguise features multiple exotic locations, including a villain’s lair in Japan’s Iwate Prefecture and a luxury resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. The film’s most outstanding environment is Venice, Italy, featuring a night-time St Mark’s Square filled with pigeons.

With its marquee name stars, wacky premise, colourful animation and wink-and-nod innuendo-based jokes aimed at the parents in the audience, Spies in Disguise sometimes feels like a middling mid-2000s Dreamworks animation product. While the element of a superspy turning into a pigeon is novel and rife with comedic possibilities, much of Spies in Disguise feels formulaic. This is most evident with its villain, Ben Mendelsohn’s Killian. He is mostly just referred to as “robot hand”, because that’s his sole defining characteristic, and Dr Claw from Inspector Gadget beat Killian to the punch some 30-odd years ago. While it’s nice to hear Mendelsohn’s natural Australian accent, he seems woefully underused, especially since there are hints of how truly sinister the character could have been if there were more to him. Seeing as this is a kids’ movie, perhaps it is a good thing that he’s not trauma-inducing levels of scary, but there’s still the sense that there could’ve been more here.

As breezily enjoyable as most of the movie is, there is a slightness to it – there’s just not a lot to the story or to the characters, and the attempts at engendering an emotional investment in the characters are only occasionally successful. Walter’s back-story, drawing on the bond he shared with his mother Wendy (Rachel Brosnahan), is moving but is barely sketched out. Most of the other characters besides the two leads, including Kappel and her surveillance experts Eyes (Karen Gillan) and Ears (DJ Khaled), barely register.

The product placement for the Audi E-tron is perhaps a touch egregious, but then again that kind of thing is all over the James Bond movies anyway.

Spies in Disguise has some flashy action sequences, but some of the best parts of the movie are the interactions between pigeon-Lance and the actual pigeons who form his ‘flock’. The amorous Lovey, Walter’s pet pigeon who immediately develops a crush on pigeon-Lance, is an irresistibly adorable character.

Summary: Spies in Disguise doesn’t deliver anything cutting-edge, but adequately balances spy action with pure cartoon silliness. It plays to the strengths of stars Will Smith and Tom Holland, who complement each other well. It does often feel like a commercial product and the story and characters are feather-light, but it’s fun where it counts.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Captain Marvel review

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Cast : Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Lashana Lynch, Gemma Chan, Annette Bening, Clark Gregg, Algenis Pérez Soto, Rune Temte, Akira Akbar
Genre : Action/Adventure/Sci-fi
Run Time : 2 h 4 mins
Opens : 7 March 2019
Rating : PG13

            The Marvel Cinematic Universe is mostly set in the present day, but has taken detours to the past: Captain America: The First Avenger was set during World War II, Agent Carter was set just after World War II, flashbacks in the Ant-Man films were set in the 60s and the prologue of Guardians of the Galaxy was set in the 80s. Captain Marvel now takes us to the 90s to meet a hero who’ll be a key player in the MCU going forward.

Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) is a former US Air Force fighter pilot who has been imbued with superpowers and is a part of Starforce, an elite Kree military unit. Serving under the leadership of Yonn-Rog (Jude Law), Carol, known by the Kree as “Vers”, fends off the threat of the shape-shifting Skrulls. When Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), the leader of the Skrulls, sets his sights on earth, Carol finds herself defending the planet she once called home, and confronts the former existence she has forgotten.

On earth, Carol meets Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), an agent of the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.). Fury’s worldview is upended by the knowledge of an impending alien invasion. In attempting to trace her past, Carol reconnects with her Air Force colleague and best friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch), whose daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) was especially close to Carol. A series of events leads Carol to re-evaluate where her allegiances as she realises the full potential of her cosmic powers.

Captain Marvel is the last MCU film before Avengers: Endgame arrives in a month and a half. In the post-credits stinger of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, Nick Fury pages Captain Marvel just before he disintegrates, alongside half of all life on earth. This film builds hype for Endgame and adds to the speculation of what role Captain Marvel will play in the fight against Thanos but setting it in the 90s also gives it enough distance from the other MCU films, such that it can also be its own thing.

The directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who helmed Half Nelson and Mississippi Grind, is the latest example of how the MCU has shepherded filmmakers known for making smaller films, such that they acquit themselves well given the large canvas of the MCU. The Russo Brothers, James Gunn, Jon Watts and Taika Waititi achieved similar success with their MCU films.

             Captain Marvel is part space opera, part fish-out-of-water comedy, all hero’s journey. The MCU films can feel samey-samey and while this sticks to the formula in parts, there are still surprises to be had, and the film’s status as a prequel doesn’t mean that audiences are entirely ahead of the plot.

There’s a variety to the action sequences, with the space opera stuff contrasted with a car chase and a fight on an LA Metro Rail train. There are also mid-air chases and space dogfights. While the cosmic action in Captain Marvel isn’t quite as exciting or inventive as in the Guardians of the Galaxy films, it’s still executed with enough flair. The 90s nostalgia is not as pandering as some audiences might have feared, and manifests in some very sly ways. The Stan Lee cameo, one of the last ones the late Marvel Comics writer filmed, is particularly clever.

While the movie is a big piece of positive PR for the U.S. Air Force, it doesn’t come off as propagandistic. Captain Marvel handles the themes of militarism and war with admirable nuance: the Kree have been locked in a protracted conflict with the Skrulls, and it turns out things are not as black and white as they first appear. It’s not the most insightful message, but it fits the story that’s being told here.

The film is character-driven, and Carol is always at its centre. Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, who served as a consultant on this film and makes a cameo appearance, said “Carol falls down all the time, but she always gets back up. We say that about Captain America as well, but Captain America gets back up because it’s the right thing to do. Carol gets back up because ‘F*** you.’” Brie Larson captures this defiance, but also lends the character a sense of humour and great vulnerability. Sure, Captain Marvel eventually ends up as one of the most powerful characters in the MCU, but this movie is about her journey to that point, and she falls and gets back up again plenty of times throughout said journey.

The film has been pre-emptively smeared as a screeching screed pushing a scary agenda. It’s much ado about nothing. The sexism that Carol faces in the film is common in the real world: she gets told she’s too emotional and that she needs to smile more. The character isn’t going around bashing men in the head because men are inherently evil. There’s a roundedness to the character and the film also emphasises her friendship with Lynch’s Monica.

Goose the cat, known as Chewie in the comics, is a scene-stealer who’s allocated just enough screen time such that its presence never feels gimmicky.

We meet Nick Fury when he’s less experienced and more naïve than how we know him. This reviewer thinks Samuel L. Jackson is always more interesting to watch when he isn’t playing into the myth of him being an untouchable badass. He gets to bring a good deal of humanity and heart to Fury.

The de-aging visual effects used on Jackson work seamlessly. They’re perhaps a little more noticeable on Clark Gregg as a younger Phil Coulson, but it is good to see that character back in an MCU movie regardless.

Ben Mendelsohn has great fun with the role of Talos, a character who seems at first like yet another generic MCU villain, but who winds up being a lot more than that. Mendelsohn brings a surprising depth to the character.

Jude Law is fine as the tough mentor character Yon-Rogg, but the movie seems aware that he’s not as compelling as some of the other characters. Gemma Chan gives Minn-Erva a dangerously sexy edge, making a bit part interesting. As the corporeal manifestation of the Kree Supreme Intelligence, Annette Bening gets to play wise, funny and maybe even a bit menacing.

While Captain Marvel doesn’t reinvent the wheel, it has enough surprises up its sleeve and is built upon a solid, engaging character arc. Its combination of space opera and 90s action-comedy works. Larson says that Carol “doesn’t have anything to prove,” but Captain Marvel has proven that the titular character more than deserves a prime spot in the MCU pantheon. Stick around for two post-credits scene, one that sets up things to come, and another that’s purely comedic.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Robin Hood (2018) review

ROBIN HOOD

Director : Otto Bathurst
Cast : Taron Egerton, Jamie Foxx, Eve Hewson, Ben Mendelsohn, Tim Minchin, Jamie Dornan, F. Murray Abraham, Paul Anderson
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 116 mins
Opens : 29 November 2018
Rating : PG13

Robin Hood may steal from the rich to give to the poor, but he’s given Hollywood quite a lot since movies first existed. From Douglas Fairbanks to Errol Flynn, from Kevin Costner to Russell Crowe and from Cary Elwes to an anthropomorphic fox, this new trip through Sherwood Forest has Taron Egerton of Kingsman fame wielding the bow and arrow.

