Churchill

For F*** Magazine

CHURCHILL 

Director : Jonathan Teplitzky
Cast : Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, James Purefoy, Julian Wadham, Danny Webb, Richard Durden, Ella Purnell
Genre : Drama/Biography
Run Time : 1h 45min
Opens : 6 July 2017
Rating : PG

Sir Winston Churchill just might be the most iconic Briton in recent history. The wartime Prime Minister has become a nigh-mythic figure, and it’s easy to see why filmmakers are drawn to telling his story. This historical drama focuses on the leadup to D-Day as the Second World War rages on. Churchill (Cox) prepares for the beach landing of allied forces in France, meeting with American general Dwight D. Eisenhower (Slattery), Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery (Wadham) and other high-ranking personnel in the allied command. Churchill fears a repeat of the horrifically botched beach landing he oversaw during the First World War, and he takes his anxieties and frustrations out on his wife Clementine (Richardson), who becomes increasingly concerned about Churchill’s ability to deal with the pressure of leading the country through the war. Depending on a multitude of factors, D-Day could turn the tide for the allies or lead to tragic consequences. Churchill must call on his fortitude and decisiveness, when the troops and civillians need it the most.

Churchill is directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, who told a markedly different World War II story with The Railway Man. Teplitzky works from a screenplay by British historian Alex von Tunzelmann. Going into Churchill, one knows what to expect: a reverential, respectable historical drama, but one that might be a chore to sit through. While there is an attempt to humanise the titular historical figure, Churchill ends up as a stodgy and inaccessible work. The official synopsis for the film describes it as a “ticking-clock thriller”, but despite the incredibly high stakes in play, Churchill lacks urgency or momentum. As a result, the audience feels like they’re watching events unfold from a distance, rather than engaging with them.

Many great actors have played the steadfast British Bulldog, and Cox proves himself to be up to the task, having already accumulated a respectable body of work. Because a particular image of Churchill is so ingrained in the public consciousness, actors have to work extra hard to push past the caricature of an unyielding, principled curmudgeon. While Cox does what he can with the material, his portrayal of Churchill isn’t as indelible as John Lithgow’s recent turn in the Netflix series The Crown. Granted, Lithgow played Churchill at a slightly later stage in his life, but he evinced the inner conflicts roiling beneath the brickwork exterior better than Cox does.

In addition to being a historical drama, Churchill wants to be an unconventional romance. Richardson’s Clementine is often the only one in the room who can stand up to Churchill or even try to talk him down – after all, as his wife, Clementine has had years of experience. Richardson achieves a lot with just a glance, and we wish she were in more of the film. Unfortunately, the dramatic moments between the couple seem contrived and predictable, and while Churchill’s outbursts are violent and dramatic, there isn’t enough emotional heft behind them.

The supporting cast is fine, with Slattery a standout as a dashing, serious and commanding Eisenhower. Purefoy is an appropriately sweet, if slightly bland, King George VI. Ella Purnell plays the requisite audience identification character, the fictional secretary Helen Garrett. Churchill harshly berates her when she makes a spacing error in typing up a document, but one knows it’s going to build up to Churchill eventually treating the young woman with kindness, as she wells up with admiration for the great man. It’s a forgivable cliché, but a cliché all the same.

The best historical dramas transcend the niggling feeling that one is fidgeting in the back of the classroom during history period. Alas, Churchill does not overcome this. While there are snatches of clever repartee between the characters, and a smattering of powerful imagery, Churchill feels circuitous and unnecessary instead of illuminating or compelling.

Summary: A bog-standard historical biopic, Churchill features Cox giving it his best shot to play the iconic Briton, but it fails to drum up much urgency or strike an emotional chord.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Brain on Fire

For F*** Magazine

BRAIN ON FIRE 

Director : Gerard Barrett
Cast :  Chloe Grace Moretz, Jenny Slate, Thomas Mann, Carrie-Anne Moss, Richard Armitage, Tyler Perry
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 1h 30min
Opens : 4 May 2017
Rating : PG13

In this biopic/medical drama, Chloë Grace Moretz finds her life spinning out of control, and she doesn’t know what’s causing it. Moretz plays Susannah Cahalan, a 21-year-old reporter for the New York Post. Susannah befriends her colleague Margo (Slate), and her stern but fair boss Richard (Perry) views her as a rising star in the bullpen. She’s dating a sweet aspiring musician named Steven (Mann), and all seems to be going well. Suddenly, with no prior history of mental illness, Susannah suffers a breakdown, starts hallucinating and having seizures. Her divorced parents Tom (Armitage) and Rhona (Moss) are understandably worried for her, as various diagnoses come back inconclusive. With not just her job but her life threatened by this mysterious condition, only neurologist Dr. Souhel Najjar (Navid Negahban) might be able to get to the bottom of Susannah’s circumstance.

Brain on Fire is based on the memoir of the same name by the real-life Susannah Cahalan. Charlize Theron optioned the film rights and dropped out of a supporting role, but remained onboard as a producer. Any film that deals with a rare illness, particularly one which affects the mind, is in danger of being manipulative. Writer-director Gerard Barrett succumbs to the tropes one often sees in movies or TV shows in which characters suffer mental breakdowns. However, he strikes a fine balance of making the audience uncomfortable by depicting the harrowing effects of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, while refraining from making things exploitative. Brain on Fire often feels like the ‘Hollywood version’ of Susannah’s experience, but it’s engaging and sufficiently credible even as it feels a little overwrought.

One of the themes that drives the story is the feeling of powerlessness that a young person can have when stepping into the adult world. Susannah is fresh out of college, and initially attributes her symptoms to simply being overwhelmed. Irish writer-director Barrett is himself young and successful – this is the 29-year-old’s third feature film. Upon finding out Barrett’s age, a sense of ennui washed over this reviewer. The story takes place in New York City, arguably one of the worst places in the world to suffer from a sudden mental breakdown. Unfortunately, Vancouver doesn’t do the best job of doubling for the Big Apple in this case, especially because Brain on Fire doesn’t quite convey the overwhelming sensory stimulus of New York City.

Dakota Fanning was originally cast in the role of Susannah, with scheduling conflicts leading to Moretz replacing her. Moretz’s bubbly demeanour makes Susannah a pleasant protagonist to begin with, which means it’s easier with the audience to stick with her as she experiences the crushing lows and unsettling delirium that she does. It’s a fine performance, but as one would expect, also a showy one. It’s easy to overplay struggling with an affliction physical or mental, with the unfortunate implication over the years being that if actors want to win awards, they’ll play characters who are stricken with grave illnesses. What helps mitigate this cynicism is the knowledge that Susannah Cahalan is a real person, who had to sign off on this portrayal of her. Even if Moretz’s acting borders on over-the-top, she keeps Susannah feeling like an actual person as she rides the frightening roller coaster that is anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

The supporting cast is fine, but each character falls to neatly into boxes labelled with their archetypes. Mann’s Steven is the dopey, devoted boyfriend – he seems a better fit for the role than the initially-cast Will Poulter. Slate’s Margo is the upbeat friend from work, while Perry’s Richard is more or less Laurence Fishburne as Perry White in the DC Extended Universe movies. It’s not a huge role, but Perry gets to show that he has decent acting chops when he’s not in anything he writes or directs. As the concerned parents, Armitage and Moss don’t get too much to do, and Armitage wrestling with his accent is more than a little distracting.

While it is heart-rending to watch Susannah go through hell as her loved ones are rendered helpless, the parts of the film that deal with the medical theory are somewhat more interesting. Barrett is conscious that too much jargon might bore audiences. As such, Negahban’s warmth and quiet intelligence is greatly welcome. The film highlights how much harm misdiagnoses can be – it’s estimated that only 10% of people who have anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis were properly diagnosed at the time.