Lord Robin of Loxley (Taraon Egerton) is in love with Marian (Eve Hewson), a woman of a much lower social status. Their romance is rudely interrupted when Robin is drafted to fight in Arabia in the Third Crusades. While at war, Robin meets the Moor Yahya/John (Jamie Foxx), who is on the opposing side but who admires Robin’s principles and sees potential in the young nobleman-turned-soldier.

Robin returns to England to find the people being taxed to the breaking point by the treacherous Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn). Under John’s guidance, Robin forges himself into a vigilante called the Hood, who steals from the Sheriff’s coffers and who eventually inspires a revolution. Alongside Marian, Will Scarlet (Jamie Dornan) and Friar Tuck (Tim Minchin), Robin leads the townspeople of Nottinghamshire in an uprising against the Sheriff and the Cardinal (F. Murray Abraham).

Because Robin Hood has been a mainstay of western popular culture for centuries, every time a new movie or TV version is announced, the first reaction is wont to be “do we really need this?” In a bid to prove its relevance, this new Robin Hood movie must set itself apart, aesthetically and otherwise, from its forbears. As a result, we get plenty of anachronistic costumes and an overtly political story – this version casts Robin as a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder who leads proletariat protesters in a clash on the streets against what are essentially medieval riot police. There is quite a lot here to inspire an eye roll or two, but surprisingly, this Robin Hood is not altogether charmless and is reasonably entertaining.

The film begins with a voiceover that might as well go “this isn’t your grandfather’s Robin Hood”. Visual cues appear to be taken from the Arrow TV show (which is a little funny since the DC Comics character Green Arrow was directly inspired by Robin Hood), Assassins Creed and Game of Thrones. The action sequences are sufficiently propulsive and engaging, and the brutality does push the PG-13 rating a little. Despite the historically inaccurate costumes, the film doesn’t look cheap thanks to location filming in Croatia, Hungary, France and Morocco.

Taron Egerton pushes his Robin just an inch away from the stock boring hero type. The back-story given to Robin is familiar but mildly affecting, and this version plays up Robin’s status as an elite himself. Robin breaks bread with the upper crust by day and fights for the little guy by night, a little like the Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro or Batman. Egerton brings the right amount of endearing boyishness and hunky physicality to the part.

Jamie Foxx’s Little John is one of the story’s big departures from traditional tellings of the Robin Hood myth. It’s a serious turn for the actor and the character suffers some real losses within minutes of his introduction. There’s something vaguely inspiring in seeing Robin and John put aside their obvious differences to fight the oppressors, even if the seeing the beginnings of the merry men isn’t as thrilling as the filmmakers imagine it to be.

Maid Marian is often side-lined in Robin Hood stories, and while there is an attempt to give the character some agency, she still doesn’t get a whole lot to do. As played by Eve Hewson, Marian is kind of a community organiser who feeds the poor and rallies the people, and she winds up being instrumental in the revolution. The love triangle between Robin, Marian and Jamie Dornan’s Will Scarlet adds minimal dramatic tension and is one of the cheesier parts of the film.

Ben Mendelsohn has carved out a niche in Hollywood as the go-to guy for middle management supervillain roles, and the Sheriff of Nottingham falls right into that niche. It’s nothing we haven’t seen him done before, but it’s still some of the best bits of the movie. Mendelsohn alternates between sneering and screaming in a way that’s reminiscent of Gary Oldman’s many memorable villain roles, and it is a joy to hear the Sheriff of Nottingham go “they’re taking my money! KILL THEM!”

Tim Minchin adds a dash of Python-esque comic relief as Friar Tuck. This is clearly not the best use of Minchin’s myriad talents (the man composed the Matilda musical), but his presence in the movie does help keep things from being too self-serious.

2018’s Robin Hood deserves some – maybe most –  but not all, of the cynicism it has been expectedly greeted with. We’ve seen studios try and fail at turning public domain characters into a comic book movie-esque franchise and Robin Hood’s sequel-begging is a little embarrassing, but in all its attempts to be ‘hip’ and relevant, this movie isn’t as entirely annoying as it could’ve been.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ready Player One movie review

For inSing

READY PLAYER ONE

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen
Genre : Sci-fi, action
Run Time : 2h 20m
Opens : 29 March 2018
Rating : PG13

This Easter, several faith-based films are being released, including I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ. This movie is about an Easter Egg hunt of epic proportions, with none other than Steven Spielberg as our guide.

It is 2045, and teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in ‘the Stacks’, a shantytown outside Columbus, Ohio. Like millions of other people around the world, he escapes the drudgery of life by entering a virtual reality realm known as the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), where he is known as Parzival. His best friend within the sprawling game is Aech (Lena Waithe), who runs a virtual garage.

James Donovan Halliday (Mark Rylance), who created the OASIS with his former partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), has passed away. Halliday has created an Easter Egg hunt – the Easter Egg Hunter (Gunter for short) who finds three keys will inherit Halliday’s fortune of half a trillion dollars, and full control of the OASIS. Wade teams up with Aech, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) to complete this epic quest.

Their main opponent: the Sixers, an army of Gunters indentured to Innovative Online Industries (IOI). The company’s greedy CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has effectively enslaved players indebted to the company and wants control of the OASIS himself. It’s up to Parzival and company to beat Sorrento to the prize.

Ready Player One is based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. This is the ultimate geek power fantasy – what if one’s knowledge of pop culture ephemera could actually be used to gain a fortune and save the world?

At its heart, this is a hero’s journey, and the mechanics of the plot are not unlike that of many Young Adult novels with ‘chosen one’ plots. What makes Ready Player One more than the sum of its innumerable references is director Spielberg. Working from a screenplay adapted by Cline and Zak Penn, Spielberg infuses the film with energy, wide-eyed imagination and sheer awe-inspiring spectacle.

Spielberg works in one of two modes: ‘fun Spielberg’ and ‘serious Spielberg’. We saw ‘serious Spielberg’ this past awards season with The Post. While many ‘serious Spielberg’ movies are masterpieces, this reviewer always prefers ‘fun Spielberg’. The self-confessed video game enthusiast gets to indulge his inner gamer, fashioning a dizzying virtual world bursting with detail and lots of existing characters for audiences to point at the screen and recognise.

Ready Player One comments on nostalgia, escapism, and the power of pop culture in shaping our world. Much of Spielberg’s filmography inspires nostalgia, trades in escapism, and he is one of the premiere forces in shaping modern pop culture. Spielberg omitted the overt references to his own oeuvre found in the book, fearing it would come off as too self-indulgent. It feels like no one else could have made this movie, and even over 40 years after inventing the modern blockbuster with Jaws, Spielberg’s still got it. There are times when Ready Player One feels like it’s pandering to its geek target audience, but that’s inherent in the source material. There’s a pleasure in knowing that a filmmaker as exalted as Spielberg demonstrably is a geek at heart.

Of special note among the surfeit of references is a sequence which draws heavily on Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. This is a delightful tribute to the late filmmaker, who was originally set to direct A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Spielberg took over after Kubrick’s death.

The staggering scope of the OASIS is effectively conveyed. It feels like a world which would demand nothing less than complete devotion, and it’s therefore easy to buy the idea that people’s lives have been ruined in the pursuit of credits in-game. The visual effects, supervised by Roger Guyett and supplied by vendors including ILM and Digital Domain, are expansive and astounding. Credit also goes to special projects supervisor Deidre Backs, whose job it was to clear licenses to the myriad properties referenced in the film.

Spielberg’s regular composer John Williams dropped out of scoring this film to work on The Post. In his stead is Alan Silvestri, who seems like the best possible replacement for Williams. Silvestri pays homage to his iconic score for Back to the Future with rousing, melodic music.

The characters are all archetypical, but because of the storytelling device of the video game, that’s more than justified. Tye Sheridan’s Wade is a sometimes-dopey geek, a nobody in the real world but a somebody in the OASIS. He’s very much a wish fulfilment figure, but Sheridan is never annoying in the role.

Cooke’s Art3mis is a typical action girl, and the attempt at portraying the vulnerabilities that lie beneath that surface are sometimes clumsy. Cooke is poised to be the next big thing and is often more interesting than Sheridan. The romance is almost absurdly underdeveloped, undercutting Art3mis’ agency in the story somewhat.