As heartless as it sounds, Susannah Cahalan’s ordeal is far from the most dramatic or extreme true story to be brought to the big screen. However, this movie is important in its own way. While the specifics feel embellished slightly, with the romantic and workplace comedy elements of the film too obvious, Moretz’s performance holds one’s attention.

Summary: While there’s the niggling vibe of an illness-of-the-week Lifetime TV movie here, Brain on Fire is mostly moving and the right amount of unsettling.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Zookeeper’s Wife

For F*** Magazine

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

 

Hidden Figures

For F*** Magazine

HIDDEN FIGURES

Director : Theodore Melfi
Cast : Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons, Glen Powell, Mahershala Ali, Aldis Hodge
Genre : Drama/Historical
Run Time : 2h 7min
Opens : 23 February 2017
Rating : PG

 

hidden-figures-posterDuring the 1960s, the world was transfixed by the Space Race, during which the United States battled the USSR for the conquest of the final frontier. While attention was lavished on the astronauts, the engineers and technicians who made the missions possible went largely unnoticed. This film sheds light on several real-life unsung heroes who laboured to make Project Mercury a success.

It is 1962 and Katherine Goble (Henson), a mathematics prodigy, works at the West Area Computers division of NASA’s Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia. Katherine’s colleagues and friends Dorothy Vaughn (Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Monáe) are also part of a group of female African-American “computers”, who performed complex calculations manually before computers as we know them today were in widespread use.

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Katherine is assigned to the Space Task Group overseen by Al Harrison (Costner), becoming the only black woman amongst the group of white engineers. She earns the contempt of head engineer Paul Stafford (Parsons), whose calculations she double-checks. Dorothy appeals for a promotion to supervisor, which is rejected by her manager Vivian (Dunst). Concerned that the installation of the IBM 7090 computer will render her and her team obsolete, Dorothy teaches herself the programming language Fortran and trains her colleagues in it. Mary yearns for an engineering job at NASA, but is required to take extra University of Virginia classes, which are held in an all-white high school, to qualify. Mary makes her case to attend said classes before a judge. With the Americans and Soviets neck-and-neck, the contributions made by Katherine, Dorothy, Mary and their peers are key in the success of the American space program.

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Hidden Figures is based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s non-fiction book of the same name, which is subtitled ‘The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race’. Lee’s father worked as a research scientist at the Langley facility, and she grew up among African-American families with members who worked at NASA. Lee’s book was adapted for the screen by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, with Melfi directing. True stories like this are why the biopic subgenre exists, and the story of the African-American women who launched a rocket through the glass ceiling is one that absolutely deserves to be told on the big screen.

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The obstacles that stood in the way of these women were numerous, seeing how they were marginalised for both their race and their gender. Hidden Figures provides ample historical context, with Katherine, Dorothy and Mary standing at the intersection of the Civil Rights movement and the Space Race. Because this is a story about mathematicians, it can get dense and technical at times – this reviewer will be first to admit to being terrible at and intimidated by maths. The film does not dumb down this crucial element of the story, and great pains are taken to credibly portray the process of calculating trajectories or programming the IBM 7090.

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Henson’s lead performance is engrossing and mesmerising. She portrays Katherine Goble as someone who is as passionate as she is hardworking, since Katherine did not have the privilege of merely coasting on her innate talent at mathematics. After her husband James dies of a brain tumour, Katherine and her mother Joylette (Donna Briscoe) are left to care for Katherine’s three children. The film’s romantic subplot, in which military officer Jim Johnson (Ali) woos Katherine, is just the right level of sweet.

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While Henson’s Katherine gets the most screen time out of the three leads, Dorothy and Mary get their own satisfying arcs as well. Dorothy’s drive in getting ahead of the curve so as not to be displaced by the newly-installed machines is rousing, while Monáe brings a confident feistiness to Mary, the most outspoken of the trio. Between this film and Moonlight, singer-songwriter Monáe is proving that she possesses not only impressive pipes and stage presence, but considerable acting chops too.