Waithe is fun as the stock best friend character, while the two Asian characters seem to be only there so they can do martial arts. The supporting characters don’t get too much development, but that’s a function of the structure, so it’s easy to forgive.

Mendelsohn has found a niche playing middle management supervillains, and Sorrento is squarely in his wheelhouse.  It’s an entertainingly smarmy performance that’s the right side of hammy.

Rylance, Spielberg’s new muse, delivers a deeply affecting performance as misunderstood genius Halliday, who displays traits of Asperger’s syndrome. There’s a Steve Jobs-Steve Wozniak-type dynamic between Halliday and Og, which the film doesn’t quite have the space to flesh out but is compelling based on the little we see of it. This reviewer would love to see a prequel just about Halliday and Og developing the OASIS.

Ready Player One might feel intimidating to those who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool pop culture connoisseurs, but even if one doesn’t get all or even half of the references, there’s plenty to enjoy in seeing a master of the blockbuster work his magic on a massive canvas.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jedd Jong

Darkest Hour movie review

For inSing

DARKEST HOUR

Director : Joe Wright
Cast : Gary Oldman, Ben Mendelsohn, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Richard Lumsden, Jeremy Child, Samuel West
Genre : Drama/Historical/War
Run Time : 2h 6m
Opens : 4 January 2018
Rating : PG

Having directed Pride & Prejudice, Atonement and Anna Karenina, director Joe Wright is no stranger to prestige films. After taking a perhaps ill-advised detour into the realm of fantasy adventure with Pan, Wright is back in awards season territory with this historical drama. His subject: one of the most iconic Britons in recent history – Winston Churchill.

It is May 1940, and Nazi forces are advancing across western Europe. In the United Kingdom, the Opposition Labour Party demands for the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup), who is deemed ill-suited to lead Britain in war. Chamberlain’s first choice to succeed him is the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), but Halifax declines. Chamberlain then appoints the one man whom the Opposition party would support: Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman).

Churchill is dogged by military failures in his earlier career, including the Gallipoli Campaign during WWI. King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) is not the biggest fan of Churchill, since Churchill supported the abdication of George’s brother Edward VIII. Churchill’s wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his new secretary Elizabeth (Lily James) bear the brunt of his irritability – Clementine is used to it, Elizabeth less so.

Churchill is immediately faced with a barrage of tough decisions: Halifax and Chamberlain place pressure on Churchill to consider negotiating with Hitler, just as the British Expeditionary Forces are trapped at Dunkirk and Calais in France. The War Cabinet Crisis is brewing, with Chamberlain and Halifax hoping to engineer a Vote of No Confidence in Churchill to force his removal from office. As the British Empire is plunged headlong into war, can Churchill lead them to victory? (Spoiler alert: he does)

Darkest Hour is written by New Zealander novelist and playwright Anthony McCarten, who received an Oscar nomination for The Theory of Everything. On the surface, Darkest Hour seems like standard awards season fare, and yet another example of “Englishness = prestige”. While this political drama could have turned out stodgy, director Wright and writer McCarten ensure it is anything but.

There’s an invigorating forcefulness to the film, a momentum and urgency which other similar movies, including 2017’s Churchill starring Brian Cox, lack. There’s a propulsive energy to Darkest Hour, such that things are never standing still, even when two characters are having a quiet conversation. The writing bubbles over with wit, and the grave stakes are firmly established while leaving room for some much-needed humour.

The film’s atmospherics reel the viewer in as much as the performances, which we’ll get to in a bit, do. Darkest Hour is cinematic in that it feels deliberately constructed and staged, but this never pulls one out of it. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel employs lighting boldly and exquisitely – Churchill is revealed by way of his face being illuminated by a lit match. The sound design and editing is given precedence over the score, and it creates a uniquely immersive effect. Sarah Greenwood’s production design is authentic, with the subterranean military citadels beneath Whitehall where the War Cabinet is huddled being an especially realistic set. One can almost smell the cigar smoke wafting off the screen.