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Costner is a dependable presence as the firm but fair director of the Space Task Group. However, the supporting characters are where some of Hidden Figures’ authenticity is eroded. Composite characters are common in films based on a true story, and it turns out that “Al Harrison” is an amalgamation of three different directors at NASA’s Langley facility. This was done because Melfi was unable to secure the rights to portray the real-life NASA director. Both Parsons’ and Dunst’s antagonist characters are also fictional. They serve to embody the general prejudices of the times without being over-the-top villains, but also give the story a slightly Hollywood-ised feel. On the other hand, there’s actual historical figure John Glen, portrayed with winsomeness and good-natured charm by Glen Powell.

Hidden Figures is by no means a subtle film, but the racism of the time was far from subtle. This is a prestige picture that does not radiate hollow self-importance, but shines a light on little-known heroes who had the deck stacked against them. Thanks to this film and the book on which it is based, the contributions of Katherine, Dorothy and Mary remain hidden no longer.

 

Summary: While it’s fashioned as an awards season crowd-pleaser, the importance of Hidden Figures can’t be denied. More than just a history lesson, this film is genuinely inspiring and its message is as pertinent as ever.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jackie

For F*** Magazine

JACKIE 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Denial

DENIAL

Director : Mick Jackson
Cast : Rachel Weisz, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Spall, Andrew Scott, Alex Jennings, Caren Pistorius, Mark Gatiss
Genre : Biography/Historical/Drama
Run Time : 1h 50min
Opens : 17 November 2016
Rating : PG-13

denial-posterIn 2000, the U.K. saw one of the most explosive libel trials in history: Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz), an American historian, was sued by Holocaust denier David Irving (Spall). This film, based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier recounts the dramatic court proceedings. Irving, who contended that Hitler never ordered the genocide of Jews, claimed that Lipstadt had defamed him and damaged his reputation by calling him out on his claims. Lipstadt’s legal team is headed by solicitor advocate Anthony Julius (Scott), known for defending Princess Diana during her divorce from Prince Charles. Representing Lipstadt in the courtroom is Richard Rampton QC (Wilkinson), a leading British libel lawyer. With Irving representing himself and Sir Charles Grey (Jennings) as the presiding judge, the high-stakes case draws the attention of the press and holocaust survivors alike.

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It might be tempting for jaded audiences to dismiss Denial out of hand as bog-standard Oscar bait. After all, it has respectable actors, most of whom are British, re-enacting true events centring on heavy themes. We’d implore you to set your cynicism aside, because this is a story worth telling. Each passing year puts more distance between us and the atrocities of the Second World War, but films like Denial rightly champion the relevance and value of remembering and learning about the Holocaust. Most viewers aren’t historians or lawyers, so it falls to screenwriter/playwright David Hare to adapt Lipstadt’s book into digestible morsels. The resulting film is engaging, easy to follow and even thrilling at the right junctures.

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Director Mick Jackson’s body of work, including blockbusters The Bodyguard and Volcano, might not belie subtlety. However, Jackson did win an Emmy for directing the made-for-HBO biopic Temple Grandin. There are times when it feels that the technicalities of the trial have been oversimplified for brevity, clarity and dramatic license, but Denial never comes off as overwrought or condescending. There is an effort made to be faithful to actual events: all the dialogue in the courtroom scenes is taken verbatim from the trial records. The sequence in which Lipstadt, Rampton and the legal team travel to Auschwitz to gather facts was shot on location and is appropriately haunting and sombre. The judicious use of brief flashbacks depicting the Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp are a way for the reality to hit home without the film being emotionally manipulative.

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Weisz is an actress who effortlessly embodies fierce intelligence, and the Oscar-winner gets to sink her teeth into a wonderfully meaty role here. Lipstadt is characterised as a principled, serious academic, who doesn’t take kindly to being told she cannot stand up for herself and who baulks at being discouraged from testifying. Weisz is an English actress playing an American woman, surrounded by English actors using their natural accents, and is completely believable. In the English justice system, the burden of proof lies with the defendant, not the plaintiff, something which baffles Lipstadt. When Lipstadt clashes with her legal team, we’re rooting for her, and she’s not afraid to admit she was wrong when she realises the rationale behind their advice.