Said cigars are typically held between the stubby fingers of Oldman’s Churchill. This is an audacious bit of casting which has more than paid off. Oldman takes on this daunting role with unbridled brio, carefully crafting an entertaining, astounding performance. The special effects makeup required to transform Oldman into Churchill was designed by Kazuhiro Tsuji, and took four hours to put on each day. Oldman captures Churchill’s distinctive physicality in ways obvious and subtle. This is an actor long overdue for an Oscar, and it’s hard to argue that this performance doesn’t deserve that honour.

Because Oldman’s presence in the film is so forceful, and because the film’s focus is trained so squarely on Churchill, the supporting players don’t get too much of the spotlight. However, they ideally complement the film’s star.

Mendelsohn conveys King George VI’s awkwardness and hints at his temper. While Colin Firth’s portrayal of “Bertie” might have won hearts (and an Oscar), Mendelsohn does bear more of a physical resemblance to the historical figure. The evolution of the working relationship between the King and the new Prime Minister, which starts out quite testy indeed, is sensitively portrayed.

Kristin Scott Thomas is the picture of refined grace as Clementine. Nobody quite knows Churchill like his beloved wife does, and Thomas’ twinkle-in-the-eye performance is appealing.

James’ Elizabeth is based on a real-life figure, but the real Elizabeth Layton didn’t become Churchill’s secretary until around a year after the events depicted in the film. James is proper and charming as always, and Elizabeth serves as a fine audience identification character. One of this reviewer’s favourite moments in the film is when Elizabeth manages to momentarily break her boss’s unyielding exterior and they share a hearty laugh over a silly mistake Churchill has made.

Halifax and Chamberlain are depicted as being in opposition to Churchill, but the film makes sure to articulate their point of view. To them, Churchill’s insistence on fighting on at all costs and his stubborn refusal to even entertain the thought of peace talks is foolhardy. That’s not an entirely unjustified point of view, given the circumstances. The late John Hurt was slated to play Chamberlain, but was replaced by Ronald Pickup after Hurt died in early 2017.

There are a few moments in Darkest Hour that ring false, most notably an impromptu meet-the-people session in an unusual locale. As in any historical drama, there are moments that have been embellished for dramatic effect. However, an impressive, bravura performance from a masterful actor and some confident stylistic flourishes keep Darkest Hour thrilling and compelling.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

For F*** Magazine

By Jedd Jong

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY 

Director : Gareth Edwards
Cast : Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Forest Whitaker, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed
Genre : Action/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 2h 14min
Opens : 15 December 2016
Rating : PG (Some Violence)

rogue-one-posterStar Wars devotees have long known that the galaxy has innumerable stories to tell beyond the Skywalker family saga, and moviegoers are getting their first taste of that with this spin-off.

Set just before the events of Episode IV, Rogue One reveals how the Rebel Alliance got their hands on the blueprints for the Empire’s planet-annihilating superweapon, the Death Star. Jyn Erso (Jones) is the daughter of Galen (Mikkelsen), an Imperial science officer and secret Rebel sympathiser. Separated from her father at a young age, she was raised by Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a hard-line Rebel fighter. When Bodhi Rook (Ahmed), an Imperial pilot who has defected, delivers a message to the Rebels from Galen regarding the Death Star, Jyn is roped in to reach out to her father. Jyn teams up with Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (Luna), who has his suspicions regarding Jyn’s loyalties. Also part of the team is K-2SO (Tudyk), a reprogrammed Imperial droid; Force-sensitive blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Yen) and Chirrut’s partner, the mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang). Standing in their way is Orson Krennic (Mendelsohn), the treacherous director of advanced weapons research who is overseeing the Death Star program.

rogue-one-diego-luna-felicity-jones-and-alan-tudyk

The premise for Rogue One seems like a no-brainer in hindsight: a war movie, with spies going behind enemy lines to complete a high-stakes mission, set within the Star Wars galaxy. Director Gareth Edwards has done everything humanly possible to assuage fears that this is merely a cash grab. Rogue One looks and feels like an authentic part of the Star Wars series, but has plenty of surprises in store despite being a prequel. We have a rough idea of where it will all lead, but the journey is still an exhilarating one with just the right amount of grimness. There still are jokes and amusing characters, but this is the right pitch of grim. The screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Chris Weitz (with Gary Whitta and John Knoll receiving a ‘story by’ credit) has a satisfying amount of depth to it. We get to experience the shades of grey and the confusion cast by the fog of war, somewhat refreshing in a franchise that often trades in moral absolutes.