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Seeing as this is based on Lipstadt’s first-hand account, it stands to reason that David Irving would be characterised as a thoroughly despicable man, but one could argue that he’s done a fine enough job of that on his own. Still, there’s a complexity to Irving’s views, however skewed, which gets skimmed over in Denial. Irving doesn’t dispute that Jews were killed by Nazis; he disputes that there was an executive order from Hitler specifically targeting Jews. As depicted in the film, Irving seizes on minutiae, distorting the facts to serve his ideology. He longs to be taken seriously in academia despite his views. It’s been said that it’s more fun playing bad guys, and Spall’s performance is evidence of that. Spall has an expressive visage, visibly relishing every second of hateful bluster and does a whole lot of indignant frowning.

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While Scott may be better known for his villainous roles, he’s also fun to watch as Lipstadt’s steadfast ally. He’s composed but direct and keeps a stiff upper lip. Wilkinson’s Rampton looks at first to be a crusty curmudgeon and Lipstadt locks horns with him, but then we get one of the film’s best scenes, in which they cordially break bread and come to an understanding. As architectural historian Robert Jan Van Pelt, an expert witness for the defence, Mark Gatiss turns in a quietly moving, thoughtful performance. Caren Pistorius also makes an impact in her relatively small role as Laura Tyler, a young lawyer on her first case. In her introductory scene, Tyler visits Irving’s house to deliver materials the defence has gathered, and glowers at him in disgust. Lipstadt later develops a heart-warming, almost maternal bond with Tyler.

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Denial may not be the most searing or pertinent film based on a true story, but it is insightful and emotional all the same. Bringing history into the courtroom changes things up from your average legal drama, and its real-life heroine is one you’ll be cheering for throughout the film.

Summary: The court case at the centre of Denial is a tricky one to bring to life, but an able cast led by Rachel Weisz at her sharpest and a sound, cogent script make it a moving, thought-provoking piece.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Southside with You

For F*** Magazine

SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU 

Director : Richard Tanne
Cast : Tika Sumpter, Parker Sawyers, Vanessa Bell Calloway
Genre : Biography, Drama, Romance
Run Time : 1h 24min
Opens : 29 September 2016
Rating : PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)

southside-with-you-posterHaving one’s first date be dramatized and put up on the big screen for all to see must be a daunting, slightly unnerving notion. Public figures with as high a profile as the President and First Lady of the United States are probably fair game for this treatment, though. Southside with You depicts the summer’s day in 1989, when young law associate Barack Obama (Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Sumpter), the lawyer assigned to mentor him, go on their first date. They visit an Afro-centric art exhibit and admire the paintings of Ernie Barnes, eat sandwiches in the park, go to a community organisation meeting, watch Spike Lee’s movie Do the Right Thing and finally have ice cream. Michelle starts out adamantly refusing Barack’s advances, but as the day goes on, the two learn more about each other and Michelle begins to think that maybe getting into a relationship with the guy is not so bad after all.

For the sake of easy reading, we’re going to refer to the President and First Lady of the United States by their first names. We mean no disrespect, and after all, this story takes place before they took on those positions.

On hearing of the premise for this film, a number of doubts began to form. What if it’s heavy-handed? What if it’s painfully cheesy? What if it comes off as propaganda? Southside with You has the easy-going, pleasant vibe of your typical indie romance, but because of its protagonists, the stakes are raised considerably. It’s an inspired premise, though one would need considerable finesse to pull it off – finesse that writer-director Richard Tanne mostly possesses. This is Tanne’s feature film debut, and what a calling card it is. The Obamas have briefly discussed their first date in various interviews, and Tanne extrapolated that into the conversations they might have had at and between the events they went to that day. Some of the dialogue is not terribly subtle, but we end up learning a fair bit about what makes Barack and Michelle the people they are. When the soon-to-be couple have arguments, the conflict arises and is resolved organically.

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Another worry this reviewer had was that this would fall into the “prequel trap” of laying down obvious hints to the characters’ future that the audience would already be cognisant of. Tanne displays admirable restraint, and his reach does not exceed his grasp. Far from a sweeping cradle-to-the-grave biopic, this is modest in scope, the events unfolding over a single day, and all the better for it. Southside with You does succumb to several rom-com clichés, chief of which being Michelle’s repeated insistence that “this is not a date!” Barack’s repeated attempts to woo Michelle, who initially is having none of it, are eminently relatable. The greatest triumph is that Barack and Michelle end up feeling like real, multi-faceted people.

Stephen James Taylor’s world music-tinged score is refreshingly different from the standard romantic swelling strings we’ve become accustomed to. An original instrument called the “transcendello”, a cross between a pedal steel guitar and a cello invented by David Rivinus, gives the music a unique textural quality.

Casting is obviously crucial, given how familiar the general public is with the way Barack and Michelle Obama look and sound. Sumpter is given top billing and co-produces in addition to starring. While we spend most of the film with both Barack and Michelle, we open on Michelle at her parents’ house, getting ready for her day out. Sumpter can be a little stiff at times, but she has Michelle’s distinctive vocal cadence down pat. Her fiery assertiveness is magnetic, and the back-and-forth between the pair is almost thrilling. She spends most of the film sizing Barack up, while he’s already smitten, and there is an aww shucks quality to how Michelle’s attitude towards Barack evolves as the day progresses (spoiler: they end up together).

southside-with-you-tika-sumpter-and-parker-sawyers

Sawyers is magnificent, proving himself to be bona fide A-list leading man material. According to Tanne, Sawyers’ initial audition was an over-the-top impression of Barack Obama, but once he was directed to tone it down, it became clear that he was the ideal choice for the role. The charisma, winsome charm and affability that are key components of Barack’s personality all shine through in Sawyers’ portrayal. A scene in which Barack addresses a community organisation and rouses the crowd with a phrase that’s a proto-“Yes we can” is acted with irresistible confidence. Barack discusses his upbringing and expresses bitterness at his late father, and while this is largely a hagiography, there’s a great deal of humanity in Sawyers’ portrayal.

“I just want to do more,” Michelle sighs as she shares a beer with Barack.

“Maybe wanting is enough for right now,” Barack replies. This disarming honesty is Southside with You’s greatest strength. In addressing politics and race relations, Tanne never uses the Obamas as delivery vehicles for ideologies, and always brings things back to how they’re affected as people. Southside with You manages to be quietly moving and genuinely romantic, not overly-engineered faux-Nicholas Sparks romantic. As Barack Obama’s presidency draws to a close, this is as wistfully affectionate a farewell as they come.

Summary: While it’s tender, insightful, gently funny and finely acted, Southside with You won’t win over the vehemently anti-Obama set, but it isn’t intended for that demographic anyway.

RATING: 4 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

 

Eddie The Eagle

For F*** Magazine 

EDDIE THE EAGLE 

Director : Dexter Fletcher
Cast : Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Jo Hartley, Keith Allen, Christopher Walken, Tim McInnerny, Jim Broadbent
Genre : Biography/Sports
Run Time : 106 mins
Opens : 31 March 2016
Rating : PG13 (Some Sexual References)

Michael “Eddie” Edwards (Egerton) always dreamed of being an Olympian. Since childhood, he’s been repeatedly told by many, including his father Terry (Allen), that he’s just not cut out for sports. And it all went downhill from there, so to speak. Against the wishes of his father but with the support of his mother Janette (Hartley), Eddie sets out to a ski jumping camp in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany to train. He is mocked by the other more experienced jumpers at the facility, but catches the eye of drunken snowplough driver Bronson Peary (Jackman). Bronson was once a member of the U.S. ski jumping Olympics team under the renowned coach Warren Sharp (Walken), but was later seen as a disgrace to the sport and became an alcoholic. Eddie convinces Bronson to coach him so Eddie can qualify for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada. Dubbed “Eddie the Eagle” by the media, Eddie has to prove to the world that he’s a serious contender and not merely the silly underdog.