rogue-one-death-star-dish

Rogue One’s visuals remain faithful to the look of the original trilogy, while also feeling dirtier and more tactile than ever. We revisit the Rebel stronghold on Yavin IV, and travel to new moons and planets including Jedha, home to a holy Jedi city; perpetually-stormy Eadu and Sacrif, a paradise-turned-warzone. There is no shortage of battle sequences both on land and in space, including a full-fledged dogfight which provides astounding spectacle.rogue-one-scarif

The effects work is an ideal combination of digital and practical, with what appear to be miniature effects used to depict the Star Destroyers in certain scenes. Every hit of blaster fire, each clump of dirt kicked up in an explosion, every time a Stormtrooper gets clunked on the head – it all feels real. That said, there are some digital face replacements which aren’t 100% convincing.

rogue-one-leaving-the-yavin-hangar

Creating a new Star Wars character must be a daunting task, given the iconic status of Luke, Leia, Han, Darth Vader et. al. Lead characters Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor will remind fans well-versed in the Star Wars expanded universe of Jan Ors and Kyle Katarn respectively, who recover the Death Star plans in the video game Star Wars: Dark Forces. Given her slight frame, Jones might not seem like the most obvious candidate for an action heroine, but she pulls it off. While many protagonists have back-stories as tragic as Jyn’s, the Oscar nominee sells Jyn’s defiance in the face of sorrow. Despite both characters being played by English women, Jyn is sufficiently different from The Force Awakens’ Rey, steelier and world-wearier, if understandably nowhere near as fun.

rogue-one-felicity-jones-and-diego-luna

Luna’s Cassian Andor is gruff yet suave while not being a knockoff of the galaxy’s #1 loveable rogue, Han Solo. The development of Cassian and Jyn’s working relationship is believable and is mercifully devoid of twee romantic comedy bickering. They might not like each other, but they have a job to do, and are going to complete said job at any cost.

 

In Hollywood, Mikkelsen is known mainly for his villainous roles, and Rogue One gives him a chance to showcase his softer side as Jyn’s tortured father. The character has relatively little screen time, but Mikkelsen makes considerable impact in the given time.rogue-one-forest-whitaker

Whitaker gives Saw a dangerous edge – he’s ostensibly one of the good guys, but his extreme methods warrant wariness. The character first appeared in the Clone Wars animated series, and it’s fun to see a pre-existing character incorporated into a live action Star Wars film.

rogue-one-jiang-wen-and-donnie-yen

Donnie Yen’s casting as a blind martial artist monk who spouts fortune cookie aphorisms should be greeted with an eye roll or two. While falling back on these stereotypes is not particularly progressive, it’s hard for us to get upset at Yen delivering an epic smack-down to a pack of Stormtroopers. Those familiar with Jiang’s work might have a hard time picturing him as a burly bruiser, but his Baze Malbus fits that position just fine, and complements Chirrut nicely.

rogue-one-alan-tudyk

There is a grand Star Wars tradition of comic relief droids, but K-2SO differs from his predecessors in that he actually is intimidating. The character’s design is striking and Tudyk’s bemused, ever-so-slightly stilted delivery sounds just right emanating from the lanky, powerful droid. Ahmed’s Bodhi Rook is not as memorable as the other characters, but he does get the distinction of coining the call-sign Rogue One.

rogue-one-ben-mendelsohn

Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic is everything this reviewer hoped for in a villain. Krennic is cold, supercilious and brutal, fitting right in with the Imperial higher-ups of the original trilogy. At the same time, he is eager to please and seeks the validation of Darth Vader and the Emperor. Speaking of Vader, he is used judiciously here, Edwards resisting the temptation to be overly reliant on one of the greatest screen villains ever. James Earl Jones returns to provide the voice, with “a variety of large-framed actors” donning the helmet.

rogue-one-darth-vader

Reshoots months after production had completed and the replacement of composer Alexandre Desplat with Michael Giacchino led to rumblings that Rogue One might be on shaky ground. Edwards has soundly disproven sceptics with a film that hits all the right notes. There are homages to the series’ past without it turning into a mere parade of fan-service, the action sequences are plentiful and visceral, and the characters are easy to care about. Consider this battle won.

Summary: A riveting, richly-realised adventure tinged with the right amount of darkness and maturity, Rogue One transcends the notion that spin-offs aren’t as worthy as the ‘real thing’. An auspicious first entry in the Star Wars anthology.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Black Sea

For F*** Magazine

BLACK SEA 

Director : Kevin Macdonald
Cast : Jude Law, Scoot McNairy, Tobias Menzies, Ben Mendelsohn, Bobby Schofield, Grigoriy Dobrygin, Michael Smiley, Karl Davies
Genre : Thriller/Drama
Run Time : 115 mins
Opens : 12 February 2015
Rating : NC-16 (Coarse Language and Some Violence)

What motivates anyone who goes on a treasure hunt? Is it as simple as “fortune and glory, kid”, the answer famously given by Indiana Jones? In this adventure thriller, we learn glamour has no part in the equation. Former naval submarine captain Robinson (Law) falls on hard times after he is laid off by a marine salvage company. When he hears about a WWII German U-boat lying at the bottom of the Black Sea, supposedly laden with gold, Robinson jumps at the chance to find this treasure. Leading a team of British and Russian roughnecks, including 18-year-old rookie Tobin (Schofield), Robinson heads out to sea in an old fixer-upper of a Russian submarine. Lone American Daniels (McNairy) is sent by the expedition’s mysterious, wealthy backer to keep an eye on the proceedings. Over the course of the journey, everyone on board realises that as cruel as the sea may be, human nature might just be even crueller.

            Black Sea is directed by Kevin Macdonald of The Last King of Scotland fame and this seems far more in the director’s wheelhouse than his previous film, the young adult romance adaptation How I Live Now. Macdonald and screenwriter Dennis Kelly have assembled an old-fashioned adventure flick the likes of which we don’t quite see any more these days. The dialogue is expectedly salty, but naturally so and it doesn’t feel like the script is straining to sound tough. There’s a believable griminess to the lived-in environs of the submarine and while several story elements are far-fetched, there’s an air of well-researched authenticity throughout. Sure, there are the expected clichés at play: the hero whose job has kept him away from his estranged wife and child, the greenhorn who gets picked on by the seasoned veterans, the “company man” akin to Paul Reiser’s character from Aliens, the one unstable guy who’s nevertheless excellent at his job and that old adventure movie hallmark, lost Nazi gold. However, the stakes are kept high and it’s far less predictable than this reviewer thought it would be, Macdonald masterfully sustaining nail-biting tension throughout.

            Adding to the film’s believability is the meticulous production design work by Nick Palmer, who re-created the submarine interior on soundstages when it proved impractical to shoot the entire movie in an actual vintage Russian submarine. There are a few instances when the computer-generated exterior shots can feel a tiny bit dodgy, but it’s nowhere as egregious as in recent submarine movie Phantom. The scenes in which the divers leave the confines of the submarine and trek through the silt of the sea floor, being careful not to fall into underwater ravines, are thrillingly realistic.

            Black Sea is superbly cast, Russian actors including Grigoriy Dobrygin and Konstantin Khabenskiy lending personality and dimensions to the Russian crew members who in most other movies would blur together as peripheral characters. Slick, charming, handsome Jude Law’s transformation into the gruff submarine captain from Aberdeen, Scotland is thoroughly convincing. Here’s a leader you’ll want to root for, but who is flawed in the most human of ways, his judgement called into question since greed factors so heavily into the mission. Ben Mendelsohn is entertainingly mercurial as the unbalanced, knife-wielding Fraser. Scoot McNairy is every bit the fish out of water the “company man” always is in films of this type. Bobby Schofield lends the film a degree of heart and is able to become more than just “the kid”, so much so that audiences will feel protective over him.

            A tough, exciting adventure flick, Black Sea balances its old-fashioned genre elements with well-drawn characters and packs in a healthy amount of thrills and spills. Director Macdonald makes full use of the claustrophobic environment, a sealed tin can deep underwater in which testosterone bubbles over and one small mistake could jeopardise everyone on board. Sure, the logic isn’t 100% waterproof, but on the whole, this is a sturdy, well-built vessel.


Summary: Take the plunge into the Black Sea with this grizzled, supremely thrilling submarine flick.
RATING: 4out 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