            If the term “feel-good movie” makes you roll your eyes, you’d be better off giving this a wide berth. Eddie the Eagle is a film that revels in its cornball sensibilities and adheres to all the sports movie clichés in existence. The jaded might scoff at it, but there’s definitely something very appealing here, you’ll just have to wade through the schmaltz to get to it. Most of us know what it’s like to be rejected or told we’re not good enough at some point or another, and Eddie’s irresistible combination of perseverance, chutzpah and endearing goofiness make him exceedingly easy to root for.

This is based on a true story, but the real-life Eddie Edwards has publicly stated that the film is only “about 5%” accurate. We completely understand the concept of dramatic license, but the liberties taken with the facts do make Eddie the Eagle feel inauthentic. There are many moments when the film comes off as cartoony, particularly in how all of Eddie’s fellow skiers, even those on the British Olympic team, are depicted as exceedingly stereotypical bullies. There’s no doubt that the real Eddie faced considerable obstacles in pursuit of his dream, but the underdog-ness is dialled up to the point where he might as well have to fend off an actual dragon on the way to the 70 metre jump.

The biggest fabrication is Jackman’s Bronson Peary, a character created from whole cloth by screenwriters Simon Kelton and Sean Macaulay. Edwards was actually coached by Americans John Viscome and Chuck Berghorn at Lake Placid; turns out they weren’t quite colourful enough for the filmmakers’ tastes. The swaggering Bronson’s glory days are behind him and he has the chance to make up for his fall from grace by taking on a protégé – yet more familiar tropes. That said, Jackman is extremely watchable in the role. He simply radiates charisma and reminds audiences yet again why he’s a bona fide movie star. He also excels at the several moments of physical comedy the character is given.



Egerton is poised to hit the big time after starring in last year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service; that film’s director Matthew Vaughn is a producer on this project. He piles on the “aw shucks” factor as Eddie and looks to be having fun playing the earnest, dorky, very unlikely national hero. Unfortunately, Egerton is prone to over-acting, though this can probably be pinned on director Dexter Fletcher too. There is so much squinting and lopsided grinning going on to emphasise the character’s awkwardness that it often feels like Egerton is merely mugging to the camera. This is yet another movie about a wide-eyed dreamer in which the mum is supportive and the dad completely isn’t, but we suppose that’s how it is in real life a lot of the time too. Walken’s barely in this; like Bronson, his character Warren Sharp is fictional too.



Famed second unit director Vic Armstrong stages some spectacular stunts, with professional ski jumpers re-creating some heart-stopping leaps off the ramp. The 80s atmosphere is suitably evocative, amplified by Matthew Margeson’s synth-heavy score. Eddie the Eagle is spirited, entertaining and even genuinely thrilling in parts, but it’s hard to shake the niggling sense that everything’s been packaged a little too neatly and tweaked for maximum crowd pleasing effect.

Summary: Eddie the Eagle will be too treacly for some and the staggering liberties it takes with the true story undermine it somewhat, but stars Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman ensure it makes that landing.

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong  

Truth

For F*** Magazine

TRUTH

Director : James Vanderbilt
Cast : Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, Elizabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach
Genre : Biography/Drama
Run Time : 126 mins
Opens : 17 March 2016
Rating : M18 (Some Nudity And Coarse Language)

The Bible tells us that “the truth shall set you free”, but there are times when it can feel like the truth can hold you prisoner, as Cate Blanchett finds out in this drama. Blanchett plays Mary Mapes, the producer of CBS’ primetime news program 60 Minutes Wednesday. In the months leading up to the 2004 presidential election, 60 Minutes airs a story about President George W. Bush receiving preferential treatment from his superiors at the Texas Air National Guard, with memos allegedly authored by Bush’s commander Lt. Col. Jerry Killian as proof. Mapes, her team and veteran news anchor and 60 Minutes presenter Dan Rather (Redford) come under fire after the program is aired, with multiple viewers calling the veracity of the documents procured by 60 Minutes into question. Rather, hitherto a widely respected figure in broadcast news, finds his reputation threatened as Mapes scrambles to defend herself and prove that 60 Minutes did not lie to the American public.

            Truth is based on Mapes’ 2005 memoir entitled “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.” Writer/director James Vanderbilt adapted the book for the screen and he makes his directorial debut with this film. Because Mapes’ account of events is the primary source, it cannot be expected that Truthis an objective depiction of the Killian Documents controversy, which came to be colloquially known as “Memogate” and “Rathergate”. The 60 Minutes story was one of the first pieces of investigative broadcast journalism to be dissected and torn apart online by bloggers and CBS was blasted for apparently exhibiting a liberal bias by running the anti-Bush story without thoroughly verifying these documents. Somewhere in there, there’s a gripping tale of the profound responsibility that journalists must uphold and Truth did get this reviewer invested in Mapes’ journey, but the film is pervaded with a sense of heavy-handed portentousness and turns out to be far less incisive than it thinks it is.

            Contrary to its title, Truth can’t help but feel phony at times. While this is a slicker, better-made film than many directorial debuts, Vanderbilt’s attempts to drum up the excitement and establish grave stakes feel slightly overblown. One of the culprits is Brian Tyler’s musical score, which heaves with bombast and sounds like something out of Air Force One. Quaid plays Col. Roger Charles, a member of Mapes’ investigative team, and it seems his primary function is to dispense exposition. There is a cringe-worthy scene set in a plane in which Charles explains to freelance reporter Mike Smith (Grace) that Mapes’ father physically abused her and that Mapes sees Rather as a father figure. There are also so many “what have I done?” moments in which realization dawns on Mapes that the scandal has taken another terrible turn, that it borders on self-parody.

            Vanderbilt’s trump card is his cast, especially lead performers Blanchett and Redford who are expectedly excellent. In spite of how many times the story trips over itself, the duo carries it to the finish line in tandem. Blanchett’s Mapes is doggedly persistent and suffers no fools, someone who is dedicated to her job and witnesses her life’s work crumbling around her. Truth would very much obviously like us to take Mapes’ side, and Blanchett’s portrayal of her ensures that we do – at least up until the movie ends and we start reflecting on the proceedings in-depth. Redford bears little physical resemblance to the famous newsman, and when playing someone so recognisable, perhaps physical resemblance should count for something. However, he has no trouble at all creating a warm, trustworthy and respectable figure and the interaction between Redford and Blanchett does possess a degree of heart.

            The rest of the characters are disappointingly two-dimensional; propping up the story as it progresses – Grace is the comic relief, lying on the couch, tossing a baseball in the air and asking the rest of the people in the room “you guys feel like pizza?” Quaid, as mentioned earlier, recaps things “as you know”-style for the audience. Moss, as associate producer Lucy Scott, has precious little to do. The various CBS higher-ups grumble/yell at Mapes and her team, occasionally flinging objects across the room in frustration. It turns out that securing Blanchett and Redford is a casting coup not just because they’re talented actors but because there’s little else to recommend in the film beyond them.
            Truth is made with polish but lacks finesse, an indignant cry that is far from altogether convincing in making us re-evaluate the events of over 10 years ago. The film desperately wants viewers to see Mapes and Rather as righteous martyrs laying their careers on the line and going down with their ship, a point of view that CBS has slammed. It’s not a case of “here are the facts; draw your own conclusions” because of the side the film takes, but the look behind the scenes at the politics of journalistic ethics, however flawed, is nonetheless fascinating. Perhaps Vanderbilt did as a good a job as possible with the stipulation that Mapes and Rather must be portrayed as the good guys, but then again, it feels like the title “Truth?” would be a better fit.



Summary: Truth is clumsy, preachy and Oscar-baity, not entirely successful in convincing viewers that its protagonists’ lapses in judgement were justifiable and forgivable. However, it’s impossible to overlook Blanchett and Redford’s stellar performances.

RATING: 3out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong